Buzz Bissinger on heart, luck, honesty, critics and the importance of switching things up
When Buzz Bissinger visited the Nieman Foundation last week, in some ways he was coming home. Twenty-six years ago, he finished his Nieman year inspired to do new and different work. He’d made his career in newspapers, most recently at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he, Rick Tulsky and Dan Biddle, also former Niemans, had just written a series that would win the 1987 Pulitzer for investigative reporting. He then lit upon a narrative nonfiction book idea, out of a town called Odessa, Texas.
Friday Night Lights, Bissinger’s iconic story about high school football and race and class, was born there in Odessa and laid the foundation for the rest of his career. His books have covered a failing Philadelphia (A Prayer for the City, about then-Mayor Ed Rendell’s rescue attempt), the St. Louis Cardinals (Three Nights in August, about the Cards’ three-game series against the rival Chicago Cubs), and, now, the relationship between father and son.
In Father’s Day, published last week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Bissinger chronicles a cross-country drive with one of his twin sons, Zach, a 24-year-old savant. The trip is the narrative spine, interwoven with the story of Bissinger’s career and family, and laced with the history of the treatment of premature infants in this country. The narrative heart is disillusionment, loss, pride, fear, wonder and straightforward, angry reckoning with reality:
Like everyone else, I will one day become too old and sick for my own good or anyone else’s. I think it’s a pretty good guess I will be a cranky son of a bitch. Lisa has told me several times that she is determined to die first to avoid the misery of taking care of me. Like my father before me, I will be terrified. Like my father before me, I will know that I am dying. Like my father before me, I will lie awake thinking about what I did in my life and think about the terrible mistakes I made. But unlike my father, I will also think about what will forever reside in my heart. It won’t be the sweet but ephemeral irrelevance of the Pulitzer and Friday Night Lights. It will be the times I broke through to a place I never knew existed. My beautiful Gerry and Caleb will be with me. So will my beautiful Zach. He will take my hand in his. His grip will be gentle. Neither of us will ever want to let go.
Today we bring you Bissinger’s conversation with Nieman fellows, staff and curator Ann Marie Lipinski, who happens to have been Bissinger’s editor at the Chicago Tribune. This talk is a long one – pace yourself, people! – but we wanted it to run as one piece.
The conversation came on a bittersweet afternoon for the fellows – it was their last scheduled day as Niemans. After their year studying at Harvard, some were planning to go back to their former journalism jobs and others were heading off into the unknown. We’ll start there, with Bissinger talking about his own Nieman experience, and about how the fellowship year helped enable him to embrace the unexpected, and to go on to produce some of the world’s most widely acclaimed works of narrative nonfiction.
Bissinger: The Nieman year was probably the most special year of my life. The intimacy, the stimulation. The stimulation was powerful and intoxicating both in the classroom and out of the classroom, in seminars. The people I met, particularly the foreign Niemans – they knew much more about the United States than we did – it was fun. People say, “Why’d you begin to write books?” The reason I really began to write books is that after my Nieman year I felt I owed it to myself to go and do something out of the box, and really, really do something different, not simply go back to my paper with the sort of glow of a great year. So that’s what I did. I think if I had not been a Nieman I’d either still be at the Philadelphia Inquirer, probably laid off from the Philadelphia Inquirer. I was lucky enough to get the idea for Friday Night Lights and everything broke perfectly. Without the Nieman I really think I would’ve just stayed where I was.
Lipinski: I met you during my Nieman year.
This is true. And you still like me.
Lipinski: Maddy Blais, Madeleine Blais, who had won a Pulitzer for feature writing at the Miami Herald, was teaching at, and may still be teaching at –
Lipinski: U Mass, at Amherst. And she had a conference and a bunch of the Niemans went up for it. She had a reception at her house afterward, and that’s where I met you. You had a galley of what would become Friday Night Lights. And you said that you were living in Milwaukee; your then wife was doing a medical residency I think –
She was going to med school.
Lipinski: And I said, “What do you want to do?” You said you wanted to go back to writing for a paper because you didn’t know what would happen with the book. So I said, “Oh, so you want to go work for the Milwaukee Journal,” and you said “Well, I’d actually like to work at the (Chicago) Tribune.” I said, “But you live in Milwaukee.” And you said, “I’ll commute.” And you did, for a year or two.
I think I was there for about two years.
Lipinski: So we worked together. I met your boys then because they were around the office a lot. But the book took off in such an extraordinary way, which I think you’ve regarded as both a blessing and a curse. But before we talk about that – you talk about launching out of Lippmann House feeling this need to do more or different. Can you just go through the process of how you alight on Odessa, Texas, and those kids in that season?
