It took place, oh, two decades ago, when we were both young and up and coming and doing the whole New York City thing. And while we only went out once or twice, it was the rare go-nowhere romance that transformed into a genuine friendship.
All these years later, Kim remains one of my all-time favorites, as well as a go-to person when it comes to the literary world. Having spent much of her career as an editor at Berkley Publishing, 13 years ago she switched the representation, and now works as an agent at BookEnds, where she specializes in women’s fiction, mystery, young adult and romance. Kim’s titles include, well, hey, take a look …
Kim Lionetti, here’s something to read—the 310th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:So Kim, you’re a literary agent. And all we hear about is the decline of print—newspapers dying, magazines dying, etc … etc. Yet books … it seems sorta, eh, not as bad. I dunno, I can’t tell. So tell me—where are we?
KIM LIONETTI: Well, there’s certainly been a gigantic shift in the industry over the last 15 years, with the rise of ebooks and Amazon. Print numbers are down quite drastically since I first started out in the business over 20 years ago and only some of that has been replaced with ebook sales. With that said, I’m confident the readers are still there and always will be. I’ve already sold more books in the first five months of 2017 than I have in any previous year, so clearly book publishing is alive and strong.
I think it’s still an industry in transition. Publishing companies are continuing to consolidate and find ways to operate as leanly as possible. While some authors are doing well with self-publishing, most are finding it difficult to attract readership in a very crowded marketplace, and are finding traditional publication with the big houses more attractive again.
Another encouraging sign to me is the health of the young adult market which decidedly favors print books over digital. Hopefully the voracity of their readership will translate to other markets as they grow older.
J.P.:When we first met you were an editor working on, I believe western-themed romance novels. I’ll write that again, because it’s super fun: western-themed romance novels. Please explain what that was, how it happened, what it was like.
K.L.: Oh Jeff, I can see I need to school you a bit here. I think you’re referring to the adult westerns I was working on, which are very different from western-themed romance novels, as a matter of fact. The adult westerns, some of them first started by Playboy and with series titles like LONGARM and SLOCUM, were books about lawmen of the Old West catching bad guys and bedding damsels and harlots alike. They were squarely written to a male audience. Western-themed romance novels are written primarily for women. Key difference in content is the length of the love scenes. Adult westerns were much more wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am.
J.P.:I imagine you received a gazillion manuscripts a year. So how does this process work? Is it even worth it for an unknown writer to send you, cold, his/her book? What happens to the drafts when you get them? Do you have an assistant go through them? A dog? No one?
K.L.: As a matter of fact, BookEnds doesn’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. Writers query us first, meaning they email us (actually we have a form now through our website) with a description of their book, and then we let them know if we’re interested in taking a look. These days I receive about 200 queries a month, but we have seven agents on staff now, and receive at least 1,500 queries a month combined.
We’ve had interns read for us at times, but for the most part we read them all ourselves.
J.P.:How can you tell when a book is good? Like, do you have to read the whole thing? Half? Are you ever intrigued by a writer while not actually liking the book? Or vice versa?
K.L.: Sometimes I read a page and know it’s not going to work. Other times I have to read the whole book before I can make a decision. It varies widely.
I primarily represent fiction, so mostly I just want to be engaged by the voice, the characters, and the story. If all of that falls into place, then I’m going to offer representation.
There have been plenty of times that I’ve liked the writing, but the story just didn’t grab me. In those cases, I’ll offer revision suggestions and ask them to resubmit, or just ask them to be sure and contact me with their next book if they still find themselves looking for an agent.
With her client, the author C.C. Hunter.
J.P.:You have a son with autism, and on the Book Ends website your bio includes, “Kim is dedicated to representing the stories and voices of individuals with special needs and their families.” But what does that actually mean? And how, exactly, does having an Autistic son impact who you are? How you go about life?
K.L.: There’s a significant movement in book publishing right now to represent diversity and #ownvoices, particularly in young adult books. Along with representing people of every race, religion, sexuality, and gender identity, it’s important to me that individuals with disabilities are represented as well. Not just a developmental disability, like Nicky’s, but any special need. The more voices we see from these perspectives, the better the rest of the world will be able to understand and relate.
I think the most significant way Nicky’s autism has affected me, personally, is it’s made me see what’s important in life. I used to care much more about what other people think and I’d get hung up on trivialities. It’s important to me that Nicky’s proud of the person he is. So from the start I’ve never let any of us shy away from the “label.” I’m super open about being an autism mom and sharing my experiences. The more all of us talk about it, the less “other” it becomes. In fact, my 8-year-old daughter just spoke to her third grade class about her brother for Autism Awareness Day.
J.P.:I’m not asking for names, but what’s it like dealing with really difficult writers? Do you find yourself soothing egos? Managing expectations? And, again, without names (unless you choose to volunteer), what’s your personal story of dealing with a diva/divo?
K.L.: Managing expectations is definitely part of my job. Overall, I’ve been lucky with the clients I work with, but to be honest, that’s part of the reason I decided to become an agent. So that I’d have the power to choose who I wanted to work with.
My worst experience with an author was when I was still working as an editor. One of the more successful books I worked on was written by a misogynist pig. He was horribly condescending and made his publicist cry at one point. It came time to decide if we’d buy more books from him. I told my publisher I thought life was too short to keep dealing with a guy like this. And while she agreed he was despicable, she said I had to offer on his next book. I get it. It was just good business sense. But at that moment, agenting became much more attractive to me, because at least then I’d be directly compensated (in the form of commission) for the success of jerks like him and ultimately I’d have the power to say goodbye if I didn’t want to deal with him anymore.
J.P.:How does working in the field impact your reading habits? Are you as passionate as books as ever? Do you just wanna kick back and watch the Real Housewives?
K.L.: Obviously, I went into this industry because I love to read. Sometimes, my aging eyes need a break and I catch up on Netflix, but I try to read “non-work” books as much as possible, for fun and also to keep abreast of the competition. I find that when I read a really great book for pleasure, it reinvigorates me and makes me hungry to go out and find more clients with books that excite me.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
K.L.: I’m not sure I have one greatest moment. It’s certainly a high point when a client hits the New York Times’ bestseller list, but I get just as excited when I get to call a new author with their very first offer of publication. I love my job.
The lowest was probably when I dealt with that aforementioned writer at my old job.
J.P.:You’re not gonna like this, but there have been times when I’ve gone through a hard edit with someone who doesn’t work as a writer and I think to myself, “What the fuck do you know?” So Kim—what the fuck do you know?
K.L.: I’m not a expert writer, but I’m an expert reader. I think the biggest trap writers can fall into is writing only for themselves. If you’re looking for commercial success, you have to remember to write for an audience. So, I’ll tell you what I know. I know what I want to read. I know what readers want to read. And I also know what editors want to read. That’s what makes me a good agent.
• One question you would ask Gheorghe Mureșan were he here right now?: How’s the weather up there?
• Five all-time favorite non-fiction books: I pretty much never read nonfiction. So feel free to insert Jeff Pearlman titles here. 😉
• Five all-time favorite fiction books: These change by the week, but excluding my clients’ work: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges; Election by Tom Perrotta; A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; Big Little Lies by Lianne Moriarty
• Three memories from your senior prom: Voluminous blue metallic dress; Voluminous Aqua Net hair; Gay best friend as date
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I heard the first plane flying overhead the morning of 9/11 on my walk to work, which was 20 blocks up from the World Trade Center, and watched the first tower fall from our office window. So, ever since then I’m much more of a nervous flier. Mostly when I get scared, I think of my children and how they need me, especially Nicky.
• Celine Dion calls. She has a literary project she wants you to represent. It’s about her farts smelling like sardines and it’s called, “Celine: My Farts Smell Like Sardines.” You in?: Easy out. I don’t represent nonfiction.
• In exactly eight words, make a case for arm wrestling in winter: Cabin fever can make anything seem reasonably entertaining.
There aren’t many people I regularly quote, and there certainly aren’t many people I regularly quote twice. But, in the case of Leigh Montville, exceptions can be made.
If you’re from Boston, you probably know Leigh as the longtime Boston Globe columnist. If you’re a sports fan from the 1990s, you probably know Leigh as one of Sports Illustrated‘s all-time fantastic feature writers. And if you’re a reader of sports books, his biographies of (among others) Ted Williams and Babe Ruth are classics. Although we’re rarely in the same place at the same time, Leigh and I have crossed paths on multiple occasions, which leads to the two quotations …
First, when Leigh was promoting Ted Williams and I was promoting my book on the 1986 Mets, we appeared together on a television show. In the green room beforehand told him how uncomfortable the whole PR thing felt, and he said, “It’s a strange profession, right? We live in caves for two years, then we pop our heads out for two weeks to see the sunlight. Then we return to the cave.” That stuck with me.
Second, when Leigh was working on his Babe Ruth bio I asked, “Haven’t there been a lot of Babe Ruth books?” He said, without pause, “Sure, but there’s never been my Babe Ruth book.” God, I love that.
JEFF PEARLMAN:So you’ve written some of the biggest, best sports books of the past few decades, but the one that’s often fascinated me is perhaps your least-discussed: “Manute: The Center of Two Worlds.” I’m way late on this, but I’ve always wanted to know–why a book on Manute Bol? What was the process like? And, having written it, how did it hit you when he died?
LEIGH MONTVILLE: I never had written a book before Manute. I always wanted to write one, but never could settle on a subject. Tom Callahan, a columnist at the Washington Post and then Time magazine, once said “You know, you don’t open up a copy of ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and read ‘Also by Ernest Hemingway, ‘Charlie Hustle: The Pete Rose Story.’” That stuck with me. I didn’t want to do the obvious for a first book. I wanted a different sort of subject, something or someone unique. That turned out to be Manute.
I was working for Sports Illustrated and wrote a story on him when he played for the Philadelphia 76ers. The guy came from the jungle of South Sudan, never had even seen a basketball or backboard until he was 18 or 19. Four or five years later he was playing in the NBA. There was magic here. He was his own 7-foot-7 lottery ticket. People would do great things for him because they thought he had value on a basketball court. He could speak five languages, but couldn’t read or write any of them. He still had a 2.9 grade point average in his one year at the University of Bridgeport. Crazy stuff.
Simon and Schuster bought the proposal … for very short money. I didn’t care. This was the big idea at last. America would go crazy for Manute, the book, even more than for Manute, the man. This did not happen. In the end, with the expense of going to Khartoum and Cairo and other places, I might have made a penny for every hour I spent on the project. I also might have made minus a penny.
The culture change was unbelievable for Manute. He didn’t know how to hold a pencil when he came here, or how to drive a car or order a meal at a fast-food restaurant. Modern, industrialized life just hit him in a public flash. He could never hide, big as he was. The people in the Sudan thought he was a billionaire and always wanted money and time from him. Underneath the story of this journey, I felt there was more than a touch of sadness. When he died so young, I wondered if he would have been better off left in his village, just an incredibly tall guy in the jungle. I still wonder.
J.P.:There is no shortage of Muhammad Ali books out there. So why a Muhammad Ali book? And how did you come up with the idea?
L.M.: Fast forward 20-something years after ‘Manute’ and I still was looking for that different sort of subject. The funny thing is that my biggest successes have been books about the obvious, my versions of ‘Charlie Hustle.’ I’ve written about iconic characters like Dale Earnhardt, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Evel Knievel. I still was looking for that weird book, maybe not ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ but maybe something that might resemble ‘Seabiscuit.’ Who wouldn’t want to write ‘Seabiscuit?’ A different sports story.
I proposed a book about Will McDonough, the late sportswriter/ broadcaster from Boston. I worked with him, knew him, thought he had a great backstory filled with gangsters and feuds and all kinds of stuff. The response was tepid. My editor at Random House told me to write a 25-page outline, which I did. In his quick rejection, he said that nobody around the country would be interested in a sportswriter from Boston, etc., etc. Other publishers felt the same way. My editor said I should find another iconic athlete who everybody knew. The anti-Seabiscuit approach.
I made a list of iconic athletes. Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Wilt Chamberlain, Bobby Orr, etc. They all had been subjects of biographies in recent years. I rejected one after another, done and done and done. There had to be someone else … and then Muhammad Ali popped into my mind. This was the most iconic athlete of all time. How had I forgotten him? Muhammad Ali.
David Remnick’s book, ‘King of the World,’ was terrific, but I remembered that it stopped after Ali won the title over Sonny Liston and proclaimed himself a member of the Nation of Islam. What if I picked up the story from there, Ali’s refusal to step forward for the draft, his time banned from boxing, his return to fight Joe Frazier and his acquittal by the Supreme Court in the end? The story just jumped at me. Muhammad Ali vs. the United States of America. There was drama, passion, Vietnam, religion, race relations, the Sixities, boxing, a jumble of stuff inside that package.
My editor heard the proposed title, told me to write two paragraphs (as opposed to 25 pages) and we had a deal the next day. In a bunch of ways the subject was perfect. I’m only 18 months younger than Ali, so I dealt with the draft and Vietnam when he did, got married when he did, lived through the same headlines he did. I also covered five of his fights later in his career, so I had a small history with a bunch of the characters involved in his story. There was an easy familiarity with the subject matter from the start.
This is a slice of time book, not a biography. It is a commentary on how we lived during the sixties as much as what happened in Ali’s life. The issues around him then resonate in our country today, probably louder than ever when you look at Black Lives Matter and the Muslim bans and the military adventurism and the right-leaning government in Washington. Would the Muhammad Ali of 1966 have trouble in 2017? Ali was Colin Kapernick expanded by a multiple of ten. Did Colin Kapernick have trouble?
From the May 11, 1965 Hartford Courant.
J.P.:So I know you’re from New Haven, know you live in Massachusetts. But how did this happen for you? When did you know, “I want to write”? When did you know, “I can write”?
L.M.: I was in fifth grade, Dwight School, New Haven, Ct. Our teacher was Marie Esposito, “Miss Esposito.” She returned our book reports one day, student by student, but didn’t return mine. She told me to see her at the end of class. I was terrified, thought I had done something wrong. Instead, she praised me, said I had written a terrific paper and should think about becoming a writer when I grew up. She said this a number of times.
“You definitely could be a writer,” Miss Esposito said. Fifth grade.
“Really,” I said. Fifth grade.
She’s the only teacher who ever praised me like that during my entire school experience, including four years of college. I was foolish enough to believe her. I folded up her words and kept them in my pocket and whenever people asked what I was going to be, I said “a writer.” It’s a testament to the power of one compliment from one teacher, no matter when in life it is delivered. I signed up for the Connecticut Daily Campus on my first week at the University of Connecticut and went from there. It was an eight-page daily newspaper, a lot of space to fill, and I was the editor in chief in my senior year.
Writing is an insecure business. I don’t know if you ever fully say “I can write.” You don’t have to look far to find something that someone else wrote that makes you feel like you’re lost in the grammatical woods. I obviously think I can tell a story in a serviceable and somewhat appealing way because that is what has fed and clothed me for 50 years and sent a couple of kids through college, but there is always the thought that you could do much better. It’s part of the job.
A columnist at the Boston Globe once said, ‘I’m not a writer, John Cheever is a writer.’ I sort of feel that way,
J.P.:As you certainly know by now, another excellent writer/reporter, Jonathan Eig, has an Ali biography coming out later in the year. And, having experienced this sort of thing myself, I wonder how that makes you feel? Do competitive juices kick in? Are you at all nervous he has stuff from 1966-71 that you don’t? Do you want his book to do well? Do you sorta want his book to do well? Does it matter to you either way?
L.M.: I know Jonathan a bit. We were on a panel together because I had written the book about Babe Ruth and he had written a book about Lou Gehrig. We became friendly, talked on the phone, emailed, went out to dinner. He knew I was writing this book about Ali and called me one night and said he had a possible deal to do a full-scale Ali biography. He wondered if he should do it. I told him, finding myself down some semi-blind alleys at the time, which was well before Ali’s death, that it was a tough proposition because there were a million older Ali books in the marketplace and a lot of primary sources had died and the ones who were alive mostly said the same old things and people often wanted money and blah-blah-blah. He thanked me and said he was going to think it over. The very next day—in the morning of the very next day—my editor called and said he had received a press release that Jonathan had signed to do the book. So I guess I wasn’t very convincing.
