Sports writing isn’t just box scores and league standings. Jeff Pearlman knows the story behind the numbers is what makes things interesting. He’s a New York Times best-selling author of seven books and is a regular contributor to a variety of publications, including Bleacher Report, CNN.com and Sports Illustrated.
Last week, my son Austin wrote a guest blog post for Book Club Mom — a review of Pearlman’s latest book, Gunslinger (view here), which is a biography on famous NFL quarterback Brett Favre. Austin connected with Jeff on Twitter, then Jeff connected with me, and a couple days later, he graciously accepted our interview request.
Knowing Austin would ask the best questions, I turned the interview over to him.
When and why did you first get interested in writing about sports?
So I started writing about sports when I was a junior at Mahopac High School in Putnam County, N.Y. We had a monthly student newspaper, The Chieftain, and I was really excited to try this journalism thing. My first-ever byline was atop a story about the boys and girls cross country teams. And seeing my name in print was an enormous thrill. I was hooked. The next year I was the sports editor, and then I went to the University of Delaware and joined The Review, the college paper. I’ve been all in ever since.
How early into the process for Gunslinger did you realize that Brett Favre wouldn’t speak for the book? How, if at all, do you think the book would’ve been different if he did decide to talk?
Well, I kept hoping and hoping and hoping. I had a bunch of interviews with him arranged, then they’d inevitably fall through. With about seven months until deadline I realized it was never going to happen. Such is life. How is the book different? In good ways and bad ways. Good—it’d have been more inclusive, and it’s certainly easier to grasp someone’s thoughts when he directly explains them. Bad—involvement usually involves some concessions. “I’ll talk, but …” And that’s usually bad for the honesty of a biography.
You interviewed hundreds of people for this book — did you have a favorite interview? If so, why?
Well, Brett’s mother, Bonita, was amazing, and she’s someone I now consider something of a friend. She was honest, clear, smart, unsparing. People have asked many times, “Wait, why did Brett’s mother talk to you when Brett didn’t?” And the answer, plainly, is that I showed up and asked. She’s a very blunt person, and if you ask a question, you almost always get an answer.
Fans regularly wrestle with whether to forgive athletes for crimes/immoralities, especially if they play for their favorite team. Is there anything Favre could’ve done that would’ve lost respect from the fans, or did the city of Green Bay essentially not care what he did off the field?
Well, not much. If he’d raped someone, killed someone—crimes of those level, sure. Armed robbery might have been a tough image recovery. Robbing an orphanage. Stabbing Santa. But, overall, they’re a forgiving people of their icons. It’s what you do on the field that matters most in Green Bay.
In your writing career, have you ever found it difficult to write negative things about people?
I hate it, almost every single time. I don’t enjoy writing about substance abuse problems, about out-of-wedlock children, about infidelity, etc. That’s no fun for me. But in this business, we have a shitty choice to make. We can write true biographies, and that means unvarnished explorations of the lives of famous and historic figures. Or we can push out feel-good puff pieces. Well, I hate puff.
But here’s the thing: Walter Payton had an out-of-wedlock son. He lived a few miles away, but refused to have anything to do with him. I learned that while reporting “Sweetness,” and it made me want to vomit. I don’t like diminishing icons. I don’t like stuff like that. But how do you write Payton’s life story and leave out something so important? You can’t.
What’s it like now writing about the USFL for your next book, especially coinciding with Donald Trump being President of the United States?
Well, I feel like I have a very detailed understanding of Trump and the way he operates. I’m also sick of hearing about him. He was on my mind (for the USFL) long before the election, and now he won’t go away. Every … day … it’s … something … awful. So while I love the USFL and loved this project, I would take zero sales in exchange for his banishment to the outer moons of Saturn.
Thank you Jeff Pearlman for taking time out of your writing schedule for this interview!
For more information about Jeff and his best-selling books, visit jeffpearlman.com.
You can learn more about Austin Vitelli at austinvitelli.com.
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