Category Archives: See Clair Write

Author talk: Carla Jean Whitley

muscle shoals sound studioCarla Jean Whitley is one of the main reasons I call myself a writer. In the four years I’ve known her, she’s been my mentor, friend, confidant and travel companion. While I was interning at Birmingham magazine, she taught me how to approach AP Style (hint: it’s not sneakily or from the side) and ways to make sure my articles didn’t suck.

She’s also the author of “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music,” the managing editor of Birmingham magazine and a prolific freelance writer. During the past year, she finished her yoga teacher training and has kept up a regular practice. And yet she still took the time to answer all of my questions on writing.

Clair McLafferty: Why did you start writing when you were young?
Carla Jean Whitley: I can no longer recall a time when I didn’t write. I suspect my interest was tied to school; I was always a good student, and writing came easily to me. Couple that with positive reinforcement from my teachers and parents, and it’s no wonder I kept at it.

However, I also think that interest is intertwined with my love of reading. I’ve read myself to sleep nearly every night since I was 4 years old, and I often joke that the perfect job would be getting paid to read whatever I want. (OK, OK. I’m not actually kidding.)

CM: What kept you interested?
CJW: That positive reinforcement went a long way, and probably fueled my interest up through high school. I also discovered at an early age that I’m excited by sharing ideas, whether my own or those of others. Now, more than a decade into my career, I believe even more strongly in the power of storytelling. Some journalists come to the field because they want to change the world. I ended up here because I like writing and fiction didn’t come naturally to me. However, I’ve seen people better understand their communities because of articles I wrote, and that’s humbling and exhilarating.

CM: I understand you published your first book earlier this year. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during that process?
CJW: I’ve worked in journalism for more than a decade, and so I’m accustomed to reporting and writing (and doing so quickly). I expected writing a book would be similar, albeit stretched over a longer time frame with a much higher word count.
After one or two interviews, though, I realized I needed a different approach. My book, “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music,” focuses primarily on a period from 1969 to the early ’80s. The studio’s work had already been covered by countless media outlets over the years, and it seemed silly to ask people to not only recount something that happened 45 years earlier, but also to retell stories they’ve shared over the years.
After that a-ha moment, I regrouped, shifting my focus to historical research and relying on interviews to fill in the gaps. It was a daunting task, but I found myself grateful for my history of journalism professor, who required us to use dozens of primary sources in his class.

CM: What were some of the best parts?
CJW: Easily, the most fun was reading old Rolling Stone album reviews and periodically realizing songs I love had been recorded in my home state. I already knew about a number of them, of course, but I had no idea George Michael had tracked a version of “Careless Whisper” here.

CM: How has it been received?
CJW: The reception has exceeded my expectations! Just this morning–nearly four months after the book’s release–I signed 170 copies for a single order. I’m fortunate that so many people are interested in this story, and I think that’s a testament to the incredible music recorded there.
CM: How do you balance authorship, your editorial job and freelancing?
CJW: It’s a constant struggle. My primary role is managing editor at Birmingham magazine, and I frequently check myself to ensure I’m not neglecting my duties. I’m fortunate to work with supportive people and in a flexible environment, but that could be a recipe for disaster if I weren’t vigilant about getting my work done and maintaining the magazine as my No.-1 professional priority.
I primarily write freelance stories and books at night and–when a deadline looms–on weekends. However, I try to be judicious about how I use my time. I often have to decline last-minute invitations to spend time with friends because of assignments, but I try to regularly spend quality time with the people closest to me. Most weekends, I’m hanging out with my boyfriend and putting writing to the side. That makes weeknights spent in front of the computer a bit easier. (Plus, my cats love it. They think writing time is snuggle time!)
When book deadlines draw near, I also cut back on the amount of freelancing I do. I have a couple of regular clients (most notably BookPage), and I don’t like to put those relationships on hold. However, there were a couple of months earlier this year when I didn’t accept BookPage assignments because I needed to focus on my manuscript, and my editor and friend, the fabulous Trisha Ping, understood. I frequently pitch other publications, but I try not to overschedule myself. (The key word here is try.)
CM: What’s next?
CJW: I’ve got a second book, a history of beer in Birmingham, scheduled for release in the spring. That, too, will be published by The History Press. After that, who knows? While history is immensely satisfying to research and write, my true love is narrative nonfiction. I’m always brainstorming ways to move in that direction, and perhaps blend the two.
Bonus: Carla Jean’s must-have list for writers:
Writer’s Digest (worth every cent. Please subscribe.)
Scratch magazine (I love, love, love this digital-only publication. It works to remove the mystery in the relationship between writers and money, and I’ve learned so much as a result. Their “Who Pays Writers?” database is also wonderful.)
Quill (the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists)
Longform (I am obsessed with their podcast!)
And Pocket for keeping it all organized.