I wish him good luck. He’s a fine writer, fine researcher. I’m sure he has come up with some different stories, opinions, whatever, from within my time frame. Ali is a guy who can be approached from assorted directions. His death, well after I talked to Jonathan, opened up a bunch of sources and made new books more compelling. I think ten more writers could write ten more books and each would come up with different material or different presentations. How many books are there about Lincoln and Washington and, hell, Frank Sinatra and Elvis? Good luck to everybody. It’s a jungle in the book world. The best thing is that these two books aren’t coming out at the same time. That would cloud the waters for both of us. I’m here in May and he is in October.
Good luck to Jonathan. Good luck to me.
With daughter Robin at Fenway for their annual Opening Day adventure.
J.P.:You and I overlapped for a couple of years at Sports Illustrated, and I’m guessing we’d agree the magazine isn’t what it once was. I wonder: A. How does the decline of print make you feel? B. How does the decline of SI’s influence make you feel? C. Do you still read it?
L.M.: The decline of print, of course, is stupefying for anyone who has made a living in the print world for a long time. Maybe, if we can bring back coal by changes in legislation, we can do that for print, too. (That’s a joke.) Everything changed so quickly. There was a time when it looked like computers were going to make newspapers and magazines incredibly efficient and then, whoof, computers made them almost obsolete. It seemed to happen overnight.
SI always was a standard for excellence, the golden place where a sportswriter wanted to be. It was an honor to be there, to be part of a great tradition. The magazine has just gotten thinner and thinner as ads have disappeared. There are still some great stories and some great writers, but it takes about a third of the time to read it now than it did when you and I were there. My subscription lapsed about a year ago and I am going to re-up one of these days. I’m embarrassed that I haven’t already done it.
There is a ray of hope. My 11-year-old grandson loves Sports Illustrated. He races to the mailbox every Thursday after school, takes the magazine and disappears into his bedroom. He did this in January when the swimsuit issue arrived. My daughter left him alone for a while, then knocked on his door.
“What is this?” my grandson asked. “Why are there are all these women in bathing suits?”
“It’s the swimsuit issue,” my daughter said. “They do it every year.”
“Well, it’s awful. I don’t understand.”
“What don’t you understand?”
“There’s no sports and it’s supposed to be Sports Illustrated!”
I love that.
J.P.:Your Ted Williams biography is one of my all-time favorites. So how do you go about reporting a straight birth-to-death biography? Are there certain steps you always take? Do you feel like you know what the narrative will be going in?
L.M.: Ted Williams is not a straight birth-to-death biography. I always say that outside of the Bible, this is the only biography where the subject dies and you are not sure what happens next. Cryogenics. A fine plot device.
Sports biographies are a bit different from most famous-man biographies. There usually are no letters from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, not a lot of correspondence. Athletes don’t do that much. There usually are, however, reams of stories about these characters in newspapers, magazines and book after previous book. The beauty of modern research is that a writer can sit at his computer and find material that other writers never have found by climbing through the stacks in faraway libraries. You don’t have to go to Atlanta any more to search the morgue at the Atlanta Journal. We are in a golden age of research.
When I wrote Ted Williams I called up Peter Guralnick, who wrote those two bios of Elvis and a bunch of other wonderful books about music. I didn’t know him, but he lives near Boston. I asked for a tip and he graciously told me he uses index cards as a basic tool. He collects material and writes the information on the cards and then can move them around to different places in the narrative.
I tried this, but I wasn’t organized enough. I mostly collect material in piles and on the computer, trying to keep everything chronological. I think you have a general idea of where you’re going in the story when you start, but would love to find some side streets or alternate routes along the way, places where nobody else has been.
The book on Ted was a combination of interviews and published material. I think that’s the best way to operate. The book on the Babe, most of his contemporaries long gone, was more academic-style research. This, to me, was not as satisfying. The other books have been a mixture. Ali is a mixture. I did find some important court transcripts that never had been published, plus some great recorded interviews of Ali and everyone around him in 1966. Plus I had some in-person interviews, especially with his ex wife, Khaliah, that went down those side streets and alternate routes.
At the start of every book, I tell myself that I am going to find a non-chronological way to tell the story. I always fall back into the same birth-to-death slog. I think it’s the basic form of the exercise, the iambic pentameter of biographies, almost impossible to break.
I heard some biographer on television say that “you never think you have enough material, but you usually do.” That is a dead-solid truth. You drive yourself batty because you always think there is one more phone call you have to make. Robert Caro, the Lyndon Johnson biographer, the Robert Moses biographer, has set that bar so high with his research he has left the rest of us with dizzy feelings of inferiority.
As a private in the PR corps of the Massachusetts National Guard.
J.P.:You turn 74 this year. I’m obsessed with aging, and not in a good way. I wonder—74 … how does that feel to you? Sound to you? Do you at all find it harder to relate with modern athletes than when you were in your 20s, 30s? And, as a whole, how does aging make you feel? Is it something you fret about?
L.M.: I love the David Bowie quote that “Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.” I think it’s absolutely true. The bullshit is gone. You really don’t have to prove anything to anyone any more. Including yourself.
I used to worry the way you worry now. It’s different when you get here. That’s all I can say. It’s not a big deal. If you have a semblance of health—and I do so far, knock-knock—you’re all right. You live the day more than plan for the future. You can pursue what you want at your own pace. I always say it’s like extra time in soccer before they put the number of minutes left on the scoreboard. The referee has the clock and we don’t know how long the game is going to last. I’m the same age as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Maybe the ref has lost his whistle.
Not working any more in the day-to-day crush with modern athletes, it really doesn’t matter if I relate. Overall, I think all of us are tied to our time frame in relating to athletes. When our music is no longer their music, we’re in a different situation. Do you know what I mean? There’s a time when you’re the same age as the athletes, then the same age as the managers and coaches, then the same age as the owners and the Hall of Famers. It’s the same scene, but different perspectives.
I have a picture of 11 guys from the old neighborhood in New Haven on the door to my office. It’s from a reunion maybe 20 years ago. I see it every day. We called ourselves ‘The Garden Street Athletic Club.’ Six of the 11 guys have passed. It’s a startling statistic, but somehow I’m not startled. I just say hello to everyone in the picture and everyone says hello back to me. Living and dead. That’s the way it is.
J.P.:Every writer has a money story—something that happened to them on the job that makes an all-time fantastic around-the-table tale. What’s yours, Leigh?
L.M.: It’s an Ali story. Not in the book. Later in his career. The first fight of his that I covered was when he met Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder, in Cleveland. I rented a car for the couple of days I was there because the arena actually was in Richfield, which is well outside Cleveland. I was new and didn’t know the promoters provided a media bus.
The day before the fight, I went out to the arena for the weigh-in. I wrote down all the public words, the promotional hoopla, same as everyone else. But when the rest of the writers and broadcasters went back to the hotel on the bus, I stayed around. I went to Ali’s dressing room hoping I might find some other angle than everyone else had.
I slipped through the door. Nobody seemed to notice. Ali was stretched out on a training table, still in his boxing trunks. He was scrunched up a little so his head was propped against a wall. There were only six or seven people in the room. I was the only one with red hair and freckles. I recognized James Brown and Billy Eckstine, the singers, and I also recognized Redd Foxx, the comedian. Redd was telling dirty jokes. They were the best dirty jokes I ever heard, fabulous, hilarious, filthy dirty jokes. Everyone had tears in his eyes from laughing so hard.
“Tell another one,” Ali would command from his position on the table.
Redd would tell another one. More tears. Bigger tears.
“Tell another one,” Ali would say again and again and again.
I had a feeling like we were all captured in time. Maybe James Brown or Billy Eckstine would sing. Maybe Ali would get up and demonstrate the Shuffle. Maybe the jokes would go on forever. The thought, the moment, took my breath away. When the moment ended—James and Billy did not sing, Ali did not do the Shuffle – I slipped from the room and went to Wepner’s dressing room. He was alone with his wife. We had a nice chat.
J.P.:You co-authored a book with Jim Calhoun. Co-authoring sounds sorta thankless and awful. Is it? What was that like? And how was it working with a notoriously, um, grumpy man?
L.M.: I didn’t know if I was going to write another book after Manute was such a financial flop. My agent, Esther Newberg, called me about doing a book with Calhoun. He had asked about me because we knew each other a bit and I was a UConn guy and a Boston guy and it all fit. I was interested mostly because the school had just won the NCAA championship for the first time, a moment that I still find as the most implausible athletic result of my lifetime. As a UConn graduate, I never, never, absolutely never, had believed this was possible.
Calhoun was OK. He fills the room, for sure, but that’s what these successful guys do. After a bump or two, we got along fine. I liked being on the inside, getting the real lowdown on what took place. That was a lot of fun. The un-fun part probably was when the book came out and the “as told to” helper sort of fell to the wayside. I knew that was going to happen, but it still felt weird. Maybe I have some fill-the-room tendencies myself.
The best part was that the book put me together with Doubleday at Random House. My editor suggested we do another book and we picked Dale Earnhardt as a subject and we’ve been rolling along ever since.
J.P.:What’s the biggest screw-up of your career? What happened?
L.M: Of all the columns I’ve written the one I most regret was about women in sports media. It was in the Boston Globe, a long, long time ago, way back when Phyllis George was on NFL football on CBS. Remember that? The Seventies. Media outlets everywhere suddenly felt a need to add a woman to their sports presentations and their choices always seemed to be very good looking.
I felt that gender had replaced expertise. I thought a lot of good guys, friends of mine who knew a lot about sports, were being passed over so a woman could join the business as window dressing for equal rights. I wrote a column that said to cover sports you should have fielded a ground ball, taped up a hockey stick, tried to shoot a lay-up with your left hand. Stuff like that. You should know about Rocket Richard and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pee Wee Reese. There was a list of things. Collected baseball cards! Read ‘Sport’ magazine! Knew who was on first! I said that if a woman had done this stuff, knew this stuff, OK, she should be hired. If she hadn’t, didn’t, then she shouldn’t be hired. I implied that most women hadn’t, didn’t.
Well … I never received so many letters. They all were from women. They all were wonderful, poetic depictions of life-long love affairs with sport, trips to ballgames with dad, slights from coaches and peers, roadblocks in front of career paths. I never felt more embarrassed. More wrong.
I apologized in the paper. That was the end of my role as Mr. Sports Page Misogyny. I haven’t doubted anything about women in sport ever since.
• One question you would ask Cesar Cedeno were he here right now?: Did you ever hear that Bob Seger song about about wishing that he didn’t know now what he didn’t know then?
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I feel that way every time the plane lands hard and keeps rolling for a long time. Was in a plane in Houston that seemed to abort the landing about eight feet off the ground. The woman next to me filled up the little bag as we turned around to try again.
• The most important thing a kid needs to know when it comes to learning to write?: How to read. Learning how to write is like learning how play point guard, rhythm guitar or the lead role in the high school production of ‘The Music Man.’ You copy the way someone you like does the job. You find a writer you like to read and he will show you the way to write. Imitation is the way we all start to learn anything. We go from there.
• I’ve been told Starbucks puts a tiny bit of cocaine in its coffee. Any idea if there’s truth to the rumor?: Don’t drink coffee. Don’t go to Starbucks. Maybe I’m missing something.
• Coolest three pro sports uniform? Ugliest three?: Coolest – 1. Boston Red Sox 2. Boston Bruins 3. Boston Celtics. Ugliest – 1. New York Yankees 2. Montreal Canadiens 3. Los Angeles Lakers. (Hah.)
• Three memories from your first-ever date: 1. She asked me to a freshman dance at her school. 2. My dad drove us. 3. He waited in the car while we went for ice cream sundaes after the dance.
• Would an openly gay player struggle to be accepted in the modern Major League locker room?: There would be awkward moments, but I think it would be much easier, say, than the Jackie Robinson experience.
If the story of Ryan Stoodley doesn’t move you, your heart is ice.
I hate to be that blunt, but it’s true. Two years ago Ryan was a 21-year-old United States Marine. He was based out of Yuma, Arizona, and first made the decision to serve our country on Sept. 11, 2001, when—as a third grader—he watched the Twin Towers fall to the ground. That’s the kind of guy we’re talking about here.
Anyhow, on the morning of Jan. 21, 2015, Ryan woke up for PT (physical training) when something didn’t feel right. He was rushed to the Yuma Regional emergency room via ambulance with symptons of a stroke. Only, the actuality was far worse. A CT scan on his head uncovered a cloudy wedge, which was ultimately diagnosed as a brain tumor. What followed was, well, awfulness. As his wife Brenda wrote: “After taking several different pain killers to quell a muscle spasm, nothing seemed to help. It was determined he would need to stay longer. He woke up in the middle of the night, reached up to touch his head and came away with his hand drenched in blood. We turned the light on and nurses rushed in. His pillow was covered in blood and it wasn’t stopping. They rushed him to an emergency CT Scan which determined he had a Epidural Hematoma—a brain bleed.”
Future scans showed Ryan to have an Oligoastrocytoma, and he needed both chemotherapy and radiation. He also was forced to retire from the Marines after serving three years. It was a heartbreaking development for a young man who wanted to serve his nation.
As he dove into his fight against cancer, Ryan dove into a this-is-so-boring-I-need-to-do-something-or-else-I’ll-go-insane pastime—autograph collecting. He started by writing celebrities with requests, and before long word caught on. He now owns signs items from stars ranging from George Brett and Brett Favre to Anthony Robles and Candace Cameron Bure to Anthony Ervin and Jamie Moyer. He sends me regular updates, and the randomness alone is worth the price of admission.
Anyhow, although the tumor remains, the battler is strong. Ryan and Brenda live in Milton, Florida, where he’s living off his retirement pay. He Tweets regularly here.
Ryan Stoodley, you’re a great man. And, to my honor, Quaz No. 308 …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Ryan, I’m gonna start with the autographs. How did this begin? What was the impetus? How many have you received, and which were the most surprising? The coolest? And what do you do with them?
RYAN STOODLEY: My autograph collection started because of a desperation to do something. I went from working 14-to-16 hour days before I got sick to not working. So one day I decided I really needed to find something to do with my time before I went insane. Then the idea came to me: I can become a fill-time autograph collector. It truly is a way to have a smile even on the worst days.
I have received more than 150 autographed items thus far. It’s amazing. I think the coolest one—and the most surprising one—was definitely the 20-pound box I got from the Lakers that was 100-percent because of you [Jeff’s note: All props go to Jeanie Buss and Linda Rambis with the organization].
Some are framed, most are in a binder waiting to be framed. Eventually I’m hoping to have a whole room dedicated to my memorabilia.
J.P.:You are one of many Americans who decided to join the military following the Sept. 11 attacks. What, specifically, about that day caused you to follow a call for action? Why the Marines?
R.S.: It’s one of those things I really can’t describe. My dad is a retired Marine and my mom was in the Navy. Every summer I would ask my dad if I could go to work with him, and I think that started the idea in my head.
The second I saw the news of what had happened, I instantly decided that my life would be in the Marine Corps. It’s funny, because I was in the third grade. I couldn’t even pronounce Bin Laden’s name. But I got this pure anger come over me, and I actually haven’t had it since. That makes me know I made the right decision.
The decision on the Marine Corps was pretty easy, to be honest. My dad in a retired gunnery sergeant (E-7), so it was always my goal to make it further than he did.
Ryan and Branda Stoodley
J.P.: Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re a kid. Twenty three. And yet, you’ve faced some hardcore stuff. Stuff people your age (or, I suppose, any age) don’t deserve. In Jan. 2015 you found out you had a brain tumor. Again—you were just a kid. How was the news delivered to you? How did you digest it?
R.S.: So to make a very long story shorter—after a long day of tests and feeling miserable, this doctor walks into the room and kicks out anyone besides family. He then says, “You have a cloudy spot on your brain.” And without skipping a beat, because I knew it was bad but I wanted to keep the room in good spirits, I said, “That’s OK. That’s just excess knowledge. I’m smarter than you guys.” And then the doctor responded with, “That’s not funny. It’s either an infarct, a tumor or a stroke.”
