Back when I was a young sports writer coming up through the ranks, my dream was to follow the paths of people like William Nack and Tom Verducci and Mike Freeman and Dave Anderson. I wanted to be a guy who scored plumb assignments; whose byline could be found in some of America’s greatest newspapers and magazines.
I’ve never been at the level of those men, but I did sorta reach the goal. I spent a half decade writing for Sports Illustrated. Dream accomplished, cool beans and confetti galore.
When, in the early 2000s, I transitioned toward biography, I didn’t have the same ambitions. I knew very little about the book world, so—truly—the idea was to survive and, hopefully, carve out a career. A decade later, I’ve done that. But am I elite? Am I one of the greats of the genre? Um, no.
But David Maraniss is.
A three-time Pulitzer finalist (and 1996 winner) for his work as a reporter at the Washington Post, David is the author of six New York Times best sellers, including biographies on Barack Obama, Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi (I consider When Pride Still Mattered one of the three or four greatest sports books of all time). His new offering, Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story, comes out this September. You can follow him on Twitter here.
There are many excellent biographers out there.
There’s only one good enough to be the 214th Quaz Q&A …
JEFF PEARLMAN: David, we both write books—only yours are extraordinarily good. When I write mine, and I’m really deep into the reporting, I find myself turning into an insane person. I crave little details, I lose sleep over the stuff, all I want is more, more, more, more … almost like a literary crack addict. Do you get this way, too? Because you seem much too dignified to be chasing hits in such a manner?
DAVID MARANISS: One of the first requirements for me when I’m choosing a subject for my next book is that it has to be something I’m obsessed with. Not long into the process the book insinuates itself into my life and in a sense takes over. I resolve structural problems in my sleep. When we’re driving somewhere, my wife will turn and ask me, “What chapter are you on in your head?” I love details. They serve as more than dressing, but as the foundation of my narrative, and I’m always looking for more, but they have to add up to something more. Not detail for detail’s sake, but in the service of illumination.
J.P.: When asked why you wrote a biography of Barack Obama, you cited your “dismay over the modern American political culture.” What exactly do you mean by this?
D.M.: If you study American history, or world history, you see that politics is and always has been a blood sport, but I can only speak to my reaction to what I’ve experienced in my 40 years writing about politics. First I should say that I am not a political junkie, despite the fact that I have been a political journalist. The daily trivia of politics does not interest me, in fact bores me. What I am interested in is human nature and social history—why people do what they do and the forces that shape them. I am also—always—interested in the pursuit of truth, wherever that takes me. And the truth is almost never black and white, it has shades and nuances and contradictions, as do all of our lives. Think about what goes on your own head every day. Each of us knows that the thoughts we don’t share with others are often uneven, uncertain, confused, constantly changing, that we know there are seeds of refutation in almost every thought we have. That is human nature, that struggle. Yet our modern political culture completely negates that humanity. It encourages people to posture and lie and pretend they know it all. It makes it easy for them to only reinforce their views. This is particularly true on the right wing, which has gone over the cliff—rejecting science, demonizing opponents, saying green is yellow and two and two equals five. To call Barack Obama a socialist is to completely ignore who he really is and what he has done. Then there is the damage that huge sums of money have done to our democracy, shrouded in the false cloth of free speech. Money talks more than ever. I could go on for hours about this subject, but you get my point, I hope.
J.P.: For my money, you wrote one of the two or three greatest sports biographies of all time—When Pride Still Mattered. This might be a little too inside baseball for readers here but, eh, fuck it. How did you go about the project? Like, you decide you’re going to write about Lombardi … then what? What is your process? Do you report, then write? Do both simultaneously? And when do you know enough is enough?
D.M.: This is how Lombardi happened: I was on C-Span’s Book Notes with Brian Lamb talking about my first book, First in His Class, the biography of Bill Clinton. Late in the interview, Lamb asked me what my next book would be. I hadn’t decided. Somewhere in the back of my brain a signal came to me and I blurted out Vince Lombardi. Had not thought of it before, it just came out. The next week a letter arrived from a woman in New Hampshire, an old woman who said that her brother was Red Reeder, a hero of D-Day, who had been an assistant athletic director at West Point when Lombardi was an assistant coach there, that their families lived next to each other at West Point, and that Red was a great storyteller with a ton of Lombardi stories and that he was 88-years old and living in a retirement home near Fort Belvoir, Virginia. That was enough to get me going. I had to talk to Red while he was still around—and went out to visit him the next day.
