Charlie Pierce is one of the reasons I became a writer, or at least one of the reasons I became the writer I did. When I was in school, I read Esquire with religious fervor, which meant, mostly, that I read Charlie’s sports column, “The Game,” and anything else he’d written over the course of his long and varied career. I became obsessed with many things about him: his limitless-seeming knowledge base, his mastery of the metaphor, his beautiful sentences. His best stories read like true-life fairytales.
I set my sights on becoming his colleague. Unfortunately, when I finally got the chance to join Esquire, it was to write “The Game,” which Charlie had left to write features for Esquire and elsewhere and to join the staff of his hometown Boston Globe.
Let me tell you something: Nothing made my insides turn more quickly to mush than the idea that I was filling the space formerly occupied by Charlie Pierce. I’m the one other person on earth who knows how Ryan Minor felt.
More happily, Charlie and I have since become friends. This past fall, we sat in a bar in New York City called Jimmy’s Corner and watched Roy Halladay no-hit the Cincinnati Reds. We shouted over the jukebox and laughed and drank whiskey, and I couldn’t help remembering how I had once been a young man who had studied the words written by the man beside me, and now here we both were, drunk in Jimmy’s Corner. Roy Halladay was the least perfect thing about that night.
With pride and pleasure, I’d like to introduce my friend, Mr. Charles. P. Pierce:
1. You wrote one of my all-time favorite sentences: A great horse builds its own universe. (The horse in question was Seattle Slew.) Where does a sentence like that come from?
I will have to tell you one story to tell you that one. My grandmother was a shepherd from north Kerry in Ireland. She and her sisters came over here and she became a domestic in Boston and then in Worcester, where she met and married my grandfather, who was a cop. Things at my house being what they were, I spent a lot of time with her at her house. She was a natural storyteller. She told me, from memory, all the tales and sagas that she'd learned from the hedge teachers near where she grew up. What I remember most is that almost anything could be a cue for her to begin telling me about Cuchulain, or Deirdre of the sorrows, or some story about the Troubles. What got hardwired into me was the notion that all stories have their own lives, that they have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that they can start almost anywhere. I think they're just out there in the ether, waiting for someone to sort them out.
Which is only part of why I was very happy that afternoon when I walked into Slew's barn at Three Chimneys and saw that he was in the middle of his twice-weekly Reiki healing session, complete with candles, New Age music, and a Reiki healer who cautioned me to stand in the middle of the barn and not get in the way of what was going on. (To this day, I have no idea.) While I was standing there, leaning against some old tack, I went through my immediate reaction, which was that this was one of the funniest things I ever saw. (Which is not to say that this reaction was entirely incorrect. It was just the reaction I had first.) But then I began to wonder at the happiness this great animal had brought to people that it didn't know from a bag of oats. All the horse people who'd watched him grow up. All the horse people—and all the non-horse people—who'd watched him run. And, now, all the people who'd devoted themselves to taking care of him throughout his extended retirement. All of them seemed to me to have left a portion of their lives in orbit around him. When I sat down to write, the sentence just popped out and, damn, if it didn't feel great.
Isn't that part of the joy of what we do? When whatever it is that makes us writers fires at the right time and at the right place, and the perfect word/phrase/sentence in exactly the right place happens? It can happen anywhere—you could be somebody who's doing four running stories in an afternoon at a state high-school tournament, or a bonus piece for SI, or anything in between, and you see a player or experience a moment, and something sparks in your head, the connection happens, and you can almost hear a big door closing—WHOOM!—because there's nothing more to say. You've found a way, at least for that moment, to get the language to do exactly what you want it to do.
And, anyway, thanks.
2. For a certain audience, you’re best known for your sports writing. But you’ve also written extensively about science, about politics, about medicine. How do you identify yourself? Do great writers have to build their own universes, too?
Good. Now I get to talk about Clif Garboden, my good friend and editor who passed away in February, god rest his mighty soul.
