"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: 3: Interviews

Bronx Banter Interview: To Live and Die in L.A.


Our pal John Schulian‘s first novel, A Better Goodbye, was published late last week. Looking for something pulpy and nasty, look no further friends. This noir will keep you entertained and turning the pages. I recently chatted with John about writing his first novel. Dig:

Bronx Banter: Chico said, “Why a duck?” So I ask  you: Why a novel?

John Schulian: Why not? A novel seemed like a logical progression for me. I’ve written for newspapers and magazines, I’ve written scripts in Hollywood, I’ve taught writing, I even wrote a couple of country songs after seeing four songwriters talk about their craft at Nashville’s Bluebird Café. Not surprisingly, nothing came of my songs, but I still loved the experience. It was just that a novel was much more my speed. When I had an idea for one and the time to write, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

You have to remember that I come from a generation where a novel was the Holy Grail for writers. Now, of course, non-fiction outsells fiction and screenplays have become the leading form for storytellers. But I was brought up on novels. My parents read me Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson. I discovered the Hardy Boys and John R. Tunis’s baseball novels on my own when I was in junior high. I played high school football with a bunch of upperclassmen who introduced me to the idea that a jock didn’t have to be ashamed if he liked books, especially books by J.D. Salinger. I confess that I bought Updike’s Rabbit, Run because I thought it was about a basketball. Okay, so I wasn’t the most sophisticated kid in the world. It didn’t stop me from losing myself in other novels, even those my English teachers assigned, like 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird. The habit of a lifetime was formed in those years. I became a committed reader.

When I began writing professionally, when putting words on paper put food on my table, it was inevitable that I would think about writing a novel. I was always looking for a way to use fictional devices in my journalism. I went out to cover stories, whether they were championship prizefights or political corruption trials, in hopes of finding scenes that would capture the moment and perhaps speak to some larger truth. I wanted to hear what people were saying to each other, the dialogue that grows out of triumph or tragedy or whatever else they might be experiencing. I wanted to see how those scenes revealed the character of the people living them. I wanted the drama of real life.

It wasn’t until I was a newspaper sports columnist, primarily in Chicago, briefly in Philadelphia, that I enjoyed the freedom to take that approach as far as I could. And people noticed. Or maybe I should say other sports writers noticed. So did the good woman I was married to then. But I ignored their encouragement to write a novel. I liked being a sports columnist – the big events, the great old ballparks, the man-on-the-move datelines, the company of other writers, even the daily wrestling match with the language. The job consumed me, and on top of it, I was usually freelancing a magazine piece on the side. That didn’t leave a lot of time for tackling what I considered the greatest challenge for a writer – a novel.

Everywhere I looked in journalism back then, novelists were emerging. Dan Jenkins made the most noise with his bestselling Semi-Tough. Then someone recommended Bud Shrake, Jenkins’ running mate from Sports Illustrated, and I gobbled up two of his novels, Strange Peaces and Blessed McGill. It seemed inevitable that Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, among newspaper columnists, would make waves in fiction. But first place in that category belonged to Pete Dexter, a stable mate of mine at the Philadelphia Daily News, who wrote a terrific first novel called God’s Pocket and then knocked the book world on its ass with Paris Trout. The surprise in all this was a copy editor at the Chicago Sun-Times – a quiet, unpretentious guy named Charles Dickinson who was writing wry, heartfelt novels about small-town America that got him compared to Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. The big names at the paper were Mike Royko and Roger Ebert, and I did all right, too, but in one very important category, Charles Dickinson was ahead of us.

I suspected that John Ed Bradley was, too, the first time I ever read a story of his in the Washington Post. He was writing about his days as a tri-captain on Louisiana State’s football team, describing a night when he and his best friend, the team’s quarterback, were drinking beer as they sat on a hill overlooking the campus, talking about their dreams and what lay ahead of them. It wasn’t sports writing John Ed put before readers that morning; it was the work of someone who had novels in him.

He has written a bunch of them by now, along with an achingly beautiful memoir called It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, and he has become a friend as well. It was in the latter capacity that he encouraged me to write a novel. That must have been thirty years ago, but I’ve never forgotten his encouragement, or that of others who said the same thing. I have to tell you, though, it’s one thing to get all puffed up because people think you possess that kind of talent and quite another to jump off the cliff, the way Butch and Sundance did. But on a January night more years ago than I care to remember, I finally sat down and wrote the first words of what became my novel, A Better Goodbye: “Too bad Barry wasn’t local. Suki would have told him her real name if he was.” I figured I didn’t have anything to lose. The fall would probably kill me.

BB: Okay, then. Why now?


JS: I needed something to keep me off the street. Besides, I convinced myself I was still writing well, and some ideas were taking shape in my head. I thought I better seize the moment. There didn’t seem to be anything left for me in TV. I’d done too much of it that was either bad or barely middlebrow. To make things worse, the rattlesnake who turned out to be my last Hollywood agent kept putting me up for science fiction shows I wouldn’t have watched with a gun at my head. Years later, when I saw Justified – part Western, part cop show, and an impeccable take on Elmore Leonard’s sensibility – I started drooling. But by then I was long gone from the TV wars.

I’m now 70, in case anyone is keeping score at home. It’s an age when you realize how precious time is. I may keel over dead before I finish this sentence, or I may live another thirty years. However much time I have left, I want to put it to good use and enjoy myself in the process. I loathe golf, which seems to seduce a lot of geezers. (Go ahead and kick your ball out of the rough, fellas. I’ll never tell.) The thought of traveling the world makes my blood run cold – I had my fill of airports, airplanes and hotel rooms when I was working on newspapers. I’d much rather be at my desk at home, trying to coax words out of my computer.

I have many friends who are wonderful writers yet hate the thought of writing, but I love it. I’ve been that way since I was a kid sketching out my own newspaper and movie ideas in the privacy of my bedroom. Now I suppose you can say I’ve come full circle. For the past ten or twelve years, I’ve only done things that appeal to me, writing essays and book reviews, putting together two collections of my sports writing, editing anthologies of other peoples’ work, writing and rewriting my novel and a handful of short stories, and trying like a madman to get my novel published in a world that is less kind to fiction with every passing day. Somehow I’ve succeeded in a modest way. I can call myself a novelist. And you know what? It tickles the hell out of me.

BB: Why a noir novel?

JS: Noir felt accessible, comfortable even though comfort obviously isn’t the point of it. As long as I had my hands on something by Elmore Leonard or Daniel Woodrell, to name just two of my guiding lights, I could survive any airplane flight and every hour-and-a-half wait at the doctor’s. They were masterful storytellers, but they seemed most interested in their characters, the way they thought and moved and talked. God, did they love talk, particularly Leonard, who built book after book on dialogue that carried him to the bestseller list and a place among the best crime novelists ever.

He did not, however, invent noir dialogue. That had been done decades before by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and a host of writers now on the verge of being forgotten, people like Cornell Woolrich and Patricia Highsmith and Chester Himes. Then film noir put that brand of smart talk in the mouths of actors who became synonymous with it, from Bogart to Mitchum to Ida Lupino. I’ve always been a sucker for those noir movies out of the late 40s and early 50s where gunmen lurk in the shadows and danger floats in on clouds of cigarette smoke. But what really got me was a moment like the one in Larceny when Shelley Winters, as a con man’s tootsie, tells a potential boy toy, “You kiss like you’re paying off an election bet.” Just as memorable was Yvonne De Carlo playing Burt Lancaster for a sap in Criss Cross. Even when the armored car heist she’s lured him into goes sideways and they know they’re going to die, he’s making cow eyes at her. “I never wanted the money,” he says. “I just wanted you.”


L.A. has always been ripe with stories like those, so perhaps it’s only natural that this native son feels a sense of pride in local sex, treachery, desperation and murder. Film noir may once have fed on such indelicacies, but more and more it belongs to the past no matter how great Chinatown and L.A. Confidential were. It is left to the city’s great contemporary noir writers – Michael Connelly, James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, Richard Lange and all the rest – to make the most of its image as a luscious piece of fruit that has fallen from the tree and lies rotting in the relentless sunshine.

I’m under some of the same influences they are, but I made little use of the city’s underbelly until I started thinking about writing a novel. Now, no matter where I am in L.A., I don’t have to drive far to show you what I’m talking about. I weave along city streets so pocked and neglected they wouldn’t be out of place in the most shell-shocked regions of Syria and Afghanistan. I pass handsome apartment complexes and think of the tricks that got turned in them and the building managers who may have played blind in exchange for sex. I follow reports of the violence that’s always waiting to happen in every corner of the city, secure in the knowledge that it wasn’t O.J. Simpson who proved the famous and near famous can be as bloody as the poor and gang-ridden.

There was once an actor named Tom Neal – the star of the classic cheapo noir Detour – who went into eclipse and ended up working as a landscaper until he put a bullet from a .45 in his estranged wife’s head.

When I hear a story like that, it’s hard to imagine writing anything but noir.


BB: Did you outline the story before you started writing or make it up as you went along?

JS: Before I started writing my novel, I would have told you I needed an outline. How could I possibly work without a net on something so big, right? Outlines were always part of my process in journalism, whether I was on a newspaper deadline and roughed one out in three or four minutes or had a day or two to figure out how to structure a magazine piece. In Hollywood, an outline is practically mandatory in both TV and movie writing because nobody wants to leave anything to chance. There are still storytelling disasters, obviously – I’ve been guilty of more than a few myself – but the people in charge like the idea of having an outline so they can hand it to the next writer if the first one bites the dust.

So did I outline A Better Goodbye?

Hell, no.

I thought of it, of course. But then I started writing, and soon enough I had a plan of attack in my head: I wouldn’t stop until I knew where I was going to pick up the next day. The first thing I’d do when I sat down every morning was to read what I’d written the day before. I’d make changes, sometimes lots of them, but sooner or later I’d move into the new day’s work with a full head of steam.

I had a notion of where I was going all along, but I wanted to keep things flexible so I could change direction or take side trips, like one where Onus DuPree Jr., my prize sociopath, goes pet shopping at a pit bull fight. Likewise, with an outline, I might not have been as willing to introduce a character I hadn’t thought of before. I wanted the book to be picaresque; I wanted readers to meet characters they weren’t expecting when they least expected them. Admittedly, these characters didn’t always advance the story, but they helped draw a picture of the world where A Better Goodbye takes place. Other times, they complicated things. I’m thinking in particular of a highly pissed-off neighbor lady who pops up in the middle of a scene where DuPree and his partner in crime, Scott Crandall, are hunting for Nick Pafko and Jenny Yee, two lost souls who are trying to save themselves. Maybe everything should have been streamlined at this point of the book, but that’s not the way life works, and I didn’t think my story should work that way, either.

BB: Who was the first character you dreamed up?

JS: The fighter, naturally. With me, it’s always the fighter. I guess it’s because I wrote so much boxing when I worked in newspapers. As soon as I came to Hollywood and people learned about my background, they wanted me to write about fighters. I did it for Miami Vice and Midnight Caller, a dramedy called Hooperman, and an aborted attempt to bring back The Untouchables. And I had my own ideas, too. My two best scripts focused on fighters, a TV pilot called The Ring and a screenplay called American Original, which was based on a W.C. Heinz magazine piece about a hard-punching, hard-living little Texan named Lew Jenkins. Neither went anywhere, but that didn’t change my mind about fighters as characters.


