Waiting is the Hardest Part:
An Interview with Jeff Pearlman
Authors are frequently interviewed when they’re extolling the benefits of their finished books to the masses. How many times do we read about what happens beforehand, of the time spent sweating and struggling behind a laptop?
With his new book three months away from hitting shelves and digital readers, sports author Jeff Pearlman (The Bad Guys Won!; the unjustly overlooked Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero) was kind enough to share his thoughts on, among other things, waiting for the book’s release, balancing writing with family life, and what makes a subject book-worthy.
Anyone who reads Pearlman’s blog, knows that the former Sports Illustrated baseball reporter and rabid Blind Melon fan is always honest. He was no different in this interview, which was conducted via e-mail.
Pete Croatto: You recently sent off the final manuscript of your latest book (with edits) to your publisher. First, congratulations. Second, how did you celebrate, if at all?
Jeff Pearlman: Ha, my wife would laugh at this question, because she’s always like, “Let’s have a book party! Let’s do this! Let’s do that!” And I refuse. Not sure why—superstition, karma, whatever. Truth is, the completion of a book doesn’t strike me as a time to celebrate. A deep breath? Yes. A long-ass nap? Certainly. But not a celebration. I guess it’s because the process never feels done, even when it’s done. There’s marketing, there’s strategy, there’s the release, there’s the pimpin’ and selling and . . . it’s dizzying. Besides, the joy for me doesn’t come with the completion. It’s the process itself. The high of a great quote; of tracking someone down, etc.
Pete: According to your website, the book will be released September 29. As a veteran author, are you used to this kind of wait, or does it give you too much time to dwell and obsess?
Jeff: Ugh, I can’t stand it. And it’s now October 4. Hell, I signed this deal, oh, three years ago . . . something like that. So it feels like an eternity. On the other hand, the time has been advantageous, because I’ve never dug into a subject like this. I mean, give me two years and I’ll use it all. Plus, having been rushed by the publishing company to complete my Roger Clemens bio way ahead of schedule, I was pretty happy to have the chance to stretch my legs and dig cause I like digging.
To be honest—and most any author will tell you this—the toughest part about a lengthy deadline is the pay scale. Most authors get paid in three or four bulks: Signing, acceptance, hardcover, and paperback. It’s sorta like the athlete who signs a two-year, $2.5 million deal and thinks he's loaded . . . until he pays taxes, his agent, his mortgage, etc. Here, the longer you have to write, the longer time between payments.
Pete: You’ve written about how you felt your first book, The Bad Guys Won!, had its share of flaws, especially the abundance of “wise-ass comments.” Aside from cutting down on Spuds Mackenzie as Al Nipper references, how has writing books helped you improve as a writer?
Jeff: Interesting question. Books are funky, and every time I hear someone say, “Boy, I really wanna write a book . . .” I think, “Give it a whirl and get back to me.” Because it’s friggin’ exhausting, and trying, and mind-numbing, and repetitive. Which doesn’t answer your question at all. But here I go—first, writing books makes you report your ass off. So at SI (Sports Illustrated), on average, maybe I’d interview ten people per article. For this book, I interviewed nearly 700 people. I read through, literally, thousands upon thousands of pages of clips. I mean, I lived Walter Payton, and wanted to know everything there was to know. And, as most veteran writers will tell you, good reporting makes good writing (and not vice versa). So that's the biggest thing—books have made me a pretty dogged pursuer of information. And that info strengthens the writing. As an example: There's a scene in this book where a college kid’s long-dead dog comes into play. In an early version I had TK NAME by the dog—TK being the universal sign for To Come Later. A friend of mine who was helping with the book said, “Hell, no way you ever get that.” A couple of days later I called him and said, “Bailey, motherfucker!” He laughed. Those little things make books so much better. And while The Bad Guys Won! was reported fairly well, it wasn’t reported like this.
Pete: Are you ever concerned with having too much information? When do you know when to stop making phone calls?
Jeff: Never, ever, ever a concern. It’s like a manager having two closers—you want the problem. It’s painful leaving stuff out of the book, because—especially with this one—a lot of excellent scraps didn’t make the final cut. But I want that problem. And, honestly, I stop making calls when my wife says, “Uh, you might wanna start writing this thing.”
Pete: During the book writing process, you wrote regular columns for SI.com. How did you schedule book writing around assignments and—this, to me, is the impressive part—being the father of two young children?
It’s so hard. My freelance really fell off during Payton, and we’ve had some pretty lean financial years. When I signed the deal I told the wife, “I wanna make this great, so I’m gonna devote the time mostly to the book.” She said, “OK,” but cautiously. Looking back, I probably should have done more freelance, because money was tight. On the other hand, I think it was worth it, because I really believe this is my best work.
