Charles R. Cross, Writer
Journalist and New York Times bestselling author Charles R. Cross brings a rare combination of investigation, insight, and literary skill to his writing. The first thing that strikes you when reading his books is how good the writing is—the rhythm of the sentences, the way he renders a scene—and then you forget to pay attention to that because you’ve become too engrossed in the story.
A prolific writer who is best known for his biographies of musicians, he also has written hundreds of articles for magazines such as Rolling Stone and Esquire and newspapers including The Seattle Times. He is the author of nine books (eight published and one due out in March 2014), among them Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll; Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix; and Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain. He was also the editor of The Rocket, a Northwest music newspaper, from 1986 to 2000. To follow his latest news, visit his website/blog at charlesrcross.com.
Charles talked with Constellation617 on December 12, 2013, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. He discussed how he became a biographer, some of the techniques he uses, and his new book coming out in March 2014. Although Charles joked about being a suburban dad, in person he is hip and funny, and a natural storyteller.
C617: What drew you to writing biography? How did you get on that path?
Charles R. Cross: I’d already done a lot of journalism and magazine writing, and a lot of criticism. When I was in college, I always wanted to write the Great American Novel, but it was powerful creative nonfiction that truly kick-started me as a writer. Tom Wolfe was a huge influence on me, and I got to meet him in college and spent six hours hanging out in a lounge at the Sea-Tac Airport with him. Reading the kind of creative literary nonfiction he wrote helped me to imagine that I could be something more than a daily newspaper writer, which is was what most people that I was in school with wanted to be. At that point, that’s where most of the jobs were.
C617: Did you just run into Tom Wolfe in the airport?
Charles R. Cross: I wanted to interview him for The Daily [University of Washington’s student newspaper], but this was right when the book The Right Stuff was out and there were thousands of requests to interview him. His book was a phenomenal bestseller. And his publicist said, “No way. He’s not talking to a college newspaper reporter.”
He was doing a signing, though, at University Book Store. I went through the signing line and said, “I’m a college newspaper reporter. I’d really like to interview you, but they told me you didn’t have time.” I also said, “You’re a great inspiration to me. And by the way, we have a relative between us.” I was remotely related to him. His godfather was my aunt’s paramour. Some of his family roots are in Virginia, where I’m from. He said, “Cool. Well, you can hang around and ask me questions while I’m signing stuff.” So I stood behind him as he signed books, and we started carrying on a conversation. That went on for maybe fifteen minutes. I only got a couple of questions really answered because there were a million people in line.
And then he has to run to the airport, because he is jetting off. I walk out with him, and a town car picks him up, and he goes, “You know, I have time to answer questions if you want to ride with me to the airport.” So at a moment’s notice, I jumped in his town car and went to the airport with him. This was pre-cellphone. I was supposed to meet my girlfriend for dinner. I had no car. I had no money, even. At that point, I’m a twenty-year-old college student. But I jumped in the car and went with Tom Wolfe to Sea-Tac Airport. These were the days when you could sit around at the gate without having a ticket. Then his flight was four hours late. So I sat around the United lounge with him, talking to him for hours. He told me all kinds of stories.
I wrote the story as a long interview, only part of it which ran in The Daily on the front page, and it won a few college journalism awards. Around that era when I was in school, the style called the New Journalism—of which Tom Wolfe was the greatest proponent—was coming up. I couldn’t quite see myself as a fiction writer, and I couldn’t see myself as an inverted pyramid daily newspaper reporter. But the New Journalism was an entree to [a different kind of writing].
I still thought of myself as a magazine writer primarily, but what made me consider biography was a book by A. Scott Berg, his biography of Charles Lindbergh. I wasn't somebody who typically—prior to that point in my life—would read a biography of anybody that I wasn’t already fanatical about. I read biographies of Jack Kerouac and musicians that I knew of, but I’d never read a biography of a historical figure that wasn’t assigned by school.
But I read that book. Someone recommended it to me. It very well may have been Tom Wolfe. I read Lindbergh and I was like, “Holy crap.” I knew nothing about Charles Lindbergh, and this book takes a reader into that world. In my mind, it’s one of the best modern American historical biographies. It starts at the moment Lindbergh is landing in Paris on his cross-Atlantic flight, and it is a riveting piece of history, and a well-structured piece of prose. I started to read to get the sense of how the writer structured his book. That changed the whole way I read, but it also changed my career.
