If you're on Twitter and follow at least a few writers, chances are you've run across a Brian Oliu tweet or two. Or maybe, if you're somehow not on Twitter, you've heard about his TinyLetter, the Boston Cream Review. I feel like this is a full-disclosure moment, because when I first learned of Brian's existence a few years back I gave him instant credibility, due to the title of his TinyLetter. You see, the Boston cream is my all-time favorite donut, and I am easily impressed. Does my proclivity for cream/custard-filled donuts have anything to do with this interview? No, it does not, but are you wondering why Brian hasn't migrated from TinyLetter to Substack? Well, you won't find the answer here. But you will read about bargain shopping in Tuscaloosa, how a guy from central New Jersey became a Timberwolves fan, and about that guy's latest books: the lyric essay collection on professional wrestling, Body Drop, and a chapbook of Rocky-themed poems written in collaboration with Jason McCall, What Shot Did You Ever Take. Brian is a professor at the University of Alabama, and we corresponded over email for a couple of months. Without any further rambling, please feel the vibe that is Brian Oliu.
I am fascinated by your Twitter feed, which is basically an Alabama athletics stan account, a few other sports things, maybe a baby pic or two, and sometimes donuts. Two questions to start: Including your time as a student, how long have you been in Tuscaloosa? Secondly, what has it been like to be there with a massive figure like Nick Saban looming over campus?
Thank you! When trying to explain my Twitter account to people who are not as online as I am, I feel as if I am speaking in a completely foreign language, or it’s that one meme from Breaking Bad where Jesse is talking some esoteric nonsense before Walter White is like “Jesse what the fuck are you talking about?” I realize I am using a very online meme to explain an online concept! None of this makes any sense! Great start, Brian!
So, I have been in Tuscaloosa since August of 2005. I moved to West Alabama to get my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama, & notably to study under Michael Martone. My first Alabama football game was when they beat Tennessee 6-3 on an ugly duck of a field goal & Roman Harper caused a fumble out the back of the end zone. Grown men cried & smoked cigars & I was hooked. I became a full-time Instructor in the English Department in 2009 & have worn a few hats since, including Director of an experiential learning community, Faculty Advisor to Black Warrior Review, and Assistant Director of First-Year Writing.
Nick Saban arrived in 2007, so I did get to experience two years of Mike Shula, who exclusively called zone run up the middle. Saban’s imprint is everywhere, including Alabama going from around 19,000 undergrads when I got here to 38,000 this past year. He lives on the lake north of town & pretty much keeps to himself. He very rarely steps foot on campus proper, though in the summer he gives a speech in the English building to the Boys State program. I ran into him once during a matinee at the movie theater. Meeting him is kind of bizarre because it’s like seeing a hologram simulacra of every version of him. He’s taller than you think he is, but is not tall. I see Ms. Terry, his wife, a lot more than I see him, because we have similar interests. Namely Mexican food, and bargain shopping at TJ Maxx & Ross.
I specifically asked about Saban, but it’s true that you stan all Crimson Tide athletics. Since Alabama is known so much for the football program, which sport do you think deserves more attention from the local fan base, and from the national audience?
So, I will let the audience know a little bit about the various Crimson Tide shibboleths—Auburn & LSU fans referred to Alabama fans as “Gumps” in the message board days—as in Forrest Gump (who played for the Bear!), presumably to mock our intelligence. A good section of Alabama fans have appropriated the derogatory term—specifically those who are fans of the team on Twitter—ergo “Gump Twitter” has become its own thing & has fostered a wild and varied online community. Gump Twitter has tiers to it: I like my friend Esther Scott Workman’s categorizations of it best—Tier One supports all sports & the university/Tuscaloosa as a whole. Tier Two supports football and basketball. Tier Three are bandwagon fans or FOGs (Football Only Gumps). There is also “Gump Elite” but we don’t talk about that. I am a proud Tier One & have been deemed “The Poet Laureate of Gump Twitter,” which is a true honor. As a sports fan, I know football backwards and forwards, though I love basketball as well—I also love the inner workings of the university and the community. I’m able to interact with a lot of our athletes, which is one of the highlights of my job as an instructor. I’m a big softball guy. I really like going to our gymnastics meets, but if I watch it on TV I get way too stressed out. I am a bad baseball fan in general, because I mostly follow along box scores or go to a game mostly to eat peanut M&Ms. We have one of the best adapted athletics programs in the nation, specifically tennis and basketball—I think that’s something that folks don’t necessarily realize about UA. I wish all our women’s sports would get a little bit more shine, though a sport like Women’s Basketball is so top heavy I understand it is difficult to get some momentum. But I’d like to take all of my friends from out of town to a softball game—the fans are die-hards, and it’s essentially like having a picnic while some of the greatest softball players in the world do cool softball stuff.
This cannot be a full-on Alabama interview, so let’s go back a little bit further. Where are you from, and what got you into sports in the first place?
I am originally from New Jersey! I went to undergrad at Loyola Maryland, which in 2004 had a 31-game losing streak in basketball. I was at the game where we broke the streak against the Marist Red Foxes & it is the only time I ever stormed a court.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly where my love of sports came from, but it was always a part of my life, mostly facilitated by my father. He is a Notre Dame grad, so Saturday college football was always an event. As a kid I would memorize the Top 25 AP poll and the Coaches Poll in college football—I distinctly remember one year tracing the Orange Bowl logo in my notebook until I could get it right. I didn’t get a college football experience at my undergrad, so when it was time to go to graduate school, I was really excited to be a part of that whole scene—of course, I anticipated getting my degree in three years & getting out of Tuscaloosa, but instead I got married, got a dog, a house, a kid, and have developed a micro-niche celebrity Alabama twitter account.
In terms of hoops, my grandfather immigrated to this country from Catalonia & fell in love with basketball & I would spend a lot of my time at my grandparents’ house on the weekends, typically watching the NBA on NBC games. He also had Hoosiers and Larry Bird: A Living Legend on VHS, and so I would often take turns watching those when the game was on. And growing up in NJ, we got to watch a lot of pretty good Big East basketball—either at Rutgers home games or the Big East tournament at MSG. Basketball was also my favorite sport to play, even though I would say I was better at both soccer and football. Also, my first job was doing the books for the Readington Men’s Over 30 League, of which my dad was a five-time MVP. I got 60 dollars a night, which was an absolute fortune when you’re 13 years old.
You talked about going to Rutgers basketball games, so I’m assuming you were in north Jersey. Did you get into the Nets as a kid, long before they were bought by a Russian billionaire and bolted for Brooklyn? And with football, did you follow the Giants or the Jets, or were you pretty much a college fan?
Central New Jersey exists! As far as the Nets go, I was never a Nets fan, though I did go to games with my dad at the Brendan Byrne Arena (which I think is now called the Izod Center). I rooted for the Celtics when I was a kid because they were the ones always on television at my grandparents’ house, as well as the aforementioned Larry Bird VHS. My Wolves fandom is relatively recent, though I had always loved KG; my wife is from Saint Paul and considering I didn’t have much of a loyalty to the city of Boston as a whole (& the whole Patriots/Red Sox culture rubbed me the wrong way), I officially made the switch in 2013 and went all-in on the Wolves. Thus, I never really got into the Nets during the Kidd/Kittles/Richard Jefferson stretch because they consistently bounced the Celtics, and they were the reason why they added the charge circle—just an immensely frustrating team to watch.
My NFL fandom is a little complicated—my mom is a Giants fan, but all the kids in my school were assholes & Giants & Jets fans, so I went with my dad’s team, the Indianapolis Colts. When my dad was coming of football age, he was living in Maryland & so he picked the Colts. As he didn’t have loyalty to the area, he is one of the few people that followed the team to Indianapolis. I have a Jim Harbaugh jersey. My dad & I went to the Super Bowl in Miami but didn’t go to the actual game—we watched the game at the Clevelander in South Beach while it poured outside. It was great. A very drunk Saints fan who thought they were going to the Super Bowl gave me a “VIP medallion” which got my dad & I into a post-game party at one of the downtown hotels. I have a Superbowl champagne glass from that party & I got to see various national NFL media scarf down banquet food. It ruled.
One of the other sports we need to get into is wrestling, which directly relates to your latest book, Body Drop. My heyday as a wrestling fan was the mid to late-80s. WCW was still the NWA, and WWE was still the WWF. Before we delve into the book, can you tell us a little about the wrestlers that first got you into it? Are you old enough to have stayed up late to watch the WWF’s Saturday Night’s Main Event?
So, the reason why I got my own TV in my room is because my parents were tired of me watching wrestling all the time—I have Monday Night Raw (& a Super Nintendo) to thank for that bit of autonomy. I would stay up & watch Saturday Night’s Main Event, which was less of an ordeal because Raw was on a school night & often wouldn’t wrap up until 11pm. My favorite Main Event was Randy Savage vs. Yokozuna for the title—I wasn’t a “smart mark” back then, so I legit thought that Macho Man had a chance, even though it was a week before a major pay-per-view & Yokozuna obviously wasn’t going to drop the belt. Savage hit the elbow & I thought that was it, but Yokozuna kicked out. I remember going to bed so mad. But my guys were Randy Savage, Owen Hart, The Undertaker, and Golddust, which, I gotta’ say, proves that I had pretty exceptional work rate taste, even as a young kid.
