Q&A: David Yaffe on reporting a biography of Joni Mitchell

Singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell performs at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1969 in Newport, Rhode Island. (Photo by David Gahr/Getty Images)

When Adam Begley began work on his biography of John Updike, he sought counsel from Ron Chernow, the famed Alexander Hamilton chronicler. “There are three kinds of biographies,” Chernow said. “There are two-year biographies, five-year biographies, and 10-year biographies.”

David Yaffe’s upcoming biography of Joni Mitchell, Reckless Daughter, is an unwitting hybrid: a two-year book on which he ended up spending a decade. But the time wasn’t squandered; he traced her life from the Canadian prairie to music stardom and interviewed, among others, David Crosby, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, and Mitchell herself.

The journalism challenges at play were considerable: Mitchell’s career spanned more than a half-century and straddled genres; as a source and a subject, she was elusive and often unpredictable; and, to boot, Yaffe had dueling book deadlines. Such challenges can be confronted and conquered, he found, but not without a considerable toll.

He and I recently talked about this, as well as biographical models, the delicate work of verifying recollections of ancient rock n’ roll stars, and what it’s like to work amid a bipolar episode. (In the interest of disclosure, we have been acquainted for well over a decade.)

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When you write about a person’s life, what’s the plan of attack, the priorities?

I knew from the beginning I wouldn’t take an exhaustive approach. I didn’t want to write a book about everything there is to know about Joni Mitchell. Music critics have the tendency to do that, and that’s why, when they get the chance to write a biography, it takes a long time. They spend too much time on childhood. They want to make sure every little fact is accounted for. I knew right away that I wanted to do a portrait, which meant not talking about every song and telling every story. I’d pare it down, so that all is essential and in the service of a coherent narrative. The trick is to find the information that is most compelling.

 

Was there a biography you looked to as a model?

The ultimate biography of an artist is Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce.  That was my paradigm. But it’s also nearly a thousand pages, and I wanted to do something that was about half the length. Ellmann got to talk to Samuel Beckett and all these other amazing sources but he also had brilliant analysis of all of Joyce’s work. He had chapters devoted to the novels and to Dubliners, and went deeply into them. He showed the relationship between the work and the life. You would think a lot of biographies would do this but, in fact, they don’t. Biographers usually pick one over the otherstorytelling over analysis. It’s very hard to do it because writers feel that, if they talk about the work too much, it may slow down the pace of the book.

 


How many people did you interview for this book?

Around 60 or so. But quite a few of those people I talked to several times. Not just Joni, but Larry Klein, her second husband, with whom I had such a voluminous correspondence. And there was a friend from adolescence, Tony Simon, who has remained close to Joni. Larry in particular was a very intimate fount of information. I mean, he had stories that nobody else has. I got a vivid sense of what that period of her life was like, a sense of what it was like to fall in love with Joni Mitchell. And how, when things went south, how the very things that he fell in love with were the things that made the relationship disintegrate. It was almost Aristotelian that way. And, of course, Leonard [Cohen] was wonderful, particularly his sense of what goes into writing a song, which was helpful in understanding his work and Joni’s work, and their relation to each other.



Why did people talk to you? Joni Mitchell strikes me as somebody that people would not want to cross.

Well, that’s why some people didn’t want to talk to me. Some people wanted to, and then didn’t. Others agreed to talk to me then froze up in the middle. I was referred to Ronee Blakley, who played the country singer in Altman’s Nashville. She and Joni were close for a while. She was the one who introduced Joni to Nietzsche. She was present for a lot of the things Joni was talking about. Then, halfway through the interview, Blakley decided she wanted to write her own thing about Joni and she didn’t want me to scoop her. She changed her mind literally as we were talking. That was really weird.

But it worked out. Even though I agreed not to quote her directly, certain things I got into prose. Little details, nothing essential. There was a line in “Shades of Scarlet Conquering” about her, which she’d asked Joni excise. And it’s funny, because she asked me to do the same thing.

 

What was the most difficult interview? Not to get, but to conduct.

Obviously, there was a huge challenge with Joni. She tried to stop an interview in the middle, too. But I just hung in there. In 2015, she was cutting a lot of people out of her life, including people that didn’t want anything from her. It was our final encounter, and she was saying something, and I was having trouble keeping up. I didn’t know, when she was using a pronoun, to whom she was referring. And I guess I got it wrong, or I asked, Who’s this about? And she said, You have no attention span. This is it, I’m done. But I somehow kept it alive. We just kept talking.

 

You wrote a book in the middle of all this. It’s basically your Barton Fink.

Or it was my Adaptation. I mean, Charlie Kaufman got really anxious because after Being John Malkovich, he was so hot. And suddenly he got The Orchid Thief adaptation plus Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. And, of course, they came out great, but not without a whole lot of suffering. So, yeah, it was kind of crazy trying to be doing two books at once. As I said, I’d been wanting to do a Dylan book. It happened that I was approached by Mark Crispin Miller, who was editing a Yale University Press series called Icons of America and wanted this Dylan book. It’s short, like 200 pages, but it was daunting to have the two projects in front of me. And I kept on writing articles, which was kind of crazy.

I filed the Dylan book in the summer of 2010. I’d been doing interviews for Joni all the while, so that’s when I finally started writing chapters. And I wrote in earnest for the next five years, then I spent the next year cutting and rewriting.

