Editor’s Note: For our “Perspectives” series, which talks with New Orleans-based journalists, pod-casters, documentarians, and photojournalists about their place and role in the journalistic world, Lacar Musgrove was interviewed by Danielle Klausner. Musgrove is known for immersive journalism that blends together her work and education in history and writing. In this interview. Musgrove and Klausner talk about how far she’s willing to go to get a story and where she draws a line.
Who: Lacar Musgrove
What: Writer, editor, and cultural historian for New Orleans, LA.
A quote worth quoting: “How far are you going to go to get a story? If your subject is breaking into a building are you going to follow them in there? I think most writers would, but somebody else might say, ‘I am not going to do this because it is illegal.’ And that is fine. As for me, I am going to do something to follow a story that may end up breaking a law.”
Lacar Musgrove graduated from the University of New Orleans with a Masters in Fine Arts and Distinction in Creative Writing as well as a Masters in History, and got her Bachelor degree in English at Boston University. She has lived in New Orleans for 12 years. Her articles and stories have been featured in various different publications such as, Louisiana Cultural Vistas, Boneshaker Magazine, Voice of the University of New Orleans, and more. She is also a content contributor for the website, ViaNolaVie. Additionally, she served as the Associate Nonfiction Editor for the literary Journal, Bayou Magazine. She also worked as an instructor for advanced English Grammar for second language learners. Additionally, she specializes in turning blogs into ebooks, coaching student writers, content revision and copy editing for student college essays. Lacar is passionate about writing and journalism and sharing her stories in a unique and creative way. Lacar and I spoke about her career, what journalism means to her, and how her work differs from others in the field.
Q: What are the themes that tend to draw you into a story?
Lacar: What I am drawn to writing about is subcultures — stories about groups of people who are forming little subcultures or communities, and they have some relationship with the larger community that might be in conflict. For example, I am working on a story with a bike community and what is going on with the effort to create bike infrastructure and the difficulty with cars not wanting to acknowledge the bike lanes. But looking at what is happening culturally with the misunderstandings between the bicycle culture and the driving culture and the struggle to agree on who has the right to the streets.
Q: What do you make of these topics’ relations to your own experiences?
Lacar: I think that personally I have always been a little bit of a misfit, trying to fight against the mainstream attitude. So, I think I identify with the conflict and the struggle of the mainstream idea.
Q: How does the culture around New Orleans inspire you for your stories?
Lacar: I am really a New Orleans cultural writer and historian, so I blend my knowledge of New Orleans cultural history with doing journalism about what is going on currently.
Q: When following your subjects, how do you take notes?
Lacar: I have these yellow legal pads that I carry around with me, and I use those when I am interviewing someone. Sometimes, I’ll kind of lurk in a space or take observational notes. Or, when I am in the middle of something, I take mental notes and write them up later.
Q: Are their ways that journalists can be too invasive when gathering information?
Lacar: I think to constantly be asking people questions can be invasive. It is better to just be more observational and to get into more organic conversations with people and to let things come out that way, rather than be constantly integrating people about what is going on.
Q: Has there ever been a time where you asked a question to someone who said they were uncomfortable or unwilling to answer a question?
Lacar: One time, many years ago, I wanted to try to write about the black label bicycle club or the black label bike club, and I got some push back.
Q: How did you handle that? Did you look for someone else to speak to?
Lacar: I just backed off [laughs]; I just didn’t do it. It is a difficult topic. There had been a writer who got into some pretty serious trouble writing about that group of people at one time. So, when I approached them and they said ‘no,’ I just dropped it.
Q: What interested you in the bicycle community?
Lacar: I am a historian, and I do not consider myself to be a cyclist or really any part of that community. I started out just generally interested in New Orleans culture and New Orleans cultural history, and I sort of randomly got onto the topic of the history of the bicycle and the history of bicycle clubs in the United States. Then I started investigating this history of cycling clubs in New Orleans, while also looking at the current cycling culture. So, I got into the cycling community just by being a writer and historian who has been writing about them. By being someone who could write about the historical context about some of the issues they are having now as way to observe and get involved in the cycling advocacy that is happening now was what allowed me to take that direction.
Q: How do you define “alternative,” and how do you see your work fitting (or not fitting) your definition?
