Falling in Love with Chicago at Night: An Interview with Jessica Hopper

In “Night Moves,” Jessica Hopper is 80% on her bike and 20% at a show, memorializing a young adulthood spent in just one of “a million Chicagos” — but one that shaped a wide network of artists and writers.

Ashley Naftule | Longreads | September 2018 | 9 minutes (2,464 words)

It takes a writer of considerable talent to gear-shift from meditations on mortality to goofy stoner daydreams (and not give the reader whiplash while she’s doing it). It’s a tonal trick Jessica Hopper pulls off over and over again in Night Moves, a poignant (and often hilarious) memoir of her time in Chicago in the early aughts. On one page, Hopper is solemnly reflecting, “You make peace with death’s swift manners and it raises you up”; on another, she’s wondering what it’d be like to run over a great poet with a dune buggy. Ruminations on aging, community, love, and friendships stand shoulder-to-shoulder with sharp, madcap anecdotes, like when a stranger at a nightclub says Hopper resembles “a kabuki donkey” on the dancefloor, or when a pair of socialites at a music festival are aghast at how she’s eating an apple directly off the core. The poetry and absurdity of existence are constant companions in the pages of Night Moves.

The veteran author’s easy grace with the written word comes as no surprise when you take her long career into account. Starting off as a D.I.Y. zine writer, Hopper quickly rose through the ranks to become a freelancer and contributor to publications like SPIN, Grand Royal, Rolling Stone, GQ, Punk Planet, and The Chicago Reader. She’s been an editor at Pitchfork, Rookie, MTV News, and the University of Texas Press. Her knack for juggling incisive cultural criticism with personal reflections and wry humor can be seen in her 2015 collection of music writing, The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic.

While music comes up often in Night Moves (“Loving the Smiths is one thing, but loving Morrissey is another thing entirely,” Hopper writes), it’s a book that’s more concerned with what happens just outside of and right next to the rituals of listening to records and going to shows. It’s a book about long bike rides to venues, the sadness of watching friends get blitzed on cocaine at dance nights, the joys of holing up in an apartment and reading back issues of The New Yorker while the city freezes outside. Hopper’s book is a testament to the pleasures of bumming around, the ecstasy of slowing down and enjoying the neighborhood and your friends before career and family and all the other milestones of adulthood start accelerating your timeline.

Talking to Chicago-based Hopper over the phone, we chatted about the process behind her new book, how she stays engaged as a music journalist, and what she thinks about the gentrification of her city.

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I wanted to start off by asking about the non-linearity of Night Moves. What inspired you to present each of the segments in the book in a non-chronological fashion, jumping back and forth over a span of years?

We were going for something that was more of a mood. Something purely linear would probably have illuminated the same thing, but I wanted it to be a little more meditative. I wasn’t super interested in an arc — in a linear narrative arc.

I’ve been thinking about doing something like this book since the process of putting together my previous book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. As part of that, I was working with a friend of mine on archiving a lot of my writing: blogs that I had, fanzines, different sorts of writing. In pulling that together, my friend Alice said, “You know, you have a bunch of work here that doesn’t fit with anything in the book, that’s really about Chicago and going out at night and falling in love with the city.” She urged me to revisit it, and she’d taken the liberty of starring pieces and entries that were kind of connected or were worth revisiting.

There are a million Chicagos. This is just one — one neighborhood at one quite finite time.

And what was also in the back of my mind was Heidi Julavits’ The Folded Clock. Hers is also sort of an edited diary, but there’s no dates and you don’t necessarily get a sense of moving from point A to B to C. So that created a template and also a sense of permission: It doesn’t all have to happen in order.

And I mean, it is loosely thematic. But I feel like it reflects more how memory works, how ephemeral that is.

It’s interesting you bring that up, because the experience of reading your book felt very much like leafing through someone’s personal journal. I was wondering: what other influences were on your mind when you wrote these pieces?

It’s hard for me to say. I don’t even know what my writing influences would have been then. I was consuming poetry — as I still do — at a high clip. I was very much fascinated by any author who could better illuminate Chicago to me. Gwendolyn Brooks was a huge one. Neon Wilderness was a big book for me around this time; reading Nelson Algren and recognizing exact corners of my neighborhood a few blocks away. Gwendolyn Brooks was more about recognizing the emotional truths of the city. [And] some of the things that have always fueled me, being a music journalist: [music journalist] Lester Bangs, key things like that.

I’ve been a journal-keeper; I’ve been writing personal blogs on and off throughout my life. Back then, the sort of diaristic writing I was doing was for confessional reasons, for the purpose of chronicling. But there was also parts of it that were almost evangelical — evangelizing about the city that I loved so much.

One of the ways I really connected with your book was how you talked about your neighborhood. I live in Phoenix, and the area that I’ve spent so much of my life in has been gentrified beyond recognition. Reading Night Moves made me think about my city as it used to be. I was wondering if that was one of the driving forces behind your book, the way you so clearly evoke the Chicago of your past. Was writing Night Moves a way of commemorating where you came from?

The parts that I’m documenting here, or memorializing, they aren’t necessarily going to show up in other people’s histories — running with a pack of young artists, some of whom have made art or work that is still remembered, and other who are local-band also-rans — these aren’t things that always become part of a greater, retrospective, totemic work.

And so this is one way of saying these things really mattered. A lot of these things really shaped us. These nights at the Fireside, at the Empty Bottle: There was a generation of folks who were shaped by that. There are a million Chicagos. This is just one — one neighborhood at one quite finite time.

