by Chris Ballard, June 2, 2006 10:20 AM
Miami, FL ? Sticky weather, thunderstorm warnings, and fans of the Heat (the basketball team, not the climate) greet visitors on this Friday. I'm here to cover Game 6 of the Miami-Detroit playoff series. If the Pistons win, I fly to Detroit tomorrow morning. If Miami wins, I stick around to write an ode to the Heat. I've learned at SI
to always root for the story, so I'd like to see Miami win. That way it's cleaner.
The last time I was in these parts for work, it was to tag along with Spiderman Mulholland, one of the characters in my book. It was the fall of 2004, just after Hurricane Ivan came through, and Mulholland had plenty of work. I followed him around for a few days as he went from condo to high-rise to apartment building. A former Marine, Mulholland began his career washing windows. Then he realized he could make more money if he also made repairs. Then it occurred to him he could save time, and cut costs, by rappelling down the sides of the buildings, or wall-walking up them with specially-designed gear. Then… well, you get the idea. Now he goes by the name Spiderman (he legally changed it) and makes repairs on what he calls "suicidal buildings," climbing or rappelling to areas that can otherwise be reached only by crane. He's jumped from helicopters onto the top of water towers, clambered up spires, gotten pinned against the surface of a skyscraper by heavy winds. And, as I learned, he treats it all like a commando mission (in fact, he treats everything ? the mold inspections he performs, a trip to the mini-mart ? like a do-or-die situation).
In the end, I felt that Mulholland used his work almost as a way to self-medicate. He didn't just want to work; he needed to. And his transition from the military lifestyle to a civilian one was incomplete until he found a (legal) release (if you've read the chapter, you understand why I include the 'legal' part). Of the people I spent time with, he was the most vocally passionate ? he spoke in the equivalent of ALL CAPS ? about what he did. Some of it may have been for show ? a reporter following you around tends to have that effect ? but if so, it was a good act.
Interviewing him is a far cry from what I'll be doing tonight. Enter into a postgame scrum at an NBA playoff game and you realize that "scrum" is not a hyperbolic descriptor. I've seen cameramen elbow each other like WWE combatants to get a good shot in the locker room, heard sideline reporters yelling histrionically, watched power forwards bob and weave so as not to be poked in the face with a microphone. Everyone is sweating because it's so hot, especially the players (I was once speaking to Donyell Marshall after a game when he reached into his pocket and grabbed something to wipe the sweat off his forehead. Until I pointed it out, he didn't realize that what he'd grabbed was a $20 bill).
This kind of work requires a totally different set of reporting tools. With a subject like Mulholland, I had days with him, and the luxury of watching him in his element and asking follow-up questions. If you can finagle two minutes alone with Shaquille O'Neal or Chauncey Billups after a game at this point in the season, it is a coup. Some people are built for this kind of work; my SI colleague Seth Davis can work a room unlike any one I've seen. Others, not so much. Personally, I have to steel myself before going in. I've also found it can be more productive to work around a subject ? speaking to assistant coaches or teammates while the star player is mobbed. Of course, only a month ago, you could have sat down with this star player for 15 minutes of one-on-one time. But hit a game-winner and the world loves you.
It will be interesting to see who the world loves tonight. As good as Miami has played at home, I've got a feeling that the Pistons have another comeback in them, regardless of (in spite of?) Flip Saunders. The key will be Rasheed Wallace. If he gets on track and pulls the Miami big men out on the perimeter, Detroit has a shot. If not, South Beach will be rockin tonight. I'll try not to get Gilbert Arenas-ed while heading back to my hotel.
Well, that's my time. It's been a pleasure and an honor guest-blogging at Powell's. Thanks to Dave for hooking it up, and to those who checked out the site for
by Chris Ballard, June 1, 2006 10:13 AM
When I work from home, the soundtrack to my day goes something like this:
(pause of thirty seconds or so)
These noises emanate from the left of my desk ? though sometimes beneath it ? where my golden retriever, Riley, is picking up a tennis ball and dropping it, repeatedly. After each drop, she watches the (slobbery, dirty) ball intently, just in case it might start to roll away on its own or ? joy of joys! ? I decide to pick it up and toss it. Eventually, inevitably, I give in, grab the ball, and head out into the backyard, where if I aim it just right, I can get a big looping bounce off the back wall (Riley has learned to judge it like an outfielder tracking a drive off the Green Monster). As you can imagine, this is not the most effective way to get work done.
