Before I started the Q&A for this interview, I asked Tom Dunkel how he would pitch (no, not on the mound) his baseball book to my favorite aunt, Matilda:
Matilda, First thing, you’re standing on my foot. Give me some space, please. Also…I would like my wallet back. Thank you.
Second thing, let me tell you about the baseball book I’ve written that is about more than baseball. Color Blind is a true story that unwinds like the proverbial good yarn. It’s about an oddball group of black men and white men - some of them rawboned and with rough edges - who do something most men didn’t dare do during the Great Depression: They played baseball together. They played for the town team of Bismarck, North Dakota; out where the buffalo roam and heavy bets were being placed on ball games because, well, that beats watching wheat grow. The team was managed by a local car dealer who paid the players out of his own pocket. A deep and mysterious pocket it was, by the way…but you’ll have to read the book to find out what I mean by that. The manager’s prized recruit was Satchel Paige, star pitcher of the Negro Leagues. Satchel was a magician on the mound. Sure enough, once he arrived in Bismarck magical things began to happen, out where the buffalo roam and where white men and black men aren’t supposed to play baseball together.
Color Blind take a wide-angle view of baseball. It touches on moonshining, Dakota pioneer days, drought, Depression and racial discrimination. Unlikely famous faces such as Sitting Bull, Franklin Roosevelt and Carl Sandburg make cameo appearances.
You like history, Matilda? You like sports? You like colorful characters wrapped inside an engaging narrative? You simply like my hair? Then buy Color Blind. NOW!
You’ve always been a journalist, a magazine writer. Why a book now? I considered two other book projects at earlier points in my career. Why go the distance now? Partly because the ground for newspaper- and magazine-feature writing is melting beneath our feet. Pay is stagnating. Word lengths are shrinking. God knows the book business has its problems, but there’s still a premium placed on good writing, in-depth reporting and story telling. I also wanted more control of my career and wanted to stretch as a writer. My agent once told me “You’ll never be taken seriously as a writer unless you do books.” She’s right. If I were a wiser person, I’d have taken this step 15 years ago.
Have you taken an interest in the long-form non-fiction sites on the WWW like The Atavist atavist.com or Gothamist http://goo.gl/ghfRW? Nope. Not familiar with either site. I’ll have to check them out.
Are nonfiction article writers getting paid a $1 a word yet? Ah, you’re toying with me, sir. As you know, it’s Back to The Future with magazine rates. I don’t have as firm a handle on the market as I used to because for the past four years I’ve been immersed in this book. But $1 a word was considered baseline good pay twenty years ago. Sadly, the needle hasn’t moved much. I bet The Washington Post Magazine hasn’t raised its base pay in 15 years. Nothing furtive. Newspaper economics changed dramatically for the worse. The money just isn’t there anymore.
Can you describe a typical workday, a writing day? When I’m in writing mode I tend to go nocturnal. That could mean getting up at 11 am and working till 5 in the morning. I don’t know if that’s owed to biorhythms, my tendency to procrastinate during daylight hours, or the fact my dog isn’t bugging me to go for a walk. I’ve read that John McPhee knocks off religiously every day at 7 pm. I tend to work till I run out of gas. It’s an erratic schedule. I’d like to get into a more normal routine. So far that’s eluded me.
Talk about the best assignment ever? I don’t know about “best”, but the one that sticks with me is when Travel & Leisure asked me to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro but to avoid the tourist route. I found a Seattle-based mountaineer who had a small adventure travel company and who led climbers up the backside of the mountain. That mountaineer was Scott Fischer. He died on Mt. Everest in 1996, part of the larger tragedy that became Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book Into Thin Air. I liked Scott and we’d talked about hooking up on another article sometime. Sometime never came. He actually invited me to go on that Everest trip, but I couldn’t get an assignment in time.
Do you think about writing fiction? I do. I’ve taken rough notes on two story lines. Time will tell if they ever get beyond that stage.
You’ve always gone to the gym, run, and worked out. Does it help your writing? I started lifting weights at age thirteen for football…and never stopped working out. I’ve been distance running since before they made running shoes: I started in low-cut Converse basketball sneakers. I’m not a fanatic, but it’s ingrained in me by now. I do think being physically fit helps with writing and reporting. I’ve not noticed any diminution in stamina over the years. I’m also that rare writer who doesn’t drink coffee. What can I say? I’m weird.
Did J school make a difference? Would you recommend it? It depends on your individual situation. J school was necessary for me. I didn’t write for my high school or college newspaper. I had an interest in film production, but ultimately decided I preferred the simple purity of print writing to the collaborative process of film. I entered the masters program in journalism at New York University when I was thirty. I sold my schoolwork to help pay my rent. Sports Illustrated bought my thesis, but never published it. Frankly, back then the byline would’ve been more beneficial to me than the money.
How long in the business now? My byline first appeared in 1980, in the Washington Journalism Review, known today as the American Journalism Review.
You and I have always spoken about “the club,” those writers who just seem to fly above it all. Are they there? Who are they? And haven’t you earned the right to join in? That’s a delicate subject. Criticism of the profession tends to be perceived as sour grapes. Let’s just say, I believe too many journalists are irrationally tribal. There’s a pervasive mindset that “If I don’t know you, you can’t be any good.”
How was you experience with HuffPo? I enjoyed the immediacy of being published and the heady freedom of being unedited. But, ultimately, practicality ruled and I drifted away. I can’t pay the mortgage if I don’t get paid for my writing.
Is there an income (forget money:) to be made on-line? As you know, a precious few sites pay a close-to-livable wage. For the most part, however, on-line journalism seems to be a ski-bum existence: something you do for a few years in your carefree twenties or perhaps a little longer if Dad set you up with a trust fund. It’s worrisome that journalism increasingly looks like a young person’s game, a career with a very pinched horizon.
You’ve survived and made an income with your writing. Have wages so improved? Or is there a formula you follow, a way to parlay the value of your stories? The only formula I know is perseverance and a modest lifestyle. My car is ten years old. So are most of my suits.
Name three people who have helped your career the most (leave your Mom out of this). How about two? I had a terrific professor at NYU named Helen Epstein who taught a class in magazine writing. Helen opened my eyes to the possibilities of narrative nonfiction and gave me my north star to follow. The other person would be John Kennedy, Jr. He offered me an annual contract to write for George, the politics-and-culture magazine he founded in the mid-1990s. I was an outsider. I did a freelance feature for George and he liked it enough to immediately bring me on board. Only two top-of-the-masthead editors ever called me and thanked me for writing for their magazine: John Kennedy and Michael Kelly, during his tenure at The New Republic. Two very decent men who both met untimely ends.
Do you see a story, study it, look for an angle and then pitch it? Is there a query formula that you’ve found that works? No formula per se. The best advice I ever got was to write the opening paragraph of your query letter as if it was the potential lead to the article. But that’s hardly secret sauce. Yes, you have to give thought to the best way to tell the story. Often in magazine work that means finding the person or the situation that’s your vehicle for addressing a larger topic or issue. But if at root the idea is weak, style points aren’t going to land you an assignment.