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.