(But, first—a note about editors. I have been enormously lucky in my life to find good ones. I married the best one. At the Boston Phoenix, I had Bob Sales, T.A. Frail, now at Smithsonian, and the late John Ferguson, who also left us too fucking soon. At The National, there was Rob Fleder and, of course, our buddy, Granger, who shepherded me to GQ and then to Esquire after The National had its unfortunate accident while docking at Lakehurst, New Jersey—"Sportswriters are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement. Oh, the humanity!"—and my advice to any writer is to find a good one and latch on to that person as tightly as you can. One thing that drives me crazy, and this is especially true in newspapers, is the notion that you should take your best writer and "promote" him to be an editor. This is idiotic, and it happens all the time, and nine times out of ten you lose a good writer and end up with a mediocre editor. You can no more "promote" a writer to be an editor than you can "promote" a plumber to be a gardener. Totally different skill sets. Just to use one example—I am the world's worst editor. Every change I make in a piece of copy makes the piece sound like I wrote it, and we all know how popular that phenomenon is with writers. The ability to work within a writer's voice while leaving no fingerprints is a talent as far beyond me as landscape painting is. In between counting beans and worrying about the Internet, the people who run America's newspapers should get off their ass, identify their best young editors, and train them AS EDITORS. Conclusion of the foregoing.)
In 1978, I had been fired from my $50/week job at Worcester Magazine and was living at home with the folks and going precisely nowhere. The casus belli of my departure from WM was a piece I had written about the 25th anniversary of the John Birch Society—one of whose founder, Bob Stoddard, was also the owner and publisher of the local daily newspaper. He was also older than Moses and twice as senile. (When I interviewed him in his office, he kept picking up a toy B-52 he had on his desk and making whoooooshing! noises with it.) The editor there didn't like the piece. I thought he was an idiot and he didn't agree with my assessment of his talents. Anyway, on the bricks I went, but I sold the Birch Society piece to the Boston Phoenix, one of the most prominent "alternative" newspapers in the country. Bob Sales took the piece out of my hands and asked, "OK, what's next?" Coincidentally, a couple of friends needed a third person to go in on renting a brownstone in Jamaica Plain. I asked Bob if he could promise me enough work to make my share of the rent. He sent me to Clif who, among his other talents, which included being the funniest person in the building, was the supplements editor. Four or five times year, the Phoenix ran these huge advertising arks that needed filling with copy. The more copy there was, the more ads they could sell. For Clif, I wrote 6,000 words once on lobsters. I wrote 5,000 on raccoons, and 4,500 on scholarships you could get if you could prove you were the descendant of a Huguenot whom the Catholics had slaughtered. In short, I became a generalist and loved it. At the Phoenix, I subsequently covered state and national politics, as well as general features, and I kept writing for Clif, too. I only got into sports because the Boston Herald offered me three times what the Phoenix was paying me to join their sports staff.
I think it's less that you build your own universe, and more that you expand to meet the universe around you in all its weird and wonderful aspects. This job gives us more of a chance to do that than any other job does, and I thank god for that. Greil Marcus has a phrase that I wish I'd come up with—"the old, weird America." It's still out there to be found, or pieces of it anyway.
3. Your last book was called Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. In the wake of the Giffords shooting, did you—in the way Matt Taibbi did, for instance—wonder about the language you sometimes use in your political writing? Or do you feel that writing well means writing without a governor?
That's funny, actually, because I did an event with Matt at the Mark Twain house last year, where this topic was all we talked about for most of the evening, Mr. Twain himself, of course, being not only one of American journalism's finest stylists, but also its undisputed master of invective, Mencken me no Menckens. At the time, Matt had just published his epic Goldman Sachs takedown in Rolling Stone, and he was getting some heat from the "respectable" political press for having referred to the company as a "giant vampire squid." Nothing about his profanity. Just an image that a lot of people found excessive.
Well, fuck that.
There is a lot in the world that deserves obscenity because there's a lot in the world that is obscene. My friend and J-school mentor, the late George Reedy, once wrote that the only true blasphemy is that which treats the profane as sacred. I believe that an awful lot of respect is thrown in the general direction of people, things, and ideas that ought to be pelted with rotten produce—in the linguistic sense, of course. There is no way in hell that we ought to be having a serious national debate about evolution in the United States of America in 2011, and those people who try to start one are idiots and deserve to be treated as such, let alone be called such. On the other hand, just scatter-gunning this kind of thing can make for very, very boring reading. There is no question that, in his prime, the late Hunter Thompson was the Karl Wallenda of walking that wire—in F&L On The Campaign Trail, he is merciless in his derision of people like Hubert Humphrey, of whom Hunter wrote that he "talked like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow on next year's crop." But, at the same time, he concludes with that wonderful, heartfelt cry of the wounded romantic—the passage that ends, "My God, how low do you have to stoop in this country to be president?" which I consider the most beautiful piece of political writing ever. Hunter clearly had a governor. It was just set to higher tolerances than the ones that most writers have. We all know instinctively when we've gone too far for the story we're telling. The secret is to come right up to that line, to red-line the language, and hope the governor kicks in.
