It’s time for the latest edition of The Fury Files, WordPress’s third-most popular Q&A, even though I still can’t quite decide if I should capitalize “The” before Fury Files. Check out previous interviews with Tom Linnemann, John Millea, David Brauer, Joe Posnanski and Pat Coleman.
This week’s guest is Kevin Van Valkenburg, who is, according to his Twitter profile, a “Scribbler by trade. Montanan by birth. Baltimorian by marriage. Baltimore Sun feature writer at the moment.” He’s also one of the best writers in the business.
Van Valkenburg arrived in Baltimore shortly after graduating from the University of Montana in 2000. A Missoula, Mont., native, Van Valkenburg’s writing has earned him numerous awards, including four honors from the Associated Press Sports Editors. A 2004 story he wrote – “Rayna’s Second Season” – was honored in the 2005 edition of The Best American Sportswriting (Here’s Part 1. And Part 2.). The profile told the story of former Virginia Tech basketball player Rayna DuBose, who suffered devastating injuries after being afflicted with meningococcal meningitis.
Van Valkenburg can write in any style – short or long, in print or online. He dissects Ravens games for the Sun with the skill of a seasoned football analyst. He’s a funny blogger who can write about Project Runway but also pen poignant pieces on everything from playing golf with his dad, to taking a memorable road trip with former Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen. But he’s at his best when writing long features, where his reporting and writing skills truly shine. Van Valkenburg also isn’t limited to the pages of the Baltimore Sun. Earlier this year, he wrote a piece for a blog run by Esquire writer Chris Jones, where Van Valkenburg looked back on a memorable night at Elaine’s, the once-legendary, now-closed New York restaurant that was always home to actors, artists, editors and writers.
He’s also a bit of a dreamer, a romantic when it comes to the art of writing, whether you’re talking novels or nonfiction, newspapers or magazines. I could listen to him talk about writing for hours. Here, he writes about writing for thousands of words and I couldn’t be happier.
Van Valkenburg played football at the University of Montana, where his mom, Carol, a former reporter herself, served as a distinguished journalism professor. His dad, Fred, is the Missoula County Attorney. Read below to find out why Kevin became a writer and not a lawyer.
Perhaps most importantly, Van Valkenburg is a Lakers fan.
Here, Kevin talks about growing up with an editor mom, life as a college football player, literary heroes, leaving Montana and living in Baltimore, his story that made it into the Best American Sportswriting book, The Wire, David Stern’s ego, the writing life and much more. Thanks a lot for your time, Kevin.
You grew up with a mom who was a journalist and professor and a lawyer dad. You followed mom when it came to your career and you’ve written before that you romanced the writing life from the time you were 15. A few questions about growing up in that environment and how it shaped your career:
Was there ever a time when you thought you’d follow your dad’s footsteps into law?
I have a very specific memory, in college, of sitting in my bedroom with a college girlfriend and planning out the next few years of my life. After I was done playing football, I was going to apply to law school because it was a stable job that would allow us to live a comfortable life. I didn’t have any particular passion for the law, I just figured it was my responsibility — as a man — to do something practical. At that point, I’d honestly never given much thought to leaving Montana. Of course, that girl kind of broke my heart and the only way I could deal with it was to write about it. I don’t think I would have been a particularly great lawyer, but those kind of “What ifs?” in life have always fascinated me. My dad is a big believer in public service. He was in the Montana State Senate for 20 years, and has been a prosecutor for almost 30 years. At one point, he was really close to running for Congress.
He obviously shaped my idea of what it means to be a man, and even though he never said it explicitly, I’ve always believed one of the most important things he taught me was how important it is to be the kind of person who is part of something bigger than himself. When I briefly envisioned becoming a lawyer, I was contemplating doing it for all the wrong reasons, for financial security. I think it would have been an empty existence. That might sound a little silly, considering I ultimately decided to write about sports, and there is nothing more commercial or immaterial than professional sports (at least on the surface), but I think as a storyteller, I’ve tried to choose subjects that represent larger themes, the kind of themes that matter to me.
Of all the stories I’ve written during my 11 years at the Sun, this five-part serial narrative about a football team in West Baltimore, and the coach’s quest to use football to shape and rebuild a community, was the most rewarding. I wrote in part because I wanted people in the suburbs to understand the kids in West Baltimore were a lot like their own kids. It happened during an election year, when we had two candidates running for governor arguing over just how bad the city school system was. They kept focusing on numbers like test scores and funding. I felt like I found an example that humanized how one person really could make a difference. The lead to that story is, “It’s Monday morning at Edmondson High School in Baltimore, and young men’s lives are at stake.” And I really believe that’s true. I’ll probably never be the kind of person who runs for office, but I can still help illuminate those who do, and the people who elect them. I think the art of telling stories really is important when we talk about what the word community really means.
Now, I’ve written plenty of garbage too. I once staked out the Orioles player parking lot for three hours so I could ask Sammy Sosa about an abscess on his foot, and when he might return from the DL. He knew I was waiting for him, and he refused to come out. It was the most childish game of chicken I’ve ever engaged in. When he finally did emerge, he put his hand in my face and tried to push me out of his way. There was nothing redeeming or noble about that day at work. But you learn to pick your spots. You tell yourself what you’re doing has deeper meaning when it’s warranted.
Did you go to the University of Montana because you had the chance to play football or because it was the home university and mom worked there?
I primarily went there to play football. I grew up five blocks from the University of Montana, attending football camp every year from about sixth grade through high school, dreaming of running out of the tunnel and into Washington Grizzly Stadium. It’s obviously not Ohio State or Nebraska or anything like it in terms of size, but as far as Division I-AA schools go, it’s an elite program. (Two of my college roommates and closest friends ended up playing professionally, one in the CFL and the other in the NFL for several years.) It’s pretty easy to fall under the spell of Grizzly athletics when you grow up going to every game as a kid. The closest city with a professional sports franchise is 500 miles away, so Grizzly football was a huge deal in my world.
I wasn’t a highly sought after recruit. Not by any means. But as a high school senior, I was one of the best players in the state of Montana — whatever that means — and thus I got the opportunity to be a part of the program for awhile. My decision to go probably wasn’t hurt by the fact that I had private ambitions of becoming a writer, and my mom happened to be on the journalism faculty. But if I’m being completely honest, I would say that all I wanted at age 18 was to be a Grizzly linebacker. That decision shaped me in ways I wouldn’t realize for many years.
And the tough questions: Are you a better writer than your mom? And when she reads your stories now, does she read with an editor’s eye or a mom’s heart?
I think, at this point, it’s fair to say yes. I’m pretty confident she would agree. (She loves me, after all.) Her strength has always been editing. She’s a great editor, and even though she officially retired this week, she’ll continue to be one. But I’ve coughed up a couple million words for public consumption in the last 11 years, and that’s sharpened my storytelling a bit. Again, if I’m going to be completely honest with myself, I have to admit I was not a particularly good writer when I joined the staff of my college newspaper, the Montana Kaimin. I had read a ton of Sports Illustrated pieces growing up, and so I think I understood what a good story should sound like, but I was pretty pedestrian in terms of execution. I wrote a lot of stuff that reads like a young eager fool doing a bad Gary Smith parody. It makes me cringe, looking back. I think writing, as much as we romanticize it, is still a craft. Most of us need to attempt it — and fail, sometimes miserably — hundreds of times before realizing what our strengths are. My mom is still a brilliant line editor. She sends me helpful critiques from time to time, but newspaper journalism can be such a frustrating endeavor, she mostly sends support and encouragement.