I actually digested the news fine. I didn’t cry. But I think that might also be because of all the symptoms leading up to that moment; I mean, it made me know it wasn’t a cold.
J.P.:This might sound overly simplistic, but what is it like fighting cancer? Is it hard to stay up? Do you actually view it as a “fight,” per se? Or is it something different?
R.S.: This question is actually really hard to answer. Before I was diagnosed with cancer I think I was clueless as to how hard it really is to be diagnosed with a disease like this. I wake up every single day in an unimaginable pain that I can’t really explain. I have extremely vivid nightmares, as well as daily headaches.
So I think I have to say, yes, it is a fight. But I’ve never been in a fight that lasts almost two years and hits as hard as Mike Tyson, with the speed of Floyd Mayweather and the endurance of Micky Ward. I’m not sure if this answers your question, and I know it’s really corny to say, but I’ve really learned to live every day like it’s my last; to do things when they’re on my mind and not wait.
J.P.:How has everything you’ve experienced impacted your take on mortality? Are you a guy of faith? No faith? Do you fear death? Laugh at death?
R.S.: I’m not a guy of faith. I never really have been. Not that I have anything against it at all. I don’t fear death. I think I’ve grown to laugh at it. I feel like two years of walking on eggshells will make you stronger to weaker. I think it had actually made me stronger.
JP.:When you enlisted you were sent to Parris Island for boot camp. Many people hear the words “boot camp” but have no inkling what it’s like. Ryan, what’s it like?
R.S.: I will say what pretty much everyone says about boot camp—it’s the most fun you never want to do again. You meet a lot of good friends for life there, because they’re the only people who know the exact struggle you went through.
A typical day starts at 4 in the morning. You get up, they slay you for a bit while you’re cleaning the squad bay and making racks. Then you go to chow. After chow you typically go to some classes or practice drill for hours, or so some sort of physical activity. You’ll eat lunch around noon (the whole time you’re being screamed at), then after lunch you typically practice drill or knowledge until lights out. Sometimes it’ll be a special week, like the range where, and that’s when you go to the rifle range.
Needless to say, it’s a great time except for when it’s you getting screamed at.
J.P.:Your lovely wife started a gofundme page, but it’s actually beyond just “Help us because Ryan has cancer.” It’s “Help us because he might wind up sterile from all the treatment, and we want to afford the sperm bank.” And, to be clear, I consider it a very noble, righteous cause. But I also wonder how it made you feel? You clearly SHOULD NOT BE, but … were you at all embarrassed? It’s a personal sorta thing out out there. Was there debate? And what has the response been?
R.S.: The whole thing started because a social worker told us we needed to do something, and ASAP. This was right after my appointment. They made me go see the social worker because they knew what the possibilities were with the chemotherapy. The military paid for my other medical care, but for some reason this was not considered medical care. So, in all honesty, my wife and I really only thought about it for about two minutes.
The response was incredible. I think we got more than $1,000 toward it in less than three days. It was just insane. I guess you really do find out you your friends are when times are tough.
J.P.:We talked about this a little over DM, but I’m a bit confused about the military and politics. Specifically, this past election the military vote went for Donald Trump by a large percentage. He’s a guy who received multiple deferments, who mocked a POW and a Gold Star Family, who said he knows more than the generals. And yet, soldiers still backed him. I just don’t get it. But perhaps there’s something big I’m missing. Ryan, from your experiences, what don’t I see?
R.S.: Whenever someone wants to talk politics with me, I always start by saying that I’m a registered independent who leans both ways on a lot of things.
As for the reason I can see the military vote going for Donald Trump—it’s definitely about the e-mails, because I’ve known people to get kicked out of the Marine Corps and put in the brig for doing much less than that. But, like I said, I’m a registered independent and would have preferred to have two different candidates to pick from.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your life? Lowest?
R.S.: The greatest moment of my life isn’t even a close one—it was the day I married my best friend. The worst moment was when the Royals lost the World Series after getting so damn close for the first time in my life. I eve drove from Yuma, Arizona to San Francisco for Game 3. It was an amazing up and a huge down. But my life has been incredibly good for this to be my worst moment.
J.P.:Would you want your son or daughter to enlist in the military? Why or what not?
R.S.: This question might be the toughest one yet. Which is silly, because it really shouldn’t be. My dad always told me, “I did my time in the Corps so you don’t have to.” I have those same thoughts, but in a way I also had it taken away from me without my consent. And I absolutely love what I did.
So I know if my son or daughter is anything like me, and they had the chance, well, I think I would be the proudest father in the world.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH RYAN STOODLEY:
• It seems like your last name would lend itself to some messed-up childhood nicknames. What you got?: Toaster strudel, Stoodleberry.
• Ian Khama, the president of Botswana, calls and says, in the Setswana language, “Ryan, just thought it’d be cool to grab dinner.” He spears zero English and there’s be no translator. You in? And could it be an enjoyable and lovely experience?: Like I said earlier, I try and live for today and have fun all the time. I think 100-percent, I’m in. Could it be enjoyable? Probably not. But I could just laugh when he laughs and try and make it fun.
• How did you propose to your wife?: We had our first fight at a pier because she didn’t want to walk out onto it. I guess she was scared it would break. So on her birthday in 2012 I brought he back to that pier and said, “Let’s walk to the end.” But I stopped in the middle and wouldn’t go any further, I said, “Would you do it for this? Would you marry me?”
• One question you would ask O.J. Mayo were he here right now?: I would ask, “How can I help?” I’m someone who believes drug addiction is a disease. It’s truly sad he had let it go this far, but his expectations were to be the next LeBron James, and that can be incredibly tough.
• In exactly 17 words can you make a case for plastic bags?: I don’t think anyone can make a case for plastic bags.
If you’re a fan of digging and probing and reporting at its finest, you have to love ESPN’s Michael Rothstein.
In a strict sense, the veteran scribe covers the Detroit Lions, but that’s sort of like saying, oh, Rickey Henderson was once a speedy leadoff hitter. Rothstein’s work is all over the map. He does the deep dive. He does the injury update. His features are lovely, his profiles revealing. To be honest, he’s sort of buried on the Lions beat, in that non-Detroit NFL fans probably miss some of ESPN.com’s absolute best work.
Hence, his status as the 307th Quaz.
Today, Michael talks about surviving the recent ESPN carnage; about whether the Lions are better off without Calvin Johnson and how he approaches assignments in the hard-to-crack NFL. He once had a dog named Magic, he makes a pretty unconvincing case for Garry Templeton’s Hall of Fame candidacy and his Bar Mitzvah was sort of a mess.
One can follow Michael on Twitter here, and check out much of his work here. He’s one of the best in the business, and now he’s one of the best of the Quazes …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Michael, last week ESPN laid off a ton of reporters, and I’m wondering what this was like for you. Were you nervous? Did you know you were safe? And how did it make you feel?
MICHAEL ROTHSTEIN: Absolutely there were nerves and fear. How can there not be? It’s human nature because you don’t know what is going to happen. I feel incredibly grateful and fortunate to still have a job at ESPN. As far as that day, I’m not going to get too much into specifics. I will say throughout that entire day and still now, thought more about the people who were losing their jobs. So many people I know were part of the cuts – including my first beat partner at ESPN, Chantel Jennings, and one of the people who was instrumental in hiring me, Jeremy Crabtree. That’s not even going down the list of people I’ve worked with and have become acquaintances and friends over the years. They are all talented and, more importantly, good people.
J.P.:I usually don’t go overly conventional, but I’m gonna go overly conventional: You cover the Detroit Lions. Last year, after losing one of the Top 5 players in franchise history, they improved from 7-9 to 9-7. I don’t get it. Was Calvin Johnson’s loss at all an addition? Can that argument be made?
M.R.: Ha, this a very conventional question. Despite Detroit’s record this season, I wouldn’t say the Lions losing a generational talent like Calvin Johnson ended up as an addition. Anyone who says that is discounting how good Johnson was. The short answer is the argument can be made, sure, but it’s not one I agree with.
Johnson’s retirement did forced Matthew Stafford to read defenses and throw to the open guy. It might sound like a simple concept, but when Johnson was on the field, there were times where Stafford felt he could throw to Johnson even when he had double (or triple) coverage on him because it was still a favorable matchup. Along with a full offseason for the best name in sports, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, to put together an offense, Detroit changed what it did after Johnson retired. The Lions went with short passes instead of throwing deep because they had a game-breaker in Johnson. The Lions just didn’t have that type of player this year in their receiving corps. Marvin Jones has speed and hands but was too inconsistent. Golden Tate works best when you get him the ball off a short pass and allow him to miss. That’s been his game since I started covering him his freshman year at Notre Dame.
In the NFL, half the games teams play are tossups. Unless a team is New England, how a team fares in those six-to-eight games makes the difference between 10-6 or 9-7 and 6-10. In 2014 and 2016, the Lions won the majority of those games. In 2015, they didn’t and started off the year 1-7, costing the team’s old general manager and team president their jobs.
J.P.:I hate dealing with the NFL, because there are just so many overly protective, super guarded PR people limiting media access to the bare minimum. So … how do you tolerate it?
M.R.: It’s actually something I’ve never really thought about because of how I came up in the industry. Before covering the NFL, I covered colleges for about a decade. I spent four years covering Notre Dame under Charlie Weis—where access wasn’t terrible but wouldn’t be considered open—and four years covering Michigan football, where access was just poor. There were times covering Michigan where I would be going to a press availability not knowing who I would be talking to with no control who I would be interviewing. This sounds like whining, but it definitely hurts in preparation.
In my four years covering Michigan football, the school went from having reporters stake out the parking lot after games to try and interview players (seriously—I ended up chasing former defensive coordinator Greg Robinson across a parking lot for an interview once) to all podium after a game and having no say in players I’d be talking with. Whenever I get annoyed by something, access-wise, in the NFL, I think back to that.
In the NFL, you’re dealing with adults and other than a handful of players, pretty much everyone is at least somewhat accessible. I’ve always maintained—and I’m guessing you probably agree—that telling good stories often starts with the relationships you build.
When I was really young, maybe still in college, I read Dick Schaap’s autobiography “Flashing Before My Eyes.” I grew up watching and reading Schaap. He was someone I looked up to as a kid when I decided I wanted to get into this. In the book, he talked about how he tried to collect people. That thought stuck with me. It’s pretty much how I’ve approached my job ever since.
Collect people, learn about them and what makes them who they are and convince them to open up to you to tell their stories. Glover Quin, Travis Swanson and, after a lot of digging, Matthew Stafford did this year. None of that happens if there aren’t relationships built.
I went off on a tangent, but it’s the long answer for how I tolerate it.
J.P.:Without naming names (unless you want to), do you ever feel like you can see the mental impact of football’s brutality on players? What I mean is, do you ever notice a slurring or slowing of speech, a lessening of sharpness, etc? Even if it’s slight?
A former NFL player I’ve gotten to know a bit through the years was the one who really opened my eyes to how brutal this game is mentally. I had already known about some of the effects of concussions, but he had a stroke at age 32. It’s not clear if football is what caused it, but you don’t often hear of 32-year olds suffering strokes. Or at least I haven’t.
I’ve definitely had players tell me they forget things and that they wonder if their days playing football are among the reasons why. I’ve had other players ignore the potential ramifications of what they do—and that’s something that just doesn’t compute with me.
Other than Levy, one of the players that was the most open about brain injuries and football was Rashean Mathis. I talked with him for about an hour about it early in the 2015 season. Among the things he told me was he would do everything he could to steer his son away from playing football—and that he thinks the league and the players need to do a better job of understanding the risks and educating parents of future players. That season, he suffered a concussion. It wasn’t diagnosed for over a week. He eventually landed on injured reserve because of it—and having already played a decade in the league, retired after the season.
When I was a kid I really wanted to play football. But my parents—my mom, specifically—forbade it. Pre-teen and teenage me was angry. Adult me understands why she chose to make that decision. NFL players saying similar things made me realize, all these years later, that my body is thankful for that decision. I played sandlot football with friends and other sports (poorly) instead.
J.P.:Along those lines—you’ve seen what this sport does to people. I mean, one veteran after another with brain damage, with no knees, with ALS, with … on and on. Do you think we, the sports media, should feel any guilt over our coverage of a profession some compare to big tobacco?
M.R.: That’s a tough question, Jeff, but it’s something I’ve definitely thought about. There have been days when I’ve finished up work and said to myself, ‘I’m watching these guys literally destroy themselves.’ And that’s sometimes a really difficult thing to wrestle with, especially as you get to know players and spend time with them for stories, learning about their families, their pasts and their goals beyond football.
On the professional level, there is at least compensation, but I remember interviewing one player after his college career was over—he didn’t end up making it in the league—and he couldn’t remember how many concussions he had. Sure, he got a college education, but the damage he might feel later on in life he won’t have compensation for.
It kind of goes back to the question before, but that was really sobering for me. As sports media—and I think my employer and others do a good job of this—we should be shining lights on what happens to players later on in life. How they struggle not only with the transition from leaving football to regular 9-to-5 life but also the health problems they end up suffering from.
One thing I think might happen more often is what happened with Calvin Johnson. He played nine years. He made a bunch of money and then walked away while he still could. I had dinner with him in December and he was showing me his fingers—some were not able to bend how your fingers and my fingers bend. His ankles hurt a lot. He deals with a pinched nerve in his shoulder. Those are things that are likely not going away. Walking away with his relative health was important to him and I think you’re seeing that more and more each year. Players just don’t discuss it while they are playing.
J.P.:I know very little about you—New York native, Lions writer. Soooo … how did this happen for you? Soup to nuts—what was your career path?
M.R.: That’s a question I ask myself from time to time. So not-so-brief resume: Grew up in East Meadow, New York and realized pretty early on playing sports on a high level was never going to happen. But I was always fascinated with writing. When I was a kid, I would use a typewriter to start movie scripts based off the Bad News Bears. In sixth grade, at Woodland Middle School, we had an assignment to write a book. Most kids wrote something simple. I don’t know how long mine was, but it had a plot centered around the United States and U.S.S.R. hockey teams, the Cold War ending during the Olympics and what would happen if there were long-lost relatives playing for each team. My parents, who were big supporters of mine from the beginning, actually had it illustrated. I was a kid, so I didn’t quite get the political ramifications, but I got an A.
I meandered through East Meadow High School, where I wrote for the school paper (and was fired because I wouldn’t apologize for a column I wrote about how senioritis was a good thing …) and had two big influences there: Paul Gott and Dr. Franklin Caccuitto. They helped refine my love of writing. I always loved learning and had a penchant for being annoying with questions, so it seemed like a fit.
Then I went to Syracuse, where I thought I wanted to be on TV. Quickly I found out anchoring wasn’t in my future because I was horrific with head turns from Camera 1 to Camera 2. Just picture an awkward T-Rex doing it and that was me. I also discovered I liked being able to sit down with people to learn about them instead of getting in-and-out in a 45-second VOSOT. I was lucky, because I had two strong professorial mentors—John Nicholson and Mel Coffee. They really pushed me.
I had no true journalism internships in college. I worked at Z100 in New York in promotions for a summer at the height of the boy band and Britney Spears/Jessica Simpson/Christina Aguilera/Mandy Moore boom. It was the most fun I’ve had in a job. I also worked at two summer camps as a counselor, including one where one of my campers was Matthew Koma, who has won a Grammy for the song ‘Clarity.’ When I was done with school, I applied everywhere around the country for a job hoping to find … something. That something was a job in Victorville, California—in the middle of the Mojave Desert. I was there 11 months, covered everything from Little League to minor league baseball and grew up a ton.
I wouldn’t be where I am now had Chris Simmons not hired me to go work in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Those two years made everything else possible. Chris was my biggest mentor and had a reputation for creating good journalists. He made me hundreds of times better as a reporter and also 1,000-times better as a man. He taught me how to really report and develop sources and gave me the tough love I needed. When jobs came open at his place after I left, I always told any young journalist to apply. He could have been an editor anywhere in the country but chose to stay there. Chris died last year and showing how much he influenced the writers he worked for, people flew in from all over the country for his funeral. In the back of my head I still ask myself when I’m working on a story what would Chris say.
