The B/R Interview: H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger

Max TcheyanSenior Writer IFebruary 20, 2009

H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger is among the nation's most honored and distinguished writers. A native of New York City, Buzz is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Livingston Award, the American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award, and the National Headliners Award, among others. He also was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. He is the author of three highly acclaimed nonfiction books: Friday Night Lights, A Prayer for the City, and Three Nights in August.

MT:  Growing up and going to school, what was it that really pushed you toward sportswriting?

HGB:  Well I just always wanted to be a newspaper reporter.  I think it started very early in my life when I was 11 or 12.  I grew up in New York City, and at that point in time New York had about seven newspapers and every member of my family had a favorite paper.  My mother loved the Herald Tribune; my father liked the New York Times, and my grandfather like the Daily News.  Every apartment I went to was filled with newspapers and I just fell in love with them and wanted to become a print reporter.

I played this baseball game called Strat-O-Matic Baseball and I would write up stories from the game as if they were being written for the New York Times. I worked at my high school newspaper at Andover, which came out weekly, unusual for a high school paper.  Then my first day at Penn I went right to the Daily Pennsylvanian and pretty much spent most of my college career working both as the sports editor and then editor of the editorial page. 

**Note: The sports blog at the dailypennsylvanian.com is called “The Buzz”

MT:  Have you been influenced by any writers or editors?

HGB:  I was very influenced by a woman named Deborah Howell, my editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who taught me a tremendous amount about writing narrative, non-fiction even though I was writing for a print newspaper at the time. 

MT:  Any writers?

HGB:  Well there are certain writers that I admired and I guess tried to emulate with books to some degree— Robert Caro, Anthony Lukas, David Halberstam, they’re all great writers. 

I write differently though.  I like to write with a lot of emotion and a lot of power. Sometimes I overdo it; sometimes my prose is a little bit too purple, and I know that.  Frankly I think Friday Night Lights could have used another run-through to get out some of the purple prose.  With each book I’m doing a better job of screening things out myself, but you need an editor.  You need a fresh pair of eyes who can look at it objectively. 

MT:  When you decided to write Friday Night Lights, you uprooted and moved to Odessa, Texas.  What went into that decision?

HGB:  Well I was at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the year was 1988.  I had been lucky enough to have something called the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, which really inspired me to do something different with my career, and I really wanted to write a book, but the hardest thing in many ways was to find the right subject.

High school football just hit me when I took a cross-country trip through the southern route with a friend.  We went through all these little towns, and you would go down Main Street and there was really not much left.  JC Penney’s was gone, Sears was gone, but then you would drive a few blocks out of town and there would be this beautiful, immaculate, well-watered, beautifully painted high school football stadium.  It just struck me in my heart that these simply aren’t stadiums; these are shrines to people’s hopes and dreams on a Friday night.  The idea stayed with me—what would it be like to spend a year in a town like that? 

I went back to the Inquirer and became an editor—that was probably what did it, I hated being an editor.  I figured it’s now or never; either I’m going to go off and write this book or I’m never going to do it and sort of work my way up the traditional track of the paper.  I decided to go for the book and found the town of Odessa, uprooted my then fiancé and twin five-year-old boys, and moved there from August of 1988 to August of 1989. 

MT:  Did you feel that you were taking a chance with your career at that moment?

HGB:  I was taking a chance.  I did have a book contract, though it wasn’t paying nearly as much as I was making at the Inquirer and offered no benefits.  The risk was that the book wouldn’t work out and then what would I do?  Not to mention all the personal circumstances of providing care for my family; so there was a lot of risk involved.

I just passionately wanted to do this book.  It was that one moment in life where you say to yourself, “I’m going to do this no matter what the risk.”  I just felt that there was a great idea there, and I was lucky enough to pick the right town, the right season, and the right year.  Everything just broke right, and I was lucky enough to be there to witness it. 

MT:  What are you working on now?

HGB:  Right now I do stuff for Vanity Fair, but I’m currently working on a different project.  I’m working on a book on my twin boys who are 25 years old and were born three months pre-mature, weighing 1 lb. 14, and 1 lb. 11 ounces.  The two of them are very different.  Jerry turned out to be normal and has a full life.  He just became a teacher, has a full-time girlfriend, and lives on his own.  Zack unfortunately has had brain damage, and his life is very different.  He’ll never live independently; he’ll probably never marry. 

It’s a book about loving these two boys from the perspective of a father, and coming to grips with that.  It’s a very personal story, which is very different from other books that I’ve done, but I welcome the challenge.  I just hope I’m up to it.

MT:  I have no doubt; the sensitivity you exhibited in Three Nights in August, particularly in describing the series of events surrounding the death of Darryl Kile, comes to mind.  How were you able to depict so accurately what went on with the team without over-stepping your boundaries?

HGB:  Well originally the book was going to be an as-told-to, and I was going to write it for Tony [La Russa].  I wasn’t really that comfortable with that and neither was he, but sometimes when you’re on your own as a writer, you do things for money, and I’m not ashamed of that.  But Tony really didn’t want an autobiography, and frankly, I didn’t think his life was worthy of an autobiography. 