How long did you play football at Montana and when did you realize it was time to quit? And, seeing that you’re still running around with old guys out on a field during your spare time, do you ever regret the decision?
I played for two years. The decision to give it up was extremely difficult, and I definitely still have pangs of regret. I worked extremely hard my second year to get in peak physical condition. I took Creatine daily, I ran like crazy, I lifted weights twice a day. At age 19, I got to the point where I could bench 350 pounds and rep 225 more than 20 times. (I’m confident I could do exactly zero reps if I tried today.) I wanted to believe all the sports fairy tales that convinced me I could overcome my lack of foot speed with instincts and hard work.
But then I injured my shoulder and had to stop lifting for six weeks. I met with my position coach and he told me, quite bluntly, that he knew I’d been working hard, but he’d have to evaluate me essentially “as is” during spring ball. And on some level, I understood. It wasn’t like I was a big-time recruit. If I left, Montana was going to give my meager reps to someone bigger and faster and healthier. It was a business. If I was four inches taller or .3 seconds faster, I would have had more leverage. But because the realistic projection for me was as a back-up (at best) and a special teams guy, they weren’t going to lose sleep over whether I played or not. I started falling asleep in class because I was up all night doing homework that I couldn’t do when I was at practice or in meetings. A girl I adored was slowly breaking my heart, which led to general mopey behavior. I had applied for a job working on the student newspaper, and I felt like I had to make a choice between school and football.
When I told my coach I thought it was in everyone’s best interest that I quit, he nodded, gave me a manly hug, and I walked out of his office and wept in my car for 20 minutes. I’m not bitter about it — I think the coach was a great guy who wished I was more talented — but I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t stick around to prove I could play. Because I loved the game, and I still love it today. I still have dreams every few months that that I go back and play. I’ve always thought it would make a fun book, a 33-year-old guy foolishly chasing one more year of college football, for reasons he can’t completely explain.
On your Sun bio, you write that when you were hired by the paper after graduation, you “set off on a cross country drive that changed the course of my life.” When you made the drive, did you think you’d still be an East Coaster 11 years later or did you always see yourself as a Montana boy, or at least a Westerner? And how did those first few months on the job – when you covered crime from the city desk – shape the type of writer and reporter you are now?
When I graduated from college, I’m not really sure what my expectations were. But I certainly didn’t imagine I’d still be on the East Coast 11 years later. Being from Montana — from the West — has always been a very important part of my identity. I’ve always been fond of what Norman MacLean wrote in “A River Runs Through It”: … the world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the farther one gets from Missoula, Montana.
I have no problem admitting I was terrified when I left for Baltimore. I’d gone to college five blocks from where I grew up, and I’d never been thrust into the world, alone, and forced to be a man. Everything about me then — my taste in music, my wardrobe, my view of the world — was naive. I stuffed everything I could into my green Mazda, printed out some general directions from MapQuest, and headed East. I remember how surreal it felt to drive for days and eventually see a sign welcoming me to Chicago. I think I listened to the Marshall Mathers LP approximately 200 times along the way, along with The Chronic: 2001 and Garth Brooks’ Greatest Hits album. In Bismarck, North Dakota, weary of cowboys and gangsters, I bought a Good Charlotte CD, and listened to it on repeat for another 300 miles, which is funny because years later Benji Madden wrote to one of my editors at the Sun to complain about the way I’d taken a shot at the band in a humor piece I did about watching Project Runway. (I called them a “homeless man’s Green Day.”) I remember I drove through a tornado in the middle of Western Minnesota on my way to Baltimore. I did a lot of thinking on the open road about what people would say about me if I turned around in Ohio and drove home. Eventually, I convinced myself I could survive for two years in Baltimore, and there would be no shame if I then parlayed that experience into a job in Portland, Seattle or someplace out West. A year and a half later, my college girlfriend and I mutually decided to mercy kill our long-distance relationship, and two months after that, I met my wife, Jen. That was a decade ago.
My college friends and I joke that we joined newspapers right about the time the Dead Tree Empire started to decline, but no one had realized it yet. When the Sun recruiter called to tell me the paper wanted to interview me, she bought me a first class plane ticket to Baltimore. When she was booking it, she asked if I had any family on the East Coast I wanted to visit while I was there. Somewhat confused, I told her my sister was a freshman at Colgate University in upstate New York. She then booked a ticket that flew me from Missoula to Baltimore to Syracuse, then back to Missoula. It was like getting wined and dined by a football program like USC or Nebraska. They paid for another flight to Baltimore months later so I could look for an apartment. They paid my moving expenses. They had 10 of the paper’s youngest reporters take me out for a fancy dinner and the paper picked up the entire tab. It was a crazy time in newspapers. My first year at the paper, I believe we had 10 foreign bureaus and sent someone to every NCAA Tournament first round site. A few years prior to my arrival, the Sun caused a big stir in the journalism world by sending two reporters to Africa to literally purchase two slaves that the paper then “freed” and so we could write a story about how the slave trade still existed.
Meanwhile, at places like the New York Times they had a regular practice of what they called “toe touch” datelines. They’d do all the reporting and writing on a story from New York, then book a flight to, say, New Orleans, and as soon as it would land, they’d turn around and come home. But it would allow them, ethically, to put a dateline on the story so that it said NEW ORLEANS.
These days at the Sun, we have 300 fewer people in our newsroom than we did when I arrived, and I felt blessed (and a little surprised) the other day when I learned the Sun still buys batteries reporters can use in their digital recorders. It’s been quite a change.
Those initial months on the crime beat numbed me in a lot of ways. I went to the scene of a triple homicide. I sat on the porch of a family whose 13-year-old son had been shot. I wrote about a man who kidnapped a woman, beheaded her, dumped her body (but not head) in a construction site, drove around the city of Baltimore in her truck (her head on the seat next to him), then tossed her head in a dumpster the next day. The police arrested him at work the next day. He was a security guard at a bank.
I wrote a long narrative about a 16-year-old girl who committed suicide by walking off the roof of a downtown parking garage. Her name was Robin, and her mom, Jackie, let me read her poetry. I wove her prose into a story about her struggle with depression, and what it was like to be a bookish teenager trying to cope with the bleakness of the world. When the story ran, her mom asked me to come to the house. We both teared up a bit, standing on her front lawn, looking at a picture of Robin.
Jackie said she felt like she didn’t have to explain herself to people anymore, even family members, because she could simply hand them my story and say: This is what happened. This is my daughter’s story. The weight of those words has always stuck with me.
There are a few well-known writers who also played college football. Jason Whitlock, Rick Telander, John Ed Bradley, among others. A popular – although boring – complaint against sportswriters often is “they never played the game.” But as someone who did play at a pretty high level, do you feel that gives you any special insight, whether it comes to profiles or on-field analysis?
I think it offers some insight, because I know what it’s like to be in a locker room, to live and breathe football, to have love for some of your teammates, disdain for others. (Coaches too.) Sometimes it’s just a way to open a door a tiny bit, to make someone feel like you can relate to their experiences. I was talking to Ravens coach John Harbaugh earlier this season about his dad, Jack, who coached at Western Kentucky. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I had played at Montana. With most NFL coaches, I don’t know that I would bring that up. If your background is USC or Michigan or Miami, a I-AA program like Montana probably doesn’t mean much. It would be like writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and then saying to Phillip Roth, “You know, I’m also a novelist.” But because Jack Harbaugh coached at Western Kentucky and won a I-AA national championship there, I figured it might signal to John that I understood, on some level, what it was like to be part of what I like to think of as The Church of Football. And I was right, it did get him to open up to me a bit more.