The fighter in The Ring was Nick Pafko, a young middleweight out of a blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago, with a father who has a major gambling problem, a stand-up mother who’s ready to leave the old man, a kid brother in and out of trouble with the law, and a big sister who graduated college and yearns to leave the old ’hood behind. It’s not a coincidence that the fighter in A Better Goodbye is also named Nick Pafko. Of course I’ve given him a life far different than the one he would have had if The Ring had made it onto the air and run for five seasons.

That Nick would have become a world champion, married a good woman, fathered a couple of kids, succumbed to temptations that cost him his title, and somehow pieced his life back together as he regained the championship. The Nick in the novel didn’t come close to any of that. He was on his way to realizing his dream when he mortally injured the man he was fighting in what should have been nothing more than a steppingstone bout. You fight an old warhorse, you learn some lessons, and you get out of there with a win. Simple, right? Not when Nick blows up at his opponent’s dirty tricks and the referee freezes. What happens then is tragedy all the way around. No winners, only losers.

Nick tried to fight again after that, but he couldn’t do it. In that regard, he was like a fine young fighter from L.A. named Gabriel Ruelas, who never fought again after killing a man in the ring. I wanted Nick to carry a burden so heavy it made it hard for him to take one step after another. He couldn’t be like Sugar Ray Robinson or Emile Griffith, both of whom fought their way past such impossibly dark moments. Nick is a tough guy and, way down deep, a decent one. He can still make you laugh with a smart-assed remark, and something in him makes it impossible to back down to anyone even when they’re holding a gun. But beneath the emotional camouflage, there is a beaten man. What I tried to do was to tell the story of how he finds his way past that.

BB: Let’s talk about your female protagonist and how you learned about the massage industry. Did this entail you doing the full Gay Talese? Did ya manage a massage parlor?

JS: Fortunately, I never got that desperate when I was doing my research. Of course, when I cold-called some masseuses and said I was a writer who wanted to talk to them about their work, they instantly accused me of trying to get a freebie. Anyone who reads the book will soon realize that these girls get lots of strange requests – maybe exotic is a better word – so their reaction was understandable. But I really did need to talk to them because the massage business was as foreign to me as boxing was familiar.


All I knew about it in the beginning was that it had exploded. From the late 80s up past the millennium, the back pages of L.A. Weekly, the city’s smart and lively alternative newspaper, were jammed with page after page of massage ads. Some took up chunks of a page, with stock photos of pretty girls who had probably never been near a jack shack; others ran just two or three lines. But they all paid to advertise. Even if you’re like me and say jack, queen, king after you get to ten, you knew the Weekly and all the other publications where the sex trade did its advertising were making a pile of money.

Being an old newspaper guy, I thought there was a fascinating story waiting to be written about the massage industry, or maybe a TV station would put on its big boy pants and do a feature that went beyond ratings-week sleaze. It never happened. The only time massage operations got any ink or airtime was when the cops raided them during a local election campaign. There’s nothing safer for a politician to ad his name to than a crusade against sin. Naturally, as soon as the election was over, the pols and cops forgot those obliging ladies existed, and it was back to business as usual.

The growth of the Internet made business even better because now there were photos accompanying a lot of the ads on the rub-and-tug websites. Sometimes the photos were actually of the girls who had taken out the ads – well, either the girls or a prominent part of their anatomy.

And where did they ply their trade? They worked out of apartments that ranged from rancid to really nice as well as guesthouses and sometimes even single-family homes. Some were in neighborhoods that scared off clients who drove Porsches, and others had addresses that automatically made guys who needed their itch scratched think of money and class.

And who did these girls work for? They worked for people who knew their way around the business, veteran pimps and masseuses or straight-up hookers who had set up their own operations. But there were always newcomers like Scott Crandall, the pimp in my novel, who has figured out that his shot at Hollywood stardom is over and he needs to new source of income. It’s bosses like Scott – greedy, venal, always complaining, and way too eager to sample the merchandise – who unwittingly convince girls to go out on their own. Sometimes a girl will have the charisma to take a jack shack’s biggest earners with her when she sets up shop. More likely, she will fly solo so she can set her own schedule and make her own rules and regulations.


That’s what my female protagonist, Jenny Yee, tried to do until she realized that self-discipline wasn’t her strong suit. When we meet her, she’s calling herself Suki – stage names are as important as lingerie in the massage business – and working for a successful realtor with a couple other girls in a well maintained, otherwise tame high-rise in Sherman Oaks. Life is good there until it isn’t, and when it goes bad, it does so in a horrific way. You’d think the trauma would be enough to scare Jenny out of the business for keeps, but when she gets in a jam financially months later, she knows only one way to make money fast – massage. Her primary requirement is that her next stop has security. That’s why she goes to work for Scott, whose hired muscle is Nick Pafko. Now we have our two lost souls together. After that, it’s up to them to connect.

Okay, I hear you. That still doesn’t explain how I could write intimately about Jenny’s life in and out of the sex trade. I needed a masseuse who would tell me her story – the glamorous stuff, the unglamorous stuff, the weird stuff, the funny stuff, the sexy stuff. I mean, I could imagine my share of scenarios, but I really needed verisimilitude. I got it in the most roundabout way.

I knew a young woman who was going to UCLA, very smart, very straight, would sooner run with the bulls at Pamplona than do massage. But when I told her about my idea for a novel and how I was running out of patience in my masseuse who would sit down and talk about her secret life. Right away my friend said, “Oh, I know someone like that.” Did she ever.

My friend’s friend was Asian, bright, and cuter than the law allows. It didn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see why guys with disposable income were beating down her door. She was using the money she made to pay her way to UCLA, and one of the great factoids about her was that she got her first job as a masseuse through an ad in the campus newspaper. Best of all, though, she was a non-stop talker with a gift for anecdote. She spoke in whole paragraphs, not just in sentences. And she was funny, insightful and fully capable of, say, weaving her analysis of Catcher In the Rye in with her take on her clients. Not that she hated her clients – she genuinely liked many of them – but they were giving her an education beyond the one she was getting at UCLA. And she was making the most of it.

I met one other masseuse through my guide to the sex trade, a sweet, quiet Caucasian who blushingly provided me with telling details about things like pigsty bathrooms, over-amorous clients, and creepy security guards. But the second masseuse couldn’t have been more different from the Asian girl; she was shy, relatively inexperienced sexually and, I think, pretty much uncomfortable about touching naked strangers.


The Asian girl, on the other hand, looked at this strange life as a lark that not only paid for her education but bought her drugs and financed trips to Las Vegas and let her carry on at every rave she could get to. While it was all her friend could do to provide a happy ending to a massage, the Asian girl operated by a different set of rules entirely. She wouldn’t have sex with just any guy who walked through the door, the way some girls would. But if she liked someone the way she might if they’d met in a class or at a club, then she was perfectly comfortable getting intimate. A guy like that might come along once or twice a year – all right, maybe three times – but she wouldn’t keep two guys on the string at the same time because she wasn’t a ho. She was simply someone who enjoyed sex when the right guy came along. When you think about it, that didn’t make her much different than women who wouldn’t dream of doing massage. It was just that guys had to pay two hundred dollars to see her the first time, and probably many times after that, before their relationship ceased to be a business transaction.

If I had a daughter who followed the Asian girl’s lead, I’d be mortified, disappointed, crushed. I’d wonder where I went wrong as a parent and how I could convince her to consider a more traditional part-time job. But it wasn’t like she was being exploited by anyone. She had made a choice, and she never encountered anything nearly as horrific as does the character she inspired in my novel. She survived the useless boyfriends and angry husbands that are among the hazards of the trade, and she got her education. Then she walked away from the massage business. I still hear from her once in a while. She says she’s doing well in the real world. I’m not surprised. To tell the truth, I’m proud of her.

BB: Man, it seems as if your bad guy was a ton of fun to write.

JS: Some characters call for your heart and soul. Onus DuPree Jr., on the other hand, was undiluted id, a receptacle for every terrible thought I could conjure up, a tool for every act of violence I could imagine him contemplating. I loved all of my characters – well, maybe not Scott Crandall, who’s a shit weasel – but DuPree filled me with perverse joy.

He seized control of my imagination as soon as I came up with his name: Onus DuPree Jr. Names count for a lot in noir fiction, whether you’re talking about Dashiell Hamett’s Sam Spade or Elmore Leonard’s cold-blooded Bobby Shy. In DuPree’s case, I like to think it was the “junior” at the end of his name that sent him over the edge. He was trouble from the day he was born – his own mother said so – but he didn’t want to wear his old man’s name even if it once counted for something in L.A. He was dead set on making his own reputation. It just turned out that his reputation was as a full-blown sociopath who would settle for scaring the prunes out of someone’s grandma if he couldn’t rob someone or spill their blood.

I’d been carrying a character like DuPree around in my head for, I don’t know, fifteen or twenty years, ever since I read in the about a big-time athlete’s son who got in trouble with the law. He went to prison, and that was the last I heard of him until my agent’s assistant told me he’d played high school basketball with the kid. The kid was more than a superb athlete who excelled at every sport; he was a killing machine in street fights who took delight in really hurting anyone crazy enough to tangle with him.

I thought I’d done all I could with the DuPree character when I sold my novel, but one of my editors at Tyrus Books challenged me to come up with a new scene to introduce him. Originally, he’d been parked on the street behind Chuck Berry’s former home, waiting to rob a drug dealer who made house calls. The new intro is better because it shows DuPree on the move, strolling into a Sunset Strip club, calling someone who approaches him “a faggot,” hitting on another man’s woman, and leaving her boyfriend screaming in pain. That’s DuPree in a nutshell right there: fun, fun, fun.


BB: Well, yes, that brings us back to Scott. Seems to me he’s the one character you didn’t love. Or, let me re-phrase that: He was the one character you seemed to enjoy making an asshole.

JS: It’s not just that Scott is an asshole – it’s how big an asshole he is. He’s Mount Everest. He’s vain, needy, self-deluded, hypocritical, gluttonous, a liar, a sexual predator, and a wannabe bad guy, which may make him more dangerous than a legitimate bad guy like DuPree. And in case you forgot, he’s a pimp. He doesn’t care about anyone or anything except himself. It’s not an uncommon trait among actors, good and bad, but Scott wallows in it even though his career as a B-list TV star is in tatters. He’s ten years past the last decent role he’ll ever get and he’s too lazy to try to reinvent himself. It’s easier just to keep thinking he’s the second coming of Steve McQueen. But the truth is, he’s lucky to be the answer to a trivia question.

Some astute readers may think of Scott as my revenge on a certain backstabbing actor I once worked with. I can’t deny that Scott has a lot in common with that treacherous lug, but he was also inspired by an actor I’ve never met, a guy with a big, uncontrollable mouth and an insatiable appetite for pleasures of the flesh. This Rabelaisian thespian flamed out quickly and disappeared from sight, but wherever he is, I hope he knows that aging TV writers still talk about his exploits when they’re gathered around the campfire at night.

After seeing the way I abuse Scott in the name of art, the natural reaction may be to think I hate actors. Actually, I only hate certain actors. There are others I think the world of and consider myself lucky to have had them bring the words I wrote to life. Gary Cole was the North Star of my favorite TV gig, Midnight Caller, on and off camera, a wonderful actor who set the tone for the entire production with his unfailing professionalism. I didn’t have a happy experience on Reasonable Doubts, but I’d gladly go to war alongside Mark Harmon any time. (But not his co-star, Marlee Matlin, no, not ever.) Jonathan Banks, on Wiseguy, was the first actor I felt I was in tune with; my only regret is that I couldn’t repay him by getting a series we discussed – about a sports writer, no less – on the air so he could star in it. Jim Beaver was just beginning to realize what a fine character actor he could be when we crossed paths on Reasonable Doubts; it’s a thrill to see the great work he’s doing now and a pleasure to still call him a friend. Lest you think I lump all actresses with the aforementioned Ms. Matlin, allow me to pay tribute to the incredible Lucy Lawless, without whom Xena would never – I mean never – have entered the zeitgeist and I would still be out knocking on doors, begging for hack work.

