Jeanne Marie Laskas and Thomas Lake on sportswriting, voice, source love and more (Mayborn 2012, vol. 1)
If you were following the activities out of Grapevine, Texas, last weekend you might’ve seen tweets like this one:
And this one:
The after-hours antics at the Mayborn are not surprising. Writers are, stereotypically, cocksure, socially starved, self-destructive sorts; booze ignites egos and loosens tongues. But I suspect the revelry at the Mayborn is born of a more desperate fervor, the product of long hours each day spent in front of and surrounded by some of the best practitioners of your craft alive today. It is the type of conference where two-time National Magazine Award Winner Tom Junod tweets after the event that the Mayborn, “has reminded me how much I don’t know and how much I haven’t done. The great thing is that it has made those deficits inspiring.”
Our coverage started in Twitterville and continues today, with Thomas Lake, of Sports Illustrated, and Jeanne Marie Laskas, of GQ, talking about sportswriting, voice, love, the art of waiting and when and how to ask the right questions. (Check back next Thursday and Friday for new Mayborn posts.) We’ve edited the transcript of the conversation, which was moderated by Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery, for length and clarity.
BM: My little brother – I call him “little” – he’s eight years younger than me but he stands about 6-8 and weighs about 280 pounds – he was a defensive end at the University of North Texas. A few years ago, he called and he said, “Hey, there’s an ESPN The Magazine reporter hanging out. He’s doing a story about how we’re playing the University of Oklahoma,” the team at the time predicted to win the National Championship. I told my brother, “If you want to make this story, say things in a way no one has ever said them before.” When he was interviewed, he tried to follow that. I’ll quote him from the story.
“There’s a moment-you can feel it,” says Burruss. “It’s tangible, when all the air gets sucked out of the stadium and everyone is like, ‘Whoa, what’s gonna happen next?’ At that moment everything is equal, and the underdog either takes it to the next level, or the bigger guy crushes his will. That’s what you play these games for, that’s what you live for, that one moment when you’re equal. You either become a big-time player or go back to being just another guy in a helmet.”
There’s so much sports chatter out there. It’s rare that you hear something that’s not cliché, or that you hear someone’s real voice. So much of sports journalism is so wrapped up in cliché.
“The first game is so critical if you want to compete. We’ve got to go play the games. We’ve got to practice hard, play hard. Play every play every game for 60 minutes. Step up and make those game-winning plays. Impact the game in a positive way. Going to play a tough team every week. Week in, week out, consistent basis. From the beginning of the game until the end, it’s going to be a big game. Hopefully we can play our best game out there, utilize our personnel. You’ve got to go out and prove yourself. At the end of the day, you’ve got to go out and compete at a very high intensity level. Speed level, comfort level, talent level. Meet the expectation level that we expect. Proximity standpoint. Structural and schematic standpoint. Continue to move forward with dedication and buy-in, with proven track record of success. Grow the offense, grow the program, build the program, market the program. Structurally and fundamentally. The sky’s the limit. The sky’s the limit. The sky’s the limit.”
JML: I give kudos to my editors at Esquire and GQ, who came up with the idea of choosing someone who knows nothing about any sport in America to cover it at its biggest stage. That was a very good match. My first story was about Korey Stringer. Basically, here was the assignment: Go find really big, beefy football players nobody had ever heard of. Tell me what it was like for this guy to bash his head every day into a bunch of other guys. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know who your coaches are. I don’t know if you’re winning or losing, except that you’re bashing your head over and over again. I didn’t really care what he said in the beginning. I really was just interested in his tattoos. I didn’t say, “Oh, how was that football game today?” I said, “What does FTW mean? You’ve got this big tattoo ‘FTW.’” Korey Stringer said, “Well, it used to mean Fuck the World. But I turned it into ‘Find the Way.’” Now, I’ve got a whole narrative right there. “Tell me, how did that tattoo change in your mind to ‘Find the Way?’” And he was open to me; he wanted to talk about it. That was a great character. And sports stories, to me, are just character studies. It’s almost better if you’re naïve, sometimes.
TL: My No. 1 rule I try to follow is: Look for somebody who’s not at their peak right now, somebody who’s not ever going to be famous or maybe used to be.
JML, on a story she just filed about Ndamukong Suh: Of course, everybody wants to know about this stomping. How we got to him was the same way we always do. Sort of a sympathetic approach, “Everybody seems to be saying X about you, we never hear the other side of it.” We almost always use that approach. There’s always going to be the other side of it; whether it’s the truth, you don’t know.
BM: Do you try to establish a legitimate relationship with people like that, and how do you go about establishing trust?
