Interviews / Journalists

Interview with Ethan Brown: “The more work you do, the easier it is to write.”

Ethan Brown is an investigative journalist and author, having written four books about crime and criminal justice policy, including his debut, Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent and the Rise of the Hip-Hop Hustler.

Throughout his career, he has written for a variety of publications, including New York magazine and The Guardian, and has worked as a mitigation specialist representing indigent defendants in death penalty cases. He has also held the position of Enterprise Editor of The Appeal and is currently serving as the Editor-in-chief of The Garrison Project.

Ethan’s books have been met with critical acclaim, with his works Snitch, Shake the Devil Off and Murder in the Bayou being called must-reads for anyone concerned about criminal justice and policing in America. His writing has been praised by a number of notable figures in the literary world, including John McWhorter and David Simon, the creator of The Wire.

Ethan has also received recognition for his investigative reporting, including his feature on the unsolved murders of eight sex workers in Louisiana, which was called an “important study of police corruption” by True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto.

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Hi Ethan! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. Your book, Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent and the Rise of the Hip-Hop Hustler, is one of my favorite hip hop books ever. Can you talk about the inspiration behind the book and why you wanted to write about Queens?

Thank you! Queens was inspired by some reporting I’d done at New York Magazine in 2002 or so about the beginnings of a federal investigation into Murder Inc. Investigation was out of the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of NY. 

Federal prosecutors were looking at connections between Murder Inc’s Irv and Chris Lorenzo and Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff. Supreme was a big reference in songs by 50 Cent, Nas and others and there wasn’t much reporting about him beyond what was in the tabs in the 1980s so I decided to take a look. 

Queens Reigns Supreme was published in 2005 and received rave reviews. Can you speak to your research and observation process for the book? 

I was able to get the case files on old federal cases involving McGriff, Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols, Thomas “Tony Montana” Mickens and others. The files were staggeringly huge. I still have them stored in large binders in my house. Then I talked to a lot of people!

In 2014, Medium published “Who Killed the Jeff Davis 8?” which was the result of your two year investigation into the unsolved homicides of eight sex workers in Southwest Louisiana. Can you talk about the process of investigating and writing this piece, and the impact it had?

Gosh, there’s probably too much to say. Between the Medium piece, the book and the Showtime docseries I spent nearly 10 years on the Jeff Davis 8 case. I hope folks can watch/read everything I’ve done on this, I would be honored.

Can you tell us about your writing routine and how you approach the creative process? What does a typical writing day look like for you? 

I’ve been working as an editor for a long while now. I’m not very interested in writing anymore. But as an editor and as a reporter, whenever I think about writing. I think about reading. I’m an obsessive reader. I subscribe to a sort of countless number of newspapers.

Read books all the time. And I listen to podcasts, not narrative podcasts so much, but I like listening to people talk about ideas, engage in criticism on podcasts, it helps me think. I recently listened to Bret East Ellis talk about The White Lotus season 2 for like 20 minutes straight and it was absolutely thrilling, reminded me of being a kid and really getting excited by reading critics like Greil Marcus or Pauline Kael.

I find listening to lefty podcasts like Chapo Trap House still pretty useful in terms of thinking about systems (capitalism, etc.). Oh, and one narrative podcast: Lili Anolik’s Bennington podcast. I’m a Bennington grad, and it was so well done. I also got to hear the voice of my mentor (Maura Spiegel) for the first time in like 30 years. Chills!

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How do you overcome writer’s block or any other obstacles that you may encounter during the writing process?

You just do the work, which in my case is gathering records and talking to people. The more work you do, the easier it is to write. 

If you could have a conversation with an author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

James Baldwin, Pauline Kael, Peter Guralnick, maybe Greil Marcus before he signed that Harper’s letter.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite reads?

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, by Jed Payne. America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s, by Elizabeth Hinton. Strangers To Ourselves, by Rachel Aviv. We Were Once A Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America, by Roxanna Asgarian. The Riders Come Out at Night: Brutality, Corruption, and Cover-up in Oakland, by Darwin Bondgraham and Ali Winston. Extremely excited about the forthcoming book from Pamela Colloff. 

What does your current writing workspace look like?

Very minimal. A long black desk, work chair. 

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