From there I went to cover Notre Dame for four years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I covered football and basketball. It was my first real exposure to big-time sports, broke a few stories that won national awards and picked up another mentor in Ben Smith, who taught me the importance of humility and empathy in my writing. I also met some of my closest friends and sounding boards in the business: Brian Hamilton, Adam Rittenberg and Pete Sampson. After four years, the Ann Arbor News was folding and they started AnnArbor.com. They wanted someone to cover Michigan basketball, so I took the chance on a startup. I covered Michigan basketball and football for two years before a connection I made while covering Notre Dame called me to ask if I would be interested in going to work for ESPN. That, to both 10-year-old me and 30-year-old me, was a no-brainer.
I got hired to cover Michigan and did that for two seasons along with bringing my creation in Indiana, the National College Basketball Player of the Year poll, to ESPN. In the spring of 2013 I had heard about NFL Nation starting and it seemed like an intriguing new challenge. I expressed interest to my bosses and they let me interview and was fortunate enough to get hired. Been doing this four years now and it’s been an incredible experience. I’ve gone back to my TV roots on occasion—including fulfilling my childhood dream of being on SportsCenter—and work with some amazing colleagues, from my bosses now (Chad Millman, Mary Byrne, Chris Sprow, John Pluym and Roman Modrowski) to the other 31 people who cover NFL teams in our group. I learn from them daily. ESPN also gave me one of my biggest supporters, Gerry Matalon, and I’ve been extremely grateful for all of the advice he’s dispensed.
I’m definitely a work in progress – both on television and as a writer—but I’m always curious to see what’s going to happen next. But I try to never forget how fortunate I am to be in this position. Worked hard to get here, but got so much help along the way—and I’m sure I forgot to mention some of those people. It’s why I try to be as open and accessible as possible to young journalists coming up. I’m all about paying it forward. (Speaking of which, if you’re a young journalist with questions, feel free to reach out. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org).
J.P.:So I stopped covering baseball at SI because, after a while, I just stopped giving a shit. It got boring, repetitive. Your job is to live and breathe football. Detroit Lions football. How do you avoid fatigue? Do you avoid fatigue? Can you still get up for Theo Riddick’s ankle surgery?
M.R.: Like anything else, there are times I get burnt out. The last few weeks of a season, whether it’s heading toward a playoff run, a coaching search or the unknown, starts to wear on you because you’re on almost 24-7 from late July until January. It’s not a physically demanding gig, but mentally it’s grueling. What I’ve really tried to do is to go find things that interest me within football and then write about it. Sometimes, that leads to me writing about silicone wedding rings or what’s more frightening, a bear or a hippo. Or, I’ll go to Madison, Wisconsin for a weekend to write about the world of Tecmo Super Bowl gaming. That keeps it interesting.
I also like the competition. Dave Birkett, who covers the Lions for the Detroit Free Press, is a friend and one of the best beat writers in the country. Trying to beat him keeps me going because I’m very, very competitive—another gift from my parents.
There are days that can feel like forever and points where it gets boring and repetitive, but that’s when I go off and try to find something totally different to write about. That centers me. I’ve also started unplugging and traveling abroad in the summer, most recently to Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, and working out daily. Even in-season, every day I try to make sure I do at least one thing solely for myself, even if that’s going on a three-mile run. That helps keep me fresh.
J.P.:Does the ability to write with touch, detail, depth, precision, insight matter as much in this era of quick turnarounds as it did, say, 10 years ago? I mean, I graduated college in 1994, and it was all about trying to craft. Is there still a place for that?
M.R.: There are days it doesn’t feel like it does, but yeah, it still matters. It’s a constant news cycle filled with 140-character updates and Facebook Live and Instagram and sometimes writing 10-to-12 times a day. But a good story is still a good story and if you can tell one, there’s absolutely room for that. I look at the stories I’ve written that have resonated with people and they have been, for the most part, stories I spent real time with. As someone covering a beat, it’s just harder to find the time to do those stories now because of the constant demands of the news cycle.
People like Wright Thompson, Seth Wickersham, Don Van Natta, Dan Wetzel, Mina Kimes, Charlie Pierce, S.L. Price, Lee Jenkins and Chris Jones, if they write something, I’m reading it. Maybe that’s because I’m a writer and in the business. But when I hear athletes mention Mina’s story on the Bennett Brothers on a conference call with Detroit media, it tells me there’s room for it. The quality of writing from a multitude of people has never been better in my opinion.
J.P.:I’m gonna throw a slider at you—why do you think so many athletes and entertainers have tattoos? Is it merely peer pressure? Does it have to do with ego? Is it just coincidence?
M.R.: I don’t have any tattoos and have personally never seen the appeal, so I’m not the best person to answer. But I’ve asked athletes about this before and for some, it’s about art. For others, it’s about remembering where they came from and carrying those people with them. I know plenty of non-athletes, like my brother, an EMT, who have a bunch of tattoos. He does it because he likes it, although it made for easy mocking when he got Left Shark on his arm after the Katy Perry Super Bowl halftime show. So really, I think it is more coincidence and personal preference.
J.P.:I feel like all journalists have a money story—that one crazy thing that happened on the job that will be your party go-to tale for decades. What’s yours?
M.R.: Oh man. There are a lot, including when I dressed up as a minor league baseball mascot named Wooly Bully, some epic road trips and forgetting what city I’m in. I’ve never really been threatened by an athlete or a coach or anything like that. But this one stands out, not for the actual incident but the prank pulled on me by Passan after. He’s still proud of it. I need to preface this by saying the parking lot on Michigan’s athletic campus has really poor sightlines when you’re pulling out of spaces.
When I was covering Michigan, the school had hired a new athletic director, Dave Brandon, who was the former CEO of Domino’s. On his first day on the job, I was pulling out of a space in the parking lot and he was driving his car through the lot. Through a combination of not being able to see him and being distracted by a tip I had gotten, we got into a fender bender. Luckily there was really no damage other than a scratch or two on either car, but not the best first impression you want to make.
Brandon was cool about it with me although word had quickly spread what had happened. The Michigan sports information directors had fun with it for a few weeks, as did my bosses, but the person who benefitted the most was Passan. Later that night, he called me from a blocked number pretending to be a personal injury lawyer representing Dave Brandon because he had heard about the fender bender.
Needless to say, I freaked out for about five minutes or so before I realized it was him. And Passan was good, getting me worked up and paranoid at the same time. He also taped the conversation and decided to send it to some of our friends. They sent it to some of their friends and, well, it spread pretty quick. One Michigan SID told me he still has it and listens to it a couple times a year. There are still times, six or so years later, when I get asked about it. It was one of my more gullible moments but a classic story.
J.P.:I think one thing young sports writers have to confront early in their careers is the intimidation factor—walking into a clubhouse and not being nervous. Did you have that at first? Did you need to tiptoe before you walked? How did you break it (if so)? And what advice would you give?
M.R.: I totally had that and it took a long time to get over. Every job I’ve had, those first few days or weeks there’s that sense of nervousness. That, to me, is part of any new situation. In every job I’ve had, I’ve definitely tiptoed first. It takes time to get to know people and a beat, so I think that’s OK. I often think of it as the early stages of dating – you’re nervous at first trying to get a feel of who the woman the other person who is a complete stranger, but eventually there’s a familiarity and comfort level. It took a little bit, but the nerves eventually go away.
My advice, especially for younger journalists, is do your research before you go into a locker room. I would look at rosters to see if there were any connections I had with guys in there, either if I had covered their school before or lived in their area of the country. Then I would use that as an icebreaker. It’s a way to both get them off of the conversation of football or basketball and into something else that immediately humanizes you and gets them to remember you. That’s better than rote questions players are asked over and over (and often get annoyed by). Otherwise, you’re just another nameless face. That’s not only a good initial locker room tool, but one that leads to better reporting and just becoming a better conversationalist in life.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MICHAEL ROTHSTEIN:
• Three memories from your Bar Mitzvah: 1. There is, sadly, video evidence of this: I fell off the chair during the Hora. One of the dancers put her hand up for a high-five. I connected—and then fell on my butt on the floor in front of my dad. His face was priceless and for years, my brother would play it for whoever came over. My parents wanted to send it to America’s Funniest Home Videos, but they chose to save awkward 13-year-old me the embarrassment; 2. I was so bad at reading Hebrew and the different tropes that I only did four Aliyahs; 3. We had the centerpieces of my theme—movies—as decorations in our basement for years. I always loved acting—at least the concept of it—so it was something I wanted to do but have yet to try.
• The world needs to know—what’s it like covering Zach Zenner?: He’s one of the more intriguing players I cover. He might be the smartest, too. He wants to go to med school after he’s done playing football and has done medical research during the last two offseasons, including during spring ball last year. Zenner’s just an honest dude who is very matter-of-fact with what he’s doing and his approach to everything. Most of all, he’s always willing to talk and is pleasant to deal with. As a beat writer, I’m appreciative of that.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes and no. I’ve never been close, thankfully, although there were a couple of times in prop planes where things didn’t seem to be going too well. I didn’t puke, but I definitely knew where the barf bag was. If I don’t fall asleep before the plane hits cruising altitude, I do get this split-second concern of ‘What’s going to happen here?’ I don’t have a fear of flying—I enjoy it, actually. But for a second it’s kind of like the last scene of the movie ‘Say Anything,’ when Diane Court and Lloyd Dobler are on the plane waiting for the seatbelt sign to go off. Once that happens, I feel much better about things.
• One question you would ask John Amos were he here right now?: ‘The West Wing’ is my all-time favorite television show—I’ve watched it through multiple times and am doing so again with listening to the West Wing Weekly podcast. Plus Aaron Sorkin is an inspiration to me as a writer, so I’d ask John Amos what it was like to be part of that cast as a recurring character working with Sorkin and Martin Sheen and how often did he try to ad-lib Sorkin’s dialogue?
• In exactly 14 words, make a case for Garry Templeton, Hall of Famer: Umm, a 16.2 career defensive WAR and an NL-best 211 hits in 1979.
• Three things we need to know about your childhood pet: 1. He was a white Westie named Magic, after Magic Johnson. I got him days before Magic announced he was HIV-positive. That was a devastating moment to 11-year-old me; 2. He was a friendly dog, although he mostly got attached to my dad because he was the one who walked him. He ended up living 15 years and I still miss him; 3. He helped me get over my fear of dogs. When I was in elementary school, a large dog chased me into the middle of North Jerusalem Road, a busy road in my town. While I was like Frogger around cars, the dog eventually tackled me. It left me scared of dogs for a few years until Magic. Now, I love dogs.
• How was your senior prom?: Not all that memorable. I went with Kristen Zbryski, who was a grade older than me, as friends. It was a good time, but getting close to 20 years ago. I more remember the boat ride around New York City after and the trip to Wildwood, New Jersey the couple days after that.
• What are the four words you way overuse?: Gluten, Meh, Literally, Worst
Too often in this celebrity-obsessed culture we turn toward the rich and famous to be inspired. We read stories about Halle Berry’s beauty, Katherine Heigl’s new baby, Harrison Ford’s happiness, Donald Trump’s … eh, never mind.
The point is, we look far off into the Hollywood Hills for inspiration, when oftentimes it’s right here; right in front of us.
I have known Anne Stockwell for about 15 years. We met when she was the editor of The Advocate, and I was assigned a story about gay athlete acceptance in pro sports locker rooms. Over the next 1 1/2 decades we stayed in touch via social media and occasional e-mails, and I marveled at a strong, compassionate woman who was diagnosed with cancer on three different occasions—yet seemed to never really waver.
JEFF PEARLMAN:I’m gonna start with this: You’re an openly gay woman. We have a 45thpresident who has a vice president who has been hostile toward gay rights. Trump, however, doesn’t really seem interested one way or the other. So how, in specific relation to gay rights, are you feeling right now about America?
ANNE STOCKWELL: It’s sort of like “Good Morning Heartache/ Sit down.” I know this stuff like an old movie. It’s devastating just like always, but it no longer surprises me.
I don’t think Trump is a homophobe, no. But he’s not an ally either, and that means he’s an enemy. His indifference gives Pence—a notorious homophobe—free range to do what he wants, knowing that, like Trump, most Americans just don’t want to think about us. Because people want us invisible, LGBT people remain among the easiest tribes to throw under the bus.
In all the media handwringing about why Trump ought to be more wary of Putin, have you read a word calling out Putin for his persecution of Russia’s LGBT people? Defending our own gay people and warning that America is not going to abandon us no matter what?
Yeah, didn’t think so.
I spent 15 years in the gay press, knowing that many hearts will never change. People fear us and that’s why they don’t want to know us better.
So is my task hopeless? Not at all. I’ve seen with my own eyes that occasionally a heart does change, and it’s always because some bit of new information got in through the cracks. Honest information is the best antidote to fear.
This same experience has helped me to understand why people don’t want to think about life beyond cancer.People fear us cancer vets. They don’t want to walk our path. We are taboo. It seems to be my destiny—forgive that lofty word—to bring the news that life in the taboo zone can be awesome.
Anne with Kris Larson.
J.P.:You’ve had cancer three times. Not once, not twice—three times. What is it to learn you have cancer, having survived it twice? Like, how did you find out? How was the news given to you? How did you digest it?
A.S.: Extremes of emotion in each case. The thing in common: the intensity. That roller coaster sensation when the pit of your gut drops away and you hear yourself screaming.
Episode One: The craziest thing. They said they thought it was cancer, and in that instant my life passed before my eyes. No other way to describe it. A rush of images, sequential AND simultaneous, flooded me with joy. Many pictures I’d forgotten. I saw that I loved my life. I was so much richer than I’d ever imagined, in friendship and connection and adventure. If this was the end, okay. But in this same apparently endless instant, I knew I wanted more. I thought, I’ll do my best and take what comes.
Then came episode two, and that was it for the heroics. Aside from the mortal-fear stuff, I felt like a big fat failure. Who was I kidding with the vitamins and crap? I’ve never been so angry in my life. Throughout that cycle of treatment, I raged on. I was fighting to secure a new job in a company that was in deep trouble. I kept at it. Every day I saw the image of a sailing ship in a gale, and myself an Ahab figure yelling, more canvas, more canvas, we won’t be beaten.
Episode three hit after the job ended. (My metaphorical ship had gone down after all.) This came way too soon after my previous recurrence. I went for a routine blood test and my numbers had shot up by like 100 points. They ordered a PET scan, which came back showing a number of new hot spots.
They’re not big enough to be tumors yet, my doctor said.
How many hot spots, I asked.
I couldn’t really count them, he said. We’ll test again in three months.
I thought, now I’m going to die. I started to read about death and what might or might not come afterward.
At that same time I met two guys, pretty much as unlike each other as you could imagine, and I think they pulled me through. One guy was a big jock, a football fanatic, who happened to be committed to metaphysics and prayer. He barked at me: “You’re fine, I got this, you’re in my prayers twice a day.” It was so ridiculously comforting, I started calling him up to hear him say it. The other guy, gay gay gay and Asian, was a tai chi master. His day job was doing feng shui for high-end clients all over the West Coast. He would arrive every few weeks and ask me to fetch him at Union Station—he didn’t have a driver’s license. While I ferried him around, he would tell me about how effective tai chi could be against cancer. He started showing me moves. Once he arrived from the Buddhist temple in San Francisco with a special prayer to ward off cancer. I learned it phonetically and still say it every night.
So—silliness, right? But after three months of these two guys all up in my business, I had my repeat PET scan. Where, before, my intestines had been dotted with nasty little cancer spots, now there were just two. Small, finite, eminently treatable.
So in I went for surgery, chemo, and radiation, on those two spots.
I finished treatment in 2010 and the cancer hasn’t been back since. What changed my condition? I’m not saying it was these guys and their spiritual stuff. But afterward our paths diverged and our relationships essentially ended. It did seem that they had shown up on cue.
The treatment itself was bearable, but at some point I noticed I was more comfortable in cancertown than in the outside world. I stopped imagining myself free of IT.
J.P.:You are the founder and head of “Well Again,” which coaches people in the aftermath of being cancer free. I’m fascinated, but I also don’t fully know what it means. I’d think, if you’re cancer free, you’d be happy and giddy and ready to roll? No?