Literally – like you guys – the last day of the Nieman program I got into a car with a fellow Nieman who lived in Seattle and drove across country with her. We took the southern route, so we went through a lot of small towns, small places – Main Street was obliterated then. JC Penney (had been) there and that was gone, Sears was gone. We went through Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana and then Texas. You would come upon high school football stadiums and they were gorgeous. A lot of them had been built in the 1930s and literally even if there was a drought they would water the fields and they’d be glistening green. They were painted. They were shrines. They were shrines in these small towns, these isolated places, and I just had the sense that this was where people came. I had read about high school football in Texas and it just stayed with me. I like sports, but I really thought of this (idea) in much more sociological terms: Why do (sports) have the impact that they have and what would it be like, then, to live in that town for a year and simply use the team and the season as the glue to write about all sorts of different things? So the genesis of the idea came literally two weeks after I was done with the Nieman.
Now what I do is, I get excited about a lot of ideas and I just let them sit. I’m sure most of you do that too. You let them sit for a week, months, three months. For me I can really sort of feel it in my heart – I get a sort of pulsating feeling in my heart, my chest, this excitement, and if the excitement lingered that meant I was onto something. Because I only do books that I feel – well that’s not true, one book I did, which was a piece of shit, I did for money –
Lipinski: Which one, LeBron?
We don’t want to talk about it.
Lipinski: I saw you trash your book on Twitter.
I did. Because it was terrible. And I felt like a sellout, because I was a sellout. But the money was really good, so. You know, you have to live. But I was ashamed of it. Anyway. We hate that book. So I went back to the paper and I covered different things. I covered politics. I had done a lot of investigative reporting so I was trying to do a lot of different things at the paper and then I became an editor – they had Neighbors sections back then. And that I really hated.
Lipinski: Because you’re not a neighborly guy.
I was actually a good editor but it was like taking D’s and trying to make them into B’s or A’s, and then the reporter gets all the credit. I mean who needs that shit?
I mean seriously. I mean they prance around: ‘Hey, look at this great story.’ If everyone only knew how fucking bad it was before.
Lipinski: Some of us actually enjoy that work.
You did. You were good at it.
Lipinski: Your copy was at least B, B-plus, when you turned it in.
Lipinski: It wasn’t the editing, Buzz, that was the challenge. It was the sitting next to you.
You liked that!
Lipinski: I did. It was perverse.
And we could smoke back then. Those were the good old days when you could smoke in newsrooms and drink and fuck and all that. Now they’re like insurance companies. Anyway, I found the town of Odessa. It’s not a quintessentially small town – it’s about 100,000 – but it felt like a small town because it was so isolated. It also was big enough that I hoped there would be themes that I could grab onto, whether it was race or educational priorities or the boom and bust economy, and it was a matter of getting permission from the town and the team to spend a year there. And off I went. I ended up quitting my job at the Inquirer.
At that point in time they were giving decent advances, so I got a good enough advance – it wasn’t as much as I was making at the Inquirer but it was enough to live on. But I would’ve done that book for nothing. I just had a passion and a feeling in my heart that this was the right book for me to do. And then I got lucky. As my father says, “You have to be close to be lucky.” But everything felt right. Everything. If you were writing fiction you could not have made up a better season. The characters were distinct, there was tremendous tragedy with Boobie Miles, the black player (at the center of the story). Some people said, “Did you really feel you had to stay there a year?” The answer was yes because it gave me the ability to write with much more authority when I finally sat down to write. I really knew that town. It wasn’t a matter of spending every day reporting – when you write a book a lot of it is the feel of what the town is like, because you’re living there, and your kids are going to school there, and you’re really a part of the fabric of the place.
Lipinski: A lot of people know this (book) from the television show or the movie. What gets lost in that is this extraordinary reporting and writing that birthed the movie and television show. I thought it would be good for you to read something from it. It’s a section about when Boobie Miles, around whom much of the action for the season and book evolves, is injured. Do you want to set it up and give a little context about how you covered racism in this book and the use of these young kids as athletes – the promise unrealized, most of them, for a pro career?