Ultimately it doesn’t mean much if you can’t ask the right questions and eloquently convey whatever insights you might have. I think Telander and Bradley and Whitlock have always used it to inform their writing, not carry it. I want to believe the fact that I played, combined with whatever brain cells I held onto, helps me write about football in an analytical, intelligent way, but I guess ultimately that’s for readers to decide. It just bugs me when people suggest that football fans are all meat and potatoes neanderthals. Football is way too popular to draw any broad conclusions about what kind of people follow the sport, or what they want in their coverage.
By the way, has any athlete-turned-writer ever written more compelling stuff than Pat Jordan? I recognized a lot of myself in A False Spring.
How did the Five Things We Learned with the Ravens games come about? Was it your idea, an editor’s? It seems like it’s become a popular feature; what’s been the feedback from readers?
It’s hard to explain any of this without coming off poorly, but I’m going to try. It was my idea. I was at a Ravens/Bengals game two years ago and I just decided when it was over that I was going to bang out five thoughts and add them to our Ravens Insider blog.
High Fidelity has always been one of my favorite books, so I’ve always loved Top 5 lists. My first year in Baltimore, when I didn’t have any friends, I would trade emails back and forth with college buddies in that format. Five Jobs You Would Pursue If Money Were No Factor. Five Songs You’d Want On The Soundtrack To Your Life. Five Women You Wish You Could Marry. People are almost always more willing to read longer stuff on the Internet if it is numbered. If you’re bored with a particular point, it’s pretty easy to just skip to the next one.
I have to say it did not get a lot of support from the paper — at least initially. But I hope there is a lesson here, even if telling it makes me sound like I lack humility. Five Things was considered something I could do on my own, in my free time, but it would not count as “working” even if I spent five hours writing it. It was fine if I wanted to “play columnist” on the Internet, but I was told, more or less, that it could never run in the paper. I’m just not what the Sun wants for a sports columnist. Now, the Sun has given me some incredible opportunities over the years. I owe the institution a great deal. They’ve sent me to China, to Australia, to the Dominican Republic. They’ve given me months (and months) to write stories at a time when that feels like an absurd luxury. I have worked hard in return, and while my track record isn’t perfect, I think it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship for 11 years. They just don’t see me as a columnist, and I don’t think they ever will. Which leads to some frustration, but I think that’s natural. I’ve spent a few years longing to be the Joe Posnanski of Baltimore. I’m not as good as he is, but I’d at least like to try. When you don’t get that opportunity after years and years, you start to question if it’s because you’re just not good enough.
Five Things sort of spread through word of mouth. In the beginning, we didn’t promote it much on the web site. The link was actually kind of hard to find. But I had a dedicated group of readers, and they’d email the link around, post it on their Facebook pages, and slowly, the audience grew. I’d wander into the comment section and answer questions and defend myself (or admit when I was wrong) and people kind of dug the back and forth. For a long time, our blogging software couldn’t identify how many people clicked on the individual link for the column. Whatever numbers it was getting were simply folded into our very popular Ravens blog. But week after week, my stuff was generating a ton of comments. This year, we upgraded to a different kind of blogging software, and when the first batch of numbers came in, it turned out more people were reading Five Things than anything in the entire paper. Most weeks, it was doubling (and sometimes tripling) the readership of the second most-read story. News, features, everything.
It actually made me appreciate Bill Simmons’ career in ways I previously had not, to be honest. I don’t care what you think about his work, the man busted his ass to get where he is. He made his own luck. He wrote in a way his gut told him would resonate with people, and he refused to listen when editors in the newspaper world said, “That’s not how it’s done. Wait your turn. Do it our way.” That’s the lesson I think a lot of young writers who say they were inspired by Simmons don’t internalize enough. Sometimes, you have to work really hard and go outside standard conventions to prove yourself. The typical career path doesn’t work for everyone. A lot of the people Simmons hired to write for Grantland are self-made writers, people who found their voice (at least initially) by doing something (a blog, a book) outside the structure of the corporate cocoon, and I completely understand why he went that route. I wish I’d had the foresight and courage to find my voice sooner.
When I talk to journalism classes, and kids say to me “There are no jobs out there, but I really want to be a writer! What should I do?” I try to stress to them, “No one is stopping you from writing a really intelligent, interesting blog. Or book. It could be about sports or politics or music or anything you want. You might miss out on sleep, or time with your friends, but the most important thing you need to do is write constantly. Don’t wait for your break to come. Make your own luck, or exhaust yourself trying. And you can’t just do good work and expect people will notice. You have get your work in front of people who matter. You have to be bold, even if you risk embarrassment trying.”
These days, I’ll cover a lot of games that end at midnight, and I’ll file a sidebar for the paper, then I’ll stay up until 6 a.m. to write Five Things just because I know now there are people out there who are interested in reading it. I stress a lot over it. We’ve gone to a digital subscription model for our website, so I feel like I want to make every reader feel like he’s getting something of value if he’s clicking on something I’m writing, especially if it’s not running in the paper. Occasionally — not often, but sometimes — I’ll get emails from Ravens fans who are soldiers serving in Afghanistan, and sometimes they’ll tell me the column helps them feel connected to home. That makes every hour I’ve spent doing it feel like it’s worth it.
A few years ago you first told me about a night you had at Elaine’s, when you joined writers such as Jeff MacGregor, Chris Jones, Charlie Pierce and Wright Thompson in remembering the late W.C. Heinz. I’ve been jealous ever since. You then wrote the superb piece about that evening for Jones’ blog. Perhaps the main thing from the story that sticks with me is how you hesitated about even walking in the door. You first lingered at a nearby bar, debating whether to walk over to Elaine’s. I think that just speaks to a lot of the fears, perhaps insecurities, so many writers have, even someone as accomplished as yourself. Aside from the personal relationships that formed that night, how has that night influenced you as a writer? Would you now not have any hesitation about entering the joint? Did just being around those guys boost your confidence, even though the only stories that night were spoken, and not written?
I’ve heard so many cliches from athletes over the years, my brain tends to go a little numb whenever I hear one. But the one cliche I connect with every single time is when an athlete says something to the effect of “I want to prove that I belong here.” Because they’re not talking about money or job security or fame. They’re really talking about pride, about earning the respect of the people who share their obsessions.
To me, the desire to feel like you belong if you’re sitting in a room with some of your heroes is one of the most powerful human emotions there is. I think it happens frequently with musicians. One of my favorite artists, Jason Isbell, mentioned the other night on Twitter that it was completely surreal for him to be playing on the same bill (and briefly, the same stage) as John Prine, one of his heroes. Unless you’re a supremely confident person, I think there is always going to be a moment of doubt when you’re in certain circles and you wonder “What if the people whose art I unequivocally admire secretly think I’m a hack?” Music, writing, art — they’re all subjective, ultimately. But sometimes I think we all want someone, whether it’s a peer or a reader, to nod their head and say: Hey, you belong.
That might not be a cool thing to admit, but I’m comfortable admitting it.
That’s where my hesitation came from that night. It’s just the way I’m wired, I guess. I’m even feeling some of it now, answering these questions, because in my head I’m imagining Tom Scocca accidentally stumbling upon what smells suspiciously like another wistful ode to Elaine’s and thinking to himself: “Who the fuck is Kevin Van Valkenburg, and in what fantasy world is he living in where he thinks he’s qualified to talk about writing?” And if he said that, I’d probably mope for a day because I think Tom Scocca is a really good writer. (I’ll admit that even though he did start a bizarre and, in my opinion, misguided feud with Jones, who is one of my closest friends. I read Scocca all the time when he wrote for the Baltimore City Paper.)