So, like many writers, I try to find secondary locations: coffee shops, public parks, the library at UC Berkeley, near where I live. Because of my travel schedule for Sports Illustrated, however, often I'm finding these places in some foreign American metropolis. So I sit in airport terminals, pull out my laptop on long-ish cab rides, and, if it's the only option, transcribe notes at a Subway sandwich shop (I'd include airplanes on this list but that's a crapshoot due to elbow-jousting with seatmates, the recline angle of the seat directly forward, etc.). I've found that there's something about the hum of strangers going about their business that is white noise to those trying to write.
Today, for example, I'm headed to Miami to cover the Heat-Pistons series. So I've packed all my gear into a roll-bag and a backpack, out of which I can survive almost indefinitely (it's sad how exciting a well-packed bag can be when you travel a lot). At the risk of sounding exceedingly nerdy (or too much like the William Hurt character in The Accidental Tourist), here's what's in my Swiss Army backpack: laptop with charger and extra battery (crucial for long flights), two gel-filled wrist rests for the laptop (to avoid carpal tunnel, which I got a mild case of while transcribing tape for my book), Bose noise-reducing headphones (for when the strangers aren't so white-noise-like), tape recorder with extra batteries/tapes, reporter's notebooks and a larger steno notebook, a reading book that can double as lumbar support on a flight (right now, it's Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, which is excellent), folders for notes and travel itineraries, my iPod, Treo cell phone (great for making minor editing changes, back and forth with SI editors, on the fly), and a handful of pens (Pilot G-2s, about which I have an unhealthy obsession). I will spare you what's in the roll-on bag.
The point is: I have all I need to write and very little extra. So, predictably, I'm often far more productive when I'm on the road. No balls to be tossed, no yard to be picked up, no games of Pop-a-Shot to be played (yes, I actually have a Pop-a-Shot machine in my garage, ostensibly for stress relief). I can only imagine what happens once one has kids. For this reason, I'm always very impressed by writers who work effectively out of a home office. To me, the home office ? as tax deductible as it may be ? has a fool's gold element to it. The idea is wonderful: no commute, no dress code, and I can even put a mini-fridge in the room. The reality: not so much. (And, lo and behold, I just noticed that John Tayman wrote about this very subject a few months back on this blog. I am intrigued by his earplug idea.)
In doing some playoff research, I just checked in on Mark Cuban's blog and, lucky me, he has devoted his Wednesday post to the subject of journalism. If you have a free moment, and haven't had your fill of Cuban already, check it out. I'd be curious what people not in the business think of his take.
On another sports note, I'm about done with Jeff Pearlman's biography of Barry Bonds, Love Me, Hate Me and I heartily recommend it. It's probably more interesting to me since I grew up in the Bay Area, but Pearlman's reporting alone is worth the read (he interviewed 500 people). Some really great nuggets in there.
by Chris Ballard, May 31, 2006 11:00 AM
A few years ago, I wrote a story for the New York Times Magazine
about a man named Carson Hughes. A garrulous, hopeful sort, Hughes went by the nickname "Collard Green" because he had a particular talent for ingesting large quantities of the leafy vegetable, and quite rapidly. At the time I wrote about him, Hughes was an up-and-comer in the world of competitive eating which, for those not familiar, is exactly what it sounds like: a "sport" in which "competitors" vie to see who can force down more of an particular food in a set amount of time, usually 12 minutes. Anything edible is fair game, but the most popular items are hot dogs and chicken wings. By focusing on a fringe foodstuff like collard greens ? he could eat 2.5 pounds in 17 seconds ? Hughes found a way to set himself apart. Though, of course, what he really wanted was to make a big splash eating the dogs at the Super Bowl of competitive eating, Nathan's 4th of July contest.
