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Interview: Mickey Rapkin, Author

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rapkinWho knew collegiate a cappella was such a big deal?

Mickey Rapkin, senior editor at GQ a veteran of the a cappella circuit at Cornell, knew. Besides his own life experiences, Rapkin noticed several a cappella references sprinkled throughout recent popular culture. Popular television shows such as The Office and 30 Rock joked about the phenomenon.

Celebrities such as actors James Van Der Beek, Mira Sorvino, Anne Hathaway sang in collegiate a cappella outfits while Debra Messing and Jessica Biel were rejected in their tryouts. Masi Oka, star of NBC’s Heroes performed in Bear Necessities, a group at Brown University and arranged a killer version of the song “Flashdance” which he belted out while wearing a purple leotard and tutu.

Rapkin noticed all these pop culture connections –including an infamous bit of trivia including the most wanted man in the world and a cappella– and decided to investigate the strange subculture of singing without instruments.

His 2008 book, Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory, chronicles three university groups as they compete during the 2006-2007 school year. He tagged along with the Beelzebubs from Tufts, Divisi from the University of Oregon, and the University of Hullabahoos and discovered that the world of competitive collegiate a cappella is shockingly cuthroat, ambitious, engaging, and hilarious. And believe it or not, these dudes get laid a lot. At some universities, members of the a cappella groups are the equivalent of local rock stars.

In preparation for the April 7, 2009 release of the paperback version of Pitch Perfect, Rapkin spoke with me about selling the book, furiously taking notes, tense shifts, and his favorite solo.

Slushpile: You were in an a cappella group at Cornell called Cayuga’s Waiters. But you don’t include any of your own experiences in Pitch Perfect. Why not?

Rapkin: I mention a bit of my own experience in the new appendix that accompanies the paperback. But you’re right, I kept myself out of the book. I just felt this wasn’t my story. I didn’t want to be a self-conscious narrator, commenting on what I saw. I thought it would be more immediate, and more fun for the reader, if I wrote it as I saw it. I wanted the reader to feel like they were in the room for rehearsals, and arguments, and elections, and on stage for concerts, and in the van on roadtrips—just like they were a member of the group themselves and a a real insider.

Slushpile: What was your favorite song to sing?

Rapkin: As a group, “Love the One You’re With.” It was easy to sing, and a crowd-pleaser. Selfishly, my favorite was “Southern Cross,” the Crosby, Stills and Nash tune. That was my big solo with the Waiters. I savored every minute of it.

Slushpile: Given that you’re a senior editor at GQ and your nonfiction has appeared in a number of publications, did you write any articles about competitive collegiate a cappella prior to embarking upon the book project?

Rapkin: I hadn’t. But not for lack of trying!

Slushpile: New nonfiction writers are always curious about which books were sold to publishers based on a proposal and which ones were written completely and then pitched. How did the sale of Pitch Perfect unfold?

Rapkin: I took the standard route: I wrote a proposal (including a sample chapter), and crossed my fingers. I did a bunch of interviews to prepare the proposal, and traveled down to Charlottesville, Virginia to meet the Hullabahoos. That reporting trip turned into my sample chapter, 25-pages that introduced potential editors to the insanely awesome world of the UVA Hullabahoos. I think the proposal process is incredibly beneficial. It forces you to think about what you want to say, and figure out if there’s really a story to tell. And then, if you’re lucky enough to sell the book, there’s that holy shit moment: Now I have to actually write this thing. But because you’ve done the proposal, you already have a roadmap prepared, showing you how to get the book done.

Slushpile: Editors have told me that sometimes an idea can have too much a niche, they’re too “magazine-y” to support full-length books. I could imagine where the idea of following a cappella groups might have encountered similar concerns. How did you convince editors that this concept could carry a 271 page book?

Rapkin: To be honest, it shouldn’t have been 271 pages! If I could do it again, I would have cut the book down to 200. But you’re right. I definitely heard that complaint—it’s too niche. But I believed in the project. And there was a precedent here. Books like Word Freak and The Orchid Thief had been bestsellers, and were about Scrabble and orchids, respectively. If there could be a bestseller about Scrabble, why not one about a cappella groups?

It helped to include the numbers of a cappella participants. In my case: 100 years of a cappella groups, 200,000 living alumni, 1,800 collegiate groups in the United States, 1,800 high school groups, etc. The numbers helped justify the project, and helped prove there was an audience for the book.

Slushpile: How did you go about contacting the three a cappella groups involved in the book and how did you get such great access to their stories?

Rapkin: Initially, I hoped to follow three groups through the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. But I couldn’t find three groups who were definitely competing, that had the stories I wanted to tell. And when I looked closer, I realized that covering the competition exclusively was too limiting. Groups like the Hullabahoos never compete, and I wanted to include their special brand of frat humor. Back to your question: I called the head of the ICCAs, and asked her for a good story. She told me about Divisi, and how they’d lost in the finals two years before, and would be coming back to right that wrong! It was too good to pass up.

I e-mailed Divisi, introduced myself, explained what I hoped to do, and asked if they wanted to participate. I stressed how personal it would be, how often I would be with them, etc. Same thing with the other two groups. In terms of access, the more time I spent with the groups, the easier it became. They got comfortable with me, could see my intentions were true, and opened up. It was rough in the beginning, though.

