Jeff Pearlman refers to himself as a “a habitual blogger, an addicted Tweeter and a guy who knows how lucky and fortunate he is to make his career as a writer/author/Tom Cruise lookalike.” We’re also pretty fortunate about the writer/author part. Pearlman, a former senior writer for Sports Illustrated, is the author of six books, several of which have taken up residence on the New York Times bestsellers list. This includes his latest, Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980’s. His blog The Quaz is also truly one of the most interesting reads anywhere on the Internet. Jeff was kind enough recently to chat with me about his books, his research style and the art of the interview.
RE: This blog is focused on writers talking about writing, so let me start with a question on that. You’ve had several books make the NYT best sellers list, all nonfiction. Have you ever considered crossing over to the dark side – novels?
JP: Not really, for two reasons. 1. I genuinely love the digging that comes with nonfiction. I know great fiction involves plenty of research, so I’m not dogging the medium. But when I pick a subject, I know I’m going to spend the next two years digging, plugging, searching, scoping—and I love that. Like, love love love. It’s my favorite part of the process. And, 2. Fiction intimidates me a bit. I’ve had ideas, but I don’t know how they end. I can never think of a conclusion, or how I’d think of a conclusion. So I’m a non-fiction guy. It’s who I am.
RE: You do an incredible amount of research for your books, including conducting hundreds of interviews for each one. Tell me about your research process.
JP: Well, I once had a girlfriend in college who gave great back scratches. She had long nails, and they were amazing and painful. Pleasure-pain. That’s what the research process is like. I’ll use my last book, on the Showtime-era Lakers, as an example. First thing I do is find media guides for every Laker team from the 12-year span. I take every name from every guide (players, coaches, assistants, cheerleaders, musicians, etc) and make an individual Word file for every individual. As I get into research, I have more and more Word files. So, let’s say I’m digging into Magic Johnson. He’s from Michigan. I’ll go through high school yearbooks, get names, make files. Michigan State—files. Maybe you find the woman who sold him his first house; his first maid; etc. On and on and on. Then you start going through the year-by-year clips of the Lakers. So I’ll use Nexis, or some database (LA Times, La Daily News, etc) and dig. Day by day. By the end I’ll have about 10,000 pages of articles, year by year. I use that as a guide, pull out events, moments, etc. With about six months left, I write.
RE: Conducting good interviews is a vastly underrated skill. How do you prepare for those opportunities to speak to people for you work? Do you have ground rules or a specific style you apply across the board or do you take a more situational approach?
JP: It’s pretty situational, but I always try and know as much about the person as humanly possible, and I also always aim for the interview to become a conversation. It’s often unrealistic, but you want the subject to forget it’s a Q&A and just feel like you’re two people talking. I also never wanna ask obvious nonsense—how do you spell your name, when were you born, what teams have you played for, etc, etc. That’s a big rookie mistake. You need to show the person you care, and you know your shit.
RE: Which of your books has been the most challenging for you? Why? Conversely, which has been the most rewarding?
JP: Same answer for both—Sweetness. Just so insanely difficult of a project. He was complex, confusing, detailed, unique. And, sadly, deceased, which meant he wasn’t around to talk and explain things. He’s the best character I’ve ever written about—and may well always be the best character I’ll ever write about. Walter Payton was very introspective, painfully insecure, well-intentioned but flawed. In other words, human. He also happened to be beloved and, in Chicago, nearly a saint. Which means people didn’t necessarily want to learn of his shortcomings. Which is sort of a shame, because shortcomings are a big part of what make us human.
RE: Many sports fans think getting paid to write about sports is like hitting the lottery. But the reality is often far different than what people think. What has been the best and worst parts for you about covering sports?
JP: It’s hitting the lottery—they’re right.
But not financially. I’m lucky to be able to make a living writing books, but I’m not rich off of it. But my career has been an absolute joy. I’ve said this before: Back when I was at the University of Delaware, I had friends who became lawyers, bankers, accountants, etc. And they’re happy people. Content, satisfied. But I also think they work for the weekends. Like, you give 50 hours so you have those two free days. Which never struck me as a great deal. I don’t work for weekends. Never have. Writing is a joy. Being able to ask questions, dig, chronicle, expose, expand. It’s fantastic, and I love it. Also, as a father of two, I’m very present. I drop off, I pick up, I raise, I feed, I know the friends, coach the teams, etc. That’s probably been the absolute best part—it’s allowed me to be a parent who doesn’t just show up on weekends. The worst part, I’d say, involves social media. Hate, hate, hate, hate. Just so much hate, and it’s hard to get sucked in. But it’s also a supreme medium for selling books. And my career depends on that.
RE: You’ve written about some of the biggest stars in the game but you get so much of your best information from far less well known people that were only a small part of those players’ orbit. What’s your philosophy behind this?