 

Wasn’t Farrar, Straus and Giroux, like, “What the fuck are you doing?”

Yeah, we had those conversations, and they kept on extending my deadline. There were times when I was very scared of cancellation. I had a lot going on. My son was diagnosed with autism when he was two, in 2011. And then my wife left a couple of years ago. So there was a giant atom bomb that went off in the middle of my life, and I had to keep on working through it. It was like that Fiona Apple song, “Better Version of Me.” I had to be a better version of me to write through it all.

 

And Mitchell stopped talking to you. Why?

Like I said, she was already in the mode of cutting people out of her life. I knew she would turn on me, or that she would cast me out. I knew it wasn’t gonna last. But I was in the midst of a bipolar episode. So I was calling her too much. I was high, not on drugs, but on mania. She stopped talking to me in 2008 while I was on my manic high. So I talked to everybody else.

In 2014, I went out with a source, a really great sculptor named Nathan Joseph. Joni wrote a song about him called “Good Friends.” He had a loft of Williamsburg, so we hung out there and had a really good conversation. We didn’t even talk about Joni very much. I didn’t even record it. It was social. A couple days later, I get an email from him saying, Joni wants you to call her. Just like that. And he gives me the number. So she and I got in touch. I told her that I was on medication for MS, and that medication is linked to mood disorders, and that my neurologist thought that I had a latent tendency for bipolar that was pushed by this drug. Sort of like how Syd Barrett had a latent tendency for schizophrenia that taking all those tabs of acid had exacerbated. So I explained this to Joni, who hates western medicine. So she said, Oh, that’s terrible. Isn’t it awful what doctors do to you? So she understood. And we were back on, just like that.

 

After you filed the manuscript, did you have to do a lot more reporting?

Not a lot. But I had to go back to Judy Collins to iron out the truth of something. It was so petty. Here’s the story everybody agrees on: In April 1967, shortly after Joni wrote “Both Sides Now,” Al Kooper is at her apartment on West 16th Street. So then he calls Judy, has Joni play her the song, and she records it and has a hit with it. Wins a Grammy. It was the beginning of Joni’s career. Joni was a coffeehouse folk singer living from gig to gig before Judy Collins.

So Joni had told me a story about how Judy had offered to take her to the Newport Folk Festival, which was a big deal. Joni had never been! It was a big break. And Joni said that Judy Collins stood her up and that, the next day, she had a change of heart and sent for a car to pick her up. I think the word that Judy Collins used to characterize this story was “horsepucky.” She said it was ridiculous; they’d met in April, so why would she make arrangements for something in August? I ask Judy if she thought Joni believed it. She said, I don’t know, but I can tell you where this rotten story came from. It came from the fact that Joni couldn’t get over that somebody did something wonderful for her. Since then, every time Joni came out with an album, Judy would send her love letters about these wonderful albums. She’d send gifts. Joni wouldn’t take her calls, never wrote her back. It was decades of not getting calls returned.

 

Was it scary to write about somebody who you knew could turn on you at any moment?

It’s a very hard thing to not be afraid of somebody that powerful when a lot is riding on it. It’s very hard to not have fear. But I try not to, you know? It can’t be allowed to bleed into the writing. Being in a place of autonomy with the writing is just essential to the whole endeavor because that’s the thing that they can’t take away from you. I learned that on so many levels, whenever I seemed to have things taken away from me, or things could potentially be taken away from meI still had my voice as a writer. What was it James Baldwin said? A writer who is worried about his career is also fighting for his life. I feel that way. That’s the deep, essential thing about yourself when you’re a writer. You have to hold on to that.


How do you take notes? Do you record your conversations?

I turn on the digital recorder, and I transcribe. I don’t take notes. First of all, my handwriting is terrible. Second of all, you have interviews. You transcribe them. Then you figure out what’s useable. Notetaking, to me, is kind of artificial. I have raw data with the transcripts and then, when I turn everything into prose, that’s an organic process which is then refined through the editing and the rewriting. I like to write things clean and straight through. I don’t like to base the writing on notes.

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Mitchell nearly died while you were finishing this book. How did that affect the scope of the book and was there a contingency plan in place for if she actually did die before the book was done?

That was so terrible when it happened. Everyone I knew sent me an email as soon her aneurysm hit the news, including Leonard Cohen. If she had diedand thank God she didn’tit would’ve changed the epilogue certainly, and the introduction. But I think I would have had the same objective; to tell her story in a beautiful and compelling and accurate way, whatever the outcome. Of course, sources are more willing to talk when you don’t have a living subject. That’s just always true. Or you’ll have sources say things they might not otherwise say. But I was very happy with the material. I think I got candor from people anyway.

It helped that Mitchell was around to respond to people’s stories.

Yes, which was really great. Because she wanted to one-up every single person. That was an incredible way of getting material because, left to her own devices, Joni would just talk for hours about the environment, or Morgellons. It’s not useful. But suddenly I had all these interviews and I talked to all these people. For a while she’d say, Oh, who else did you talk to? And she would always have a response. So that was remarkable. She was filling in gaps.

Sometimes I’d change the subject so I could get more breadth, and that would frustrate her. She’d say, You’re gonna get a lot of half-assed stories.

Well, I said, by all means, give me the whole ass.

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Elon Green is a writer in Port Washington, New York. He's an editor at Longform. Find him on Twitter @ElonGreen.