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Whiskey Trail: Day Three

Charles with one of their fermenters

Charles with one of Woodford’s fermenters

Day three included visits to Woodford Reserve and Wild Turkey. Out of all the distilleries we visited, these were the two that were least familiar to me. My introduction to American whiskey was through Jack and Cokes or whiskey and ginger ale highballs. Woodford wasn’t as well known within my college circles, and if we were going to buy whiskey, it would probably be Beam or Jack.

One of the coolest parts of each tour was their master distiller. At Woodford, Chris Morris showed us around and answered my (many) questions about booze, history, classifications, and boozy science. Outside of the nerdery, the campus was gorgeous. Theirs is the oldest working bourbon distillery in the country. It’s beautiful, and holds the distinction of being a National Historic Landmark.

Jimmy Russell is awesome.

Jimmy Russell is awesome.

The coolest part of visiting Wild Turkey was getting to hear from Jimmy Russell. He’s been making whiskey there for 60 years (!!!) and knows or knew every important player in the bourbon game. In fact, he’s been making bourbon for ten years longer than bourbon was legally required to be made within the U.S.

He’s also friendly. When he found out I was from Alabama, he said, “Well, War Eagles!” We were able to get him into storytelling mode, and he told anecdotes about his friends, bourbon and changes in legislation. He’s a living part of bourbon history, and I want to collect his stories.

The third day was also where the journalists started hanging out and talking less cautiously. After dinner, we came back and spent time sipping Seelbach Cocktails in the Seelbach Hotel bar. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to tour the Rathskeller speakeasy area due to time constraints.

I also realized on this day (Wednesday) that I wanted to come back. The science and history and picky details of whiskey production are amazingly interesting, and I want to learn as much as I can about them. There’s only so much you can glean from online sources, and I want more. I’ll for sure be back.

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Whiskey Trail: Day Two

Day two was our Suntory-Beam visit.* We started the day by sleepily boarding the bus at 7:30 a.m. After an uneventful (and half-asleep) drive, we reached Jim Beam. This visit was one of the most interactive tours we experienced, and started out with guests getting the chance to scoop grains into the mash cooker.

Probably the coolest part of the tour was being shown around by Fred Noe, Jim Beam’s seventh generation master distiller. He’s a character, to say the least. When your dad is Booker Noe, I think being colorful is pretty much an expectation. His stories…man, his stories. I could tell you, but it’d undermine some of the pitches I have placed or sent.

From there, we headed to the Maker’s Mark Distillery. It was rustic, picturesque and absolutely gorgeous. It’s the type of place where you wouldn’t be surprised to see a man in a frock coat running to catch a well-trimmed buggy.

And did I mention that part of the aging warehouse has a ceiling designed and created by Dale Chihuly? It’s stunning. We exited through the gift shop and it was time to depart.

One of the things that was most interesting to me was that both of these distilleries allowed visitors more access to unfinished bottles. At Jim Beam, they allowed us to rinse our own Knob Creek bottles and then to fingerprint the wax when it was still warm. At Maker’s, the gift shop has the option that allows you to dip a bottle in their red wax and let it drip down the sides.

Then it was back to the bus for the ride to Louisville. We ate out, and then caught drinks at the Seelbach Bar in the lobby of our hotel, the Seelbach Hotel. It’s. Gorgeous.

Tomorrow, we visit Woodford and Wild Turkey. I’m looking forward to visiting both, and will be sure to take enough notes to recap the day.

*Suntory bought/merged with Jim Beam (which owns Maker’s Mark) in May.

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Whiskey Trail, Day One

On Monday evening, I opened up the bar at Octane and then left. From there, I went home, packed, ate, and went to pick up my rental car. You know it’s going to be an interesting night when your reservations specify a “Toyota Camry (or similar)” and the person behind the counter asks if you’d rather a SUV or minivan.

When I walked into the parking deck and spotted my white Ford Expedition, I immediately named her White Lightning. She was bigger than the foyer of my apartment building and handled like a yacht. Driving in such a contraption was both awesome and terrifying, and I blasted CHVRCHES and my trashy, trashy road trip playlist.

One uneventful drive later, I stopped by No. 308 in Nashville to see Alan and crash the local USBG party that was going on there. Five words: Lucky Charms and Jameson punch. It was rad.

