Arnie Cooper: An Interview
Daniel M. Jaffe
Arnie Cooper is a writer who wears many hats—now an interviewer, now an essayist, now a journalist writing on such diverse subjects as dieting, gardening, language teaching and spirituality. I asked him to describe the most unusual topics he’s covered. “High on the list was my write-up of Skybark, a dog bar which opened last year in Los Angeles. The night I was there—a nightclub with all kinds of pooches running around—Lifetime TV was taping a show about a talent agency for pets. Though the show ultimately flopped, I got to see myself and my dog on TV for a millisecond, long enough for me to say, ‘Wall Street Journal’ (where the article was appearing). That’s obviously all they wanted me for.
“Another interesting article, also for the Journal, gave me the opportunity to take a private yoga class with WWE wrestler, Diamond Dallas Page. He created a yoga hybrid called Yoga for Regular Guys.”
“I also did a profile of David Cumes, a urologist who happens to be ordained as a sangoma, a traditional African healer. We spoke in his yurt where he gave me a free demo of ‘bone throwing,’ an ancient divination technique that offers insights into one’s life journey.”
Is Arnie ever surprised by what he learns from researching or interviewing? “Yeah, sometimes my interviewees don’t exactly see eye to eye. Last spring I interviewed Richard Heinberg who is one of the more committed experts on the topic of peak oil, the notion that we are about to or have already reached the point where petroleum production begins to decline. Anyway, in the fall I interviewed an investigative journalist who basically said Heinberg didn’t know what he’s talking about—in a much less polite way I might add.”
“But even more interesting than that was being temporarily ‘blind’ for a couple of hours when I did a review of Opaque, an LA restaurant in which you eat in total darkness—all the wait staff is blind or vision-impaired as well. I was surprised at how difficult it was to use a knife and fork in the dark. I ended up eating everything with my hands but since no one could see me, it didn’t really matter.”
Some articles must be more difficult to research than others. For example, Arnie recently wrote a piece for Santa Barbara Magazine about speakeasies in Santa Barbara during prohibition. The article’s full of fascinating personal anecdotes—how did he unearth personal stories from so long ago? “I have to be honest; it was mostly due to my editor’s connections. Though I did manage to find a couple of the anecdotes, it was really he who came up with them, mostly by emailing everyone he knew. It certainly wasn’t easy finding people with direct knowledge about prohibition and who were willing to talk about it. So this is a good example of how editors can improve on your piece. Of course, I’ve also had the proverbial editor from hell—and one who actually revised my article with grammar mistakes.”
Arnie finds that his career approach—covering a broad range of subjects rather than specializing in, say, food writing—is a mixed blessing. “I think the obvious advantage of covering many topics like I do is that you have a bigger range of periodicals you can contribute to. Of course, it’s also a great opportunity to broaden one’s knowledge and it keeps things from getting boring. However, specializing and becoming an expert makes you a ‘go-to’ person which could lead to more elaborate and better-paying assignments. I think it really depends on one’s personality which direction one gravitates toward.
“That said I’m still fairly new at this so I’m not ruling out specializing in one or two topics. I guess my broad-based approach has worked for me up to now, but I think I would like to eventually specialize in one or two areas like food and environmental issues in the future.”
His multi-faceted career began “one very early morning at 5:00 when an editor from Weatherwise Magazine called to say they were going to publish my article, ‘Confessions of a Weather Fanatic,’ a humorous rant about my frustrations relocating from Boston to weather-free Santa Barbara. I suppose she didn’t consider the three-hour time difference, and although I was a sleep-deprived zombie, I pretended that I was actually awake. That was in 1997. My second article, ‘Redemption for a Weather Fanatic,’ was a follow-up to the previous one describing our ‘500-year’ storm—8 inches of rain overnight—that washed out my driveway. It was published the following year in the same magazine.
“To get those first assignments, I warmed up by writing numerous letters to the editor and getting tips from magazines like Writer’s Digest and books like Writer’s Market. But two articles in two years do not a career make. It was really the tech boom of 2000 that helped get me started. I did a number of articles for two technology magazines, Access and Context, which are now defunct. But those clips allowed me to get published in other, better known magazines.”