I flew all the way to Oregon to meet Divisi, and they basically ignored me. They had an event planned with their brother group, On the Rocks. And they wouldn’t let me come—even for an hour. I was frustrated. But in the weeks that followed, I called and e-mailed often, and when I met them again a few months later, they started to open up.

Slushpile: Did the singers ever get tired of interviews and your observation? How did you manage those relationships?

Rapkin: If they did, they never said so. I would e-mail them and ask for interview time, and we’d set that up. There were group members who ignored me, and so I ignored them. It was obvious who was interested in being involved. I think they came to enjoy my presence. To have someone trail them is kind of a rock star thing to have.

Slushpile: In other interviews, you’ve said you made about 20 trips to see the groups perform. So in the book, when a concert is being described, that’s your own perception, right? Are there instances where you describe an event that you did not attend based on information the singers provided you?

Rapkin: For the most part, I was in the room for whatever I described. I was in Los Angeles with the Hullabahoos when they missed their planned-gig singing the national anthem for the Lakers. I was with the Beelzebubs for two nights of recording. I was with Divisi for both rounds of the competition. I was at the on-campus concerts I describe, for the most part. The ones I missed, I often saw on video later. Obviously I wasn’t there for the history (Divisi’s defeat at the ICCA finals, etc.)

In the cases where I couldn’t be at an event, I interviewed as many people as I could (group members, judges, etc.) to recreate those scenes, asking general questions (who spoke, what happened) to specifics (who sat where, what were you wearing).

Slushpile: When you were traveling with the groups, were you constantly taking notes, constantly recording, or just hanging out and then gathering your recollections later? How do you ensure you get the information correctly, without being too obvious about documenting everything?

Rapkin: I always had a small, Moleskin notebook in my hand. And I would scribble furiously, and type those notes up that same night, while it was all fresh in my mind. The Divisi ladies used to make fun of me and my notebook. I used a tape recorder on the phone for follow-up calls. The notebook was problematic at times. Because I would write more when the kids said something funny, dirty, controversial, etc. They could tell what material I found interesting. And a few would clam up. But I think they largely forgot about me. I tried to blend in and just become another piece of furniture. Also: This is the generation who posts every thought of theirs on Facebook. They’re used to chronicling their lives.

Slushpile: Writing about music is always challenging. Hence the famous Elvis Costello quote comparing it to “dancing about architecture.” What specifically did you do on the page to help the reader understand what a performance sounds like?

Rapkin: This was my biggest concern: Could the reader hear the music while they were reading? Would the music pop off the page? I included the syllables where I could, the dim dim bops these kids sang. And, just in case, I included 10 music tracks on my website, so you really could hear it!

Slushpile: There are a lot of tense shifts in Pitch Perfect. For example, in one chapter, the Beelzebubs from Tufts listen to a rough mix of a new album. Their listening session, and subsequent debate, is told in past tense, with plenty of “he said” and “argued” and “played.”

In the next paragraph, it shifts to present and the record’s producer “doesn’t find this conversation surprising” and “he isn’t” and “he says.”

On the next page, it shifts to future tense with, “it would be Matt Michelson who needed to miss a show.” Then, the next paragraph is back to past tense with “Way back in October, the Bubs hosted” and “never learned” and “there was drinking.”

As an another example, early in the book, when Divisi from the University of Oregon perform at the ICCAs, it’s written in present tense. “The crowd is on their feet” and “the ladies of Divisi are competing” and “plays out.” But then later in the book, when Divisi competed in the quarterfinals to the following year’s ICCA’s, it’s written in past tense with “Divisi took to the stage” and “the choreography was intricate and precise” and “she sang” and “the solo was so overpowering.”

These shifts work in the book – and the presentation of this question makes it look disjointed, which it isn’t at all – but I’m curious about your decision to employ this ambitious writing style. Were you concerned that editors or readers would object to it?

Rapkin: Ambitious, ha! I wish I could say it was a conscious decision. I tend to write in the present tense, because it feels more immediate. I really tried not to think about it. I just started writing. Looking back, I should have planned so much more. I have full chapters on my computer that never made it into the book, full characters I tossed out. None of the shits were intentional or thought out. I would go back to look myself, but I hate reading my own writing. When it’s done, and I can’t make changes anymore, I try not to read it again.

Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?

Rapkin: I am not a naturally gifted writer. And my strength is not in witty prose, word choice, or inventive language. I think I’m a better reporter than writer. So unfortunately my advice will be practical: Do the work. Make the extra phone call. Never turn down a phone interview. Wake up early. Set a schedule for yourself, and stick to it. The book doesn’t write itself.

Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?

Rapkin: If you are obsessed with a topic, and you think there’s truly a book there, don’t let an agent tell you it’s too niche. Put together the proposal. Throw yourself into the project. And find an agent who believes in you. Also: Start a blog. Apparently you can now sell a book proposal based on a blog in minutes.

For more information on Mickey Rapkin and the upcoming April 7 paperback release of Pitch Perfect, check out his website.