Ultimately, aside from the friendships, what I took away from that night is something I touched on in the piece for Jones’ blog: My goal shouldn’t be to try and write like Chris Jones or Wright Thompson or Charlie Pierce or Jeff MacGregor. My goal should be to maximize my own meager gifts, whatever they are. Bill Heinz understood he wasn’t Ernest Hemingway. But he still wrote beautiful stories. He obsessed over how to arrange words so they sounded like music, just like Hemingway.
You know who else does that? MacGregor. Pierce. Jones. Thompson. Countless others.
Including, frequently, me.
I don’t know that I’m more confident because of that night. I feel lucky that four people whose work I admire and frequently obsess over consider me a friend. Jeff has mentored me about writing and life in ways I could never repay him for. He’s literally one of the kindest, smartest men I’ve ever met. Chris has opened doors for me, embraced me like a brother, and convinced me to believe I belong. Wright has taught me how important it is to swing from the heels, and to hell with anyone who mocks you for doing so, because most of the time, they don’t have the courage to pick up a bat in the first place. Charlie has shown me how important it is be cynical and fearless, but also remain hopeful, and never grow bitter.
I think obsessives tend to embrace one another, because it’s all we have: each other. Think about what a tiny world narrative journalism is, and then what an even smaller subsect narrative sports journalism is. I graduated in a class of 300, and I bet if you polled the kids I went to high school with, there might be two of them (at most) who could tell you who Charlie Pierce is. But for me — and he’d cuff me on the head for saying this, but I’ll say it anyway — meeting Charlie for the first time was like getting invited to play handball with Zeus. (I’m shamelessly stealing that from the title of an old Esquire feature about playing golf with Arnold Palmer.) In the end, they’re just a group of dudes, not gods. But that’s how powerful the written word is to people who obsess over it.
And in the end, what I think gets lost is that we paid tribute to a really good man that night. We showed Heinz’s family that writers from all walks of life, writers with varying degrees of talent, owed him a debt. And what greater gift could a man ask for, in death, than for his passing to give birth to new friendships? That we held his wake at Elaine’s mattered only a little. We could have held it in the subway and I think we would have felt the same.
I’ve been blessed to make a lot of friends in journalism, and many of them are better writers than I’ll ever be. Sometimes, I wish I could have brought them along that night to share that experience with me. But I also like the fact that it was my own, too.
Better chance of happening? Tiger Woods wins a 19th major to break Jack’s mark, Kobe Bryant wins two more championships and passes Michael Jordan with seven NBA titles.
It’s funny, when you originally sent this to me, word was about to break that Chris Paul had just been traded to the Lakers. My first reaction was that I was really sad to see Pau Gasol go, because he’s really grown on me with time. I’ll never forget the way he stood tall and carried the Lakers in Game 7 against the Celtics in 2010. (I also loved the fact that Phil Jackson bought him Roberto Bolano’s masterpiece 2066, and Gasol actually read it. I frequently picture Vanessa Bryant demanding Bryant throw out all the books Jackson has given him over the years if he’s not going to read them.) But my next reaction to getting Paul was shameless glee. I really wanted to see Kobe play with the best point guard of his generation. Adding Dwight Howard at that point seemed like a formality.
Of course, David Stern pulled one of the most ridiculous weasel moves of all time, suddenly declaring it wasn’t in the best interest of the league, perhaps in part because a sub-prime mortgage lender whined in another Comic Sans email about the unfairness of it all. I think that might have been Kobe’s best shot, and Stern’s ego flushed it down the drain. I’m still waiting for the whiny email to surface where Michael Jordan convinces Stern he can’t let Kobe play with Paul and Howard because it would threaten his legacy. (Although now that I think it through, Jordan would just have David Faulk write the letter.) At least Paul didn’t end up playing for a team run by an openly racist loon. Wait … what’s that? He did end up playing for the worst owner in sports? Well, I’m sure that will work out great. I’m already envisioning him throwing a lob to Blake Griffin where they both simultaneously tear their Achilles.
My feelings about Tiger have remained steady for about five years. I don’t mind if he breaks Nicklaus’ record. In fact, I’ll be rooting for him to do it as he gets closer, just because I’d love to be a witness to it all. I’m just tired of this rush to anoint him the Greatest Player of All Time before he actually does it. I like the journey. There is a nobility in the struggle that I admire in athletes who can’t do the things they once could. That’s what I like watching. I don’t know that he’ll get there, to be honest. As Joe Posnanski has written several times, winning five majors is like having a whole new career, starting at age 35 with a bad knee. Byron Nelson only won five majors his entire career. Guys who lose their putting stroke in their 30s have a hard time getting it back.
What I’d love to see, and I think eventually we will see it, is the 43-year-old Tiger Woods. The guy who has grey hair, a bit of a paunch, the guy who has been written off for five years. And one weekend in Georgia, he has two magical rounds with the putter that put him in contention. And then the whole world is pulling for him. The trees start shaking at Augusta National, David Feherty is hyperventilating, Wright Thompson is sweating through his linen suit, and it’s like someone turned back the calender 20 years as Woods marches down the 13th fairway toward a makeable eagle putt. We’ll have enough distance between all the Perkins waitresses and fire hydrants that we can tell our kids what it used to feel like to watch him do this regularly, and not even think about the other stuff. What made Nicklaus’ sixth green jacket so memorable was that it was a heroic charge when you least expected it. It felt like he was conjuring up magic one last time.
As a Wire expert and fanatic, what was it like watching the final season, which focused on a fictional Baltimore Sun? Did David Simon capture what newspapers were like in 2008? Did he capture what life was like at the real Sun? And were you able to appreciate the overall novelistic themes of that season in the same way you did the first four, or was that more difficult because you were perhaps focusing more on the smaller details that focused on the paper?
My answer here is going to be long and rambling (a surprise, I’m sure), but here goes. Calling it strange barely scratches the surface of the way it felt. Six months before shooting began, people from the show came to the newsroom and took photos of our desks — we were asked not to clean them — so the HBO set people could try to capture the realism of what the Sun really looked like. And to be honest, they nailed that stuff. It was surreal. It literally looked like our newsroom. Not an identical twin, but a fraternal twin, easily.
Throw in the fact that some of the extras on the show were literally former Sun employees I’d worked with for years, and it was unsettling to say the least. I don’t know how many people know this, but the Scott Templeton character is literally based on a real reporter. He worked there when I did. One of my friends caught him trying to make stuff up first-hand. I was just a cub reporter, barely cutting my teeth on crime stories when it was playing out, but the whole newsroom was divided on how frequently he cooked his stories. That debate was real.
Sometimes — despite my love of good television, my interest in television criticism as an art, and my total devotion to The Wire — I think I’m not capable of stepping back and giving Season 5 a fair assessment. Two of my good friends, Rick Maese and Childs Walker, would discuss it weekly as it was airing, and it wasn’t nearly as fun as the previous seasons. It was so hard to remind ourselves, “Hey, this is a fictional story. It’s not trying to be a documentary.” Because as a fictional story it’s still really good. But I think it did a better job of capturing what the Sun was probably like in 1996, the year Simon left the paper, not what it was like in 2008.