I admire Matt for what he wrote after the Giffords shooting. There are people in the media biz who have contributed a damn sight more to the perilous climate in this country than Matt has who will never examine their consciences in the least the way he did, and especially not in public. But I choose to believe that the fucking moronic attitude that this country has towards its firearms had a lot more to do with what happened in Tucson than ill-mannered political rhetoric. But, if you're going to bellow about "refreshing the tree of liberty," and if you think an AK is a suitable accessory for a political event, then you better at least have the guts to own the consequences when the shit comes down.
4. You had a pretty heated (and well-publicized) run-in with Bill Simmons a few weeks ago. Are words worth fighting about?
I think ideas are worth fighting about, and words are the best weapons with which to fight, and certainly the safest. I have a great deal of admiration for Simmons, who was essentially in the same place I was when he was about the same age. He had talent, but he was jammed up on the traditional journalism career ladder. We both found ways around it. I found the Phoenix and he found the Internet, the potential of which he clearly saw before almost anyone else in the business did. Both of us found places where we could write what we wanted how we wanted, and that's all a writer can ask for. I believe I gave his book a fair review, but it was an actual review. He reacted badly—and he should really, really stop showing us the nail holes in his hands that he got at the Boston Herald. Jesus, dude, don't you get it? YOU WON! You beat the bastards—and I replied in kind.
(Note—this is the kind of thing that used to happen in the alternative media all the time. There would be back-and-forth grudge matches in the Letters column that would go on, without resolution, for years, long after anybody remembered what the original fight was about.) That it became A Thing shows only that I'm still a little baffled by how the new media really works, especially the acceleration it can put on whatever happens. I was in that fight before I heard the damn bell.
But, otherwise, yes, words and the ideas they express are always worth fighting about. It's why we have a First Amendment in the first place. I'm reading a history of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution at the moment, and that battle was fought entirely with words and ideas, many of them in newspapers, and a lot of them a damn sight tougher than anything you're likely to read in Politico this week. The marketplace of ideas is supposed to be a Moroccan bazaar, people elbowing each other and haggling at the top of their lungs. It's not supposed to be an upscale specialty shop on Rodeo Drive.
5. I’ve seen you play the bar like a piano when the right song comes on the jukebox. If you wouldn’t mind bringing us out with a tune… Could you write a little about music in the space provided below, please and thank you?
When she was young, my mom played piano for a living. She played in a studio for kids learning to tap-dance, and she played in a saloon called Bronzo's down on the shores of Lake Quinsigamond, where I grew up in central Massachusetts. That I never learned to play an instrument is one of the great disappointments of my life. There are no writers who were more important to freeing up my mind than Bob Dylan and Pete Townshend. There are no writers who gave me a deeper understanding of my country than Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. There's no history lesson better than Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music. I mean, a song celebrating Charles Guiteau, murderer of James Garfield? The old, weird America indeed.
I grew up with the racial attitudes common to my day. That began to change the first time I heard Otis Redding—which, I believe, led somehow to the first time I read Albert Murray's The Hero And The Blues, which everybody who writes about America should read... tomorrow. I can't explain what shook loose in me the first time I heard Little Richard, but I suspect that the nuns would not have approved of it. I've drowned myself in music through the years. I'm shaped by it. I just wish I could play it.
At one point in one of the stories, Sherlock Holmes tells Watson that he is related to a famous French painter named Vernet. Watson expresses surprise that Holmes is not a painter himself. "Art in the blood," Holmes tells him, "takes the strangest forms." My grandfather was a sign-painter and a landscape artist. One of his best hangs in my living room. His daughter, my mother, played piano in a saloon. I do what I do. Art in the blood takes the strangest forms.
I still wish I could play the piano. Some day, maybe.