How does a freelance writer come up with ideas? Do editors approach him with topics? In general, how does the freelance world work? “Very slowly,” replied Arnie. “Seriously, it’s pretty basic if you’re a no-name writer or non-celeb. You come up with ideas, write proposals or pitches and send them off to editors. The bigger the publication, the lower down on the masthead you should probably look for people to whom to send your work. But as with most writing advice, it all depends. Of course, most writer’s guidelines say you should read at least three copies of the magazine before sending anything. When you’re first starting out, this seems burdensome, but it’s probably one of the best pieces of advice you can get. You really need to know the style, political slant, if any, and demographics of the magazine in order to tailor your pitch. Otherwise it’s a long shot. Carpet bombing publications never really worked for me. That’s why I currently read about ten magazines per week. I usually email the editor and follow up a few weeks later. The biggest pubs may only give a snail mail address, which in most cases is the quick route to the slush pile. However, I did send an idea that way to Esquire a few years ago and though I didn’t get the initial assignment, I got my foot in the door and have now just finished my third (small) article for them.
“In any case, once you’ve written a few articles for a given publication, editors are much more likely to give you an assignment. I’ve gotten a couple from The Sun, to which I’m a frequent contributor and even the Wall Street Journal, which I started writing for a couple of years ago.
“But the beauty of this whole endeavor is that anyone (who can write) can do this. I happen to have a BS degree in broadcast journalism but never once did that play a role in landing an assignment. All you need is infinite patience, the ability to handle rejection letters and a writing style that catches an editor’s attention.”
Arnie has his own preferences when conducting interviews. “I would say that nine out of ten times I do the interview in person. There really is no substitute for looking the person in the eye and watching their reactions to your questions and their facial expressions as they speak. However, I have done a couple of phone interviews which worked out perfectly fine. (I’m also planning to do one with my web cam.) As for email, you’d think I’d be against doing it this way, but I can see the value of having the person sit down and write his or her answers. One tends to be more thoughtful and if nothing else, there are fewer run-on sentences and style problems. Even the most eloquent people make errors when they speak. I won’t mention any names but I recently interviewed a writer whose speaking was so convoluted I had to reword entire phrases and sentences. As you and your readers no doubt are aware, writers frequently don’t express themselves as clearly via the spoken word.
“As for favorite interviews, I especially enjoyed talking to Jaron Lanier, the creator of virtual reality who also has the world’s largest collection of exotic musical instruments. And I had a great conversation with Michael Pollan, the food writer.”
For The Sun, Arnie recently interviewed an Islamic scholar, Reza Aslan, in an article titled, “The War Within Islam: Reza Aslan on How the U.S. Fails to Understand the Muslim World.” This interview addresses one of the most pressing issues in the world today. Did writing it change or clarify Arnie’s thinking in any way?
“In preparing for the interview I learned about some of the interesting connections between Judaism and Islam from Aslan’s book, No god but God. According to Aslan, Muhammad considered the Jews as well as Christians spiritual cousins, even making Jerusalem the direction of prayer for Muslims who lived in Medina as well as encouraging his followers to fast on Yom Kippur.
“And with all the talk of Ahmadinejad these days, probably one of the more important things I learned was just how little power he has, which is reassuring. I wish I could’ve gotten Aslan to comment about Iran’s Holocaust denial conference, but that took place after the piece was finished.”
Has Arnie ever been in a situation where he disagreed politically or otherwise with the person providing information? Is it ever difficult to maintain objectivity in such a case? “I did a piece for Mother Jones several years back, which didn’t get published, about a fake company called ‘Licensed To Kill’, which was fighting the tobacco industry in Virginia. During an interview with the spokesperson for the Virginia State Corporation Commission (responsible for chartering corporations in the state), things got a little testy. I probably could’ve been more objective, but that was tough since the VCC ended up chartering Licensed to Kill even though its stated goal was ‘marketing products so that 400,000 people die each year.’ I guess he didn’t really like it when I asked him why it’s not against the law to sell a product that, when used as intended, kills Americans.”
Don’t interviewers say the darnedest things?
Dan is the author of The Limits of Pleasure, a rather controversial novel nominated by some for awards and by others for public burning (well, almost). A former corporate lawyer, he shed his suits to become a rebel with a cause—creative freedom in life and art. Dan frequently publishes short stories and personal essays in literary journals and newspapers such as The Forward, Green Mountains Review and The Florida Review. He compiled and edited With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and translated Here Comes the Messiah!, a Russian-Israeli novel by Dina Rubina. He also teaches fiction writing for UCLA Extension. Dan can be reached at
and his web site is here