Maybe that element didn’t matter in the story he was trying to tell. I think Simon is brilliant, so I don’t want to be critical of him. Simon said in several interviews he could have included a 10-second scene where someone clicked on baltimoresun.com and scratched their nuts and that would have said all he wanted to say about the Internet. That’s why he didn’t include it, and who am I to criticize that? But that’s one reason why elements of Season 5 felt tonally off to those of us who were still there. (Again, that was before we forced ourselves to remember it was not a documentary, even though it was depicting many real-life events.) By 2008, the web had changed our jobs so significantly, and the people in charge were so far removed from the editors that Simon hated, it just felt weird. It felt like he was kind of tilting at windmills. If what was going on at the Sun in 1996 made him livid, I can’t even wrap my head around what he’d think of things now if he was still here.
Now, it gets a ton of stuff right about the Sun. It’s probably the most accurate depiction ever of what it’s like to work at a major newspaper. Certain reporters get punished for stupid reasons, editors who stand up and fight for what they think is right sometimes get fired or relegated to the copy desk. Older reporters with years of experience get forced out the door, or take buyouts because they’re sick of the b.s. But in every other season, what made The Wire brilliant was the characters all had shades of gray. In Season 5, the paper’s top editors, Whiting and Klebanow, are just the bad guys. That doesn’t square with what I know about the two men those characters were “inspired” by. But I still believe The Wire is one of the greatest works of art made in this century. I really believe that.
It’s funny though, I was talking to a Baltimore City police officer once at a party about some of my issues with Season 5. He was dating one of my friends, and we got to talking about The Wire. I tried to explain why I liked the previous four seasons more than Season 5, and he just started laughing and laughing. “So now that the show is about newspapers, NOW is when you complain it doesn’t accurately depict reality? But when it spent four seasons telling stories about charismatic gangsters and drunken genius police officers, that was when it was the only show brave enough to tell the truth?”
I have to admit, he made a pretty strong point. We celebrated the “realness” of The Wire until it was about us. Then we realized the whole show had elements of truth, but it was still a fictional story. There is some symmetry with Tim O’Brien’s idea of “truth” vs. “story truth,” I guess.
Name five longform magazine piece you’ve read more than five times.
1. The Hit King by Scott Raab (GQ) — I wish this piece was online, because the final page contains probably my favorite ending to any magazine story ever. It’s Raab profiling Pete Rose, shining a flashlight on all his warts and insecurities. Raab has written so many good things about Cleveland, but when he gets Rose to tell the story of the way he ruined Ray Fosse’s career, he drops a line that’s stuck with me forever. I won’t ruin it in case someone out there has never read the piece (it’s in the 1998 edition of BASW, I believe) but it’s probably my favorite kicker of all time.
2. Muddied But Unbowed by Jeff MacGregor (Sports Illustrated) — This should really be called 32 Short Essays about Keyshawn Johnson, because that’s what it is. It’s a profile that’s unlike any I’ve ever read. I love MacGregor’s powers of description. There is so much rich detail, and it’s written with such short, beautiful sentences. A lot of MacGregor fans prefer Let Us Now Raze Famous Men or Snakes Alive but I just love the way he wrote about Keyshawn living in the moment. I read this constantly for inspiration.
3. The Passion of Tiger Woods by Chris Jones (Esquire) — This piece is one of my favorites for a couple of reasons, the first one being that Chris managed to paint a portrait of Woods’ true character without any cooperation what-so-ever from Woods. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s beautiful and it’s compelling. I’m a big fan of Pierce’s “The Man. Amen” and even Gary Smith’s “The Chosen One.” But this story is my favorite thing ever written about Woods, maybe the most chronicled athlete other than Ali and Jordan.
4. The Vietnam in Me by Tim O’Brien (New York Times Magazine) — No writer has influenced me more than O’Brien, and other than The Things They Carried, this is my favorite thing he’s ever written. I love the way it juxtaposes war and heartbreak. The whole thing is so haunting. I think the first time I read it, back in college, I was going through a break-up and was kind of obsessed with Vietnam, and it worked its way into my DNA and never let go. I met O’Brien once, at a reading on the Eastern Shore, and he signed a copy of my first edition copy of The Things They Carried, which was given to me by a girl who kind of broke my heart. (Symmetry!) After he signed my book, we talked for a few minutes and I told him I worked at a newspaper but hoped someday to do some “real” writing. He said the Sun was a very good newspaper, and he was sure I’d do well there. I was more nervous talking to him than I’ve ever been talking to any professional athlete.
5. Roger Federer as Religious Experience by David Foster Wallace (PLAY) — I love this piece more every time I read it. But it also makes me sad, because it’s a reminder of what we lost when Wallace took his own life. I played tennis growing up, was on my high school team, and even managed to win a handful of singles matches my senior year to help my school win our regional. I’ve always been in love with the game. That’s part of the reason this story is like music to me. I was even at the Federer/Agassi match he describes in the beginning. I just love the way Wallace used Federer as a vehicle to comment on how fascinating it is to see someone using artistry to fight off raw strength. I love the way he includes the stuff about the kid with cancer, to remind you that beauty and artistry can’t exist without mortality and death. I know a lot of people think “The String Theory” is actually better, but over the years, this one has surpassed it in my eyes. What can you say, really, about someone who could write lines like this, other than thank you: Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.
Time to name names. Pick one (living) writer – and only one — to pen pieces in the following categories. And, of course, a few words on each choice.
1. A 3,000-word magazine feature on the Kardashian family phenomenon.
I think the easy answer is probably Chuck Klosterman, because he could strip apart the absurdity of the Kardashian phenomenon and offer some interesting insight into fame and our shameless culture. But I think I’m going to go with Hank Stuever of the Washington Post, who I think is one of the smartest people writing about culture and television working today. Stuever can be snarky, but he always knows when to mix it with a dose of tenderness. (Check out his essay about Bob Barker. One of my favorite things to run in a newspaper in years.) I’m already chuckling at the thought of him reviewing the Kim-Ray J sex tape, the Big Bang (literally) that gave birth (not literally) to this whole ridiculous phenomenon.
2. A 1,000-word newspaper column from a Super Bowl that ends with Tim Tebow throwing the game-winning TD with three seconds left, ending the Packers’ hopes of an unbeaten season.
I’m going to bend the rules a bit here and pick Dan Wetzel, even though he’s not in newspapers anymore. I still think if my word count is 1,000 words, he’d pull it off better than pretty much anyone. I just think he’s the best general columnist in the country. He can write about pretty much anything with authority.
3. A 1,500-word essay in Rolling Stone about the magazine’s choice for the best drummer in history, and it can’t be someone who has written the piece the 15 previous times Rolling Stone has run the feature.
I feel like I’m not a great person to ask this one, because I feel like I don’t follow music criticism closely enough. I like a lot of what Noel Murray writes on the Onion AV Club. I guess I’m going to selfishly throw Brian Phillips (Grantland; Run of Play) at this one, because I think he does incredible work with everything he touches. His piece about Patti Smith’s Horses — an album I don’t even like — convinced me I’ll read anything he writes.