My background was as a reporter. I had worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer at a time when it was an exciting newspaper. It wasn’t perfect but it had great talent, and it really did teach you how to report. So I went down (to Texas) as a reporter. I never went down there as a sports man, and I never saw it as a sports story. To this day I’m called a sportswriter but I’m not. There’s a difference between writing sports and writing about sports. I always saw (the story) as much more sociological. In any book or any story you write you’re looking for narrative glue. You’re looking for a narrative skeleton. In this case it was easy: It was the season. Now the problem was, what if they go 4-6? What if they go 3-7 and I don’t have a season? So one of the reasons I picked Odessa was because they then were the most successful team in Texas history. They had made the playoffs nine or 10 years in a row, they had great players coming back, one of whom was Boobie Miles, the black running back.
But it wasn’t just a matter of – you’ve seen movies about this: You’re a rock star at 17 and you’re washed up at 18. I was there in 1988 and they’d built a stadium in 1985 that cost $5.6 million – it’s the only bond issue the town ever passed. They flew to several away games by charter jet, which cost them $70,000. But it also became apparent they only cared about these kids for as long as they played football. College, or taking the SAT, was not encouraged. The academic lives of these kids was a joke. They were treated as gods. At school they basically had these geisha girls who’d bring them cakes and cookies and beer every Friday. But you could smell tragedy. One of the neat things about writing is the stuff you don’t put in, the stuff that you remember that informs what you write, and I would watch some of the kids who had played the year before and they would come back to the locker room, and you could see the misty look in their eye. They were has-beens. They really were in effect dead.
In the case of Boobie, the racism of the town became very, very apparent. This was a town that had not integrated its school system until 1982. It had been forced by court order. Then when it did integrate, football was such a priority in this town they drew this really weird sort of square (boundary that included) the black housing project, because that’s where the good football players were.
(Bissinger reads from Friday Night Lights.)
Well, the saga of the story is that he tore his anterior cruciate ligament, which is a very serious injury. To recover from it takes tremendous willpower, which Boobie never had. His career as a football player basically ended. It particularly ended in terms of the coaches when they found another running back who was almost as good. Boobie came back for a little bit, which was ridiculous, because he still had not had his knee repaired – he couldn’t cut. It was wincing, to watch him. So he quit the team, and when he quit the team he started flunking every course. As I (wrote), the coach called him a “big dumb ol’ nigger.” I remember the boosters hanging out one day and laughing and joking around and them saying, “You know, maybe Boobie should do what you do to a horse that’s pulled up lame. He should take out a gun and shoot himself.” They thought that was funny.
He fell apart, but he really had fallen apart before, and this is why the town I guess hated me, but that’s OK. I saw what happens: He was treated as a football animal. That’s what they felt he was. They felt he was a dumb-nigger football animal who had no use in life except to play football. He could not be educated; he was not worth educating. Nothing was demanded of him. He had a tutor who would give him the (answers) to all the tests beforehand. He was actually getting paid to play by an unnamed booster – he would get as many dollars as yards that he carried. This was a poor black kid from the bad side of the tracks and he gained 1,500 yards or 1,200 yards, which was 1,200 bucks, which was a lot. So there was no incentive to get an education. He was encouraged not to. But the problem with football animals is that when the football ends, you have nothing. Nothing.
Now, he wasn’t meant to be a physicist, he wasn’t meant to be a journalist. He wasn’t meant to be a lot of things, but he was not stupid. He had a certain intuition. But when you have no education – I knew when he got hurt, because obviously you can tell I was right there – I looked into his eyes and I knew that his life would be nothing but tragedy. I knew. And that’s what it has turned out to be. I’ve stayed in touch with him.
Lipinski: Can you talk about that a little bit? You write about that in the new book, which we’re also going to get to. We had Alex Kotlowitz here recently. There Are No Children Here is a book in which the author develops very intense relationships over an intense period of time with the central subjects of the work, then the book is published, the book is very successful, the writer goes on to do great work and these kids are left in a different place than they would’ve been had the writer never met them. Paths diverge and a lot of these relationships end, and for you and Alex it’s been different. You write about it very openly – not just the emotional aspects of your relationship with Boobie but the financial aspects of your relationship with Boobie. I wonder if you can talk about how you made decisions about what kind of relationship that would be.
I’ve given Boobie a lot of money over the years – not that that makes me a hero or a good man or a bad man. I think he needed it, although sometimes I think he was just playing me. I never paid him during the season. I never paid him when the book came out, because I felt that would be unethical. But as he began to disintegrate and to sell drugs and to not hold a job he began to call me. I knew that he was drowning: “Buzz, I can’t pay the rent, if you could just help me out, I’m about to get evicted.” I would call the landlord and he’d say, “Yeah, he hasn’t paid rent in two months” so I’d send it to them. Over the years, I don’t know, I gave him 50, 60, 70,000 dollars. I think I did it initially out of guilt out of a large degree or some degree. The subject-journalist relationship is, for me, made complex – Boobie’s argument was, “Well, if none of this ever happened to me there wouldn’t be a book.”