JP: I have this guiding principle, and it’s based around an experience I had in high school with a guy named Dave Fleming, who came out of Mahopac, N.Y. (my hometown) to wind up pitching for the Seattle Mariners. Dave lived about a half mile up the street from me, but we didn’t know one another. When he was a senior I was a freshman, and one day he happened to be on the school bus (maybe his car was in the shop). I was talking to a kid named Scott, and I asked him a trivia question—“Who was the leading rusher for the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl?” And Dave turned around and said, “Wendell Tyler.” OK, does Dave Fleming remember that moment? No way in hell. But I do, because he was THE Dave Fleming. That’s how I think of these books. Were he alive, Walter Payton wouldn’t remember the 1978 free agent safety from Bucknell. But the free agent safety from Bucknell will remember being in camp with Walter Payton. And he’ll likely have a story or two. So I call every possible bit player, to get that story.
RE: So many aspiring nonfiction authors struggle trying to sell books on topics they really like but which no agent or editor is ever going to buy. How do you go about choosing book topics that will actually get you a contract?
JP: That’s a strong take right there. There are a million aspiring book writers who say, “I wanna write about this amazing thing. There’s a barber who lives near me, and he was once a Black Panther and then he found Jesus and now he cuts hair.” And that may well be a great book. But it’s a beast to sell. Because publishing companies want to know they have a shot at selling. And that involves marketing, and marketing strategies. Walter Payton, Barry Bonds, the ‘86 Mets—they have built-in audiences. That doesn’t mean they’ll sell. The book has to be good, the timing right, etc. But they have a good shot. The barber? Toughie. Every so often someone hits on an obscure topic, and the thing blows up. “Seabiscuit” is the perfect example. I mean, a horse nobody remembers, from a time long ago? Tough sell. But Laura Hillenbrand is an amazing writer and the saga was mind-blowingly good.
Maybe I lack her guts, but I’ve generally picked topics that have an obvious shot. From the Mets to Cowboys to Bonds and Rogers Clemens and Sweetness, they were all dynamic figures or teams. The ones that didn’t make the New York Times list had circumstantial issues. Bad timing (Bonds), rushed product (Clemens). But they still sold OK. After I complete my current project, I’m writing a biography of the USFL—the United States Football League. It’s my first reach. So, we’ll see …
RE: All writers have critics. You’ve referred to yourself as being thin-skinned. As such, how do you handle negative reviews and criticism about your work?
JP: Well, it hurts. But with age and experience it hurts less, because you realize we’re all gonna be dead. I’m not joking when I say that: We will all cease to exist, and the bad reviews, Internet thugs, etc are just gnats passing in the wind. So why get too bent out of shape? Also, people have a right to dislike/hate your work. Truly, they do. I slam movies, music all the time. If you don’t like my book, go to town. It’s your right.
RE: You’ve also made a point of tracking down and confronting some of the worst trolls you’ve encountered on social media? How do you feel about social media in general?
JP: Well, as I said earlier it’s great for promoting. And it’s also a good distraction when I’m bored, or tired of writing and need a break. But it’s also mean, and snarky and simplistic. Everything turns black and white, good and bad. You suck or you rule; you’re amazing or you’re awful. And life is more nuanced than that.
RE: Sorry – long question here. So many sports books read like anthropology – chronological happenings without the human stories behind those events. You’ve made a great career out of showcasing the humanity – or at times lack thereof – of some of the most notable people in sports. In that regard, have you read “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” by Charles Leerhsen? Like most of us I have always thought of Cobb as a horrible racist and all around despicable person, but this book really presents him in a very different light. How often – if ever – have you gone into a story thinking one way about someone and come out with an entirely different perspective?
JP: Haven’t read it, but Charles is awesome. So I should. As for perspective, ALL the time. Like, all the time. As you should. The one thing I don’t understand is the racist journalist, or the homophobic or xenophobic journalist. You have to be openminded to all sides, experiences, perspectives. I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought one thing about a guy, only to learn the exact opposite. And I love that. It’s one of the joys of this profession: Exposure.
RE: What books or authors do you read on your own time?
RE: A good friend of mine turned me on to The Quaz, which you bill as “The quirkiest, funkiest Q&A series on the web.” I have to agree. Since we’re having this conversation now you already know my blog is somewhat similar, though admittedly far behind yours in both the quirkiness and funky factor. I’ll get to work on that for sure, but in the meantime…I know why I do mine – what is the impetus behind yours?
JP: Thanks for the kind words. About four years ago my kids and I were watching a lot of the Wonder Years. I found myself wondering, “I wonder what ever became of [X character]?” So I tracked down one of his ex-girlfriends on the show, a wonderful woman named Wendy Hagen, and asked if I could throw some questions her way. She was game. Then I thought, “I’m gonna do this every week—to random folks who interest me, and sometimes only me.” It’s a treat for me, to be honest, a chance to ask anything I want to whoever I want.
RE: Who is your dream interview subject for a Quaz Q&A? Living or dead…
JP: Gary Coleman.
RE: I once interviewed my boyhood idol, Ken “Snake” Stabler. It was in 1993 and I just finally got it digitized and posted to my site. I’m still proud of it but of course now can think of a lot of different questions I would ask if I had the chance today. Is there any interview or work of your own you feel that way about now?
JP: Sooooooo many. Regret and hindsight is a huge part of this game. You always have a, “Crap, I can’t believe I forgot to ask ______ moment.”
RE: When can we expect to see your next book? And can you give us a hint what/who it will be about?
JP: Next fall. I can tell you it’s NFL-related, but neither Ken Stabler nor Jerry Eckwood.