How I Write: Joe Queenan
Published: September 4, 2001
|In seven books and hundreds of articles, Joe Queenan has earned a reputation as an attack dog nonpareil--a brutally candid, if very funny, commentator on what he considers the idiocies of mainstream culture. Actors, directors, musicians and writers have all been targets of his vigorous, rhythmic prose. And now the entire baby boomer generation is savaged in his highly entertaining new book, Balsamic Dreams. Queenan, 49, grew up in Philadelphia, earned a degree in English and French from St. Joseph's University there, and now lives in Tarrytown, N.Y., with his wife and two children.|
Credits: Columnist/contributor to GQ, The New York Times, Chief Executive, Barron's Online, Movieline and Forbes. Books include: Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler (2000); My Goodness (2000); and Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon (1998).
Why: Everybody should try to do what they're good at. And most people aren't good at anything. I'm good at writing, so I do it. When I was a kid I watched my dad--he drove trucks, he was a security guard. And when I saw how badly he was treated by his bosses, I decided very early that I didn't want to have a job, ever. And most of my life, I haven't.
Where: I have an office about a mile from my house, and I do all my writing there on a computer.
How: I always have about 20 assignments lined up, so that when I come in in the morning, depending on the mood I'm in, I decide what I'm going to do. So if I know I don't have the energy to attack a big project--like a GQ story or a piece for The New York Times or a piece for Movieline that might require watching 12, 15 movies--I'll do a movie review for the Guardian in England, or I'll do a book review or a column. So I can always find something to make the day worthwhile. Some people, like newspaper writers, can just go in and do it day after day. And I can't--if it's a sunny day, I don't work; I bag it. It's as simple as that. I just go home, go to the movies, go bicycling. Some days I'll write 30 pages and some days I won't write any and I don't care. I write like 80, 90, 100 stories and a book every year, so I'm obviously getting the work done.
Ideas: I read five newspapers a day. You never get story ideas from magazines; magazines take an idea and just exhaust it. But newspapers are a tremendous source of ideas.
Writer's block: I just figure, if I don't work I don't make any money, and I like making the money, so I never have writer's block.
Influences: Probably Jonathan Swift, when I was in college. Mad magazine. Early Woody Allen. Mark Twain. Tom Wolfe. S.J. Perelman. I like stuff that has some kind of an edge to it.
Writing advice: Don't write until you're 25. Don't write for the high school yearbook. Don't write for the college literary magazine. Don't write that stuff--you never had any experiences, you don't know anything, just shut up. C.S. Lewis said we write to know we're not alone, but we also write to know that we don't know that much. So you read Tolstoy, and you read Saul Bellow, and these guys actually know something. You can learn a few things off these guys.
Freelancing advice: Make a lot of connections. Move to New York. Don't worry about being brilliant; worry about being reliable.
Photograph by William Zuback