I accompanied Hughes for a night of his "training," during which we hit three buffets in his hometown of Newport News, VA. Over the course of the evening, Hughes ate, among other things, 140 shrimp, a small steak, a plate of chicken, 10 pieces of sushi, 10 softshell crabs and, of course, a mound of collard greens. At one point, while driving from one neon-lit, all-you-can-eat joint to the next, he told me he felt underappreciated. Allen Iverson was also from Newport News, Hughes pointed out, and he got a free meal whenever he went out. But Hughes was 17th in the world and didn't get noticed. "I'm famous and nobody knows it," he told me ruefully.
I bring up this story because, while I found Hughes a compelling character and the speed-eating subculture surreal, it never occurred to me that there might be a book in there amid all that stomach acid. As it turns out, there wasn't: there were two, Eat this Book by Ryan Nerz and Horsemen of the Esophagus (love that title) by Jason Fagone, both of which came out this past spring. I haven't read either yet, but I did see Nerz on the Daily Show ? the bookselling equivalent of Oprah for hipsters and grad students ? and he was quite good, playing the straight man to Stewart's incredulous host.
It got me thinking about how book ideas are birthed. I wrote my first book, Hoops Nation, in 1996 (it was published in '98) and, for the next eight years or so, people kept asking me when I was going to write another (always phrased as if it were merely something I hadn't gotten around to, like changing the oil in my car). Sometimes, people would suggest a topic. One friend thought the natural follow-up to a tour of playground basketball courts would be a tour of sports bars (Hops Nation?). My agent suggested a book on the quarterbacks of Pennsylvania (a disproportionate amount of great ones, including Marino and Montana, grew up there). It was a fine idea; the only problem was that it didn't interest me that much. And that's death for a book.
One author I know, who shall remain nameless, got his idea for a best-selling work of narrative nonfiction while Googling late one night (he admits this with a certain amount of shame, but I think it's rather inspiring, in an American Idol, anyone-can-do-it kind of way). For magazine writers, books often arise out of articles ? Krakauer's Into the Wild is a great example ? though occasionally they end up feeling like a sitcom stretched to movie length. Some writers work backwards, allowing life to provide the material, almost like a planned memoir. My brother and his wife, for example, hiked the Pacific Crest Trail together while still dating, then got a book contract (A Blistered Kind of Love). Then there are the pseudo-memoirs. I can only imagine how many books we'll see about lovable, irascible dogs after the success of Marley and Me. Or perhaps a best-selling cat memoir is next, though I suspect that's a tougher trick.
Certain writers are talented enough that they don't really need a good idea; their style makes anything interesting. David Foster Wallace is the best example (though I'm referring here to his collections of essays, which aren't "books" per se). In A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, he wrangles 97 pages ? very funny ones, I might add ? out of a cruise ship experience. Chuck Klosterman strikes me as a guy with similar powers, though my favorite work of his remains his New York Times magazine story on a Guns n' Roses tribute band (wish I could link it here, but I think you need Nexis).
Then there is the whole subculture exploration genre. Tomes range from dissertations on the world of Scrabble Players (Stefan Fatsis's Word Freak) to fantasy baseball (Powells.com blogger Sam Walker's Fantasyland) to those who study left-handedness (David Wolman's A Left-hand Turn Around the World). There are two ways to approach the writing: as anthropologist or as Plimpton-esque participant. I'm a fan of both, both as reader and author.
Which brings me back to generating ideas. I'm always curious about how other writers do it, as I find the process to be both grueling and perplexing, like trying to find a set of keys you haven't seen in weeks that might in fact be lost. I keep a clip file, as well as a Word document with random ? sometimes very random ? thoughts and concepts. For example, on my current list I have written down: "Infiltrating the RV culture." Looking at this now, I have no idea what it means ? much less whether such a culture would require infiltration.