But why Lombardi? It wasn’t enough that I grew up in Wisconsin while his Packers were winning those five championships in Green Bay. That was certainly part of why I would think of him, but not enough reason to do a book. I would never write a book about any other coach, or about Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers or any other Packer. I look for a combination of two things when pursuing a book. One is the arc of a dramatic story and the other is a chance to explore through that person’s life larger sociological and cultural themes that interest me. Lombardi had the dramatic arc. He struggled in the football vineyards for two decades before getting his shot. He was about to give up and become a banker when Green Bay happened, and he turned the American myth on its end, not the small town boy making good in the big city but the big city New York kid going out to godforsaken Green Bay and becoming an American icon. Which is the second part of it, the larger meaning of Lombardi. He became symbol for competition and success in American life, what it takes and what it costs. The combination of all that is what drew me to him.
Once I start a book, my motto is “Go There”—wherever there is. That meant turning to my wife and uttering the immoral loving words, “How would you like to move to Green Bay for the winter?” She said, “Brrr,” but agreed, and we went. It happened to be great timing—the winter of 1996-97 when the Packers won the Super Bowl. I had to live there, not only to do interviews with a lot of old-timers who knew Lombardi and his era, but also to endure a Green Bay winter since I knew the football climax of the book would be the Ice Bowl. We also spent two summers in New York, since the vast majority of Lombardi’s life was spent in the New York metropolitan area, from Sheepshead Bay to Fordham to Englewood, N.J. to West Point to Fair Haven, N.J.
My books tend to take three years or three and a half years. That’s my rhythm, not sure why but it is. I usually spend the first year or year and a half just reporting, then start to write. I know it when I feel it, but can’t explain or predict when that will be, except to say it will be somewhere near the midpoint. But I will keep reporting in various ways while writing for that final year and a half. So much of what you need becomes clearer when you start writing. I don’t differentiate much between the two. I love the research and I love the writing and think of them as one interwoven process.
J.P.: I know you’re from Madison, Wisconsin, I know you’ve worked for the Washington Post for more than 30 years, I know your books. But, well, what’s the journey? How did you know you wanted to be a journalist? When did the bug first bite? And when did you realize you could make something big of yourself in the field?
D.M.: I am third generation. My grandfather was a printer in Coney Island, Brooklyn. My dad was a newspaperman. My mother and siblings are all scholars. I was the dumb kid in the family who followed my dad into newspapers. Very lucky at that—it is the only thing I can do. I can’t change a light bulb. Once the dream of playing shortstop for the Milwaukee Braves ended at about age 10 I had nothing to turn to except writing. It has always come easily to me, and has allowed me to think of life as a constant graduate school. If you do it right, you are always learning something new. I started writing in college, covering high school sports and student riots (at the UW) for the local paper. Then I spent two years at Radio Free Madison, WIBA, writing and presenting my own 15-minute newscasts, which was a great experience, helping me refine my writing so that it could be read aloud and understood. Then my wife and I realized we had to get out of Madison, it was too idyllic and we would be stuck there forever if we didn’t leave. I applied for jobs up and down the east coast and got hired by the Trenton Times. Stroke of luck. This was 1975 and it had just been bought by the Washington Post and for a brief period served as the Post’s farm club of sorts. A tough and great Post editor named Dick Harwood was sent up to Trenton. During my job search on the east coast, I stopped off at my aunt’s house on Coney Island and left my clips at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog stand. When I got to Trenton, I told Harwood that I left my clips at Nathan’s but that if he hired me I would be his best reporter in six months. He hired me. Two years later I was at the Washington Post.
J.P.: I can’t tell if covering a presidential election is awful or amazing. I mean, it seems like—if you’re cynical—it can be, at times, mind-numbingly painful. But also riveting. I’ve never had the beat. So tell me, David, what’s it like? At its best? At its worst?
D.M.: At its best it allows you to see America in ways you would never see otherwise. Even for all the repetition and grind and shallowness of the daily experience, it is a great way to see the country. At its worst it is meaningless and has very little to do with anything remotely related to reality. I would travel on the campaigns mostly just for a week or so at a time, observing the candidate and trying to land an interview. There is a danger of Stockholm Syndrome along with all else, where the reporters start rooting for the candidate they are covering. That, or grow cynical and sarcastic. Either way, it can be a dangerous thing, and boring.
J.P.: Has Barack Obama been a great president, an average one, a disappointing one? Is he what you thought he’d be?
D.M.: Barack Obama has been the president I thought he would be. Cautious, rational, marching to his own tune at his own rhythm, sometimes seeming behind the curve, sometimes ahead of the curve, rarely right at the curve. He has been completely misunderstood by the conservatives who hate him and the left liberals who have felt disappointed by him. I certainly don’t agree with everything he has done, but I understand why he has acted the way he has. Again, that is a subject I could go on for for hours. He got defined by the Hope and Change theme, but that was contrived. He is just a smart, rational, cautious, sometimes frustrating, well intentioned, passive-aggressive, coolly reserved, self-contained politician.
