Volume 3, Issue 65: Magnetized
"Orchestrate the shallow pink refrigerator drone, carried in the shadows."
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We haven’t been able to do this for two years, but you may remember the NCAA Tournament from March, when we had a big pool for readers of this newsletter. (The NCAA Tournament actually ended on the third day of play, thanks to the national menace that is Sister Jean, but they went ahead and finished the rest of the games, just to be official.) There were nearly 900 entries in our pool, but only one winner.
Congratulations to Jon Arnold, the winner of last month's Fourth Annual Will Leitch Newsletter NCAA Pool. (Here is his bracket, and here are the final standings. There was actually a three-way tie, but Jon had the tiebreaker.) It’s pretty cool that Jon won. Jon is a terrific writer and journalist himself, a long-time soccer writer who runs an absolutely indispensable newsletter about CONCACAF and North American soccer called Get CONCACAF’ed.
As is tradition, the winner of the pool gets to dictate a newsletter topic. (He also gets copies of all five of my books.) Here is Jon’s request, in Jon's words:
Write something about the difference between writing non-fiction and fiction. I may be the outlier as a writer in that I've never had any desire to write a novel, even though I love reading them. I know your agent sort of spurred this process on, but, like, was that desire bubbling? And how has it affected your 'craft' actually doing it? Can you separate easily, do you feel your writing on one 'side' permeates into the other?
Good question! And one I’ve been answering a lot while doing press for the book over the last fortnight. So it’s thus one I’m very comfortable answering, albeit in more detail here than on a morning drive-time sports radio station interview. But before I do, thanks to Jon, and congratulations. Seriously, if you care about American soccer at all, and you should, his newsletter is a must-subscribe.
Now, to his assignment:
I’ve actually been trying to get a novel together for about a decade now. The most recent book I wrote before How Lucky—available now at bookstores everywhere and Amazon (where it’s only 16 bucks right now)! bookplates are on their way! I’m not going to beg you to buy it this week, I promise!—was Are We Winning?, a book about baseball and fatherhood and the Midwestern art of non-communication. This was my follow-up to God Save the Fan, or Deadspin: The Book, which had sold well (and was my bestselling book until How Lucky, which has already passed it), and I was looking for it to transition me away from the Deadspin sincere-snark style and into something more expansive and ambitious. Are We Winning? was still about sports, and still had jokes, but it was a first attempt, in book form anyway, to reach for something larger, more emotional—like a comedian trying to play “serious.” The book, which sags in places and still has a little bit of the Deadspin glibness to it but was still my favorite book before How Lucky, was purchased by the editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books, who said, “this is the sort of book I’ve always wanted to publish.” I don’t know if he meant that or not, but I never got to find out, because he left Hyperion about four months before the book was released. This happens often in publishing, and you always have to just cross your fingers and hope the next person cares as much about your book as the one who bought it did. I was not so fortunate in this regard, and, sadly, Are We Winning? just sort of died on the vine. It happens. It’s cool to get to write a book at all.
But that convinced me that if trying to do a bank-shot like that, a “thoughtful” sports book, was a half-measure. The next book was going to be a novel. I’d written a novel before, a young adult novel called Catch that came out in December 2005, when Deadspin was about two months old. I didn’t think of it a young adult novel; I just thought of it as a novel about a young adult, which isn’t exactly the same thing, apparently. I had enjoyed writing Catch—it’s my Mattoon book—and, more to the point, didn’t find it all that terribly difficult, in the vast spectrum of things. I had an excellent editor in Kristen Pettit of Razorbill, who helped me sketch out a clear outline, allowing me to just execute the story: The last 25,000 words of that book, the final third, was actually written in a blitz over a long Memorial Day weekend in 2005. I could do that again! Let’s do a novel!
There were two aborted projects before How Lucky. One, which I got about 30,000 words into back around 2013, was an updated version of Play It Again, Sam, in which a college student attempting to figure out her life and her art consults with a fictionalized version—in a nod to the Humphrey Bogart of that film—of her cinematic hero, who was, uh, Woody Allen. For obvious reasons this project was dropped, and if you ask me about it again, I will pretend I cannot hear you. The second project was inspired by the film Oslo, August 31st, a wonderful, heartbreaking movie about loss and the passage of time. It was going to be about a soldier who return to the United States after fighting in Afghanistan for a decade and discovers just how much he has missed and how much the world and his friends have moved on without him. I didn’t get quite as far with this project, but I spent several months researching it, including extensive interviews with just about every friend I have who served in the military and who have been probably wondering for years now what Will ever did with all those interviews. (I still have them. Sorry. Thank you for your time! Maybe I’ll find a place for them someday. I very much appreciate you reliving your experiences for me so that I could then put them in a shelf somewhere.)