Boobie has the worst kind of American celebrity that you can possibly have, which is very typical now in the American culture. People may not know his name but they know his story. In the TV show he’s Smash Williams and he’s had T-shirts emblazoned with his name, he recently had a rap song that was named after him. He got fucked by the movie people. What they do is, they invite you to the set and you hobnob with Billy Bob Thornton and you touch Tim McGraw’s hat and they put you in a scene. Meanwhile at night Boobie was slinging drugs to try and take care of his twins, and he loves those kids. He had no job but he was a celebrity. He’d go to the mall and it would be, “Boobie, can I have your autograph?” But it was bringing him nothing.
Part of it was his difficulty in accepting responsibility. The other thing that happened is – you gotta remember: He’d been robbed of his dream when he was 18. He’d always had this vision of himself: I’m gonna be a pro football player. It was hard to get that stardust out of his eyes, and it was only enhanced after the movie. Double whammy. But what happens is, they don’t give a fuck. They get up and leave and go make other movies, and there he was.
But (our relationship) evolved from guilt into really caring. I was concerned. I would get phone calls where he was not only desperate for money, but desperate: “I got no place to run, my wife’s in prison, I’ve got these kids and I love them but I don’t know how to support them, I’ve even thought of suicide.” I did dread getting a phone call one day where he’d gotten shot or killed because he committed some type of serious crime. And what After Friday Night Lights is about – it’s a short e-book – it’s about my relationship with him, which I think has developed into one of love. It’s a complicated kind of love, because there were moments when I felt played, and there were moments when I was so eager to help him that I did no due diligence.
I saw him recently and he was doing better. He was working. He’s been in and out of all types of jobs. Every shit job there is, he’s done. He has no education. Now he has a felony conviction, for (aggravated) assault, because he does have an impulse issue; he gets angry very easily. There’s a limit to what I can do because I’m 2,000 miles away. I tell him, “Boobie, you gotta just suck it in, stop fighting.” But I do love him and I think he loves me. We’re splitting the proceeds of the e-book, so he’s gonna actually get some decent money. And it’s his. I’m not gonna tell him how to use it. Why are we sharing the proceeds? Because, once again, without his story there would be no e-book. And I could argue just as vociferously that without me there would be no e-book, without the reputation of Friday Night Lights. So you could play this game back and forth. I would love to see him make it. I hope he doesn’t spend it all at once. I’m not gonna put it in trust because it’s just too complicated. I don’t want to be the administrator of it. I do tell him, “You’re getting a lot of money. Do not spend it all at once. You need a cushion.” I’d like to see him have some stability in his life.
Lipinski: So after Friday Night Lights there were a number of things. There’s A Prayer for the City, which is your immersion examination of Ed Rendell’s term as mayor in Philadelphia. There’s the LeBron book, and some other things. But I want to touch on the new book and then open it up to fellows. I want to talk about Father’s Day not just because it’s the new book but because it’s the work in which I think you are the most raw, the most personal, the most revealing, in some cases in sort of embarrassing ways. You talk about your psychoses, you talk about your divorces, you talk about really rough moments in your relationship with your parents, but the central story, of course, is your relationship with Zach. So, Buzz and his wife had twin boys who were born – was it 13 weeks?
Thirteen and a half.
Lipinski: Thirteen and a half weeks prematurely, and both of them weighing under 2 pounds
And this was in 1983 –
Lipinski: Can I just – just stop for a minute –
She like this all the time?
Lipinski: I usually get a few more words in –
She’s gotten much more sassy –
Lipinski: But the fundamental difference is three minutes. Gerry is born and yes he’s small and yes he’s early but he goes on to graduate school at Penn, to become a teacher. Zach is born three minutes later and it’s three minutes that cost him a lot, and cost you and your wife a lot. There’s been oxygen deprivation and he is born with a lot of serious burdens, which will define the rest of his life and change your life and your wife’s life and his twin’s life, and everybody who knows you, their lives, in very profound ways. So Father’s Day really is a book about a road trip. It’s the trip you and Zach take to kind of rediscover each other and for you to try to understand your son. The best way (to convey this), really, is for you to read this conversation that the two of you have, and it’s one of many conversations you recount quite literally in the book. You are with your son as you are with the world: You are volatile, you are loving, you are profane, you are difficult, you are supportive, you’re all these things, and you’re very open about it in this account, which I think must have been very hard to do. So maybe just set up where we are at this point in the trip and then read that conversation, where you’re speaking very directly to Zach about what happened to him. He knows his birth story, so this isn’t a surprise to him by any means, but it’s a tough conversation.
