An Interview with Wright Thompson
“I don’t consciously imitate other southern writers but I write like I talk and I was born in Clarksville, Mississippi. The voice is southern, simply because that’s the only voice I’ve got. There are certain phrases and a certain bit of nostalgia in looking at things that comes through.”
“The ideal interview is for a person not to feel interviewed but to feel like they sat down and had a conversation. When somebody starts cursing that’s always a good sign, because you’re just talking now, you’re not thinking about every word that comes out of your mouth. If you hear ‘fuck, shit, hell, goddamn’ I know you’re not parsing words. You’re just talking.”
“I’m an early riser – I was raised on a farm. I try to get up early – that helps. You need to spend the hours. The most important thing is, if you don’t have the information to come home and write, you’re royally screwed. Nothing reads as flimsy as an underreported magazine story. I obsess about these things – they consume my life.”
Wright Thompson: Interviewed on September 14, 2007
Position: senior writer, espn.com and ESPN the Magazine
Born: 1976, Clarksdale, Miss.
Education: Missouri, BJ, 2001
Career: New Orleans Times Picayune 2001-2002, KC Star 2002 – 2006, espn.com and ESPN the Magazine 2006 –
Favorite restaurant (home): City Grocery, Oxford, Miss. “as good a restaurant as there is anywhere – a world class bar upstairs with a balcony that overlooks the whole square – a home away from home – few places make me happier”
Favorite restaurant (road): Le Fou Frog, KC “best steak in KC, a French restaurant – when you walk inside you feel like you’re in Marseilles; PJ Clarke’s, New York, “the béarnaise bacon cheeseburger – if Scarlett Johansson were food she would be a béarnaise bacon cheeseburger”
Favorite hotel: Hay-Adams, Washington, D.C. “I don’t stay there much because it’s really expensive, but it was my daddy’s favorite hotel – it’s one of the places I can feel his presence. I don’t know if that makes me nuts but I swear it’s true.”
Wright Thompson, excerpted from espn.com, August 30, 2007:
OXFORD, Miss. — Two friends, both unhinged football fans, got married earlier this year. During the wedding reception, the bride’s father somehow got the Ole Miss band to march into the room, a blaring chorus of starched uniforms and shining brass. The groom conducted. The crowd stomped and cheered. You’d have thought folks were celebrating a 12-play scoring drive, not holy matrimony.
Soon after the wedding, I watched video of this event. Immediately, I recognized the feeling deep down in my gut. It’s something I’ve felt in so many cathedral-like stadiums. I closed my eyes, and the familiar notes sent me rushing months into the future, longing for a tailgate that escalates from simmer to burn, for the chill bumps that always come in the moments before kickoff, for the evening breezes rustling the white oaks when the game is done. My body sat in front of a computer screen. My mind was in a stadium. It was only April, and I longed for September.
I missed football season.
As you might have guessed, I live in the South, a little town named Oxford, which means my life is governed by a set of rhythms as familiar as the white-columned mansions up and down Lamar Boulevard. I love air conditioning, and I love cocktails in the gloaming on the City Grocery balcony, and I love a plate of shrimp and grits when the sun finally goes down. I love honking at Faulkner’s grave on the way home from the bar. I love cruising 18 miles an hour through campus, the speed limit set in honor of Archie Manning’s college number, passing pretty blondes driving foreign cars, courtesy of Daaaaddy, and seeing a boy sporting khakis and an SEC haircut and realizing our fathers looked just like that a half century ago. I love “Dixie” played slow and the Bob Dylan song. I love the magnolias blooming in the late spring and the incandescent heat of the summer but, mostly, I love the insanity of the fall.
Q. Do you think of yourself as a southern writer?
A. I don’t. But I hear from people all the time who think I am. I don’t consciously imitate other southern writers but I write like I talk and I was born in Clarksville, Mississippi. The voice is southern, simply because that’s the only voice I’ve got. There are certain phrases and a certain bit of nostalgia in looking at things that comes through.
My pet topic is disappearing America, and things that once were and are no longer. Those things popped up in a story in Nazareth, Texas about the girls high school basketball team, and in the Mark McGwire story. I would love to write a book about disappearing America, and what it says about America today. This comes from growing up in a place that is both disappearing physically and is losing some of its long-held idiosyncrasies.
Q. You mean like obesity?
A. We’re number one in obesity and teen pregnancy and 50th in education. In Mississippi we like to say ‘thank god for Arkansas’. That shit’s real. This is a messed up place, dude.
