50-for-50 interview: Justine Musk, tribal writer

justine musk

If you pitched a Hollywood screenplay with Justine Musk as your main character, you’d have to dumb her down, ugly her up, or relieve her of her compassion, outsized generosity, and fierce passion for social justice before she’d be even remotely believable. Yet there she is: a mother of five (twins and triplets, heaven help us), a thrice-published novelist, an engaged philanthropist who is startlingly quick and funny in person. And yes, supermodel-gorgeous. If she wasn’t so damned nice, you’d be hard-pressed to form complete sentences around her. But she is, and should you be fortunate enough to find yourself in a conversation with her, you will have the time of your life. In the meantime, I suggest you do as she says and “totally follow her.” Because you will learn much from this delightful young woman who is so remarkably perceptive about what it takes to be an old-school writer in a new media world. And have fun doing it.

When did you decide to become a writer?

When I was thirteen or fourteen, I read the book Misery by Stephen King and it took the top of my head off. Not literally. Not just because it’s such a good read, but the way he writes about writing, the experience of it, falling through the hole in the page in your typewriter (a typewriter, children, was what we used back in the day, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and there was no MTV).

I got so excited because I knew exactly what he was talking about.

So that’s when I became truly ambitious, but a writer wasn’t something I decided to be, so much as something that I recognized myself as just…being. I never really felt like I chose it. There were times when I felt shackled to it.

Who was your favorite teacher?

Andy Milner, in my last year of high school, was a standout because he was youngish and cute and known for wearing leather pants and an earring – this was a small town – and there were fascinating rumors about his personal life.

He was also great at what he did, and he loved books, he breathed them in. He literally breathed them in. I remember one time he ripped open a carton of books and inhaled deeply and said, “I love the smell of new books.”

Just his presence was like this open window of possibility, signaling life beyond my hometown; he was like this cool, exotic parrot that had flown in on the wind. Looking back on it now, I can see how he brought together a lot of different threads for me: you could be smart and bookish but also edgy and intriguing and kind of zany, you could love literature but also Jim Morrison and Billy Idol. (The one time I plagiarized a line – don’t do this, children, it’s bad! Very bad! – it was from a poem by Jim Morrison, and Andy was the one who called me on it and told me the piece was ‘derivative’. I was mortified. No way in hell I’d do that again.)

What do you love to write about?

I’m fascinated by wealth, class and power. I started out lower middle-class and, through twists of fate, ended up in a world high above that, so I’ve seen the class system from different angles.

I’m fascinated by the way power plays out in relationships, which gets into issues of abuse and trauma and healing.

I like to write about Los Angeles, which is where I live now, which is a universe removed where I grew up.

I’m intrigued by love and obsession and transgression.

I like to write from the male perspective and the teenage perspective.

In my blog, I write about creativity and social media and storytelling and psychology and branding, and I want to write more about entrepreneurship and transmedia: all the different elements that, I think, will go into a 21st century writing career.

What has writing taught you?

Writing shows you who you are. At my lowest points, at my most lost, confused sense of self, I would read through something I’d written and realize, Oh yeah. This is my voice. This is where the real me lives.

How has writing made you stronger?

Being able to speak from your own experience, and have that resonate with others. To speak the unspoken. To take things out of the murk and bring them to light, give them a name, change the perspective.

We are all made up of stories: as individuals, as a culture. You want to change your life, you change the stories you tell you about yourself, you create a different meaning from your experiences. You want to change the culture, you reach into the soul of that culture, you read the stories, you change the stories. I feel strong just to know this. I feel deeply grounded in myself.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

When you’re a kid, being unconventional is the worst thing, it makes you a target; as an adult, it starts to make you cool and interesting.

I would tell my younger self to trust my inner knowing, don’t listen to a lot of the adults, look to books and my own intuition to guide me.

Never ever ever let anybody else define your own experience of reality. Your feelings are valid. Accept them and listen to them and try to figure out what they’re telling you. Your feelings connect you to the truth, which other people will try to distort and manipulate to their own advantage. Educate your inner voice as much as you can – read a lot, think a lot, write a lot – and never lose touch with that voice, it’s always looking out for you, even when you don’t like what it’s telling you.

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

What I Loved, a novel by Siri Hustvedt. (I reread this book, I soak this book in.)

Faithless: Tales of Transgression, a book of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates.

Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage, by Elaine Showalter.

Nerve.com.

Feministing.com.

Justine Musk lives and writes in LA. She wrote two dark fantasy novels (BLOODANGEL and its sequel LORD OF BONES) published by Roc/Penguin, and a YA supernatural thriller (UNINVITED) published by MTV Books/Simon & Schuster. She had a personal essay in the 2010 October issue of Marie Claire. She blogs at Tribal Writer about badass creative stuff and is working on a psychological thriller called The Decadents. Here she is on Twitter. You should totally follow her.

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