I just wanted to do something different with him. I got this idea to drive across country, which I thought was great until he told me that he hated being in the car and wanted to fly. But we did it and the first half was pretty rocky. I was pretty stressed. And I say this – he was not the child that I ever imagined having and he’s not the child that I wanted. I sort of cringe when I say that, but it was true. He had trace brain damage so his disability is particularly in the area of comprehension. He’s very verbal, he’s social, he loves people. He’s a savant. But his comprehension is limited. But not only did I really want to discover or rediscover him, I felt I had to tell him what he was like. I could no longer hide it. I didn’t want to hide it. First of all, I felt he had the right to know. Second of all, I’m not an outsider. I’m his father, and I’ve always believed in openness with my kids. And I didn’t want this thing where I’m gonna treat Gerry this way and Caleb this way and Zach’s over here.
I also wanted to know, because it would inform our relationship in the future, how much did he really know about himself? So this a moment and – and I’ve been criticized for it by critics, who are fucking assholes –
Lipinski: You’re on the Indiana Skyway or –
On the Indiana Skyway. It’s pretty early in the trip, and I am trying to find a moment – it was hard: How do I bring this up and where do I bring this up? So this is where we are. I think it was the second day of the trip:
Some people said, “How could you ask your son a question like that?” I wanted to know who he was, and I also wanted to converse with him as I conversed with my other children. Part of the problem with a child like Zach is that as wonderful as he can be, you have this constant sense of being stuck: We’re playing the same games, the same routines, that we’ve played for 15 years. As a parent it drives you crazy because you don’t want your children to become stuck. We all have hopes and dreams for our kids; we all have aspirations.
As a journalist, all I ever do is try to get people to be honest about themselves and open up. Sometimes I do it, sometimes I don’t. I felt, well if I’m gonna turn the light on myself I have to be honest, because I think there’s purity in honesty. I think that’s where you learn. This wasn’t some conceit, some attempt to draw negative attention to myself. Because the way I am informs me as a father, as a parent and as a man. If I was more cheerful, if I was more optimistic, I probably would’ve thought of Zach very differently. If I wasn’t impulsively volatile I would’ve thought of Zach very differently. So I put that in. Because I thought it was important. Some reviewers have understood that and some reviewers have said, you know, that I’m dysfunctional, a basket case or cruel. And that killed me. Because I’m many things, but I’ve never ever intentionally been cruel to my son. Ever.
I knew that that (reaction) was the risk. But to me, what’s the point of writing a memoir – and I’d never written one before and I’m not gonna write one again; my life is not that interesting – what is the point if you’re not honest? I think most memoirs are not honest. I think too many memoirs are piped. I think they make up shit to make themselves look better and to give it more narrative drive. I didn’t want to do that. Ninety percent of the conversations in (the book) are taped. They’re real. They happened. There’s many people who say Zach is wonderful and his father is cruel and spouts a lot of profanity and treats him terribly, but that was not the intent; I felt I had to show myself as I was, just as I was showing my son as he was.
Lipinski: So let’s open it up to the fellows.
Dina Kraft: I wondered what you learned about Zach and what surprised you.
It’s a good question and some people – you know, “I’ve learned this,” “I’ve learned that,” and it’s a contrivance, because you want some moral purpose to the book, but I did learn a lot about Zach. I learned many things. First of all, his ability for empathy, which I had never really seen. He’s very kind. He’s very ebullient. It is true that he was constantly steadying me, and he had an intuition for when I was getting upset just beyond getting lost and swearing. He just knew and he would put his hand on my back, or put his hand on my shoulder and basically say, “Dad, it’s gonna be all right.” He had never shown that.
But it was more than empathy. He knew: My father is upset, maybe there is something I can do to calm him down. As opposed to getting freaked out himself. He’s very, very steady, and I had never known that about him. Because he’s funny – like, he goes to a funeral – he loves wakes because he loves seeing people he knows. The death of a person doesn’t mean anything to him, really. He’s very observant, much more observant than I ever thought because half the time I don’t think he’s paying attention, and then something pops out where he’s paying close attention. I’ve found, too, that he has more than a yearning for independence. One of my goals as a parent within the limits of what we can do is to encourage that independence. He needs it. He wants it. Oliver Sacks says that within all of us, whatever the impairment, or not, resides this need to be whole. And that’s true. Part of Zach’s wholeness is that he’s mature. He doesn’t want parents hovering over him all the time. Now we’re not gonna be irresponsible about it – he’s not gonna live alone – but he really showed a responsibility. It excited him. It made him feel proud. It made him feel: I have an identity that’s my own.