That’s a big chunk to bite off, 10,000 words. You can’t fake that. I would definitely want Pierce to do it, because he has such a sharp wit and he’s so good with words. He can be snarky, he can be angry, he can be funny, and no one writes about modern politics the way he does. His work on the Esquire Politics blog lately has been an absolute joy. My friend Eli Saslow of the Washington Post could handle it too, in a completely different way. If I ran The New Yorker, I’d go with Saslow. But Herman Cain is so ripe for comedy and commentary, I think I’d stick with Pierce.5. A definitive Kobe Bryant biography
This, to me, was the hardest one to pick. Because it’s the toughest subject to tackle, and you have to tackle it at a length that’s pretty much impossible if your heart isn’t in it. I’m ultimately going with Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated. I think he’s a wonderful writer, and basketball is in his blood. He’d understand why a Kobe Bryant bio was a worthwhile endeavor, as difficult as it might be. It does seem a little fascinating that no one has really attempted to write one, doesn’t it? We both agree that Kobe isn’t Jordan, but Jordan has had at least three really good books written about him. (The Jordan Rules, Playing for Keeps, When Nothing Else Matters.) I guess that says a lot about the book industry, that publishing houses probably think no one would buy a Bryant biography, so no one is going to spend two years writing for a sack of nickels. Ballard is one of the few people I think might recognize the historical importance.It was so hard to pick just one person for each of those, because I found myself imagining the possibilities for each of them. I’m confident Tommy Craggs and Joe Posnanski could handle every one of these in a fascinating way. And I’d love to see Tim Layden write about Tebow or David Fleming write about Kobe.
Here’s a story you wrote as a college senior: “Not Your Father’s Generation.” Nice piece. But how would the Kevin Van Valkenburg of today – the nearly 34-year-old husband, dad, and award-winning writer – critique it?
Ugh. I’d like to firebomb that piece from the Interwebs. I can hear my screeching insecurities calling out for help when I read those words now. That was written by a kid who couldn’t reconcile the fact that he didn’t apply himself in high school, which ruled out going to a place like Harvard long before he realized that might be something he might want to do. I was trying to say nice things about my school because the alumni magazine was paying me to say something about my generation, but I had no idea how to do it. (Look at me mention diversity! Look at me use a thesaurus!) The fact that I suggested Limp Bizkit could be appreciated on multiple levels means I should be charged with a literary felony. That might not be the most embarrassing part of my Google footprint, but it’s definitely in the conversation. Pardon me while I step away to dry heave up what’s left of my dignity.
In that college piece you mention Tim O’Brien, who is obviously a huge influence on you and your work. When did you first read “The Things They Carried” and did it have an immediate impact? There’s a quote from an O’Brien interview where he says young people “bring such fervor to it that comes from their own lives, really.
The book is…applied to a bad childhood or a broken home. And these are the things they’re carrying.” That explains why some people worship the book, but as someone who seems to have had a happy childhood and didn’t come from a broken home…what are the things you’re carrying?
I read “On the Rainy River” — which is one of the stories in TTTC — in a Creative Writing class the summer between my sophomore and junior years. It was in a collection we had to read. I wasn’t sure what to think, but the final line in it hooked me. “I was a coward. I went to war.” A few nights later, I borrowed the book from my uncle and read the entire thing in one night. I finished it at 5 a.m. I’ve probably read it 10 times since then, maybe more. A couple of the chapters, I’ve read close to 20 times.
To me, it’s not a book about war. It’s a book about storytelling. About memory and love and the power of stories. It asks a question that has a complicated answer: What is truth? Is it about conveying the emotional weight of the story? Or is it about about conveying the facts in an interesting way? And how does changing narrators alter the point of view?
What I carry is the unwavering belief that words can change people’s lives. Because that book changed my life. I feel so strongly about it, and recommended it to so many people so many different times, Chris Jones decided to pick it up, even though he doesn’t typically read fiction, and didn’t even know me at the time. After he read it, he emailed me to say thanks. We became friends as a result, and a few years later, I convinced him to move his family to Missoula for five months to teach at the University of Montana.
Without the book, maybe I never fall in love with writing. And if that’s the case, I never move to Baltimore, and I never meet my wife, who is from Maryland. My daughter is never born. I never meet most of my best friends. The weight of that is with me every time I read “How To Tell A True War Story” or “Speaking of Courage” or “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.”
You’ve had the chance to befriend or meet numerous great writers. But of those you haven’t had the chance to meet, who would be your top choice to sit down with at a bar for two hours, where you’ll spend the time talking writing and life?
S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated would definitely be my top choice. His work, to me, has such an understated grace and elegance. He never over-writes. He never gets in the way of a story. He understands pacing better than any sportswriter working today. I admire his work so much. Sometimes I think it’s not a bad thing that I’ve never met him, because then the praise I heap on his work can’t be misconstrued as me trying to say nice things about a friend, as is often the case with Jones or MacGregor. I’m even a little embarrassed at the thought of him reading this if he has a Google News Alert for his name. If I sat next to him at a bar, it would probably look a lot like Chris Farley’s famous SNL skit where he interviewed Paul McCartney. “Remember when, um, you wrote about the Vecsey brothers? That was awesome.”
Price’s memoir, Far Afield, is one of my favorite books. Check out this section, where he tries to explain what it means to be a sportswriter. When I read this, I wanted to print it out and give it to my family and friends and say, “See this? This is exactly how I feel. This is the best explanation of my job. I could never say it better than this.”
Sportswriters take the ephemera of a few lost hours and, juiced by coffee, adrenaline, and alarmingly deep neuroses, somehow infuse the seemingly unimportant act of hitting a puck, a ball, or a face with a romantic sense of urgency.
Sportswriters are asked how they can waste so much energy on mere games and overgrown boys in short pants, but more often they’re told by those who know no better that theirs is a dream profession. But then, this is only because people care so much about games and boys in short pants. We all know that too much money and time is spent on pro football and soccer, but only popularity separates it from more “dignified” pursuits. Ballet aficionados are just sports fans in formal wear. They, too, are obsessed with a physical act, honed by a manic devotion and years of repetition, transformed by the force of one moment, one crowd, and one serendipitous confluence of circumstances into something beautiful.
If you’re any good as a writer, you’ll be able to grasp and then channel just a bit of that; if you’re really good, you can do it night after night. But now and then you get it all: the dramatic home run, the perfect quote, the most perceptive take on what everyone saw, and then, if you’re even luckier, you see the story clear in your head and get time enough to hammer it into your keyboard. The crowd’s fever, the joy and misery of winners and losers, the running down the musty arena hall to the press room alchemizes into a rhythm in your head and you’re lining it all up, paragraphs gliding off your fingers like freight cars on greasy rails, and when you’re done your stomach is rattling and you’re as high as any drink will get you. You captured time. You bottled passion. It will be gone the next morning, but you saw it, you got it, you wrote it in a way that sounds close to true. Most likely, no one will know. Not the readers just looking for the score. Not the editors consumed by press runs. Maybe not even your competition, obsessed with getting beaten. It’s a secret glory, and you must cherish it because it never lasts.
You go to breakfast the next morning, buy four newspapers, order eggs and bacon and hot coffee. You read slowly. You wake up later than the rest of the world. That’s the reward.
Your all-time favorite fictional writer, whether it’s an author who’s a character in a movie or a newspaper reporter in a book or a sportswriter in a play. (I might still have Fletch, in the movie.)
I’m a big Richard Russo fan. I’m pretty sure I’ve read every one of his books. And because I grew up in academia, running around the halls of the journalism school while my mom graded papers, Straight Man is probably one of my all-time favorite books. It’s still the funniest book I’ve ever read. And Hank Devereaux Jr., the main character, remains one of my favorite characters in literature. But Nic Cage playing Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation deserves a special shout-out.
You’ve written extensively about Michael Phelps, including at the historic 2008 Olympics. You also wrote a story that’s described on Yahoo! as having a video of you stuffing yourself into a Speedo to learn the butterfly stroke, although as far as I know the video did not survive – nor did the suit.