JML: This, outside of Al Gore, was the toughest sort of character to get into. Ndamukong Suh, as you’ll read, maybe, does not speak. I went to New York to spend all day with him; to Jimmy Fallon and to the Van Heusen Company to pick out ties, and literally, he said three words to me: ‘I like blue.’ He wouldn’t make eye contact with me. It was awful, awful. I gave up and I called the sister. I said, “What is up with your brother?” So through the family, eventually – it’s something I think you’ve got to be willing to commit quite a lot of time if you want to get character.
TL: My favorite stories start with a question and sort of a quest.
BM: Every relationship I think is a game of give and take. I think, Jeanne Marie, that you’ve got to give some of yourself. How much do you tell your sources about yourself?
JML: I say almost nothing. I really deflect. I pretend like I’m giving something. It’s so boring to talk about yourself to someone who really wants to talk about themselves. You need to use that trick to build trust to talk about yourself without – y’know, so what you had a lousy flight, so what it rained and your umbrella broke. I just like to leave all that out. They’ll ask me if I have any children, and I’ll say, “Eh, two.” It’s like your shrink. You want to know about your shrink? You do, kind of. (But) you want a blank screen who listens. I think that is the key. You just told me something about your life, your tattoo. You told me something important about your life. Listening, really being honestly present, I think people naturally respond to more.
TL: I have a different approach. I know that from listening to myself on interviews, I sometimes talk too much and I’ll say shut up and listen. If there is a regular human connection that comes up, you’ve got to let it come up. For example, in this story about Jordan, I ended up visiting (his high school coach’s) daughter. We just had a wonderful time. They made me dinner, we sat there and we talked. I’d just met them but I felt like I knew them all my life. I couldn’t get there without telling them a little about myself and where I came from and what’s important.
BM: Do you sort of think of that relationship as definitely short-termed? Or do you think, “I might be friends with this person for a long while; I might have a relationship with them even after the story runs?”
JML: I always try and not become friends with them, but that always backfires. Sometimes, it’s so intense. I’ll give an example about not just about sports, being in Alaska on a frozen island with a bunch of guys for months on an oil rig. You’re there, living in this polar bear cave thing, and they’re protecting you from, like, man-on-the-moon stuff. The intensity of those connections, the stuff that they told me about, I see it sort of like an incredible gift you’ve got to protect, like with a friend. It makes for messy story-writing, very difficult to maintain boundaries in a narrative when you actually feel love, sort of brotherly love, for your characters. I’d say that’s the downside, keeping yourself as a storyteller clean, almost like you’d think of a fiction writer. Yeah, you can be in love with your characters as a fiction writer, but they’re not real. So, I’d say that’s a personal challenge as a writer.
BM: Have you ever fallen in love with a character, a source, or had a source fall in love with you?
JML: That’s like a whole book right there. Did I fall in love with these guys? I’m happily married. In a situation like that, you almost do. Like in Alaska, I can think of like five guys I sort of fell in love with. Sort of, I did. Did they fall in love with me? Yes, I think they – the same way you’d fall in love with a shrink, someone who is that interested in you, is logical. As a writer, you are that interested. But you’re interested for a purpose. I say to people, “I am using you for a story, let’s be clear. Maybe we’ll be friends after this, but I don’t trust me.” I, in that sense, am a vulture. I make it really clear, because we are.
BM: You say that up front?
JML: Not on the first day. This guy, TooDogs, is telling me about child abuse, I mean really awful stuff, his father killing himself. I would stop him: “I mean, hang on. I am a writer, this is for a story. Are you sure you want to tell me this?” I don’t want to trick people.
TL, on note-taking: If I’m sitting down in a coffee shop with someone, I find it’s most efficient to sit down and type on a laptop. I have the notes, they’re searchable. If I’m out walking around, notebook. I’m scribbling furious trying to get all the sensory notes I can get in there. If I know it’s a rare moment with someone I will only get for a short time, then I’ll turn on the recorder. I was never a sportswriter before I came to Sports Illustrated. I covered courts, I did crime, I did investigative stories. And I find that every time I do a story, I need those skills, those skills of digging something out. This story was about a boy who died of heatstroke at football practice, I probably read 7,000 pages of police files and court records and transcripts. But the documents are never enough by themselves. I must have interviewed 30 people. Two of them stand out in memory. One was Chelsea Scott, a cheerleader. She was very hard to find. But the story needed her. It needed a moment for Max to be himself, to stop taking orders and instead take charge, and I knew from Chelsea’s police statement that she had seen him that day. What I didn’t know were the juicy details that would illuminate that moment. Well, she had an address list on the police statement. I punched it into the GPS and drove out there. No luck. Her family had moved away. I must have gone there three times knocking on neighbors’ doors, looking for clues. Nothing.
