An Interview with James Rickman, Senior Editor at Playboy, by Fagan Kuhnmuench, MFA Fiction '17

Mere months before one of the most globally recognized magazines, Playboy, completely changed its format and discontinued nude pictorials, James Rickman accepted the position of Senior Editor. I spoke with James to discuss his role in re-imagining Playboy’s new-found trajectory. We also talked about Playboy’s storied history, as well as James’s own personal history of writing and music that delivered him to this position, a job he may owe to the band Fugazi.


Fagan Kuhnmuench: So James, describe your experience at The New School?

James Rickman: My mentor for the whole MFA course was Dale Peck. He alone made the whole experience worthwhile for me. He saw me through my whole thesis project. I still consider him a friend and mentor.

FK: Who would be your dream interview and what is the one question you’d ask?

JR: Wow, what a good question. The first guy that leapt to mind is someone I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. His name is John Jeremiah Sullivan. He has a collection of essays called Pulphead that came out four years ago. For me, my whole life has been about two passions, writing and music, and I’ve always played in bands and written about those experiences. [He] does that and he infuses it with more life and passion and insight than anyone I know that’s active today. He’s what I aspire to. I don’t know what I’d ask him if I did talk to him. I’d just quietly wet my pants.

FK: You’ve quite a list of noteworthy interviews, who would you say was most influential or interesting?

JR: Tim [Heidecker] and Eric [Wareheim] was a great one. I’ve been a major fanboy of theirs, and with that interview it had all been set up that they'd actually all be in character. They were going to be talking about this funny book [Tim and Eric’s Zone Theory: 7 Easy Steps to Achieve a Perfect Life]. So to try and sustain that without cracking a smile the whole time was a cool experience. I got to interview Al Gore and Pharrell because they were doing this huge charity concert last year and I was very nervous about that, and you realize what a total pro Al Gore is, who said my name about ten times in the interview. You know a guy is really on it when he remembers the writer's name [insert AL Gore's Tennessee drawl here]. I interviewed Sister Roma, when I first started at PAPER [magazine], it’s actually in issue called “Break The Internet,” which is probably where you’ve seen the picture of Kim Kardashian's butt, so I had a story in that issue that was about Facebook and how they discriminated against trans and drag performers and basically anyone who’d chosen a different identity from the one on their birth certificates. So if you change your name on Facebook, you can get flagged and booted off of Facebook. Sister Roma was suddenly served with this notification, and she became this champion to get that policy changed. I was assigned that story and found myself talking to Sister Roma, who is really cool and doing important stuff. Those are the most satisfying interview experiences.

FK: What type of creative writing are you working on independent from Playboy?

JR: My entire life is [Playboy] right now. At PAPER I was always contributing at least small front-of-book pieces and I haven’t done that at all; I have to assign it out. My position is both on the print and web sides, which is unusual. I have very little time for anything...including breathing. I hope to get back to that. And Playboy has some incredible traditions, as am sure you know, of the Interview and 20Q. I’d love to graduate up to that and get to converse with really cool, influential people. We really have incredible people. And I really love going deep. And that’s a very rare thing. You do hundreds of interviews, a lot are over the phone and a lot are brief. And it’s very hard to get people past their talking points. Even if you make the effort to develop questions that they maybe haven’t heard, a lot of times you come at them with your very thoughtful questions and they will revert back to whatever script they’ve developed over the course of that publicity cycle. Playboy interviews are long; the shorter one is 2,000 words. You can get comfortable with the subject; maybe get to a vulnerable place. There's the famous interview with Jimmy Carter who said something like "I have lust in my heart," which he recanted in a presidential debate, so that’s amazing, if you can actually get people to that place.

FK: With the upcoming election cycle, and inevitable appointment of a Supreme Court Justice, do you see Playboy’s role as that of an activist? More specifically, how does Playboy feel about advocating for reproductive rights and equal pay for women legislation?

JR: I’m on the entertainment side so it’s not as much my beat, but being there the last few months has been a crash course of what Playboy has achieved in our culture, which I think is pretty remarkable, and all came to a head with our March issue which is the first non-nude issue. It’s like, this is the age of #FreeTheNipple and Playboy is eliminating that very thing from its pages? Where are we? Are we suddenly conservative? I think it’s because of Playboy that sex in America is that much out in the open, so much so that we don’t have to publish nudity—it is pretty much ubiquitous, and it was not in 1953, when the first issue came out. Certainly not taking all the credit for that, but it’s a major factor in the loosening of sort of Victorian mores. Playboy has always been a very vocally liberal publication. Like running a trans pictorial back in ‘91.

JR: I didn’t know much about Playboy going into [my] interview; I had to tell the man who would eventually become my boss, that I wasn’t that familiar with the stuff they ran aside from the pictorials, the cliché side. Once you find the interviews with MLK and Malcolm X and Miles Davis—this is not just token copy in between nudie pictorials. And it’s one of the few publishers of fiction in a national magazine.

FK: Looking forward, how do you see the Playboy brand evolving following the decision to discontinue publishing female nudes as of this most recent issue (March 2016)?

JR: Everything I’ve read is at least begrudgingly appreciated we’ve been able to pull this off, to double down on the written content. The reemergence of IUDs and smart birth control. I’m hugely proud of that. As far as March issue, the response was overwhelmingly positive. This relaunch is unprecedented in Playboy’s 60-plus years. I don’t know if any magazine has done anything as crazy as this. Not being classified as porn anymore. There was no reason for us to be in a black plastic bag in the back of the newsstand.

FK: What was the setting when this brand strategy was revealed to you?

JR: I started right before Thanksgiving, almost four months. The timing was that I saw the job posting, thought it was a completely insane idea, but sounded a lot like my job at PAPER, then two days before my first interview the [New York] Times article came out, “Nudes Are Old News at Playboy.” That article is about the man who is now my boss, Cory Jones, going to the mansion and having dinner with Hugh Hefner basically saying, “The nudes have got to go.” So I read that article and two days later was in Cory’s office. So that ship had sailed and my interview was about pivoting—comprehending that huge decision. I’ve had a hunch that’s never been confirmed by anyone, but being a more sensitive guy that played in bands, who has an MFA in fiction might’ve helped, and coming from PAPER after such a landmark year helped. All those things contributed to me being where I am now.

FK: Who was your biggest musical influence growing up and who do you see as the most notable artists today?

JR: Well, I can kind of answer both, my favorite band since 15 is Fugazi. Funny story to bring it all full circle: When I was interviewing, at the end of our interview we stood and shook hands and Cory said "KYEO," which is the name of a Fugazi song. And years ago I built a very shitty website, JamesRickman.com (don’t look it up), and across the top I wrote “KYEO,” which stands for keep your eyes open. Turned out Cory was a big Fugazi fan too. I sometimes wonder if Cory stumbled across that website and saw I’m a Fugazi fan.

 


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James Rickman is an MFA Creative Writing (Fiction) alum and currently Senior Editor at Playboy. He was previously an editor at Paper. He tweets at @jhrickman.

headshot7Fagan Kuhnmuench is an MFA Creative Writing (Fiction) candidate and a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He did his undergrad at the University of Washington. He is currently working on a darkly comedic novel that explores gentrification, writer's block, and consumerism through the lens of the burgeoning New York Hardcore punk/ skinhead scene. He is also an illustrator and works on videos for his site gnarlyheadache.com.

About The Author

Founded in Greenwich Village in 1931, Creative Writing at The New School continues to promote, engender, and shape innovative literature.