By that point, I’d already written a fair number of magazine profiles for a bunch of small publications. I’d even had a few things in Esquire, and I’d written for Rolling Stone. But I was always up against the word count problem. I wrote a story for The Rocket once on the ancient Seattle-Tacoma band the Sonics, and it was at that point the longest story we’d ever run in The Rocket, five thousand words. The art director then had set the story in tiny type and ran it with a gigantic picture.
I was always writing long. And with books, I still write long, but books are the only medium where you have the room to really stretch a story out. Those are the things that attracted me: the form; the ability to tell a story in great detail; and the influence of biographies that made me think of how you create this one historical world.
C617: When you’re using literary techniques like drama and scene, bringing in your insights, what makes it successful for you? What are you trying to do with these techniques?
Charles R. Cross: Well, you’re trying to sell books, number one. I’m not trying to write books that are highly acclaimed in academia. I’m trying to write books that will have an audience.
It sounds pretentious trying to answer that question in any way. What I’m trying to do is create an emotional truth if not a practical one. Many biographies that I read are dry as hell, and they skip over the emotional truth of the story. In my Cobain biography, in the Hendrix biography, in the Heart biography, although that’s a little different, I’m not inserting myself as a figure. I’m not telling the reader what I think. These are third-person detached biographies. But if you skillfully tell the tale, you can communicate what you as a narrator think. You can create yourself as a narrator without actually being there. That’s one of the goals I’m trying to achieve.
I’m interested in the small moments of someone’s life that tell the larger emotional story. Everyone’s life has many, many different views, and every day could be a novel, if it were done the right way. But in a dead famous person’s life, there are probably twenty or thirty days or moments that really truly rise above all else. I’m trying to get the research to capture those moments, those turning points, where it could have gone there or it could have gone here, and I want to give every nuance or detail that I can to that to make the reader feel that they are there for those days.
I said when I’ve taught writing, that it’s not as much what you put in, it’s more what you leave out. And back to the dull biographies: I’ve seen some people write books on the same subjects that I’ve written on, and not to say that I’m a better writer, but some books that are more detailed and have way more information in them are dull.
There's another book on Jimi Hendrix that put into the story x, y, z of every single thing he recorded in the studio. I didn’t list the seventy-five different songs he recorded for Electric Ladyland one by one and talk about every take. But that other book, while far more studio complete than my book, has almost nothing on his childhood. The entire first two-thirds of his life were dispensed in a few pages, whereas everything he recorded was written about in immense detail.
That’s an example of something that tells more details, but in my mind, misses the emotional truth, the emotional thing that really shaped who he was as a person. My goal as a biographer, rightly or wrongly, is to try to explain what shapes that individual. What were the moments that shaped that person? That’s what I’m concerned with. I’m less concerned with trying to write the most complete book ever because many times those books are boring.
C617: Have you always been interested in the psychology of people?
Charles R. Cross: My father’s a psychologist, so I grew up around that. I was reading stuff on Freud when I was fifteen. I’ve always been interested in that. I don’t know how much all that affected me, but I think there’s nothing more fascinating in our world than people. They are mysteries. You could be married to somebody for ten years and they could still be a complete and utter mystery to you.
As a biographer, you’re trying to unravel that mystery. You have to admit, when you go in, that you’ll fail. It’s a quest where you will always fail. No person can be summed up in any book, no matter how big, no matter how close to the source. Even in an autobiography. I don’t know how many volumes Winston Churchill’s autobiography is, but now there’s a new book out in a couple of weeks that basically says some of what he said in his own autobiography isn’t true.
I am interested in people and trying to figure them out.
C617: I’ve seen accounts that for the Cobain book you did four hundred interviews over four years. How do you figure out what to do with all that? Are you looking for those moments to highlight or that represent these changes or pivotal times?
Charles R. Cross: You can’t make these books super-duper thick, but with the Cobain book, yes, I did four hundred interviews, but three hundred of those interviews don’t even show up in the text. A lot of it is interviewing other people to make sure the person you’re interviewing is telling the truth.