Moving on. Individual sports often bring out the best in profiles, whether it’s Remnick and Kram on Ali or David Foster Wallace on Federer. Writers can really focus on the internal battles or demons when there are no teammates involved. Has swimming offered any type of similar opportunities as far as profiles, or is boxing unique, since so many boxing stories do focus on a fighter’s background, which, in most cases, is going to be quite a bit different than that of a swimmer?
I’m definitely not sad that video of me in a Speedo flopping around like a dying walrus as I try to learn the butterfly stroke appears to have disappeared from the Internet. I went through a stage of trying to do some George Plimpton-style journalism, and that was the peak of my humiliation, but I did generate a lot of laughs.
I like Michael Phelps as a person, but I think he’d agree he’s not exactly Muhammad Ali when it comes to personality. What made him interesting, I think, was he was not only attempting such an incredible feat in terms of history, he was trying to do it while figuring out, at the same time, how to grow up. He is not very forthcoming about his feelings. He grew up watching Jordan and Woods stare into the camera, smile and say nothing, and he adopted that and made it his own. That’s the way he acts around reporters 90 percent of the time. So I had to just sit back and observe and try to take mental snapshots that I thought could be used to say something deeper about him. I don’t know if I quite pulled it off. But I like that it’s not an entirely fawning profile. There is a lot about it that I’d love to rewrite, but I hope it offers a little window into who he really is. We tend to gush over Olympic athletes until the rough edges in their life stories get sanded down by our desire to believe they represent something patriotic. In reality, they’re flawed, just like any athlete. And to me, the flaws are what make Phelps interesting. He’s not a robot. That’s what I tried to capture.
Some of my favorite stories of yours have been on the Sun’s blogs: Your father’s day piece on playing golf with your dad, the story about taking a drive with Ralph Friedgen and your one on Gary Williams following his retirement. In the Friedgen piece, you talk a bit about the changing newspaper world. As someone who did dream – and still does – of writing the lengthy takeout pieces you grew up reading and admiring, have you been able to find a bit of that with your web-only stories for the Sun? While you still do write regular features, has that helped fill some of the void that comes with shrinking news holes and a changing media landscape?
I think the freedom to write exactly the way I want to on the Internet has been my saving grace, in many respects. Let’s be honest, it’s really, really hard to do longform journalism in newspapers these days. It’s exhausting, for starters. It takes time. It takes trust. It’s emotionally draining. And there are certain style restrictions you run into as well. If you’re going to take up that much real estate in a newspaper, a lot of people are going to want to put their hands on your copy — to tweak it, cut it, or flat out rewrite it — to fit their vision of what it should look like. We went through a period at the Sun where we weren’t allowed to write anecdotal leads, even on features. Everything needed to get right to the point, and if it was longer than 1,000 words, it needed like three different levels of approval or it could not run. (Those rules have thankfully been relaxed. I have an editor, Chris Korman, who is a tireless advocate for the kind of work I want to do, and an excellent writer himself, so that helps.)
But at the same time a lot of that was going on, there was this tremendous need for copy on the web. And there were a lot of times when I felt like I had something to say, but couldn’t say it in the paper. So in my free time, I’d put some thoughts together. I think I have a decent feel for the kind of first-person stories that will resonate with people. I hope they don’t come across as self-indulgent. Someone tried to tell me once that no one wants to read anything longer than three paragraphs on a blog, but I couldn’t disagree more. What they’d don’t want to read is more than three paragraphs of crap.
To me, Joe Posnanski’s blog is one of the best things going in journalism. (He’s also one of the best people, so it’s a win-win.) He writes more interesting things on his blog in a week than most writers do in a month, whether they’re about Derek Jeter’s 3,000 hits or taking his daughter to Harry Potter World. And he does that because writing is a release. To me, Poz writes blog posts the way Ryan Adams writes music. They’re both prolific because they recognize how much color and emotion there is in the world, and they can’t help but try to capture some of it and make it permanent. So when I write blog posts like that Ralph Friedgen story or the Gary Williams essay, I’m sort of thinking: What Would Poz Do? None of it will ever make the paper, because it’s either too long or it just doesn’t fit with our house style, but that’s ok. Because while I’m hoping readers will get something out of it, I’m also writing it for me. I’m trying to figure out my own voice.
Your feature “Rayna’s Second Season” was honored in the 2005 Best American Sportswriting book. A few questions on that story:
– Rayna Dubose got sick in April 2002 and your story ran in May 2004. When did you first start working on the piece and how did you originally get the assignment?
When she got sick, I was a preps reporter at the Sun. I’d graduated from the police beat and moved into the sports department. She was originally from Howard County, which was the county I covered, but I’d never written about her or met her. When she got sick, I was asked to help out with our coverage, but I couldn’t get much. I think I spoke to her high school coach, but that was about it. The family was adamant they didn’t want to speak to the media. Someone from another paper tried to sneak into the hospital to interview them, and they were furious. A month after she got sick, the family put out a statement saying she needed to have both her hands and feet amputated. I wrote a story about how the high school track team was raising money for the family. After it ran, the managing editor of the Sun, Anthony Barbieri, stopped by my desk and asked me to keep tabs on the story, to see if the family might change their mind months down the road.
I did something that was probably risky as a journalist, but respectful as a human being. I wrote them a letter. I told them I couldn’t imagine the horror they were going through, and if they never wanted to talk about it, I completely understood. But if they ever felt comfortable sharing their story, I promised to tell it respectfully and honestly. I gave it to a coach I knew and trusted, who passed it along. About a month went by, and Rayna’s father, Willie, called me out of the blue and invited me to her birthday party. The paper’s narrative editor, an amazing woman named Jan Winburn, was assigned to work with me on it.
– Was the reporting difficult from an emotional standpoint or were Rayna and her family able to open up by the time you started working on the stories?
Rayna’s parents, Willie and Andrea, were great. They were pretty open about everything. They let me come over to the house a bunch and just pepper them with questions. And her coach, Bonnie Henrickson, was incredible. She remembered everything about the hospital, which they remembered so little of. Bonnie talked to me for several hours, and let me call her and double check stuff as I was putting together the story.
Rayna was not particularly forthcoming. I think she thought I was kind of a dork. She wasn’t sure why I was so interested in spending nearly a year popping in on her life. I tried a ton of different ways to get her to open up, but she wasn’t really interested. We had one good talk, the night before she went back to school, but that was it.
– From the writing aspect of it, there are almost no direct quotes in either of the two stories; I’m assuming that was a deliberate choice fairly early on in the writing process. What led you to that decision, and how do you think it alters the tone of the story? To me it adds a sense of urgency. What were some of the other considerations that went into that choice?
When I was writing the story, I felt a little strange putting things in direct quotes that I couldn’t have heard because I wasn’t there. Two or three people would say stuff like, “And then Bonnie said, ‘I think we need to get Rayna to the hospital.’ ” And my first draft was muddled with a lot of messy attributions. Think about it this way: What’s a more intimate way of telling a story, the first or the second way I present the following scene, which occurs right after Rayna’s parents and coach learn she’ll need amputations.
When Willie comes back into the room, he is so quiet Bonnie almost doesn’t notice him. He takes his daughter’s hand, and he speaks. Maybe he’s talking to Bonnie; maybe he’s just talking out loud. His voice is calm.
I’ve already started to work it out in my mind how we’re going to tell her. I’ve already started to formulate a plan.
When Willie comes back into the room, he is so quiet Bonnie almost doesn’t notice him. He takes his daughter’s hand, and he speaks.
