Alumnus Matthew Rettenmund makes it big at Popstar!
To this day, I think if you believe something, you should believe it wholeheartedly and without compromise unless you convincingly prove yourself wrong.”
A true child of the ’80s, Matthew Rettenmund grew up outside Flint, Mich., listening to Blondie albums rescued from a second-hand record shop.
“I memorized all of Blondie’s songs,” he remembers, “and I pined for concerts I had missed by having the misfortune of being born too late.”
His Uncommon Application to the University discussed how The Breakfast Club, with its David Bowie quotes and Talking Heads anthems, was “the piece of art that most affected my life.”
Thanks to a part-time student job with a Chicago publisher, Rettenmund was able to combine his interests into a career. Rettenmund, AB’91, is now an editor and makes his living chronicling the teeny-boppers of the pop music world.
His brainchild, Popstar!, was the first teen magazine in the United States to be published on full-color, glossy paper. As the first magazine to give Hilary Duff a full cover, Popstar! helped spark the bubblegum-pop star’s rise to fame, blazing the trail for such sensations as Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers. Popstar! grew along with them to a circulation of more than 260,000.
It’s a far cry from the labyrinthine journey of his first novel, which Rettenmund started during his undergraduate days as an English concentrator at the University.
What began as a short story in the autumn 1989 issue of the now-defunct Gratuitous U of C B&W Art took on many incarnations: a senior thesis called “True Confessions of a Working Boy” a critically acclaimed debut novel, Boy Culture; and, finally, the 2006 film based on the book, which has since been translated into Spanish, French, German, and Dutch.
While he admits he struggled to stay focused on the Core curriculum, the University contributed to his future success by guiding him toward his chosen field.
While searching for a part-time job as a freshman, he found a listing for Jane Jordan Browne’s Multimedia Product Development, Inc. (now known as Browne & Miller Literary Associates). Rettenmund’s experience with Browne proved “invaluable,” especially considering the alternative—“handing out towels at the gym.”
Under Browne’s tutelage, Rettenmund became so heavily involved in the creative process that his first post-graduation job as an entry-level editorial assistant at St. Martin’s Press was anticlimactic. Nonetheless, he settled in New York City, where he lives today.
Fortunately, the University—in particular, creative writing professor Richard Stern—had taught Rettenmund to persevere. “Stern was funny to me because we were all scared to death of him,” Rettenmund says of the Helen A. Regenstein Professor Emeritus in English Language & Literature. Rettenmund says that although Stern dismissed one of his short stories “out of hand,” he liked the story that would become Boy Culture.
Rettenmund knew better than to be offended by Stern’s straightforward manner. “I liked that and found it inspiring,” he continues. “To this day, I think if you believe something, you should believe it wholeheartedly and without compromise unless you convincingly prove yourself wrong.”
The lesson would serve him well in the cutthroat world of publishing.
Rettenmund’s second work of fiction, Blind Items: A (Love) Story, wouldn’t match Boy Culture’s critical or commercial success. Even his “crazy, obsessive/compulsive” Encyclopedia Madonnica failed to connect with its most obvious audience: the Material Girl herself. “When my book came out, one of her publicists had me sign one to her, and had her sign one to me. I got hers back a year later!”
He also compiled a fun trivia book called Totally Awesome ’80s. He completed celebrity one-shot titles on Leonardo DiCaprio and Princess Diana and even churned out a biography, Hilary Duff: All Access, after befriending the Disney star and her family. “It was a quick effort,” he recalls, “maybe two months while still working full-time during the days.”
Although he devotes most of his time to the magazine, Rettenmund writes a lot online and still aspires to bigger things, much as he did at the University.
“There is more to life than the mind, and there is more life in my mind now than when I was young and slumped under a stack of required texts,” Rettenmund says. “But in all seriousness, I always knew I would be an editor or writer or artist, and never planned to be an academic. I do have a personal blog, which allows me to analyze everything under the sun in a way that would make my professors proud.”
Originally published on November 17, 2008.