Use All Five talks shop with Vice journalist Mike Pearl, who discusses living in LA, getting started at Vice, his process as a journalist and writer, and how covering human depravity has influenced the way he sees the world.
You’ve been at Vice for 2 years now and just recently cleared 300 articles. Bring us back to your first article, “Los Angeles Is for Sale… Dirt Cheap!” and tell us what it took to get that published.
Mike Pearl: They hired my good friend Dave Schilling. Back then, I was writing for an internet marketing company, which, um, didn’t fulfill me. When Dave got hired, he asked his comedian friends for submissions. I am NOT a comedian AT ALL. So I just kinda snuck some pitches to him, like “Hey. Me too maybe?” and that pitch was one of them. Then all I had to do once it was approved was drive my ass all over LA for hours looking at things—I paid admission to the LA zoo, and literally snuck into the LA convention center. I’ve put that much effort into maybe three other pieces ever.
You grew up in the L.A. area. Vice has a very clear set of lenses through which they present the world: edgy subcultures, real danger, political problems, and also inspiring artistic vision. How closely does this match how you saw L.A. while growing up? How has your perspective changed since working there?
Mike Pearl: To answer the last part first, I wouldn’t say my perspective about LA has changed at all—I love LA and I always have. Now, the thing about this city is, it’s full of incredibly obvious, major problems—mostly the fact that our water use is unsustainable, but there are also other things, like issues with the LAPD. I knew those things before, and I know way more about them now. The company likes for me to write about that stuff, and I’m happy to oblige, but I also think I bring more love of LA than the company previously had.
How would you describe your ideation process?
Mike Pearl: People always ask me this, and unfortunately I can’t really speak to ideation. I used to be an editor here, before I was strictly a writer, and in that time I learned that the thing you can’t demand of someone is ideas. People either have ideas, or they don’t. It’s in—and I say this with no scientific basis whatsoever—their DNA. For me, ideas come like lightning at completely random times, or they don’t come at all.
How would you say you’ve developed as a writer in the past two years? Are there any works early in your career that make you cringe?
Mike Pearl: I look upon all my past work with shame, and fear that I’ll find errors. Even stuff I wrote this morning. People have complimented me for some of my work, God love ’em. I know what I like in other people’s work, but for my own, I have absolutely no frame of reference.
Do you think it’s important to carve out a niche for yourself as a journalist? How much control do you have over the direction you take in your career and what boundaries do you want to push with your stories?
Mike Pearl: All I want is for people to laugh at my fart jokes, and then accidentally learn something.
Can you tell us about the interview you conducted that took the hardest toll on you emotionally?
Mike Pearl: Before I interviewed Weird Al, I was so anxious I almost called it off and went home—and that’s because I was so worried he wouldn’t like me. It would happen again if I interviewed someone I have that much admiration for. When I interviewed Joshua Oppenheimer, who directed The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, I somehow managed to blurt out that I was going through a break-up. That was because he has that effect on people! He somehow turns people—including mass murderers—stupidly honest. That was embarrassing when I look back on it.
If you could revisit a story to see how things have progressed since your first encounter with it, which would you look into?
Mike Pearl: I should do that! I’m curious how Lynn Campbell is doing. She’s an ex-Scientologist who believes the Church has been on a campaign of harassment against her hair salon.
Can you tell us a little about how you get from the research stage to the presentation stage and how you sort through and organize material you want to cover? How much of your work is lost on the road to publishing?
Mike Pearl: To go step by step would be incredibly boring. But I will say a couple things: (1) Sometimes I don’t know what a piece needs to be until I’m halfway done writing it. Reading that back it sounds like a total cliche, but it happens all the time. (2) Charging ahead even though the thing I’m working on still seems awkward, or lopsided, or sketchy, or dumb is usually the best way to end up writing something good.
Has your work in journalism had an impact on other art mediums you dabble in? Has it changed the way you look at visual art or music?
Mike Pearl: It makes me jealous of people whose medium of choice lets them sit with the material long enough to fall in love with it, like when someone makes a movie and it takes years. I like bouncing around from topic to topic, but sometimes I want to just be precious and slowly sculpt a masterpiece.
Lastly, and this question is a bit personal, but how has your experience as a writer influenced how you think about fundamental human nature?
Mike Pearl: Hard to say. I’m hesitant to reveal that I’m a human-lover. I like people. I think humanity is good, and shouldn’t be — say — wiped out. I have to cover a lot of awful, awful shit (I’m working on something now that would make your toes curl), but nothing has swayed me. Actually now that you mention it, I’ll bet the only way you can wallow in the muck of humanity and end up happy on the other side is if you begin from the principle that things that are horrible are the exception. I think it’s funny that we once titled our post about people raping a shaved orangutan for years “Conclusive Proof That There Is No God and Humanity Is Evil,” but I still don’t actually believe that humanity is evil.