Do you have any personal history of amateur wrestling or boxing, or any time trying to master a figure-four leglock and become the next Ric Flair?
I do not—although I got in my fair share of fights as a kid & would try to bust out some moves that I saw on television with very marginal success. The most effective move was the double ax handle smash, if I’m being honest. I was a big fan of Jericho’s Liontamer when it came to basement wrestling, as you could both wrench the back & dig their face into the carpet.
The outcome may be determined in pro wrestling, and they may be serving a storyline much like a daytime soap opera would, but it is still highly athletic, and the participants suffer real pain. In combat sports like MMA or boxing head trauma gets glossed over. From writing Body Drop and really delving into the world of pro wrestling, did you learn anything that shocked you about the physical toll the athletes go through to pursue stardom?
So, I think the main thing that folks need to know about professional wrestlers is that they are considered independent contractors, which means that many of them did not have healthcare for a very long period of time. The other thing is that there is no guarantee of your spot still being there if you are injured, so many wrestlers in the middle of a huge push will find themselves working through horrific injuries, concussions, etc. Things have gotten (marginally!) better these days, but the bottom line is that wrestlers put their bodies through an immense amount of pain. I think the most surprising thing to me is how many accounts there are of even the most basic moves being very painful—a flat back (e.g. just falling down on the canvas) is a really jarring move that so many of the folks watching take for granted. When something looks like it hurts, it does—but the things that don’t look “so bad” also hurt.
You had another book come out last year, What Shot Did You Ever Take, co-authored with Jason McCall. That one is all poems inspired by the Rocky film franchise. How did that project come about?
Yes! So, Jason is one of my best friends & an immensely talented poet. We used to live in Tuscaloosa together, but he took a job at the University of North Alabama, which is about two and a half hours away, so we don’t see each other as much. One year I decided that I wanted to do the National Poetry Month challenge where you write a poem a day—except I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up that pace, as I am not exactly a poet. I had been thinking about Rocky a lot, as it is my favorite film franchise—so I approached Jason to see if he’d want to try out the National Poetry Month challenge with me, as he is a much better poet than I am, and he loves the Rocky movies as much as I do. We set up a Google Doc & would write poems back and forth—I wrote a bunch of thought starters/poem titles & we both worked from there. It was a really fun time, as I feel as if I was trying to mimic Jason’s style of writing in the poems, not unlike Rocky trying to learn how Apollo fights in order to take down Clubber Lang. It was a cool contrast in styles & a little competitive, as you didn’t want to put up a terrible poem when your friend is throwing straight haymakers. We never really thought of it going anywhere & it was just a fun thing between friends, but I decided to polish up the manuscript a little bit and send it out to a few chapbook contests, and the good folks at The Hunger Press reached out about publishing it. I love a chapbook—and any time you can collaborate with a friend is a huge win.
Back on April 30th, I saw you issue a simple tweet: Brick City. That was shortly after boxer Shakur Stevenson, from Newark, New Jersey, unified 130-pound titles. Am I right that your tweet was in response to, and celebration of, his victory that night?
Heck yeah it was. Shakur Stevenson rules. Did you watch that fight?
I did watch that fight (Shakur Stevenson vs. Oscar Valdez), and Stevenson is one of the most skilled boxers there is. Such a pleasure to watch, but it was a bummer for me. I’ve been in Tucson for over 20 years, and Valdez is from Nogales, Sonora, just about an hour away on the Mexican side of the border. He’s basically a hometown guy, but he didn’t have enough to compete with Stevenson.
Shakur made that guy look like a tomato can. I’m hoping he can make the leap. It was super fun being in Tuscaloosa for Deontay Wilder’s rise. We go to the same dermatologist.
Speaking of Wilder, he held a heavyweight title for five years, but nationally, almost no one knew who he was. Boxing is a niche sport, but he has the type of personality and backstory that people like to get behind. In Tuscaloosa, is he revered by the local community?
Oh, absolutely. They just unveiled a statue of Deontay down by the Black Warrior River. He is beloved in Tuscaloosa—I think mostly because he continued to fight here rather than opting to go to Las Vegas to train. While he splits his time in Atlanta, he is still very much of the community. He worked for a beverage distributor while he was training, so a lot of the industry/restaurant people know him—he also worked as a door guy at a few places. He gave a bunch of money to a handful of community centers around town. His early fights were in Tuscaloosa, including one at an abandoned furniture warehouse where I bought my first couch. Even when he was fighting a bunch of tomato cans at the beginning of his career, all of the bars would show the fights. There was a big send-off event (where his statue is now!) before his first fight with Bermane Stiverne (editor’s note: In 2015, Wilder defeated Stiverne to win the WBC Heavyweight Title at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.)—and after he won, there was a parade that hilariously ended with everyone in the crowd joining the parade & marching down to the amphitheater where he received the key to the city. Sometimes you’ll randomly see his car around town—Tuscaloosa has a beloved (& terrible!) fast food Mexican restaurant called Taco Casa & every once in a while you’ll just see this giant bronze Hummer in the parking lot.
Going back to Body Drop, I’ve seen you mention this book was in the works for ten years. When we see a book about fandom, I think the tendency is to think it will be a collection of anecdotes about how someone really loves a sport, and how good it makes them feel. You talk about different things, though, even delving into how hero worship can blind us to the unsavory parts of someone’s character, whether that is in or out of the ring. How did the writing of this book crystallize your relationship with wrestling, and has it changed how you experience the sport at all?
I think, as with anything, when you write a book about something, you find people asking you about it—rather in an interview like this, or even when people hear about a work in progress. As a result, you find yourself justifying why you are writing about the thing you are writing about—with wrestling, it’s obviously considered a low artform & would get a lot of perplexing reactions from other writers, colleagues, or other academics. I think my initial reaction was to defend my love of wrestling and talk about it in these heightened terms and explain why wrestling is a much larger and fascinating thing than people give it credit for. I still do that, but writing the book allowed me to pinpoint exactly what it is about wrestling that I love—there are certain things that I find brilliant that other fans find idiotic, and vice versa. It allowed me to find my place within the fandom of professional wrestling—it was pretty cool receiving messages from folks who probably wouldn’t be otherwise interested in a book of lyric essays finding themselves enjoying the book. I’ve received a lot of nice notes about it from strangers who mention that they are happy that I am in their “community”—which is something I never quite considered myself a part of in the past.
We always like to end our interviews with recommendations. Could you give us three writers (sports related or not) our readers should check out?
Yes! David J Dennis' book The Movement Made Us is out—I got into David’s work when he was writing wrestling blogs & now he is on Pardon The Interruption AND has a book about the Freedom Riders. Sports related and not!
In terms of wrestling books, I read a bunch of autobiographies of wrestlers when working on this book. The Daniel Bryan/Bryan Danielson one, Yes!: My Improbable Journey to the Main Event of Wrestlemania, was really fascinating—it has an epilogue that is WILD & completely changes the entire book. It’s kind of worth reading solely for that?
I’d also like to plug the work that FanFyte is doing with professional wrestling—it’s really fascinating in-depth analysis coupled with general silliness & fun stuff; like, they had an EMT talk about the validity of the “fake EMTs” that are ubiquitous with big wrestling moments/injuries. Highly recommended.
John Vercher's first novel, Three-Fifths, was published by Agora in 2019 and went on to be nominated for multiple awards. On June 7th of this year his next book, After the Lights Go Out, will be released by Soho Press. There is no sophomore slump, and since the protagonist is an aging MMA fighter, we had a great reason to get in touch with John to talk about his personal history with MMA, a little classic hip-hop, and of course, the book. Not "just" a sports novel, he continues to take a hard look at fractured family dynamics, race, loyalty, and specific to this novel, the fragility of the mind.
We exchanged emails for a few weeks, worked through my ineptitude with Gmail, and came out with something that is tailor-made for Words & Sports readers.
Your new book, After the Lights Go Out, is about an MMA fighter that is nearing the end of his career. In addition to being a writer, you are also a practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Could you tell us a little about your background in combat sports?
I’ve been training in some form of martial arts or another for a good portion of my life. I grew up on Saturday morning Kung Fu theater, and I’m a kid of The Karate Kid era. I started with Tae Kwon Do just before high school and earned my brown belt. College and the associated partying put a stop to martial arts training for a good while, though my love for it never faded. Then I turned around and I was thirty, and in the worst shape of my life to that point. Mixed Martial Arts was working its way out of obscurity and as the gym and the elliptical trainer held no interest for me, I signed up at a school that taught kickboxing and submission grappling. I competed as an amateur in a few kickboxing matches and one MMA fight.
