Barshad can sometimes come off like a bro in his writing but in person is undeniably charming, down to earth, and has a high, easy laugh. When Barshad visited the University of Pittsburgh in March I spent a couple of hours with him. He wore a blazer because he felt like he should look professional (even though he wore a hoodie when he interviewed David Simon and Paul Haggis), jeans, and well-loved Converse.
Hot Metal Bridge: Did you always know that you wanted to write?
Amos Barshad: I started writing for the school paper in college at the University of Michigan (class of 2006). I was looking for something that I wanted to do and could be good at. And I wanted to get free CDs.
I started off doing reviews and then they were like, “Oh, do you want to interview this person?” And I was like, “Oh my god, this is the scariest thing ever, but really exciting.” The first in-person interview was with the director Paul Haggis for Crash. I remember being so scared, walking around before and trying not to vomit. I was like, “You could go home right now, you could just run away.” But I didn’t. It was a round table thing and the two other reporters there were more experienced. I got one question in. I think I just asked about Ludacris. I was like, “Was Ludacris cool?” Because Ludacris, he’s kind of whack now, but he was a better, more fun rapper back then. So you do it and it’s thrilling. For me, it’s a good lesson to remember—if it’s scary and you do it, you’ll probably be super psyched that you did.
HMB: Did you intern right out of college for New York magazine?
Barshad: I went home for the summer after college and I was like, “I’ll just be a freelance writer now.” I pitched a bunch of stories and didn’t get anywhere. I worked in a bookstore and for my parents for a bit. I was like, “This isn’t good. I’ve got to do something.” So I started emailing people for advice, basically “Should I go to journalism school or what?” And I planned on applying, but then I took the GRE and did terribly. I don’t know what happened, but I scored higher on the math than on the verbal. I’m not good at math so something went horribly wrong. It was some kind of sign. A lot of people were like, “Practically speaking, just get an internship.” The New York mag one was really great. I feel very lucky, and I’ve got some really close personal friends from there still. I ended up staying for five years altogether, just kept working up to writing full-time. They realized that I worked hard and maybe had potential.
HMB: How long did it take you to start getting paid?
Barshad: It was a paid internship, but it didn’t pay very well. At first I did stuff like build web pages, write a newsletter, and edit bar listings. Just really boring, horrible shit. I did that for years, but I also started pitching after the first few weeks. That’s the only practical advice I can give: don’t wait to pitch. Obviously, you’ll get rejected a lot, but it’s good to do it.
One thing that I’m proud of is my good friend Nitasha told me, “Everyone thought you were lazy because you didn’t do the work we were supposed to be doing. Instead you just pitched the whole time.” And I was like, “Okay, cool. I can take that.” But it probably took two and a half years till I was writing full-time.
HMB: That seems fast. Does that seem fast?
Barshad: It seems fast, yeah. Now I look at certain kids who have a Tumblr that people like, and all of a sudden they have staff writing jobs. I’m like “Oh my god. This is insane.” But I would have been prepared to keep at it for way longer, for as long as it took. At that time there were two landmark things in my mind. The first: “Okay, you’re a blogger, of course this isn’t your end destination, but you’re technically being paid to write. It’s incredible.” And the second came when I got to Grantland, and they took away my morning blogging responsibilities. I was like, “Oh, wow. Now I’m just a staff writer. This is amazing.”
I don’t mean to suggest that it was like, “Check this box and keep moving.” At one point I quit New York mag because they didn’t give me the promotion to be a full-time blogger that I wanted, and I was like, “Fuck you, guys. I’m out of here.” And then they were like, “No, stay. We’ll take away some of this stuff.” I’m just trying to say that it wasn’t a straightforward thing.
HMB: But mostly you were rewarded for working hard or you had to fight for it?
Barshad: I do feel like fighting for it was helpful. The thing is that if people, and this is true of any industry I assume, can get you for less money or use you in a way that is beneficial to them, they’ll do it. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people; it just means that they’re trying to make their lives easier. They had me in this junior blogging position, and I wanted the senior blogging position. They hired this other guy because they knew they could keep me as a junior blogger and have me do all this other stuff. So yeah, every once in a while you definitely have to yell and shout for what you want.
At one point, I was ready to move on and I kept holding out for the thing that felt right. You feel like you need to get it all at once or something, but just remind yourself that you have plenty of time and this stuff is going to evolve as it does. And you’ll look back and be like, “Oh that actually didn’t take that long or now that it’s past me and I can think more rationally that actually happened the way that it was supposed to and I’m happy with it.”
HMB: Do you feel like you’re at a place where you’ve “made it”?
Barshad: Well, my goal was to be a staff writer somewhere, and I definitely feel great about that and content in a certain way. On the one hand, I could be like, “Just chill and do these articles and keep doing your thing. Profiles, culture stuff.” But on the other hand, I would really love to push towards other things. Anything that feels like a challenge would be fantastic. So I’m definitely trying to think, “This was the goal, you’ve achieved that, so what’s the next goal?”
HMB: Do you think about how you’re going to come across as a character in your work and how much you’re going to put yourself in a story?
Barshad: Yeah, definitely. I don’t remember at what point this was instilled in me, but don’t ever use first person if you can avoid it. Your ego pushes you to want to put more of yourself in, and you’ve just got to remind yourself that you’re not the story, you’re not what’s interesting about this. Starting off from that extreme point of view is a really good way of keeping yourself in check. Because all of a sudden you’re like “Oh, I said a funny thing. This is cute.” But nah, no one wants to hear that. Of course if a story is better having first person and your personal experience in it, then definitely go for it. For me, it makes sense to start off assuming no first person, no quotes from me, acknowledge the reporter as little as possible.