A.S.: Well Again has evolved from my experience of what we lack as cancer vets reentering the world. Yes, of course, you’re happy, even giddy, when treatment ends. But you also know something you can never unknow: some invisible thing crept in and tried to kill you and might just do it again. Cancer generally doesn’t hurt. It just creeps.
The emotional blow of cancer tends to fall when we’re through treatment. My oncologist told me that this is when marriages break up.
All hell breaks loose in your inner world. Your own body tried to kill you. That is about as existential a threat as you can imagine.
Back in your civilian life, everybody looks at you funny, and no wonder; you’ve changed. Maybe you can’t keep numbers in your head the way you did. Or you hate the ice cream flavor you used to love. Who knows? Whatever it is, you’ll be navigating it alone. Friends and family won’t know how to help. Understandably, they’re like, when can we forget all this? Aren’t you past it now? There’s great pressure on you to get back to normal, and that’s the one thing you can’t do.
Suddenly all the bullshit you used to put up with is unbearable.
After treatment, our job is to resume our lives as individuals and pull ourselves out of the common medical experiences we shared. This is a lot more challenging than it seems. Once they’ve healed our bodies, our doctors turn away to heal others. We are left with invisible wounds that we don’t like to talk about in a clinic. The most profound wounds of cancer, I think, are spiritual.
You can try all you want to sweep this stuff under the rug and pretend that there’s no soul sickness to cancer. And by that I certainly DON’T mean you caused your cancer, or WANTED it, or any of that malarkey people like to spread around in Southern California.
I mean, the way cancer attacks, it hits your soul. You can’t ignore it, tell yourself it’s silly to be scared. It’s not silly to be scared. No, the challenge of life beyond cancer is to learn to live with uncertainty.
For me, it’s just as valid to see cancer as a message from your soul. It’s an invitation to ask yourself more honestly–who am I now? What do I want? What feels right when I do it?
If you like, you can see cancer as a do-over. It’s not the only disaster that can turn into a learning experience, but it’s especially powerful because it happens to so many of us.
J.P.: You write, “I know how it feels to start over after cancer.” Anne, what is it to start over after cancer? What was it for you?
Every sensation is heightened. You become aware of yourself in the world in an entirely different way. A friend who’s Stage IV told me, Life begins at cancer. Strange but true. I would also say cancer wakes you up to the toxicity of our American culture of work. The bond of trust between employer and employee is dead, with the result that stress is constant. We don’t take our vacations; we’re afraid to. The constant need to prove ourselves, the looking over our shoulders. Etc., etc. Everybody’s stressed sometimes, but constant stress is linked to inflammation, and protracted inflammation makes things easier for cancer.
One of the most unpleasant things about starting over after cancer is that every fool you meet is suddenly an oncologist. People with no knowledge of you or medicine or, presumably, courtesy will regale you with how you’d better give up caffeine etc. (or take up caffeine etc.) and how they themselves are on the right side of this important dietary issue and therefore they will never have cancer. Or, more understandably, they survived cancer and now you must do what they did.
This is unkind because at this point in your recovery you are weakened and vulnerable and scared to death anyway. To be whipsawed by contradictory doctrines makes it all just a little worse.
J.P.:You used to be the editor in chief of The Advocate (which is how we met), but I’m unfamiliar with your journalistic path. How did it happen? How did it start? And why did you leave the magazine?
A.S.: I got into journalism as a proofreader. My first gig was with an extremely short-lived publication called “Barbara Cartland’s World if Romance.” From there, I became a proofreader at Esquire. I actually sold a couple of pieces of writing during this time. I’m especially proud of a mischievous Esquire parody we junior-junior-juniors came up with. The senior staff did us the honor of laughing at the piece and publishing it in the magazine.
I moved back to my home state of Louisiana for a few years and became an advertising copywriter in a local market. It was so much fun, I can’t tell you. That’s where I wrote my first TV ads and got interested in film. I won a directing scholarship to NYU Graduate Film School, but I wasn’t one of those filmmakers who were like, I must do this or die. It terms of work, I still gravitated toward magazines.
Eventually, after film school, I wound up in Los Angeles, where I couldn’t make inroads into the film business but was hired as a copy editor at The Advocate. I stayed there 15 years. I was promoted up the arts and entertainment side of the masthead until eventually I became editor in chief. I left in 2008, when the company was bought and the new owners wanted a new EIC.
J.P.:Along those lines—is print over?
J.P.:What’s your mental relationship with death? Terrified? Comfortable? And how has it been impacted by your cancer experiences?
A.S.: This whole time has been about getting to the point where I can look at death. I am not a brave person. That’s the second idea behind Well Again. I realized that I didn’t care at all how many facts I knew about my cancer. I mean, yes, but in a chilly way. A battery of facts was never going to lend me courage when I had to go for a followup. What did help were memories of doing things I loved. Cancer couldn’t take those away.
J.P.:You attended NYU Film School and studied under, among others, Martin Scorsese. So … what was that like? Scorsese as a teacher? What do you remember about him?
Scorsese is very short, maybe five feet one. You notice that one time only. Once he’s talking, he’s six feet five. I loved him. He was much kinder than our professors. He thought of art in a Catholic way, sort of like self-mortification for a glorious cause. That was very romantic to me at the time. Much later, cancer shook my belief in suffering.
J.P.:At some point in your life I assume you came out of the closet. What was that experience for you? How hard was it? How was it received?
A.S.: It was pretty hard actually. It was received variously, often with sympathy—which was better than hostility but which I hated anyway. At the core of almost every reaction was either “you’re immature” or “you’re ill.” Things are better for young people now, thank god, but we still have a long way to go. At least most people know homosexuality is not contagious. Well, Ben Carson doesn’t know.
J.P.: You’re the author of The Guerrilla Guide to Mastering Student Loan Debt. Wife and I talk about this all the time. Does the inevitable hell that is un-erasable debt reason enough for some to simply skip out on college? Can the argument be made that, in certain circumstances, it’s just not worth it?
A.S.: The student loan system is insupportable. It rests on the idea that your education benefits you alone, and you alone should bear the cost. Very convenient for the employers who will profit from your education and the government that will run on your taxes. But not true.
I think we are now at the point where a college education has ceased to be worth it for everyone. I like the European system better. If you’re an excellent student, you’re financially supported in going further. If not, your training moves toward practical skills.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ANNE STOCKWELL:
• One question you would ask Talia Shire were she here right now?: Not Talia Coppola?
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I didn’t think I was about to die, but I was sitting where I could see there was a problem with an engine. We had to turn back. I started to cry, but I didn’t whimper out loud. I’m sure I would have.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Don Lemon, William Shatner, Rambo, Alexandra Daddario, “This is Us,” Atlanta Hawks, KRS-One, your right elbow, toe cheese, hot chocolate on a cold day, Golden Gate Bridge: Golden Gate, “This is Us,” KRS-One, Hawks, Daddario, William Shatner, right elbow, hot chocolate, toe cheese, Don Lemon.
• Five all-time favorite brown-haired singers: Pavarotti, Tom Waits, Frank Sinatra, Mick Jagger, Renee Fleming.
• Will there be an openly gay United States president in the next 50 years?: Yes.
• Would you rather snort 10 gallons of red Gatorade through your right nostril or attend 100-straight hours of Donald Trump rallies?: Bring the Gatorade.
• Three memories from your first-ever date: I wore a ridiculous getup. I drank a Black Russian. I wasn’t supposed to want to go home, but I did, and the guy was mad but he drove me. As I was getting out of the car in front of my house, he called out after me how much money he’d spent on dinner.
• Five reasons one should make Southern California his/her home: In-N-Out Burger, The Del Coronado Hotel, Catalina Island, Point Mugu, Palm Springs.
• Strangest celebrity you ever interviews (and why): Anne Heche. For so many reasons.
• My nose has a chronic drip come September-thru-February. Knowing that, would I still get a decent hug if we meet for coffee?: Try me.
The Quaz turns 305 this week, which means I’ve been at this madness for more than six years.
If you look at the all-time categorical leaders, journalists, actors and singers lead the way by an enormous margin. Then you have athletes, educators … and sex workers.
Yes, sex workers.
As I noted once before, sex workers are ideal for the Quaz, because:
A. Their lives tend to follow 800 different paths.
B. They’re eager for the pub.
C. They’re exceedingly nice.
That being said, with today’s Quaz I’ve decided to retire sex worker as a category for a while. It’s the second time I’ve done this (nationalistic cult leaders need no longer apply), and here’s the reason: Lady Valencia’s Q&A was so complete, I feel like we need not another.
In case you’re wondering, Lady Valencia is a Los Angeles-based dominatrix and so-called “professional sadist” who has an enormous back tattoo, delights in beating down men and—off the cuff, via DM—happens to be a fascinating conversationalist and delightful person (but don’t tell anyone).
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, so here’s what I don’t understand, and hopefully you can explain: Men pay you money so you, an attractive woman with sexy photos and an active Twitter account, can treat them like shit and tell them they suck. Then they give you even more money. I’m NOT being critical—I just don’t fully get it. Please explain what I’m missing.
LADY VALENCIA: Not all of my submissives like being told mean things and being humiliated. I am usually nice to most of my subs at least sometimes. All of my subs are finsubs (financial submissives) meaning that they enjoy giving money to a beautiful and powerful female. As far as me treating them like “shit,” humiliation is a popular fetish in the findom and BDSM world. Some people get off on and love being treated poorly, at least sometimes. It’s just like how some men love getting blowjobs. Same concept. It’s just what they like and unfortunately society usually shames them for it and tells them that it’s wrong. Therefore, these men tend to come to sex workers so they can be understood and enjoy their humiliation fetish.
J.P.:How did this happen for you as a career? I mean, how does one become a FinDomme?
L.V.: I’ve been in and out of sex work since I was 18 (I’m almost 25 now). My old job required me to be in a specific location and I got really sick of the managers and working for others. I’m very familiar with the BDSM scene as I’ve practiced it a lot in my private life and used to work at a dungeon. I stumbled upon findom while on my Fetlife account this last August. I had never heard of it but I did my research and was interested. Yes, I love making lots of money. Who doesn’t? That isn’t the reason I got into it though. I have plenty of money from working my ass off all of these years in different sex worker fields. I love humiliating men and am a true sadist (I enjoy physically hurting men or making them hurt themselves). I crave the feeling of power and am dominate in my everyday life.
I’m also drawn to findom because I am still able to travel, plus I’m my own boss. I am a huge travel junkie (24 countries and counting). I live to travel, and I live to control men.
J.P.:Without the simple (yet perhaps true) “men are pathetic,” how do you explain this? What I mean is, there are tons of women online doing exactly what you’re doing, and very few men in the profession. So why are men so drawn to this, while women appear not to be? Is it something inside of my gender?
L.V.: Men are used to getting whatever they want in society so sometimes they enjoy being told, “No” for once. Women are unfortunately used to being treated like lesser than human beings due to sexism and the idiotic culture we live in that values men over women.
J.P.:You’re married, so I wonder what your husband thinks of all this. Also, were you doing this when you two met? Did you have to explain it to him? And what about when you meet people for work? Does he come along? Sit at the next table?
L.V.: He is very open minded and supportive. I love him to death even if I have my moments of wanting to strangle him. We met when I was 17 and he was 20 so I hadn’t been introduced to any form of sex work yet. When I started in this field I told him about it and he never judged me for it. He doesn’t completely understand some things (like men wanting to be humiliated) but he is very supportive.
I meet select subs when I feel like it’s safe to do so and a sub seems trustworthy. I’m a very independent person. I travel the world, usually on my own, while my husband usually has to stay home and work. If I can make it around the world by myself without knowing anyone where I’m traveling and sometimes not being able to speak the local language then I’m pretty sure I can handle meeting a “man” on my own.
J.P.:What’s your life path, then to now? Where are you from? What’s your background? Career path? Goals?
V: I’m very indecisive and a bit of a commitmentphobe in some ways. I book my tickets last minute when I travel and only book a couple nights at a hostel at a time. I get bored very easily which is another reason I enjoy sex work. You never know how much you’ll make in a given day. My point is that I don’t have a “life path,” a “career path,” or set “goals.” My goals at the moment are being happy, being the best FinDomme that I can be and traveling the world. My career path depends on how bored I get but I do hope to be doing this for a long time as I believe I’ve found my niche.
I’m a SoCal native and have lived most of my life in different areas of LA. I did well in school despite never studying or doing homework. I graduated high school early and got accepted into every college that I wanted to go to but changed my mind about wanting to go. I’m a licensed makeup artist and a licensed massage therapist specializing in deep tissue and sports massage.
J.P.:You have an enormous tattoo along your back. A. What’s the story? B. How long did it take? C. How much pain? D. Was it worth it?
L.V.: A. The main one is a coverup of three horribly done tattoos I got when I was younger. In February 2016 I finally got around to covering it up. It was finished this past December. B: Probably around 40 hours. C: It definitely hurt, especially the spine and lower back because of all of the nerve endings. D: It was definitely worth it. I love it.
J.P.:Do you worry at all about the potential ramifications of this profession? What I mean is, images don’t vanish—and yours are all over Twitter. What if you apply for a job, or PTA president, or run for office in 20 years, and Lady Valencia past pops up? Is that at all a concern?
L.V.: Not really. I would never be elected to office as I’m too liberal. All of the people close to me know what I do; friends and some family. Maybe one day it will come back to bite me in the ass in some way but it’s the 21st century and sex work needs to stop being seen in such a negative light.
J.P.:What’s the strangest story from your career as Lady Valencia?
L.V.: I’m not sure what you would consider the strangest but I’ll tell you my favorite story that you may or may not find strange. Years ago I was on Collarme.com and I got a message from a female. She told me that she thought her boyfriend was cheating on her so she set up a nannycam at home. She saw him having sex with the nanny or cleaning lady and confronted him without telling him that she installed a camera. He denied it and got so angry at her that he anally raped her. It was her first time doing anal.
As revenge, since she got him raping her on camera, She told him that if he didn’t stay in chastity for a year and let her peg him (use a strap on on him) when she deemed fit then she would turn over the tape to the police.
She asked me if I could use a strap on on him because she thought having another female do it would be a great humiliation punishment. She said that he would have an envelope with cash in it and told me where to meet him. I told him what she told me (the nannycam story) and he confirmed that it was true. He gave me an envelope and I told him the address to meet me at half an hour later. The envelope had money in it for me to buy a strap-on at a local sex shop. I bought a strap on and then headed over to where I told him to meet me.
We met and walked inside. He had no idea that it was a dungeon and was freaking out. I explained to him that she wanted me to use a strap on on him and that he could leave whenever he wanted to. I’m not going to rape a guy. Jesus. I ended up using a strap on on him over my clothes and beat the shit out of his balls and locked up dick with crops and whatever else I could find. He cried and cried and cried. Then he couldn’t handle it anymore so I let him leave. I’m proud of that. Makes me smile everytime I talk about it.
J.P.:Totally out of context, but you seem pretty liberal. How did you take the Trump win? What do you think is going to happen to the U.S.? How worried are you?
L.V.: I am a hardcore liberal feminist. I was in Bali at the time and had already mailed in my ballot. I voted for Hillary but am not a fan of hers. I couldn’t believe he won. I was so shocked. He may end up being the next Hitler. America was never great. Sexism and racism are not okay. Trying to ban abortions is not okay.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LADY VALENCIA:
• Three memories from your senior prom: I didn’t go to prom because I graduated early.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Cat Stevens, nipple rings, Kamala Harris, Cincinnati Reds hats, slippers, Drake, armpits, peppermint mocha, the number 12: I love peppermint mocha and nipple rings are awesome. No opinion on the others.
• One question you would ask John Elway were he here right now: Didn’t know who that is until My friend told Me. Don’t follow sports.
• Five reasons one should make Los Angeles his/her next vacation destination: Don’t come to LA for vacation. This city sucks. There’s traffic, smog, LAPD, wannabe famous people, and an endless supply of assholes.
• Less sexy—unibrow or olive breath?: Unibrow. What’s wrong with olive breath?
• What is the one thing too many men misunderstand about women?: Women don’t live to serve men. Women don’t need men. Women can be breadwinners. Women can raise a kid(s) alone. Wanting a Female to be a virgin is idiotic.
