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Christopher John Farley Biography - Secured Impressive Post-College Job, Debut Greeted with Mixed Reviews, Prefers Fiction to Feature Articles

black novel time music

1966—

Journalist, novelist

Farley, Christopher John, photograph. Ted Thai/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Christopher John Farley holds one of American journalism's most sought-after jobs as Time magazine's pop-music critic. Farley's post gives him ready access to some of the biggest celebrities in the entertainment industry, and he has used that influence to pen biographies of Halle Berry and Aaliyah. Farley is also a novelist, having made his debut with a satirical novel, My Favorite War, in 1996. In 2005 his second novel, Kingston by Starlight, was published by Crown.

Born in 1966 in Kingston, Jamaica, Farley's parents moved to the United States and he grew up in Brockport, a small town in upstate New York whose largest neighbor is the city of Rochester. Brockport is also home to a State University of New York campus, where both of his parents spent their careers. His father, Rawle, was a professor of economics, while his mother Ena taught African-American studies. Though he later became one of the most-widely read music critics in America, Farley had few ambitions for a musical career himself. He had some piano lessons and, as he said in an interview on the JournalismJobs Web site, "I also played trumpet, baritone and clarinet in high school, and I was terrible at all of them."

Secured Impressive
Post-College Job

Farley entered Harvard University after high school, and wrote for its Crimson newspaper as well as its renowned humor magazine, the Lampoon. His first bylines, as a freelance music writer, appeared in the Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe. After earning his degree in 1988, he spent several years as a staff writer for USA Today, the national newspaper launched in 1982 by the Gannett Corporation. "It was a good place for a young journalist," Farley recalled in the JournalismJobs interview, "because it was a meritocracy.… if you had the talent, if you're doing the job, if you're getting the interviews, if you're writing the stories well, they wanted to push you because they needed talent to sort of light the fires over there."

In 1991 Farley interviewed a newcomer to the big screen named Halle Berry, who had played the crack-addicted girlfriend of Samuel L. Jackson in the Spike Lee film Jungle Fever. Farley's interview with her was the first national media exposure for the actress, who went on become the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress a decade later. Farley's talent for spotting fresh talent and emerging trends brought him to the attention of editors at Time magazine, who hired him in 1992 as a staff writer. In his first year, he covered both rock and pop music as well as various national-interest feature stories. Over the next decade, he would interview some of the most famous names in the music business, such as Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan.

Farley's first novel, My Favorite War, was published by the esteemed Manhattan literary house of Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux in 1996. The satirical tale of a young journalist and his career starred the fictional Thurgood Brinkman, an African American on the verge of turning 30. Like his creator, Brinkman is a Harvard graduate and a reporter for an impressively successful national publication. Dejected by the fluffy stories he is forced to churn out daily—and worried about some difficult romantic relationships at home—he joins a radical Washington Post columnist, Sojourner Truth Zapader, when she travels to Kuwait on assignment as the first Persian Gulf War looms. Along the way, Brinkman digresses into opinionated rants about cyberromance, interracial dating, and black anti-Semitism. He and Zapader come across the story of their careers when they are taken hostage by Iraqi soldiers, but have no way to file their reports.

Debut Greeted with Mixed Reviews

In a review of My Favorite War that appeared in London's Guardian newspaper, critic Maya Jaggi faulted the plot, but placed Farley in the same category as American fiction writers Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. Jaggi noted that "the satirical anti-war novel forms a subversive sub-culture within American literature," and asserted that Farley's novel "updates the genre with a scathing take on the Gulf slaughter." A Publishers Weekly reviewer, who also noted the flimsy plot, called the novel "brittle and energetic.… There's a lot going on in this ambitious romp, and Thurgood's diatribes are the most entertaining part." A longer piece in the Nation from Kenya Dilday discussed deeper issues. "My Favorite War's intrigue lies in its vivid display of a multiculturally inflected life," wrote Dilday. "[I]n Thurgood Brinkman we encounter a character invisible in popular media—a black person with an ethnically and sexually diverse group of friends."

