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Media Minds: Michael Hoinski

Culture and Arts Independent Journalist

Michael Hoinski is a seasoned culture and arts reporter who writes the Texas-centric events columnG.T.T. for The New York Times, a version of which appears on TexasMonthly.com as The Drop Everything List. His reporting and criticism have appeared in print and online versions of both publications, in addition to Esquire, Rolling Stone, The Texas Observer and The Village Voice. He is also formerly an editorial staffer at L.A. Weekly.

In addition to his work as a journalist, Michael is the education coordinator at the O. Henry Museum, a historical house where the short story writer lived in the 1890s. In this capacity, he produces literary arts programming for youth and adults. Michael loves food, drink and live music. He is married and has one daughter and one dog. Want to learn what makes Michael tick? Read on.

When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?

After college, when I realized you could make money writing journalism as opposed to the terrible short stories I was writing for my own entertainment as an undergraduate business major.

How did you get your start?

I was living in Los Angeles after college, where I worked intermittently as a production assistant on television shows. Intermittently is the key word. At one point I found myself collecting unemployment checks for almost a year. I thought it was time to pack it up and move home, but then I lucked into a job as the assistant to the publisher of L.A. Weekly. From there, I freelanced some articles for the paper, got promoted to the editorial staff and was on my way.

What did you see as your big break in establishing yourself as a freelancer?

Probably landing some assignments for The New York Times awhile back. One of them was a short profile of the Austin singer-songwriter, James McMurtry. Three or so years ago when Jake Silverstein of Texas Monthly approached me about writing for the new Texas section of The New York Timesthat’s produced by The Texas Tribune, he mentioned that piece.

How did you decide to become a freelance writer after your time at the Writers’ League of Texas and LA Weekly?

Seriously, stubbornness. Freelancing is hard, but I have just sort of willed it to happen.

As a freelancer, what are your biggest challenges and biggest opportunities?

One of my biggest challenges is not living in New York and one of my biggest opportunities is not living in New York.

How did The Drop Everything List with Texas Monthly get connected as a regular column with G.T.T. in The New York Times?

These two events columns have been linked since the beginning. The New York Times publishes the column as G.T.T. and Texasmonthly.com publishes it as The Drop Everything List, with slight variations.

What do you look for when you’re focused on serving up content that’s great for Texas Monthly as well as The New York Times?

For the events column, I am looking for a diverse mix, location- and content-wise. I want the best of the best in music, movies, literature, food, sports, art and Texana, etc. But I also want the oddball stuff. For features, I am increasingly drawn to original stories and subjects–things people aren’t already writing about.

What makes a good story?

Many things can make a good story. To me, good characters usually have good stories to tell.

What story, in your career, are you most proud of?

You’re only as good as your last story, right? For me that would be my piece for Texasmonthly.com on paños, the handkerchiefs that Hispanic prisoners in Texas have long decorated as art. Reporting it felt like going down the rabbit hole, and I think I was successful in digging up some new information on the topic.

What interview experience stands out in your mind as the most unique?

Oh, there are many: asking Richard Linklater about marijuana’s place in his movie “Dazed and Confused;” visiting Billy Joe Shaver’s house in Waco, which had a dead bolt on the front door and having him tell me that I “lead with my chin;” pulling the teeth from a shy guy like Gary Clark Jr. on the front sidewalk of Guero’s Taco Bar before he hit it big; having an intermediary translate a conversation with a Tibetan Buddhist llama in Austin who didn’t speak English; and making Jack Black laugh out loud, literally.

What story do you wish you could have covered or hope to cover in the future?

That’s a tough one! There are so many great stories. I recently read Tom Junod’s Esquire piece, “The Falling Man,” about the 9/11 suicide photograph, and thought, “wow, what a brilliant piece of journalism.”

What’s your biggest pet peeve as a writer?

Getting editors to respond to my queries.

As someone that covers up-to-the-minute interest pieces, what online publications do you feel are really doing it well these days?

I don’t want to be a homer, but I think Andrea Valdez has done a great job shaping Texas Monthly’s online content. Also, Grantland.com is an online-only destination that intrigues me with its quality writing on a mix of high- and low-brow culture.

Why is journalism rewarding to you?

I get to wipe the slate clean and start over with a much higher frequency than if I were a novelist.

What famous historical figure do you wish you could have interviewed and why?

I’m a dork about the beat generation and hippies, so any number of characters from Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

What makes you tick and why do you do what you do?

I’m a highly self-motivated control freak. Putting together a story is my way of finding order.

You’re also the education coordinator for the O. Henry Museum and have been for the last five and a half years. What do you do in that role and what do you think Austinites and non-Austinites should know about the museum?

Yes, that’s my day job. I produce an array of literary arts programs, including exhibits, youth and adult writing and reading workshops and the annual Pun-Off World Championships. Besides being a gem of a historic Queen Anne-style cottage, the O. Henry Museum offers the most complete look anywhere into the life of the internationally known short-story writer.

What are your writing goals for 2014? Your wish list?

I don’t know if it will happen in 2014, but I’d like to do some work for The New York Times Magazine (Adam Sternbergh, have you seen those pitches I’ve been emailing?!).

Want to hear the latest from Michael? Follow him on Twitter at @michaelhoinski.

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