Picture taken by  Carrie Breinholt

Beth Winegarner, writer, novelist, poet, mother, and proud Heavy Metal lover chats to Air Guitar about women in metal, backward messages and what the journalism field really is all about.  

Let me first ask you, how and why did you get into journalism?

I was excruciatingly shy when I was young – to the point where I couldn’t actually read or speak out loud if a teacher called on me in class. My parents tried several things to help me overcome my anxiety, including spelling bees and learning the violin, which required me to perform for small audiences, but it continued to be really difficult.
Around 13, I discovered writing. I started keeping journals and I wrote poems, and in the process I realized I had this really amazing, safe way of communicating my thoughts and feelings. I could bypass my shyness.
Then, in high school, I started taking journalism classes, which meant working on the school paper. I wrote articles, helped with page design, edited other people’s work, and discovered that I was good at it. This was the latter part of high school, when the pressure was on to figure out what I’d like to study in college and pursue as a career. I loved writing so much, and journalism seemed like a smart way to use that passion and skill in a way that could support me financially. Of course, back then, I had no idea that the journalism industry might change so dramatically in the next 20 years!
You have written for many magazines, webzines and you are the author of several books – is there ever time that you feel ‘burnt out’? If so, how do you overcome it?

It’s pretty rare that I feel burnt out, which assures me that journalism was the right path. I’ve had periods working for daily newspapers when I would get tired, or I was working on a series of stories that I wasn’t so passionate about. But I get a lot of sustenance from journalism: the process of discovering facts and ideas, interviewing people and gathering information, and turning all that into something that’s helpful to readers. There’s so much variety to the work, it’s tough to get bored or stuck in a rut.
Early on, I did get burnt out when I was trying to make it as a music writer – I had to write so much about bands that didn’t matter to me, and I also discovered that I can’t stand reviewing live concerts. I’ve gotten back into music writing now, but in a much more selective way that feels more sustainable to me.
I have read many of your recent articles but the one I always come back to is the superbly expressed “The Heavy Metal Witch Hunt Lives On” which was written for Popmatters. Why did you opt to write that article and what were your thoughts when doing so?

I’m so glad you liked it! In the course of blogging about metal regularly, I started to discover metal bands in other parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, where playing in a metal band can be a very risky proposition. I’d grown up during the PMRC years in America, and I knew how ridiculous it was when powerful people called heavy metal “evil.” But I thought the world had moved past it – and here were all these examples that proved it hadn’t.
I was impressed by how dedicated those musicians were to creating and performing heavy metal music, even though it could get them harassed, arrested, or tortured. Emos and metalheads in Iraq were even recently killed. I wish their societies could make room for them. But their dedication says something important about heavy metal in general, and what it means to the people who love it. People who love metal love it fiercely, and that’s something people worldwide need to recognize.
In your blog, Backward Messages, you debunk negative portrayals of teen interests and culture. Where did the concept of the blog come about and what has the reaction been like from parents and society?

Between 2007 and 2010 I wrote a book for parents about all the most controversial teen interests – violent video games, paganism, and heavy metal, and so on. Once I finished the book, I wanted to keep writing about those topics while I shopped for a publisher, so I started the blog.
I had originally hoped that the blog would be a resource for the parents of teenagers, but I’m discovering that the parents of teenagers don’t seek out parenting advice or resources online; I don’t know why. I know lots of folks with teenagers, and certainly some of them struggle with the challenges of parenting, but they seem to go it alone.
Still, the blog gets plenty of traffic – predominantly from people who are keyed into a particular issue. For example, goths comment on the posts I write related to goth culture. Or, if I write about a recent crime, friends of the suspect or victim will find my posts in a Google search and come over to talk about it. 
I’ve had quite a few commenters who thought I was totally off my rocker for arguing that these various influences can actually be good for kids. But I’ve also had plenty more who thank me for posting about a particular issue that’s dear to them, because it’s rare to find someone who says, yes, Satanism can be safe and healthy! Or, don’t worry about your kid playing Skyrim – unless it’s for 48 hours straight, without getting up to pee!
Throughout your work, you are very strong and consistent in your discussions and arguments. What is the most valuable lesson you have learned as a journalist?