Q. But you love it.
A. It’s part of being from the south. It’s what Willie Morris wrote – being from the south is about having an intense love of so many things yet, if you are of a certain frame of mind, also having pretty deep regrets and embarrassments and other adjectives about the racial history of it. I had a line in my southern football story – “I love Dixie played slow and the Bob Dylan song.” That’s the essence of the south – you love the history but you also love the fact that other people had to come in to force it to change. I went to a day of the Bobby Cherry trial – as a southerner I needed to see this – to sit on those hard benches in a sultry courtroom and see racial reconciliation 40 years too late. Rick Bragg’s lead the day after it was over is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read.
Q. Do you feel the spirit of Faulkner tapping at your window?
A. No. I just feel my editors, Jay Lovinger or Chris Berend or Kevin Jackson, wondering where the fuck their story is.
Q. As a long-form writer, are you a dying breed?
A. I don’t think so. The Internet has created a world where you can have all different forms – they can all co-exist and be successful. On espn.com we can run a 3600-word story about a young man from Georgia named Genarlow Wilson who is or isn’t wrongfully imprisoned, and also a Bill Simmons column about the Celtics. Both can appeal to different people or the same people, and both can be well read and well received. We do a lot of different things well at espn.com.
If you ask young writers who they want to be a lot will still say Gary Smith. I have Gary Smith’s phone number and I won’t call it because what am I possibly going to say to Gary Smith? A lot of people still want to be Gary Smith or Scott Price – one of those people who write those stories people remember long after they forgot who wrote them.
Q. Are there readers for long form?
A. I think so. Absolutely. Poynter did a study that showed people are more likely to read long stories online than in the newspaper. I know this anecdotally and also I get a lot of hits on stories that require an investment of time and emotion from people. Think about it. You’ve got a captive audience of people at work, bored to death in their cubicles. They’re more likely to get through a long story at work than at home when they’re trying to make lunches, get the kids ready for bed, or walk the dog.
Are there as many people who want to read Gary Smith as want to see Jenna Jameson naked? Probably not. But different story styles suit different kinds of stories. There are long stories for a reason.
Q. Would you describe your job as rarefied?
A. I want to answer that without sounding like a jackass. That’s true. Everybody knows those jobs are harder to get than they are to do. Frankly, I think I’m very lucky – there are a lot of people who could do my job. By hook and crook and a lot of hard work I happened to get it – I’m incredibly lucky I’m allowed the time and resources to write stories important to me, my editors and readers. It is a kind of rarefied job, not a day goes by I’m not incredibly thankful for it. I love it. I love getting up in the morning to do my job. I was transcribing tape today for a magazine story and as much as I hate doing that I love it too.
Q. You seem like a humble guy.
A. If you ask a lot of people who know me I’m a stark raving egomaniac. I think everybody’s life is interesting. I think that most of the time the story is about them – which is not to say I won’t write myself in when it helps the arc or makes it clearer. While I like first person I don’t necessarily like ‘I think I think’ stories – I think x about y so therefore z’. I like stories that are about people and especially about places. The only way to go to a new and strange place is with a little bit of humility because no matter what you know about you are talking to people who know everything about what you’re reporting on. You can’t help but go hat in hand to those places that are foreign to you.
Q. What makes a good story to you?
A. People and place. It needs to be about people. If the readers feel when the story is over that they’ve been to a place you’ve done your job. All the things Jon Franklin (“Writing For Story”) talks about – conflict and resolution, an arc – it should be muscular and flow in a logical way, and be cinematic. It’s the old movie test – if you paid seven bucks to see a story would you get up and walk out? I think it’s hysterical that we have a graf to tell people about what we’re about to tell them. Can you imagine if that happened five minutes into “The Departed”? You want to give people a road map in the story so they don’t feel lost in the desert, but also in a cinematic way that’s interesting to read.
Q. Explain cinematic.
A. In your own head you need to think about words a movie director would be thinking about. Look at the scene and character and how that first scene would introduce the character. Report visually – write down moments that are striking to you – if you write that way it will be striking to the reader. I did a road trip through China for a story and had reams of notes and I found when I looked at those notes, if I could remember it without the notes, it probably should go in. That’s the whole thing with quotes – if you can’t remember the gist of it it’s probably not that great a quote.
Q. What is your interview technique?
A. Professional interviewers might read this and have a heart attack. I try to sit down and talk to somebody. I tell them things about myself if I feel it’s relevant – it’s a two-way conversation. I look for common ground if we have similar life experiences. We just talk. The ideal interview is for a person not to feel interviewed but to feel like they sat down and had a conversation. When somebody starts cursing that’s always a good sign, because you’re just talking now, you’re not thinking about every word that comes out of your mouth. If you hear ‘fuck, shit, hell, goddamn’ I know you’re not parsing words. You’re just talking.