John McPhee turned in a sixty-thousand word essay and his editor at the New Yorker was like, “You used first person once.” McPhee was like, “That’s all I needed.” His editor was like, “You’re sure we can’t get rid of it?” McPhee was like, “It needs to be there.” I think if you’re aware enough of your own material, then you know what it needs. I do read other people’s stuff sometimes and I’m like, “Did you need to put this much of your own stuff in it?” But I think people like it, too. So it’s hard to say. People definitely relate more and want to keep reading your stuff if they’re like “I think I’m getting to know this person.”
HMB: In “Wu-Tang, Atomically” you say something like, “I’m in this room with these people and I’m hiding in the corner.” Do you try to make yourself invisible when you’re reporting?
Barshad: My ideal way of reporting would be “Can I just stand in that corner and take notes of what you’re saying? You don’t need to engage with me at all.” Of course that’s the dream scenario because then you feel like you’re getting what they’re like when you’re not around. That time was probably the best version of that because those guys just didn’t care.
I wrote a thing about a women’s gun conference, and my lead had me cowering as the gunshots went off. And another time, I said something about how the instructor handed me the gun and I fumbled with it, which was true. But my editor was like, “Can we cut back on the cowardly writer stuff?” And I was like “Oh, I didn’t even…I swear to God I wasn’t going for that.” Obviously, it comes off differently in print than in your head. You think, this is factually true of what happened, but the representation is different. It’s really good to have a second voice in there to check you on all that stuff.
HMB: In the pieces you do make an appearance in, you never use quotes for your own words, but you often use italics. What’s behind that choice?
Barshad: I think I just like the way it looks, it breaks it up. But I think I’m also reserving the right to say that I’m not quoting myself directly. My good friend Nitasha, who writes for The Verge now, told me that she had a professor that was like, “If you finesse a quote, if you change a single word, that’s as bad as fabricating it.” I don’t feel that way. You’re not just dumping information on someone and giving them your notes; you’re presenting it and therefore you’re choosing to present it a certain way and of course tweaking things to make it fit the narrative.
I cut and move around a bit. I didn’t go to grad school for journalism, which is good and bad. Of course you should know the rules in order to get away from them. I feel that cleaning things up a little and getting to the point is okay. In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm says if you were to just have the transcript it would sound like an insane person with all the ‘mm’s and ‘ah’s. I don’t change people’s points. I don’t try to make them say anything that they didn’t. As long as I feel like I represent what they were trying to say, I feel well within my range.
HMB: I’m interested in the characterization of women in your writing—sometimes there’s not just a description of female characters, but also an appraisal. For example, in “Barhopping With Junot Diaz” there’s this: “A twenty year old art student ably rocking zebra leggings, with a Farrah Fawcett t-shirt.”
Barshad: I’m open to hearing that and of course will be more aware of it going forward. I don’t know that it’s different from saying “Junot Diaz walks in, not without swag.” My hope is that I describe men and women equally. Certainly I’m sure I’ve slipped up if I’ve found someone attractive—it’s easier to describe that than if I see a man and I’m not immediately moved to describe his handsomeness. I try more and more to not talk about looks or at least to be vague about it. It’s not necessarily important. I felt like in that situation it had import in the piece—to be like “Diaz is running around with his crazy nieces that could probably be at the club if they wanted to.” I was surprised to hear that people weren’t feeling the descriptions of women in [“Inside Brazil’s Most Infamous Brothel”]. I didn’t think I made a value judgment, I thought that I did what I usually do which is describe the scene. I would do the same for men and women … I hope.
HMB: I love the face you’re making right now. In “Inside Brazil’s Most Infamous Brothel” you use the words “woman or women” twenty-one times and “girl or girls” fifty-four times. Is that something you thought about, what words to use?
Barshad: I think that it’s easy enough to slip into regular stuff that might seem fine in conversation, but in print sounds or feels different or has an air of demeaningness to it. And of course you want to be aware of what you’re doing. Again, I never used “girl” to try to be degrading. I hoped that I was being respectful of the sex workers. I felt like I came down definitively on the side of sex workers, which hopefully allows for a more playful rendition of their lives. When you’re there, it feels very animated and you want to capture some of that in the writing, so you try to go for that. And I felt like I struck a good balance between neutering it or sobering it up without acting like I was a client in the brothel looking to pay for sex and describing it to a friend.
HMB: Does it have something to do with audience? That piece was in Rolling Stone, would it be different it you were writing for the New Yorker?
Barshad: Yeah, definitely. Certain jokes or asides I would clean up or get rid of. You put stuff in there to amuse yourself. You’ll read it back and think, “This was a reference that no one will get but me and my brother,” which is a bad thing to do, but you just can’t help doing. Great editors will catch you on that stuff or try to get you to clean it up. A lot of times I’m using some turn of phrase that will resonate for that month, but it won’t be something that will stick around so you probably shouldn’t use it. You want to be conversational, but to a degree. I remember in the Eastbound & Down piece, I described Danny McBride as being “on one,” which was a reference to a Drake song, but it’s not something people even say anymore. I read that now and think, “Does it seem like a word is missing now?” People sometimes take it too far. If you’re writing about hip-hop you don’t need to sound like a rapper, but you do want to make it fun and not stodgy.
HMB: What would you like to write about that you haven’t gotten a chance to yet?
Barshad: I found the Israeli soccer controversy story and pursued it. It wasn’t pegged to a release date or personality. It was just, here’s a story and I don’t think anyone is doing it. I want to find more stuff like that. Specifically Middle East, Israel-Arab conflict stuff interests me and war on terrorism stuff. It’s stuff that I’m not equipped to do at this point, but it’s good to say some crazy, wildly ambitious stuff and try to work towards it. I think anything where you’re out of your comfort zone seems exciting and interesting.