Acting may seem glamorous when people are giving great performances or picking up awards or posing for the cover of Vanity Fair, but the reality is something else entirely. It hit me the first time I saw a casting session, with actors lining the hallway, some sitting, some standing or pacing, waiting for their three minutes in front of the producers, going over their lines and, for all I knew, praying they got the part they were up for because they might not work again all year. The anxiety was palpable, even painful. And I say that knowing they accept it as part of the career they’ve chosen – but, Jesus, seeing people who run the risk of rejection day in, day out really does something to you.

So I confess that even though Scott is a walking, talking sphincter, I couldn’t help feeling sorry when I sent him to a disastrous casting session. He encounters a bigger egomaniac than he is, realizes he doesn’t have a prayer of getting the part, and faces a battery of producers so busy eating lunch they probably wouldn’t bother to call 911 if he set himself on fire. Poor son of a bitch, right? For ten seconds, maybe. Then I went back to hating him. That’s how big an asshole he is.


BB:  I think the book has sly humor throughout. The one recurring bit – and I don’t know if this was intentional or not – was that all the major characters seem to get stuck in L.A. traffic at one point or another. I thought that was a very good touch and very Angeleno.

JS: You just won yourself all the In-N-Out burgers you can eat. You found some humor in the book. I knew I put it there somewhere. At least I thought I did until I read my first reviews (one pro, one con) and saw that they both regarded the book as humorless. How, I wondered, could they say something like that if they paid any attention at all to the goofy thoughts that run through Scott’s head? Or to some of the tales the girls tell about their clients’ predilections? (The one involving chocolate cream pies still cracks me up every time I think about it.) Most of all, how could they miss the jokes about traffic? Traffic is the funniest thing in L.A. unless you’re stuck in it, and then the joke is on you, sucker.

The only time DuPree seems truly powerless is when he’s on his way to the showdown and he gets stuck on Olympic Boulevard at rush hour. And what does he do then? He starts thinking about what a great cross street Olympic was before all these cars started clogging it up. When he was a kid, you could take it to Westwood from downtown in something like twenty minutes. It’s the kind of thing you expect a stockbroker or a UPS driver to be thinking about. You don’t expect it from a prison-certified prince of darkness. But that’s life in L.A. Even sociopaths have to make concessions when they get behind the wheel.

BB: There are a lot of details – restaurants, bars, stores – that are specific to L.A. Did you consciously try to root your story in time and place?

JS: Your question takes me back to all the Southern writers I’ve read and admired – not just Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, but the wonderful artists they passed the torch to, like Ron Rash, Tom Franklin, Clyde Edgerton, and those departed giants Larry Brown and Harry Crews. They wrote with a sense of place that made you see the kudzu enveloping whole houses, and smell the moonshine cooking, and hear Hank Williams and Bill Monroe on the Opry as you bounced down a rutted road in your daddy’s pick-up truck.

My life never generated anything quite like that, even when I was chasing down stories about cops and politicians and local characters as a general assignment reporter at the Baltimore Evening Sun. But Baltimore was as close as I came to understanding a city because I was out in one neighborhood or another almost every day, seeing how people lived and listening to how they talked and trying to get their stories down right. When I wrote about sports in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Philadelphia, I never had a chance to know them as well. I went to the ballparks, stadiums, arenas and gyms, and I went to the airports, and that was about it. I had a much higher profile than I’d had in Baltimore, but my experiences were limited to a finite number of venues.


By the time I returned to Los Angeles in 1986 – I was born here and left when I was thirteen – I was too busy trying to make the transition to screenwriting to worry about a sense of place. But I was still writing short essays for GQ about anything that came to mind, and my subjects tended to be local, like the city’s greasy spoons, the kind of shoes male Angelenos do and don’t wear, and McCabe’s Guitar Shop, where I both took lessons and saw everyone from Doc Watson to the young Lucinda Williams perform. So one day someone told me he liked the way I write about L.A. and it brought me up short. Do I write about L.A.? Well, yes, I guess I do.

I may have found my own sense of place unwittingly, and it may not be as vivid or deeply felt as that which Southerners possess, but at least it exists. In writing A Better Goodbye, I wanted to paint as vivid a picture as possible of the neighborhoods where the story took us even though I occasionally took liberties with place names. There is, for instance, no Paisano Groceries, where Nick gets held up in the parking lot, nor is every Latino name on Highland Park’s main drag accurate. But when the story shifted to downtown, I didn’t tinker with the name of the Pantry, L.A.’s legendary twenty-four-hour-a-day steak house. Why jump between the real and the imagined? Let’s call it poetic license. It sounds so much nicer than creative indecision.

The year I chose was 2003 because we were still feeling the reverberations of 9/11. It’s one of the reasons Nick gets laid off as a baggage handler at LAX, and he’s soon behind on his rent and desperate to keep a roof over his head. He lives on Beloit Avenue, which was then on the other side of a tumbledown wire fence from the 405 Freeway and was then a stretch of modest apartment buildings. Perhaps the most modest of all was the oleander-shrouded hovel where I lodged Nick in a shoebox one-bedroom apartment. Today, if you drive on Beloit, you’ll see handsome new apartment buildings on one side of the street and a tall brick wall to muffle the freeway noise on the other.


A different version of gentrification has come to Highland Park. In the days I’m writing about, there were still warring street gangs there and the neighborhood was considered, rightly, a blue-collar Latino stronghold. Back then, only young couples long on pioneer spirit rolled the dice and bought old homes in need of renovation. Now it’s L.A.’s new hot neighborhood and every day is a symphony featuring hammers and power saws. Everyone calls it progress except the residents who were displaced.

BB: You can see Elmore Leonard’s influence in this book. Was that something you were aware of when you were writing it? 

JS: Every writer is a product of his influences. You take your life experiences and all the novels, short stories and, in my case, great journalism you have read and admired, and you throw everything in a blender and see what kind of a mess you have. Then you start weeding out the things that don’t work for you, and you begin saying things your way. Sooner or later your voice emerges. In Leonard’s case, I’m sure he read Zane Gray, Louis L’Amour and Max Short before he started writing Western novels in his own particular way. When he turned to crime fiction, his influences were as varied as George V. Higgins, whose novels were borne by pitch-perfect hard-guy dialogue, and the legendary sports writer W.C. Heinz and the otherwise forgotten Richard Bissell.

What I tried to guard against in A Better Goodbye was mimicking Leonard’s writing style. He can be very seductive that way. If you read his books closely, you’ll see that he constructed his sentences so distinctively that only a fool would try to imitate him. Diagram one sometime – you’ll see what I mean. Where Leonard’s influence does show the most, I think, is in the way I set up the story, with Nick and Jenny trying to outwit DuPree and Scott and none of them being what I’d call brilliant, even Jenny, whose smarts come from books, not the streets or the thug life. And, of course, Onus DuPree Jr.’s name is most definitely an homage to Leonard, whose cool bad guys always had a cool monicker.

But the story I told is much darker than what Leonard made his specialty. There was usually an almost genial quality to a lot of his crime novels; if his characters weren’t in on the joke, then the joke was on them. Scott, the actor turned pimp, is the only character in my novel who gets that kind of treatment. Leonard, on the other hand, could fill a book with characters like him. It’s one of about a million reasons why Leonard’s crime novels went down so smoothly. There is, for example, a moment in Unknown Man #89, which is one of my favorites, when the chief villain tells his henchman to throw some poor sap out a hotel-room window. The henchman says something like, “How far down you want him to go?” And the villain says, “Oh, all the way. Might as well.” That’s quintessential Leonard – I laugh every time I think of it.

last good

A Better Goodbye became truly my own when I diverged from his influence by making Nick more haunted and complicated that any Leonard hero I can recall. I wasn’t writing a mystery; I was doing a character piece that hewed as close to literary fiction as it did to noir. To light my path, I turned to James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss and any number of James Lee Burke’s crime novels. But most of all, there was Fat City, Leonard Gardner’s classic boxing novel Fat City. Gardner’s characters existed in a bleak, unforgiving world, and that was the kind of world I wanted to inflict on Nick and Jenny. They were lost souls just trying to live another day in a city that chews up people like them.

Life is rarely that flinty and elemental for Elmore Leonard’s characters; they’re too busy trying to scam each other. My characters don’t know the meaning of scam; they’re forced to confront whatever life throws at them no matter how grave a danger they face. Like Nick says when someone threatens to kill him: “What if I told you don’t care?”

BB: You once told me that when you’re writing for the screen, you want to get into a scene as late as possible and get out as soon as possible, to get right to the heart of the action. Did you use the same approach with your novel?

JS: I think novels call for a different approach, at least some of the time. On the screen, whether you’re writing a one-hour episode of TV or a two-and-a-half hour movie, time is of the essence. As audiences have become increasingly sophisticated, writers don’t need to fool around with, say, an airplane landing in New York to show that the hero is there now. More important, screenwriting has become increasingly elliptical. Just think of all the scenes in The Wire that were probably only a half-page long, with maybe a line or two of dialogue, and yet they were as beautifully written as they were economical.

Novels are a different proposition, or so it seems to me as both a first-time novelist and an unschooled one. All I really know about novels is that I wrote one and was fortunate enough to get it published. Having had that experience, I reveled in the luxury of time that novels provide. Or maybe it’s the illusion of time. Whatever, you’re not writing in the middle of the page the way you are with a screenplay. You’re writing margin to margin, which gives you room to explore the inner life of characters. You can have a character driving to a conference on gun control while he’s thinking about an incident with a gun he was involved in twenty years earlier. You don’t have the same ability to jump around in time that way in screenwriting unless you do a flashback, and flashbacks weren’t considered cool when I worked in Hollywood. Neither, in a lot of cases, was backstory. People were always lavishing praise on movies where the characters had no backstory to speak of. It was an approach that could work brilliantly on the screen (Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns), and sometimes on the page, too (the Parker novels that Donald Westlake wrote as Richard Stark). But I still prefer the idea of finding out something about the characters I’m being asked to invest in emotionally.

In A Better Goodbye, Nick, Jenny, Scott and DuPree all come at the reader in roundabout fashion. Each of them has an introductory chapter that lets us know who they are and what they’re about. I hope I didn’t abuse the privilege, but I wanted them to have room to breathe. It was an approach I went back to again and again over the course of the book. But I changed pace in other scenes, making them short and punchy because that added to their impact and kept the story moving. That’s where the point of entry in a scene comes into play. You start at the top and start whittling away what Elmore Leonard called the things nobody reads. Once they’re out of the way, you can get down to what the scene is about.

BB: So, a noir for your first novel begs the natural follow-up question: What’s next?

JS: Another novel. I want to see if lightning can strike the same writer twice. But my next one won’t be noir or anything close to it. The setting is Los Angeles once again, but this time it will be the L.A. where I spent my childhood in the late 1940s and early 50s. The story is about someone who lived a fascinating life without realizing it until it was behind him. I’ve been thinking about this one for the past few years, trying to figure out a structure to hang things on, and I think I’ve finally come up with something that works. Lately I’ve started hearing my characters talk, and I’d like to know them better. The only way to do that is to write. So, if you’ll excuse me…


[Photo Credit: Painting of woman with cigar by Brian Viveros; rubbersquare; Bags]

Bronx Banter Interview: Robert Ward

Robert Ward is a novelist, journalist, and a screenwriter. He recently published, Renegades, a collection of his magazine work from the 1970′s and was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule for a chat.