Q. Where do you do your best talking?
A. You have to catch me at the bar at City Grocery – on the balcony.
Q. What’s your drink?
A. Gin and tonic, if it’s still light.
Q. After dark?
A. Makers Mark and Diet Coke. I apologize to serious whiskey drinkers out there. I need a little caffeine in my life.
Q. Do your editors help you conceptualize?
A. I have great editors. A lot of times I have heavy conversations with them before I make a phone call and then during the entire process. My main e-ticket editor is Jay Lovinger – Jay is one of the deans of American magazine editing – it’s a daily honor and privilege to have his phone number, much less to call him, which I do, obsessively. His poor wife and kids must wonder who is this psychopathic redneck that keeps calling his house. His boss is Kevin Jackson, one of the head guys at dot.com and one of the smartest guys I’ve ever worked with. My editor on the column length stuff is Michael Knisley, who is a former newspaper and magazine reporter himself. He gets it.
Any success I’ve had at dot.com has a lot to do with those guys. At the magazine it’s a guy named Chris Berend, the senior articles editor who came over from Esquire. He’s great on the front end and I talk to him when I’m reporting – this is what I saw today – almost like dailies on movies. My old boss at the KC Star, Mike Fannin, was another great editor. His attitude was don’t go somewhere and scrape your nuts on the pavement – don’t waste time.
Q. How much time do you take on a story?
A. I’m so much better with more time. Reporting on a tight deadline you have to get things you know are going to work. If you do a magazine story or a long form piece for dot.com you talk to everybody and the more you talk the more you funnel it down to the essential people. I’m sure some is a crutch – I over-report to the nth degree. I’m petrified of sitting down and realizing ‘oh my god I didn’t do this’. I don’t want to stare at another flight.
I’m an early riser – I was raised on a farm. I try to get up early – that helps. You need to spend the hours. The most important thing is if you don’t have the information to come home and write you’re royally screwed. Nothing reads as flimsy as an underreported magazine story.
I obsess about these things – they consume my life.
Q. Is that healthy?
A. I don’t know. It’s the only way to do it right. You’ve got to live. The amount of stuff I read before and during a story is endless. I’m an Amazon junkie. You should see my bookshelf for ‘History of Mistrust’, which I wrote in August.
Q. How are you on deadline?
A. It’s easy to me. It’s much easier when you know this story has to be written and done at this time. You just do it. I write quick anyway. It’s instant gratification. It’s the greatest thing ever if you don’t have to spend months doing it.
Q. Do you see yourself writing outside of sports?
A. I might do something like that, probably on the side. Knock on wood – I’d like to have my job for as long as they want me. It’s a big audience. These are people who are passionate about great work and know what it is when they see it and know how to make good work great. I sound like a freaking SportsCenter commercial but I really mean it.
I like writing under the aegis of sports – you have all these people together in a lockerrom or on a team for no other reason than they hit the genetic lottery. You have a really random cross-section of people – a Jason Grimsley and Mike Sweeney in the same clubhouse, one of whom is a big cheater and the other might be the best person in sports. That’s interesting to me. Through sports I get to look at all the themes interesting and important to me.
I have two dreams. I want to write in celebration of food – there’s no food I don’t like. And I’d like to be a Waffle House short order cook one day a week.
Q. Who do you read?
A. Rick Telander (Chicago Sun-Times). Scott Price (SI). At the risk of offending a lot of my friends I think Eli Saslow (Washington Post) might be the best reporter in America. Seth Wickersham (ESPN), a dear friend, does the NFL as well as anyone. Jim Sheeler (Rocky Mountain News), wrote the Pulitzer Prize winner on the Marine who has to knock on doors. Ben Montgomery at the St. Pete Times doesn’t do sports either. Rick Maese (Baltimore Sun).
Larry Brown, a fiction writer in Oxford. You read him and you think in a million years with a million typewriters I couldn’t do this. It’s not helpful – it’s just annoying. Joe Posnanski (KC Star) is great. Brady McCollough (KC Star) who covers Kansas, is a talented young guy who writes long form stuff.
There’s lot’s of amazing talent out there. Sally Jenkins (Washington Post). Eric Adelson at The Magazine is as good a writer as there is. The E-Ticket group – Eric Neel, Wayne Drehs, Jim Caple, Patrick Hruby. It’s really exciting when you make a list – it restores your faith.
Q. How much time do you spend reading?
A. People send me stuff – I have Google alerts for people I like, for Eli and Geoff Caulkins (Memphis Commercial Appeal). I try to read the long stuff. There’s a group of us I read before it comes out and there are people I send to. Eli is always a big help. Seth is a big help. Eric Adelson is helpful. Patrick Hruby has really good stuff to say. It depends on the story – you know who can be critical or helpful. You want people who aren’t going to say ‘I love it’. You want them to say ’Here are the flaws.’