So I learned that. I also saw the ways in which – he’s stuck in some areas and always will be, but he’s also maturing. His vernacular has gotten better, particularly in the Epilogue, as I get people up to speed. The book took so long to write – his vocabulary is better now, his conversational ability is better. Normally it’s kind of a rote routine of what are you wearing, where do you live, what’s your birthday, and then he’ll remember it for the rest of his life. He’s trying to negotiate more how to insert himself into conversations. Someone will mention a movie and he’ll mention a movie that he’s seen.
Did the book change me? Did the trip change me? I don’t think it did. I’m still ambitious. I’m still frantic the book will be a failure and if it’s a success it won’t be as big a success as I anticipated, and all that shit that I go through. But it did make me feel closer to Zach. We’re much closer. I once moved away to California to write for NYPD Blue for a year, and he didn’t care. It was about 10 years ago. Then at one point we were thinking of moving to New York, and it’s not that away from Philadelphia, and I said, “Zach, how would you feel?” He said, “I don’t want you to go.” I said, “Well, how long can I go for?” He said, “You can go for a weekend.”
And he meant it: I’ll never see you. I said, “I’m not going anywhere.” I love all my boys – Gerry is amazing, Caleb, the youngest, he’s at Kenyon, he’s beautiful, fantastic. He was on an exchange program to Cape Town University, so we were all gonna go see him. And Zach for the first time with legitimacy said, “I want to go.” Flying is really hard for him; he gets very antsy. I said, “Zach are you just saying that because we’re going or do you really want to go?” “No, I really want to go.” We figured out strategies for him to – you know, it’s a 14-hour flight – strategies – he loves Pee Wee’s Playhouse – it’s the only movie he’s ever liked. And he likes Angry Birds, which he can play on the iPad. We did pop him with a little Ambien, which certainly helped. And he was very reassured, sitting next to Gerry. He did great. Well, I think he did great. I was in business class and they were in economy –
So I don’t really know how he did. But Zach said he did great –
Gerry’s take is slightly different. He said Zach asked every two minutes, “Are we there yet?”
But you know, he made it. And I went back there occasionally.
Gerry had a really glum look on his face. I slept well.
But we got to South Africa and I have to say, it was like boys’ weekend. To have all three of them together, and for Zach to make that trip, was a big, big step for him. It was great.
Hope Reese: Was your family with you in Texas (for the Friday Night Lights research) –
Reese: — I wonder what that was like, and I wonder what it was like for the town to have you and your family.
They liked it. They – when you do books like this they’re looking for commitment. That’s one of the reasons – look, I was there to get people to open up. You want people to trust you, and they loved the fact that I wasn’t parachuting in and out. I’ve seen people try to do books like that and they really don’t work. (If you’re on the ground people say): This guy’s committed; this guy lives here; this guy’s gonna rent an apartment and live in this shithole for a year and his kids are gonna go to school. We were part of the fabric of the community and that meant a lot to the town. We had fun. Because there are a lot of good people in Odessa. You know, newsrooms are hard for me. Because I get jealous and I get petty and I hate it when someone else is getting attention.
Lipinski: Buzz, have you stopped not reading the New York Times book review section or can you read it again? He’s not read it in years because he cannot tolerate happy reviews about other people’s books.
No, I can’t. I just looked at the best-seller list to see if my little book was on it, which it was, for one week. I have not read – it’s pathetic. I haven’t read it in more than five years. My shrink told me to stop reading it so I stopped reading it.
Jonathan Blakley: Where would (Boobie Miles) be right now, had you not helped him?
I think he would be in prison. He thinks he would be in prison. I think he would have committed — out of desperation or taking too many drugs — an armed robbery. Or killed himself. So he does know that when push comes to shove – we’ve had a lot of fights, a lot of hang-ups, a lot of fuck-you’s but sort of like husband and wife we then reunite. It makes me feel that life is cool. Our backgrounds could not be more different. I grew up in a life of obscene privilege on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I never went to public school a day in my life. So I just think it’s serendipity, and cool, that you can love someone who came from totally, totally opposite conditions. People say, “What do you get from him?” Well, he’s funny, he’s sweet, he loves kids. Yeah, it makes me feel I’ve done something good. But then I get worried that – sometimes I do feel I’m aiding and abetting. He knows he can get money from me, he knows he can guilt me and that that’s gonna make him less responsible. It does make me feel good that maybe I’m really helping someone who I felt would always need help.