As for The Butterfly Hunter, I first thought of the concept on a cross-country flight, as I was entering the initial stages of a robust hangover (not a creative process I'd recommend). I'd been out with friends in New York the night before and, as can happen when in New York and with certain company, one of them made the time-honored argument that, since I had a 6 AM flight, I might as well just stay up until I had to leave for the airport at 4 AM. Sober, this makes no sense whatsoever, but when seated at a bar in the dark hours of the night, it can seem revelatory. Probably because of the hangover, I was unable to sleep on the plane and couldn't really focus on reading. So I sat there, reclined, and brainstormed ideas ? for books, stories, etc. ? for most of the five hours. I jotted down about fifty thoughts. In retrospect, 48 or so were pretty bad ? I believe one was a fictional biography of Waldo, from Where's Waldo fame ? but one of them was good. And that's all I needed.
Of course, now that the
by Chris Ballard, May 30, 2006 9:49 AM
A couple weeks ago, I was on a radio show in Texas to talk about my book
. The book is about a lot of things, though basketball is not one of them. Regardless, the host's first question was, "How you like them Mavs?"
I liked them a fair amount, I said. Well-coached, deep bench, tough defensively. Next, the host asked whether I thought them Mavs could knock off them Spurs. Ten minutes later, he was still asking about Texas basketball. Finally, as my appearance drew to a close, he noted we had time for one more question. Tell us about your book, he said. It looks real neat!
There was nothing to do but pretend he hadn't just said "real neat" and give the movie pitch version ? "It's about people who are really passionate about weird jobs and what they can tell us about the idea of a 'true calling'" ? and then try to cram in one interesting anecdote.
It wasn't the first time I'd run into this, nor will it be the last. It's part of the deal when you work for Sports Illustrated (a blessing and a curse when you write a book that's not about sports). For the past six years, I've covered the NBA for the magazine (I write a semi-regular column for our Si.Com website ? here's one from the NBA All-Star Game). It's a great job, for the most part. I get to scrutinize a game I love (and played poorly for a year in college) and profile some remarkable athletes, even if they're not always remarkable human beings. On the other hand, the travel can be a bit much. I have more Starwood Points than can be considered remotely healthy and know the seating charts of most airplanes.
Then there are the reactions. When people talk to lawyers or doctors or stockbrokers, they often ask these professionals for advice, trusting in the expertise provided. When it comes to sports, for the most part (radio hosts aside), people don't solicit my opinion so much as take the opportunity to offer theirs. I might be able to give them an analysis of why the Pistons aren't running their "Hawk series" offense effectively against the Heat, but, because at its root being a sports fan is all about opinion ? Bobby Abreu may be hitting .300 but he's still a bum in my book ? people do not necessarily want expertise. Rather, they are looking for validation or, failing that, a forum. It's why sports are the great equalizer, the tissue that connects a guy at the barbershop with a CEO. (Unfortunately, it's also why sports talk radio is so popular.)
But I digress. This is a blog about books, so I suppose I should tell you a little more about mine, which is still not about basketball (though I did write a book on the subject, Hoops Nation, some years go). I spent the better part of a year and a half following around people who excel at unusual gigs ? a mushroom prospector in Oregon, a former Marine in Florida who wall-walks buildings and has legally changed his name to "Spiderman" ? with an eye toward finding out what sets them off on these strange little paths. If you're interested in reading an excerpt, one can be found here. I don't have a website, or a myspace profile, which makes me a technological laggard, but if you're interested in talking about the book, or have questions, I'd love to do so.
Either way, I'll be around all week to offer a mixture of thoughts on writing, careers, and sports, and I will try to live up to the lofty standards of my blogging predecessors (I particularly liked Molly O'Neill's description of a many-terminaled airport as looking like "a squashed tick"). I'm also going to mention a couple books I'm fond of each day. So for those interested in writing literary nonfiction (or reading about those who do), The New New Journalism is an excellent collection of interviews with writers like Michael Lewis and Jon Krakauer. For examples of the craft, check out The Art of Fact. It's got everything from Dickens to Breslin to Wolfe to McPhee. I keep a copy near my desk for when I feel stale.
As for Van Horn, he of the tube socks and soft defense, I believe he may be of no cosmic significance whatsoever. Hubie Brown, however, is a different story. I'll explain tomorrow