An Interview with Jeff Pearlman
“I think, when it comes to PR, the general mantra is “Don’t be afraid to be a whore” or, better put, “Leave your embarrassment at home.” I’ve had four books, and for every one I’ve had postcards printed out, and I’ve gone car to car in stadium lots handing them out, putting them on windshields… Also, you have to hit up every blog, every site, every Yahoo or AOL group that deals with your subject. Tell them you’ll gladly do interviews, send review copies, etc.”
“The main thing with books is the research. For a biography to work, you have to make the calls…I never brag about my own writing, because I hate most everything I write. But I’m very proud of the research I put in. Now, when I’m reading a book, I can tell whether the author did his homework, or whether he’s trying to cover up with airy writing.”
Jeff Pearlman: Interviewed on May 17, 2009
Position: author, si.com
Born: 1972; Mahopac, NY
Education: University of Delaware, ’94, BA, history major, sociology minor
Career: The (Nashville) Tennessean 1994-96; Sports Illustrated 1996-2003; Newsday2003-05; ESPN.com: 2007-08; si.com
: 2009 –
Personal: married, two kids
Favorite restaurant (home): Stanz, Larchmont, N.Y, “The best sandwiches I have ever, ever, ever tasted, by far.”
Favorite restaurant (away): Captain Charlie’s Reef Grill, Juno Beach, Fl. “Small off-the-road find. The conch chowder is to die for.”
Favorite hotel: Renaissance Vinoy, St. Pete, Florida, “Not a huge fan of the city, but the hotel is just spectacular. Love the rocking chairs.”
Author of: The Bad Guys Won; Love Me, Hate Me; Boys Will Be Boys; The Rocket That Fell to Earth
Posted on JeffPearlman.com, May 14, 2009:
A brief entry to appreciate writer’s block.
I have an SI.com column due in the morning. But I also have strep throat
. Which sucks. I try drinking tea and tea and more tea, mixed with some honey. But then, in between cups, my throat gets even sorer. So I dry sucking on a throat drop, but after three or four sucks I just end up chewing the thing. And that doesn’t help me so much.
Then, when I’m supposed to be writing. I Google. Or go to YouTube. Or look up random people like him
. And him
. And her
. Or I sit here and blog about blogging. Which sure is lame. Or I try and plan my 20-year high school reunion for 2010. Which only reminds me that I’m older than much of the world, and certainly older than, oh, 95% of the people who also enjoy the Real World on MTV.
OK, back to writing.
Q. You seem passionate about writing. Why?
A. Well, it started when I was in high school, but for the wrong reason. There was this girl named Terea McClure who I had an enormous crush on. She was in the school rock band, and I wanted to meet her. So I told my editor I was going to profile her. We sat down in the library: This beautiful, untouchable high school rock goddess, and the schlub with the Marshall’s wardrobe. I thought, “Wow, look what this is doing for me!” Then I asked her out, and she hung up on me.
Truth is, I love the combination of the reporting and the writing: The reporting, in that you dig into the lives of others; you literally bounce week to week or project to project being in someone else’s shoes, be it a high school track star, a crack addict, a horse trainer, a war vet. That’s very unusual, and priceless. And the writing, well, I enjoy the experimentation. Trying to find a new way to say something; never wasting a word; not settling for cliche. It’s so torturous, but also invigorating—very similar to marathon running.
When I was a young asshole at The Tennessean, I’d say to a friend, “Give me a word,” and they’d say “Pineapple.” Then I’d find a way to work the word into my lede–just to see if I could. It was cocky and stupid and unprofessional, but it also sorta touches on the challenge I enjoy in writing. Finding new ways to say things and to convey.
Q. You recently wrote: “with the economic downturn and the media implosion, it’s getting increasingly hard to survive, and the author who doesn’t serve as his own hype man (a la Flavor Flav: the Sane Years) is the author who doesn’t last.” Give us a general primer for self-promotion in the era of sports media implosion, blogosphere infinity, and multi-platforming. Please include your opinion of Twitter.
A. Well, I just jumped on the Twitter train a few weeks ago, and, uh, I’m sorta underwhelmed. Am I missing something? What’s the big deal?
I think, when it comes to PR, the general mantra is “Don’t be afraid to be a whore” or, better put, “Leave your embarrassment at home.” I’ve had four books, and for every one I’ve had postcards printed out, and I’ve gone car to car in stadium lots handing them out, putting them on windshields. Occasionally I’m asked by someone, “This isn’t you, is it?” I used to be awkward about it, but no more, “Yeah, it’s me. Why should I pay a kid $100 when I can do this myself?” Plus, the act in and of itself is great PR: The best-selling author who still hands out postcards in a lot. It’s gotten my books good PR.
Also, you have to hit up every blog, every site, every Yahoo or AOL group that deals with your subject. Tell them you’ll gladly do interviews, send review copies, etc. Used to be, the goal was an excerpt in some big magazine, or a newspaper. For me, while that’s still great, it’s not vital. You need excerpts and reviews and author Q&As on sites that will directly link to your Amazon page.
Q. What lessons – from a commercial perspective – have you learned from your four books?
A. Hmm … tough question. First, I’d say people are in love with nostalgia. My two best-sellers, the ’86 Mets and ’90s Cowboys, were based on nostalgia; on remembering where you were when so-and-so happened. My two mediocre sellers, Bonds and Clemens, had little to do with nostalgia. People perceived them as dolts. Which leads to answer No. 2: Don’t write about dolts if you want to sell millions of books.
Q. How about from an artistic perspective?
A. Well, Jon Wertheim told me early on that the key to surviving a book is to think of every chapter as a magazine story. And he’s right. Editors screw up books when they try and link the chapters together, like one big, flowing blob. You don’t need that. A chapter can end with a dramatic hanger, and the next one can begin in a completely different way. They’re separate entities.
The main thing with books is the research. For a biography to work, you have to make the calls. I’ve been mocked before for talking so much about the number of people I interview for a book. Well, to hell with that. If I’ve spent my year interviewing 500 of Barry Bonds’ associates, tracking them down, hunting them out, I deserve to brag. I never brag about my own writing, because I hate most everything I write. But I’m very proud of the research I put in. Now, when I’m reading a book, I can tell whether the author did his homework, or whether he’s trying to cover up with airy writing. When I was at The Tennessean, I didn’t know what research was. I was a shit reporter, and I tried covering everything up with what I thought was the world’s greatest pen. So what happened? Everything I wrote was crap, and I got demoted to the overnight cops beat. Great lesson.
Final thought, and I apologize for the ramble: I think when you write books you have to be prepared for people to rip you and rip the writing. It’s 300 pages of exposure—you’re gonna have some bad analogies, some errors, some stupid lines. It happens, because there’s … just … so … much … material. So whenever a book’s about to come out, I take a deep breath and urge myself not to Google my name. Then the book comes out and I Google my name 500 times a day.
Q. You wrote on Facebook that you “hate SportsCenter with a passion”. Can you imagine a sports media without ESPN? What would it be like?
A. Hell yeah, I can. It’d be joy. ESPN provides a service, and I truly enjoyed my time writing for Page 2, because I had two terrific editors and it was an honor to work alongside Jemele Hill.
But when it comes to sports journalism, ESPN is often acid to the brain. Look, for example, at that show E:60. I mean, they load that program with these insanely talented people … and then they start it with a fake news meeting. It’s like a bad SNL skit. Decide what you are: News, or show biz?
Also, one thing that really, really, really bothered me at espn.com
was their measure of a successful story. I consider myself an SI guy—I started there 13 years ago, loved my time there, respect the judgment of editors and the skills of the writers. Well, I get to ESPN.com and how do they measure a story’s success? Quality of the writing? No. Depth of the reporting? No. Effort? No. By friggin’ how many people click on a story. That’s their measure. So if you’re writing for ESPN.com, and it’s 2009, and jobs are being cut, are you pursuing the one-legged high school wrestler with an artificial heart? Or will you just mail in the mindless LeBron/Jeter/T.O. column? Hey, you wanna eat—you go with LeBron/Jeter/T.O.
That said, I met Linda Cohn recently, and she was very nice.
Q. Was there a golden age of sports media?
A. I’d say the 1970s. Writers weren’t homers anymore, but they still fostered relationships with the athletes. Writers were hard-core and crusty and determined to break a story first. There were rivalries that ran deep, and you busted your ass not to get beat. I’m not so certain, writing-wise, it was the best era. There are loads of talented writers right now. But I love the swagger of the 70s sportswriters. The grittiness of the scene.
Q. Who and what do you read and watch in sports media?
A. Well, I still get Sports Illustrated, and I’ll go to si.com
and Deadspin. I’m not a huge day-to-day sports fan anymore—the job has kind of beat it out of me. But there are authors I really enjoy in the genre: Howard Bryant, Jon Wertheim, Jonathan Eig, Leigh Montville, Mark Kriegel. I’m a political junkie these days.
Q. Who did you have – Leonard or Hagler? And how the hell did you end up there?
A. I had Leonard. One of my greatest boyhood nights, actually. I used to listen to a sports radio show on WVIP in Putnam County, N.Y. And they always had phone-in contests. So I called in and won two tickets to watch Leonard-Hagler on big screen pay-per-view at Westchester Community College. I went with my dad, who wouldn’t have recognized either man had they been wearing “I’M LEONARD’ and ‘I’M HAGLER’ signs. But we had a blast.
Oh, and I picked Leonard because he had a cool nickname and was in 7-Up commercials.
Q. Next book project?
A. Have one, but can’t say just yet. Sorry.
Posted on JeffPearlman.com, May 12, 2009:
So this morning Roger Clemens decided to celebrate the release
of the new book, American Icon: The Fall of Roger Clemens and the Rise of Steroids in America’s Pastime
, by breaking his lengthy silence to appear on Mike & Mike, ESPN’s wildly popular morning radio show (that also airs on ESPN2).
A dumber decision has rarely been made.
Before today, American Icon
was languishing on Amazon, hovering from anywhere between 1,000 to 4,000, looking like yet another steroid-related book that would come and go without much thought (Now it’s No. 98). That’s what’s starting to happen in the world of books and, to a lesser extent, newspapers and magazine—people are tired of steroids; of the disappointments and the finger pointing. It’s a topic that no longer seems to interest people. They need to be given a reason to read such a book. A reason to pay attention.
Thank you, Roger.
In case you missed it, this morning Clemens was a joke. Blathering, babbling, inane, nonsensical. He is perhaps the worst interview in the history of organized sports—and that’s in the context of postgame quotes on the Tiger-Yankees game. Here, with PHDs, he’s just outclassed. Whatever he utters sounds foolish and contrived. He backs himself up by repeatedly mentioning his foundation
(As in, how could I have used? I have a foundation!). He seems to think by resorting to the ol’ ballplayer trick of calling media folks by their nicknames (”Well, Greenie …”) he’s forging a bond. That might have worked 20 years ago in the Red Sox clubhouse.
It ain’t working anymore.
** PS: For more on my take of Clemens, check this out.
(SMG thanks Jeff Pearlman for his cooperation)