The guest editor for The Best American Sports Writing 2013 is the acclaimed journalist J.R. Moehringer. He's written a wonderful memoir, was co-author of a classic sports biography, and this year he published his first novel. I recently caught up with J.R. who was kind enough to spend a few moments chatting about BASW 2013.
Q. In your introduction you mentioned a few stories that were tough to leave out. I know this question may sound trite, but did you have a difficult time making your cuts or was it relatively clear to you which stories absolutely belonged?
A. No, it wasn’t always clear. I agonized over several that were borderline. In one case a writer was done in by his editor. If only the top few grafs, which were sluggish and repetitive, had been cut, the piece would have been a winner.
Q. Did you have a word count or a story count?
A. Glenn told me to keep it around 25 pieces, and I picked 26.
Q. Did you have any stories in mind that you wanted to consider or did you let Glenn handle all of all of the nominated material?
A. Glenn sent me the customary three-foot stack, his culling of the year’s best, and that took me about ten days to read. Afterwards I just had the feeling that there were a few pieces missing, pieces I’d encountered in my travels and remembered liking. I went back, reread them, and yes, they were as good as I remembered, so I put them in the final mix, and Glenn was totally OK with that.
Q. How closely did you work with Glenn once you made your selections? Was it at all important to you how the stories were sequences in the book?
A. Glenn chose the sequence all on his own. And I think he got it just right.
Q. Were you aware of looking for any kind of balance—-of sports or kinds of writing, columns, game recaps, features—-or were you simply reacting to which stories moved you the most? And, as a follow-up were there certain topics that you wanted to have represented?
A. At the outset I thought it would be nice to have a variety of sports represented, and a variety of sports writing genres, but in the end I opted against using variety as a guide. The year’s best should be just that, the best, period. It would be unfair to the writer, and the reader, to exclude a stellar piece simply because another piece dealt with a similar subject. That’s why you see some clusters, pieces that deal with similar subjects, like suspect marathoners, or athletes dying young. But they deal in such different ways, and I think it all flows.
Q. One thing that stands out is a nice representation of female voices. Was that a happy accident in your pursuit of your favorite stories or was it something more deliberate?
A. I’m proud of the balance, and it was my hope all along that there would be a balance, but of course it’s a happy accident, because Glenn redacted the names of all the writers. I never knew if the piece I was reading was written by a man or a woman.
Q. One thing I've noticed in the BASW collections through the years is that you see fewer and fewer columns, never mind game stories. Do you think the quality of column writing has changed? I know the demands have—-you don't have guys writing for PM papers, writers who were afforded those precious extra hours to craft something—-for lack of a better word—-more writerly.
A. True, there aren’t as many great columnists these days. There aren’t any Jimmy Cannons or Red Smiths, that I know of. But I’m not sure what the reasons are. Maybe it’s that more sports writers who want to make a name, take a big swing, are gravitating to longform?
Q. That said, I was happy to see Jeff MacGregor's piece. Even though he's writing at ESPN I sometimes feel that he's under-the-radar and he crafts some beautiful, thoughtful pieces, doesn't he?
A. You could argue that his piece is the most ingenious in the book. Waiting For Goodell? Fantastic idea. How did no one think of that before?
Q. I was pleased to see the David Simon story in there not because he's a famous writer but because the story is funny. It seems as if there is so much cheap cleverness in writing today but rarely stuff that is really funny. Why did the Simon story grab you?
A. It has such a strong voice, such a clear point of view, and a raw anger that’s very funny. Being angry and funny at the same time isn’t easy, but Simon pulls it off. I also highly recommend Jonathan Segura’s strange homage to his dead pal—-it’s funny, it’s fresh, and it’s gloriously profane. And Bill Littlefield’s piece about a Pittsburgh boxing gym made me laugh out loud several times. Littlefield—-recognizing that he’s come upon a gift, a classic boxing character who’s also a quote machine—-has the good sense to stand back, let it all happen.
Q. Did you select all of the stories based on their writing quality or are there examples, not to disparage the prose, where the reporting is what stood out?
A. I think I say in the introduction that I picked some more for their reporting. Like the Kent Babb expose’ of the chaos inside Scott Pioloi’s Kansas City Chiefs. And the Jason Schwartz autopsy of Curt Schilling’s bankrupt video company. Not that the writing isn’t strong in both pieces, but the reporting is what distinguishes them.
Q. You've written a lot of profiles and you have tried different approaches. As a reader, are there any kinds of writing styles that appeal to you more than others? Are you drawn to a traditional W.C. Heinz-Gay Talese approach or to something more expansive like Gary Smith?
A. I might put Smith and Talese in the same category. Each guy immerses himself in his subject, right? As for different styles, I like everything. I like a classical approach, a straightforward narrative, but I also like a piece that takes chances, experiments. More often than not, if the structure or voice of a piece is unorthodox, I’m in. Even if doesn’t quite work, I applaud the effort.
Q. I love your choice to begin the book, and by a writer who doesn't write about sports. You touch on the power of the story in your introduction but can you share with us why this story knocked you out?
A. It’s a profile of a horribly wounded bullfighter, and it’s one of the finest pieces of sports writing I’ve ever read. I love Hemingway, I love Picasso, so the subject of bullfighting is already fascinating to me. But this particular bullfighter is uncommonly compelling, both tragic and inspiring. And Karen Russell’s reporting, what she gets out of the bullfighter, how she observes him and interprets him, is incredible. And finally her sentences are gorgeous. The piece was also edited by a wonderful guy at GQ, Brendan Vaughan, with whom I’ve been fortunate to work several times.
Q. I also liked what you wrote in the introduction about how important it is for writers—in this case, journalists—to read fiction. For me, that extends to looking at art, listening to music, watching plays and movies. What is it about fiction that you think is so critical for writers, even non-fiction writers, to keep in touch with?
A. I wasn’t just talking about writers, I was also talking about fans. Fiction puts you inside another person’s mind, and therefore fiction sharpens your sense of empathy, and empathy—besides making you a better person all around—enriches the experience of sports. By which I mean watching sports, reading about sports, writing about sports, whatever. Put it another way: fiction helps you understand the point of view of the hero and the goat, at the same moment, which makes the games more interesting and exciting.
Q. And did you feel the same way before you wrote your first novel?
A. I’ve always loved novels. Now that I’ve written one, I love them that much more, because I have a greater appreciation for how hard they are to write.
[Photo Credit: Jared McMillen]