Be a gentle critic. You will likely be your harshest critic (if you’re not…please tell me your secret). But go easy on yourself. A lot of times the thing you write won’t be a killer sentence or thought. But remember: Filler helps situate the killer.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Ayers.
Mike Ayers’ book One Last Song: Conversations on Life, Death, and Music was a Variety pick for best music book of 2020 and a TIME magazine best book of the fall selection. He’s a journalist and Executive Editor at Money Magazine.
Mike’s work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Esquire, GQ, Billboard, Uproxx, and many more. He lives in South Orange, New Jersey.
Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path of becoming an author?
It was 2004 and I was living in New York City — a professor of mine at the New School for Social Research had written for the Village Voice a lot and noticed my passion for music. She put me in touch with their editor and I started writing little concert blurb previews for the back of the magazine, getting 25 dollars per blurb. A few months later, I was at a happy hour where I met an editor for Billboard. He said “we need writers.” I said “Well, I’ve been writing for the Voice…” It snowballed from there.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
When I got the book deal for One Last Song I didn’t have a lit agent so I was doing it myself, going directly to the publisher and my editor. She was very helpful and patient with me through the whole process — and really went to bat for the idea. It took a few months to get over the finish line, but finally did. Having people in your corner is clutch; we spent the next two years working on the book together, and seeing the idea executed was quite hard to believe.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
Ask any writer and they’ll likely tell you that rejection is the biggest challenge to overcome. Once you get past the emotional kick to the teeth, rejection can be used in a positive way. I often used rejection to either refine my idea, or, to move on. Not every idea is a perfect one and the quicker I’m able to clear something half-baked or undesired out of my brain, the faster I can move to something that is worthy.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This probably has happened to a lot of journalists, and when it does happen — it’s very unsettling and embarrassing. It was 2008 and I was at a huge Diesel party in Brooklyn. It was circus-themed, and there were great musicians performing special one-of-a-kind collaborations with each other. For example, Chaka Khan and Hot Chip. Rapper T.I. with Franz Ferdinand. I was backstage with the assignment to interview the guys in Franz Ferdinand; we were in a tiny little trailer, hunched over a table, and I launched into my questions. I had less than 10 minutes with them. At about minute 8, I looked down and realized that my tape recorder wasn’t recording. The batteries had died. I started fiddling with it right there in the spot — in front of rock stars! — and to no avail. They could see the embarrassment wash over my face and made me feel a bit better by repeating some choice quotes so I could scribble them down.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I have an idea for a memoir that I need to get out — if I don’t get this off my brain now, I might never. Now’s the time. It’s been 15 years of conceptualizing.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
In One Last Song, I asked 32 musicians what’s the last song they’d ever want to hear and why. And everyone gave such great answers, but I think one of the most interesting was from Merrill Garbus who performs in Tune-Yards. She spoke about how she would listen to Bach inside her mother’s womb — and it was something she learned to play on the piano when she was a young child. So, for her last song, she chose this “Prelude in C Major” so when she was leaving Earth, she could come full circle.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Everyone has death in common; it’s the great equalizer. But what art you connect with in life is also uber important — it helps you make sense of world at times when things typically don’t make sense. That song you connect to, that you’ve heard a hundred times, is ilke comfort food for the psyche. And we should celebrate those moments.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Read. The more you read and see how people craft sentences and stories, the better you will become.
- Find a writing time. This is not the same as “find time to write.” A writing time is the time of day where you are the most focused and most motivated. Not necessarily the most creative; who knows when that will be? But once you have a writing time, then you can be productive. For me, it’s early in the morning. 5am — 7am hour.
- Be a gentle critic. You will likely be your harshest critic (if you’re not…please tell me your secret). But go easy on yourself. A lot of times the thing you write won’t be a killer sentence or thought. But remember: Filler helps situate the killer.
- Become an editor. Being an editor of your own work is incredibly tough — in one instance, you might think your words are unable to be edited or cut. They’re just too good! In another instance, you may just want to throw it all away. They’re just too terrible! Knowing when and how to give yourself a spit shine is an art in itself. It’s part of the process.
- Get feedback. I don’t worry too much about making things the best they can on the first go. I get things in shape to where I think they are pretty good — and I see if my hunch is right. I have a handful of people in my life that I trust to give me honest opinions about the work. Get these people.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study)? Can you share a story or example?
The willingness to put yourself out there and move on from rejection. That, and just doing over and over and over. Repetition for any craft is important; there are a lot of distractions these days that makes it easy to not implore this into your day-to-day creative or professional life, but the more you do with focus, the better you can become.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I’ve been obsessed with a handful of authors over the years: Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut — authors that have a mystical quality about their storytelling. Recently, I’ve been drawn to more simple stories that are told beautifully. Sally Rooney. Brit Benning. Colson Whitehead.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Most everyone will tell you about some art form they love — movies, reading, music, whatever. Supporting the arts is incredibly important. Young artists need to see that they can take this on and survive — so my movement would be centered around a support system for young artists to take risks and explore.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m at @themikeayers on both Twitter and Instagram. They can also buy One Last Song: Conversations on Life, Death & Music on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2Nxl7MI