I’m Just Curious, Part II
A little over a year ago, I’m Just Curious,” featured sports authors’ perspectives on certain elements of writing a book. I had a load of fun with the first one. Future installments were inevitable, especially in a culture hungry for sequels.
Part two offers perspectives from three celebrated writers, starting with a brief Q&A with Sean Manning, editor of Top of the Order, who reveals what’s required in putting together an original anthology. Later, Will Leitch and Jeff Pearlman—my binkies for this column—offer their usual honest advice about their livelihoods.
Pete Croatto: The start: What leads you to approach a certain author? As a writer, I'm sure you have friends and acquaintances in literary circles; are you reaching out to them? Working from a dream list of contributors? In the case of Top of the Order did the talent of the writer matter more than whether or not they wrote about sports?
Sean Manning: The most important ingredient to a good anthology is variety. Obviously you want contributors who are authorities on the chosen subject. But you also want some names that when you’re flipping through the table of contents make you go, “What the hell?” In Top of the Order, you had titans of baseball writing such as W.P. Kinsella and Buzz Bissinger and Roger Kahn and Jim Bouton and Pat Jordan. But you also had mystery novelist Laura Lippman; Matt Taibbi, political writer for Rolling Stone; comedian Michael Ian Black; and Craig Finn, frontman for the band the Hold Steady. It isn’t just a gimmick or a way to pique curiosity, though: these people come at the subject in a way that’s totally different from somebody who writes about it all the time. So that gives you a diversity of perspective and voice. Along with that, you shoot to vary the sex and age and race of the contributors. For Top of the Order, there were still more considerations. I didn’t want it to be all Hall of Fame players being written about; I wanted a good share of fringe guys. And I didn’t want too many players from the same era or team, or too many of the same positions. For Top of the Order, as with my other anthologies, I only had a personal connection to a few contributors. The rest I cold queried through their websites or agents. Or sometimes somebody I’ve queried can’t do it but recommends somebody who’d be a good fit.
Pete: How did you approach these folks to write something original, especially since there’s an excellent chance they may be involved in other projects?
Sean: That’s another ingredient to a good anthology: you want all original pieces, no reprints. Why would you buy a book for an essay you’ve already read or can find in another book or online? There was one time when I was tempted to break that rule. It was for my first anthology, The Show I’ll Never Forget. I sent a query to John Updike. A friend of mine had corresponded with him years before and gave me his home address. A couple weeks later I got a piece of mail from him. He’d photocopied an old newspaper review he’d written of a Joan Baez-Bob Dylan concert. In the margin, in red pen, he wrote: “Dear Mr. Manning—I can’t write anything new for you, but what about this, from the Ipswich (Mass.) Chronicle of July 15, 1965? I used to review concerts for it, and the Baez-Dylan was the most memorable.” It’s only two paragraphs, maybe five hundred words, but some of the lines were priceless: “...Miss Baez yielded the stage, with a delight all too evident, to a young man, Bob Dylan, in tattered jeans and a black jacket, three months on the far side of a haircut, whose voice you could scour a skillet with . . . Miss Baez, this admirer was pained to observe, visibly lit up with love-light when he came onto the stage, and even tried to force her way, in duet, through some of the impenetrable lyrics that Dylan composes as abundantly as poison ivy puts forth leaves.” I really wanted it in the collection. I really wanted an essay about Dylan, and to get one from John Updike! But the piece had already been included in one of his essay collections. My editor and I talked about maybe printing his note to me along with the piece but in the end we decide not to use it. If the topic is appealing enough to a contributor, they’ll likely do it no matter how busy they are. That was the case with Jennifer Egan when I asked her to contribute to The Show I’ll Never Forget. Initially she declined. But then a few days later she got back in touch with me. She hadn’t been able to stop thinking about a Patti Smith show she’d seen in high school and agreed to write about that.
Pete: How much editing is involved in the submissions you receive?
Sean: It depends on the piece. There are some where I’ve suggested cutting or reordering several paragraphs and others where I’ve suggested just losing or adding a comma or two. No matter how major or minor my suggestions, though, I stress to the contributors that’s all they are: suggestions, for them to use or ignore as they wish. Contributors to my anthologies have included Pulitzer Prize winners and nominees, National Book Award winners and nominees, National Book Critics Circle Award winners and nominees, MacArthur and Guggenheim fellows, and a National Medal of Arts honoree. These people clearly don’t need my help.
Pete: What are the challenges of putting together an anthology that no one realizes?
Sean: One of the biggest—and most fun—challenges is finding the right order for the pieces. For The Show I’ll Never Forget, arranging the pieces chronologically made the most sense. It gave an idea not only of how live music had evolved over the last fifty years but also of how both music in general and society had changed. For Top of the Order, I loved the symbolism of leading off with Steve Almond’s essay on Rickey Henderson and closing with Darin Strauss’s essay on Mariano Rivera, and in between I tried to bounce between eras and teams and positions and especially tone; you don’t want to have two somber pieces or two funny ones in a row. Of course one of the great things about reading anthologies is that you don’t have to read them in order. You can jump around. But if the pieces are ordered well, and you read from beginning to end, you start to pick up on recurrent themes, and the essays inform one another, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
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Having just written a best-selling biography, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, I thought Pearlman could best describe what it’s like to promote a book. The veteran sportswriter was blunt in his assessment: “It’s a mind-numbing, soul-sucking experience from hell. My least-favorite part of the process, hands-down.” Later, he added, “It’s not so much doing the interviews, but the predictability and repetitiveness of them. In fact, I think you’ll dig this video, which I made during Sweetness promotions."
(Oh, I did.)
“It’s really just a matter of organization,” Leitch said. “You have to treat it like an assignment like any other freelance assignment. I spent years before I got a ‘real’ job working lousy jobs during the day and then coming home and doing work that I hoped would someday get me a ‘real’ job in the business, so I just applied the same technique to writing a book. You can’t think of it as, ‘Shit, I have a whole book to do!’ You just have to write like crazy and then look up one day and realize, man, you’re finished.”
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, AMC Filmcritic.com, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and The Weekender, and maintains a movie blog. A longtime Mets fan, Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA, which is Phillies territory. Pray for him. Contact Pete.