Tyler Bridges: I’m always interested in the question, as a journalist, when you get so close to people and you want to get the truth then you have to take a step back and potentially hurt people that you’ve gotten to know and like. How did you handle that issue? Obviously you wrote things in Friday Night Lights that pissed off people, but did you also find that – were you just cold-blooded about it and could do that?
It was hard. I began writing the book in Odessa, which was a huge mistake because I needed distance, I needed separation. They were hard decisions because the good thing about access is that when it works it works; the difficult thing about access is, you develop relationships, you make friendships. There are certain people who will never forgive me and never talk to me again. But other people knew I was there as a journalist. Then the question is: Saying a town is racist, is that gratuitous or is there real evidence? To me it was not simply the evidence of the word “nigger” – you go through the lawsuit that was filed to have them desegregate the schools in 1982 and it’s terrible, really terrifying. And as I say, I didn’t intend this to be a sensational expose but I did intend it to be an expose of a town that had become totally carried away by football, where it had become the reason to be.
The kids themselves, that I focused on, all supported me, which was very, very important. The older people, some of the coaches, you know, never forgave me. But one thing I did in After Friday Night Lights – (earlier) I did give people some passes. I never named the assistant coach who called (Boobie) a big dumb old nigger – I’d let it pass and that had bothered me for 20 years. And it bothered me because I remember talking to Boobie at one point and Boobie saying: Do you have any idea what it’s like to have someone call you that in a book, something that’ll be in there forever? And I’d never thought of it that way. The intent was not to shine on Boobie; the intent was that this was the racism. I thought, “If I’m not protecting Boobie, why am I protecting this coach?” So in After Friday Night Lights, which came out about a month ago, I named him.
David Skok: You wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the Philadelphia Inquirer, about the (Ed) Rendell leadership group stepping in, and I’m just curious about what compelled you to take that stand and what the reaction has been. And how do you feel about the Inquirer today?
I felt compelled to take a stand because I knew Rendell and I knew the team he had put together. I thought it would be a blithering disaster, far beyond what other papers have had to do. I mean I understand that developers have bought papers, and Warren Buffet bought a paper, but I don’t know another paper in which you had a former governor, mayor, arguably the most powerful person in the state, running a paper, making editorial policy. Not only that – it wasn’t just simply a matter of what Ed might decide to do; it would be the thousands of people who would call Ed every fucking day because they would hear a rumor. And I know Ed – he would be very susceptible – sometimes out of kindness, sometimes out of whatever – to protecting someone. And I felt the influence he would have, that it would be a disaster, that it would be the worst-case scenario of a paper being taken over.
The reaction was predictable. I actually do think it did have something to do with (the fact that there was) increasing pressure and criticism and Rendell dropped out. I think he realized this was gonna be a can of worms that he didn’t want to get involved in. The consortium that bought it does include George Norcross, who’s a very powerful politician, and Lewis Katz, who I never really trusted. Norcross did actually do something that I did admire; he wrote a public letter and said, I will not in any way influence coverage in the paper when it involves me, any of my companies or any of my family. And if he sticks to that, that’s good.
Right now you can’t really tell. They brought back Bill Marimow as editor. Bill is a wonderful editor. Whether or not Bill is right – because Bill is very old-fashioned and papers are changing and papers need to change, and whether that type of old-fashioned editor is good for the paper, I don’t know. It’s bizarre – he was there and then got fired by the publisher and now he’s back and they fired the publisher. So.
To me the hope is – for these (owners) it’s a toy. They don’t really care about making money; they’ve made a ton of money in their lives. They do seem cognizant of not wanting to interfere. For now. The paper still does good journalism. But I don’t know what the future holds. Nobody does.
Anna Griffin: You mentioned that the Inquirer, when you were there, was a place that taught you how to report. Talk about what that means. Do you think newsrooms still do that?