To be clear: I was a tourist when it came to competing. I competed for personal reasons and to achieve goals I had set for myself. I in no way equate what I did with the sacrifices made by the professionals who do this for a living and the amateurs who are striving to do so.
When my second child was born, I took a brief hiatus from training, and when I returned, I did so solely to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I still love the striking arts and stay sharp on the bag, but all of my training now is in BJJ, where I earned my brown belt last year.
There have been quite a few MMA-flavored films to come out (who could forget Kevin James in Here Comes the Boom?), but not a ton of novels. Writing fiction about sports is hard to pull off because the people that know the sport well tend to be hypercritical. How important was it for you to put MMA fiction on the map, so to speak, and to do it right?
The book hasn’t come out yet, so I don’t know that I’ve put anything on anyone’s map, but here’s hoping.
Writing a book about MMA was a selfish endeavor for me. I’ll sound like a broken record here, but I always fall back to Toni Morrison’s quote: “If there’s a book you want to read that hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” As you pointed out, there’s a dearth of MMA fiction, so I wrote the book I wanted to read.
But I didn’t want it just to be a sports book. For me, MMA was a bridge to explore other avenues, including healthcare, race, class, family, and loyalty. That said, MMA figures prominently into the storyline via the character of Xavier, and as you’ve pointed out, fans can be extremely critical when their beloved sport is fictionalized. Because I also love the sport and had some amateur experience, I’m hoping I was able to convey it in an accurate manner.
There is a lot more going on in the book than fighting, but our main character, Xavier, is likely dealing with the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Memory loss, extreme mood swings, and rage are some of the things making his daily life a struggle. The NFL has been criticized for its handling of head trauma, but combat sports have not shown as much attention to the issue. From the time you first had the idea to do an MMA-related book, did you know that head trauma would be a big part of it?
For certain. My relationship with combat sports is truly love/hate. Though I make my living as a writer, I’m still a licensed physical therapist. My main area of focus was sports medicine, but I also worked in settings with patients suffering from dementia, head trauma, and post-concussion syndrome. While I admire the skill and discipline it takes to be a fighter, whether in boxing, kickboxing, or MMA, knowing what I know of anatomy, neuroscience, and injury also makes the sport difficult to watch. There is so much that these athletes contend with after the horn sounds, after the bell rings, or after the whistle blows. I once worked with a former NFL lineman who had to have both hips replaced in his early forties because of the trauma his body experienced on the field. I felt writing a book about MMA without addressing the cost these athletes pay for our entertainment would have been disingenuous, at best.
In addition to the sports angle, this is also a family drama. In particular, it deals with a fraught father-son relationship that Xavier starts to come to terms with when his own mental capacity is rapidly diminishing. He must deal with some heavy truths when he is least capable of doing so. You have whole chapters that are, essentially, his CTE-infected brain talking to him, encouraging him to burn everything down around him. You do such a good job of pulling the reader into the chaos that is Xavier’s mental state, but there is great restraint. Those chapters are short and intense. Was it difficult to balance those sections with everything else and maintain Xavier as a sympathetic character?
Thank you for that. You’re right in that I did have to exercise some restraint in those sections, and it’s exactly for the reason you identified. It would have been very easy to let that disembodied voice go off the rails for pages and pages, but to your point, doing so would have overwhelmed the character I was trying to build in Xavier. I wanted readers to have the sense that Xavier was fighting that voice because it is whispering some pretty awful things in his ear. Those sections are short as they’re supposed to represent flashes in time for him—rants from his deteriorating frontal lobe.
At the same time, I wanted the presence of that voice to cause readers to question if the voice was a true representation of who Xavier was, or if the persona he showed the world was the actual façade. I don’t subscribe to the notion that a character has to be likable to carry a story. In fact, if a character is too likable, I find them disinteresting. At the same time, I didn’t want to veer into complete unlikability, so I did my best to maintain a balance that left readers wanting to pull for Xavier but at the same time making them question if they always felt that way for the duration of the book.
Xavier is a mixed-race guy, with a Black mother and a white father. He grew up mostly with his father, and in the present day of the book, he is estranged from his mother. Along with the issues he is enduring because of CTE, his father is in a nursing home going through the late stages of Alzheimer’s. For the first time, he sees the racist side of his father. Both characters aren’t playing with a full deck, so to speak, but Xavier is in better control of his faculties, and he needs to try and square this reality with the image of the man he grew up with. There are so many layers to this, but as a storytelling choice, did you always have the father in a nursing home, his mind steadily deteriorating, when his bigotry would be revealed to Xavier?
I want to be careful not to give too much away here. As you say, there are layers to the relationship between Xavier and Sam, particularly when it comes to what he believes he knows for sure about his father and what he may have made himself believe. I’ve always been fascinated by the fluidity, impermanence, and selectiveness of memory.
All that said, yes, I always envisioned having Sam’s ultimate deterioration and betrayal take place in the nursing home. There are racial dynamics taking place in those settings that most wouldn’t believe. Again, it’s hard to go much further into that without giving too much of the book away, but there was no better setting to place Sam as the filters fall away from his mind and his true nature is revealed to Xavier.
I have to ask you about the chapter titles in the book. I was born in ’78, so they popped out at me. You reference DMX, 2Pac, De La Soul, M.O.P., KRS-One, Brand Nubian, and more in the titles of each section. Their inclusion must have made the writing a little more fun for you, but did they influence the direction or tone of the novel in any way?
Finally, someone asks me about the chapter titles!
I’m a comic book geek through and through and loved when Netflix brought Luke Cage to the small screen. One of the little things I enjoyed was how each episode was named after a Gang Starr track, so the chapter titles were sort of my homage to that homage. Like you, I grew up on that era of hip-hop and those artists are still in heavy rotation on my playlists today. As a result, they definitely influenced the tone of the novel, though not so much the direction. I knew that I wanted the chapter titles to be from hip-hop tracks, but I didn’t decide on which ones until I’d after I’d written the chapter. In the great “pantser vs plotter” debate, I’m most definitely a pantser. I knew how I wanted the book to begin and end, but the rest is as much a journey of discovery for me as it is for the reader.
I had forgotten about what they did with Luke Cage! And then the second season was all Pete Rock & CL Smooth. Definitely cool to see. Speaking of comic book adaptations, what did you think of the slate of Marvel shows Netflix put out? They had some incredible casting on Cage, and Jon Bernthal on The Punisher was just insane. Would writing for one of those shows be a dream assignment for you?
Look, as someone who grew up on comics, even bad film and tv adaptations are good to me to some extent. Seeing characters and storylines that charged me up as a kid being brought to life is just so much damn fun. I can’t identify with the debates about whether or not these films are cinema or any of that because I’m enjoying myself too much. Are some of them better than others? Of course—but isn’t that true of just about everything?
All that said, I thoroughly enjoyed the Netflix run of Marvel characters. Cage was fantastic (though Mahershala Ali was criminally underutilized; he was the draw for me) and they couldn’t have picked a better Punisher than Bernthal. Daredevil gets better with every re-watch and Jessica Jones was terrific. We won’t talk about Iron Fist. I loved Power Man and Iron Fist as a kid and had high hopes for their team-up.
Yes, I would love to write for one of these IPs one day. Thanks for asking.
While we’re on the subject of TV, a quick scan of your Twitter profile reveals that you’re doing some writing in that realm, as well. Any projects that you can talk about right now?
I can to some extent. My first novel was optioned by a major streamer, and I was brought on board to write the pilot by two industry veterans of whose work I was a HUGE fan. We didn’t get picked up but our work on it continues. In the meantime, that work allowed me to join the Writer’s Guild and I’m actively working to become a staff writer by getting involved in the union. I’m also currently working on a limited series pitch with another author. Fingers crossed.
I want to circle back to the book and bring up a supporting player. Xavier’s cousin, Shot, owns a gym and is a former boxer that also trains him. For me, the family relationships are what carry the book, and Shot is so well drawn. He’s got his own problems to deal with, but the relationship with Xavier is fraught and authentic. For each other, they represent a means to an end. I’m curious about Shot’s evolution as a character. Did his voice and persona come to you early on, and is there a lot of him on the cutting room floor, so to speak? I feel like there’s a whole other novel that could take place in his gym.
I’m glad you homed in on the relationships because they’re what I like writing about most. Yes, Shot’s voice and persona were very clear for me from the very beginning. I’m a big fan of Brian Tyree Henry (Paper Boi on Atlanta) and I very much wrote Shot with him in mind. Shot is also the nickname of an uncle who passed when I was too young to have known him, and some of the stories I was told about him are reflected in some ways in Shot’s character.
I love the idea of a novel in Shot’s gym. At the risk of sounding pretentious, the gym and Shot felt very vibrant and real and alive in my head. Those scenes were among the most enjoyable and easiest to write. You’ve given me some food for thought here.
We always like to wrap up with recommendations. Are there three writers, sports-related or not, that you think our readers should check out?
