Veteran journalist and celebrity interviewer Glenn Plaskin is the bestselling author of Horowitz: The Biography of Vladimir Horowitz; Turning Point: Pivotal Moments in the Lives of America’s Celebrities; KATIE: Up and Down The Hall: The True Story of How One Dog Turned Four Neighbors into a Family, plus a great variety of ghostwritten projects. He is known for his in-depth interviews and human development stories, landing exclusives with film stars, politicians, TV personalities, business executives, and media figures. His profiles and syndicated columns have appeared in the New York Times, the Daily News, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Family Circle, US Weekly, Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, W, and Playboy.His interview subjects have included such figures as Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Katharine Hepburn, Nancy Reagan, Bill Gates, Calvin Klein, Senator Edward Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, and hundreds of others. His TV appearances include The Today Show, Oprah, and Larry King Live. Learn more at www.glennplaskin.com.
Tell us about your publishing journey. How did you begin writing, and how did you break into the industry? When did you know you could make a career out of it?
I never went to journalism school and have absolutely no formal training. I actually was a classical musician and went to a conservatory of music for 9 years, studying to become a concert pianist. But when I was 25, finishing a Doctoral Degree at the Peabody Conservatory, I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a practice room or teaching others how to play the piano.
My mom thought I was nuts throwing away 20 years of training. But I hated what I was doing. So with no money, no contacts, and no writing experience, I moved to New York City with the idea of writing a book about my favorite pianist, the legendary Vladimir Horowitz. There had never been a book written about him before. Why did I think I could do it? The arrogance of youth is an asset.
It was a dream, a vision, just a fantasy. But I believe totally in the power of visualization.
So at my day job, I picked up the phone and started calling editors at publishing companies, including Jacqueline Onassis at Doubleday. Where did I get the nerve? I think a writer has to be a good promoter too. Anyway, I got 15 of them interested. Then I went to the William Morris Agency and met with the chairman of the literary department. I think he was amused by me. He asked: What have you written? ‘Nothing’. What have you had published? ‘Nothing!’ So what do you have for me? And I pulled out my list of editors who were interested.
He asked where my book proposal was. (I didn’t KNOW what a book proposal was!) He sent me away and told me to write one. So I went to the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts, somehow put together a proposal. I slapped it on the agent’s desk. And he sold it for $75,000 advance, which back then was equivalent to more than $200,000. What?! Six months earlier I’d been a student, now I was an author.
It took me three years to write what became a 600-page book with 2,000 footnotes. I hired a writing teacher, an research assistant, and a discographer. I also got articles published in the New York Times before the book was published, interviews with classical musicians. (I called up the New York Times and told them that I had an article for them, and they took it. I figured I needed credibility before the book came out.) When the book was published, because of its revelations about Horowitz’s life, it appeared on the front arts and entertainment pages of most American newspapers. Three years earlier I had been just a student—now I was at the Beverly Hills Hotel on a book tour. Surreal!
And that’s the strange but true story of how I became a writer. Here’s the New York Times book review of it.
What happened next?
For the next years, I specialized in interviewing celebrities, many of them exclusives for newspapers and magazines, while also writing two new books after Horowitz.
From Michael Jackson to Dolly Parton, from Nancy Reagan to Diana Ross, one led to another. Then, about 15 years ago, one of the celebrities I had interviewed liked the article and hired me to ghostwrite his book. This was a brand-new twist in writing that I had never considered.
I knew nothing about ghostwriting. But I thought, why not? By this point, I had interviewed hundreds of people, so I was adept at capturing their voices. Transferring the skillset from interviewer to ghostwriter wasn’t so different.
It was a total adventure, traveling to foreign countries, out on the road for 15 months. And I found that I enjoyed the process of collaboration rather then the isolation.
I found myself on a book team—with the author, plus a team of transcriptionists, editors, support staff, and me.
And I slowly created a protocol for ghostwriting that worked for me.
After the first ghostwritten project, others followed, a strange set of subjects that I knew nothing about: There was a motivational peak performance coach, a Chicago Pastor, a rap star, a CNN producer, a SHARK from Shark Tank, the founder of a corporation that manufactured a feminine hygiene product, an Emmy-award winning film director with multiple sclerosis, and the founder of the nation’s largest youth sports franchise, among others. Quite a strange dinner party!
Do you have any quick tips for conducting a great interview, especially with famous interviewees?
• Establishing rapport from the moment you arrive is the first and most important thing to do. Don’t be too serious.
• Don’t be intimidated. Be relaxed. Tell a joke. Say something personal that relates to something they’re interested in.
• Take at least the first 10 minutes to just get warmed up, make eye contact, establish a warm connection. If they’re a dog lover, show them a picture of your dog. I’ve done it.
• NEVER start by asking direct questions. I like the indirect approach. Construct your questions as comments. I’ve interviewed many film stars and always start by telling them my impression of them in the movie, and I get them talking without them feeling like they’re on the spot.