Hope you enjoy. Dig in.

Bronx Banter: You were a novelist before you wrote journalism. How did you transition from writing fiction to doing non-fiction?

Robert Ward: My first novel Shedding Skin was really good and won the NEA Grant as one of the top novels of 1972 because I had lived it all. I had actually hitched around and gone to Haight-Ashbury and lived there and been idealistic and seen my ideals trashed. I’d suffered a nervous breakdown living that way, and was barely able to survive mentally. All of that material got into Shedding Skin. So it was lived experience not second hand stuff from a book. In short it was wild-exaggerated-for-comic effect-reportage. But the bottom line was it was real. You can’t twist and turn stuff unless you have it to begin with.

BB: The so-called New Journalism was in full swing by then.

RW: That’s right. I had done a little journalism work. In fact, I’d help start an underground newspaper with John Waters, Jack Hicks, Elia Katz, and Jack Walsh in Baltimore. It was called the Baltimore Free Press. My first piece for it was an interview with The Loving Spoonful, when they came to town. I was a huge fan of theirs and assumed they’d be happy guys, considering the many hits they’d had.

But I found them to be depressed and bummed-out because they hadn’t had a hit for I think it was like eight months. It was the first time I realized how fleeting rock n roll fame could be. They were unhappy and John Sebastian seemed really miserable. I wish I could have found that piece and included it. It taught me a lot. That getting out in the world and seeing things for yourself was really exciting.

BB: Getting you out of your head and in the insulated world of academia.

RW: Yeah, it was a lesson I didn’t learn well enough, because after I had published Shedding Skin and gotten married again, I found myself with two young boys–my second wife’s kids from her first marriage–and no money. Teaching was at least a little security but it was killing me. I knew I didn’t belong in it. When my second novel–which was supposed to be this Great Radical Tome that would fan the fires of revolution–failed miserably, I knew I had done what so many other writers of my generation had done. That was become an academic, a guy who never saw anything but pretended to know all about the world. I got drunk on campus and played the enfant terrible with a bunch of teenaged students. I had grown to hate myself for being such a phony, so I was determined to become a journalist like Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson and let the chips fall where they may. When my wife left me for this rock n roller dude I knew I had to re-invent myself or really go down the tubes. I got encouragement from Tom Wolfe when he came to campus and figured out a way to get the Geneva police to let me hang with them and did my first piece on them. From that moment on my career took off.

BB: What was it about Wolfe and Thompson, as opposed to Gay Talese, for instance, that turned you on?

RW: I was influenced by Wolfe and Thompson and also Terry Southern. But pretty soon I found my own voice, which was not so absurd as either Thompson or Southern, and less erudite and right-wing than Wolfe’s. I wanted to be funny and smart but also compassionate and risk feeling things for my subjects. I didn’t want it to be all outrage and jokes. And I was still basically a Lefty.

BB: That’s great you mentioned Terry Southern. Of the three guys you mentioned he’s the one who is least remembered now. Why do you think that is? He could have been the biggest influence of all three at the time.

RW: Terry was my hero, not for his journalism, but for his book The Magic Christian, which is still the funniest and hippest satire on American greed, show biz and hype ever. I loved his sensibility and shared it in a way. As a kid in college the crowd I ran with got into speaking only in clichés to people we didn’t dig. It was cruel and very funny for a while. The people we were talking to often didn’t realize it was going on. Of course it was very immature but hey, we did it mainly to people who were the big men on campus,  jerks. It was the arty students little revenge on them. They were the fifties people and the world was fast-changing. It was around then–my junior year–that I discovered The Magic Christian on a pile of remaindered books at E.J. Korvettes. A black hardback book with a pink pig on the cover. I picked it up and read the opening lines: “Grand Guy Guy Grand was, as he put it, on the go.” After reading a couple more cliché laden lines I had the great realization that this novel was going to be one of my favorite books of all time.

BB: I love when that happens.

RW: Certain books are like that. You need only look at their covers and read one or two lines and you know your whole life will be changed by them. The only other books I’ve read that put this astounding spell on me were Catcher in The Rye when I was fifteen and A Fan’s Notes in my 20′s. Anyway, I realized that this Terry Southern chap shared my love of the put-on and had a very similar sensibility as myself and my friends. The use of clichés, the feeling that the world was mad, but also this almost academic rigor in his sentences. Parodic 19th Century stuff. Perfect. I never actually used his riffs, but he helped me see into sham and the great hustle of pop culture. Later, in New York, we became friends and he was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. His bullshit detector was foolproof. That’s what I think we shared.

BB: That’s one thing about Wolfe and Thompson and Southern–their style seems loose at first almost improvisational which may explain why it appeals to younger readers but it actually takes a huge amount of discipline and rigor to pull it off. I remember the same being said about Robert Altman, that he produced casual-looking ensemble style but it took a ton of discipline to achieve it.

RW: Well, with Wolfe , Southern and Hunter Thompson their style and sense of humor is first what appealed to me. They all had the sense of how wild the world was, what an amazing parade of fools and heroes passed before us. I loved that about them. They really caught the unique quality of American life like no one else. But what people forget about Wolfe and Thompson was that they really knew their subjects inside and out. I took Tom Wolfe from Hobart College in Geneva to his plane in Rochester and he told me all about Jospeh Smith in upstate New York and the history of the Mormons. It was the same for whatever he wrote. He researched the subjects before he went out and interviewed them. I did the same thing with ex-Premier Ky of Vietnam. I spent three days in the library before I went out to California to interview him. Six hours a day. I wanted to know everything I could about him. Research made a huge difference. We were able to talk about people like Ellsworth Bunker, Johnson, Thieu and many others. When someone is relaxed and likes you they’ll tell you great stories and allow you to hang out with them. Going to a parents-teachers meeting with him was absolutely amazing. The twenty-something-year-old kids who were teaching his children were absolutely terrified of him. But he was as nice as he could be to them. I wouldn’t have gotten to go on that little every day journey with him if I hadn’t prepared. You can only get the casual, everyday stuff if you’ve really done your homework.

BB: One of my favorite pieces in the book is a memoir story about your grandfather and the strip clubs in Baltimore. It reminded me of a scene out of the movie Diner. How did Baltimore shape you?

“My Dinner with Barry”

RW: Baltimore is a tough town, a very loyal town, a town of small neighborhoods in which people know one another all their lives. At least it was that way when I grew up. It formed my consciousness. You had a rough kind of wise guy humor there, and growing up my friends and I laughed at anything that scared us. But the really tough thing about the place was that there was just about no place to go if you wanted to be a writer. That’s why I had so little confidence when I grew up. My dad used to laugh at my desires to be a writer. Mainly because he was a failed painter. He had talent and was very artistic and a sensitive guy. Very smart. But there was no outlet for a working class kid like him and there was very little for me. I used to try and write and he’d look at me and say, “Mister Hemingway. You think you’re going to be a big writer. Well, you’ll learn pal. You’ll learn like I learned. Nobody wants you. Nobody is waiting for you, Mister Hemingway!” How I hated those words.

BB: I have an uncle who grew up in South Ozone Park in Queens and they used to rag on him for wanting to be a painter. “Hey, Freddy the Artist.” Like he was a clown.

RW: Maybe my father did me a favor because I would scream back at him: “I AM GOING TO BE A WRITER AND NOTHING YOU CAN SAY WILL STOP ME!” Man, I hated him in those days, he never took up for me. I was busted by the cops once for speeding, and I called the cop a fascist. They made me come down to the Chief of Police’s office with my old man. I thought he’d speak up for me, you know say something like “He’s really a good boy, officer.” Instead he said, right in front of me, “He’s a rebellious boy officer and always has been. I don’t know what to do with him. He won’t listen to me or his mother. He’s just no good.” The Chief suggested they lock me up for a week to see if that would get me straightened out and my father didn’t say anything at all in my behalf. I just sat there totally freaked out.  I knew they couldn’t really lock me up for a traffic ticket and a wise crack. They let me go with a warning. The cop told my father “If he ever gives you anymore trouble Mister Ward call me and we’ll lock him up for a while.” Then we left. In the car going home I screamed at him. I was crying, “You sold me out to that cop. You didn’t even stand up for me, you cowardly bastard.” I jumped out of the car on the way home at a red light and just wandered around on the streets for hours until my friend Hicks got home and then stayed on his couch for a month.

BB: How long did the rift last?

RW: A while. But later in life we made up and he admitted he had been too tough on me, that he had been a lousy dad. I found out about things his dad had done to him. It was a sad story. I knew I had to get out of Baltimore or I’d drown there. But in many ways I loved the city, loved the Orioles, the Colts, my buddies and our wild, drunken car rides. But you could see very early–and I saw it in my own family–that no one who wanted to be a writer from my class of people was going to get anywhere in that town.

BB: How did you find support or the confidence to become a writer in spite of that?

RW: It took my years to find myself and my own way but I found people who helped me. Some in academia and some–most of them–in New York. Editors and other writers who told me I was talented and couldn’t do enough to help me. People call New York a heartless place but they don’t know anything about it. No place was ever better to me. If you have talent in New York and want to work you’ll succeed. Same in LA. There are rough people in both places but if you’re tough enough and want to work, you’ll make it.

BB: Did you grow up reading Mencken? And did you follow your contemporaries from Baltimore, reporters like Mark Kram, a fellow blue collar guy, or Frank Deford, who was not so blue collar?

RW: Mark Kram wrote obits for New Times. I knew him a little. Good dude. I never read Frank Deford. Never met him. He was older than me. I loved Mencken to death. And still recall his great essay “Why Baltimore Is Superior to New York.” He said that basically it was better because people in Baltimore were your friends whether you were successful or not but in New York once you lost your mojo no one would talk to you anymore. I didn’t find this to be true but it informed my life when I got to New York. I met various con artists and hustlers there. And was, for the most part, not all that surprised because of Mencken.

BB: When you started doing pieces for the New Times, and then even later when you profiled celebrities, did you have a hard word count?

RW: There was sometimes a word count. “We need about three thousand words on this one.” But if I got great stuff they would always try to fit it in. New Times was the best at that. But so was Sport, GQ, Rolling Stone. These were real writers’ magazines. When I think back on it, I can’t believe how lucky I was to work for mags that cared about the writers, and made them the stars of the magazine world.

BB: One of the most notable differences between magazine pieces then and now is that writer’s were given far more space back then.

RW: There is nothing out there now like this. Maybe Harper’s and the New Yorker. But the other mags have all become pretty much promotional organs for the stars of entertainment. That’s because the publicists control the scene now. If you’re a little mean, from their point of view, to one of their clients, say Tom Cruise, the PR firms will make sure you never get access to any of their other clients. It’s a form of censorship. And a very effective one. Of course you can say whatever the hell you want on the internet but that’s not reportage. People who blog and trash public figures rarely have any access to them. And most of them aren’t real writers either. Merely having a snarky opinion isn’t writing.

BB: Can you talk a little bit about the New Times another magazine that is not well remembered by younger generations.