In no particular order:
Justin St. German is the author of a memoir, Son of a Gun, and the book-length essay Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Born in Philadelphia, he grew up in Tombstone, Arizona. We corresponded for a couple of weeks over email and talked a little about true crime, trying to maintain your identity through sports teams, and how the NFL's treatment of brain trauma could be considered criminal. Back in 2013, Justin was living in Albuquerque, and he wrote a series of pieces about trying to watch every game his favorite baseball team, the Philadelphia Phillies, played that season. You can find those pieces here.
You were born in Philadelphia but grew up in Tombstone, Arizona. You remained a fan of Philly sports, but Arizona didn’t have an NFL team until 1988, and wouldn’t see an MLB club until 1998. How hard was it to follow teams in Philly when you were in a state that didn’t even have its own teams?
It was pretty tough back then. We moved to Arizona in 1987, so I’d get to see the Eagles play the Cardinals on TV once a year, but otherwise, I only saw the few games that made national TV. I got by mostly by reading the sports section of the newspaper and watching highlights on ESPN. It’s a shame because I mostly missed out on a great era for Philly sports: the Buddy Ryan/Randall Cunningham Eagles, that ragtag Phillies team, the young-Barkley Sixers, and the Eric Lindros Flyers. It wasn’t until the late ’90s, once the Diamondbacks arrived and more national games were broadcast, that I really got to watch games regularly.
I’ve seen you mention that, as a kid, you tried to get people to call you Nails because of 90s-era Phillies center fielder, Lenny Dykstra. A place like Arizona is kind of odd because it can feel like no one is really from there. How important were the Phillies and Philly sports, in general, in keeping some sort of identity as a guy from Philly?
Arizona is odd, in many ways, sports among them. That’s one reason I never liked Arizona franchises—even the Cardinals weren’t really from there, and the Diamondbacks still feel like an expansion team after two decades. My family goes back a few generations in Philly on my mom’s side, but we left when I was two and didn’t have the money to go back much, so I grew up having this sense of a strong connection to a city I’d barely seen. The main way I knew it was really through the Eagles and Phillies. One thing I’ve always loved about Philly sports specifically is that—for better or worse, and let’s be honest, often worse—their fans have an identity. No matter what stadium you’re in, it’s easy to find the other Philly fans.
Switching it up a bit, your latest book is part of IG Publishing’s Bookmarked series, which asks an author to write critically, and personally, about a book that is important to them. Your book is about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and one of the things you grapple with is: who has the right to tell a true-crime story, and really, does anyone at all? There are athletes that have died in, we’ll say, mysterious circumstances. In boxing, Sonny Liston had definite ties to the underworld and his official cause of death, a heroin overdose, has always been contested. In the telling of such stories, does our culture’s obsession with celebrity change the moral calculus for you at all? Does it give permission for people to delve into another life in such a way?
That’s a great question. The book’s partly about the ethics of a famous person getting to tell the story of an otherwise ordinary family’s death. It does complicate things to consider that in the context of a celebrity dying and other people telling their story. It makes me think about some of the obvious examples, like Philly’s own Kobe Bryant, and his family having to sue over the photos from the accident scene. It seems like culturally we do seem to think we’re entitled to that kind of access; it’s almost a sense of ownership, like they belong to us because they’re famous or get paid so much money or whatever. But I was a sports reporter in college, at the University of Arizona, where a lot of the players I covered wound up becoming pros, and I got to interview a few famous current or former pro athletes. That changed how I felt about that kind of fan or cultural entitlement. The most famous athletes I’ve met didn’t seem to enjoy the fame itself much, nor were they necessarily more interesting than any other person who dedicates their entire life to a pursuit.
This is a little off-topic, but the sports deaths I think about the most lately are probably the people who weren’t that famous. Some of the players I watched growing up, role players like Andre Waters or Kevin Turner, names nobody but Eagles fans would recognize at this point. Waters committed suicide and Turner died of ALS, both at least in part because of football. It makes you wonder what they or their families are entitled to, especially when you look at the money sports leagues take in, who gets it and who doesn’t, and who really pays the price.
Andre Waters was one of the first handful of former players to be diagnosed with CTE, and then after Kevin Turner passed, he was diagnosed with it, too. It’s been well-publicized that the NFL knew of the danger players were in regarding head trauma, and they did their best to hide it. Even though the league hasn’t been held criminally liable, would you say the writing about it could be wedged into the true crime genre?
I hadn’t thought about that. Seems like it should qualify, in the sense you mention, that it’s a clear case of an organization choosing to put these people’s lives in danger and getting a lot of people killed or maimed in the process. And the NFL had a clear motive, to make money. But it’s also not the kind of story that’s typically called true crime, which is usually more about individuals: serial killers and so on. I think you’re pointing toward something interesting about how true crime functions in American culture. The biggest crimes committed in this country have been collective, and often directly related to corporations/capitalism. But our cultural stories about “true crime” focus almost exclusively on individual stories. I don’t want to wade too far into the weeds here, just for the sake of brevity, but it’s definitely an interesting question.
Going back to your book, one of the interesting things in reading it is your treatment of Capote. At times, I felt like you were ramping up to do a hit piece on the guy, but then it’s almost like you knew that and calmed things down by essentially saying, Hey, Capote fascinates me and if I ever would have met him, I probably would’ve liked him a lot. You’ve had a relationship with his work for a long time. Was it hard to employ a balanced take on Capote the writer as opposed to the man himself, and do you think you’ll ever stop being intrigued by him?
Yeah, it was very hard to find that balance about Capote, for a few reasons. The main one was because the book is really about nonfiction portrayal, so I was thinking a lot about how I was portraying him while critiquing his portrayal of others—wondering whether and in what ways I was doing the same thing to him he did to the Clutters, and if it’s even possible to create a balanced portrayal of another person. (I’m not sure it is.) Another reason was that he spent so much time creating his own portrayal, his own myth; most of what survives about Capote is based on the character he created for himself. At the same time, based on his actual writing, what his friends said about him, and some of the similarities between us that I discovered during the research process, I found myself really liking the version of him I constructed. But I hated a lot of his artistic decisions, especially the influence they had on American nonfiction and true crime. So the book did sometimes feel like a hall of mirrors. I do think that by writing it I pretty much exorcised my interest in him, though—writing books is good for that, in my experience. I’m still fascinated by him and his work; I still read In Cold Blood every year for my true crime class. Now I just feel like I’ve said what I needed to say about it.
Shifting gears back to Arizona, I know you played baseball all the way through high school. Did you play any other sports, and did you have opportunities to play in college?
Growing up in a town as small as Tombstone, the only thing to do as a kid—well, the only legal and reasonably productive thing—was play sports, so that was most of my life. I played basketball and baseball from grade school through high school. Those are some of my favorite memories, riding buses all over rural Arizona with my teammates, five-am basketball practices in a freezing gym. Football was sort of hit-or-miss—we’d have a Pop Warner team one year and it would fold the next for lack of numbers or because we didn’t have the budget for equipment. I did play football in high school, and even though it wasn’t my favorite sport, it was the only one I had a chance to play after, just because I had the physical build for it. But it wasn’t like I had D1 offers or anything—I took one campus visit to a juco who offered me the chance to walk on. In retrospect, knowing what we do now about concussions, I’m glad I didn’t do that.
Lute Olson is a legendary figure in college basketball, but he has God-level status in Tucson, where he was the head coach of the Arizona Wildcats for 25 years. When you were a sports reporter in college, you had the chance to ask him a question once after a game, right? Do you remember what you asked him?
He was definitely a godlike figure in southern AZ. I went to Lute Olson basketball camp a couple of times in middle school—I might still have a picture in a box somewhere of us shaking hands—and I remember watching his 1997 championship team when I was in high school. When I got to college, I worked at the student newspaper and once in a while, I’d get to cover a basketball game. I think the worst interaction I had with him was my senior year. That team had future NBAers Andre Iguodala and Channing Frye, as well as a few other blue-chip prospects, but just never put it together and lost in the first round of the tournament. I was covering that game, and afterward, in a press conference full of national reporters, I asked him something stupid like why he thought they lost. I think he said because the other team scored more points.
Moving to the present day, in addition to teaching at Oregon State, you’ve been doing a podcast for the past couple of years with Elena Passarello, called I'll Find Myself When I'm Dead. The show is, essentially, trying to determine what a literary essay is. Or at least trying to get a good working definition. At what point does an essay get so personal that it becomes memoir, and how frustrating is it for you that almost all non-fiction is referred to as an essay these days?
The term essay is sort of frustrating, in the sense it can refer to, say, a deeply researched book-length lyric work, or an 800-word clickbait piece on Buzzfeed or whatever. But I don’t really understand the boundaries myself, or where personal essays/memoir fit. Honestly, the essay focus for the podcast was more Elena’s idea, and she’s the essay expert. I think my role’s more of the ignorant foil who plays devil’s advocate. Plus I do all the production, so she can’t get rid of me. Personally, I don’t really care much about the term essay, or even the genre; I don’t care much about genre in general, or think genre distinctions are all that useful or interesting. I just noticed at some point that a lot of the writing I like best, and most of the stuff I was trying to do, gets called an essay. And it just so happened that my colleague was both an expert on the subject and had a rare talent for public speaking, so I figured we could try making a podcast.