J.P.: Your 2006 Roberto Clemente biography is considered the definitive work on the man. How did you, specifically, go about writing and reporting his death? Did you expect to uncover new things? Are there places to look that other writers perhaps ignored? And, even though it happened some 30 years ago, do you still feel the sadness in the midst of reporting?
D.M.: This was one book where I knew the climax before I started. I was a young radio reporter working New Year’s Eve in 1972 on the night Clemente died. I devoted an entire five-minute broadcast. But I did not know the real details beyond that he died in a plane crash delivering humanitarian goods to Nicaragua after the earthquake. In reporting the book I knew that most plane crashes resulted in some sort of lawsuit. True this time too. But where were the documents? They were missing from the federal court in San Juan where they might have been. The federal appeals court in Boston only had technical appeal records. I put together a list of lawyers in the case and interviewed those still alive. Finally after a three-hour interview with the lawyer who represented the FAA in the case he said, “Okay you’re the one.” And he got up from his desk and walked over to a closet and came out with three boxes labeled CLEMENTE. And there were all the documents … the whole sad story in airport records, depositions, charts, maps, memos … a gold mine that allowed me to tell the story as it had never been told before. As I put it all together my sadness merged with anger at the misfeasance and incompetence that led to the crash and death of the unwitting and determined Clemente.
J.P.: You probably get asked to write book jacket blurbs for tons of books—because I do, and I’m nowhere near your league. Do you do them all? Some? Do you read the entire manuscript? A chapter or two? And what do you do if the book sorta sucks?
D.M.: I have only one requirement. Did the author really do the work? As another author, you know exactly what I mean. Reviewers don’t get it, readers often don’t get it, but anyone who has plied the fields of non-fiction knows, almost immediately, whether someone is faking it or has really done the work. If they have, I know how hard it is to do, and feel an obligation to support my brothers and sisters to that end, for whatever it’s worth.
J.P.: Are you accepting of the inevitable death of print? Is it inevitable? And how have you adjusted to the digital age of journalism?
D.M.: I am one step past being an old fogey. I do Twitter and Facebook. I live newspapers and books but accept the reality that they will transform and transmute in ever changing ways. Formats change but two things remain eternal, or so I hope—the human need to understand ourselves through story and the essential need to search for truth and separate fact from misinformation.
J.P.: You co-authored The Prince of Tennessee: Al Gore Meets His Fate. So I’ll ask two things: 1. Do you think Gore would have been a good president? 2. Gore has become the right’s favorite target, RE: climate change. Do you think he’s hurt the movement or helped the movement?
D.M.: He’s a competent, smart person with odd tic to his personality. Probably would have been a better president than presidential loser. Now very good at making tons of money.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DAVID MARANISS:
• Celine Dion offers you $12 million to ghost write her autobiography, Celine: I’ll Fuck You Up. Downside: You have to work 363 days over the next year, move to Las Vegas, mow her 17-acre lawn once per week and only eat canned corn and tuna fish for the duration. You in?: NEVER. NOT A CHANCE. NOT EVEN with or WITHOUT THE MONEY. I don’t ghost write or do other’s bidding, ever. Though I actually like tuna fish.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Dan Quayle, George Steinbrenner, John Smoltz, Faye Dunaway, Ricky Nattiel, The Princess Bride, Budd Dwyer, your left elbow, Howard Bryant, Chips Ahoy, Manute Bol, oyster crackers, Joan Jett: Manute Bol, John Smoltz, The Princess Bride, my left elbow, Howard Bryant, Joan Jett, oyster crackers, Chips Ahoy, Ricky Nattiel (not a Broncos guy, ever), Budd Dwyer, Faye Dunaway (in real life; like her in films), Dan Quayle, George Steinbrenner.
• Fill in the blank: In 25 years, there will be …: no print newspapers anywhere in the world.
• The next president of the United States will be …: Pat Paulson
• What’s the most shocking non-death political moment of your lifetime?: Nothing shocks me.
• In 17 words, make an argument for/against Hannibal Hamlin?: How about this: I never saw the movie, never intend to. Have absolutely no interest in it.
• Five greatest biographers of your lifetime?: Robert Caro, Robert Caro, Robert Caro, Robert Caro, Robert Caro
• Biggest mistake you’ve ever made as a journalist?: Whenever I followed the crowd, I regretted it.