RW: New Times was a new magazine in the early 70′s. It was started by Jon Larsen, whose father was a journalist with Life, and in fact the Larson School of Journalism was named after him at Harvard. Also Frank Rich, David Hollander, and it was owned by George Hirsch. It was a bi-weekly magazine with really good writing in it. Larry L. King, one of my favorite writers from Willie Morris’ Harper’s in the sixties, and Robert Sam Anson, the intrepid war reporter from Harvard, was there as well. It wasn’t as counter cultural as Rolling Stone, but very political. I’d say it was a cross pollination of The Voice, Rolling Stone and Esquire. Later when they brought on John Lombardi from Rolling Stone as an editor it attracted some wilder writers like Lucian Truscott, who did great work for them. It never quite found its true identity, however. Not quite Time, not quite Stone. Eventually, as circulation dropped Hirsch sold it and started a new magazine called Runner. He told me later that one of the problems with New Times was that the ad guys would work their asses off to get say a Xerox account and then Larsen would publish some investigative piece on them which would, of course, infuriate Xerox and make them cancel their contract. But for me it was a showcase. They gave me as much space as I wanted and I loved working with everyone there. I’m still close pals with most of the guys I worked with there.

BB: The first non-fiction story you wrote was about the police in Geneva, the college town where you taught. It also brought your first brush with consequences. What did you learn right off the bat about the impact you’re reporting might have on a subject and did that effect how you approached doing stories moving forward?

RW: “The Yawn Patrol.” That really shook me up, the cops harassed me slightly after that, but I never let it bother me. I was determined to take the journalism life seriously and rather than scare me off, it made me excited to know that my words could have a real effect in the real world. I was sorry that I’d made the cops life uncomfortable for a while but it was the truth. That line about the girl’s legs and their walks…walks with money behind them…said it all. The class gulf between the kids they protected and their own lives. What I learned was that if a piece is really good it’s going to sting somebody and they might come after you. But if you let that stop you, you shouldn’t be in the game.

BB: I like that your go-to line with subjects was that you were there to “set the record straight.” Can you talk about why this worked as a way to relax them?

RW: The beauty of the new journalism was that they’d tell you to write a piece on say Larry Flynt but there was no word count at all. They left it to the writer’s judgment. I spent a week with Flynt and got stuff that was totally outrageous. No one had ever really hung out with him before. When he asked me if the review was going to be negative or positive I answered, “I’m here to set the record straight.” To my mind this meant whatever I find I’m writing, unless you specifically tell me it’s off the record. I don’t know what Larry made of what I said. But he did mention how he thought of his life as a Horatio Alger story. “Poor Boy From The Back-Woods Makes Good.” He never actually said he wanted me to write the story that way. But it’s probably what he expected. But I had already told him why I was there. “To set the record straight.” And what great stuff I got for the record.

BB: He was the gift that kept giving.

RW: I sent the 10,000 words into New Times and they couldn’t believe it. They ran the whole damned thing, pretty much as I wrote it. That was so exciting. I mean I had barely started in my career and here was a cover piece. Plus, we asked Flynt to pose with his Blow Up Sex Dolls on the cover of the magazine and he did it. He had no idea what the piece said inside. Of course, when the piece came out he was shocked. Which I thought was pretty funny since he spent all his time shocking the bourgeois liberals and Bible Belters with his outrageous sex and outhouse humor. Eventually, he got over it and offered me the editorship of Hustler! I turned it down but my buddy Paul Krassner took the gig. Think he lasted about a year.

BB: I can’t believe that Flynt was taken aback by your piece. Did that just show his own naiveté at having a writer follow him around for a week?

RW: What you’re forgetting is I was the very first guy to do an in-depth, hang-out piece with Flynt. He was completely naive and thought–I think–that I would have the same attitude that he had about his life and career. But I never promised him anything. Anyway, he never let anyone get close to him again. Look at any other piece on him and you’ll never see that kind of access. Later, after he had forgiven me he asked me to do a documentary on him. I said I was willing to do it but I had to have control over the final cut. He wouldn’t go for that, so it never happened. But I remember when we met to discuss it in New York. He looked at me and said, “There he is: The Truth Teller!” Said with both admiration and disgust.

BB: And yet your more frightening episode was with the country singer David Allen Coe.

RW: Yes, the confrontation with Coe’s biker friends was super scary. They moved in on me in his room and there was no appealing to him because he was passed out on the bed with a girl sort of draped over him. One of them had a knife and cut away part of my leather jacket I was wearing. I remained fairly cool headed, kept my voice even, as I said, “You guys got the wrong writer. I have never written anything about Coe before. They thought I was the writer who had written a piece saying he wasn’t a murderer, that his story about how he’d been put in prison for murder but sung to the warden and gotten a pardon was all bullshit. Actually, a woman writer whose name I can’t recall now wrote the piece for Rolling Stone. Which is what his manager said when he came walking into the room. Jesus, what a nightmare. The guy took me into the next room and told me that he was sorry for the biker’s mis-treatment of me. “Come back when we tour the East Coast next year and you’ll see that we’re not like that.” Right, yeah, see you guys then.

BB: And yet your editor wished you had gotten stabbed because it would have made a better story.

RW: My editor Jon Larsen’s response was his idea of a joke. Sort of. He actually kind of meant it. It wasn’t enough to take one for the team. He wanted me to bleed for the team! I forgave him though and we’re still pals. WASP humor. He did a lot for me, gave me all the space I wanted and was a champion of my career.

BB: Another piece I really liked was the portrait of Leroy Neiman. The guy seemed so insecure, wrapped up in his celebrity–pissed that the art world didn’t take him seriously while the masses made him rich. He seemed like a character that Warhol himself could have invented but without irony or seemingly a sense of humor about himself.

RW: Looking back I think I was a little hard on Neiman. He was a pretty good guy, though he had a ridiculous king sized ego, marching around Jets stadium and waving to his fans. He did lack a sense of humor about himself and he was insecure. But you know what–he was a hell of a sketch artist and he was really good at illustrating sports heroes and other entertainers. Maybe I should have given him more credit. But he wanted to be taken seriously as a great artist like Picasso, and that just wasn’t going to happen. Still, he might be remembered as a great illustrator. People certainly love his work. And he was right about one thing: The establishment in the art world is snobby and nasty, and to tell you the truth I’ve never been a great Andy Warhol fan.

BB: Warhol was a bullshit artist.

RW: He was hip and cool and all that but I never loved his soup cans or his paintings of celebs. How much brains did it take to do what he did? But nobody ever parodied him. Why is that? Afraid if you laughed at Andy you wouldn’t be cool?

BB: He beat them to the punch.

RW: Well, I never dug him or his scene filled with drag queens and other non-talents and would have loved to have done a piece on him with all of his affectations. Leroy said so many self aggrandizing things it was kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. But it is a funny piece…

BB: Your most famous magazine story might be the profile you did on Reggie Jackson for Sport. Did you know you had gold when you spoke to Reggie in the bar during spring training?

RW: Oh, yes. I couldn’t quite believe how poetic he was. But this goes along with my theory of bragging and poetry. For the average male in the world today the one place where they really become poetic is when they’re cursing someone out, or bragging about how great they are. Over the years I’ve heard the most creative use of language in these arenas. But Reggie went beyond the call of metaphorical duty. “I’m the straw that stirs the drink. Thurman Munson thinks he can stir it but he can only stir it bad. I’m the guy who puts the meat in the seats.” On and on and on…When he left the bar I just sat there reading my notes and saying, “Thank you, Jesus!”

BB: In the postscript to your story on Clint Eastwood you write about a reporter’s nightmare—your tape recorder not working. Did you tape record the Reggie interview?

RW: I didn’t use tape much at all because I was afraid something would happen to the machine. Just like it did with Clint. I had a perfect memory and let people talk, then scribbled down what they said when we were eating or having a drink. Obviously you can’t write as fast as someone talks, but I never missed a word.

BB: I know Reggie has denied saying the “Straw that stirs the drink” line. Why do you think, all these years later, he still disputes it so hotly?

RW: Reggie is super competitive and he hates to this day that I got him dead to rights. But he admitted it to Pete Axthelm in Newsweek right after he said it all. Axthelm asked him if he really said all that stuff and he said, “Ward caught me off guard.” Later, he changed it to the “took me out of context,” to which Munson is reported to have said, “For twelve fucking pages?” Then, even later, he decided he never said any of it. The next stance he might take is that he was never there at all and I never spoke to him. Then maybe he could go a step farther and say he doesn’t even exist. Who knows?

BB: I doubt he’d go that far. Reggie had a flair for hype. Genius may be too strong. That’s a word, “genius”, that is tossed around all too flippantly but I was drawn to how you used it, with great sincerity, in describing Pete Maravich.

RW: Pete Maravich was a true athletic genius. What he could do with a basketball was so amazing you had to see it three or four times to believe it. I mean running full-tilt down a court, bouncing a ball off of your instep cross court to a guy waiting under the basket? Unreal. Punching the ball with your forearm while looking the other way and making a totally accurate pass, heading the ball into the basket ten times in a row. He would do this stuff in practice and the other players would just stop and stare at him open mouthed. I feel privileged to have known and hung out with him. And then consider he did all this with one less arterial system in his body than we are supposed to have. His whole career was a miracle because most kids who are born with his heart problems are dead before they are sixteen.

BB: People tend to remember him as someone who was tortured and didn’t achieve as much as he could have but it was incredible what he accomplished considering his health problems.

RW: As a journalist you’re always on the lookout for a good story, but sometimes you run into someone who is just freaking miraculous. That was Pete. Even Magic Johnson said so. But again, he made it look easy because he practiced six or seven hours a day as a kid. Every day. He worked out all of these ball exercises and did them religiously day after day after day. He was sweet natured too. I said, “Pete I just can’t believe the stuff you do.” He said, in this really sincere voice, “Robert, you could do all of them too if you went home and practiced two or three hours a day. I mean really. Try it!”

Hearing that made me want to give him a hug. I mean it was like being told, by Einstein, “Honestly, Bob you could have come up with Theory of Relativity if you’d just worked a little harder at your physics lessons. Go home. Read a couple more science books and you’ll see what I mean” The guy was sincere and a great teacher. If he had lived he would have been a wonderful coach, because he wasn’t only talented, he was kind and patient as well.

BB: What are the general differences between writing about actors and athletes?

RW: Well, they have a lot on common. Both athletics and acting is about timing. You need to do things just right. If you’re running through the two hole on the line you need to wait for your block just long enough and then go. Same with delivering lines. You need to have the right timing when you start speaking, when you move your hand to pick up the cigarette, or answer the phone. It has to be done the same way over and over and over again. Amateur actors, for example, can’t sustain a performance because they don’t stay in character with their bodies. It’s not about just saying lines. You have to turn your body just so, pick up the magazine just so…on the third line of the speech. You have to move your mouth just so, your eyes have to squint or not squint just so. Comparably, as a wide receiver you have to make your break at the fifteen yard line every time, not the fifteen and a half yard line. You have to wait for the block as you run through the line, you have to make the back cut after the pulling guard has hit the linebacker not before. In basketball you have to get to your spot on the floor at the right moment, not a second later or a second earlier. In baseball you have to hit to the opposite field if the ball is outside. You have to play every batter differently in the field. You have to time your hitting, time your throw to second. Physical timing is imperative in both sports.

BB: That’s so true and yet people rarely comment on the physicality that goes into acting.