On the podcast, you both talk about essays and writers that you like, but are there three writers you think our readers should check out?
Let's wrap this up by going back to Elena. She won a screaming contest in 2011, and since this is Words & Sports, do you think that could be considered a sport? I mean, it’s more physical than a spelling bee, and that was on ESPN for 27 years, so…?
I hope screaming is a sport—I’ve been practicing for decades during Eagles games.
If you aren't familiar with Marisa Crane's work, you must be new to this thing we call the internet. Al Gore will surely be disappointed it took you so long to discover his greatest invention, but you're here now and that's all that matters. To help guide you along, you can find some of Marisa's fiction, nonfiction, and poetry at Passages North, Hobart, Joyland, and Ghost City Press, among many other fine outlets. In 2019, they published a chapbook of poems, Our Debatable Bodies, with Animal Heart Press. Their debut novel, I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself, is set to be published by Catapult on January 17, 2023.
We did this interview over Twitter DMs from December 2021 to mid-January of this year, and not only is Marisa a great writer (click those links above for the receipts), but they played Division 1 college basketball at Drexel University in Philadelphia and even tried out for a pro league shortly before our talk. This interview is more than I imagined we could do with this series, and it's all due to Marisa's openness. I was more than happy to say as little as possible, and with that, I'll shut the hell up and let you read.
First off, you recently went to Atlanta & tried out for a new basketball league. How much organized ball had you played previously, and how did this process differ from other tryouts you've been a part of?
I've played organized basketball for the better part of my life. My father and older brother are huge basketball fans and raised me to love it from the time I could walk. As soon as there was an organized league I could play in, I was there. I'm thinking I was probably five or six by that time. And since I'd never played organized basketball before, I'm not sure I really knew "etiquette." I just knew to use the skills I'd learned in the driveway with my dad and brother, and those skills happened to translate into scoring almost all of my team's points. Then my brother told me to stop being such a ball hog and I, being a very sensitive kid, took that to heart and never hogged the ball again. After that, I played in every league imaginable. Travel league, AAU, middle school, high school, etc. Basketball was my whole life, and I was determined to receive a full scholarship to a Division 1 school, and I did. I had several offers, but I accepted a full ride to Drexel and that's where I played for four years. Ever since graduation, my organized basketball play has been limited to various co-ed and women's basketball leagues in San Diego.
The try-out question is a bit complex. Technically, I've attended plenty of try-outs for various sports over the years, but never once did I truly have to try out for a basketball team. Growing up, I was always one of the best players there and it was understood I'd not only make the team but be the starting point guard. I don't know how to say that in a less...arrogant way, but I promise, I am speaking factually (though in college I was certainly not one of the best players). In fact, prior to the try-outs in Atlanta, I mentioned to my wife and several friends just how nervous and scared I was. I was, in the weeks leading up to it, trying, for the life of me, to figure out when the last time I tried out for anything was. I settled on two experiences: trying out for the 7th and 8th-grade travel softball team when I was in 5th grade and had never hit off of a pitcher that wasn't a parent lobbing the ball underhand, and freshman year trying out for the varsity soccer team. I knew I was good enough to make JV but our soccer team was actually incredible, full of eventual Division 1 players, and the coach was this hardass who knew exactly what he was looking for in a player. I hadn't dribbled a ball in a year or so, so I was really worried I wouldn't be any good. Both times I ended up making the team.
The pro try-outs differed, particularly basketball-wise, because I'm not sure I'd ever been in this position before. And here I was, at age 31, three ACL tears behind me, and several seconds slower than in college, and I was like, "Yeah, uh, I'm not sure what I'm thinking exactly in trying to do this, but I'm going to hate myself if I don't at least try."
One ACL tear, let alone three, can be enough to stop someone cold. Did any of those tears happen in high school or college, or were they after playing organized ball?
I tore one in high school playing soccer and I had this oddly miraculous recovery. The doctor cleared me 3.5 months after surgery, and I didn't wear a brace and felt great (and never tore that one again somehow??).
Then I tore the other one 11 games into my junior season in college. I remember it was 11 because later on, that number would haunt me, as I couldn't qualify for a medical redshirt that season because I played like one game too many. Redshirt eligibility is based on a percent of games played—not the number of games—and I'd have to fact check this, but I believe it was something like 30% of games or fewer, which would have equaled 10 games. I don't know, I digress. But I was really depressed for the obvious reason of the injury and because I more or less lost an entire season to it. I really wanted that year back, but I had the surgery in the winter and was cleared to play by September. A much longer and more reserved rehab this time around, and understandably so. There was no reason to clear me early if there were no games. At the end of September, we went to Italy to play against a bunch of pro teams in exhibition games and I re-tore that same ACL a few minutes into the second game there. I was devastated, especially at the prospect of now sitting out an entire additional season. We were going to have a damn good squad my senior season, returning almost everyone from the season prior. We had all the ingredients for a championship. My coach asked me to come to her hotel room to chat after the game and she asked if I wanted to play the season on a torn ACL, and without hesitating, I said yes.
How did your final season go, playing on that torn ACL?
Our final season was...something. It was extremely painful, physically and mentally, for me, but something I was proud of doing at the time. I think I thought it was a noble sacrifice, but looking back, I was just a young senseless kid driven by a desire to please, to push through the pain, and to be seen as strong. The season was sort of up and down, but we ended up losing in the conference championship to Delaware, who was, I believe, ranked number 10 in the country at the time. Elena Delle Donne was playing for Delaware at the time and they'd had a bunch of players transfer in and had really put a strong team together. We won our first WNIT game at Fairfield and then lost at home to Syracuse in the second round. I'd really been vying for that conference championship and for an NCAA berth, but things don't always work out that way, huh?
During the season I never practiced so I was absurdly out of shape. I would spend most of practice watching and cheering on my teammates and trying to stay as involved as I possibly could. My athletic trainer would have me ride the bike and do some low-impact things to try and keep me in shape but I'm not sure how much good those things do—nothing can really mimic the intensity and back and forth of a basketball game. The games became even more mental for me than they'd ever been. I was out of shape but had to convince myself that I wasn't and had to will myself onward. Since I had no ACL, my knee would often hyperextend, and it would swell so much that a doctor had to come to drain my knee with several syringes. Back then, I think I accepted that as a pretty normal thing to be doing, as just a part of the game, and it took some distance from college to realize just how outrageous it was that I was doing that. So many coaches expect that level of sacrifice from their players. That it's become so normalized that you may even appear selfish if you don't do these things in the name of the team. And to be clear, my coach never pressured me—she would have respected my wishes if I'd wanted to take another season off and get surgery—but she did put the question on the table, and I do sometimes wonder about her decision to do that. Because I think, deep down, she knew the type of personality I was and that I loved a challenge.
After your college career, did the injuries dash any hopes of playing pro ball here, or in Europe?
After the season was over, I got surgery in April and started rehabbing with my athletic trainer. I wanted to play overseas and knew many people who had/were. My roommate and one of my closest friends/teammates in college was from Lithuania and she told me I was good enough to play overseas. She was encouraging me to try, joking that we should say we are a package deal. But at the same time, I was receiving a lot of disheartening info from people claiming that it would be incredibly difficult for me to find an agent, not only while I was injured but because of my troubling history of knee injuries. I was told that many agents don't want to take that type of risk. And it's not like I was a phenom or anything that would be worth the risk. I didn’t score, didn’t do anything wow-worthy. I was a quick, smart point guard who could command a team, but I didn't have very impressive stats and my contribution to a game was largely in the intangibles that most people overlooked. So, being young and depressive and pretty self-defeating, I didn't even try to get an agent and decided to accept my fate and try to coach in college. Not that I really did accept my fate—I was bitter and depressed and grieving for years (and I am still making my way through the grieving process, probably will be forever).
You mentioned coaching, and after Drexel, you were an assistant coach at Albright College. Seeing as how driven you were as a player, did it feel natural to make that move?
I coached for one season at Albright, and yes, I think it felt like a natural transition at the time. I thought if I couldn't play then I might as well coach and be entrenched in that environment, basically as close to the game as I could be without actually playing it. But to be honest, that first year out of college that I coached there, I wasn't ready to be done playing yet; I wasn't ready to be seen as a coach versus a player. I had just graduated college and lost my playing career and I was dealing with a pretty significant depressive episode. I spent most of every practice jumping into drills and scrimmages with the team. And I was teaching them, but I also wanted to be in the middle of it—there wasn't enough separation for me yet and I think it showed. I know some players who become coaches feel the same "high" from coaching that they got as a player, but that never happened for me. What I enjoyed was the relationships with the players, getting to know them off the court, and giving them a safe space to talk to someone, if they wanted. But coaching didn't give me that rush and I'm not sure it ever would have.
