Thursday, August 09, 2007

An interview with Frank Deford

We recently finished sportswriter Frank Deford's latest novel, The Entitled. We reviewed the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. Since we're in the business of asking questions, we thought this would be an ideal time to score an interview with Deford himself.

Deford is arguably the best sportswriter of all time. He's a six-time National Sportswriter of the Year, Senior Contributing Editor at Sports Illustrated, a regular on NPR's Morning Edition and a correspondent on
Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. His words speak wisdom....

1. Go back to when you were writing The Entitled. Take us through a typical day of writing, if such a thing exists.

I think when you're writing any novel, so much of the writing work involves thinking about the story before you sit down to write. Something might occur to me as I'm lying in bed at night or in the bathtub or driving in the car. You never fully get away from the book. So when you physically sit down to type you may already have something of a head-start in your mind. That said, I would usually work in the morning, after breakfast, and go for as long as things were moving -- usually three or four hours. You get lost in a novel, become quite friendly with your characters.

2. Early in the book, you mention how the protagonist, Indians coach Howie Traveler, would give beat writers two quotes before the game: one to be inserted if the team won, one if they lost. Are coaches really that considerate or was this just wishful thinking?

Most managers probably wouldn't do this. One I know did -- so it was based on fact.

3. Are the characters based on actual people? A combination of certain ballplayers? Which ones? Was the plot inspired by actual events?

The characters are cumulatively based on people I've known, then overlaid with my own original characteristics. I don't think it would be any fun just to take a real person and make him a character. What's the art in that?

4. Why the Cleveland Indians? And why a picture of Sammy Sosa on the cover?

The Indians were actually my third choice, and it's pretty ironic how I got there. I needed a loser of a team to be more realistic. An untried guy like Howie wasn't going to get a shot at the Yankees. So, in 2004 when I was first conjuring up the novel, I picked (naturally) the Red Sox. And, of course, they then go out and win. So, when I actually wrote the bulk of the book in '05 I changed to another loser. You guessed it: the White Sox. Suddenly, I'm Nostradamus without meaning to be. Then I had to go through the whole manuscript and change it to another loser. I picked the Indians. As I have assured the good people in Cleveland, when I visited there on book tour, they are guaranteed to win the World Series this October. I can be very big in Cleveland.

The cover is picked by the publisher strictly for reasons of marketing. This is just a generic shot with good design for a jacket. I didn't even know who the player was until somebody pointed it out to me.

5. Please describe some of the glaring differences between being a sportswriter and novelist?

The greatest difference between writing fiction and non-fiction is that the writing matters so much more in fiction. It's your story. You may do some background reporting, but it's you alone. In non-fiction, the reporting counts as much as the writing -- often more. Fiction is more gratifying. It's all you, sink or swim by yourself.

6. Say you went to speak to some J-school students. With the state of print journalism (especially newspapers), whaddya tell them? Advise them to head towards the online game? Magazines? Blogs?

Given the flux in the whole journalism industry, I'd be presumptuous to advise any young student quite what to do. It's too fluid right now. All I could safely say is that if you have talent, you will succeed, but in what venue I have no idea. You got to be quick on your feet now and be instinctive in choosing the right journalistic path for you. And then it will probably require a switch somewhere down the road.

7. What do you think of sports blogs? Will they ever compete with mainstream media? Are they refreshing after glazing over a dry AP story? Read any?

I don't read any particular blog on a regular basis. I do read some newspaper columns on-line. Blogs are opinion. The AP is providing you news. It's not fair to compare the two. I'm also very dubious about how accurate the facts are in blogs, which gives me pause. As for the future, I believe newspapers will become more mediums of opinion, that we'll get breaking news on-line (and from radio/TV of course) and then newspapers will provide more context. But it's an evolving process.

8. Are there any athletes you've gotten close to over the years -- sorta like a Mickey Huey situation? Any players or coaches you've had beef with?

When I was younger, which is to say, closer to the age of the athletes I covered, I grew very friendly with many of them. When we run across each other now, we greet each other more as, say, old fraternity brothers than as writer-subject. I believe, though, that writers and athletes were inclined more to be good friends in years back. It's more of an adversarial relationship now, which is too bad.

Sure, I had beefs with a few athletes. Nobody ever took a swing at me, though. Wilt Chamberlain once kicked me out of a locker room (not literally, of course), but Wilt and I became close after he finished playing. So, you never know.

9. You're stuck on a deserted Island with three public figures (athletes, celebrities, politicians). Who are they. Why?

I'd want three people long dead. Jesus, for sure. And one great American. Probably George Washington, but Ben Franklin would probably be more fun. Then Shakespeare. If you gave me a fourth, I'd like it to be a woman. Maybe Mary Magdalene could answer the same questions as Jesus. Joan of Arc. Cleopatra. Or maybe just a great, clever femme fatale like Agnes Sorel. Benjamin Franklin and me could both flirt with her and see who she liked best.


The Beautiful Game said...

wow, you're so big time, keep it up brother

Signal to Noise said...

Nice get, Zach.

Ray said...

Well done, Zach.

[golf clap]

Anonymous said...

Impressive, Zach. Can't wait to see Agnes Sorel in "Would you do..."

Anonymous said...

"Deford is arguably the best sportswriter of all time."

I disagree. Names such as Shirley Povich, David Halberstam ring a bell?

Anonymous said...

If Frank Deford were stranded on a desert island he'd pick Jesus, George Washington and Shakespeare to share it with him? Can't you lie to us, Frank? Can't you just for once not be so stately and say something like "the Olsen Twins and Chasey Lain?

Anonymous said...

Dill - That's why he said, "arguably." You just proved his point.

GMoney said...

Zach, you may have wavered a bit this summer due to your schedule, but a fucking home run was hit today by interviewing Frank DeFord. Awesome work my friend.

Anonymous said...

Very, very nice. I've been a huge fan of DeFord's for as long as I can remember. Back when SI was still worth reading, his articles always got first dibs with me.

The Big Picture said...

thanks for the support, fellas.

mike, fantastic fucking comment!

Kasey Loessberg said...

Damn good job. Damn good job.

Kevin Hayward said...

Nice interview with a great writer who seems like a genuinely good guy. I'm going to have to pick up a copy of the book.

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