Farley stayed on at Time, but also wrote a biography of young R&B star Aaliyah that appeared a few months after her death in a Bahamas plane crash in August of 2001. A year later, he quickly penned a biography of Berry just after she won her Oscar for Monster's Ball. Both were spurred, in part, by an issue that Farley discussed with Brett Johnson in Black Issues Book Review. "I'd been concerned about a trend I'd seen in publishing where black people were not getting a chance to write about black people, and black people were not written about at all.… I felt there was a lockout for black journalists to write about important figures going on in publishing. Oftentimes, you see major biographies come out about major black figures, and they are written by white writers—black writers get shut out. In this case, I said, 'Ok, this is an important black figure in pop culture. Let me not shy away from the task.'"

Farley's next novel, Kingston by Starlight, appeared in 2005. Set in Jamaica during its eighteenth-century heyday as a pirates' haven, the story centers around an actual historical figure, Anne Bonny, who was tried for piracy in 1720. The Irish woman was said to have dressed as a man and to have joined a pirate crew to escape a bad marriage. She worked alongside an infamous scoundrel of the Caribbean, "Calico Jack" Rackham, and may have had a child by him. The Rackham crew was captured by British authorities near Negril Bay, and a sensational trial followed. In a review for Library Journal, Leann Restano called the novel "an engrossing and exciting story," while Essence's book critic, Margaret Williams, praised Farley's "powerful and poetic writing."

Prefers Fiction to Feature Articles

Farley was asked by Johnson in the Black Issues Book Review interview which type of writing he preferred: interviewing celebrities and reviewing pop records, or writing novels. "I would have to say fiction is more satisfying," he told Johnson, "and the reason is: fiction feels like it's more completely yours. It's a world you've created that you invite other people into. When you write about another person, to a certain extent, you're making yourself a little bit subservient to them because you're sort of saying, they're more important so that's why you're writing about them."

At a Glance …

Born in 1966 in Kingston, Jamaica; son of Rawle E. G. (a professor) and Ena L. Farley; married Sharon Epperson (a journalist), August 1997. Education: Harvard University, BA, 1988.

Career:

Author and journalist. Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe, freelance music writer; USA Today, staff writer, 1988-91; Time magazine, music critic,1992–.

Addresses:

Office—Time Magazine, Time & Life Building, Rockefeller Center, New York, NY 10020-1393. Home—New Rochelle, NY.

Farley is married to Sharon Epperson, a former Time colleague and also a Harvard graduate. They live in New Rochelle, New York, a suburb of New York City. He was asked in the JournalismJobs interview if he had any advice for aspiring journalists, and he cautioned his future colleagues to avoid modeling their style on current newspapers and magazines. "I think most journalism writing is incredibly bad," he confessed. "I think the young journalists out there shouldn't read the newspapers.… they should read them to keep up on what's going on, but it's a better idea to read novelists." Among his favorites are Toni Morrison and George Orwell, and he also suggested another source of inspiration. "Poetry is helpful in making your writing sing. Pablo Neruda and Derek Walcott are great poets to read."

Selected writings

My Favorite War (novel), Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1996.

Aaliyah: More Than a Woman, MTV Books, 2002.

Introducing Halle Berry, Pocket Books, 2002.

Kingston by Starlight (novel), Crown, 2005.

Sources

Periodicals

Black Issues Book Review, January-February 2002; May-June 2002, p. 28; November-December 2002, p. 51.

Entertainment Weekly, August 23, 1996, p. 119.

Essence, July 2005, p. 106.

Guardian (London), March 6, 1997.

Library Journal, April 1, 2005, p. 85.

Nation, September 9, 1996, p. 53.

New York Times, August 31, 1997.

Publishers Weekly, June 10, 1996, p. 86; April 29, 2002, p. 16.

On-line

"Interview with Time Magazine's Christopher John Farley," JournalismJobs, www.journalismjobs.com/interview_farley.cfm (August 3, 2005).

—Carol Brennan

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