Get to Know Steve Knopper

Steve Knopper, one of Lighthouse’s newest instructors, has the kind of rock-and-roll resume that evokes envy: He's contributed to Rolling Stone, The New York Times MagazineGQThe Wall Street JournalNational Geographic Traveler, and Wired. He's the author of two books: Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age and MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson. He's even been interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air.  

Ahead of teaching our Intermediate Memoir and Personal Essay workshop (starting October 19), Knopper answered a few of my questions about journalism, music, and writing, of course.  

Q. Music obviously seems like something you have a passion for and write about frequently. Do you think tapping into one’s interests, hobbies, or passions is something that is mandatory for a memoir or writing?

A. Definitely for a memoir—I can't imagine anybody writing about themselves or their family members without a little personal connection to the subject. And yes, I've drifted professionally over many years in the direction of something I'm super passionate about, which is music. But I also think for a journalist or reporter, especially when you're starting out, you have to be open to covering just about anything. Early in my career, I covered World War II veterans who were exposed to atomic radiation and Mob-style triple homicides, and one of the challenges of journalism is to catch up on a subject you may not be inherently familiar with. Although I mostly write about music, I still try to take assignments that are out of my comfort zone, so now and then I wind up writing about women lawyers who faced discrimination in the '60s or Colorado water regulations.

Q. I normally think of journalistic writing as having immediate contemporary relevance, but memoir seems to focus more on looking back. What do you think the relationship is between journalistic writing and personal essays/memoirs? 

A. I'm not sure there has to be a line between journalistic writing (i.e., more contemporary) and memoir writing (i.e., more historical). To me, the skills required for both bleed into each other, and the great writers (I'm thinking of Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe but obviously many others) use a hybrid of the two. My two books, about the music industry and Michael Jackson, are largely historical, but they're based on reporting, including interviews with sources, court documents, and newspaper reports. Memoirs are obviously more personal and less detached, and when I'm working in this area, it's almost like I'm researching myself. Then again, there's a risk of over-researching in memoir writing, where you do so much reporting on a personal topic that you obscure the narrative of your own recollections. But that's a different subject and one I hope to explore in the class.

Q. How do you think your love of music has bled into your writing style? Granted,  I would imagine there is not a whole lot of room to get super prose-y and play with a musical meter in journalism, but do you think there is a general correlation between music and writing?

A. Oh man, it comes up all the time, and not just with me. I'd point you to Rob Sheffield's many beautiful books, particularly his debut Love Is a Mixtape. The story is personal and devastating, about the sudden loss of his wife, but he finds his voice through talking about songs they loved together (and songs he finally figured out how to love on his own). I've been working on a book proposal recently about my mom's recent death from Alzheimer's and found myself quoting a song by the late Grant Hart of Husker Du to describe my parents' former mountain home in Boulder ("big windows to let in the sun"). Sometimes when writing about my own life, I feel a spirit of punk rock and rebellion, to name one example, or just start to feel certain songs or rhythms that come up as I'm moving along. It's a bit hard to describe, but I enjoy it when it happens. Of course there are literary masters who do this—Langston Hughes' Not Without Laughter is a fictional novel with delightful unexpected scenes about music, and on and on.

Q. You just wrote an article for Rolling Stone on recent concert trends. I’m curious to know if you've noticed any new trends in writing or journalism?

A. I write a LOT about concert trends! It's kind of my bread and butter and pays the bills and I enjoy having a beat and area of expertise. Re: writing/journalism trends, I guess like everybody I'd just mention how social media has made everybody an expert in writing tightly, via 140 characters, so it's especially hard to come up with new and fresh thoughts. And hot takes! I try to avoid off-the-cuff hot takes, frankly. My approach is usually to interview as many people as I can and add some depth or exclusivity to a subject people might already be familiar with.

Q.  As a writing and music expert, are there any authors or musicians people should be on the look out for?

A. Broad question! Fortunately there is an entire genre of music—hip-hop—that has been devoted to the nuts and bolts of poetry for more than 30 years. We as writers of all genres can learn from that. Kendrick Lamar and Nicki Minaj are my faves with wordplay from the past few years, and there is a kind of repetitive/rhythmic/playful trend lately with rappers like Migos and Ski Mask the Slump God enjoying the sounds of words and funny little vocal noises and "skrs-skrs!" tics. I also like to study the great comedians on how they write jokes without wasting words, just by listening to them (Chris Rock and Louis C.K. are wonderful for this) or by paying attention to how they dissect their own mechanics (Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld have spent a lot of time behind the curtain recently). As for plain old book writers, I just discovered Tim Winton's The Riders, the first third of which is essential, in the category of Little House On the Prairie-style how-I-built-this-house logistics, although it kind of goes off the rails after that. And I've been reading a few extra political books (in lieu of music ones recently) in the Trump Era and have been learning quite a bit about 2016 and 2017 from Rick Perlstein's Nixonland.

Sarah Crum was our 2017 summer intern.