RW: Yeah, and athletes tend to become pretty good actors. Obviously there is sensitivity to acting, to saying lines that most jocks don’t have. Just as there are physical attributes actors don’t have when they want to play sports. Ever look at actors? They are small boned for the most part and short. They have thin legs and waists. Look at a baseball player on any team. Big thick thighs, big wrists…some of them, like pitchers, big waists. But almost all power hitters have big trunks. Reggie had huge legs, thighs. That’s where they get their power from.

BB: But isn’t there a difference between the mental makeup of actors and jocks?

RW: Actors are much more vulnerable and insecure than athletes. They worry a lot and feel, I think, that acting isn’t a manly profession. There’s a saying actors have: “To be an actor you have to be twice the woman, and half the man.” Only a tough woman can make it because it’s so tough. But for a man to do it…well, it’s seen by actors as being a kind of feminine profession. Pretending. Not very manly. Men should be building bridges, flying planes, shooting guns. Actors only pretend to do these things, so it makes them feel insecure and I think there’s still some shame in the profession. Brando used to say that all the time. I think writers feel the same thing. As a rule, both actors and writers would rather be John Elway than Hemingway. Because athletes risk physical damage, have to have physical courage. Actors and writers need courage too, though. It’s tough being a writer. No one knows how tough until they try it. It takes a kind of courage not many people will ever realize to face a white page of paper and know you have to fill it up with new, brilliant stuff that people may read and hate or laugh at. I’ve had scripts I’ve written for TV balled up and thrown back at me with absolute hatred. It took courage to go back into my room, knowing I was two seconds away from being fired or strangling my boss and just cool down and start over again. It takes courage to act in a movie and risk people thinking you are awful. Few people can either act or write well, and it takes a lot of courage to do either one as your life’s work.

RW: In those days before publicists did you find that your subjects were almost always cooperative? Or did that depend on the person’s personality? Can you recall profiling anyone who was reticent and difficult to draw out?

RW: I did a piece on Robert Duvall which was impossible. He wouldn’t say anything at all. He didn’t trust me and as a result I had to go back again and again to talk to him and I still got next to nothing. When the piece came out in Rolling Stone I heard from a friend who knew him. He said that Duvall thought I tried to make him look stupid. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. I thought he was quite bright but he didn’t say enough for me to get a very good piece.

BB: It sounds as if Duvall made his bed, determined to be unhappy no matter what you wrote. I know he wanted to strangle Pauline Kael for her review of Tender Mercies. He wouldn’t be alone. But I liked how Clint Eastwood was more objective about her critique of Dirty Harry–he understood the hype in her take. And it sounds as if Eastwood was the opposite of Duvall.

RW: Clint Eastwood was anxious to have the younger, hipper audience catch on to him. In fact, most of them were starting to get it, so we were only a little way ahead of the curve. He was famous for short interviews and I was told if you asked the wrong question he would get surly and toss you out. In fact he was friendly, courteous and very well spoken. He knew what he was doing on the screen and he understood that there was a comic side to his performance, but it had to be done completely straight. As he said to me, “If you winked or let the audience know you knew it was funny, it wouldn’t work.”

What really impressed me is when I asked him about critics who had assumed he didn’t know what he was doing, that he was just lucky. He said that he had chosen his hat and his old jeans and the serape he wore in the man With No Name Westerns with Leone. He brought them with him from America. He knew exactly the effect he was creating. The squint, the cigar, the clothes were all Clint’s ideas not wardrobe’s. That’s part of acting too, your look. People forget that. Think of the show I worked on, Miami Vice. Without the look of the show it’s just another cop show. These are things the average movie critic doesn’t even comment on. Clint was generous and civil and even did the interview with me over again when my tape recorder failed! I thought I would get fifteen minutes and I ended up with three hours of tape. He’s a great guy.

BB: How surprised were you that Lee Marvin turned out to be so agreeable to interview?

RW: Lee Marvin completely fooled me. I always assumed he would be some lout like the louts he played so well. But he was the exact opposite. He was dressed in a beautiful Italian suit, and was friendly and, at first, rather formal. But after a couple of drinks we became good buddies. He loved to tell stories of his drinking days, and he loved fishing, hanging out in the desert, listening to jazz. He also made a musical, “Paint Your Wagon,” as did Bob Mitchum.

BB: I dug the no-nonsense professionalism of Mitchum. Especially his comment about De Niro:

I was on the set with De Niro, The Last Tycoon, and he takes forty minutes to get ready for a scene in his trailer. Ray Milland was in the movie, and he gets all upset. He asks Gage Zazan how come we didn’t get that much time, and Kazan says, ‘Hey, look, you guys don’t need time like that. Come on, just say your lines, I got enough problems with him.’ The thing is, it’s a hell of a lot more work, and I don’t see overall where the films are any better, really. You tell me.”

How was Mitchum like Marvin if at all?

RW: In Mitchum’s case it wasn’t a musical but he did write and sing the lead song “Thunder Road,” which was a hit in the fifties. They both were tough guys who had big hearts. I didn’t know Mitchum as well, but Lee was kind and loved his old friends, especially Woody Strode, his partner in “The Professionals” and other films. He was so kind. When we went out to the Palm for dinner he was besieged by autograph seekers and he insisted they get my signature too, telling them, “This guy is a great writer. You’ll be happy you have his autograph some day.” You can’t get much nicer than that. He called me at four in the morning to tell me how much he loved my novel Red Baker. “Hello, this is your book reviewer from Tucson. One hell of a book, Bobby.” That was the kind of a guy he was.

BB: Was there anyone you wanted to profile that you never had the chance to get to?

RW: I would have loved to interview Johnny Unitas, who eventually became a friend of mine. He was my childhood hero, and when the horrible Irsays moved the Colts out of Baltimore in the middle of the night I wrote a piece in GQ on how much the old Colts meant to me and everyone else I knew growing up in Baltimore in the fifties.

Johnny and Alex Hawkins called me up to thank me for it! I was so moved I could barely talk. And when Johnny died I sat at my computer and wept like a baby. I’m not ashamed of it, as many other guys I knew in those days had the exact same reaction. We loved him like no other athlete. He was exactly what you wanted your heroes to be like, on the field and off. Ask any of the old Colts who are left and they’ll say the same thing. A wonderful, caring and also very amusing guy. Had a great sense of humor. And more guts and heart than any player I’ve ever seen. He was the very best of the old Baltimore too. A guy who was kind to everyone and never stiffed his fans. You could go to his old place The Golden Arm on the York Road and have drinks with him. Imagine doing that with any of the well known quarterbacks today. They all have bodyguards and live in gaited prisons. The fact that he once threw me a pass when I was twelve and then said, “Good hands” when I caught. It’s a memory I’ve cherished all my life.

BB: Were there any pieces that were tough not to include in Renegades?

RW: I wish I’d included a humorous take on the Orioles losing to the Pirates in the World Series. It was really funny and one of my best short pieces, but I couldn’t find it. And there was a profile I did on Rip Torn for American Film but I couldn’t find it until the damned thing was put to bed.


BB: I had a subscription to American Film as a kid. I remember that one.

RW: Rip is the best. One night Rip, Margot Kidder, the mad novelist James Crumley and myself went to Chez Jay’s in Santa Monica. We’d all had too much to drink and we got into a pirate contest. That is “who could do the best Arrrrgghhhh!” I did one, ok but modest. Crumley did a better one. Then Rip did one that we were sure no one could beat. It was the Arghhh to end all Arghhhh’s. And loud. Like the whole joint stopped eating to hear it.

Finally, Margot, not to be outdone by no men, stood on the freaking table, looked out across the joint and ARRRRRGHED her ass off. I’ve never heard another Argggggh to top it. The whole restaurant applauded her and they bought us free drinks. That’s Rip. That’s Margot. Thank God they never got together. There would have been a new H Bomb.


Renegades is available on Amazon. And be sure to check out Robert Ward’s website.

[Photo Credit: portrait of David Allen Coe via Berrystop100; painting of Clint Eastwood by Jim Blanchard]

Bronx Banter Interview: Scott Raab

The Knicks are in Miami tonight to play the Heat. What better time to hear from Scott Raab, the Esquire writer and author of “The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron James.”

“The Whore of Akron” is a funny, personal, and moving story, a must-read. Scott and I chatted recently about writing, the book, and LeBron James.

Dig in.

BB: You’ve been writing for decades yet “The Whore of Akron” is your first book. Before we get to that, I’d like to talk about your career. Loved the piece you wrote on your blog a few months ago where you talked about what it takes to be a writer. About endurance being a talent.

SR: I talk to people half your age who start whining that they don’t have time to write and I say, ‘Don’t worry about it — you’re obviously not a writer.’ They don’t like hearing that. They actually think they’re entitled to some kind of pity, self- and otherwise. It’s the weirdest thing in the world to me, not because I think I have any big answers but if you really find yourself saying, ‘I don’t have time to write,’ and you’re not feeding four mouths…It’s not like I knew Ray Carver, but from what I know about him the reason he wrote short stories is, first he wasn’t ever sober, but he also had two screaming youngsters and so he’d write in his car. Either you find a way or you find something else that seems more doable. But endurance is a talent.

BB: This blog, Bronx Banter, helped me fight a sense of entitlement. I set it up in such a way that I was forced to show up every day.

SR: And anyone who doesn’t think that’s a huge part of it is deluding themselves.

BB: Showing up every day.

SR: Yes. Putting one foot in front of the other. It took me decades to learn this. And that’s fine. If you don’t learn that, it doesn’t matter how talented you are, because without this talent, of endurance, what difference does it make? Nobody finds you at the soda fountain; it almost never happens. And the journalists it does happen to, like Stephen Glass, Ruth Shalit, Jayson Blair — these are people who, after early success, couldn’t follow through. They didn’t have the chops. They made shit up and committed career suicide.

BB: Is there a difference between talent and intelligence?

SR: Certainly intelligence is a tool, a crucial tool. You have to take in large amounts of material, including human material, and construct some sort of narrative. That requires focus and intelligence. But if you are missing endurance, again, it doesn’t matter how intelligent you might be. In the wake of the LeBron book, I’ve dealt with so-called journalists who have told me, ‘I don’t have time to transcribe a tape so I’m going to send you questions via e-mail.’ They say, “You have until Friday,” and so I say, “Then you have until Friday to transcribe a fucking tape.” I’ve also heard, “I don’t have trustworthy recording equipment.” Then you’re not a real journalist, so don’t waste my fucking time.

BB: When did you start writing pieces for magazines?

SR: I started at GQ in ’92 and got my first contract in ’93. David Granger was a GQ feature editor then. Granger was my big break because he was the one editor in New York who was willing to assign long stories to writers who hadn’t already published long pieces in magazines in New York. So Granger was exactly the right guy at exactly the right time for me. I was still selling columns for $40 to a weekly—when they wanted them—and I was almost 41 when I signed that first contract with GQ. I was never a newspaper guy, I was a creative writing guy.

BB: And you had written fiction at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, right?

SR: I’d published fiction. I had a literary agent. But I wasn’t prolific and wasn’t some young Phillip Roth or William Faulkner. I was a solid fiction writer with problems. Lifestyle problems. And it turns out I needed the structure that a relationship with an editor provides.

BB: And early on with Granger was he doing macro editing with you or micro stuff like line edits?

SR: Alex, if you need line-editing help you don’t ever get a contract. I mean, seriously. If the relationship with the editor is based on line editing—

BB: –You’re screwed.

SR: You don’t even get there. Why would a guy like Granger waste his time with that stuff? I hate to sound grandiose, but at that level it’s about relationship, and envisioning stories, about building trust that you’ll deliver the goods and you won’t fuck the editor in terms of expense account bullshit. It’s business, basically. But it’s also has a strong therapeutic connection in terms of the mentor-mentee relationship for me. Not because I was wet behind the ears but because I didn’t understand what the whole process was.