“Willie kept saying, ‘I’ve already started to work it out in my mind how we’re going to tell her,” Bonnie said. “I don’t know if he was talking to me, or just talking out loud, but he kept saying ‘I’ve already started to formulate a plan.’ ”
Obviously the second way completely yanks you out of the narrative. You’re suddenly conscience of the fact that you’re being told a story, instead of watching it unfold. I suppose I could have just put quotes around the first version and called it good. I could have said, “Well I wasn’t in the hospital to hear that quote, but that’s what both Willie and Bonnie remember him saying, so I’m comfortable putting it in quotes.” But there are dozens and dozens of instances where it’s important for a character in the story to speak — because someone did speak — but I felt like it was a stretch to imply I knew exactly what was said in that moment.
I think deciding to put quotes in italics was not only more honest, ethically, but from a storytelling standpoint, it makes it way more intimate. It gives the story forward momentum.
– What was the editing process like with the stories? Did you make major revisions or is the final product pretty close to what you first wrote?
The first version was nothing like the final version. The first version was like trying to penetrate a brick wall. I didn’t know what I was doing, and it was stuffed with way too many unimportant details. Jan Winburn, who now works at CNN, helped me whittle it down, inch by inch. She’s still the best editor I’ve ever worked with, and this is the only story we worked on together. (She left the paper literally the day the story ran for another job so she could be closer to family, so I like to think of it as her closing number.) She knew how to bring the writer in me out into the open without being heavy handed about it. She would lead me in a certain direction, but then force me to figure things out on my own. I was 25 at the time, and it blew my mind. I wish I could have continued to work with her. She’s shaping young minds at CNN.com these days.
– It looks like Rayna is doing well these days and working as a motivational speaker. Are you still in contact with her and her family?
Unfortunately, I’ve fallen out of touch with them. The day the story ran, I went to their house and we had a really nice emotional gathering. I’d been popping in on their lives for more than a year, and they finally understood why I asked so many questions and what kind of story I was trying to tell. Even Rayna, who seemed kind of annoyed by me throughout much of the process, seemed really happy. We stayed in touch periodically for a bit, but real life got in the way. I still think about her often. She taped an interview with one of our web guys a few months ago, just a casual “Catching Up With…” kind of thing, she asked him to say hello to me. That made me happy. I hope someday she can show that story to her kids, if she ever has them, and say, “Before you were born, something happened to me. Here’s what I went through. This is my story.”
You’re invited back to the University of Montana to talk to a journalism class. When you take questions at the end, one loud-mouthed kid raises his hand and takes over the room with three questions:
1. “I know you said that if we want to improve our writing, we need to read and read and read. Fine. But what are three books, aside from The Things They Carried, that are essential for someone who dreams of being a nonfiction writer?”
I’m going to stick to nonfiction books here, because otherwise my head will hurt trying to narrow it down.
Homicide by David Simon. One of the best pieces of immersion journalism ever.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. A beautiful collection that demonstrates what a brilliant observer he was.
The Sweet Science by A.J. Liebling. Sports writing, for me, is about people. Liebling was one of the first people to write about athletes in an honest, humanizing way.
Honorable mention: The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe; The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer; Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger; Sunday Money, Jeff MacGregor; Up In The Old Hotel, Joseph Mitchell; The Fight, Norman Mailer.
And if you are really serious about longform, bookmark Gangrey.com, the website run by Ben Montgomery of the St. Petersburg Times. Every day, someone from a group of fabulous writers that includes Ben, Michael Kruse (also of the Times, and now Grantland as well), Thomas Lake (Sports Illustrated), Tommy Tomlinson (Charlotte Observer), Justin Heckert (previously of ESPN the Mag and Atlanta Magazine) will post one of the best non-fiction stories from around the country. And if you’re lucky, they — and countless others — will discuss why the story did or didn’t work. It’s not a place to fight, or talk shit, or settle scores. It’s just a place to talk about writing. You can learn more by reading this discussion from 2010 about a story Michael Paterniti did for GQ than you could in three years of graduate school.
2. “It’s a scary media world we’re entering. What can you tell us that will give us hope that longform journalism will survive?”
Storytelling has always existed, since the beginning of time. And it will always exist, in some form, we’re just not sure what form will pay well enough for people to make a living. The next 10 years are probably going to be rough, I’m not going to lie. I don’t want to give you false hope. But every profession is going to be rough. Think of how competitive it is to be a comedy writer. Or an actor. Or a Wall Street banker. The best of you will make it work. And those of you who move on to something else, you’ll forever have the ability to write well and think critically in your back pocket.
3. “When you’re working on a long feature, what’s your writing routine? Do you write mainly in the office or at home? Are you watching TV, listening to the radio or sitting in silence? Do you start at the beginning or do you know the ending before you even start typing? And when you’re writing those stories, is the writing life what you dreamed it’d be like when you were 15?”
I’m fascinated by people who can write while listening to music, because I’m so not that person. I need silence, especially if it’s something I really care about. I need to be alone, and I need to whisper the words to myself — sometimes hundreds of times — before I feel good enough to move onto the next paragraph.
I’d say I know where I’m going most of the time. If it’s a story I have time to work on, something where I’ve transcribed a lot of interviews, I’ll usually have a scene in mind I want to end with. But not always. Sometimes I’ll figure it out along the way. And sometimes I won’t. (And those stories reflect it.)
As for the writing question, I’ll answer it this way.
In August of 2008, the Sun sent Rick Maese and I to China for a month to cover the Olympics. I’d been to an Olympics previously, and Maese has been to three. But because Phelps was our hometown guy, and because he was the biggest story in the world for several weeks, it was the most pressure I’ve ever been under as a journalist, and I think Rick felt the same. We were working 16 hour days, churning out stories, blogs, videos, always conscious of the fact that a lot of our peers were checking out our stuff in addition to thousands of readers back home.
We’d been anticipating the Olympics for more than a year. We had gathered and stored hundreds of Phelps anecdotes for future stories, and every morning we’d wake up at 6 a.m., drag our butts to the pool, and try to weave them into our stories on brutal deadlines. We became sort of the de facto Phelps experts. Journalists who had never covered swimming would wander over to our table and ask random idiotic questions like “What’s the name of Phelps’ two sisters? Where is his dad in all this?” Sometimes they’d ask those questions while we were on deadline. I think we were both constantly on the verge of a physical and mental breakdown. Charles Robinson told me at one point he wouldn’t sit by me anymore because he was worried I was going to snap and murder someone.
But the on the final day of the swimming competition, Maese and I got off the bus and walked to the pool. It was about a 15-minute walk through a park from where the bus dropped us off each day to get to The Water Cube, where the swimming was held. The weather had been smoggy much of the first week, a choking gray pollution, but on that day, at least as I remember it, the sky was gorgeous and impossibly blue.
We’d been listening to music all week to fire ourselves up before writing, or to calm ourselves down after every brutal deadline. Maese told me to cue up Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” on my iPod and turn the volume up as high as it would go. He did the same on his iPod. We pushed PLAY at the same time — like synchronizing our watches in an 80s spy comedy — and then we bobbed our heads like idiots on the way to the pool.
I’ll remember that moment forever. Here I was, blowing off nervous energy with one of my best friends, by belting out Jay-Z lyrics on our way to witness and write about history. I can only imagine what fools we looked like to the people in the park. But I didn’t care then, and I do not care now. We had been tested. We had survived.
I didn’t dream of things like that when I started dreaming of the writing life at age 15. I couldn’t have pictured it. But the camaraderie formed through a shared experience like that is exactly what I was searching for. Words gave me friendships I’m forever grateful for. Words helped me understand what mattered the most to me. Words plucked me out of Montana, and let me see the skyline on the other side of the world.