Interview With Sportswriter Jeff Pearlman
Updated: Mar 24, 2021
A simple question, or maybe not, because it can certainly be an agonizing process: Why do you like writing? What about it appeals to you and how did you know you should make a career out of using words?
OK, so back when I was in college I had a girlfriend. And she had sharp fingernails. I vividly remember one evening, I was feeling sick, and she gave me a tremendous back scratch. What made it so terrific was the pleasure/pain mixture. It was both soothing and dreadful. She took a photo of my back, and there were all these scratch marks.
That's how I think of writing. I love writing. I hate writing. I love piecing things together. I hate the process of piecing things together. I'd say, oh, 60 percent of the time I write more than 1,000 words, there comes a point when I'm convinced it's the worst thing ever; that it'll never get done; that this will be the one that ends me. But, ultimately, I wrap. It might be 4 am—but I wrap. And when that moment happens, and I go to bed, I feel great.
I mean, that's the rub of it all. Writing as a career is awesome. It takes you places. It allows you to express yourself. People pay to read what you have to say. That's killer. But ... it hurts. It's isolating. You talk to yourself a lot, and you become a huge procrastinator. But, ultimately, you create something. I love that.
Oh, and one more biggie: I love hearing stories. Ask my wife and kids: I'm addicted to asking baristas/dentists/bellhops/dancers/runners/phone sex operators/mailmen—what's the craziest thing you've seen? The grossest? The coolest. This job gives you license to pry. It's my hobby.
How did I know I should make a career of it? It was the only thing I ever really wanted to do.
Do you consider yourself a better reporter or a better writer? And does that matter to you either way?
Hmm ... probably reporter. Here's why: When I was coming up through college, then during my days at The Tennessean, I (wrongly) thought I was destined to be the greatest writer of all time. I was a cocky little asshole, told far too many times at Delaware how great I was. And, truly, I wasn't great. I was your typical turn-a-quick-phrase college writer who knew nothing about reporting. Then I got hired by Sports Illustrated, and I started as a reporter in what was called "The Bullpen." You're a fact checker, itching to write. And sitting alongside me were people like Jon Wertheim, Grant Wahl, Seth Davis, Paul Gutierrez, John Walters—an army of terrific writers. And I was fact checking Steve Rushin, Bill Nack, Richard Hoffer, Tom Verducci, Phil Taylor ... on and on. And they were, factually, far superior writers. That was a right fist to my cockiness. And what I started to realize was that there would always be better writers. Always. For everyone. I mean, there's really no such thing as "the best" writer. So what could I do to even the field? Bust my ass. Make the extra call, then the extra extra call. I came to love reporting. It's my favorite part of the process: The dig. And, truth be told, you can be a great journalist with so-so writing skills and tremendous reporting skills. You can't be great with fantastic writing skills and no reporting chops.
Not all reporters wind up writing books. What drove you to that pursuit and did you have any trepidation about diving into your first book project?
It didn't really interest me. But I was at SI, and Jon Wertheim, my friend and colleague, got a book deal to write about the rise of the Williams sisters. And I thought, "Hmm ... books." At that time a literary agent named Susan Reed called me out of the blue. I was covering baseball for the magazine, and she said, "Have you ever thought about books? And would you ever consider the '86 Mets?" And—bam!—it was an insanely good idea. And a team I grew up loving.
Trepidation? Not that I recall. I'm my mother's son, in that I get something and I charge straight ahead. I just took it and charged.
Take us through the process of how you write one of your books (the Brett Favre biography would be ideal, since it’s your newest): How many hours of research, the number of interviews you did, how long it took to do the actual writing and editing, everything involved. I imagine that when you start a project, the task can seem monumental.
OK, so I get a book deal and I usually ask for two years. For the first 1 1/2 years I only report. That's all. First thing I generally do is compile a Brett Favre library. I dig through clips from a bunch of different suppliers. I buy every book imaginable about Favre, the Packers, 90s and 2000s football, etc. Then I turn to the yearbooks and media guides. I'll track down every single one, if possible. Middle school yearbooks, high school yearbooks, Falcons, Packers, Jets, Vikings. And I'll make a Word file for every ... single ... person. Teammates. Coaches. Receptionists. PR people. On and on. Then I try and track them all down. My philosophy is this: Brett Favre likely would not remember the free-agent halfback from Bucknell who spent three weeks in camp in 1996. But the free agent is going to remember Favre. It might be a single story. But those single stories are often gold.