Lacar: I think that just means outside of the mainstream and following your own rules about how to approach a project and how to write about it. You know, rather than writing for something like The Picayune or The Advocate and just doing a report as a reporter. For me personally, what I do is something that is closer to immersion journalism — where I really get involved with groups and spend some time trying to understand their point of view and to write about a subject with more of an in-depth knowledge behind it, and with more of a purpose than just reporting the news.
Q: How do you see your work fitting (or not fitting) your definition? Do you consider your own work to be alternative?
Lacar: Yes, I would. I don’t have a formula. When I approach a story, I take a long time to write it, and I do a lot more background research than I think a mainstream journalist would do on a topic.
Q: Before you said you would consider yourself a misfit. Does this mean you would consider yourself alternative?
Lacar: [Laughs]. I would say so.
Q: How so?
Lacar: I just have a [pause] … I have a fairly non-traditional lifestyle and a non-traditional approach to life. I have always really done things my own way.
Q: When did you face backlash on a story? If you did, how did you handle this?
Lacar: You know, I don’t believe that I have ever faced backlash on a story. The only time that I have ever faced backlash was when I was in the MFA program at the University of New Orleans, and I was just beginning my research on the New Orleans Cycling community. So, I went on a critical mass ride.
At that time, it still is in other cities, but in New Orleans it was not really a thing. At that time, Critical Mass was a group that would go out and ride in the streets and take the car lanes and actually block the double lanes of big roads so that cars couldn’t pass and kind of pull really aggressive moves in traffic as a way of political action.
So, I went with them on this critical mass and wrote about this experience. Some of the people in my workshop accused me of being unethical in my work because of some of the things that I was doing could be considered unethical or illegal in the ways that I was riding in traffic with this group. So, I was accused of being unethical in my research by doing that. My response was that in order to really write this piece and to really experience what it is like being in this group, and to understand, this is what I have to do.
Q: Since people were criticizing you for being unethical, how did you handle this? Were you able to come up with a response, or did you just ignore it?
Lacar: I mean, I really just ignored them. I didn’t change my ways. What I do doesn’t have to involve needing to do something that is dangerous or possibly illegal, but in that case, I just didn’t agree with their point of view. And, that is a point that any writer is going to have to make as far as their research. How far are you going to go to get a story? If your subject is breaking into a building are you going to follow them in there? I think most writers would, but somebody else might say, ‘I am not going to do this because it is illegal.’ And that is fine.
As for me, I am going to do something to follow a story that may end up breaking a law.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge about being a journalist?
Lacar: The biggest challenge is the imposter syndrome. It’s trying to go out there in the world and do research and talk to people when you have this voice in the back of your head constantly telling you that you are not a real writer, and that you are defrauding people, and you are a fake, and everyone is going to figure it out really soon. Also, that voice that says, ‘who am I to say what’s what? Who am I to write this story? Who am I to describe something? Who am I to say who these people are?’ That fear of not being legitimate. That fear of ultimately when I write this story, writing something that is not correct, especially about a person that I know, and they are going to read it, and whether or not I am going to get something drastically wrong and make someone angry by doing that.
Q: If you could choose to write about anything right now, without any external pressure, what topic would you choose and why?
Lacar: I don’t have any external pressure right now. I get to write the stories that I want to write, but there is a project that I haven’t been able to pay attention to, which is the occult community in New Orleans. I am very interested in what is going on in real occult practice in New Orleans and how it relates to the larger culture. It is something that I have not had enough opportunity to work on as I would like.
Q: What would be the first step of your research?
Lacar: Well, I have done one story on it, and I did that by attending classes at something called Academie Gnostique, which is a school where they offer classes in occult practices on various topics. So, I think that in order to further participate or further pursue this research, I would like to spend more time doing background research because I feel like my background knowledge in the occult is rather lacking. I want to spend more time observing some of the rituals and interviewing some of the people involved. And I’ve had contact with these folks, but I would like to spend to more time talking to them and doing some formal interviews.
Q: What piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to be a journalist?
Lacar: I would say to do your best to find a niche of something to write about that you actually care about and that you think is important. That might not be possible depending on if you wind up working on a publication that says you have to write about this or that.
But, to the extent that you can, find something you really care about that you are interested in and write about that. Spend some time really knowing and understanding your subject. Do background research, read books, be educated on something so that you can write about the subject from a place of real true knowledge, rather than just coming and collecting some notes and then writing something that may not be an accurate reflection of your subject.
This interview was completed for the class Alternative Journalism. The interview has been edited and configured for publication.