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Author Jeff Pearlman: Gunslinger

Posted by daniel.venn on May 4, 2016 at 10:50 AM

In Part 2 of an ongoing series on the challenges and succeses of authorship, longtime Sports Illustrated columnist and New York Times best-selling author Jeff Pearlman speaks to his writing process, the important of online marketing, what he's learned over the years, and advice for upcoming authors. Jeff has penned six sports novels including his most recent Showtime about the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty of the 1980s and Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton.  His next book, Gunslinger, will come out this fall.

Q: I once was told that an author should be able to sell their book in ten words—as most people stop listening if you talk longer. Sell me Showtime in ten words.

I disagree with that take, but the book is good.

Q: Fair enough, and ten words exact! Gunslinger comes out this fall. I’m a lifelong Vikings fan who grew up despising Brett Favre (and then was very confused for one glorious season in 2009). As someone who doesn’t like cheese simply because it reminds me of the Packers, why would I like the book?

Because the guy is fascinating. I mean, if you're someone who absolutely can't read about the Packers, or anything to do with the Packers, this might not work for you—because he played in Wisconsin forever. But Favre's rise alone is amazing. Played for a dad/high school coach who only allowed his kid to throw three or four times per game; totally unrecruited out of high school; was taken as the final recruit by Southern Miss because they figured he could always play safety or linebacker; starts showing off this nuclear arm in practice, and nobody even knows how to pronounce his name. Is supposed to be redshirted as a freshman, but the team is awful so coaches say, "Eh, let's put the kid with the big arm in." Eats up Tulane—story takes off.

Q: You’ve written thousands of articles in your career and six books (soon seven). What made the subjects of your books worth pursuing in so much depth?

I have three criterion. 1. It has to be a subject that hasn't been covered before in an amazing book. 2. It has to be something with at least a chance of selling (brother's gotta eat). 3. Has to be a subject that'll hold my interest. In other words, it can't just be a sports story—yards and scrambles and touchdowns. I want depth, drama, richness, thought, etc. Except for Roger Clemens, everyone I've written about has touched upon those in big ways.

Q: You’ve written many hard-hitting stories in your career. What work(s) are you most proud of? Why?

It's not about hard-hitting, truly. It's about touching people; making a human connection. I was at Sports Illustrated in 2001, for example, when 9.11 happened. I presumed the magazine wouldn't publish that week, and when I found out we were piecing together an issue I was pissed. But a job is a job, and the editors sent out a memo seeking 9.11-related story ideas. I lived in the city, not all that far from Ground Zero, and I had a couple of the flyers listing missing people. I Googled their names, one by one, until I reached Tyler Ugolyn. He was 23, worked on the 93rd floor of a building. It turned out he had been a basketball player at Columbia. Well, I got a home number and called—v-e-r-y nervous, v-e-r-y awkward. I spoke with Tyler's dad, Victor, who was initially hesitant, but ultimately opened up. I wrote that profile—and nearly 15 years later the Ugolyns are dear friends, and I know how much that piece means to them--and me.

You can read Jeff's story on Tyler Ugolyn here

Q: You’ve built a very strong following on Twitter (@jeffpearlman), through your articles, and through The Quaz—How important is social media and online connection to readers to an author’s success today?

Enormous, times 1,000. Is it always fun? No. Is it time consuming? Yes. But you have to be your own whore. Have. To. Plus, I like hearing what folks think, feel, believe. Look at my Quaz as the example. I'm a liberal Jewish New Yorker—and a ton of my Q&As have been arch-conservative, pro-life, etc ... etc. Why? Because I want to hear what they think, exchange perspectives. It's cool.

Q: Speaking of The Quaz—What’s that all about? Where’d the name come from?

Well, it stands for "quasi-famous," but I was goofing, and a lot of the people have been quite famous. And I started it because I was watching an old Wonder Years re-run with the kids and wondered aloud what happened to an actress who played Kevin Arnold's girlfriend. Found her, asked if she's go a Q&A. Not only are Wendy Hagen and I friends, she's the kickoff to a genuine passion project: The Quaz.

Q: It’s been a decade since your first book came out. How has your writing evolved in that time? What have you learned about the writing, publishing, and marketing process that you wish you’d have known ten years ago?

I think I'm a better reporter and much more of a digger. But it's interesting—I had this talk with ESPN's Pedro Gomez recently. What changes the most, with age, is confidence. When you're a young reporter you sorta tiptoe around people, ask questions softly, show tons of deference. But now I'm 20 years in, and if someone doesn't talk, well, he doesn't talk. I think that confidence actually helps, because people you're interviewing see you mean business, you're legitimate, you're here for a good reason. That's been immensely helpful, if my explanation makes sense.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Reporting trumps writing by 8,000,000,000 percent. Dig and dig and dig and dig and make the extra call and the extra call after that. There are m-a-n-y people out here who have more natural writing ability that I do. That's undeniable. But I always think, "Well, f*ck it, I'd better be the hardest working on the block." It makes up for deficiencies.


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