What precipitated the move from coaching to writing?
I've always written. In middle school, I wrote terrible rhyming poetry. Then when I was 13, I won this poetry contest at school and my poem was published in the yearbook and I was super proud, haha. All of college, I wrote Bright Eyes-inspired poetry on my Facebook and Tumblr. I even wrote a novel at age 18 but it was terrible and based on this love triangle I had found myself in. I still wonder what happened to that novel...but yeah, not sure I ever took myself or the writing seriously. It was just something I did, especially when I was feeling sad or heartbroken or confused about life.
After Albright, I got a job as a director of basketball operations for a school I’d prefer not to name here. Since they were a D1 program, it was a logical jump for me to make in my coaching career, even if it meant having to step back from coaching and have more of an "administrative" role. I won't go into details about that job, but I ended up quitting because of a horrible, abusive working environment. I moved back to Philly and got a job as a behavioral health worker in a school and a mental health worker in a partial hospitalization program for adolescents. I spent some time doing that and still writing. I wrote another bad novel, but I still wasn't taking writing too seriously—I don't think I knew that I could? I don't even have a way to communicate how my life was going at that time because I was very lost and sort of drifting still, post-basketball. I ended up going to graduate school for a master's in social work and finished all the coursework but dropped out before I could complete the program. Nothing was really sticking and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I ended up moving across the country sort of on a whim, thanks to an impulsive ex-girlfriend that convinced me it was a good idea. She broke up with me the day before our move, so I got on a plane and went alone. The move ended up working out and I've been here in San Diego for about 6.5 years now. When I got here, I started writing more consistently and with a focused determination that I hadn't had before. I began writing short stories and submitting them to journals. I rediscovered Twitter and "writing Twitter" and made a new one for writing after deleting the one I had in college, which mostly consisted of tweets like "come to our game at the DAC at 7 p.m. tonight!" or random embarrassing song lyrics. I threw myself into writing the same way I had thrown myself into basketball. I turned it into a discipline and a practice instead of just a way to process my emotions. I started learning everything I could, reading lit magazines, talking to other writers online, etc. So, really I have no answer for you, but it just sort of happened, like anything else.
Since you've brought the same discipline to writing that you had with basketball, do you think your work on the page plays any part in the process of grieving over your playing career, or do you try to keep those two things separate?
I don't necessarily TRY to keep them separate, and in sort of simplistic terms, writing has replaced basketball as my main pursuit, like that thing I wake up hungry for each and every day, but I can't say that writing has definitively helped my grief over basketball. Mostly, I think, because I avoided writing about basketball for a very long time. I internalized the messaging that writing about sports was not literary or was "low brow" (which is, of course, a problematic term in and of itself) and as such, not to be taken seriously. It took several years to undo that programming and embrace writing about basketball. Now that I am just beginning a nonfiction project related to athlete identity, I can say that interviewing people and writing about my experiences has been freeing. Treating this project as an investigation of self and athletics as a whole, it's given me this sort of sleuth-like mentality that allows me to dig in quite a bit in a way that feels interesting and not so painful. So, I do anticipate feeling a bit of relief the more I write this book. I am hoping to find closure at the end of it, but something tells me that would be too easy of a narrative.
That book sounds great, but before that, you've got a novel, I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself, slated to come out in less than a year with Catapult. How did you get hooked up with them, and how is the process going so far?
I do have a novel coming out with Catapult! It's been a long road. My agent, Maggie Cooper, and I went through many rounds of revisions before we even considered going on submission to publishers. Those revisions lasted about a year. Then, Maggie created a list of editors and publishers who she thought my novel would be a good fit for and Catapult (and Alicia Kroell, my editor) seemed like a very obvious choice. They publish really great, innovative stuff, and they love and champion queer stories. I'm constantly impressed by and excited about the books that Catapult publishes so it was really thrilling to hear that they were interested in acquiring my novel. And the rest is sort of history. Alicia and I spent some time doing revisions to tighten up the pacing, clarify some world-building details, and just overall make it a stronger novel. I'm eternally grateful for Alicia, who is such a kind, generous, and wise editor. Now, I'm onto the copyediting stage so that's been more line-level edits to clean up sentences and whatnot. It's been a wonderful experience, though, I know my anxiety is going to ramp up the closer we get to pub day (like, you mean, I actually have to let other people read the book?)
Let's bring it back to where we started, and the try-outs in Atlanta. You mentioned being a little bit nervous beforehand, but how did it go? No fourth torn ACL, right?
Ah, my try-outs! No fourth torn ACL or injuries, thankfully (edit: it is months later and I have Achilles tendonitis from overtraining before try-outs, womp womp). It was a really lovely experience. When we arrived and checked in, we each had our own lockers with nameplates on them, which I thought was a nice gesture. I ended up taking it home and sticking it to my dresser, lol. I also got to re-connect with someone I played against in college who was also trying out. Unlike me, she was an absolute stud of a player and played in the WNBA for a bit. Our conversation actually ended up being really healing for me. She's moved on from basketball and is pursuing an acting career, and we were bonding over the thousands of rejections we receive in pursuit of our dreams, and how resilient we have to be in the face of those rejections. She seemed to really be at peace with the fact that her playing days were behind her and as we sat next to each other icing our knees at the end of the second day, we sort of had this mutual moment of like, this is it for us, this was our last hurrah.
Spoiler alert: I didn't make the league, and that's okay. The league is called Athletes Unlimited, and everyone should check it out.
Editor's Note: The Athletes Unlimited season ran from January 26 to February 26, 2022. Do check the link, though, as it is truly an innovative and exciting approach to basketball.
Lastly, can you give us three writers that are blowing your mind and our readers need to check out? Bonus if they've got any kind of sports angle to their life/work, but definitely not required!
Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton is a book I’ve returned to several times while ideating my own project. It's a very meditative and dreamy memoir about the author's time swimming both competitively and recreationally. It's really beautiful and lyrical and focuses on a lot of the small, gorgeous moments of athletics.
I recently read This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, which was unlike anything I've ever read before. Without giving much away, it's this time-traveling science fiction queer love story that will stay with you for a long time. No sports angle but like, queer letter-writing feels like a sport to me.
Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash was recommended to me a while ago because it's a wrestling novel and it's phenomenal! Extremely voicey and weird and it pushes on the pedal of obsession in a way that only sports can. It highlights that singular desire and passion for winning/success, at all costs.
Hanif Abdurraqib has a Paris Review column called Notes on Hoops and I just adore it so. Each one is about a different basketball film. So far, he's written about White Men Can't Jump, Love & Basketball, and Like Mike. In typical Hanif fashion, each of these columns is about so much more than these films and basketball. They are beautiful and lyrical and will move you to tears.
Lastly, Catapult has an anthology coming out in July 2022 called Body Language. The entire thing is wonderful (transparency: I do have an essay in there, lol), but Bryan Washington's essay, "View from the Football Field; or, What Happens When the Game is Over" in particular, blew me away.
You may know Tom McAllister as a novelist, essayist, or literary-podcasting superstar. Before all that, though? He was just a kid growing up in Philadelphia, listening to heavy metal and obsessing over local sports teams. These days he teaches at Temple University and lives across the bridge in New Jersey. I had the privilege of speaking with him over Twitter DMs about football, Pantera, and the glory of Allen Iverson leading the 76ers to a lone victory in the 2001 NBA Finals. We started the conversation shortly after the Eagles lost in the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs, and finished a few days later.
Hey man, at least the Eagles didn't give up! A couple of plays could have swung the game in a different direction. It is, though, almost 19 years, to the day, since the Eagles lost to the Buccaneers in the NFC title game. That one was the last game at the Vet (Veterans Stadium, RIP). What's your instant reaction to this game, and how does it differ from the much-younger Tom back in '03?
The original Bucs loss was/remains the worst moment of my sports fan life. The Eagles were favored, everything was pointing their way, they were about to get over the hump, all of it. The Ronde Barber INT...my god, I've never felt worse. I couldn't even bear to watch a replay for years.
The Eagles were deservedly underdogs today. It makes sense for them to lose, but I had hoped they would make the Bucs sweat a little. Knock Brady around, keep it within a score till late, but it was all a bonus in what was meant to be a rebuilding year. Either way, 20 years ago me would have been devastated for a full week. I am relieved to report that I can watch the Eagles lose a playoff game now and not have it ruin the rest of my day.
Given what happened with the Eagles today, how satisfying would a Cowboys loss be?
A Cowboys loss is always satisfying, regardless of context. Anything to see Jerry Jones and Chris Christie scowling up in the box.
Editor's Note: The Cowboys did, in fact, lose later that day.
Moving on for a moment, there is one thing I've always wanted to know. You're from Philly, but you've been living in New Jersey for a long time. I don't know, specifically, how skilled of a driver you are, but New Jersey is famous for having some of the worst drivers in America. When you slapped those Garden State plates on your car, did you instantly become a worse driver?