BB: If part of what you have know to be writing for a major magazine is how to maintain expense accounts and the business end of things, how were you able to do that when you were so fucked up on booze and drugs at the time?

SR: I’m trying to put this the right way…

BB: Is it a matter of being what they call a functioning alcoholic?

SR: Look at your dad. People can do enormous harm to themselves, those who depend on them, and their careers and still function at a really high level. I was a high-hopes-but-low-expectations guy. When you grew up the way I grew up, when you come out of Cleveland State, there weren’t high expectations. I got into Iowa when I was in my thirties and I knew it was really important. I didn’t into the program at Stamford and I didn’t get into the program at Irvine so when I got into Iowa I went in with a strong sense of affirmation and ambition. It never occurred to me that I’d be a magazine writer. I just wanted to compete against the kids that went to school with me. They weren’t from Cleveland State. They’d gone to Sarah Lawrence or Yale.

BB: You were older than a lot of your classmates but did you have an inferiority complex?

SR: You could say that but I don’t think I’m the most accurate judge of that. I know I was very nervous but it wasn’t skittish nervous it was more like I knew what a tremendous opportunity I had. I don’t think I ever operate out of the sense of mastery or security but I don’t know anybody else who does either. I don’t think of it as an inferiority complex. I don’t think that I ever looked at writing for Granger as anything less than a total miracle. That doesn’t imply an inferiority complex; I think it implies a firm grasp of what was going on. All of a sudden you meet a guy who wants you to write in your own voice and wants you to do the kinds of stories that don’t feel safe to most magazine editors and it was like, “Wow, this is the greatest thing in the world.” People ask me if I still write fiction. Of course not. I work really hard at trying to be good at writing what I’m writing. If fiction were that important to me I’d find time to do it. I think fiction is harder and I don’t mean that what I’m doing is easy; to me, it’s not. But writing fiction you have to supply almost everything and the payoff is not so good both in terms of numbers of readers and money. I’ve always looked at meeting Granger and what followed as being beyond my wildest dreams. So things like fudging expense accounts to make a few hundred dollars more seemed absurd to me. No matter how far gone I might have been in terms of my lifestyle, I wasn’t that stupid and greedy.

BB: So when did the idea for this book—

SR: Yeah, I thought we were going to talk about the book.

BB: I know you started working on it during LeBron’s final year with the Cavaliers.

SR: I started after they lost to Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals. For many years at Esquire I wrote a column, didn’t even have my name on it, where I answered questions, general questions. A guy wrote in and asked, “Is it illegal to flip off a cop or just stupid?” Turned out this guy worked for the Cavs. I wasn’t thinking about doing a book when I got the e-mail; I was thinking maybe this guy could get me tickets. I reached out to him—I was going to do his question anyway because it was good for the column—but it was clear after a couple of games in the Orlando series that it wasn’t going to end well for the Cavs. And that was the Cavs team that I really thought could and would go all the way. I got really bummed out. But I figured that they’re going into the next season with Lebron in his walk year, the coach and the general manager in their walk years, with an owner who doesn’t mind paying the luxury tax — it was all or nothing and I thought it would make a fascinating book. They ended up winning 61 games that year. They’d won 66 the year before. They lost in the second round to the Celtics and then Lebron declared free agency.

BB: So you didn’t know that the book would extend into the following season?

SR: No, no, I was looking to write the happy book.

BB: And was part of that happy book your experiences as a Clevelander and Jew?

SR: Not at all. That wasn’t even part of it after Lebron’s decision to go to Miami. Honestly. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I sit down and start writing. I don’t plan things out. I don’t go in blind, of course. But with the Cavs, after the Decision, after the book deal, I thought that the book would be full of interviews, a collection of a lot of Cleveland voices, and that’d be the spine of the book. I wasn’t thinking of that in a hard and fast way but I had whole lists of people to talk to.

BB: Like the wonderful scene of you in the black barbershop.

SR: Well, I needed a black guy to talk with about LeBron and race. And I asked some prominent black guys. I didn’t know Jimmy Israel very well but we were Facebook friends. I knew I couldn’t avoid the subject of race. That didn’t feel honest to me. But the other black writers I asked didn’t know me; some of them didn’t bother to reply and the ones who did said no. I realized, from talking to the guys who did turn me down, that what I was asking of them was essentially unfair. They didn’t know me. I offered them editorial control but the title of the book was already “The Whore of Akron.” As one guy put it to me, “You’re basically asking me to participate in a witch hunt.” That was a legitimate objection. Jimmy’s a Cleveland guy, a great writer, and he taught me a lot.

BB: So in the course of Lebron’s first season in Miami, you’re down there, writing about what’s going on for Esquire, you’re tweeting about what’s going on, were you also writing the book?

SR: I started going to Miami in September of 2010 and started writing the book a few months later, in January 2011. It was not clear to me at that point where the book would be going. I had a deadline and I needed to start getting stuff down but I hadn’t figured anything out at that point.

BB: When did you figure out the structure of the book, where you go back-and-forth between what’s doing with Lebron and the memoir stuff develop?

SR: It was organic. It’s not as conscious as it might seem. In addition to working on the book I also had a big 9/11 piece for Esquire closing in the summer. So I had to de-stress about the book. I don’t often use inspirational slogans but I did use one while I was writing the book. It came from Bob Wickman, the fat closer the Indians had for a couple of years. He said, “You gotta trust your stuff.”

BB: That’s like in “Tender Mercies” the Robert Duvall character says, “Sing it like you feel it.”

SR: That’s right. By the time July rolled around I took a place in the city and moved in for a month. I would go to the HarperCollins office in the morning and revise the manuscript starting at the beginning using the notes I got from my editors, David Hirshey and Barry Harbaugh. Then I would go back to the place I was staying at and work on the ending. Part of me looks at what I do as a plumber. A tradesman with a craft. And at some point in the process an editor realizes that you know what you’re doing. Structurally. So their notes were extensive and important but there weren’t structural issues. There were tonal and practical ones. There were points where I would start pontificating, especially about racial aspects of the story, and there were whole swaths of material that just had to go. I never had a problem with that. I’m really coachable as long as I trust the editor.

BB: One of the first reactions I had when I was reading was to a couple of jokes about Art Modell. Where you had these rim-shot putdown jokes. And I wondered if that was going to be what the book was, more and more outrageous gags.

SR: That’s a legitimate concern.

BB: I didn’t know if you would end up humping one note but then it didn’t go that way. You talk about tone. Did you have sensitivity that on some level you were coming across as being outrageous and not to overdo that at the risk of maybe losing some of the readers?

SR: I’m not sure. I know I lost a few people. Mostly, it’s been well-received but there are certainly people who thought—whether it was the Modell stuff or the Lebron stuff—that it was overdone. I wasn’t hyper-conscious of it. I’m not that conscious of readers. I’m conscious of editors; I want to please them. But it’s an internal process. It’s just a subject—Cleveland sports—about which I feel the kind of passion that I don’t really feel about almost anything. I don’t mean my family. But my relationship to those teams defines me in the same way that being a Jew defines me or being a man defines me. It’s at a profound level. I remember doing a piece on David Cone in the late ‘90s, fun guy, smart guy, and he told me—not that he was the first guy to say it—that “You’ve got to learn to take a few miles an hour off the fastball.” If you try to throw harder in a pressure situation it backfires. You want to change speeds. So I’m conscious of that, not in particular relation to the book but in general.

BB: You reminded me of Mel Brooks in the book. I mean that in the best way.

SR: Even if you meant it in the worst way I’d be honored by that comparison.

BB: I was never offended by your outrage. I accepted it, like I do with Mel Brooks. This is what it is, it’s over-the-top. This is the shtick. And for all of the outrageousness there is also a sense of restraint in this book. And it made me wonder if you would have been able to do that, 15 or 20 years ago.

SR: I couldn’t have done it. It goes back to David Hirshey, my senior editor at HarperCollins. Nobody was excited about the prospect of the Happy LeBron Book unless I could deliver the impossible, which was access to Lebron. Once that season ended with the loss to the Celtics, I said to my wife, “That was a fun year at sports fantasy camp, I spent a few grand, but I had a great time. There ain’t going to be any book, and I’m okay with that.”

I was more upset that Lebron left. So I was blogging the countdown to free agency for Esquire.com and Deadspin was also running it simultaneously. Then Hirshey got in touch with my agent, David Black. I’d never met Hirshey but he was willing to give a book deal to a guy who’d never written a book, wasn’t going to get access to the subject of the book, and was writing these venomous blog posts about LeBron. How many book editors would do that? I was at the right place at the right time. Again.

BB: Well, if you’re not going to get access you’re the perfect guy to do a story because you don’t give a shit. Was there any time during the process that you were afraid that LeBron, or one of his people was going to walk up to you and punch you in the face?

SR: That was one of my mother’s concerns. But that’s really movie-script stuff. Can you imagine what the results would have been? Obviously, it could have, and still could, potentially happen, I suppose. But: please do. I truly don’t give a shit. It has nothing to do with courage. I grew up reading National Lampoon magazine and they were brutal. And Hunter Thompson was filing for Rolling Stone and he was brutal. I didn’t think of either as role models, I just thought of them as great reads. A lot of my attitude toward LeBron or the media relations at the NBA or the Heat was like, “Fuck you, I don’t give a shit.”

BB: So you didn’t feel any shame or have any reservations about calling the guy out as a scumbag?

SR: I understand that if you’re working for a newspaper and you’re on a beat and you’re tweeting something like that a guy you’re going to get fired. I get that. I had to dial it back because I wasn’t thinking about the reflection on Esquire. It’s not as I didn’t make my share of mistakes, but they didn’t involve plagiarism or putting off the record stuff on the record. Professional breaches by today’s standards, yes. Ethical breaches? No. And we’re not talking about weapons of mass destruction or climate change or the corner grocery selling tainted meat. It’s a fucking basketball player. There were some people who thought I was stalking him because their understanding of reporting is that dim. I don’t cheer in the press box. I don’t get in a beat guy’s way. Ever. I’m very aware of protocol. And also very aware that if a magazine or book writer comes off like if he’s a big shot, he’s an asshole. I consciously try to avoid those kinds of behaviors.

BB: Is there ever point where your persona as the outraged Cleveland sports fan becomes a put-on?

SR: No. Isn’t that weird? A lot of the stuff that got taken out of the book was removed because it was violent. You know, stuff like seeing LeBron at media day and wanting to fracture his skull with one of the folding chairs. I’m the guy who wrote the book; I’m not just the guy in the book. There is a difference. But it’s only germane when you’re talking to another writer; it has nothing to do with putting on that costume of the outraged Cleveland fan. I am a totally outraged Cleveland fan.

BB: And yet you do put it in perspective.

SR: When you get a certain age, you realize that when you are feeling that inflamed by something outside of you, there’s something inside you going on. The other part is I had a lot of people call me a hater. That’s a very popular word now. How could I not be a monster if I was wishing a career-ending injury on a fine young athlete? There are a lot of answers to that. But I took the question seriously and tried to figure it out in the book.