• My wife is addicted to Gilmore Girls. This concerns me. Thoughts?: My mom and I just finished the most recent episode of Gilmore Girls. It’s an okay show. Love some parts of it. Hate that they portray Loreila as a lost ditz though.
• Who is the most famous person you’ve ever seen in person? What was the circumstance?: That is a secret. We’re good friends. We met due to a mutual interest in BDSM.
• Here in Orange County nobody seems to care about the drought, and it infuriates me. Can I hit my neighbor over the head with a brick and be OK in your eyes?: I’m all for hurting but not for killing. So if you were to just hurt your neighbor I wouldn’t condemn you. The police? That’s another story.
Every now and then I go through one of these oddball phases when I listen to the same song over and over and over again. I’m not sure why it happens, but I’ll be driving along with my iPhone set on REPEAT, irking the hell out of any unfortunate souls in the passenger seat.
This happened not all that long ago, when I probably played “Separate Lives,” the Phil Collins/Mary Martin tune, a solid 15 times driving home from San Diego. There’s one particular moment in the jam (“Well, you built that wall … yes you built that wall …”) that gets me every single time, and I simply need to re-hear. And re-hear. And re-hear.
Anyhow, I tried reaching Martin for a Quaz, but she never responded. In the process, however, I was reminded that “Separate Lives” was actually penned by Stephen Bishop, one of the absolute all-time brilliant pop music writers. So I found his website, sent an e-mail … and here we are.
In case you don’t know, Stephen Bishop is The Man: Nominated for two Grammys and an Oscar; Songs in 14 films (including the legendary “It Might Be You” from “Tootsie”); Eighteen albums, a slew of songs on the Billboard charts. And now, he can add the ultimate gem—Quaz No. 304.
Stephen Bishop, welcome to the land of the Q&A legends …
JEFF PEARLMAN: I was watching a video of you the other day, and it was last year—you singing, “It Might Be You.” And I was wondering … that song is about 35 years old …
STEPHEN BISHOP: Let’s add it up. It actually came out and was a hit in 1983.
J.P.:So 34 years ago. After that many years, does it get boring singing a song? Can it still have meaning, or is it just by rote and it’s singing without thought?
S.B.: Well, not just that song, but my other hits—“On and On,”“Save it for a Rainy Day” … I mean, do I think of the exact lyric as I’m singing? Sometimes, but not always. It’s a human thing.
J.P.: If you sing a song the 7,000th time, can you be singing it and thinking about what you have to shop for later in the night? Can your mind be 1 million different places because you’ve done it so often?
S.B.: Oh, yeah. Years and years ago I was with my first wife, may she rest in peace some day, and I thought it would be a wonderful thing for me to treat her on Valentine’s Day to Frank Sinatra at the Desert Inn. This was, like, 1990-something. So there was Frank Sinatra—the amazing singer, such a history. And we’re watching him, and his son was conducting him. And he was singing and he was going, “Wheeeeen somebody loves you …” and then he’d turn and yell at his son, “You’re not conducting right! This doesn’t sound right! What are you doing!” And then—“Alllllll thhhhheee waaaaay.” He’d sing and sound perfect. Then he’d turn and yell again—“You call that a string arrangement? I think not!” Then—more singing. It was really funny.
J.P.:Your big break was when a friend gave Art Garfunkel one of your songs. How did that happen?
S.B.: Well, I heard about Leah Kunkel as a singer because I saw her name on the back of Jackson Browne’s debut album. So I knew who she was and that she sang on his album. And I was seeing a friend of mine, James Lee Stanley, singing at McCabe’s in a show years and years ago. I was rushing in and I was late, and he told me he was going to do some of my songs. So I wound up sitting next to this person and I leaned over and I said, “Excuse me, has he sung any of Stephen Bishop’s songs?” And she said, “No, Stephen.” We became really close friends and great buddies. So Leah had recordings of mine, and her husband Russ was doing some drum stuff with Art Garfunkel in the studio. I think the year was 1975, and Leah gave him a cassette to give to Garfunkel. This was in the days of cassettes. So he wound up listening to the songs and really liking them. I wound up coming in, and I met him. When I first came in he was in the recording booth singing the “Disney Girls” song. And I was like, “Wow! There’s a superstar!” I was only 24 or 25.
J.P.:So to have your first song used … appreciated by someone you viewed as a superstar, what did that mean to you?
S.B.: Well, it turned into a friendship. A 40-year friendship. We’ve been friends all these years. He’s a different type of guy. You don’t know many people who are icons. He’s an icon, and an icon is a different kind of a person. It’s a whole different thing. Some people would say I’m an icon, but I don’t feel like I’ve achieved my icon status yet.
J.P.:Why do you say that?
S.B.: Because I have a lot more music in me.
J.P.:My kids listen to the radio all the time, and you’ll hear Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez and Twenty One Pilots … whatever. Maybe this is a dumb question, but why don’t you write songs for these people? Couldn’t you write Justin Bieber a really good song? Would you even want to write Justin Bieber a really good song?
S.B.: I would love to write with him. I listen to all that stuff. I listen to the radio every single day. I kid my stepson—he’s 15, and boy, he doesn’t like anything I like. And at that age, they’ve heard it all a million times before. So when you’re doing lyrics and melodies now, you can’t do stuff like, “I looove you soooo … eveeeerrry niiiight I think of making looove to yoooo.” That kind of song is so corny and it’s like a million years old. So he plays me the music he likes and it’s really different. It doesn’t have a lot of melody, or it has unpredictable melody.
J.P.:So if you wanted to write for the 21-year-old singer being heard now, would you have to change as a songwriter?
S.B.: A little bit. Yes, sure. It’s challenging. I’ve been working on this new song I want to get to my publishers to see if they can get somebody to record it. I mean, I had Beyonce sample one of my songs. In her last album—“Platinum Beyonce.” A song called “Ring Off.” She used the lick from “On and On” all the way through her song. And I thought it was going to be one of her singles. Talk about counting chickens—I had all my chickens counted. I thought it was going to be one of her singles. I was thinking that a single from Beyonce should be $400,000, $500,000. Oh, my god! What kind of boat will I buy? Then her mother, who the song is about, she divorced Beyonce’s father and she didn’t want the song out. It’s on the album, but it wasn’t a single.
J.P.:You still get paid, yes?
S.B.: Yeah. But airplay … once she’s on the radio with a good single, it’s a different thing. A wonderful thing.
J.P.:Do you like the modern music business? Clearly it’s about touring. You’re not going to sell albums. Apple Music makes everything downloadable for $10 a month. Do you find it dizzying? Do you like it?
S.B.: Now it’s … wow. It’s mostly appearances. Album-wise, I make a pittance now. I’m not complaining, and it goes up and down a bit. But what can you say? It’s not like the older days where … there were times … God, some of the airplay money I used to get from BMI, before they had everything changed. They had this rule put in where they stopped giving advances to people. But back then it was like, ‘Wow! The money!’ But it’s all gone now.
J.P.: I’m a 44-year-old sportswriter, and I find myself in this business feeling older and older. I go into a press box to cover a baseball game and a lot of the writers are in their 20s, and I think, ‘Fuck, I’m old.’ With music—when you look out into the audience, and it’s a bunch of people who are 60 who love “Tootsie”—does it make you feel old because people are still listening to your music? Or does it ever make you think, “Fuck, I’m old”?
S.B.: I do. I flash my mind to … we always go to the ASCAP Awards. And for years I’d go to see my friends, and everything would be great. In the last year, I didn’t recognize hardly anybody. And that’s kind of weird. But you know, you go around town here in LA and you see these restaurants you used to go to and now they’re chains. We used to go to the greatest Japanese restaurant, and now it’s something else. Weird. But it’s a part of life, right?
J.P.:The original reason I called you is because I went through a recent musical obsession with the song, “Separate Lives.” I’d drive and play it 10 times in a row, and I have no idea why. But I wanted to ask about that song. I consider it a great song. Truly great. But I wonder if you do, because you wrote the thing …
S.B.: When people ask me what’s the song of your career you’re proudest of, I say that’s the song. It was a really true song. At the time I had gone through this combination of things. That’s how I wrote it. I had been in touch with Taylor Hackford, and he gave me a brief concept of an outline of this movie [Jeff’s note: The exceptional “White Nights.”]. And at the same time I was going through this very big breakup with …
S.B.: Ha. Yes, Karen Allen. It’s funny how all this stuff winds up coming out. You try and be classy and say, “With an actress,” but the power of Google. So we’d been together about 2 ½ years, and we had this romantic, young relationship and everything, and it was a tough one because I lived in LA and she lived in New York and we both shared a place in New York. We just had problems and she was being pursued by everybody she was making movies with. She was at her peak as a gorgeous thing, and guys from the movies—big stars—would call her trying to jump on her. And it all became part of that song.
I was with another actress—I was going through my actress thing. I was with Cindy Williams. Really funny and really cute and everything back then. After I broke up with Karen I started going with Cindy. She thought I was still with Karen and all this stuff. We wound up going to Italy and Cindy and I broke up in Venice. And then I called Karen thinking … I had been told by one of her friends she was still in love with me. Then she told me about this guy she was going out with and that was like the whole story right there.
J.P.:So is the song about Karen Allen?
S.B.: That, and the talk that I had with Taylor Hackford.
S.B.: Well, I’ve had my songs sung by quite a lot of people. You’ve seen my bio. I’ve had songs by Pavarotti, Eric Clapton, the O’Jays …
J.P.:Do you ever disapprove with a song and the way it’s done?
S.B.: Oh, yes. To tell you the truth, I think Barbra Streisand is one of the most amazing singers of all time. I’m a big fan—her “Lazy Afternoon” album is one of my favorites of all time. But she wound up doing my song, “One More Night,” and she really just threw it away. She didn’t do a proper version of it.
J.P.:She didn’t put enough into it, or she did it poorly?
S.B.: It was not a sensitive version. She could have done it amazing. But, no, it wasn’t a good version.
S.B.: He played on my first album in 1976, “Careless.” We stayed friends. I stayed at his castle in England a few times. We became really good pals. I was staying there and Phil Collins invited me to come to his wedding. I stayed at Eric’s place, and at one time I went down to the study and Eric said, “Hey Bish, I have an idea for a song. Wanna write it, man?” I said “OK, what’s it called?” He said, “Holy Mother.” So I said, “Sounds interesting.” So I went upstairs and wrote a big chunk of it. Then he wrote stuff with it. He changed some things, made it more his own. And this version on my new album “Blueprint” is kind of my version of it. We wrote the original in 1984.
J.P.:When you record a 23-year-old song, do you have to change it for the times?
S.B.: I think so. I don’t think of myself as a 70s artist or an 80s or 90s artist. I’m an artist. And I exist for all time. I’m still doing it. And I just want people to listen and give me credit.
J.P.:Is it more about sales, or just people listening?
S.B.: It’s all about sales. Right now it’s all about sales. Making a good living. I just celebrated my 50th anniversary in show business. I still feel good. I still feel I can hold up.
J.P.:You appeared in a bunch of John Landis movies, including “The Blues Brothers.” What do you remember from that?
S.B.: When you asked that, right away I thought of when they were filming, and I was in John Landis’ … we were friends. We met the day of the LA earthquake in 1971. Through a friend. And we became really great friends, and so he had already done his first movie. So in “Blues Brothers” I was in the trailer watching … it was at night and they were filming outside. And I was watching the movie “Holocaust” on TV. The one with Meryl Streep. And I was really affected by it. And I thought, “This is really heavy.” I was feeling all emotional. And Belushi comes in like a bull in a china shop and he’s just stomping down the hall. And he throws me down onto the couch in the trailer and he kind of snickers—Heh-heh-heh—and he goes to the bathroom. And I said, “Fuck you!” I was really upset because I was in this kind of mood and I felt really terrible for these people. So I stormed out of the trailer and I walked around. And there was a huge mall there we were gonna trash, and I walked around for hours. And finally his gopher grabs me and says, “Hey, man, I’ve been looking all over for you. Belushi feels terrible.” Then he apologized to me later. From that experience, he apologized every time he saw me after that. He always apologized and always felt bad. He had two sides. He had this real jerk side and kind of a weird guy. And then he had this real generous little kid side.
J.P.:Do you have a process for writing a song?
S.B.: Usually I write from titles. I really like titles. I need titles. I just need titles. It gives me something to center on. It’s how I’ve pretty much always written. I’ll see somebody and they’ll say, “Your nose looks strange.” And the next thing I know I’m singing, “Yooouuurreee noooosseee looookkks strrraannge.”
J.P.:Wait, so you’ll come up with a title before you’ll know what the song is about?
S.B.: Um, yeah. I need a title.
J.P.:Like, ‘Cardboard Boxes in the Rain”—you need that?
S.B.: I mean, if I hear something that’s a really good line I write it off to the side. But mostly, yeah, I need a title. Sometimes I’ll use titles that I decided not to write a song on and I’ll put that in the verse. But more often than that, I need a title.
J.P.:Are you a different songwriter now than you were 30 years ago? Better? Worse? Different?
S.B.: I think you have highs and lows in your songwriting career. There was a time when I was writing all the time. Like 10 songs a month, but most of them were really weird, like “There’s a Hair in Your Enchilada,” and “Beer Cans on the Beech” and “She Took All My Kumquats.” Weird songs. And I’m kind of like … I sometimes I feel like I don’t get appreciation as far as being the real thing for a songwriter. I’m like the guy who actually came to LA in an old car when I was 18-years old and walked around Hollywood until I got a song publisher deal and made $50 a week. Lived on $50 a week for like three years, riding a bicycle. My dad wouldn’t co-sign insurance for a car.
J.P.:Why did you want it so badly?
S.B.: I guess partially because it was really the only thing I could do. I did some jobs and stuff where I broke things or crashed cars. They made me realize this was pretty much the main thing I could do. And I’d stick to that. I’m not very good at a lot of other stuff. I can do voiceovers and stuff. I’m trying to get more work doing that. I’ve done some work doing that. It’s fun. But I don’t know. The entertainment world these days is a tough one.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH STEPHEN BISHOP:
• Five all-time favorite male singers: Right away I would say No. 1 is a tossup .. the thrill I get would be John Lennon in his early Beatles days, like when he sang “Bad Boy” and when he sang “I am the Walrus.” To me that was phenomenal singing. But also, Frank Sinatra. He’s second. He’s mind blowing. Three I guess would be Sam Cooke. I mean—there’s a line in one of my songs, “There’s a little bit of Sam Cooke in everyone.” All us singers picked up something from Sam Cooke. Four, I guess, would be a tossup between Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. And Kenny Rankin ranks in there somewhere. Some would say, “Where is Elton John?” I was never a big Elton John fan. But you know who I forgot? Marvin Gaye. What a great singer.
• My wife and I debate Elton John vs. Daryl Hall: You know what’s weird? When Elton John first came out, I thought it sounded like Jose Feliciano. Isn’t that weird? Some of his delivery is like Jose Feliciano.
• What’s the strangest song you’ve ever written?: I have this one song that’s really funny called “The Farts.” I wrote it when I was 15. It goes like this: “What by yonder window breaks/Me lady makes a fart. Her husband says for goodness sakes/When she tells him it’s an art …”
• How are you feeling about President Donald Trump?: Oh, boy. There’s a question. It’s just so hard to say how you feel now. So I’ll say this—no matter what, it’ll come off like … the way I feel, it’s all going too fast. I think they should slow down a little bit.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash?: Not totally. But I’ve had some good scares, sure. The time I went to the Dominican Republic. That was like a ride from another planet. That was so bumpy.
• I’m 44 and I’m taking piano for the first time. Why is it so much harder for me than my kids?: It’s easy for children to adapt. They’re so geared to learning at that age. They’re all about learning. Every day they learn something new. We’re all learned up. I think that’s very bold. I lot of people think I play piano. I can’t play a note, really. I’m terrible. I have a beautiful grand piano and it sits there. I’m a guitar player. Have since I was 13.
• How’d you meet your wife?: We were in this tea place. I had some coffee earlier in the day and it upset my stomach. I was in there and she was behind me. I asked her if she knew of a tea that helps your stomachache or something. It’s really stupid.