I then settled on How Lucky, though it was called What Light when I started. I had no outline for this book: I just sat down and started writing and hoped I’d end up landing somewhere that made sense. (As mentioned before, I didn’t even tell my agent I was writing a book and just physically handed a printed-out copy of it to him when I was done.) And this is where I finally get around to answering Jon Arnold’s question.
Because I was an able-bodied person writing from the perspective of someone with a disability and a disease, the first thing I did, before writing much of anything, was talk to as many people as possible whose lives had been touched by Spinal Muscular Atrophy (the disorder Daniel has in How Lucky), whether they had it or were a family member of someone who did. And that is the part of writing fiction that is most similar to writing non-fiction: The research. I know it’s fiction, but you still have to get the details right, particularly when doing something as potentially fraught as writing about a disease you do not have. (This review of How Lucky in The Washington Post, by a terrific writer who lost his son to SMA, speaks to the challenges, as well as many other things.) Ironically, people will believe things in non-fiction that they never would in fiction. Roger Ebert once wrote how moviegoers will happily go along with unicorns and space aliens and dragons, but if you get one detail in your movie wrong about their profession, or just have a character make a decision they don’t find believable, they’ll stop watching the movie all together. Fiction almost makes you more diligent about nailing down every detail.
At first, I thought it would be exciting and freeing to write fiction, to be the god of this particular universe. After all: When you write non-fiction stories or, you know, do journalism, you are constrained by the facts of what actually happened; in fiction, you can make the people do whatever you want them to. But in practice it doesn’t work like this at all. In the real world, people do strange, irrational things all the time, and we shrug and accept them as simply part of the human condition. In fiction, however, all the parts have to fit together. Everyone needs consistent motivations, and logical through-lines, or you’ll lose the reader. We demand more rationality and linearity from our fictional characters than our real life human beings. That’s why rewriting is so much harder in fiction than non-fiction. If you change one detail, you have to go around the rest of the book, smacking down the Whack-a-Moles that popped up as a result of that changed detail. Non-fiction allows you to tell the story as it actually went down. Fiction is much more like doing an endless algebra problem, where every variable affects every other variable. Editing fiction is like being in a laboratory, hoping you don’t pour the wrong liquid into the wrong test tube and blow the whole thing to smithereens.
I found this part of the process much, much more enjoyable than I would have thought. I like math, after all: I enjoy identifying problems and then trying to figure out how to solve them. But it’s so much different than non-fiction. Non-fiction, journalism … I’m almost relieved to just get to write about, like, the NFL for a while. At least that’s something that writes its own story, one I just get to chronicle along rather than have to make up on my own entirely.
But I’m going to do another novel, and I think I might want to do a lot more. How Lucky, not even two weeks in yet, has been an undeniable success for everyone involved, and I’m already working on the next project. Back in the day, before the Hyperion disaster, I wanted to write a book every two years. I think I can do that now. I think fiction might just be the way to do it. I get to create worlds, then break them, then fix them, then try to find some order from the remaining pieces. I get to take chaos and attempt to cobble it into something that makes sense. That sounds like what I try to do every day with my work. That sounds like something I might want to do for the rest of my life.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
The Insurrection Interview We’ve Already Forgotten, Medium. Daniel Hodges sure did escape the collective memory real fast.
Your Most ‘80s Active Players, MLB.com. Little Tommy Edman!
The NBA Is Going to Be Just Fine, New York. Particular when the Knicks win the title, woooooooo.
Albert Pujols Scenarios, Ranked, MLB.com. Most are not good, I’m afraid.
It Is Good to See All Your Faces, Medium. Well, it is.
Internet Nostalgia: JibJab, Medium. The Jay Leno of Online Video Creators.
The Thirty: One Quick Fix For Each Team, MLB.com. Most teams need more than a quick one.
Grierson & Leitch, we discussed “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” “The Woman in the Window” and “Spiral: From the Book of Saw.”
Seeing Red, Bernie and I talk about a first place team.
People Still Read Books, you should listen to the podcast with me and Grierson talking How Lucky.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“Sinead O’Connor Remembers Things Differently,” Amanda Hess, The New York Times Magazine. This longtime Sinead O’Connor fan loved every word of this.
ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON
Favorite Knicks Players on This Year’s Roster
A Box of Jagged Rocks
A Donkey Braying in My Face
Memories of 8 a.m. College Lecture Halls
Stubbing My Toe in the Dark
The Pain That Resides Within Us All
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
I am sorry I have fallen behind on these. I have a lot of bookplates! I will return! Write me at:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“If I Should Fall From Grace From God,” The Pogues. That Sinead O’Connor story sent me down a Pogues rabbit hole, which was definitely not a bad thing.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
Also, happy birthday to this excellent human being.
Have a great weekend, all.