Here’s to the freaks

By Scott Thomas Anderson

On the advice of SN&R’s publisher, I just read the new book “The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of The Village Voice, the Radical Paper that Changed American Culture.”
It’s the saga of a now-diminished institution, complied by Tricia Romano, a former “Voice” columnist who wrote about New York nightlife for years. Romano argues that in its heyday this publication – considered the nation’s first alternative weekly – was a major engine for creative nonfiction, counter-culture reporting, elevating music reviews into high art, and ultimately giving genuine pen-power to writers from marginalized perspectives, particularly those coming out of the ranks of early feminism and the LGBTQ community.
More than anything, “The Freaks Came Out to Write” is a tale of intentionally edgy prose invading the public sphere. After all, The Village Voice was a model for some of the most intriguing alt-weekly journalism to ever come out of Northern California, particularly in the form of The Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, The Chico News & Review, The East Bay Express and SN&R. I mentioned in last week’s newsletter that one tool SN&R always had for distinguishing itself from The Bee was its long-form cover stories, many of which were colored by the disreputable “fear fun” of literary journalism. It was a style of reporting that drew talented writers with big personalities and no-fucks-to-give attitudes about access to public officials. By the lights of some Bee writers, they were a cadre of professional misfits; and yet, to this day, everywhere I go around town I hear from readers about missing the bylines of those SN&R titans. This week, reading “The Freaks Came Out to Write” reminds me of just how memorable some of the pieces by those writers were. Here are three SN&R cover stories – in no particular order – that still feel timeless enough for a casual read in 2024.

“Prisons, realignment and the California rehab racket” by Raheem F. Hosseini: I probably could have picked ten different SN&R cover stories by Raheem Hosseini as favorites. One of his final ones, “The Marriage Guru,” was vintage Raheem, with him making its very first line, “And then out came the penises.” Of course, when Raheem’s writing does get serious, few writers are capable of being as emotionally piercing. This was evidenced by what he achieved in “Killing Mom.” The day that story hit stands was the only one I that can remember in my entire career when I walked through a newspaper office and saw most of the staff crying at their desks. The feature I’m highlighting here, “Prisons, realignment and the California rehab racket,” is one that I remember being transfixed by when it came out in March of 2013. I was working as a crime reporter at The Roseville Press-Tribune at the time and covering some of the same issues. When I phoned Raheem to congratulate him, he mentioned that the most poignant and foreboding quote from his subject in his piece – then-parolee Tim Sanders – was something that he’d had to fight his editors to keep from getting spiked. Yes, sometimes writers have to fight their editors; and I’m glad Raheem did on this one.
“The Zodiac is Back” by R.V. Scheide: When David Fincher’s unnerving cinematic masterpiece “Zodiac” hit theaters in 2007, the writer who was my mentor at the time, R.V. Scheide, decided to publish an overview of the case for SN&R.  This was a full decade before the rise of true crime podcasts, and the events behind Fincher’s auteur-ish take on what happened in the Bay Area between 1968 and 1969 hadn’t received much attention from a talented reporter in years. Therefore, Scheide used the film’s release as his anchor for a deep dive into the bewildering history of the Zodiac. Thanks to Scheide’s always lively, precise and gripping prose – and a ton of research and original interviews – he created an evocative rollercoaster through a shadowed piece of serial killer lore. But “The Zodiac is Back” is much more than that, too. Scheide was also exploring the seed genetics of what would soon grow into the nation’s ubiquitous murder mystery obsession – and ultimately morph into what’s now called the true crime entertainment industrial complex. But for all the forecasting weathervanes Scheide was able to plant into his feature, there is a surprisingly human story at its core, one that diverts from Fincher’s film, centering its narrative instead on the psyche of rock guitarist Dennis Kaufman, a man who believes that his late stepfather, Jack Tarrance, was in fact the Zodiac Killer.
“Forbidden Medicine” by Melinda Welsh: This is a superbly written story about a topic that is just as relevant – and cloudy – as it was when Welsh first published it in 2002, i.e., the desperation and frustration that drives some cancer patients to seek alternative, holistic treatments – even while California’s mainstream medical apparatus vehemently opposes their decisions about their bodies. I’ve already mentioned in previous newsletters that Welsh’s SN&R cover story “Return of the Messenger” is one of my all-time favorites for any alt-weekly, and many Sacramento readers will also remember Welsh’s deeply personal and illuminating essays about battling her own near-terminal cancer diagnosis. Those pieces touched so many people that they were highlighted in a big way on Capital Public Radio. With “Forbidden Medicine,” we find Welsh writing about the same topic not as a memoirist, but as a literary journalist at the top of her game.  
The list of honorable mentions for SN&R cover stories is too long to tabulate, but a few that jump to mind include Mozes Zarate’s 2019 celebration of uncanny valley quirkiness, “The trib-adours”; Rachel Leibrock’s brilliant blending of inner journey and social upheaval in her 2010 piece, “Default!”; and Karlos Reyne Ayala’s illuminative trip into Sacramento’s music underground, “The secret show you’ve likely heard of.” That last piece, which Ayala wrote in 2017, launched effortlessly with an opening sentence that I’ve always loved: “Twelve years ago, I was working at an art-house theater where a lady would regularly sneak into the men’s room and smell the urinals for some reason probably best left unknown.” Ayala also served as a fearless photographer on two of my most-read SN&R cover stories, “Blood on the Tracks” and “Gripping Ghost Guns.”

Local journalism is bound to evolve as newer, younger writers take it up. They’ll bring fresh perspectives and different strategies for processing their own moment in time. It’s the way of things. It’s how it should be. But if we want the next era of reporting to have its full emotional and creative impact, we do need to keep fostering creative writing in Sacramento. And that alone seems incredibly daunting in a moment when people of all ages are suffering from various levels of tech addiction, not to mention being lost in a constant cacophony of brain-dimming, video-glitching distractions. One organization that is doing yeoman’s work on this front is 916 Ink, Sacramento’s arts-based creative writing and literacy nonprofit. That group describes its mission as providing “workshops and tutoring to transform Sacramento youth into strong readers, confident communicators, and published authors.” The organization is currently seeking writing submissions from all ages for its “Drop a Pen on your zip code!” project. Essentially, they are going to publish a grass-roots anthology on the life of certain neighborhoods in North and South Sacramento. They’ve made it clear that “all types and forms of writing: poetry, prose, essay, comics, playwriting” are welcomed in the submissions.

“We’re looking to represent the authentic, diverse communities,” the organization said. “Priority is given to those who live, have history with, or work in the following ZIP codes.”
For more info on making a submission, go to 916 Ink.

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