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 book is out, I'm back to jotting down ideas, looking for that lost set of keys.
Brown, for those who don't follow the NBA, is a two-time Coach of the Year who, at 72 years old, is now the analyst on ABC telecasts. He speaks in paragraphs, asks himself questions — "So you're probably wondering, why not go to Jerry Stackhouse in the post? Well I'll tell you…" — and prepares for every broadcast assiduously. He is also a repository of coaching knowledge. He's been in the game for fifty-odd years and run coaching clinics around the world. Some believe his broadcast style is too technical, but I'm from the school that you can ever get too technical, as long as the terminology is clear. If an announcer isn't going to explain things to me, I don't see any reason to have the sound on (Dick Vitale being the most obnoxious example; it's never about the game with Dick, it's always about Dick).
A couple weeks ago, while covering the Detroit-Cleveland series, I had a chance to BS with Hubie prior to the game. He said he had five minutes. A half hour later, he was still telling stories about the old days. One in particular bears repeating.
In 1977, Brown was coaching the Atlanta Hawks when, at midseason, Ted Turner bought the team. The first thing Turner told Brown was that he was going to slash payroll and hope to get a high draft pick. So Brown was left with a motley assortment of veterans, inexperienced players, and hustle guys. Despite this, his Hawks made the playoffs. Turner was ecstatic at the magic his coach worked. So the next year, as Brown tells it, Turner approached him with a novel proposition. "He said, 'Hubie, I want you to coach the Braves,'" says Brown. "And I says, 'But I don't know that much about baseball.' Now Ted looks at me, uuh-kay, and he says, 'I don't care, just do the same thing you did with the Hawks.'" But, Brown protested, what about the playoffs? If the Hawks made it again, that would overlap with the baseball season. Turner's solution: he'd fly him back and forth on a jet.
A couple days later, when Brown realized Turner was serious, he went to talk to him. "I had one question for Ted," says Brown. "I came in and I said, 'So how much you going to pay me?'"
Brown pauses a beat. "He said, 'Pay you? I'm going to put you in the Hall of Fame! Nobody's ever been in the Hall of Fame in two sports before.'"
Needless to say, Brown did not accept the offer. Though it's too bad for the rest of us: it would have been mightily entertaining.
Books mentioned in this post
Chris Ballard is the author of The Butterfly Hunter: Adventures of People Who Found Their True Calling Way Off the Beaten Path