Last month, Holly George-Warren, a professor in the department of digital media and journalism at SUNY New Paltz, published “Janis: Her Life and Music,” a biography on rock-legend Janis Joplin. The book quickly became a No. 1 best seller on Amazon, and was raved by critics and Joplin fans alike. NPR called “Janis” a “definitive portrait” of Joplin, while The New York Times praised George-Warren for “[capturing] the pain and soul of an adventurous life.”
Ahead of her reading and Q&A session, held in the Honors Center on Tuesday evening, I spoke with George-Warren about the inspiration behind “Janis,” her journey with the misunderstood star and her plans for the future.
What was your connection to Janis Joplin?
Well, I was a big fan of course, having grown up listening to her music. “Pearl” was the one that I got after her death, in 1971, and I still have my original copy with my handwriting on it. Over the years as an editor at Rolling Stone and doing a lot of projects with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I began to learn more information about Janis that I wasn’t aware of. I began to realize there was this untold story. A lot of attention was paid to her dying at 27, and her lifestyle issues, but I felt like not enough focus had been placed on Janis the musician. So that was really what made me go on this journey myself, to understand her.
When did the idea first come to you that you wanted to write this book?
It was actually a long time ago. I have a literary agent who actually got to see Janis perform back in the ‘60s in San Francisco, and she knew Janis’ sister, and she thought that I would be the right person to do a book that goes more in depth into Janis the musician. So she was encouraging me to do that.
It took quite a few years for us to kind of get all the parts of the puzzle together. I had to convince the estate and her siblings to give me all of these materials to use for my book, all these copious letters that Janis wrote, scrapbooks that she kept, contact information of old friends. I needed them to allow me to use that and quote from it, without having any control over what I wrote. We finally came to an agreement about that, fortunately.
So obviously the book was published this year. Was there a specific year the process was started?
Oh yeah, gosh, that conversation probably started in, I would say, around 2010. That’s when the conversation started.
Once the ball got rolling and you were able to start writing, what was the most challenging part of the whole process for you?
Well the writing is always very challenging. I love doing the research, I love doing the interviews; some of the interviews are challenging, in that you have to convince people to talk to you. Since there have been other books written about Janis, some which were not very good, some of the people that I wanted to speak with were dubious about, “Oh here’s another book, what’s this one gonna be?” So I had to convince them to talk to me. So that’s a challenge, but once we get over that hurdle, I love those conversations. For me the hardest part is always sitting there, with the first draft.
Since this was such a long process, how did you manage to prepare for and eventually write the book while still teaching?
I stay very busy! You just have to learn how to really schedule your time and maximize your time off. I would do a lot of heavy-lifting for the book when school was not in session—especially the traveling, which I did during winter, summer and spring break so I didn’t miss class. It’s all a matter of just kind of juggling.
How does this book differ from other projects you’ve done?
Well, this is my third biography, so there are definitely similarities between biographies. Of all the books I’ve written, they’re by far the most difficult to write. It’s very challenging and very self-critical. But some of my other books, which are a little easier, I think of them as curatorial projects, where I’m selecting photos for a photo book and then curating the images and writing the captions. I find that to be easy and fun.
As a fan of Janis, what was something that you learned during your research that stuck out to you?
I didn’t realize how much she liked being in the recording studio, which is a very technical headset; she was very methodical about that. To me, her image was kind of just this heavy drinking, wild party woman, and I didn’t realize that there was this very serious side to her that she kind of kept hidden. There were a lot of things she kept hidden: She was a huge bookworm, she loved to read. She totally kept that a secret, but she would write letters about what books she was reading, and I found that fascinating. Another thing, as much as she was this huge rockstar, she still yearned for this traditional life that I think was something of a pipe dream for her, but it was what her mother always wanted for her and up to a point, she kept trying to make stabs at doing that, but just couldn’t do it.
Do you have any plans for your next book?
As I mentioned I love those photo books, and I discovered Janis was photographed by some of the top photographers in the world in the ‘60s. I would love to do a beautiful photo book with maybe some text from her letters and things like that—that would be a great project, so we’ll see what happens. I have to convince the family, but I would love to do it. That would be a nice little break. Whenever I finish a really hard book I’m like “That’s it, no more!” I will go around and speak about “Janis” for a while. When I write a biography, the person really stays with me…I really care about my subject. They stay with me, so I’ll stick with Janis for a while.