But the first impression is important:
• Meryl Streep was watching I Love Lucy re-runs when I arrived, so we watched them together.
• Paul Newman was making ice-cubes, getting ready for his daughter’s birthday party, so he asked if I would help him in the kitchen! I gave him my grandmother’s famous cookies.
• Katharine Hepburn invited me to lunch and I brought along her favorite chocolate bunnies and a copy of my Horowitz book. “His chauffeur was my chauffeur,” she told me, “in the l930’s.”
• Calvin Klein took me out on the terrace of his penthouse for an informal chat before we began the interview, showing me the skyline of New York and what he loved about it.
• When I went to Lionel Richie’s house, to reduce my nervousness, I sat in his living room and played a Chopin Ballade on his Steinway while waiting for him. When he walked into the room, he started clapping! He liked the background music.
• When Elizabeth Taylor walked down the staircase of her penthouse at the Plaza Athene to begin our interview, she came up to me and I told her: “You have beautiful skin.” She answered: “Would you like to touch it?” I did and asked her the secret. “Sesame oil,” she smiled, then tossing me her ring, the Krupp diamond, for a closer look. I couldn’t make any of this stuff up. It just happened.
And in all cases we had some fun before the interview began.
Even when things went wrong, we grew closer. I tape-recorded Leona Helmsley at the time she was on trial, and the first hour was dynamite. But my tape recorder wasn’t recording! I was beyond upset, told her what had happened, she held my hand as we walked around her terrace and told me that we would record the entire thing over again, which we did.
We subsequently became good friends.
In any case, you want to RELAX your subject (short of drugging them!), be genuine, don’t look down at your questions. Memorize them in advance and stay connected.
What does your writing routine look like? How do you stay productive and overcome blocks?
I’m a morning person. So that’s when I write.
In fact, I never work after lunch, so it all needs to get done by 2 p.m. I find I can write for 4–5 hours at the most. That’s it. After that, my brain is tired. But during that time, I never get up from my computer, I don’t answer phone calls, I won’t allow any distraction to interrupt me. I just FOCUS. In fact, I write down on an envelope my exact start time (slightly OCD), so that I can’t cheat. I tell myself that there are 24 hours in a day, and I only need 5 of them to write a book, so let’s not interrupt those hours with any calls from friends or even business. Just pretend you’re not home.
Also: I don’t eat anything either during this time either but I drink a lot of water. That helps my brain! As for writer’s block, I can’t afford it. But I know from past experience that writer’s block masquerades as FEAR. It’s not an artistic problem. It’s anxiety. I’ve found that you don’t need to be in a good mood to write. Once you focus, your mind relaxes and the words will flow. Yes, sometimes in the past, I was afraid I couldn’t get it perfect, so I stumbled around, writing and re-writing without moving on until I felt I had it right. Don’t do that. Some days, it’s not very good, but it’s amazing how you can improve it later on.
PS: I never work on weekends. I tell myself ghostwriting is a job—and I’m off then, just like a normal person with an office job. Sometimes I admit I like editing on a weekend. I find that effortless, buffing up the text.
Finally, don’t let your cell phone and emails imprison you. They flow in constantly with no boundary. Let them go on the weekend.
What strategies do you focus on when cultivating your writer platform?
I emphasize my journalism background and my own published books to provide credibility. Having a well-constructed web site is, of course, essential. That’s your calling card. I also like to write blogs, which prospective clients value.
But most important, getting the right client is about establishing rapport with them. It’s a human interaction. And sometimes you’ll meet someone and you just don’t click with them. That’s fate telling you that book is not for you.
If you could go back and change anything about your writing career, is there anything you would choose to do differently?
Absolutely not. The trajectory of my career was a strange one that could never have been planned—from the piano, to a book about a pianist, to interviewing newsmakers and celebrities, getting on the job training at magazines and newspapers, turning my work into a syndicated column, then into a book.
Writing for me has been a passport to adventure. I’m actually introverted so doing all this people work has been a stretch for me, good growth. I could NEVER have planned this, nor is there a college course for it.
You’ve got to be your best agent, knowing how to connect and create an opening for yourself. Don’t ever think about other writers or the competition. Do what you want to do.
What’s your best piece of advice for someone looking to be a full-time writer?
Well, for me, desperation was the mother of invention. I had to literally create a persona of an author when I really wasn’t one. Act as if you are.
INTRODUCE YOURSELF. Be Bold. Meet editors and other writers. It’s a hell of a lot easier to network now with social media than it was when I started. Back then, the phone was my best friend.
What are you working on next?
The Christian book market in the U.S. is a huge one ($593 million in 2018), so I’m ghostwriting a Christian-based self-help/inspiration book with a televangelist who will focus on mental health and how spirituality can improve it. It will be a CHECK UP FROM THE NECK UP!
Do you have a story idea? Pitch it to us below, and we’ll work to match you with a writer like Glenn who can help you bring your vision to life.