The next morning, I bade White Lightning farewell and hopped on the Discus (Distilled Spirits Council) bus to the George Dickel distillery. It was (shamefully) my first ever distillery tour, and the combination of whiskey, food, nerdery and scenery was so cool.

From there, we rode to Lynchburg, TN to the Jack Daniels distillery. During our time on the property we toured, ate, and spoke with both their master distiller and assistant master distiller. After dinner, the group hopped back on the bus and headed to Bowling Green, KY to spend the night.

Thanks to the excessive amounts of espresso and tea I consumed to make it through the drive, I didn’t sleep much that night, which meant the rest of the day was kind of surreal. But if the week keeps up at this pace, I can’t wait to see what else is in store.

I’m lumping my late night drive into this entry because I want to. So there.

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How Not To Live Your Dreams

I’m on the American Whiskey Trail* and I’m writing. Some of the pubs of my bucket list have accepted my writing on the topic. It’s intoxicating. Literally.

But I’ve spent a lot of time not doing a damn thing to further my writing. Sometimes I spend the day as the middle of a blanket burrito wondering what I did to someone in a past life to suck so much. The experiences leading up to the crappy days have taught me how I can avoid living my dreams, and I thought I’d share:

1. Distrust your intuition. In business, it’s good to make well-reasoned decisions, but if you have a squicky feeling about a setup, follow your gut. It’s easier to walk away amicably before crap gets real than afterwards.
2. Don’t write anything down. I’m probably not going to remember what I have to get done today if it’s not logged in a to-do list. Last month, I had an idea for a novel…and didn’t bother to write it down. It was something about a woman and a dog or a unicorn, but it was bestseller-quality.
3. Let rejection dictate your day. Just stahp. What can you learn from this and do better next time? Can you reshape it to mesh with another publication’s needs? If yes, do it, then eat ice cream and binge watch Arrow. Not the other way around.
4. Procrastinate. Believe me, I’m a BOSS at putting off assignments I dread. But it also makes me a hostage to my whims rather than indulging them off the clock. Just do it, man.
5. Go at it alone. If it wasn’t for my friends, I’d be in an asylum. They’re my support group and cheering squad and wine — I mean book — club wrapped into one, and I’d be a mess without them. They’re also quite literally the only reason I started writing journalistically and have the resources to keep doing badass work.

*More on that later.

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How To Pitch An Idea: Honest edition

Creating article ideas is easy. Getting them to print is much more challenging. In my four years of freelancing, I’ve gotten better at framing ideas for specific publications and figuring out what would fit at what publication. What follows is my process for sharing my ideas with others.

1. Record a flash of brilliance. It doesn’t have to be perfectly formed, but if it doesn’t make it into one of my many notebooks, I’ll start playing with Tessie and it’ll be gone.

2. Google it. Before you even consider finding a market, search the topic. If my idea has been covered, I’ll try to find a more creative angle to us as an approach. If my exact topic has been covered, that item stays in my notebook, but gets put on the back burner until I can figure out how to tackle it.

3. List publications. If this article could fit at one of my bucket list publications, I’ll pitch it there first. If/when it gets rejected, I can restructure the idea and present it to one of my mainstays.

4. Draft the pitch e-mail. Obsess over every comma, word choice, and sentence structure. After the content is out of my brain, I reshape it (and reshape it and reshape it) until it blends the publication’s voice and style with my own.

5. Hit send. My usual ritual is to close one eye, stare warily at the screen, pray for minor errors, and click. Then I jump back and watch it leave my computer and freak out.

6. Wait. Now that it’s sent, what tiny and idiotic errors did I make in the e-mail? OH GOD, I MISPLACED A COMMA.

7. Keep waiting. Don’t give in to self-doubt. Editors are busy people, and if I don’t hear back within a week, I’ll send a follow up message.

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Content and Context: Cocktail Syrups

Behind the bar at Octane. Photo credit to Mercedes Tarasovich-Clark.

Behind the bar at Octane. Photo credit to Mercedes Tarasovich-Clark.

Hi, my name is Clair, and I’m a nerd. For more than a year now, I’ve been writing a column for mentalfloss.com on cocktail chemistry. This setup combines my love of science with my passion for classic cocktails, and helps me to find new ways to communicate complex topics in food science.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about flavored syrups: grenadine is used in a surprising number of classic shaken whiskey drinks, and other flavored syrups can class up a simple drink in a hurry. There are many, many ways to make syrups, but they all have their pros and cons. Check it out: How To Make Flavored Cocktail Syrups.

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