At the winter meetings in Nashville Tony just sort of blurted out, not really talking about the book, “You know what would be a really interesting book?  Take a three game series and dissect virtually every pitch.”  The second he said that I said, “Tony, that’s it!  That’s the way to do this thing, but if you really want to do it, you have to give me access.  You have to let me into the clubhouse, let me get as deep as I can to soak up every drop of the St. Louis Cardinals.  In other words, you have to give control of the book to me.”  And he agreed. 

I got incredible access to the Cardinals clubhouse, and I worked my way slowly.  First I got to know Tony well.  I interviewed him a lot and gained his trust, but I waited with the players.  I think sometimes reporters, we get nervous, we want material, we leave too soon, we interview too soon, and baseball players and professional athletes can be very standoffish.  So for the first three months I just established my presence.  I didn’t ask a single question to any of the players.  Then after they saw that I was serious and had the trust of Tony, I started to approach the players, and bit-by-bit they opened up.  Tony opened up a lot. 

The stuff about Darryl Kile came from extensive interviews with Tony and other people.  It was just a matter of gaining trust, and I didn’t rush it.  I remember I was nervous as hell thinking I wouldn’t have any material, but by waiting, establishing my presence, and not being too pushy, it really did pay off in the end.

MT:  The Afterword of the book is very interesting because you raise the debate between followers of Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball, and followers of Three Nights in August, who have been called Moneyballistas and LaRussaistas, respectively.  (The terms were coined by a sports blogger.)  Can you talk about that?

HGB:  Well Michael Lewis is a terrific writer and he’s a very brilliant guy, but I do think that Moneyball sided too much on the idea that all you need is good statistical analysis to field a winning team.

Teams are made up of a lot of components.  They’re made up of hunger, they’re made up of desire, they’re made up of chemistry, and they’re made up of emotion.  Those are components of the game; they’re intangible.

I don’t want to dismiss that stuff as out of hand, but I also believe for the sake of life itself if we take out all emotion, we take out all heart and all desire, then we might as well play it by computer.

As interesting and provocative as Moneyball was, of those seven draft picks, I don’t think any are still with the Athletics.  A lot of them just bombed out.  It’s a very inexact science trying to predict what a baseball player is going to do.  As Tony said, once a guy gets a hundred-million dollar contract, or a fat contract, that’s going to be the dividing line between whether he still plays hard, or whether he says, “Hey I can coast and still make a ton of money.”

I don’t think you can replace the kind of example of a David Eckstein and what he brings in terms of his own hustle, or the work ethic of someone like Albert Pujols.  Albert works his butt off.  He watches every pitch that is thrown to him.  He goes into the clubhouse in between innings to watch his at bats; he’s constantly watching video.  I think the example of Darryl Kile rubbed off on certain players.  His competitiveness, the fact that he hated to give up intentional walks; and that, as I say, can’t be quantified. 

MT:  Going back to when you were a guest on Costas Now, the HBO Sports talk show, you expressed some pretty strong emotions against the blogosphere.  Can you give your thoughts on web journalism, blogs, and the future of journalism and how sports media is changing?

HGB:  Yeah sure, and I want to make it clear that I was just over the top in the Costas appearance.  I was very wound up and very passionate about the subject.  And look, I’m mourning the loss of the print media.  The statistics just get worse and worse in terms of circulation drops and things like that, and it’s clear that the world is going to be the world of the web and the world of blogs. 

I’m not an expert on blogs, and I’ve seen a lot more blogs since my appearance so I probably should have been better prepared for that, but from what I’ve seen there are definitely some good blogs, but the preponderance of blogs just aren’t very good for the very reason that they’re not doing what you [Bleacher Report] attempt to be doing. 

They’re not screening the writing, the comments are often putrid and mean spirited and cruel, and I think that the writing lacks the kind of editing that all writing needs no matter where it appears, whether it’s in the newspaper, a magazine, or if it’s on a website. 

Editors are there for a reason; good editors know when to cut, they know when things need to be enhanced, they know how to hone a piece and really make it sharp and shiny and gleam.  That’s true in any form, and that’s what blogs and websites are going to need, because you guys are the future.  So if you’re doing that, if you’re taking pieces and actually editing them and trying to give them high standards of editorial content I think that’s great and I think that’s the way to go. 

MT:  Do you think that this fan content, this citizen journalism should have a place?

HGB:  Yes, I definitely do.  And I think as long as the content is not cruel, and is not nasty, and not vindictive then I think it’s fine.  If the fan has a genuine comment, and often fans have very good observations, there should be a place for those observations.  It makes the game more fun for them and it gives them a voice.

One thing I learned on the Costas appearance is that there’s a feeling that the print media is very arrogant and very inflated and I think there’s some merit to that argument.  Fans should have a place to talk about what they are seeing, and I think that as long as the material is edited and the attempt is to give it form and content, then I think that’s great. 

MT:  What one piece of advice would you offer to the writers at Bleacher Report?

HGB:  Trust good editing because there are a lot of good editors out there.  They can really enhance a piece.  They’re not evil; they are there to make pieces better.
You have to be willing to re-write, and I think shorter often is better.  The best thing you can do as a writer, and it’s hard in this day in age because we move so quickly, is to let it sit.  If you let it sit for an hour, even just 15 minutes, and then re-read it, you’ll find places and areas that can be cut. 

Re-writing is a pain in the ass and hard to do.  Your gut is saying oh god it’s terrible, but your heart is saying it’s fine, but you know deep down inside that you have to change it, you have to blow it up and start over.  That stinks, but that will lead to something better.

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