Q. Do you think gamers are obsolete?
A. They’re obsolete unless you’re writing about high school in a town, and they’re obsolete if done wrong. But they’re incredibly relevant if done right. The word ‘gamer’ kills this process before it starts. It’s a story about a game – there’s a subtle difference. There’s a reason all the winning game stories at the APSE are columns – because they’re not writing in some archaic form as dictated by an editor. They’re trying to write the most interesting story. People love those. They can be like an SI story done well, with excellent access. like Michael Silver on the balcony of John Elway’s hotel room. That’s always relevant, because it’s new.
Q. Should sports matter as much as they do?
A. Of course they should. We’re not cheering for only the Redskins or whoever. We’re cheering for their past and our association with the team. We’re cheering for and with friends who use this as social pivot. We’re cheering for our father who loved that team, for our grandfather who only wanted to see the Cubs win a championship, or for our brother who went to Bama.
These teams are physical manifestations of feelings people have for where they’re from. As people move around and are less rooted it’s a way to hold on to things that matter to them, to hold on to some part of their identity. Absolutely, it should matter. Do we have people who are obsessive – yeah. Do people seem to be more concerned about sports than politics – absolutely – and that’s ridiculous.
One of the things people have a hard time verbalizing is that down there in front of me someone is physically like me but mentally stronger. There’s a normal person who somehow can withstand the stress of making two free throws after the clock ran out. We like seeing people who are theoretically like us but can do things we can’t do.
Q. How did you approach the Mark McGwire story?
A. The initial thing was to contact everybody he ever had contact with – I called a lot of them. I kept thinking about how McGwire in essence was a story about legacy, and how legacy, if you look at it, is the things we leave behind. I wanted to go to where he came from and see the things and places he left behind and what if anything it said about where he is now. That was the concept. It started from an esoteric conversation about what is legacy – after that it was easy. You just went to the places. I got lucky with the USC alumni game – I didn’t know it was going to be on when I picked my date to travel – so the journalism gods were looking out for me. Which happens a lot – I’m amazed at the number of things you stumble into.
Wright Thompson, excerpted from espn.com, December 4, 2006:
IRVINE, Calif. — In the last house on the left, behind two gates in a heavily secured Orange County community, Mark McGwire is reinventing himself.
One part of his life, the public part, is over. A second act, in a new place with new friends, is just beginning. Bunkered within the walls of his exclusive enclave, across the street from a U.S. congressman of all things, he can look out the windows and see the mountains rising in the distance.
He likes it here on lots 82 and 83 in the Shady Canyon neighborhood, billed as a place for folks with “quiet wealth.” Far from the glitz of Beverly Hills and from the O.C.’s ocean-front palaces, it’s for people who don’t want to be found. A computer system scans license plates for undesirables; security guards stop strangers and, if a home owner doesn’t say “yes,” send them on their way. From the outside, the houses look like battleships.
This is where the 43-year-old McGwire spends his days. Five years ago, he retired as one of baseball’s most beloved players. His legacy is different now. The Hall of Fame ballots went out last month, and no one knows if he’s in or not, or if he even cares or not. That’s how he likes it, of course. He’s not here to talk about the past.
He sidestepped questions from Congress. He doesn’t do interviews, including one for this story. He didn’t go back to St. Louis during the World Series. But it’s more than just avoiding the media and fans. McGwire never seems to talk about the past. To anyone. In fact, he seems intent on leaving his past behind.
“I haven’t even spoken to him since he retired,” says Randy Robertson, a buddy from childhood and one his college roommates at Southern Cal. “I don’t know who his best friend is now.”
“I haven’t spoken to him in a while,” says Mark Altieri, the slugger’s former spokesman.
“I haven’t seen him in ages,” says Tom Carroll, his high school baseball coach.
“He just wants to slink away,” says Ken Brison, son of a former McGwire foundation board member.
“We never talk about politics or baseball,” says U.S. Rep. John Campbell (R-CA 48th), his neighbor.
His Mediterranean-looking mansion at the end of a cul-de-sac is such an unlikely end for a star of one of the most magical summers baseball has ever known. McGwire’s future will be inside Shady Canyon, with his new wife, Stephanie, and young kids, Max and Mason, and at the breathtakingly expensive golf course nearby.
“That’s where he is all the time,” says friend Justin Dedeaux, son of the late Rod Dedeaux, McGwire’s coach at USC. “He stays behind those walls and that’s it. No one ever sees him. He just completely dropped out. I don’t know if he talks to anybody.”
“But what of the past that he wishes everyone would forget?” Even if he cuts ties, it’s still there. The places where he grew up, the friends he once knew, the life he once lived, that’s McGwire’s legacy. Even if he doesn’t speak, it speaks for him….
(SMG thanks Wright Thompson for his cooperation)