Anyhow, it's a huge reporting whirlwind, and it beats the snot out of me. Because it becomes this odd addiction. As all the calls are happening I'm also reading through the material. The clips. And one day you'll find the name of the real estate agent who sold Favre his first house. Another time you'll get the name of the bartender he loves. It's just a big shitshow of information.
With six months left, I stop. Cold. No more reporting. I write. Wertheim once suggested you write at least 1,000 words a day. It's smart, and that's what I do. When I'm done writing I take a 17-year nap.
Brett Favre wouldn’t talk to you, correct? I’m guessing you reached out more than a few times. What kind of challenges are involved in writing about someone who isn’t willing to be interviewed? Can it actually be liberating in some ways?
I actually had three different phone interviews scheduled, and they were all cancelled last minute. Oddly, that sort of helped me. Because it allowed me to say, "I'm scheduled to speak with him next week" when people would ask, "Is Brett talking to you?"
The main challenge is people hearing he's not speaking. It's a turnoff, naturally. "Is Brett involved?" No. "Well, then I don't wanna talk." That always sucks. But, yes, it's also liberating. Because with access often comes compromise. The ol' "Look, do me a favor. Just don't make a big deal about the time I ..." The limitations don't exist. You can go all out.
You’ve been involved in a few controversies over the years – the infamous John Rocker Sports Illustrated interview obviously comes to mind. What’s it like to be in the middle of one of those firestorms?
It sucks, times 1,000,000. The greatest myth of the sports journalist is that we live for that shit. Wrong. I'm a product of a journalism program (Delaware) that stressed A. Professionalism; B. Staying out of the story. The Rocker aftermath put me right in the middle of the story. It was weird and uncomfortable. I was known as "the Rocker guy" for a long time. I never enjoyed it.
How do you handle it – philosophically, I suppose, or emotionally – when you get negative reaction to your books? Former Bears coach Mike Ditka was quoted as saying he wanted to “spit” on you over your book on Walter Payton. And Mike Wilbon wrote a column that essentially questioned your motives. How do you deal with that? Do those sort of reactions ever cause you to doubt yourself or your work?
Well, it's not fun. The Ditka thing didn't hurt, because he's a moron. But Wilbon stung. First because I knew he had yet to read "Sweetness." But second, because he's a peer and someone I admire.
This might sound weird, but Twitter has REALLY thickened my skin. Used to be someone would say something awful about your work and it was, "Whoa. What the fuck?" But Twitter is soooooooo negative and ugly, you just got used to it, brush it aside. I really mean that. I receive more negative feedback than ever before, yet it bothers me less than ever. I actually laugh a lot. People try, and say insulting weird things. They'll say, like, "nice hairline." And I always think (and sometimes say) the same thing: "Man, I'm 45. I have a fantastic wife, two great kids, I live in Southern California and I write books for a living. If limited hair is the best you've got, I'm gold."
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever gotten to do because of your job? Or the coolest person you’ve ever gotten to talk to and why?
So I worked at SI for about six years, and then I got really burned out and took a job at Newsday. I was there for about 1 1/2 years—my gig was roaming New York City, seeking out cool stories. And one assignment I'll never forget is the time I crashed office holiday parties. You read that correctly—I'd show up in a suit and tie at random holiday parties to see how many I could sneak into. It was electric. I was "Mike from Datatell." I was "Alex, a publicist." It was pure bunk The most memorable moment was the final party I attended—MTV at the Hammerstein Ballroom. My then-brother in law was an MTV employee, and he told me I had no chance of entering. "No way in hell," was his wording. Well, I show up. And out front there's a smoking section formed of police barriers. I sorta slide into the smoking area, bum a cig from someone (I don't smoke; I've never smoked; I'm sure I looked the fool). I'm a little lost, and I explain to a woman what I'm doing. She laughs, looks down at her hand—she has a stamp on it. She grabs my palm, licks it, smudges her stamp against my hand and a little rubs off. She then says, "Follow me"—and we walk past a bouncer, I hold up my hand ... and I'm in! I'm in! My bro in law is named Reggie. I see him, tap him on the shoulder. He looks at me dumbfounded. "Holy shit," he says, with a smile.
On the flip side, I’m sure you’ve encountered more than a few jerks (John Rocker aside). Any of those experiences you care to share?