The other thing is that I want the folks who might see themselves in this book, who identify part of their own youth or ambition — fucking around on a skateboard in your twenties and trying to figure out what the hell you’re going to do or how you’re going to actualize your dreams, [or] whatever part of themselves people recognize in the book — I want to beckon them into a greater curiosity about the transactional role that we can sometimes play. By we, I mean young white “creative” class artists and students, and the role we can sometimes play in permanently altering the cultural landscape of a neighborhood by our presence.


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How much editing and rewriting did you have to do with these older pieces? Did you try to leave them as they were written, or were you interested in updating them while trying to preserve the voice you wrote them in?

I was editing it primarily for clarity. It was to uphold the particular style at that time — trying to think how the pieces fit into the rubric of illustrating that space and time. And even though there’s some pretty heavy themes in the book… you know, 80% of it I’m on a bike. The other 20% I’m like, you know, at a show in a club or DJing or actively participating. It’s a bit elliptical, how it works together. I wanted pieces that illuminated one another without being repetitive.

I just wanted it to feel like a precious little bubble of my life. I think with the remove of more than a decade, almost fifteen years in some cases, you look back on your younger self and go “Why didn’t you?” — that gimlet-eyed, adult regret and nostalgia. I didn’t want to operate from a place of either of those things. I didn’t want to neuter that history and I didn’t want to romanticize how carefree it was.

All of us have to wake up on some days and turn on the bullshit faucet and make deadline.

In addition to being a music journalist, you’ve also worked as a publicist in the past. Did working on the other side of the industry inform your process as a writer? Knowing how the sausage is made, as it were does it make you look differently at the kinds of stories that get sent your way?

When I started working as a writer — I printed my first zine when I was 15 and I got my first paycheck from an alt-weekly when I was 16 — I didn’t become a publicist until I was 19, 20. When I was a publicist, I thought of it as an outgrowth of really rabid fandom more than anything else. For me, it was just another way to participate in my community. I only worked with D.I.Y. indie bands. Some of the biggest bands I worked with were, like, The Dismemberment Plan and At the Drive-In  — celebrated emo acts. By virtue of that, I was fortunately fairly well removed from the kind of “industry” of it. That’s not to say that I wasn’t very aware and wizened to, as you said, how the sausage gets made. I guess I’m just as skeptical or cynical as anyone else, as any sort of decent journalist should be, about the process of how things get pitched to writers.

I think that being a publicist gave me a better understanding of how hard it is: the gears and machinations around music. How labyrinthine it can be, how hard it is for all the gears to sync up, how much you have to just chalk up to process and luck sometimes. It gives me more realistic expectations around the success of anything and really makes me stick to my own version of what success can be.

You’ve been writing about a music for a long time now keeping up with music and staying current on things. How do you keep it from feeling like homework? How do you continue to feel passionate and engaged with the work you write about?

I carve out time for discovery. I think it’s important to constantly be reading and refueling, and exposing yourself to different texts, different styles of writing, opinions that run totally counter to yours. Another part of it is that you sort of lie fallow and reconnect. For me, sometimes it’s not [about] listening to music or just revisiting music that’s really meaningful to me, [like] favorite albums. I kind of have albums that I sometimes put on to reset or records that I don’t know very well or that I’ve been reading about that I’ll put on to really study [them]. And not for the purpose of writing [about] it.

One of the risks of being a freelancer, especially long-term and most especially now, is that you can get caught up in this hamster wheel of music. You can get stuck there and it can pave over both your passion and your compassion. And that endangers your livelihood.

All of us have to wake up on some days and turn on the bullshit faucet and make deadline. That’s just how it is. Especially writing for dailies and weeklies and not being able to be precious about my copy or my opinions. But you can develop these calluses over time, which is why I think it’s really important to lie fallow and reconnect to what is meaningful to you. And to also constantly have an unrelated input — like, I read a ton of poetry. I don’t write poetry, I don’t write about poetry, but I find that it’s a very consistent fuel for me as a writer.

That’s not something you hear very often: most people I’ve talked to who read a lot of poetry also write it.

I love poetry, but I’ve never tried to write it. This is a science I don’t understand, so it allows me to marvel at it. I love language and reading and being emboldened by a perspective that I don’t immediately identify with. It’s really important as a writer to get that rather than… you know, I can’t just sit around here all day reading music history — in large part because most published music histories are white artists, white perspectives, a particular canon. It’s a very narrow realm of information. I don’t have a lot of interest in consistently perpetuating that fixed canon of music journalism. That’s part of the reason why I try to read more widely and read things that have nothing to do with music.

Considering your time at MTV News and what happened to your team, I was wondering what your reaction was to them backtracking so quickly after that “pivot to video” by putting out a call for freelancers on Twitter.

I still get plenty of scuttlebutt out of that building. My understanding was that the pivot to “issues” was a pivot away from culture coverage because they just found it to be too problematic and thorny for whatever reason.

I feel bad for the guy that posted that because that ratio was pretty brutal. But what I learned from my 17 months there — working very fortunately with some of the finest editorial and journalistic talents in journalism — that place is built from pivots. And the fact that we, the MTV news crew that rebooted that place, managed to stay the course for so long and got to do such incredible work, I think is a testament to my colleagues. It’s a testament to the valiant effort of the folks that unionized that newsroom. Those are things I very much applaud, and I think the work we did at MTV was a short-lived glimpse of what’s possible, and I hope other people will be heartened by that.

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Ashley Naftule is a journalist, playwright, and poet from Phoenix, AZ.

Editor: Dana Snitzky