Chris McKittrick is an accomplished author whose new book, Somewhere You Feel Free: Tom Petty and Los Angeles, gets released today both in stores and online. We caught up with him to talk about how this book came to be, how long it took to write, and many of the other details surrounding the book and Tom Petty himself.
Chris also shared with us about how his writing journey began, has evolved, and his dreams for moving from writing part-time to full-time. Read on to be inspired by his love of the craft and his work ethic, as he describes how he juggles life, work, and his drive to succeed and be fulfilled as an author.
Part 1: Another exciting book release
1. What inspired you to write this book? Specifically, why focus on Tom Petty?
After I wrote my first music book, Can’t Give It Away on Seventh Avenue: The Rolling Stones and New York City (2019), the publisher at Post Hill Press asked me if I had any thoughts on a follow-up book in a similar vein. One of the concepts I thought of was covering the history of Tom Petty in Los Angeles. It interests me to see an artist come from one area (in Petty’s case, Northern Florida) and travel a long road to establish success in a completely different place. As a transplant to Los Angeles myself, I can relate to Petty’s cross-country journey. I began work on the book about a year after Petty died, and in the previous year it became apparent just how much Los Angeles respected Petty and how much Southern California meant to him as well. The story was shaped naturally from there.
2. Tell us about the book.
Somewhere You Feel Free: Tom Petty and Los Angeles is about musician Tom Petty’s significant connection to Los Angeles throughout his entire career as a musician -- from arriving as a wide-eyed aspiring rock star in the 1970s to concluding the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour with three shows at the Hollywood Bowl just days before Petty’s death. Through Petty’s experience, the book also tells the story of the recording industry in Los Angeles and the substantial changes the industry went through in the second half of the 20th century in terms of recording contracts, promotion, distribution, and artists’ rights. Also, because Petty often collaborated with many other iconic rock stars in Los Angeles, the book includes stories from his work with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks, Johnny Cash, Roger McGuinn, Leon Russell, Rick Rubin, Del Shannon, and others.
3. What did you learn when writing this book?
As a longtime fan of Tom Petty, I knew that he had recorded extensively in Los Angeles and had written many songs about life in Southern California. What I didn’t know was home much it meant to Petty for the Heartbreakers to be considered an “L.A. band.” He very much viewed the Heartbreakers as a continuation of the Southern California music tradition of Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds and in interviews he rejected any notion of the Heartbreakers being anything other than a Los Angeles band. I did not have an understanding of how passionate he was about that.
4. Where did you find the information?
Research! One lesson I learned while researching my Rolling Stones book is that rock and roll lends itself to mythologizing and I often found three or four versions of the same story that had very different “facts.” In many cases, I went back to the earliest sources -- especially music magazines and local newspapers -- to find out how these events were originally reported. It was very important to me to see how Petty and his music were considered at the time it was released as opposed to current retrospective reviews. Other books about Petty and Southern California music history were great resources.
5. How did you come up with the title?
Petty’s 1994 album Wildflowers is generally considered by fans -- and by Petty himself -- to be his greatest work. The title track is one of Petty’s most moving compositions, and the lyric “You belong somewhere you feel free” in that song elicits a strong emotional response for so many of his fans. I think it also reflects Petty’s journey from a challenging childhood to a place where he truly felt he could be the artist that he aspired to be.
6. What do you think Tom Petty would think of it?
I would love to have had the chance to find out. I would hope that he would feel that my book covers his career and life in Los Angeles in a respectful, but truthful way. I don’t think he’d have any interest in a book that was essentially a hagiography.
7. Did writing this book make you like him more or less?
I was already a big Tom Petty fan, so I didn’t think that writing this book would change how I felt about his music. However, writing the book gave me a deeper understanding of Petty’s songwriting, passion for rock and roll history, and the struggles he went through to achieve success. I walked away with even more of an appreciation for him as an artist, and as popular as he is I think he is still underrated as one of America’s greatest rock songwriters.
8. How long did it take you to write?
Per my contract with the publisher, I had just over a year to write the book. Research and outlining took several months, and then I wrote the first draft in five months. It was a much faster pace than my last book, but that resulted in a certain amount of exhilaration!
9. Where can we buy Somewhere You Feel Free: Tom Perry and Los Angeles?
The book will be available November 17 at all the usual online retailers -- Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Books-A-Million. However, because of everything small businesses have gone through this year I strongly recommend that you use IndieBound to order the book from a local bookstore. Also, the audiobook version will be available from Tantor Media.