Here's the thing to know about my driving: I am an expert parallel parker. Not even living in the suburbs for 15 years has slowed me down. I hate pretty much every part of driving, but if you get me there, I will happily take the wheel and cram that car into any spot you can find.
That's the most important skill, and it's impressive you've maintained it after all these years!
I've heard you say before that you were a big Pantera fan back in the day, and I think their style of music fits well with what people think of when they picture the stereotypical Philly sports fan. What would you say the biggest misconceptions are of Philly sports fans and Pantera?
Oh, man. I was first into Pantera because I was trying to fit in with my high school friends who were all into what seemed like really intense, fringy metal stuff. Deicide, Cannibal Corpse, that kind of thing. But I listened to "Walk" and especially "This Love" and some other stuff, and I was just so hyped by the aggression. I was an angry teenage boy. Probably in some pretty typical ways. The anger was channeled through sports, too. Developing intense, baroque hatreds of various teams and sports figures (Erik Williams, former Cowboys offensive lineman, for example). And I enjoyed going to games (and later to Sepultura and Fear Factory shows, etc.) because it was socially acceptable to be mad as hell in a public space. Which maybe is not doing much to disabuse people of their notions of both parties, now that I think about it, Uh, there are a lot of people who like both of those things who are way more mentally balanced than I was.
Now is as good a time as any to come clean that I've been a Cowboys fan since I was a little kid. I grew up mostly in the Philadelphia area, and my brother is an all-Philly sports guy. He didn't want to share his teams with me, so naturally, I went with one of the teams he hated the most. I loved Tony Dorsett, but being a Cowboys fan in that area isn't necessarily easy. I remember going to an Eagles/Rams playoff game in '89. I was 11, and I remember two things vividly: 1st is that Keith Jackson had a long reception from Randall Cunningham and then he fumbled in Rams territory, ending the Eagles only real scoring opportunity. 2nd thing is the deep regret and fear I felt for wearing a Tony Dorsett shirt to the game. I kept my jacket zipped up real tight the entire time.
It is a little nuts that you wore the jersey to that game. I remember a Phillies game during the glory years when I saw a Yankees fan, maybe 12 years old, who wore his hat and Derek Jeter jersey in his seat, but any time he stood up, he took the hat off and put a Chase Utley jersey over the Jeter one.
I respect that kid's instinct for survival, but let's get back to metal. Recently, on Twitter, you bravely admitted to listening to the Ozzy Osbourne song "Perry Mason" hundreds of times when you were a teenager. In hindsight, would you agree that it is an objectively bad song?
Man, "Perry Mason" is so weird! Why did he write that song? Is it about Perry Mason? I listened to Ozzy, as all my friends did, and I tried to go to Ozzfest (had tickets but had to work) and all that...but really a ton of his songs are just awful, including all but the first thirty seconds of "Crazy Train."
That's a low point to end the metal conversation on, but let's move back to Philly sports. Everyone knows about your Eagles fandom, but how about the other Philly teams? Did you grow up a big fan of Clarence Weatherspoon and the post-Charles Barkley Sixers teams?
I tried very hard to make Spoon happen. Charles Shackelford, too. My first NBA memories are watching those Bulls teams in the Finals while on vacation in Ocean City, Maryland. My next memory is arguing with my dad over the Charles Barkley role model stuff (I defended Charles, Dad thought he was a clown), and then being bitterly disappointed by the trade to the Suns. I watched the teams in the ensuing years, but never with any particular hope until AI (Allen Iverson) came around. AI stepping over Tyronn Lue, that whole first game of the '01 Finals, was about as high as I've ever gotten as a fan of any sport.
Even if someone just hates the Lakers and doesn't care about the Sixers, that AI-stepping-over-Lue moment is classic. I've gotta say, it's admirable that you tried hard with Shackleford. People really wanted him to be "the other Shaq."
You've written about sports a bit in your short fiction, and of course in non-fiction, as well. Is there a sports-themed collection or chapbook waiting to be unleashed?
For a bit, I thought I would have a collection of mascot stories like the ones I was doing on Hobart a while back. I had a lot of fun with those, but then I got caught up doing other stuff, and also because I worried the premise was just too thin. Though I still think it could be a good, tiny, small press book. The real problem is even though I wrote a sports thing now and then, I still haven't stumbled into an idea that feels sustainable at book-length (unless you count my MFA thesis about a top baseball prospect who washes out due to a series of horrible off-field choices, but...let's maybe just never talk about that again).
I remember those Hobart pieces, and I especially liked the one about the gorilla, called "Trade Deadline," I think? Those were definitely fun, and I've got to think there's a small press that would go for it.
Another cool thing you've done, which seems like a good fit for a small press, is your collection of short essays for every year you’ve been alive. There are close to 20 of those floating around the internet right now. Should we be on the lookout for more?
Yes and no-- I have 37 written because I did them all in one shot as a short memoir manuscript in 2019. My agent wasn't too keen on it as a book; I think part of the problem is that it is very much a small press book, but the agent was pushing me to think of bigger things. So I went ahead and just started submitting the essays in the meantime. For a while, I think I had all 37 of them out with at least one place, and in some cases many places. At the peak, I think I probably had 200 open submissions going. There are only two left on submission at the moment, and one has been "in progress" for 2 full years, so you know how that goes. I want to start submitting more of them, but just haven't worked up the energy to start it all up again. I still hold out hope that I can make it a book somewhere, someday, though. Especially now that I have 3 more years, at least, to add to it.
Very cool. It would be great if the rest of them can see the light of day.
I know you give out recs all the time on the Book Fight podcast, but do you have three writers (sports-related or not) that you think people should check out?
Jeff MacGregor is hardly obscure, but he has a really good book (SUNDAY MONEY) about NASCAR that I think is underappreciated. I am super not into NASCAR stuff, but he does a great job of being a tour guide through the culture, the spectacle, etc.
Patrick Hruby is also not a deep cut, but I think he's about as smart as it gets when writing about the financial aspects of sports, especially the ways college athletes are exploited
Lynn Coady is a great writer, and although she is highly acclaimed in Canada, I feel like she is often overlooked in the US. I want more people to read her books.
One last question: since the Eagles are out, who do you have winning it all this year?
The Andy Reid Eagles were so important to me, so good during my formative sports years, that I still root for him and the Chiefs in games that don't affect the Eagles. Plus, the Chiefs are just so fun when the offense is rolling. Prior to this year, I would probably have said I'm rooting for the Packers because Aaron Rodgers is just so good, but now I'm hoping he gets sacked 18 times in a game and later blames it on cancel culture.
Editor's Note: The Packers have since lost to the 49ers, and although Rodgers is not expressly blaming the woke mob in San Francisco, he definitely thinks people are against him.
If the question is who am I actually picking to win...I'm looking at the bracket now, and I think I have to say the Chiefs.
We're on the brink of the inaugural Words & Sports Football Issue, so what better time to check in with our co-editors, Brooke Kolcow and K.C. Mead-Brewer? I asked them a few questions over Twitter, and this is what they had to say about the experience of putting together the issue, what writing they have coming out that we need to be on the lookout for, and what their plans are right now, after the life-altering experience of editing an issue of Words & Sports!
Words & Sports is still a new mag, but it doesn't take long to attract a lot of submissions. Were you surprised by the quality of the writing you read?
K.C.: Delighted and impressed but not surprised.
Brooke: When we were making our final decisions, Kate (K.C.) said something about how none of the submissions felt like a waste of time to read, even if they weren't all right for us. I was relieved the slush pile was so enjoyable to read through.
Based on your experience editing this issue, do you feel like the state of literary sports writing is in good shape?
K.C.: I feel like I need to be doing a hell of a lot more sports reading from now on. The variety, humor, insight, and earnestness that arrived for this issue just blew me away. If I ever thought sports writing wasn't for me, reading for this issue definitely changed my tune.
Brooke: I think literary sports writing is totally in good shape, and I feel like I'll be doing more of it.
Do you have any pieces on the way that we can look out for?
K.C.: A story I'm particularly pleased with that involves children transforming into lice will be showcased in the Alternating Current Press anthology, And if that mockingbird don't sing: Parenting Stories Gone Speculative, available for pre-order right now! (Special thank you to Hannah Grieco for editing.)
Brooke: I have something coming out in Rejection Letters soon.
You've just edited the first-ever Words & Sports Football issue. What are you going to do next?
K.C.: Still not watching any football, but definitely scouring the author websites of every contributor in the issue -- it was a joy spending time with their work and I can't wait to read more.
Brooke: What am I going to do next? I'm going to Disney World (take a nap).
Heading into our football issue we wanted to set the stage, let everyone know we're still around, and yes, assure you that there is a killer issue on its way, curated by our awesome guest editors, Brooke Kolcow and K.C. Mead-Brewer. To that end, welcome to The Offseason, and the first of what we hope to be many interviews in a series called Overtime.