Most adults can be found through a paid Internet service called Nexis public records, if you know a full name and a date of birth. But Chelsea was a minor. She wasn’t listed. I didn’t know what to do, but I kept looking. If you want badly enough to discover something, you probably can. At the courthouse I dug through this file for a civil lawsuit. Bingo! She had given a civil deposition more recent than her police statement, and that deposition contained a different address. I hightailed it out there and knocked on the door. A friendly woman answered. I explained who I was, why I was there, how I wanted to write something nice about Max from the perspective of someone who really knew him. The woman was Chelsea’s mom. She seemed to really get it. She said Chelsea was at cheerleading practice now, but I could meet her later at the fish fry restaurant where the mom tended bar. So I sit down at the booth, and there’s the cheerleader with her backpack and her three-ring binder. I’m a 30-year-old married guy with a baby at home. And I forge ahead:
So, Chelsea, tell me about your boyfriend.
Oh, he kissed you that day?
It was your first kiss with Max?
Could you please describe this kiss?
About how long in seconds?
Did he seem to know what he was doing?
The story, the story. It exists whether you find it or not. Finally, getting the cheerleader’s cellphone number before you leave the restaurant. Don’t be ashamed to call her when, after you’ve written the scene, you decide it needs more juice. Ask her, were you wearing perfume that day? What brand? Oh, Victoria’s Secret? What kind of Victoria’s Secret perfume? Thank you, Chelsea. Thank you for your understanding. I’m sorry if that was weird. This is a big scene. The big moment for Max, the glory of his first kiss with his cheerleader girlfriend. And if Max were writing the movie of his own life, you can bet he’d want me to get all the details.
The other source I remember most was Max’s mother, who told me he wouldn’t even die without permission. A chill passed over me when I heard that. Immediately, I knew what had to be the ending. For weeks thereafter, as I finished the reporting, I couldn’t wait to write that scene. It made me cry every time I thought about it. But that’s the feeling you’re after when you do this work. When you get up every morning to look for tragic beauty, for human triumph, for some silver thread of the inexpressible thing that makes us all alive, and it runs, and we chase it, and we find it. Now, it’s yours.
Q-and-A with the audience:
Tom Junod: To Jeanne Marie, I found the surgeon’s warning that you give your subjects, that you’re really just a writer, that you shouldn’t be trusted, I found that sort of remarkable. Whether to use something is sort of the eternal struggle. Does giving that (warning) up front sort of absolve you from that struggle when you’re writing that story? Or does that still hit you when you’re in the process of selecting details and writing in telling the story?
JML: I think first it absolves you only in the first draft. Okay, everybody knows I was there. I wasn’t trying to trick anybody. I try and forget everybody in the first draft, so all the good stuff is coming out. That’s in the early stages. Then, I’ll read it, and I’ll try to say, I’m the person I’m writing about and I’m reading it. Where have I rubbed up against the really difficult material where this person would not want anyone else to know? In those areas, I do, I really struggle. And in some cases, I’ll call the person. I don’t ever read a story to somebody, but I’ll say this is the material in a section I’m using.
Lake, on the structure of his first SI story: It helped, having written for the St. Petersburg Times, which is a place that lets you write stories like you might for a magazine. I’m sure that preparation helped prepare me more than I might have otherwise. Edward P. Jones, The Known World – what a beautiful book. My mom bought that for me one Christmas one year. What a gift. That book does a lot of jumping forward in time, these spontaneous moments of sort of seeing into the future. It’s another example, for me, why it’s so important to read the very best writing out there, regardless of genre. For me, it’s a lot of novels. I’m trying to absorb the lessons and techniques that these people have been able to use.
Lake, on how he found the story of an injured softball player carried around the bases by the other team: It was actually in the news a lot when it happened, so this is the example of a story that has been out there. From a newspaper’s perspective, the time when you would want it the most is also the time when it’s least accessible to you because it’s the time when everyone else wants it, too. So, what do you do? What do I do? I sit there and wait. Weeks, months, however long it takes until everyone else is tired of that story. They may have moved on to something more interesting. But I still want that story, and I want to tell it the way I want to tell it, from beginning to end. Interviewing everyone involved, as much depth as I can. That story didn’t come out until a little over a year after it happened. That’s okay with me. I’m not trying to be timely. I’m trying to write something people will remember.
Andrew Pantazi covers crime as a Dallas Morning News intern. He also interned at the North Florida Herald, the Florida Times-Union and the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He is a senior at the University of Florida.