“It’s crazy … I’ve never blabbered on like this in my life.”
Gary Smith was tabbed the “America’s Greatest Sports Writer” by Slate in 2003, but you mightn’t be familiar with his work because he’s not debating inane sports topics on TV, trying to be a multimedia superstar, or appearing in SI every week. But he’s doing a whirlwind tour for his new book, Going Deep, and was kind enough to squeeze us into his schedule for a brief interview. (Mandatory Smith story that you should print out right now and read this weekend: The Chosen One. It’s about Tiger, before he ascended to greatness.)
Q: Talk to us about your writing process, from the hatching of the story to collecting information to when you sit down to make magic happen. Spare no detail.
A: Half of the story ideas come from SI, and half come from me. When we find something mutually agreeable, it’s a go. Then I begin researching anything I can read about the subject – the SI library will usually send me clips – and jotting down questions. After a few days of research, I reach out to the person to see if they are agreeable. It’s usually a brief conversation, but I try to let them know it is going to be extensive and take a lot of time. I really have to make them aware of the process of getting in the tunnel with me so it’s not a total shock.
When I go on the road, it usually is for 1-2 weeks. I work completely around their schedule. Basically, any window they have open where they can clear out a couple of hours, I’m talking to them. When they are busy, I’m talking to relatives, coaches, friends, bosses, whatever. I really want to get a feel for what it is like being around that person.
When I’m on the road, it’s usually wall-to-wall work. I might start at 8:30 in the morning and have interviews lined up all day. I might get back to the hotel around 8 or 11 and my mind is pretty fried because I’ve been asking questions and listening and trying to be open to hearing what the person is saying … which usually opens up a whole other nest of questions. I’m open to chatting with the subject anywhere they’re comfortable and not distracted. I want to get into their hearts and their souls and their pasts. The locker room is not the place they want to relax and unpack their suitcases, metaphorically.
I don’t actually use a table recorder. I’m just scribbling away. Then, when I head home, I’ll just start typing it all into my computer. I don’t have an assistant transcribing the notes, I do it all myself. I usually break the notes into categories, identifying some scenes or moments in that person’s life that could be pivotal. That usually takes a couple of weeks. I’m a laptop guy, and I usually work at home, but for transcribing the notes, sometimes I’ll go to a cafe and have a coffee.
While I’m doing the notes, sometimes, that will lead to follow-up phone calls. I want to have everything ready so I can sit down and write. Then I start writing, and I’m really hunkered down for about three weeks. Occasionally I’ll make a follow-up call, but I try not to. I’ll write on weekdays, and sometimes on the weekend for a few hours. I break it up by doing occasional jogging or yoga, maybe lifting weights or playing tennis. You can’t write productively for more than eight hours a day.
Q: How’d you make the leap from newspapers to being a features guy? Features jobs are extremely coveted in the business, much more desirable than the day-to-day grind of beat reporting.
A: While working in newspapers, I had been assigned to cover a basketball player in Philly named Gene Banks. The Philly Daily News had me cover every game that he played because he was an incredible talent – the best player to come out of the city since Wilt. At the beginning of the season, I did a long takeout story on him. After a year of doing that, I started covering the Eagles as a beat writer. Wilbert Montgomery was the star running back, and I started asking him his backstory after I had gathered what I needed for the daily beat. Slowly, I began jotting down the story of his life. I asked the sports editor if I could write a takeout on him, and he said yes. Then, I started pushing the length thing, even on the beat. Around that time, a magazine editor happened to read some of that stuff and gave me a chance.
Q: Your Tiger Woods piece is quite legendary, partially because of the access you were granted. In the current era, the climate isn’t nearly as conducive to such an in-depth profile because athletes have their guard up and want to protect their brand. Is there a solution?
The Tiger story tried to give readers a sense of how big he was going to be. The goal was to show the reader what the world does with someone very famous, when the media and advertising machine get to them. Now, it would be very difficult to do a revealing piece on him. He has his guard up. He has no real interest in letting someone inside the bubble, because it could deter or detract what his goal is.
I have sensed a bit of the athletes-with-their-guard-up mentality. But it hasn’t happened so much to me, only because I’m more drawn to doing stories on unknown characters. There’s so much more access and they don’t try to control every step of the process.
Q: Regarding your subjects, have any athletes come to you and steered you to do a story on them? And after the story has run, do the athletes or subjects contact you? For instance, you wrote about George O’Leary and his problems at Notre Dame in a revealing story. Did you hear from him?
A: A couple of times people have seemed to express interest. Damned Yankee, which was about a guy who was supposed to be Yogi Berra’s successor, I thought turned out well. I was approached by someone once who essentially said I was the one that needed to write a story about their buddy. That turned into Radio, which became a movie.
I never spoke to O’Leary after the story, and until recently, I was not aware of his problems with the media in Central Florida. Sometimes, I will keep track of subjects after the story is run. And I keep in touch with a number of them; the celebrity ones I’m less likely to hear from.
Q: This could be a stretch, but we’ll ask it anyway – your wife is a psychiatrist. One of your subjects told the New York Times that being interviewed by you “could have saved me 20 years of psychoanalysis.” Do you feel that maybe there’s a connection between your wife’s profession and your innate ability to probe your subjects?
A: (Laughs). My interest in human nature and human behavior and trying to explore the crevices in all of us that remain unrevealed preceded her. I think her job and that quote are just a happy coincidence. I was sort of going in that direction when we started dating, and she was a sportswriter. We do enjoy talking about subjects and life in a generic way, and what’s really going on with people, and what might be compelling them to do what they do and act the way they act.
Q: You often write about race and sports, and it can be a dicey topic. Do you feel it is discussed enough in sports pages across the country? How vital are race to sports today?
A: Sports is such an interesting laboratory. You’ve got people from nine or 10 different countries thrown together in the same locker room. Athletes are with their teammates more than they are their families. How they deal with that and bridge cultural differences is fascinating to me. The way people find ways to use a ball to bring disparate elements together is one of the most fascinating things about sports.
The crusade you’re on as a team should supercede all differences. They ability of sports to work as a blender … and the search in America for putting the pieces together in this mosaic … it’s happening in a really dramatic and dynamic way in sports. Cultural differences going on in the locker room can be really intriguing. The fans would probably read more about that change and how the pieces fit together psychologically. But for beat writers, it’s hard to have the time or the space in their head to look at sports as a social laboratory.
Q: Lastly, your favorite two stories?
A: I’d say Damned Yankee is one of my favorites. The story became part of my life, in a way. And Ali’s Entourage was one of my favorites, too.
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