The coolness of this interview series is that subjects come from all corners of the planet. I’ve found Quazes on Twitter, Quazes on Facebook, Quazes in Major League clubhouses, Quazes in diners, Quazes in the hallways of my old high school, Quazes in small Mississippi music clubs.
Today’s Quaz was discovered taped to a cash register.
I don’t mean literally. But back in December, I was buying coffee at a small spot in Los Angeles when, while paying, I came across a comic strip created by someone named Maria Scrivan. It was Santa Claus with a bunch of boxes, saying, “Thank God for Amazon Prime.” Two things happened:
A. I chuckled aloud.
B. I thought to myself, “Anyone who drew this needs to be a Quaz.”
Hence, here we are. Maria Scrivan is the talent behind the syndicated strip “Half Full,” as well as myriad greeting cards, mugs, T-shirts, etc. She’s ridiculously talented, ridiculously funny and one hell of a Q&A.
Maria Scrivan, life is complete and you need not draw again.
You’ve been Quazed …
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Maria, so I’m in a coffee shop right after Christmas and I’m at the counter paying, and there’s a strip of yours hanging there, clipped from a newspaper. It’s Santa with a bunch of boxes, saying, “Thank God for Amazon Prime.” I loved it, Tweeted it out, it got re-Tweeted, then re-Tweeted and re-Tweeted. And here we are—all because I went to a new coffee shop I found on Yelp after dropping my kids at the airport. And I starting thinking—how does the viral world affect you, and the business of comic strips? I mean, back in the day you’d see Family Circus in your newspaper—and that’s it. How has the game changed, and how does that make people in your shoes change?
MARIA SCRIVAN: As a cartoonist, having my comic clipped out and hung on a fridge is a big compliment. A coffee shop, even better. Especially one on the other side of the country.
The viral world adds another dimension to how artists connect with their audience. That newspaper clipping took an extra trip around the world thanks to your tweet and the subsequent re-tweets. Artists now have the opportunity to reach a tremendous audience, however they are also competing with a sea of other artists. At the same time, there are now so many more channels available to distribute your work.
The internet has caused artists to become more resourceful and has given us a new set of tools. Self-publishing, online stores and fundraising websites like Kickstarter and Patreon are helping artists create new opportunities for themselves.
The Internet isn’t going anywhere so we have to embrace it and figure out how to make it work for us. Luckily, artists are creative not only in how they produce their work but how it is presented to the world. Artists will always evolve.
J.P.: I know you’re from Cos Cob, Connecticut, attended Greenwich High and Clark University; know you worked in an animation studio for a spell. But how did this happen for you? Having your own strip? Syndication? What’s the path?
M.S.: I had an incredibly windy path. Immediately after college, I worked at an animation studio creating hand-drawn cel animation. The studio slowed down a bit so I took at job at an interactive ad agency as an art director. We were creating some of the first websites and ad banners, and trying to persuade our clients to put their URL on their printed campaigns. I was there for about two years when I decided to start my own graphic design and web design business. That detour lasted about 15 years. I was doing some illustration and animation work, but something was missing.
By 2009, I could no longer deny my passion to be a cartoonist. I started writing and drawing cartoons and posting them to a blog called Open Salon, which was part of Salon.com. Every week, the editors would choose their favorites and put them on the home page. I ended up on the home page every week for 26 weeks and eventually was picked up by Salon.com. After that, I started submitting to magazines. In 2010, I sold a large batch of cartoons to Parade Magazine. Shortly after that, I sold to MAD Magazine, Prospect magazine and Funny Times.
In 2013, I was asked to do a guest week for syndicated cartoonist Hilary Price for her comic “Rhymes with Orange.” Her comic is in my hometown paper and I was thrilled to see my comic in the funny pages. It was a childhood dream come true. I continued to submit to magazines and to the syndicates. A few months later, Universal Uclick asked if I wanted to be syndicated online on GoComics.com with my comic, “Half Full.” I chose to do seven comics a week because my goal was to become syndicated in print as well.
A few months later, the newspapers in Stamford and Greenwich asked me if I wanted to be in the comic pages seven days a week. I was self-syndicated until 2015 when “Half Full” was picked up by Tribune Content Agency. “Half Full” is now distributed to newspapers nationwide including the Los Angeles Times.
I started submitting to greeting card companies in 2011 and license my work to eight companies in the US and UK. I also license my work for checks and T-shirts along with having my own online store that sells prints, mugs and T-shirts.
J.P.:There’s a panel of yours that I absolute love—a balloon animal and a porcupine having tea, and the porcupine, serious look on her face, says, “It’s not you, it’s me.” OK, so I love breakdowns. Soup to nuts, how did you come up with the idea, create it? How long did it take? When do you know something is done and ready?
M.S.: I start by brainstorming and let the ideas fly all over the page. I make connections, add twists and write a list of usable gags. I keep a constant sketchbook and also jot down ideas on my phone. If I’m running or driving, I ask Siri to save the idea. Every once in a while, he really screws it up. I once found “claustrophobic tomato” in my notes and have no idea what that was meant to be.
Sometimes a complete idea shows up in a flash all at once and other times it appears in bits and pieces that need to marinate. I keep notebooks of gags that I refer back to. Sometimes, months later, I will revisit a fragment of an idea and will be able to complete the gag. I use Evernote to organize my ideas for cartoons, books and greeting cards.
I usually write first, but some of my favorite ideas develop from doodling or happen organically as I’m working on the comics. I mostly draw in the studio but I love working out ideas and writing in diners and coffee shops. It’s nice to have an opportunity to kick off my bunny slippers and see what the rest of humanity looks like.
If I have the ideas in advance, I can usually draw seven comics in a day in both panel and strip format. Sometimes they spill over into the next day. Then I use the rest of the week to work on greeting cards, books and administrative details. I usually work six days a week, sometimes more, sometimes less. I like to work very far ahead of deadline.
The work is done when I can’t add any more or take away any more away.
J.P.:I read something about you that jumped off the page—“I had every Garfield book there was. I studied them.” My kids are 13 and 10 and have been obsessed with Garfield books for years. There have been thousands of cartoons, comics through the years. What is it about Garfield?
M.S: I was 7 or 8 when I first was interested in Garfield. At the time, I guess the allure was a cat with attitude. I loved the simplicity of the panels, the humor and the expressions. I also loved Chuck Jones and Sandra Boynton for many of the same reasons.
I met Jim Davis at the National Cartoonist Society Reuben Awards in 2012. He gave a panel and spoke about Garfield’s evolution. As the newspaper panels shrunk, Garfield’s eyes got bigger so you could see his expressions even in a small space. He also has a consistent formula to what type of jokes appears on different days of the week.
J.P.:Do you ever put something out there and a week later think, “Jesus Christ, that sucked”? If so, how often? And what causes a shift of moods/feelings on a project?
M.S.: I certainly have comics that are not my favorite.
What I find fascinating is when a cartoon that I cringe at gets a tremendous response and one that I think is the best idea I’ve ever had gets a resounding symphony of crickets. Go figure.
As far as a shift in mood, the only thing I can think about is a recent children’s book I’ve been working on that went through so many iterations, I lost the story. That was frustrating for a while but after giving it the chance to sit and marinate, I realize that it will have an even better outcome than before.
J.P.:Print newspapers are dying a very fast death. How does that impact you? The business?
M.S.: That’s interesting because the reason we are having this conversation is because you saw one of my strips clipped out from the newspaper. I don’t think someone can have an interview with a cartoonist without asking that question (also: “How do you get your ideas?”, “What pen do you use?” and if you’re a woman, “What’s it like being a woman cartoonist?”)
Media will always evolve. Just because we have Spotify doesn’t mean radio will cease to exist. Netflix hasn’t wiped out the movie theaters. Creative people are incredibly resourceful. We will always find a place for our work. We are positioned to reach a much larger audience in many different ways. I look at syndication as a cog in the wheel of my creative profession that includes newspapers, magazines, an online presence, greeting cards, licensing and books.
J.P.:You do greeting cards. My complaint with greeting cards is they’re rarely funny. You know, I walk through CVS, looking for a chuckle—nothing. So Maria, how do you approach a greeting card? How do you make one funny?
M.S.: My panel comics translate really well into greeting cards, so theoretically, they’re made to be funny.
I like to find gags that will resonate with the recipient and avoid mean-spirited humor. I write a lot about my own experiences and what I observe about different holidays and occasions. In a world of writing a generic “Happy Birthday” on a Facebook wall or sending a text with a cake emoji, I think greeting cards are more important than ever. I love sending and receiving mail. You can’t decorate the envelope of a text or pick out just the right stamp. It’s a nice surprise to find good news in the mailbox.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
M.S.: There have been so many great moments. Selling my first batch cartoons to Parade Magazine, getting published in MAD, getting online syndication on GoComics, getting print syndication by Tribune, having piles and piles of greeting cards I’ve created. All of that, and I feel like I’m just getting started.
By far, the best thing that has happened is all of the meaningful connections and friendships I’ve made with other cartoonists and artists.
Some of the lowest were the collection of rejections, but I’m used to them by now. Rejection is just part of the process. Another low point was discovering Internet trolls. It’s too bad they exist. I learned quickly not to feed them. Luckily, my work gets mostly positive feedback, which is another high point. I’m thrilled to get emails that my comics are making someone laugh.
J.P.:Maria, I’m horrified by the words “President Donald Trump.” Scared, anxious, horrified. You find humor in everyday things. Should I be finding humor in this man?
M.S.: I think humor is the only way people are going to be able to get through this, along with continued actions to make their voices heard.
I was at the Women’s March on DC and it was an incredible moving mass of positive energy. People were outrageously kind and courteous to each other while peacefully dissenting.
I do find humor in every day things, but it does not mean those things start out funny. Some of the funniest gags come from things that are annoying, frustrating or painful. Almost anything that evokes a powerful emotion can be turned into something funny (after the fact, I’m usually not laughing while it’s happening).
J.P.:How do you work through writer’s block? I imagine there are times when you’re like, “Crrrrrraaaaaaaap … nothing.” So what to do?
M.S.: I don’t experience writer’s block too often. Creating a daily comic for almost four years has given my gag writing muscles a pretty consistent workout.
The more I write and draw, the more freely the ideas appear. My workload keeps expanding organically. There are moments when I wonder if I will run out of ideas but they keep showing up and I’ve learned to trust that process. I keep a pretty consistent routine and I think that helps tremendously. I also make a conscious effort of writing down ideas as I have them throughout the day. I keep notes in my phone and refer back to them when I sit down to write my gags. It is so much easier to have bits and pieces to work with instead of sitting down cold.
If I get really stuck or I’m not having fun, I’ll do something different. Sometimes going for a run or a bike ride helps. I call it “gone fishin’” (for ideas) and even if I don’t get something while I’m running or cycling, it usually jostles my brain enough to get things flowing. Walks, car rides or any kind of movement also helps.
If I’m so outrageously stuck that I’m completely unproductive, I’ve learned to just do something else. Administrative stuff, errands, something fun.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MARIA SCRIVAN:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Stamford Town Center, Scooby Doo, Natalie Portman, Bananarama, Olive Garden, 1,000 Points of Light, Joe Lieberman, Cesar Cedeno, Toys R Us, Anderson Cooper, A Walk To Remember, James Madison, San Francisco: I don’t think I can! The best I can do is to tell you that I love Scooby Doo and I love San Francisco. Also, thank you for the “Cruel Summer” ear worm.
• You have to go on vacation (and have a nice time) with three cartoonists, who do you pick?: I could never pick just three! I have so many amazing and hilariously fun cartoonist friends.
• Would you rather spend the next three months only drawing stick figures or lick clean the bathroom floors of Yankee Stadium after a game?: Stick figures can be very expressive. The other option isn’t an option at all.
• My daughter wants Snapchat. She’s 13. We say no. Thoughts?: I’m not a Snapchatter so it’s hard for me to say. I can, with confidence, advise her to avoid all things Kardashian.
• Five reasons one should make Stamford his/her next vacation destination?: It’s not really a vacation destination which is part of the appeal of living here. There are great roads for cycling, trails for hiking, pretty beaches and it’s a short trip to New York City. I’m not sure what the tourist appeal would be. I guess Stamford is a nice place to live but I wouldn’t want to visit there.
• When I was in junior high a bully named John beat me up. Some 25 years later, do I have any right still holding a grudge? Or should I just forgive the guy?: All I can think about is that quote: “Resentment is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Doesn’t every one get beat up in junior high? If not physically, then certainly emotionally. Especially if you’re a girl.
• One question you would ask Earl Thomas were he here right now?: Why does a 60 minute Super Bowl game take three and a half hours?
• What do your shoes smell like?: I ran this question by a few friends and they agreed that this sounds like something somebody with a fetish might ask. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
• Tell me your best joke: I would but it’s NSFW.
• Tupac, Pearl Jam, Joan Baez, Yes, ELO and Journey were elected to the Roll and Roll Hall of Fame recently. Rank who you consider to be most-to-least deserving: It wouldn’t be fair for me to say. I recently dusted off an old Yes album (downloaded it on Spotify) and ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” always manages to make it’s way onto one of my playlists.
Back in the day, when I was a journalism youngin, I served as the seventh or eighth man on Sports Illustrated‘s basketball team.
We played down on the courts at Chelsea Piers in New York City, and the games were a genuine ball. We were fast, we were deep, we were combative. We weren’t the Golden State Warriors, but for a collection of scribes, we did quite well.
Anyhow, while the team was strong, we only had a cheering section of one. Her name was Celine Gounder, and she was the girlfriend/future bride of Grant Wahl, our excellent soccer writer/solid small forward. Were I on the bench, I’d often look over at Celine at marvel at the merging of commitment and boredom. It looked like there was nowhere else she less wanted to be, yet as the other girlfriends (mine included) stayed home, she stood out as a loyalist.
I bring this up because some two decades later, Celine’s steadfastness remains on display as she travels the world in her work as an HIV/infectious disease specialist and internist. In 2015 she spent two months volunteering as an Ebola aid worker in Guinea. Between 1998 and 2012, she studied TB and HIV in South Africa, Lesotho, Malawi, Ethiopia and Brazil. In other words, she’s doing good and doing good and doing good where good is often in short supply.
Dr. Celine Gounder, you’ve come a long way from basketball boredom.
You’re the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Celine, I’m going to start with an unorthodox one. So you’re a practicing HIV/infectious diseases specialist and internist, among other things. Which means, I have no doubt, you’ve seen stuff that would make most of us pass out. And I’ve always wondered this—are doctors born with the ability to not be grossed out by blood, by guts, by nails in skulls and half-decayed flesh? Or do you develop a hardness over time? How has it gone for you?
CELINE GOUNDER: I think there are different ways in which doctors, nurses and other health care workers become jaded over time, some necessary and some dangerous to ourselves and our patients. Blood, flesh-eating bacteria or putrid sores don’t gross me out. Smells sometimes still get to me, but in my line of work, I’m often wearing a mask, gown and gloves. But I really don’t like vectors of disease, especially bats and rats. When my husband and I visited the Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia, I had to run for cover, gagging at the bats overhead.
Being desensitized to blood, guts and gore isn’t dangerous, but losing our empathy is. The rigors of medical training push people to their mental, physical and psychological limits. Just over the course of four years of medical school, students’ ability to empathize with their patients takes a big hit. At least half of physicians in the U.S. report burnout—exhaustion, cynicism and ineffectiveness—and burned out doctors provide worse care.
In the U.S., health is not a human right, it’s a privilege. At the same time, altruism is a core value of the medical (or education or social work) professions. But our health system treats patients like widgets and health care providers like plumbers or electricians on a moneymaking assembly line. Moreover, the way we value health care providers is not proportional to the quality (or even the quantity) of our service, but to the way society values our patients, and I can tell you, they aren’t all valued equally. Our professional values are at odds with the system, and that’s intensely demoralizing.
There’s no question I’ve experienced these same feelings of burnout. My way of coping is to fight the good fight when I’m on the job caring for patients, but to provide direct clinical care only part-time. I need time in between to reflect, recharge and bear witness—but that comes at a very real cost too.
