Steven Lee Beeber
Interview conducted by Leah Tallon
Music fanatic, Steven Lee Beeber is not only the Associate Editor for the unique online and print magazine Conduit, although we’re sure that’s enough work on its own. No. He’s decided to take over the creative nonfiction world with his recently published book The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s, which takes a hard and raw look at the punk movement’s beginning in New York City and how it connects to Jewish culture. His writing has been in The New York Times, The Paris Review, Spin, Maxium, MOJO and elsewhere. In his interview with the Publishing Lab, he discussed the daunting process of research and gave his editor/writer advice to emerging writers. For more information about Steven and his book, visit www.jewpunk.com, and while you’re at it, check out www.conduit.org for some great reading.
Publishing Lab: One of the main questions students have on the topic of research is: "Where the hell do you start?"
Steven Lee Beeber: Good question. In my case, I started by making contacts and asking them for more contacts. One of my first stops was CBGB itself, where I talked to owner Hilly Kristal. He turned me on to lots of folks, who in turn turned me on to others, etc. With that said, be prepared for rejection. At least one eventual source, who I will leave unnamed here, told me to "fuck off" and worse when I originally approached him. Punks can be crusty. And I think he felt threatened as he was (and still is) a writer, too.
PL: And once you've started and you're surrounded by files and files of research, how do you keep your focus? How do you stick to that overall message that you want to send out to your readers on the subject?
Beeber: Research can become overwhelming. The more you know, the more you sometimes feel you have to tell. Basically, you just have to decide what's most important and also what captures your idea most excitingly. This is especially true with interviews, where different quotes might be equally good, though one more funny or arresting than the other. One thing I think helps is to just start writing. Once you do, you'll see what parts of your research actually leap to mind and which fall away. Generally what you remember is what is most important although, with that said, it's always important to check back over your facts and make sure you haven't left out anything essential.
PL: Where did your interest in the connection between Jewish culture and punk stem from? Was it something you've always been interested in or was there one specific moment when you were like, "Hell yeah, I'm gonna write a book about that?"
Beeber: A little of both. I'd long been a rock fan and liked knowing about the performers lives as well as their music. And since I'm Jewish and thought as a kid it wasn't very cool to be that, I liked learning that some of my favorite rockers were not only supercool, but Jews like me to boot. Still, it wasn't as if I had planned to write a book on the subject, or for that matter, thought too much about who was Jewish and who wasn't. I think the Aha moment sort of came when a number of rockers suddenly started taking an interest in Kabbalah. Perry Farrell (who is Jewish), Madonna and even Britney Spears were suddenly on the bandwagon. At the same time, I'd been noticing that NYC never really had another indigenous rock movement aside from punk, and that many of the punks were not only Jewish, but preoccupied with Nazis and German militaristic imagery. Once I started snooping around and asking questions, I realized that the people I was interviewing were the first to have come of age with an awareness of the Holocaust, and there in a nutshell was my thesis.
PL: There doesn't seem to be much literature on the Jewish youth experience nowadays, especially not in regard to counterculture. Did you feel any sort of pressure to be a defining voice for modern Jews?
Beeber: Hmmmm, a voice of my generation, so to speak? I guess since Dylan's stepped aside and J.D. Salinger just passed on, I'm willing to take up the mantle. Seriously, I do feel a bit of pressure to make myself clear so that people don't misconstrue what I'm saying and take offense. I've found that quite a few people think I'm claiming punk for the Jews or promoting Jewish exceptionalism. That is definitely not my goal, and I'm always a little surprised when people think that. I fear, as did a number of people I interviewed, that it feeds anti-Semitic feelings and might even stem from them a bit. The point I'm making is that at a certain time and a certain place a certain people had a lot to do with creating a certain style of music largely because of their historical experiences. It has nothing to do with genes or inherited powers or anything of that sort. So, yes, I guess I do feel a need to define my terms clearly. And, in a way more close to what I think you're asking, I do feel that I have a bit of a responsibility to point out that Jews aren't simply what some people might be lead to think. They're not simply middle-of-the-road defenders of Israel and the status quo, but in many cases, active members of progressive causes and cultural movements.
PL: You mention in the book that there were nearly 150 people interviewed. How did you go about the interviewing process? Getting a hold of these celebrities, getting all the info needed (after figuring out what info you needed) and prioritizing or organizing it--it just seems like a daunting project all on its own.
Beeber: It was pretty daunting. And, as I mentioned above, it began with a bit of hit or miss. As I started, though, I generally looked to interview those who knew certain pivotal players before I interviewed those players themselves. That would give me a bit of background understanding on who they were so that I wouldn't go in and ask them stupid or possibly offensive questions. I also would read up on these individuals before meeting with them and then often follow our interviews with more readings. Other than that, I don't think I had real system.
PL: How much do you rely on research over the Internet vs. libraries?
Beeber: I'm wary of the Internet, since most of the info in it is not vetted, but I did use it quite a bit, and found some good stuff there. With that said, I was always sure to check whatever I found against print sources whenever I could. Of course, in the case of archives, such as the Richard Hell collection at NYU's Fales Library, there is nothing like seeing the real thing. All those letters, photos with marginal comments, manuscripts etc. were great sources of information -- and a thrill to actually handle.
PL: Was there any point during your writing that you found you were censoring yourself? I ask because connecting Jewish identity (which may include religious ideals) with the anarchist nature of the punk scene seems like it could be a heavy topic, depending on your own relationship with Jewish culture and the punk movement.
Beeber: I think there were a couple of times where I was briefly aware of the possibility of doing so, one of them being when I discussed punk in relation to the situation in the West Bank. But overall, I don't think I found that to be a problem. Especially not when dealing with the anarchist nature of punk. After all, a significant number of early anarchists were Jewish, just as they probably still are now.
PL: You’re also Associate Editor of Conduit, a magazine that publishes emerging writers alongside established writers. How do you find a balance between expectations for the both of them and what are you keeping an eye out for when it comes to those submissions from emerging writers?
Beeber: Very good question. Basically, we're looking for the same thing in both cases — quality, genuineness of vision, uniqueness of voice so long as it isn't unique for uniqueness sake. We expect the same out of established writers and new ones and are just as willing to reject the former if we don't believe they meet those conditions. In fact, we have done so more than once.
PL: And as an associate editor, what advice would you give to emerging writers about breaking into the industry?
Beeber: I know it sounds like a cliche, but just focus on your writing and try to ignore the rest. There is an element of luck and timing and all of that, but if you're stuff is honest and good, it has a decent chance of getting noticed to some degree. Of course, be prepared for rejection, lots of it, as you start out. In fact, be ready for it all the way through. Writing is a grueling business in that sense, and it takes a strong stomach to deal with the barrage of knocks to your ego.
One last thing in terms of actually sending your work to specific journals, this is another cliche, but it's absolutely true. Be sure to read the journal in question. And if you like it, support it by subscribing. Hell, if I can just make a little special plea here, subscribe to Conduit if you can't think of any other journal to pick-up at the moment. We're award-winning, supercool and regularly poached for numerous "best of" series, including the annual "Best American Poetry" releases. And yet, we're struggling financially. I know everyone out there is broke, especially writers, but we've got to support each other if we want to see more writing published. It's socialism, anarchism and good spiritual karma all combined, so get off your butt and go to the Conduit webpage (linked to above) and start bringing the best in lit, art and interviews into your home. Our next issue has John Edgar Wideman and Jonathan Ames talking about the relationship between writing and sports, just to name one exciting tidbit. Come on, do it. You'll feel good you did.
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