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Author Michael Leahy: The Last Innocents

Posted by daniel.venn on June 2, 2016 at 10:35 AM

Authors and Authorship Part 9: Journalist and author Michael Leahy's work has been chosen multiple times for inclusion in the annual The Best American Sports Writing anthology, a publication that features the top 25 sports stories in the nation each year.  As an author, his book When Nothing Else Matters (2004), an account of Michael Jordan's comeback seasons with the Washington Wizards, was named the 'best sports book of the year' by GQ Magazine. He talks about the writing and interviewing process and his new book The Last Innocents.

Q: In When Nothing Else Matters you say that "[t]ruth, or complete truth, is a deferred commodity in sports when it comes to idols." You’re speaking here about the relationship between writers and star athletes and about writers' reluctance to write critically about star players to maintain their relationship with them. You're known as a frank, 'tell it as it is' writer. How have you maintained such honesty in your writing throughout your career and how has it impacted your relationships in locker rooms?

I think it’s important for me to acknowledge at the outset that I haven't faced the same burdens as many journalists. I’m keenly aware that, over the years, one advantage I had (before I ever wrote When Nothing Else Matters) was that the nature of my newspaper and magazine work for The Washington Post (whether in sports or politics) enabled me to come into places for a finite period – a few months, a year, a couple of years at most – and then leave. I never confronted the worst stresses of highly capable beat writers, who, in sports, are typically tasked with reporting daily on the same team for many years and who, if they infuriate players or management officials, run the risk of forever losing those figures as sources and jeopardizing their own professional standing in the process. Long-term beat writers must always be cognizant of that risk; for jobs and plum positions can hinge on it.

The nature of my job as a long-form writer at the Post (whose stories ran once or twice a month) meant I was largely exempt from the beat writers’ headaches. And I knew I wouldn’t be covering anything forever. For instance, when I wrote about Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards during the 2001-2003 period, I understood that I wouldn’t be covering the team in 2004, which meant that I had little to lose if Jordan and/or the Wizards ever became perturbed over what I wrote. The realization freed me to ask what I thought should be asked; to write what I believed should be written. As a corollary, however, I think it helps to fiercely resist the notion that by cooperating with athletes and management you’ll get meaningful access. It never happens. If I had one piece of advice for a young journalist – whether you’re writing about sports or politics -- it would be to write each feature story or investigative piece like it might be your last. Hold nothing back. Among other things, you’ll send the signal that you can’t be seduced by suggestions of greater access. And, eventually, sources will quietly come to you.

Q: In your new book The Last Innocents, you chronicle seven Los Angeles Dodgers through the 1960s, drawing parallels between their experiences and the social and political climate of the era. How did you the players you chose represent the time period?

I wanted Dodgers who could open a window on what it was like to play in the 1960s. And I wanted a cross-section of players among the seven principal characters – different backgrounds, different sets of problems and challenges, different skill levels and temperaments. So I have, for starters, the immortal Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax (who is the sun around which all others revolve) and the electrifying captain, shortstop and base-stealer Maury Wills (who belongs in the Hall of Fame). Then I have the six-time Gold Glove first baseman Wes Parker (who had a horrific youth, though he grew up in a wealthy Brentwood family, and for whom baseball was his salvation), and the great National League batting champion Tommy Davis. Lou Johnson spent nearly all his 20s in the minor leagues, before being called up to the Dodgers in the wake of Davis’s season-ending broken ankle in 1965. And then we have the notable reserve catcher (and future major league manager), Jeff Torborg, and utility infielder Dick Tracewski. They were seven remarkable characters. I probably should let readers discover their stories in the book.

Q: What were the differences in researching The Last Innocents and When Nothing Else Matters?

Oh, the research process for the two books could hardly have been more different. In the wake of my first stories about Jordan for The Washington Post, some of Jordan’s people made clear that they hoped the book would never be written. The relationship was frequently contentious. By contrast, the Dodgers in The Last Innocents were enormously excited about the book. For instance, Maury Wills sat for more than 25 hours of interviews; Wes Parker made himself available for more than 40 hours. Most of the others similarly spoke for hours at a time. It was all a writer’s dream.

Q: When a writer sits down to write about our current era in the future, what players/stories do you think will best represent the last decade in America's history?

It’s a great question, Daniel. The short answer is I’m not sure about this era. With the Sixties, you could immediately say, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Sandy Koufax, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, Henry Aaron – it’s a long list, isn’t it? You could easily tack on to that list another 20 or 30 American athletes who stood for something socially important at that time, something that shaped people’s values and identity. And you had Billie Jean King, who helped launch a revolution that not only changed tennis but a society. This period we’re in – sadly, I think – is a far more corporate decade, more about the bottom economic and competitive line. I think we'll likely remember a lot of the big winners in the NBA, NFL and MLB as largely corporate symbols. Yet I do love it that, in this era, you can put loads of worthy women on to the list, including great soccer and tennis players: the Williams sisters, the various championship U.S. women’s soccer teams. There are loads of charismatic female athletes who have redefined all kinds of roles – I think they will be lasting symbols and role models. Actually, if anything, male athletes now have a lot of catching up to do in that department.

Q: You've interacted with many of the biggest names in sports and politics in your career. Many beginning writers struggle with the interview process. How do you prepare for an interview and what are the keys to a successful interview?

I obviously have to do some studying (it’s more intensive for some stories than others) and talk to people about a subject. That said, I really make a point not to over-prepare. I just want to have a conversation with a subject. Usually, I do nothing more beforehand than jot down some topics I want to cover on one sheet of paper and go from there. If an interview is going well, you’re responding to the answers of your subjects. They’ll say something that will spark an entirely new kind of question and train of thought. It’s no different than sitting around with a friend and hearing something from him or her that intrigues you – you’ll start asking about that new topic before you forget about it. Now and then, you look down at your list of topics and make sure you’re covering what you planned to talk about at the start. Rule one: get through all your topics. What else? I don’t like a subject feeling ambushed. Ease into things. Give people time to answer. Make them know you value their openness, that you respect them. If you approach it that way, things will be easier when you ask your tough questions during a half-hour or hour interview, which you will and must ask, though you don’t need to do it in the first five minutes.

Q: Your first book, Hard Lesson, came out in 1988. What have you learned about writing and about the book publishing process that you wish you'd have known when you began? What has changed about the literary market?

I wish I had fully understood then that the writer's work doesn't end when he writes and hones his book's last words. There is promotion to do. You want to embrace all that. You want people to read your books, after all. You want to take advantage of every opportunity to talk about your work (such things as interviews and readings and signings before audiences large and small, etc.). And you want to help other writers. The writing profession is not a zero-sum game. One writer's success is not another writer's loss. By helping to promote other writers you grow the community of readers. You help to reveal to an ever expanding audience all the exciting literature (non-fiction and fiction) that is out there.

Q: What are your hopes for The Last Innocents?

Well, for people to read it and like it, I guess. And it'd be nice if younger readers learn just how much baseball riveted the country during the Sixties. Beyond that, I hope the book sparks renewed discussion about the Sixties’ role – and the role of these Dodgers – in helping to wrought profound changes in baseball and society. And, finally, I hope – and this is a very personal wish – that the book helps to persuade a few more voters that Maury Wills ought to be elected to the Hall of Fame, that the honor is long overdue. If all that happens, we can drink a toast together at Wills’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

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