We sat down with Taffy Brodesser-Akner to see what it's like to write about athletes' biggest moments -- without being a traditional sports fan.
1. You write about prominent figures in defining moments, like your recent story about Ben Simmons and the NBA draft. What is it about the combination of celebrity and circumstance that appeals to you?
I think it's way too easy to be canned and jaded as a celebrity. It's not their fault -- they say the same things they've said because they're asked the same questions over and over. The only real instability you see in the system is when they don't quite know how the next thing will turn out. If you stay and listen and watch, you will always find that everything they do is about that. Because however what's next turns out, the only guarantee about it, failure or success, is that it's going to be public.
2. You're not a traditional sports fan, and seem to enjoy immersing yourself in a sport and its culture as you begin to pursue a particular profile. What is it like to learn about your subject and his/her sport at the same time? What do you find energizing about that process?
By "not a traditional sports fan," are you referring to the fact that I've had to google each of my assignments? There are a couple of answers here. One is that if you only write about what you know, you never get to be able to learn something new. The thing about sports is that people who loves sports (or any corner of the culture) don't always see the thing that is obviously ridiculous and obviously poignant, because they saw it for the first time so long ago. I couldn't believe the fact that Ben was the best player in the draft meant that he was going to go to the worst team, and that he'd have to go live somewhere according to what someone else decided. Most people take that for granted, but when I realized that, it became the cornerstone of the piece. When you don't know anything, you get to avoid the cliches of the person. Avoiding the cliches of a person in a profile in general is very hard, which I know from not always avoiding them when I write about people I'm familiar with (I have been blessed with great editors). Second, in the year since I've been writing for ESPN the Magazine, I've come to really understand what is unifying and gratifying about fandom. It's also put my children's friends in awe of me. "Did you really meet Russell Wilson," they ask me at birthday parties. I try to explain what a write-around is, but ultimately I give up and say yes. But bonus third answer, and this will hearken back to my newborn babe first answer: This stuff is pretty exciting to watch, as it turns out. I guess you guys knew that, though.
I'll say here that I'm also pretty lucky to have editors I don't have to pretend I know more than in front of, and who must have to really calm their own nerves when they hear that I don't know how drafts work. Or when they are. Or that this was the method by which players were distributed to teams.
3. How do you know when you have a good character and what happens when it ends up that you don't?
It takes a lot of pressure off of me not to think about what I'm writing as the subject's story. Rather, it's my story about the subject. I came up with this theory as I stood crying outside Barclay's a few years ago after I interviewed Nicki Minaj, who had literally fallen asleep during the interview portion of my first-ever feature assignment for GQ. Writing for GQ was my career goal, and I stood there thinking it was all over. But ultimately (thanks to one of those great editors I was talking about) I realized it wasn't up to her to make my story good. It's not her story; it's mine. She's already done her job well. That's why she gets a profile! It's my job to write a good story. It gives your subject way too much power if your story's quality reflects what kind of interview they were. Most people aren't great at talking about themselves.
4. Your prose has a distinctive pulse and energy. How do you explain the importance of rhythm in writing?
That's very nice of you. I think everything should sound like how you talk, since most people are far more interesting in a conversation than when they assume a writerly stance. Be a writer when you structure your story, but be a person trying to keep someone's attention at a cocktail party when there are 120 better-looking people in the room. Sometime I teach classes, and in them I see that the greatest challenge for great storytellers and great talkers is learning to sound more like themselves in their writing. Also, I try not to begin sentences with dependent clauses because I have a theory that the rhythm of that kind of sentence lulls people to sleep like they're in a rocking chair.
5. As sports figures become increasingly sophisticated in managing image, gaining access for a profile can be tricky. How do you navigate the challenges of getting close to a subject in the reporting process these days?
There is so much standing around and letting the person sniff around you as they ascertain your intentions. You have to do your time in that. You have to show people you're a normal person because by the time they've gotten to you, they've been burned so many times. You have to go in with a certain kind of sympathy. You have to listen and not ask so many questions and let them tell you their story. When you do that, you allow them to convey to the world the thing that they feel misunderstood about. When you let them lead the interview, they feel heard and they're excited to feel heard. We are all excited when we feel heard.
Plus 1: When did you know this was what you wanted to do with your life? Where and when did you know you would be a writer?
I always wanted to be around stories and I loved TV and movies. I went to school for screenwriting, and I wasn't a success as a screenwriter. Right after school I got a job at a soap opera magazine (no kidding), and the people there thought I was a terrible writer and told me so all the time. None of that deterred me, so I guess I always felt like this was what I was going to do. We think of writing as so rarefied and elite, but that's a narrative created by writers. Most of us are probably doing this because we weren't that good at math or science. In my school and in my family, other skills were certainly more valued. There were advanced classes for math and science in my school, but not for writing. What I'm trying to say, not particularly well, is that the barriers didn't feel high to me because where I was sitting, this was not a respected career. Luckily, I had not yet read the writers who totally blow my mind by then. By the time I read them, I was already working, so cowering in intimidation was not an option -- at least not a public option. I still do it privately.