I struggled with that book because my first draft had far more of those interviews and those names in it. My editor’s response was, "You need to take all those names out. It’s confusing to the reader to have so many different sources." I, primarily having been a magazine or newspaper writer before that, listed a lot of sources. If you do a newspaper account for The Seattle Times, and you interview twelve people, in all likelihood, nine of them are going to end up in your story. You want a lot of voices there, because it gives your account credibility and a newsy-ness.
In a book, though, the reader has to trust that you have interviewed these people, that you’re not making this up. One of the techniques I learned was to say exactly what these people said, but just take the quote marks off. Have it in your voice. That was hard to do. That was like skinny-dipping or something. You’re naked in doing that.
But working with that editor really helped me to rewrite the book in a way that I had more authority, where I quoted fewer people, where I didn’t always have to use somebody’s proper name. I could say, "a friend recalled," so the reader wasn’t dulled by so many different pieces of information and so that the emotional center of the story got through, and it was less about everyone else in Kurt’s life.
C617: How do you choose your subjects?
Charles R. Cross: It’s a combination of a lot of different things. You choose your subjects only if you find a publisher that wants to publish the biography that you want. You don’t choose your subject as much as the commercial marketplace or the publishing house does.
The other way to answer that would be to say your subjects choose you. You’re fascinated by people for a reason. There’s a reason you’re drawn to a life. I can’t remember who said it first, but someone once wrote that you begin a biography in love with your subject, and by the end you hate who you’re writing about. So, often you choose who you love and the more you analyze any life closely, you begin to see foibles and scars and other things in a way that you never would.
I’ve sort of answered that question before when people asked, “How on earth did you get Courtney Love to let you read Kurt Cobain’s diaries?” Well, she certainly didn’t offer them initially at all. What happened, over time, as I began to truly research Kurt’s life, and talk to everyone he knew, was there came very quickly a point where I knew far more about the man she was married to than she ever did.
As the biographer, I found all this stuff out about him that she never knew. The process of interviewing her became the opposite, with her asking me questions. That would spur her to talk. There was one point during those many, many conversations where she said, “Well, you’ve got to read his diaries if you truly want to understand him.” I said, “Yeah, I do.” Two weeks later, I was sifting through his diaries.
C617: If your subjects choose you, are you finding things out about yourself, too?
Charles R. Cross: Of course.
C617: Is there a reason that you’re drawn to write about musicians?
Charles R. Cross: I have pitched three or four books on non-musicians that either haven’t taken off or that I’ve decided to walk away from. I don’t know that I can go into great detail. I worked for six months on a book that wasn’t about a musician and ultimately walked away from it because the estate became very difficult to deal with and I saw that they were going to try to control a lot of what I would say. I didn’t think that I could tell the full story.
A couple years ago, I worked almost six months on a nonfiction book that ultimately went nowhere, for legal reasons. And on that book, I had thousands of dollars worth of expenses. So that burned, but I’m glad I didn’t do that book and later have another $200,000 worth of legal expenses.
C617: It sounds like legal issues are challenging.
Charles R. Cross: They are, definitely in this environment. But I’m interested in writing about lots of different things. There are several books that I’ve pitched that either haven’t worked, or that ultimately haven’t been right for me. Unfortunately, I’m known as a music biographer, that’s what I’m successful at, so often those are the things that people are bringing to me.
In the last year, I’ve had two fairly major public figures come to me and ask me to work with them on biographies and they are not musicians. In neither case did I feel it was the right story or the right fit, but it wasn’t because they weren’t music. I have plenty of books I still want to write that are not related to music.
In my career as a writer, I’ve done investigative reporting, I’ve done environmental reporting, I’ve done political stuff. But I’m primarily known and most successful as a music writer. It’s good that I have a specialty, but in some ways it’s also the ghetto. One of the things that is very frustrating to me is that music biographies in Barnes & Noble bookstore get stuck in the music collection. But if you wrote a biography of Audrey Hepburn, or Cary Grant, or Richard Pryor—as Joe Henry, this guy I’ve gotten to know recently did—those are in Biography. They’re next to George Washington or Benjamin Franklin. You could write the best music biography there ever is, and it doesn’t get filed as a serious book in the biography section.
C617: It sounds like many of the music biographies, like the one on Jimi Hendrix that you mentioned, focus so much on the music more than investigating a life.