It was spring training 2000, and Sports Illustrated had me roaming Florida for the upcoming baseball preview issue. On this particular day I was down in Ft. Lauderdale, trying to uncover some insights into the Baltimore Orioles. While standing by a buffet table in the clubhouse, I was approached by Will Clark, who gazed at my press credential with a curious sort of expression.
"Why's your pass turned over?" he asked.
I looked down. "Oh," I said. "You're right."
When I flipped it to the proper side, Clark leaned toward me and read the small writing.
"Jeff Pearlman?" he asked.
"Jeff Pearlman! Jeff fucking Pearlman!" Clark's voice grew increasingly loud — the famous, cat-choking-on-a-lugnut Will the Thrill cackle in full bloom.
"Jeff fucking Pearlman! Now why the fuck would anyone in here want to talk to you? Why the fuck would we wanna talk to you, after what you did to (John) Rocker? Why?"
I just stood there, feeling sort of naked. I was 27 years old, and had yet to fully grasp that men like Clark were actually schoolyard bullies hiding behind a loud voice and the uniformity of a major league clubhouse. Truth be told, I was also naively unprepared for the backlash that followed the John Rocker profile. Though the story generated a fair share of controversy, all of it had come during the offseason.
Clark continued. "No wonder you have your pass backward, you fucking coward! Nobody here is ever going to talk to you. No fucking way!"
"Did you have a problem with the way I wrote that story?" I asked (dumbly).
"Are you kidding me?" Clark replied. "Are you fucking kidding me?"
With that he huffed off, seemingly satisfied that he had outed me to his peers. My head tucked to my chest, my confidence at an all-time low, I shuffled over to good ol' Delino DeShields, hoping he didn't share Clark's feelings.
"I guess you saw that," I said, referring to the browbeating.
"Yeah," said DeShields, grinning slightly. "But you've gotta consider the source."
Are you ever star-struck? Or have you become jaded at this point?
Never. We all poop.
I follow your blog, and you’re very outspoken when it comes to politics and the president. Since you make a living at least in part by selling your books, do you have any qualms about alienating possible buyers?
I do. It's probably an enormous mistake. But, ultimately, I'm a citizen before I'm a sports writer. And this stuff matters to me MUCH more than Dodgers-Braves. It just does. And with Donald Trump as president—I just can't sit back and say nothing. So does it hurt my sales? Probably. But I'm willing to accept that.
Because I’m a children’s author and this blog is ostensibly about children’s book writing, can you tell me what authors/books you most loved growing up and why? How do you think they influenced your own writing, or even what kind of person you became?
So when I was a kid, I lived about a mile from the Mahopac Public Library. And I'd go there all the time. Like, a-l-l the time. One of the librarians came to embrace me, and she knew I was "Jeff, the kid who loves sports biographies." This started when I was probably in junior high. So she would actually hold all new sports books from the shelves and call me first to come get them. There are very few 1980s sports biographies and autobiographies that I failed to read. Bo Jackson. Ron Guidry. Gary Carter. Keith Hernandez. Phil McConkey. Joe Charboneau. Warren Cromartie. I'd rush to the library, dig through them. I had no idea the athletes weren't doing the writing. Didn't care.
The best part, in hindsight, was the exposure. My town was very white, very rural, very conservative. In my high school class of 330, we had two African-Americans, maybe 10 ... 12 Jews. These books exposed me to Afros, to the Dominican Republic, to the inner city, to lamb chop sideburns. They taught me about growing up poor, about living for your passion. In many ways they were my great educators.
Do your children love to read? What are they into?
So my daughter, who is 14, LOVES reading. She loved "School of Good and Evil," as an example. She's really into graphic novels. Interestingly, she also likes reading books repeatedly. My son is almost 11, and he's not as into it. But what we've been doing—and what I love—is lying in bed and I read "Sweetness" to him aloud. It's really fun; like being the book on tape. It also gives me a chance to discuss mature themes with him. I don't skip over, say, infidelity or drug abuse. But I pause so we can chat, analyze. It's so enriching for me.
What advice would you offer to kids out there who are interested in becoming a reporter or an author?
That probably sounds dumb. But I mean it. Nine of 10 people prefer to talk over listening. Be the listener. Let people tell their stories. Ask questions. Learn. Absorb. I have yet to meet a good journalist who sucks at listening.