It’s funny that you say that, because when I am making arguments or stating my opinions, I don’t consider that work “journalism.” It’s based on similar research techniques, but for the most part, I feel that opinions don’t belong in journalism; it’s a reporter’s duty to collect and report the facts and let the reader make up his or her own mind.
But there are definitely times to show a side of the story that hasn’t been told, to provide a kind of balance. In part, we need that because some journalists aren’t doing their duty to remain as objective as possible. It’s not just that they’re telling only one side, but they’re reporting faulty and poorly researched information, and even injecting their own (incorrect) speculation into their articles.
That said, I think the most important thing I’ve discovered has nothing to do with objectivity. As I said, I’m shy, so it took me a long time to work up the nerve to ask the kinds of questions that reporters really need to ask – the pointed questions about topics their sources would rather not talk about. In everyday life, we’re discouraged from asking those questions, because it’s considered rude. But when you’re a reporter, it’s your job to ask. And, some of the time, no matter what you ask, people will answer. Or, the worst they’ll say is “I won’t answer that.” But you have to ask. You have to be brave enough to ask.
“Women in metal” is an on-going topic and a lot of writers, feminists and musicians are giving crude sexist metal men the middle-finger to defend the gender inequality. Can you please elaborate on such?

This is such a rich topic, and really tough to summarize, in part because it’s an ongoing conversation in the metal community. Each time it comes up, people evolve a little bit.
First, I don’t think the metal community – and especially individual metalheads – are intentionally sexist. There are plenty who accept women as equals, whether it’s in the audience, onstage, or elsewhere. And there are others who believe they see women as equals; they may act in ways that say otherwise, but they don’t realize they’re doing it. However, metal as a culture is a branch off of mainstream society, and mainstream society still favors men and male power. Plus, metal in particular is founded in expressions of darkness, power, and aggression – qualities society normally sees as “masculine.” Once we can really embrace those qualities in women, I think we’ll find a more balanced place for women in the culture.
Women have always been part of metal culture, and their numbers seem to be increasing. With that comes both friction – as women make space for themselves and define, both privately and publicly, what it means to be a female metalhead – and acceptance, as others get used to their presence. Unfortunately, many times women’s presence is sexualized in a way that men’s isn’t (such as with Revolver’s “Hottest Chicks in Metal” issues), or women are  treated as a novelty (as with Decibel’s recent “Women in Metal” issue). The natural opposite is a “Men in Metal” issue, and when you devote one issue to women, you suggest that the rest are overly devoted to men.
At some point, I’d like to see women treated simply as part of the fabric of metal culture. We don’t need to be pointed out. We don’t need to be elevated. We just need to be included in the same way that men are. It needs to be clearer that we’re into the music for the same reasons as men. But that hasn’t happened yet, and that’s why the conversation is still happening.
 As a busy writer, poet, family giver and proud Metalhead – what do you do for relaxation?

Well, I’m not very good at relaxing, let’s just get that out of the way! But when I want to take a break from writing, working, or parenting, I tend to make a beeline for the computer – just to chat with friends, read blogs, or see what other people are up to on Facebook and Twitter. I also love to cook, and in particular I love to bake breads and desserts. I read a fair amount, and of course I listen to music as often as possible. Music really helps me recalibrate and return to centre.
 Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment? Perhaps, there are plans for a new novel?

Well, I freelance for local (San Francisco) newspapers, so I’m always juggling a few different projects. Right now I’m finishing up a cover story for the SF Weekly that should be published in early October, on the topic of same-sex marriage. I’m also researching another long-form piece, but I haven’t started pitching it yet, so I don’t want to give too much away. I will say that it relates to metal, and that I hope to sell it to a national (non-metal) magazine. That one, if it works out, could become another book down the road. I’m extremely excited about my research, so I’d love it if someone gave me the space to write about it.
You can find Beth Winegarner on Twitter and on her official webpage and Backward Messages.


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