As a perpetual-wannabe freelance writer desperately in need of career advice, I happened upon this piece on Suzi Parker. I thought, “I want to know more”… so I cold-emailed her, and lo and behold, she wrote back! Gracious AND informative. I present to you, the text of the interview:
KH: First of all, the boring and obvious one: How did you get your start in freelancing?
SP: It was in 1997 and I wanted to cover politics. Bill Clinton was in the White House and I lived in Little Rock, Ark. – his hometown. I had always wanted to freelance so I took the plunge I had a couple of invaluable contacts at a few magazines and I used those to land a gig in The Economist writing about Clinton’s presidential library site. From then, I just pushed hard to get assignments wherever I could. I always made sure to think outside the box to national and international outlets and not just the weekly newspapers in my own backyard. I also didn’t pigeon hole myself with just politics. I wrote about any topic that sold including football for a college football magazine. And I don’t even like football.
KH: What were some of the hurdles you faced while finding clients?
SP: Mostly just rejection on story ideas or editors not emailing back ever after I sent an initial query. I think that is just rude. How long does it take to fire off and email that says “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Sometimes you may think you have the best idea in the world for a story – and it may be a great story – but an editor somewhere just doesn’t see it. Don’t take it personally. I was once rejected seven times on seven different ideas for The New York Times Magazine in the same day. The eighth pitch sold.
KH: How did you make contacts at big-name publications like The Economist and The
Christian Science Monitor?
SP: With The Economist, I had a friend who had written for them. He knew they were looking for a correspondent in the mid-South, especially Arkansas. I emailed an editor there with the Clinton library pitch and it sold. I was lucky in that regard. With The Christian Science Monitor, I blindly emailed an editor and explained my qualifications especially the fact that I was based in Clinton’s home town. I can’t remember what my first story was for them but once I landed it, I just never quit pitching.
KH: What was your schedule like as a full-time freelancer writing a book on the side? How’d you keep it all going?
SP: It’s hard to write a book when you write all day for a living. It’s especially hard if you cover politics as the influx of information and political tips never stops. The phone rings all day, the email pours in. When I wrote “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt,” I balanced all the research trips and writing with covering the Wesley Clark presidential campaign. It was pretty tough. For the second book, “1000 Best Bartender’s Recipes,” I wrote it on the heels of covering the 2004 election and the opening of the Clinton Library. I pretty well hibernated for two weeks and worked day and night to meet that book’s deadline.
I did take some time off from many news stories and magazine pieces when I was in the depths of my novel. It’s just too hard sometimes to switch from creative fiction to hard news in the same day. Now I’m in the editing phase of the novel as well as covering the 2010 mid-term elections and honestly, it’s pretty hard to balance both. It’s like a circus clown juggling balls without the cool costume.
KH: What are you working on now?
SP: I’m covering the 2010 mid-term elections, covering breaking news stories, editing my novel, and working on the next issue of SuZine, my quarterly zine (well, it’s suppose to be quarterly but I don’t always meet the self-imposed deadline.) And catching sleep when I can. I also teach writing workshops when time allows.
KH: What do you wish you’d known when you were just starting? What would you have done differently?
SP: I don’t think I would have done much differently. I had read volumes on freelancing and felt ready to give it a shot. I created concrete goals and tried to reach them. For instance, I wanted to be in The New York Times Magazine so I kept pitching until I got the assignment. Freelancing is a huge risk and gamble. You’ve got to have perseverance and be able to take rejection often on a daily basis.
There were a few times I wrote for publications and didn’t get paid. That’s never cool. So always ask about payment and always read the fine print in any contract.