We had the good fortune of connecting with Lawrence Grobel and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Lawrence, what role has risk played in your life or career?
I guess I would have to define myself as a risk-taker. That is, after all, the very definition of being a freelance writer. When I look back, I can see that many of my life choices might be considered risky: choosing to go to college 3000 miles from home; Marching with Dr. King in the Meredith Mississippi March while rednecks and racists shot at us during the night, as we slept in tents; joining the Peace Corps; walking into the N.Y. Times and Newsday offices to offer my services as a freelance writer; quitting teaching and producing to just write when we had our first child; living assignment-by-assignment for 40 years, writing for different magazines and newspapers; turning down publishers to work on books that I wanted to write. As I write this, I marvel that I had the guts to remain a freelancer raising two children, buying a house, putting the kids through college and graduate school, when I often didn’t know when the next check would arrive. And yet, I’ve managed to write 29 books (a memoir, six “Conversation with” books, three novels, two books on interviewing, two books of stories, poems, and screenplays) hundreds of articles, and teach what I’ve learned at UCLA. If you believe in yourself, you’ve got to take risks. The easy path is not always the best path.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
When I was 15 I won an American History Essay Contest sponsored by Newsday. I was given an engraved watch, my essay was published, and I went to Washington to meet with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Sen. Jacob Javits from N.Y., and the heads of the FBI and other institutions. Pretty heady stuff for a teenager. It showed me that writing could get you places. After college (UCLA), I spent three years teaching at the Ghana Institute of Journalism in Accra, Ghana, for the Peace Corps. While there I wrote two novels (unpublished, but learning experiences). I then spent a year traveling around the world before returning to New York to see if I could make a living as a freelance writer. The four years I spent outside the U.S. were invaluable, as it gave me a fresh perspective about my own country. I was able to start writing for the Sunday newspaper magazines, and that led to doing interviews with “household names.” So, for a few years I interviewed people like Mae West, Jane Fonda, Linus Pauling, Ray Bradbury, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Hugh Hefner, Jerry Lewis, Joseph Heller, J.P. Donleavy, Henry Moore, and Warren Beatty. The interview form interested me and I wanted to see if I could go deeper, and the only magazine I knew that did in-depth interviews was Playboy. So, I managed to convince the editors there that I could do them, and I started with Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, and Marlon Brando. Since those, I’ve done 100 Playboy magazine and cable interviews. None were easy, but I did a lot of research, and wound up writing a book, “The Art of the Interview,” and teaching the subject at UCLA. Other books followed: The Hustons, Conversations with Capote, Conversations with Brando, with Al Pacino, with Ava Gardner, with James A. Michener. Along the way, I learned MANY lessons. In fact, I wrote a book called “You, Talking to Me,” about the 120 lessons I learned from talking to all these people that I had interviewed. I was fortunate to have Joyce Carol Oates, Elmore Leonard, James A. Michener, J.P. Donleavy, and Robert Towne all write introductions to some of my books. And I’ve been fortunate that Amazon offered me a place in their White Glove program, which allows me to write whatever I want, and they will work with me on putting out my novels, stories, magazine collections, poetry, and long-form interviews. It’s difficult to put what I’ve learned in a few words, but belief in yourself, determination, and confidence are words that come to mind.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
If a best friend came to visit for a week, I would take him across the border to Rancho la Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. It’s a 3 1/2 hour drive from Los Angeles, and I first went there as a journalist, to write about it. I was so taken with the incredible beauty and philosophy of the place that I returned to write a few more articles, and then to offer my services teaching a writing workshop. I go there twice a year and have taken my family, my parents, and my friends there. It was founded in 1940 and is still considered the number one health spa in the world, according to various travel magazines that rate these places. You meet wonderful, intelligent people, you get to take as many of the 70 or so classes that they offer, you can walk up a mountain, swim in different pools, eat healthy food, attend evening lectures. It’s truly a wonderland, and you can learn more about it by going to their website.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I’ve had some people in my life who inspired me; A UCLA professor named Enrique Cortes encouraged my writing; the artist Arthur Singer and the composer Ted Harris showed me the freelance life; the photographer Victor Englebert made me aware that anything is possible if you put your mind to it; the director John Huston put his family’s history in my hands, trusting that I could write the definitive book about The Hustons. But the person who has been by my side throughout my professional life has been my wife, the artist Hiromi Oda. No one has been more inspiring or more important to me.
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