What was great about journalism when I entered it, which was right after Watergate, in 1976, papers were hot, papers were making money, but beyond that they all wanted investigative reporting, they all wanted long-form reporting. So when I was at the Norfolk Ledger-Star I was doing 125-inch stories as a kid reporter. So even there you began to learn narrative – how to tell a story. When I went to the St. Paul Pioneer Press I wrote a 35,000-word story, seven full pages in the paper. So even before the Inquirer, the tools of interviewing, the tools of developing characters, the tools of telling a story, the tools of drawing a reader in were things I had already learned, and they were certainly honed at the Inquirer, which gave tremendous amount of time to stories. The stimulation for me was good and bad, being around other reporters who were superb. Gene Roberts is a complex man and he was great at the Inquirer – it’s a nice aphorism but it’s true: The key to reporting is to zig while everyone else zags. And I did remember that as I was in Odessa. The chips fell where they may. People accused me of betraying them but I had no idea Boobie was gonna get hurt, I had no idea what would happen. But I went in wanting to write a book that was simply more than rah-rah football. I knew that I wanted it to have weight, to take a subject and really try to elevate it to something special, something unexpected.
Do I think that can be done today? I think certain papers still do it, still try to do it. This is a generalization but I think the writing is just not very good. There’s fewer copyeditors, fewer editors; the 24-hour cycle, which I never had to deal with – you’re writing for the web, you’re writing for this, you’re writing for that, you’re updating here, you’re updating there. The writing has really gone down, and that was the one thing that was really coveted at the Inquirer. Some papers are still doing some good investigative reporting. But papers don’t have the same relevance. Of course neither do books. Neither do magazines. I don’t know where we’re headed. Every portion of the printed word is in turmoil. News holes are getting smaller and smaller and smaller. But you know what? A lot of good things are still done. One of the things that I don’t miss about papers is the constant − you guys know − it goes up the food chain, one editor after another after another after another, and what I think happens is I think it loses its voice. Everyone takes a shot at it. It’s like making a bad movie. It’s better if you stick with one editor.
(To Lipinski): Do you know Larry Kramer, the guy who just took over at USA Today?
He any good?
Lipinski: I don’t know.
I do think, whether he’s good or not, I do think that was an interesting choice, and a good choice, them picking someone who had not been in the news business since 1991. Papers have to think out of the box. It’s hard for journalists to think out of the box. One of the reasons I left print journalism was because I got a little bit bored of being reined in. But they have to (think out of the box). And they still may fail. What I worry about the most is that − there’s been so much negative written that readers may have said, “Well fuck it, they’re dead.” And if they die we’ll have these little websites but we’ll have no news. We’ll have no vigilance; we’ll have no reporting of any kind. And it’ll be fucking chaos. That’s more than a tragedy; that’s a social disaster.
Carole Osterer: Can you talk about what you’re working on next?
Sure. Nothing. I mean, I’ll do magazine pieces. (Bissinger writes for Vanity Fair.) I may do something entirely different. I actually may do radio. I’ve done it before. I like talking, as you can tell. I have a lot of opinions. This book took a lot out of me. I get too wrapped up – this is the way I am, and I’m being honest: I am very, very negative, and I’m very, very hard on myself, and I’m sort of tired of beating myself up for nine-tenths of the book and then thinking, “Oh, maybe it has some potential.” And I’m lonely. Writing books is great, but I’m tired of just looking at the computer. I’ve done it by myself for, what, close to 25 years. And I love new challenges. That’s why I wrote this. I had never written a memoir. I mean, I just like new challenges. And I think it’s good to step away for a while. It’s not that I’m necessarily burnt out but I’d like to do something different for a while and then recharge. It always takes me a long time between books. For me, the older you get the less you feel that little palpitation in your heart. I’m not like David Halberstam, who said, “The first one I wrote for love, everything else I wrote for money.” It’s hard enough to write a book when you love the subject, and it’s impossible when you don’t.
Lipinski: Do you remember your last Nieman day? How you felt?
I mean, you feel tremendously sad, and you feel you’ve been through something incredibly special. I didn’t feel that sad. I felt excited. I felt like I’d been through an experience unlike anything I’d had in my life. And I was revved up. I didn’t know when it would come or how it would come or why it would come, but I was revved up that I was gonna do something different. So I don’t think there really were a lot of tears that day. Everyone said, “We’ve been through something magnificent and we’re lucky to have had the privilege of being through something magnificent, so there’s no reason for tears.” There was reason to say, “We are very lucky because we are very good” – as you guys are – “and we’ve had a magnificent time, and now we have to take those moments and what we had.” You owe it to yourself to do something different. Because you’ve had such a marvelous year of stimulation – intellectually, socially – that’s what these things are about, getting away from it all. Even if you’re going back to your own paper, do something different. Do a beat. Write a book. Whatever. Just do something different.