An Interview With Tricia Romano

Carrigan Lewis Miller
The Freaks Came Out To Write

Earlier this year, Tricia Romano’s “The Freaks Came Out To Write,” a thorough, thoughtful and rollicking oral history of The Village Voice, was launched with a blowout party in the Red Room. Yet the party wasn’t a publicity event but a homecoming. Dozens of former Voice writers and editors packed the room, until the floorboards creaked and the walls seamed to sweat. It was a decidedly older crowd than the Red Room is used to, but not a less lively one. It was an auspicious debut for the book, which has received glowing reviews from places like the Washington Post and the New York Times. KGB Lit caught up with Romano to get the lowdown on the process behind “The Freaks Came Out To Write” and talk Voice lore.

KGB: Did you always imagine that this would be an oral history?

Tricia: Yeah, it was conceived and pitched that way. I created a prison of my own making. Oral histories are really laborious and time-consuming and intensive and not for the weak. I had read a couple of other Voice books and one was a memoir and another was omniscient narrator reported and I just thought neither one of them really did [the paper] justice. The first one that was a memoir was very sniping and personal score-settling. When I read that one I knew that a memoir wasn’t gonna be a good way to go, because that would only be for the people who were inside the building. And then the more objective narrator thing, it was so dry and it didn’t really even have very many quotes in it that I remember. I was bored! So I was like, ok, there’s a better way of doing this. So I thought oral history, because everybody’s a huge personality and they’re good story tellers, so why would you not want to quote them? I mean, you know Mark Jacobson. He’s a riot! And just think: there’s 200 of those people.

KGB: One thing that’s shocking to me when I was reading this book is how many of these names I’m familiar with, whether for their work with the Voice or the work they did after they left the Voice. How did it become such an incubator of talent?

Tricia: It’s crazy. I told my publicist, “We won’t have any trouble getting press.” Because the Village Voice mafia is everywhere. I didn’t know it would be as good as it is, but I knew that we were going to get a lot of attention simply because there were so many people that started at or went through the Voice and ended up somewhere else. And they are all very established now, like Maureen Corrigan from NPR, she got her start at the Voice. And Hilton [Als] got his start at the Voice and Colson [Whitehead] got his start at the Voice. Because the Voice was not a place that had high barriers to entry. It wasn’t like the fortress that is The New Yorker. I don’t even think I could get into The New Yorker. It’s this ivory tower, and the Voice was not that. It was “Come one, come all, especially if you’re weird,” you know what I mean? It also had, now it would be a completely illegal thing, but it also had an internship program that was just massive, huge numbers of even high schoolers coming through the doors and interning for no money. I got in that way, and that’s how it kept getting fresh voices every year.

KGB: What was it about the environment that cultivated people?

Tricia: The thing is, when I was there, it was probably more professionalized than it was in the 80s and 70s and 60s, but it still felt like a college newspaper atmosphere. When I left my college news- paper and went there I was like, “This is just basically like a bigger version of the college paper. It’s awesome.” It’s just kind of hands off, you could do whatever you want. No one’s checking that you’re clocking in or clocking out. You were just an adult. As long as you filed on time, and even if you didn’t, they were still not going to be too angry, because they were used to that. Richard Goldstein, by the time I was there, he was the executive editor, he was like number two or three on the masthead, he would come in at 1 o’clock pm and stay until 8. Our work hours were 11 to 7, because the internet was not yet a thing that we were panicked about, like getting up early and posting and beating everybody. That was just not happening yet. The other thing is the editing process there was very collaborative. It was not, like you just sent in your copy and they did something to it and then you look at it and say yes or no and then it went to print. You sat there, side by side with the editor, and edited over every single word, every single line, everything. Robert Christgau did that, Richard Goldstein did that. Christgau will say things like he thinks email editing is a monstrosity. He doesn’t even like Microsoft Word, track changes, that’s no even OK. But you learn a lot more that way. The Voice was not a rewrite situation. You didn’t get rewritten there, you got edited.

KGB: Do you have a favorite Voice piece?

Tricia: I wrote a story about people in the nightlife industry who got sober. I think we called it “Sober Hipsters.” That was a word we were using a lot, hipster. [The piece was called “The Sober Bunch.”] They were all nightlife people where that was their job. Not just their thing they like to do, that was the way they made a living. And getting sober, a lot of times when you get sober they tell you not to go into the place anymore, they tell you not to go to the bar. And they couldn’t do that, they were deep into making money through nightlife, and so that was what the story was about. I got a lot of letters thanking me for that story.

KGB: Reading your book at a time when it seems like every media company is being cut, facing layoffs, is that something that you had in mind when you were writing the book?

Tricia: It was nice to be in that little fantasy world for a while.
I was sort of insulated by A) I had this to work on, and B) just talking to everybody about the glow days of newsprint and New York and paper and writing. Everybody that I talked to was, like, “Wow, that was so much fun!” afterwards because it was such a great time period to be working in that field. I only caught the tail end of it not sucking. When the 2000s rolled around, it just started being an impossible thing. But the people that I was interviewing, they’re like 10, 20, 30 years older than me, they really had. They had contracts at fancy magazines and Condé Nast. You were a power broker. It was a different world.

KGB: A few different people say in the book that the big disruptor of the Voice is the internet, with regards to ads, with regards to where people get news. Does that ring true to you?

Tricia: The Voice’s calling card is that we can tell you about stuff that no one else is telling you about, whether it’s culture, political stuff, whatever. Especially stuff that’s off the radar of the main- stream. And once that is taken away from it, a large part of its power and draw is gone. If you could pick up another paper and read about punk rock bands playing in your city, you don’t have to pick up the Voice. And then if you take it another step further, with the internet, if you could just type in the name of the band that you’ve heard about and find a million articles about them or blog posts or just go and see a show that they’ve recorded on YouTube, you don’t hold the key to a certain thing. And I think that happened to the Voice. Then it became one of many places that you could find out about cool stuff, and became one of many places that you could read about political bad men. It just became superfluous.

KGB: Was there anyone that you interviewed for this book that you were intimidated by going into the interview?

Tricia: Most of the older folks that I didn’t know anything about I was nervous. I was probably a little nervous for James Wolcott. It’s funny, I met Manohla Dargis for the first time when I interviewed her in L.A. and we just immediately were pals. Because we’re part of the same family. When we were at the release party at KGB, it was so funny. All the different eras were all in their little bubbles.

KGB: There was a bit of age segregation going on.

Tricia: Yeah. All those older folks hadn’t seen each other as much and we hadn’t seen each other. But at some point I was like “I’ve gotta go find so-and-so,” and I was talking to Joe Conason and he goes, “Oh, the new people are over there!” It cracked me up.

KGB: At the party, I wanted to schmooze, as a young writer. And I immediately recognized that it would’ve been completely inappro- priate to do that. This was a family reunion.

Tricia: Yeah. They were too excited to see each other. And they were so old! They’re getting so old!

KGB: I felt bad that we had that party up on the third floor with so many older writers! We should’ve moved it to the second floor, just so there’s one fewer flight of stairs.

Tricia: I thought about that. But then I thought there’s more seat- ing upstairs. And then none of them fucking sat! I got on the mic and I was like “Y’all, there’s more room over here, move this way and sit down.” No, they didn’t do that. They just wanted to stand and yell at each other.


Carrigan Lewis Miller

Carrigan Miller is a writer and critic living in Manhattan. He is the editor of KGB Bar Lit and tends bar in the Red Room.

Carrigan's Articles on KGB LitMag

Carrigan Couch Miller