I talked to Dwayne Wade on Media Day for a fashion spread in Esquire. And afterward I saw LeBron at the podium with Wade and Chris Bosh and responded viscerally to that, and then went to a family bar mitzvah and wondered, “Why am I so furious, why does it get to this level with me?” Part of what I realized—and it didn’t crystallize until I was doing the writing—was that at a fairly young age I shut down in terms of family. I didn’t like my people, I didn’t trust my people. I was angry and I felt abandoned. Nobody was paying attention to my pain, and on and on and on. Cleveland was a great city then. I wasn’t a sinkhole of despair, it wasn’t a joke. The Browns, in particular, were very good. They weren’t quite the Yankees, but from the late ‘40s through the mid ‘60s, they were a paragon of consistency and excellence. The city and those teams replaced my family in my heart.

BB: You also tap into something that goes on with every fan. When I watch the Yanks play the Red Sox, and I’m heated, I want each hitter to line a ball of Josh Beckett’s leg and send him to the hospital, even though I know that’s completely irrational.

SR: If you want to call yourself a fan by my standards, of course you felt that, even if you never wrote it. I don’t think it’s unique to Philly, Cleveland or New York. I’ve been in stadiums elsewhere where the home fans cheer their own player getting hurt because they just don’t want to see him fucking up on the field anymore.

BB: As far as realizing that at a point if you are getting that enraged over a sporting event do you feel, well, this is just the way I am or do you say, I don’t need to be this way anymore?

SR: There is a real chasm between intellect and emotion. Thinking or realizing something isn’t the same as actuating it. But the fans I understand the least are the people who don’t have a team to get worked up about. I get it, but I don’t get it. Why do they bother? It’s the other side of the insanity of being over-committed. I’d prefer the self-destruction to not caring much about a team.

BB: I like the quote you used from Viktor Frankl. That sums up why you do root for a team. Because something can happen. And you having a hope for it happening means you are alive — not necessarily the victory.

SR: I would like the victory, Alex. It’s like at the end of “The Unforgiven” when Clint Eastwood tells Little Bill, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” Apparently not.

BB: Talk to me about “Dayenu” for a second because I’ve been singing the song in my head for days now.

SR: It’s one of those things where the repetition and melody of it can transport you. You sing praise to God that if he had merely freed you from Pharaoh’s bondage that would have been enough. If the Cleveland Indians of 1954 had set the record that stood until the Yankees of 1998—they won 111 out of 154 games and then lost 4 straight to the Giants in the World Series—and won the Series, it would have been awful enough. The Drive. The Shot. The Fumble. The Browns moving. Each would have been bad enough alone. Each of the Cleveland franchises have built teams that were good enough, at least in paper, to win a championship. Any of those happening would have been heartbreak enough. Which is the inversion of the Dayenu thing.

BB: The other thing that occurred to me as the book went on is that it wasn’t just a tirade against LeBron, it wasn’t flip, but a very moral book in a lot of ways.

SR: I totally agree with you, but it came as a big surprise to me. And I’m not trying to be coy. I didn’t know where it was going. I think it’s an odd book. It’s like a Swiss Army Knife kind of book.

BB: It sounded like you even had pity for LeBron.

SR: I do have pity for the guy and it’s not disingenuous. There’s a certain point between fathers and sons when things are nice. I had that with my dad before my parents split up. You think all is right with the world because you’re in the presence of this all-powerful, all-knowing guy. I was old enough to feel that with my father. LeBron had none of that. Nothing. And that’s something to really feel pity for. Because you can miss the shit out of that and it can hurt a lot, but LeBron never even got that. Everyone remembers when LeBron said they weren’t only going to win seven or eight rings but in the same clip he also talked about how easy it was going to be, so easy that Pat Riley could come back and play point guard. Dwayne Wade is sitting next to him, looking sideways at him and Wade was not smiling. Have you ever heard any athlete in any sport or anyone in any profession talk about easy it was to get to the top? It’s insane. Most of us, even poor black guys without dads, have at least had someone in our life saying, “You are going to have to work for every fucking thing you get. I don’t care how good you are. You’re going to have to be a whole lot more than just good.” Maybe James gets it now. But that piece really seems to be missing in him.

BB: Did you have an awareness of being critical of yourself if you were going to be critical of James?

SR: It’s not conscious. I’m not paragon of 12-step sobriety, but part of trying to live a more honest life is self-examination and not just throwing stones at other people.

BB: Cause then you would come across as a hater. If you were only ragging on him.

SR: Of course.

BB: Another thing I liked is that you didn’t over-examine some of the game action, which came as a relief. That stuff can be deadly to read.

SR: And to write, Alex.

BB: By the end of the book, the fact that your boy gets sick is more important so as a reader, the book shifts to you as much as it is about James.

SR: I care deeply about what I do, about putting one word after another, and I think it’s a miracle that the book turned out as well as it did, or that I had such a good time with it. With a magazine piece, I usually want to keep tinkering with it, change the lede over and over, but I didn’t have the time here. So it’s a fucking miracle. I’m not a big fan of my stuff. I rarely go back and read my stuff, because I see places where I needed to do better work. I haven’t had time to go back and read the book, but I knew that when I was writing it that it was going to be good. I was happy with it because there was no way that I could have spent six more months on it and made it better. I only would have made it worse. Despite the weirdness of dealing with interviews and publicists and trying to sell copies, the feeling is still great and I’ve never felt anything like it.

BB: Probably because you don’t hate yourself.

SR: No, I don’t. And it’s funny how it all came together. If LeBron declares free agency the way every other star declares free agency there’s no book deal. It’s a strange series of events — amazing, really.

BB: He stays in Cleveland you don’t write the book that you wrote, you don’t write a loving tribute to Cleveland sports fans or write about yourself. So in a way, LeBron is the gift that keeps giving.

SR: That’s absolutely true. Irony can be cheapened in all kinds of ways but in this way it was kind of pure.

BB: I have to ask because this interview will appear on a Yankee-related site. You wrote an Esquire story on Alex Rodriguez that is famous for causing a rift between Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. How is Lebron different from A Rod?

SR: Alex is a much more self-aware, savvy guy compared to LeBron. As brilliant as Alex was at an early age, he was not anointed the Chosen One by Sports Illustrated when he was sixteen. He didn’t have Michael Jordan flying him to camp when he was a teenager. If you look at Alex’s post-season numbers career-wise they are in line with his regular season numbers. I think it’s perfectly fair, especially as a Yankees fan, to point the finger at him. He’s fair game. But I’ve never seen an athlete of Alex or LeBron’s caliber do what LeBron did last year in the Finals. James single-handedly cost the Heat the title last year. Before the games, there was LeBron giving the pre-game speech to his team after tweeting about how he couldn’t sleep. It’s so different from anything A-Rod has ever done. And LeBron’s performance was bizarre. In an elimination game, he was throwing passes to Mario Chalmers and Juan Howard. He’s the most unstoppable force in the game, but the Mavericks were totally inside his head. Being the Clevelander I am, I kept expecting LeBron to realize that he’s playing with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh—who played very well—and I was sure the Heat were going to wake up and smack the Mavericks down. I was amazed that even with Nowitzki shooting horribly in Game 6, the Mavericks looked nothing other than supremely confident. The Heat never looked like anything but scared rabbits.

BB: Well, as a true Clevelander, even if it didn’t happen last year don’t you think that whether it is this year or next year, eventually LeBron will get his act together and he’ll win that championship?

SR: That’s one of those head or heart questions. Eventually, sure, he’s young enough. But he’s also got a lot of miles on him. And I don’t think he truly cares and I know he doesn’t work as hard as he says he does. Kobe Bryant does. I remember sitting with Shaq once and he told me about how obsessive Kobe was about working. And Shaq admits that he himself was never that way. Kobe is willing to work relentlessly. That certainly was true of Michael, too. I think Alex Rodriguez is fanatical too. He’s driven. But I don’t think that helps him come playoff time. But LeBron is better at talking about this stuff than actually doing it.

BB: LeBron is having a great year so far. Do you think he’s turned the corner, learned something since last year? Or is that something that can only be answered come June?

SR: What corner? He’s a two-time league MVP, and he should’ve won it again last season. He’s the best pure basketball player I’ve ever seen, an other-worldly talent, and he has become a complete head case in the post-season. He always had an issue with managing pressure when he was on the Cavs, and he’s fallen apart as a crunch-time player if the other team doesn’t just fold up and surrender. And everyone in the NBA knows it now. We won’t find out until June if LeBron has found a heart.

Buy “The Whore of Akron” here.

Bronx Banter Interview: Pete Dexter

I met Pete Dexter last fall when he was in New York promoting his seventh novel, Spooner. Dexter was a wonderful newspaper columnist and is now one of our greatest novelists. First thing I noticed about him was that he was wearing a pink Yankees cap. So when I had a chance to interview him the Yankees were the first thing we talked about.

Here is our chat, which covers a lot more than the Bombers.


Bronx Banter: I had no idea you were a Yankees fan.

Pete Dexter: No, it’s true. I’m a big Yankee fan. It started out as a way to irritate Mrs. Dexter who is a Yankee fan from way back. And so when they’d win I’d get into it just because it irritated her so damn bad, but then I started to look at them and–

BB: When was this, during the ’90s?

PD: Yeah. So when I found out that it irritated Mrs. Dexter I did it more and more. There have been a lot of teams in my life that I’ve rooted against, but I have never rooted for a team in my life before I rooted for the Yankees, including teams I played on.

BB: And the Yankees of all teams.

PD: Yeah, strangely enough. I didn’t even like baseball until the mid-’90s. And I enjoy it more every year. We get all the games on the cable. It’s the only thing that’s worth all the money I spend on cable.

BB: So can you deal with Michael Kay?

PD: Is he the “See Ya” guy?

BB: Yup.

PD: He’s okay, it’s the other two guys from ESPN that drive me crazy.

BB: Joe Morgan and Jon Miller.

PD: Jesus, the go on for hours and hours. Morgan was one of the most exciting players I ever saw and just absolutely the most boring human being on the face of the earth.

BB: Just goes to show there’s no correlation.

PD: Yeah, none at all.

BB: So, did you want to be a writer when you were growing up?

PD: No, never. I took two writing classes at the University of South Dakota but it was just because I found out that I didn’t want to be a mathematician. I started looking through the student book there and saw Creative Writing and figured if I can’t bullshit my way through that then I don’t deserve to graduate, even from the University of South Dakota. But I never took it even semi-seriously. I mean I didn’t read anything until…it’s a true story than when I wrote Deadwood [Dexter’s second novel], my brother Tom called me up and said, “You’ve now written a book longer than any book you’ve ever read.” And that was absolutely true. I stumbled into a newspaper office in Fort Lauderdale. I was 26 or 27 years old and in those days you could actually stumble into a newspaper office and get hired as a reporter. But I don’t have to tell you what it’s like now.

BB: Did you take to reporting pretty quickly or was it just another job?

PD: I hated it. They had me doing–I thought it was a joke actually at first–they came over the first day and gave me a list of seven or eight things and said, “These are your beats.” And I thought it was some kind of initiation rite. You know, juvenile court, the hospital district, poverty programs and tomatoes. There was agricultural products—tomatoes was a separate category. But there were literally seven or eight of them, none of which interested me even remotely. Hell, they gave me a county health thing and there was a doctor who ran the county health department. He was a nice guy and I’d call him up every Sunday night when I came in and ask him if he could stretch something into an epidemic. And he’d say, “Well, we’ve got four cases of measles…you could call that an epidemic.” So every Monday I’d have a story in the paper about a new epidemic. The bigger paper down there was the Fort Lauderdale News. It got the big guy there fired because I kept coming up with new epidemics and he couldn’t come up with any.


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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver