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.