RJ Smith is a journalist and an author. I recently read his wonderful biography of James Brown called The One which I enjoyed very much. I was pleased when he agreed for a short Q&A.
Q. You have written several biographies and non-fiction books. How do you decide on the subject?
A. I write about stuff to learn about stuff. Researching and then writing gives you a chance to focus your attention on something you are obsessed with and wonder about as you live your life, it lets you peer into other people’s lives and ask questions you would NEVER dream of asking if you were just meeting them at a party or in a line somewhere. You also have to ask the question, Do I want to have this subject living inside me for the next few years or more? If it’s a dark story, you have to consider what you will be living with until you are done.
Q. How do you go about starting your research?
A. I am big on timelines, writing huge long chronologies that grow like bamboo. I assemble subject folders on people and ideas connected to the topic. I try to read everything, and collect way too much paper on all aspects. You learn a lot more than will ever appear in the final story. And I try to find interview subjects who can act as tour guides, opening up the story to me and, ultimately, the reader.
Q. Do you keep a distance from you subject when writing, or do you try to understand their motives even if you don’t agree with them?
A. Understanding is essential – especially if it fails you. You may not know why somebody did what he did, so you just describe their behavior and let the reader draw their own conclusions.
Q. Any positive/negative experiences in book promotions?
A. I’m lucky, so far, to have had so many good experiences. In my day job as a journalist, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people, and its been very instructive to be on the other end of it with The One. A guy ended a great conversation on the radio saying not only is my book a great read, but you can use it to prop up your car when you get a flat tire. Who am I to disagree?
Q. What are the challenges of book promotions in the social media age?
A.I’m learning as I go, but it sure seems to me that you have to be more creative than ever to get word out – you can do meaningful interviews and meaningless ones, you have to craft your message and target your audience like never before. There’s just no one way in anymore, and every project is different and has a different route to reaching an audience. You can’t think you are done when the manuscript is finished, because there is a lot of work and imagination required after that.
Shameless plug disguised as a wise ass question: Why do you love ManOfLaBook.com so much and often visit the website?
Because you have enough game to celebrate Sancho Panza AND zombies, and because whatever you do, as James Brown would say, you are always on The One.
Thank you to RJ Smith for the great answers and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.
Zohar – Man of la Book