First up is Eli Cranor, a former quarterback that has played pro football in Sweden, coached high school in Arkansas, and during the early days of the pandemic, self-published a middle-grade novel called Books Make Brainz Taste Bad. Flash forward to now, and he is the winner of the Peter Lovesey First Crime Novel contest at Soho Press. We talk about playing college and pro ball, the transition from football to writing, and most importantly, get his pick for this year's national championship. His novel, Don't Know Tough, is set to be released on March 8, 2022.
Let’s start off with Florida Atlantic (FAU). You redshirted your first year and then transferred, but the head coach, Howard Schnellenberger, was a legend. He saved football at Miami in the 80s, essentially did the same thing for Louisville after that, and then built the program at FAU from scratch. With Miami, he also brought a pro-style offense to the college game. How much were you able to soak up in that year, and what role do you think that played in your success after transferring to Ouachita Baptist & then going pro in Sweden?
Schnelly was a trip, man. He drove around practice on a golf cart, smoked big-ass cigars, and would tell the wide receivers to get down in three-point stances. FAU was a dream. Right by the beach. A ton of fun. But in the end, I’m an Arkansas guy through and through. My time there really helped me at Ouachita. Gave me a different perspective on a lot of things.
Speaking of Sweden, we don’t really think of that country as a hotbed for American football. When you were there, did it feel like the game had really taken hold with the locals?
Not really. It was really big to a small group. I don’t know what to compare it to in America, but it definitely had a small, devoted following. The games were televised, or at least some of them were. So that was cool. There’d be posters up around town (I still have one in my office). I wouldn’t trade that year for anything. It really shaped who I am. Gave me a chance to see another part of the world. We played teams in Germany, Austria, and of course all over Sweden.
After playing in Sweden, you ended up back in Arkansas coaching high school. What was it that took you away from coaching and led you into writing?
Two things. First, my daughter was born. Some guys can balance the life of a coach and a dad—I couldn’t. There just wasn’t enough time in the day. The second thing was that I’d become a head coach by age 26. I wasn’t ready. As a result, we only won one game during my two seasons. Getting beat like that really put a bad taste in my mouth. Looking back now, I don’t know that I would’ve ever gotten out of football and started writing if I hadn’t had those two, disastrous seasons. Funny how things work out.
You’re from Arkansas, and I’ve got a good friend that played high school ball in north Texas. In the summers I would go visit him and occasionally that time overlapped with two-a-days in that brutal Texas heat. I would watch, help with water, whatever they needed. You probably experienced the same weather in Arkansas. Going through those physical conditions in the context of a team sport, you’ve got the camaraderie of your teammates to lean on. With writing, that camaraderie is essentially gone. How have those experiences translated to your life as a writer?
Regarding the heat: I can remember during two-a-days in college, it’d get so hot down in south Arkansas sweat would drip off my pinky like it does in the shower. Just a constant stream. We had to weigh in before and after practice. Some days, I’d lose as much as ten pounds per practice. And yeah, I think that sort of commitment has helped my writing. Trying to get a book published is a grind. It’s so much more lonely than football. There’s no team. Nobody watching in the stands. I didn’t really know anybody in the industry or have any connections starting out. I’d just heard somebody say that you need to write every day. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, but it’s what I did. I think that really helped early on. I wrote over 200 short stories and nine complete manuscripts before I got my first book deal.
In your novel, Don't Know Tough, the voice jumps out at the reader instantly. Within the first page, it feels like we’re living with the main character, Billy. Did it take a while to nail down the right voice?
Thanks for that, man. Billy’s voice, at least to me, is what makes the book. Billy’s a mix of a lot of kids I coached during those five years. His voice came to me during a lunch break my last year coaching high school ball. I had about an hour, and I just had that first line, “Still feel the burn on my neck.” I wrote what would later become the first chapter during that break. All the pain I’d witnessed from getting close to my players—it just came pouring out. It’s funny, so much has changed over the editing process for DKT, but that first chapter has pretty much stayed the same. I sent it off as a short story and it won Greensboro Review’s Robert Watson Literary Prize, which was my first serious publication. That’s when I knew I had something and tried to turn it into a book.
It’s clear from the outset that football is an outlet for Billy. His home life is a mess, but on the field, he can rage and let out the anger that is, at least in the beginning, suppressed at home. There’s a scene where Billy is at practice and they’re doing a 1-on-1 drill. Two lines on either side of each other, and a small lane for someone to carry the ball, another player trying to tackle him. Going straight at each other. Billy’s carrying the ball, but he wants to be the one inflicting the pain. You do a lot in this space to introduce us to the pain, both emotional and physical, that Billy is in. After running over his would-be tackler, he initiates a helmet-to-helmet collision, and this line sticks in my head:
"...this the sound of my heart breaking, the sound of violence pouring out."
How important was it for you to show both the good and bad aspects of football as an outlet?
Very important, but it was tough. Football has given me so much: an education, a year in Sweden, so many life lessons. But there is a dark side to the game. I really tried to walk the line. I didn’t want DKT to be a football-bashing book, but I definitely didn’t want to sugarcoat anything either. So I tried to focus on the problems with how people react to the game, the way high school boys can become untouchable due to their on-the-field accomplishments, especially in small, Southern towns. I’m happy with how that part turned out.
In the early days of the pandemic, you self-published a children’s book, Books Make Brainz Taste Bad, and then there was a new interest in Don’t Know Tough. The last two years of your writing life seem like a whirlwind. How unexpected is all of this?
Whirlwind is a good word. I was querying DKT (for the second time) right around the end of 2019. By March of 2020, I had over thirty full-manuscript requests, and then the world shut down. All the agents backed out. Nobody offered representation. I didn’t know what to do, and then I had this idea about zombies posing as teachers and using screens to fry kids’ brains—because fried brains taste better, obviously. I’d never written anything for kids before, but doing a middle-grade book was a blast. My parents were teachers, I’m a teacher now—so I was able to self-publish the book and get it out to a lot of schools in our area. I already had the second BRAINZ book written when I got word about winning Soho’s Peter Lovesey First Crime Novel Contest. I still have kids email and ask when the next BRAINZ book is coming out, and, honestly, I don’t know what to tell them.
I know you’ve said that Larry Brown, Flannery O’Connor, and Elmore Leonard are influences you look to. Your series on Crimereads, Shop Talk, is one of the places I go to learn things about writers I like and try to see if there are any tidbits I can take to try and get better. How has that series informed your own process?
I learn something every single time I do one of those interviews. It’s been such a treat, and I’m super thankful to Dwyer Murphy and CrimeReads for letting me do it. Also, big thanks to Paul Oliver, my publicist, for hooking me up with them. It’s funny, whenever I finish one of those interviews, I always change my process up a little bit. I try out something that the author said. Sometimes it sticks. Sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s the beauty of it. That’s why I wanted to start the thing in the first place. It’s just like when I was coaching. I’d call other coaches and ask them how they’re running their power-run scheme, or how they structure their offseason program. I’d rarely end up doing things just like they did, but I always learned something from studying their process.
Two final questions:
- Could you give our readers three current writers you think they absolutely need to check out (bonus if their work relates at all to sports!)?
William Boyle is one of the best line-by-line writers working today. His stuff is pure poetry. Baseball plays a role in the inciting event of his latest novel, Shoot the Moonlight Out.
Megan Abbott needs no introduction. For my money, she’s the reigning queen of crime fiction. She has all sorts of sports-related novels, but her latest, The Turnout, focuses on ballet. And if you don’t think ballet is a sport, read this book and check back with me.
I’ve been a Michael Koryta fan for a minute now. Love everything he does, but my absolute favorite book he’s ever written is called, The Prophet. It’s the best football novel I’ve ever read.
*Bonus: Ace Atkins is a legend in the crime-writing world. Check out his Quinn Colson series for some great, Southern-fried crime. What’s the sports connection? Ace played defensive end for Auburn, had his picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and his dad was an NFL football coach. Need I say more?
**Double Bonus: John Vercher has an amazing new novel hitting shelves this summer called, After the Lights Go Out, which features an MMA fighter at the end of his career.
***Triple Bonus: S.A. Cosby. If you haven't heard of Blacktop Wasteland and Razorblade Tears then you've probably been living under a rock. What you might not know is that Shawn was a beast wrestler back in high school.
***Quadruple Bonus: Alex Segura has a hell of a mystery/superhero/graphic novel coming out called Secret Identity. Alex is a huge football/Dolphins fan. Looking for a great football short story? Check out Alex's "Red Zone."
- Who takes the CFB national title this year? I guess I have a 3rd question, but it’s related. Does Cincinnati have a legitimate shot at taking down Alabama?
There’s this song called “Huntsville International” by G-Side. It has a great line that goes: “Half gangsta, half amazing. Alabama’s hero—Nick Saban.” So, yeah. I wouldn’t bet against Saban, man. I’ve got Bama going all the way.