Part 2: A writer's journey
1. When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
As a kid, I read a lot and I’ve been writing in some form or fashion for just about as long as I can remember. Once I become interested in a topic I typically want to learn as much as I can about it. I’m one of those odd individuals that enjoys the research process and that lent to wanting to take what I learned and explain it to others. Writing is perhaps the best way to communicate that, so it was a natural part of that process.
2. What kinds of genres/mediums have you written for? Which is your favorite?
I have written nonfiction, commentary, criticism, and a little bit of fiction for print and the web. One of my favorite types of writing has been interviewing a notable individual and using that interview to tell a larger story about the individual. What I like most about that is the challenge of creating your source material for the story that you write.
3. What was your first ‘break’ as a writer?
I had a few things published online and pieces in local newspapers, but I felt I made an entrance when I wrote an obituary for heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio for a local entertainment paper in New York, Good Times Magazine. This particular newspaper has been an institution in New York, and I felt legitimized by the acceptance when I saw my name in print.
4. What is the most difficult part of your artistic/writing process? What part do you enjoy the most?
When it comes to writing non-fiction, my favorite part is the research. When I start on a book, all I have is a concept and a general idea of what I want to say. It’s during the research process that I uncover the facts that shape the content of the book. Discovering something I didn’t expect is, believe it or not, something I relish. It gives me a new challenge to fit it into the narrative.
As for the most challenging part, the easy answer to that is finding the time that the project requires. Discovering a great lead at the end of the night and knowing that you need to turn in because of life’s other responsibilities can be frustrating. My mind will be wondering about the possibilities until I can pick up that thread again!
5. What does being a successful writer look like to you?
I’ll default to the words of one of the most successful popular authors of all time, Stephen King, who once said, “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.” If you write something that is fulfilling to you and has made enough of an impact on others that they want to reward you for it, you should consider yourself a successful writer.
6. Do you write full-time?
I wish! However, I’m happy to say that writing pays several of my bills. Just not all of them yet!
7. What is your favorite book and why?
An anthology titled The Art of the Short Story, which contains 52 short stories from some of the greatest writers who ever lived. There is so much wonderful work in between those two covers that touch upon so many great writing styles and techniques. I’ve learned so much about writing from reading that book over the years.
8. If you could tell your younger self anything about your journey as a writer, what would it be?
Have patience with your career. After I wrote the first draft of Can’t Give It Away on Seventh Avenue: The Rolling Stones and New York City, it took me a long time to find the right agent to represent it. Once I had an agent, it took her about two years to find the right publisher for it. Then came a few months of editing. But all those steps made for a better book, so the waiting was worth it.
9. Does writing energize or exhaust you?
I find writing energizing, without question. Research and writing about topics that I’m passionate about and being able to share that with others are some of the biggest professional joys I can think of.
10. What is your favorite place to write? Season of the year? Time of day?
I most often end up writing at night because real life gets in the way, but my ideal time is getting up early and diving right into writing. There have been rare days where I have been able to wake up and begin work on a challenging chapter or section and just plow right through, stopping just to eat a little something to keep me going. I feel like I earned a good whiskey at the end of those days.
11. What has influenced you the most as a writer?
The work ethic of my father, who -- though not a writer -- demonstrated to me daily that you can make something that you’re good at a career as long as you look at it equally as a business. Having the passion to do something is wonderful -- I’m passionate about writing, of course -- but it’s important to realize that to make it a career you have to treat it like a business. To keep writing books, I have to be able to sell them.
12. What is your favorite thing you’ve ever written, large or small, and why?
Can’t Give It Away on Seventh Avenue: The Rolling Stones and New York City was a project I envisioned years before it was published. As I previously detailed, it was a long process. Holding the book in my hands for the first time is something I will never forget. Receiving praise for it from so many people has been life-changing.
13. Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I have a pitch in for another music-related book, so we’ll see where that goes. In the meantime, I’m always working as a freelance writer on everything from entertainment features to copywriting for just about any industry that will hire me.
14. How can we follow you and your work?
The best place to find out about my work is on my website, www.chrismckit.com. You can also follow me on Twitter, @chrismckit.
We are fortunate that Chris took the time to share the details of his new book and writing journey with us! I hope that each of you, whether aspiring writers or not, were inspired by his work ethic and drive to write. If you have any questions or comments for Chris, let's hear them in the comments!