As for the SI.com columns—interesting thing happened. So I started writing for the website pre-Payton, and I truly enjoyed it. But, during the book, I slacked. My columns weren’t as strong—I knew it, my editor knew it. They (100 percent rightly) turned down some of them, and it stung. But it caused me to look at myself, and say, “Wait, this isn’t you. You don’t write just for money.” And that’s what I was doing—sorta laying stuff down quickly, without passion. So we talked it out, and now I’m writing every-other-week-or-so features for the site on topics I’m genuinely interested in. I never, ever wanna be someone who just produces for coin.
Family life—also tough. But being a book writer means I’m home. Which means I’m present and around. The kids are my first priority, so come five or six o’clock I put down the writing and spend the evening with them. I’m able to go to every event, be a class parent, etc.
Pete: You’ve been coy about revealing the subject of your latest book, though the whole world can find out on Amazon.com. Is there a reason for the evasiveness?
Jeff: Honestly, paranoia. That’s all.
Pete: What made you decide to write about Walter Payton?
Jeff: Well, I love sports icons, but they’re increasingly hard to find, when it comes to books. [Mickey] Mantle, Jackie Robinson, [Lou] Gehrig, [Michael] Jordan, etc. . . . all taken, 1,000 times over. But Walter Payton, perhaps the greatest player in NFL history, was just hanging there. He’d sorta written an autobiography when he died, but there were a lot of holes, a lot missing. And he was always so insanely guarded—that’s intriguing in and of itself. The less a person says, the more there is to know. Then, once I started researching, I was blown away. I mean, I’ve never written about anyone this complex. Never.
(Interviewer’s Note: OK, I think I can announce this now without repercussions: Pearlman’s book, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, is now available for pre-order.)
Pete: What factors will go into deciding your next subject? Is that fun for you or just plain old torturous?
Jeff: Ha, torture. This is how I make a living and feed the family, so I can’t just say, “Shannon Hoon bio—here I come!” There has to be marketability, but also joy. It needs to be a subject that fascinates me, that has some mystique. I don’t care if the person is controversial or not, but he/she/it has to have some intrigue. Also, I always wanna have a shot of selling big. For example, of my four previous books, two have sold great, two . . . meh. But while Bonds and [Roger] Clemens were only meh—they were big enough names to have a shot.
Pete: We’ve had a brief conversation about a book covering the history of the United States Football League. I say there’s a market for it; you say no. You’ve written two best selling sports books. You have a national profile as a sportswriter and the respect of your peers. Aren’t you at the point where, regardless of subject, readers would enjoy a Jeff Pearlman book on the USFL?
Jeff: I wish. I really do wish. But while my mother thinks I’m a celebrity author, I know the truth. Most people don’t know who I am. It’s the reality. I’ve sold a lot of books, and I’m blessed to be able to do something I truly love. But my name alone doesn’t carry a book, like a Dan Brown or David Maraniss does. I strive for that, but I’m not there. It is what it is.
Pete: Since I’m a book reviewer, I must ask. Reviews: Read them? Ignore them? Do they help in any way?
Jeff: Of course I read them. This is my business. But it’s funny—the positive ones bring much less joy than the negative ones bring pain. To have someone brutalize your work . . . something you’ve put so much time into. It stings. And I don’t know many writers who’d admit otherwise. As for helping—no. Not really. I have a group of friends/writers who I genuinely trust, admire, confide in. Their input is what matters most. And my wife—she’s the top of the list.
Pete: You’ve talked repeatedly about the difficulties of writing a book, borrowing sports author Leigh Montville’s description: it’s like being in a cave for a couple of years. What makes you keep coming back?
Jeff: It’s like a back rub that feels really good but also leaves some painful nail scratches. It hurts and stings and burns . . . .but, man, I’m hooked. I just love taking a topic and making it my own; bringing my own take to it; uncovering info. I love not having an editor hovering over every word; I love being able to shape the book; to decide what belongs and what doesn’t. And, honestly, I love seeing the finished product, bound and beautiful. It’s euphoric.
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At the end of his blog’s weekly interview, The Quaz, Pearlman has his guests answer a series of quick hit questions. Here's my version:
Who would you prefer to spend an hour stuck in an elevator with...Stephen A. Smith or Skip Bayless?
Nicest baseball stadium to see a game?
Five sports books that any reader would love:
Five best non-sports books you've ever read:
You’re a giant Hall & Oates fan. Any plans on writing Foolish Pride: The Daryl Hall Story?
In Sweetness do you discuss Payton’s seminal work co-hosting Saturday Night Live? Where does he rank among the show’s athlete hosts?
As a freelancer, what’s the worst or weirdest piece you’ve been assigned?
Should Pete Rose be in the Baseball Hall of Fame?
Books mentioned in this column: