An Interview with Paola Boivin
“It’s a constant battle to be sensitive to your readers’ needs and to be true to yourself. There’s a tendency in this profession to want to dumb down to readers. Sometimes it’s okay to make them feel like they have to look something up or ask about something. It’s okay not to be totally obvious.”
“It makes me wish as a sports section we had done more with the Tillman story. Is it wrong with a sports columnist to have issues with the government? I don’t think so – in this case. I don’t know why readers should be offended.”
“Phoenix is a very interesting area. It has an interesting mix of well-educated and redneck, for lack of another word. People had issues with me writing about Callaspo.”
Interviewed on August 12, 2007
Position: Columnist, Arizona Republic
Born: South Bend, Ind., 1960
Education: University of Illinois, 1982, English
Career: Chicago Tribune 82-84, Camarillo Daily New 85-88, LA Daily News 88-95, Arizona Republic 95-
Personal: married, two children (Shane, Jesse)
Favorite restaurant (home): Blue Wasabi, sushi, Scottsdale “they have the Jeff Spicoli roll – named for the stoner Sean Penn played in ‘Fast Times’ – unbelievable sushi”
Favorite restaurant (road): Nanbankan, Santa Monica “everything is cooked on skewers – I’ve been going for 20 years”
Favorite hotel: Princess Resort, Scottsdale “in the middle of desert – javelinas are walking around on the grounds”
Paola Boivin excerpted from the Arizona Republic, July 21, 2007:
It’s the resilience that gets me. Not from the damaged cartilage, but from the cyclone of bad breaks and bad intentions that follow Amare Stoudemire around like a cloud of Pigpen’s dust.
Q. Pigpen’s dust. How did you come up with that?
A. It just popped into my head thinking about Amare, who’s in the news week after week. There was a story about his mother getting arrested again, and then out the blue his half brother was brought up on a murder charge. I thought ‘My gosh, there’s always stuff following him around’. I’m a child of the 70s and somewhat the 60s and I have all those Charlie Brown specials in my head.
Q. Do you wonder if young readers might not connect with your allusion?
A. Yes. Sometimes my peers go out on that route too much. Our paper is so concerned about attracting a younger audience that we have to be careful. So many times I want to throw in 1980s music references and I have to stop myself, at the point where people would be asking ‘What does that mean?’ It’s good to get readers thinking – I’m not against having them look something up. It’s good to challenge readers, but if it’s just a musical phrase, it’s not that important and you have to be careful.
Q. On the other hand you don’t want to inhibit your own frame of reference.
A. Good point. Especially as a columnist you have to write from your gut. It’s very personal – you are what you write, and you don’t want to force yourself to be what you aren’t. It’s a constant battle to be sensitive to your readers’ needs and to be true to yourself. There’s a tendency in this profession to want to dumb down to readers. Sometimes it’s okay to make them feel like they have to look something up or ask about something. It’s okay not to be totally obvious.
Q. Do you worry about the craft of column writing?
A. Yes. My favorite part of reading sports is the storytelling. I love the storytelling as opposed to talk radio and print in which a lot of columns have become somebody screaming at you. I’m getting older now – I feel like I less have to please my peers. You can tell stories in a column. But I worry sometimes that there’s a great need to scream and shout and be like talk radio when you are writing. It’s nice to have diversity, some people are good at storytelling – some are good at opinion. Some are good at making you look at something differently.
I’m more the storytelling type, but it took me awhile to get there. I was so guilty of wanting to please my peers. As a woman in this business you are so sensitive to what others are saying and thinking about you that you try to imitate the popular columnists. Then you realize your best columns reflect who you are.
My better columns are when I spend time with my subjects and find out about their lives and let it unfold that way. It’s hard for me to get worked up about a coach making a bad decision or calling a bad play. As I get older I feel better writing in a storytelling approach rather than screaming.
The things that work me up aren’t Xs and Os. It’s the D-Backs putting a pitcher on the mound who is accused of spousal abuse. I’ll write that, and my paper is okay with it. Dan Bickley, our other columnist, is very much an opinion calling-the-shot kind of guy. My style counters that.
Q. What kind of stories capture your attention?
A. One that comes to mind was about a well-known high school football player, DeShawn Brown. As his family was driving back home from Texas they got in a horrible car accident. He died and others were hurt. I called his mom in the hospital to ask her how she was doing and I hit her at the moment she wanted to tell the whole story. I wrote about how their day started and how it unfolded. I didn’t want to sensationalize the incident or take advantage of her in this vulnerable moment. Telling it that way, I think, made people pay more attention. It raised awareness of this poor family, and some fundraisers were held to help them.
Q. Reflections on your Pat Tillman coverage?
A. If there was one universally loved athlete in this community it was Pat. People who don’t follow sports knew about him. When that news broke it was such – and this is a cliché – it was so much more than a sport story. To me it was important to make it go beyond the sports fans and reach the general public. For me it was about covering this tragedy and how it affected the team and the city, and then all these other things happened. People tried to exploit the situation – they were selling Pat Tillman bracelets they got free at a Cardinals game on E-Bay. Now it became an international story with a debate on how the government and military responded to what happened, and didn’t tell the truth to the family. I think our paper could be doing a better job in that area, to be honest. We’re a victim of a smaller staff – we just don’t have the people in Washington or the investigative resources.
Q. Did you write about the military cover-up?
A. So many people were offended that sports people were addressing this subject. We as a sports staff haven’t done much beyond the Xs and Os stuff. Our news writers and columnists handled it. I kind of feel as a sportswriter I should have done more with that. It seems our paper felt strongly it should be handled by our news guys.
Q. Did you have a strong reaction when the truth came out?
A. Very strong. A lot of it was because his mother and father had strong reactions. Whatever little information there was, they were getting it. The fact that they felt so betrayed made me feel betrayed not as a sportswriter but as a citizen of this country. His parents were so impressive – for them to have that reaction made me have it ten times as much. His wife Marie is such a bright, classy person. Friends of friends know her and talked about how broken-hearted she was.
It makes me wish as a sports section we had done more with the Tillman story. Is it wrong with a sports columnist to have issues with the government? I don’t think so – in this case. I don’t know why readers should be offended.
Q. It’s not like writing about the D-Backs bullpen.
A. It makes most other stories seem trivial juxtaposed against Tillman. As sportswriters we shouldn’t be afraid to go there. As sports reporters we have to be well-rounded – we certainly write about criminal behavior a lot. We should feel okay going there.
We have access to so much more information about athletes and things they’re dealing with – steroids and everything else. To be good at this craft you have to be informed. More than knowing the hit-and-run or the post pattern, you have to know how to use the Nexus database, and look at court records.
Q. What have you written that got hate mail?
A. Anything that is related to some of those issues, for instance, if a player is arrested. A DBacks player, Alberto Callaspo, was arrested for spousal abuse, but he hadn’t had his day in court. I wrote a column that he shouldn’t be on the team now, under this ugly accusation. Put him on paid leave. It seemed distasteful that they were putting him in the lineup, and his name was flashing on the screen when he came to bat and people were cheering.
Phoenix is a very interesting area. It has an interesting mix of well-educated and redneck, for lack of another word. People had issues with me writing about Callaspo.
I shouldn’t throw that redneck label out there. But moving here from LA – it’s a very different vibe than Southern California. You have a liberal element here, but go 15 miles out of town and you have pockets of militia.
Q. How do you balance work and family?
A. It’s a daily battle. Being a columnist has afforded me the ability to juggle my schedule, though it’s not a perfect scenario. I’ve done interviews locked in a bathroom with a magic marker on toilet paper. There’s an interview on our garage wall I did in pencil – one of my kids was screaming and needy and I needed quiet. I’m not proud of those moments, but my life in the last ten years has had a lot of them. I can write from home but I do travel a lot and attend sporting events. I love this enough that I don’t mind doing it with little sleep. Fortunately I have a supportive husband and two kids trained not to bother me on the phone.
There was one moment I thought I couldn’t do this. I’m embarrassed by this now. My daughter was three months old, and the Coyotes were coming to town from Winnipeg. The Winnipeg team was in LA and I was going to LA – they were playing the Kings at the Forum. But my babysitter cancelled at the last minute. I flew to LA holding my three-month-old, and I remember going to their practice and interviewing Teemu Selanne while she was spitting up and I was holding my tape recorder. Selanne was laughing. It was either tell my boss I couldn’t go, or take her and hope nobody was offended. Fortunately the Jets were happy with the coverage, but it felt very unprofessional.
Q. Something like that might improve the interview.
A. Once I was covering the Giants in spring training when I was 8 1/2 months pregnant. Barry Bonds came up to me and said he could see my bellybutton through my shirt and asked me when I was due. He said his wife was pregnant. That started a dialogue I wouldn’t have had with Bonds.
It can humanize you, but I wouldn’t want to do it often. I wouldn’t want to be stereotyped as someone who drags her kids around to interviews. I find myself trying not to remind athletes and coaches I’m female, or that I have kids. That’s terrible to say. You fight so much early on to fit in and be one of the guys. I find myself trying not to separate myself in any way shape or form.
Paola Boivin excerpted from the Arizona Republic, July 24, 2005:
It was almost 2 p.m. and the family had reached the halfway point of its journey. In Odessa, Texas, a city whose air was thick with moisture and high school football expectations, the player’s mother thought her husband might need a reprieve.
“Do you want me to drive?” Janice Brown said. “Are you tired?”
“I’m fine,” John Brown said.
A minute later, she heard a pop. The car zigzagged. It flipped. Again and again. “John! John!” she cried. She was confused. She worked her way out of the car and ran down Interstate 20.
“I kept running,” she said Saturday, five days after the accident. “When I turned I could see everybody laying on the road. I tried to cry, and I couldn’t cry. I tried to scream, and I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t understand what happened. I thought it was a bad nightmare, but I wouldn’t wake up. I just wanted to keep running.”
When does a mother’s grief become a sports story? Today, because Janice Brown, a 39-year-old Tempe mother of six, is now a 39-year-old Tempe mother of five. She wants you to know how quickly life can call an audible. And she wants you to know how important football was to her son, DeShawn Brown.
(SMG thanks Paola Boivin for her cooperation)