J.P.:In 2015 you spent two months volunteering as an Ebola aid worker in Guinea. Most people (myself included, I’m embarrassed to say) would want nothing to do with Ebola. The name alone evokes panic, fear, dread, all of our bases mortal impulses. So what made you go? What did you learn? And what is your documentary “Dying to Talk” about?
C.G.: I grew up and became a doctor in the age of HIV, another disease that also conjured panic, fear and dread. But infectious diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, leprosy and Ebola have also inspired tremendous human kindness, love, sacrifice, courage, perseverance and beauty. Like Ebola, it’s a disease that kills the most vulnerable, the poor, the stigmatized and the marginalized. I became an infectious disease specialist because it was a way for me to fight social inequity using the tools of medicine and public health. So when Ebola exploded in West Africa, I couldn’t imagine sitting on the sidelines.
In some ways, epidemics are all the same, and yet they are as unique as the cultures of the people affected. They make us more fearful of the sick—the “other”—lepers who are to blame for their illness. In Guinea, people near the coast blamed the spread of Ebola on “primitive” forest peoples for eating “bush meat.” Americans spoke fearfully and hatefully of “dirty” Africans. In the 1980s, government officials cracked homophobic jokes about HIV.
Politics inevitably frames the way we view epidemics and respond. In Guinea, the Ebola epidemic arrived on the eve of the country’s second democratic presidential election, and in the U.S., during our midterm elections. Guinea is a country where politics and government service are seen as routes to self-advancement, not public service. Early messages about the Ebola epidemic in Guinea could easily be confused with propaganda. Politicians arrived wearing the yellow scarves and logos of the ruling party. Faced with a ruling party that appeared to use Ebola as an excuse for political campaigning, the opposition party spread rumors about the origins of Ebola, sowing confusion and distrust. Guineans flaunted presidential declarations of public health emergency and instructions on how to prevent disease transmission. Meanwhile, back in the U. S., politicians like President-elect Donald Trump called for travel bans, and Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo, mandatory three-week quarantines for travelers returning from West Africa.
In the shadow of infectious diseases emerge parallel epidemics of mistrust, rumors and conspiracy theories, especially when people feel voiceless and powerless. Many Guineans spoke of “Ebola business”— their way of expressing frustration at the lack of transparency around Ebola control activities, especially management of the massive infusion of funds into the country. Government officials were accused of manufacturing Ebola to keep their hold on power or to line their own pockets. Expats were seen as Ebola mercenaries who weren’t of and with the people and who could leave at any moment. Meanwhile communities failed to see those funds trickle down to their level and have a tangible impact on the ground. Excluded from decision-making and perceived profiteering, the public was cynical about the true motives behind the Ebola response. Similarly during the early years of the HIV epidemic, gay men questioned the true motives behind bathhouse closures. Others spread rumors that the CIA invented HIV to kill homosexuals and Africans. With the arrival of the Zika epidemic, we’ve heard conspiracy theories that vaccines, pesticides or genetically modified mosquitoes spread the virus, and that the Gates Foundation or Monsanto invented Zika.
In early 2015, I spent two months volunteering as an Ebola aid worker in Guinea, but in my free time, I interviewed survivors, anthropologists, religious leaders, doctors, nurses, local journalists, youth and women leaders and average citizens living in the community to understand how the crisis was affecting them. I’m currently making the documentary “Dying to Talk” about the West African Ebola epidemic because I think it’s more important now than ever that we learn the lessons of Ebola and other outbreaks. We’ll see more diseases like HIV, Ebola, MERS and Zika emerge (or reemerge) and spread faster than ever before. There’s no turning the clock back on globalization. It’s in our enlightened self-interest to listen, understand and care about the rest of humanity in order to protect ourselves.
It’s been both fun and frustrating to make a film. I’m learning by trial and error as I go. Other than financing, my major challenge is to figure out how best to shape the narrative. Many in the film industry have advised me to include myself in the film to serve as an empathic bridge of sorts, and they tell me I need to include some celebrities (anyone know Angelina Jolie or Jon Stewart?). I’m really proud that all my reporting on the ground was with Africans, almost all Guineans, in contrast to much of the Western-centric media coverage of the Ebola epidemic—what former New York Times journalist Howard French called “Africa without Africans.” I’m hesitant to include myself (I’m in the trailer), because I’m not the story and because I know there will be those who think it’s self-serving. But I’m willing to be in it if that’s what it takes to get the message out there.
J.P.:Random question—but you’re a curious, well-educated, accomplished American. We recently had a president elected basically because he’s “going to make America great again!” How do you not bang your head against a wall and think, “Jesus Christ, we are such a stupid species”?
I think humans are first and foremost emotional, social animals. We’re not all that rational. We function in groups, and groups are governed by culture. Our loyalty to our culture is strong because it’s an important survival skill. When we say that people are voting against their own interests, we’re framing their voting behavior at the individual level, not in terms of the cultures to which they belong.
Secondly, I think we all—across the political spectrum—have a lot of soul searching to do. The way we work and live is undergoing a massive revolution a lot more quickly than we realize; this is going to be even more disruptive than the shift from agrarian to industrial economies. It’s not just coal miners and factory workers who are going to lose their jobs (for a little background reading, see here, here, here, here and here). It’s also accountants, financial analysts, computer programmers, lawyers and doctors like me. Many Americans—especially the earliest casualties of this economic disruption—voted for Trump because they were voting for a change. They understand intuitively that neither political party has plans to address what’s to come. While I vehemently disagree with that vote, I think we’ve got to start coming up with solutions to help the vast majority of us who’ll eventually lose our jobs to automation.
J.P.:Does death scare you? I’m not talking about the deaths of others—I mean your death. You’ve seen it up close. Does the potential eternal nothingness keep you up at nights? And how does being a doctor impact your view?
C.G.: No, I’m not afraid of my own death. To me, death is the end of fear. What is important to me is doing the most with my life, and what scares me is failing to do that. I also fear a painful, protracted death, which has, unfortunately, become the norm. So I’m doing what I can now to avoid disability and disease later. I eat healthy. I work out with a personal trainer. I’m big on squats, deadlifts and core strength. Your ability to sit down cross-legged and then get up again without using your arms is an easy test of your flexibility, strength and risk of dying. I can’t tell you how many of my patients can’t sit up in bed without a boost from me or their hospital bed. Many Americans suffer from chronic neck and back pain due at least in part to poor posture and core strength. Cardiovascular exercise is important too. Our gym just closed, so my husband and I are now looking for a new place for HIIT classes in the city. Any recommendations?
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
C.G.: The lowest point in my career is what some might have called the greatest.
After I finished my medical and public health training (twelve years on top offour years of college), I stayed on at Johns Hopkins for a couple more years. I was well positioned to stay at Johns Hopkins as an academic researcher, but was becoming increasingly dissatisfied and disillusioned. I also didn’t like that in academia we were forced to work in silos, structured around a more senior mentor and his (or occasionally her) NIH grants. In my experience, the NIH grant system promotes “safe” research, not innovation. I wanted to be in a place where I could be creative, have fun working with others and feel like I was helping people. Academia didn’t feel like the right fit.
I looked for jobs in public health both in the USA and abroad. Meanwhile, I was starting to burn out on travel overseas—I was flying to sub-Saharan Africa every six to eight weeks for a couple weeks at a stretch—and spending a lot of time away from my husband Grant, who also travels a lot for his job. We both thought we’d ultimately like to move back to NYC one day. He’d lived there after college and I lived there part-time with him in the late 1990s until we moved to Seattle together. So I focused my efforts on finding a job in NYC, and specifically at the NYC Department of Health.
I eventually landed a job as Assistant Commissioner, leading the NYC Department of Health’s Bureau of Tuberculosis Control—the current CDC Director Tom Frieden’s job in the early 1990s. But the place had changed a lot in the twenty years since. In the early 1990s, NYC was experiencing a spike in TB cases among the homeless and HIV-infected patients and funding was plentiful (thanks to Reagan Administration era cuts in public health infrastructure). It took about a billion dollars to control that TB outbreak.
I arrived in the job post-recession, post-sequestration. While I understood we’d be facing budget cuts, I didn’t realize what little control I’d have over who would be cut. I spent my first three months on the job meeting with as many of my staff of 250 as possible. I spent time with them in the clinics and the communities we served. And I put together a layoff plan in collaboration with HR and the Office of Labor Relations, only to realize that I was really powerless to target those cuts. Here’s an example to illustrate how I was trying to target the layoffs: I polled the staff to find out what languages they spoke. TB cases in the USA, especially in NYC, are largely among the foreign-born, in contrast to the early 1990s, when many of the cases were still among U.S.-born persons. It’s important to have field workers who make home visits who can speak to the TB patients. But there’s also a divide among the staff: older employees are largely African American or white while younger employees are largely foreign-born or white. And this is where the union-driven system of favoring seniority over skills and job performance becomes a real problem.
I felt physically ill going to the office. After much soul searching—and my boss’s generous and kind support—I decided to resign. From that experience, I learned that being the boss or having a big title don’t necessarily translate into impact. I found the job stifling. I couldn’t apply my scientific expertise or be creative. I believe that good leaders are good mentors to others and should measure their productivity through the accomplishments of their mentees. I didn’t feel like I could reward good work in a meaningful way. I could only scold bad performers. I also realized that this early in my career I wasn’t quite ready to give up the feeling of more tangible accomplishment. I didn’t like spending most of my day at a desk in the office or in meetings. I had become used to the more flexible life of an academic. You might have to work a lot, but you at least had the freedom to dictate when, where and how you did it.
My greatest accomplishment? I’m working on it … stay tuned.
Celine, husband Grant Wahl, two furry things and a baby.
J.P.:A few years ago I wrote a book about the 1980s Lakers—and, obviously, a big character was Magic Johnson. As you surely remember, when he contracted HIV there was this national irrational fear. Will he bleed on another player? What about sharing water? Surely he’ll die as a 90-pound skeleton. On and on. Now, however, people seem to shrug off HIV. Ho-hum. I wonder, in your eyes, if our general modern take on the disease is fitting with where we are, treatment-wise? Or have we grown too lax?
C.G.: If I were forced to choose between having HIV or diabetes, I’d choose HIV. We now have many effective, well-tolerated one-pill, once-a-day treatment options for HIV. If you have HIV, start treatment early after infection and take your medications everyday as prescribed, you can live a nearly normal healthy life. But I still wouldn’t wish HIV on anyone. While we don’t see many HIV-infected people dying from exotic infections (e.g. bird tuberculosis) anymore, we do know that if you have HIV, you’re at higher risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, kidney and liver disease and dementia. Moreover, HIV is an expensive disease to treat and is still very stigmatized.
J.P.:Big, annoying question that fascinates me—how do these things unfold for you? What I mean is—OK, you’re Dr. Gounder, and you decide you want to study TB in Ethiopia. How does it happen? From decision to being on the ground? Do you come up with the idea, then pursue? Do you see some fellowship or such and think, “I’m going for this?” And when you arrive, is it, “Hey, she’s here!” Or “OK, figure it out on your own …”?
C.G.: First and foremost, where I work has been dictated by the need. It wouldn’t make much sense to go to Norway to set up malaria programs.
My relationships were largely shaped by my academic connections. A colleague from Johns Hopkins was leading TSEHAI’s efforts to scale up HIV-related care in Ethiopia. Tuberculosis is the most common cause of death among people with HIV in the world. I reached out to my colleague in Ethiopia to see if I could help her incorporate TB-related activities in their work. I worked with other colleagues in South Africa, Lesotho and Malawi to do the same. These projects were supported by a combination of funding from the Gates Foundation, NIH and USAID.
Volunteering for the Ebola epidemic was a bit different. I started applying to volunteer as an Ebola aid worker in the summer of 2014, first with Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF), and later with the World Health Organization, Partners in Health, Save the Children, AmeriCares, the Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee and the International Medical Corps. MSF initially told me that they were only accepting volunteers who’d worked with them previously or who had experience with viral hemorrhagic fevers (an exceedingly small group of people at that time). I asked if I could get the appropriate training whether they’d take me. They said sure. I then reached out to several biosafety level 4 labs throughout the USA and asked if they would be willing to train me as they do their staff. A couple said yes, if I could fly myself out there. One of those labs then got back to me to say that the CDC had also reached out to them to organize a training course of their own. I then signed up for the CDC course. I went back to MSF to ask about volunteering. By this time the epidemic was completely out of control, but they simply didn’t have the beds or capacity to take on more volunteers. As Dr. Armand Sprecher with MSF told me, “there’s no point in hiring more pilots and flight attendants if you don’t have planes to fly.” So I looked elsewhere.
The application process with each of these groups was chaotic. They were inundated with applications from interested people, but didn’t have the ability to sift through them. People volunteered for all sorts of reasons. Many didn’t have the right skill set, so it was important to vet the applicants. I eventually heard back from Partners in Health. I passed the two interviews and vetting process and was offered a placement in Sierra Leone. Then over the holidays in December 2014, I received a call informing me that they were withdrawing the offer due to my media ties. I went back to applying and eventually landed another placement with International Medical Corps, this time in Guinea.
J.P.:You’re married to Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated’s excellent (and always on the road) soccer writer. You, too, are always on the road. How do you guys make it work? What’s the longest you’ve gone without seeing one another?
C.G.: Good question. We try our best, but there’s no perfect solution.
We talk every day. We’re very much involved in the lives of each other’s families. When we’re in the same place, we enjoy each other’s company and shared interests. We also understand our limits. We realize there’s only so much we can take on, individually and as a couple. I don’t believe you can have it all, do everything well and be happy, at least not in our society. Grant and I don’t have kids because we don’t have the time or energy a child deserves and the time and energy it takes to maintain and nurture our marriage. I’d rather a husband and no kids than kids and no husband. Our two toy poodles, Coco and Zizou, are about as much as we can handle, and those two little furballs are our bundles of love and joy. As I write this, they’re snuggled up between me and Grant’s mom.
But these are very personal decisions. My mom was an amazing stay-at-home mom. My sister had a baby a year and a half ago and took almost a year off work afterwards to be with her daughter before going back to work part-time. My mom and my sister each made the right decisions for themselves and their families, as Grant and I have for ours.
That said, I also don’t travel as much as I used to. I left Johns Hopkins in 2012 in part because I’d burned out on all the traveling I was doing for work. Grant and I tried to align our trips as much as we could, but it still took a toll on us and our marriage.
• One question you would ask Desmond Tutu were he here right now?: How can the United States undertake its own truth and reconciliation process to help our country heal from its history of violence against blacks and Native Americans?
• What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen?: I find smells to be far more off-putting than anything I’ve ever seen. Smells trigger an especially primal part of the brain.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Never. But I was asked to check on two sick passengers when flying back from Guinea after two months of volunteering during the Ebola epidemic. It crossed my mind that either passenger could have had Ebola.
• I have to think your last name is butchered quite a bit. What are the common misspellings?: Grounder
• Five favorite places to eat in New York City?: If I had to eat one cuisine for the rest of my life, it would be a toss up between sushi and French food. But since my mom is an excellent French cook and I’m a half-decent one, I tend to prefer going out for sushi. Our two current go-to spots are: Sushi Seki in Chelsea and Sugarfish in the Flatiron District. (We also love Kura, but it’s tiny, so you can’t just walk in; but the jewel box size and hushed whispers over soft jazz and exquisite fish make for a divine experience. We also love Sushi Nakazawa, but not only do you need a reservation well in advance, it’s also a big splurge.)
We enjoy going to BXL Zoute in Chelsea, Morandi in the West Village and LPQ in Central Park with our dogs when the weather is nice. Zizou likes eating bits of salad off my plate.
• Three memories from your first date?: With my husband Grant? 1. A black Argentine leather jacket; 2. Orangina; 3. Black and white cookies
• In exactly 22 words, make a medical argument for eating your own toenails …:
• As you surely know, at the end of “A Walk to Remember,” Jamie walks down the aisle for her wedding to Landon. She has leukemia, is days away from dying, but looks great and does everything without help. Is that even possible?: I haven’t seen it. I suppose she could have died suddenly if she had a leukemia-related complication like a blood clot.