Charles R. Cross: It's a little rare to focus on investigating a life, but that's what I like to do, for the most part. I think the music is important to talk about, but there always are going to be people who are going to write big long encyclopedias on studio recordings. I’m not that kind of guy. I don’t find it interesting or compelling. I don’t really care what the fifteenth outtake of a song is as much as I care about why they wrote the song. What pulled them in? If there are different lyrics in the fifteenth outtake that tell something, then I’m more interested in it.
C617: Could you talk a little about the new book you have coming out?
Charles R. Cross: I have two things coming out. There’s a revised version of Heavier Than Heaven that’s out March fourth, that has a new chapter and a new cover. That was a fair amount of work to get that to that point.
And then secondly, a week or so later, I have a new book coming out called Here We Are Now. It is another book on Kurt Cobain, but it’s a first-person analysis of his impact on culture, fashion, and music; how his life changed Seattle and how Seattle changed him; and, finally, addiction and recovery. It covers what his death and suicide meant to addiction theory, how suicide has been studied, and how suicide theory has shifted in the wake of his death.
It is essentially how you measure the life of a man. Heavier Than Heaven explained that life. This is much more of a book of analysis, and it’s first-person. It’s my opinion. It’s at times strident, at times angry. It’s at times, I hope, poignant. But it’s very different than the other book. It came together for a variety of reasons. Some of it is the commercial marketplace. My publisher said, “We’d really like to have a new book out on the twentieth anniversary of his death. What could you say that hasn’t been said?” Going back and forth, I came up with this idea, and to detail the backstory and the research that hadn't been told, and they went for it, and that’s what I’m doing.
It was a challenge. I’m sure it will be the last time I ever write about him. One more time going down the rabbit hole with a guy who was a drug addict and died of suicide and bought heroin just down the street from where we are now in front of the Broadway QFC, that’s not a darkness I want to write about much more, or any more, in my life. This was a good way to put that to rest and close that chapter off.
There definitely are some things in the book that are going to get attention—some news and some new research—but most of it is my extended riff, my thoughts on it.
C617: Do you have anything else to add?
Charles R. Cross: I’m many times surprised that I’m a writer. I studied writing in school and worked for my high school newspaper, but I actually began college at Parsons School of Design in New York City. I was going to become an architect. I graduated high school thinking, “I’m going to be an architect.” The joke is it’s kind of like George Costanza on Seinfeld, if you ever saw that episode, where George Costanza lives at home with his parents and does nothing. He’s the Larry David character on Seinfeld. But when people ask George what he’s going to do, to impress people, he says, “I’m an architect!” So, I’m the writer who is also that imaginary architect. “I’m an architect!” [Laughs.]
I didn’t become an architect, though. I took a couple years of architecture classes at WSU, and then I transferred to UW, doing everything proper except looking at what their architecture program actually was, which required you to take two years of prerequisites in science and math. As a student at the UW, I discovered this on the first day, when I’m going there to study architecture. I had also begun writing for The Daily, which was the campus newspaper, and I just never left. I never took a single architecture class after that, and by that point I was hooked on writing and the power of the press.
You could argue that architecture’s loss was writing’s gain, or if you’re a critic of my work, it would be the opposite. The world might be a better place if I were designing 7-Elevens and Starbucks interiors.
C617: I haven’t seen many critics of your work. It seems across the board that you get great accolades. You might have a nutcase here and there, but that doesn’t count.
Charles R. Cross: I have nutcases. And that has affected my “star rankings” because people feel a great ownership for my subjects, and some of them are off base. The new book has a whole section on the conspiracy theorists around Kurt and why they’re wrong. I’m already in the crosshairs as part of the conspiracy because I've said the evidence is clear he killed himself. But I’ve used this book, without naming names, to say, “What you’re saying not only is wrong, it’s tremendously insulting to him, taking away his dignity, to his family that remains, to his friends. And by continuing to perpetrate this thing, primarily for commercial goals driven by people who are trying to profit off of that conspiracy industry, you’re doing a great disservice to his legacy."
Read Charles R. Cross's posts in The Seattle Times Soundposts music blog.
Visit Charles R. Cross's web page at HarperCollins.
Watch a video of Charles R. Cross discussing Seattle rock music history—especially Jimi Hendrix, Ann and Nancy Wilson (Heart), and Kurt Cobain—at the EMP Museum in Seattle (below).
©2014 Christine Waresak. All rights reserved.