Swinging into Fiction: Bamberger & Shipnuck

August 30, 2011

"Whether it’s Tiger or other fallen stars, I’ve always viewed their travails like everyone else on the outside, with a mix of fascination and judgmental superiority."

I admit it.  The thrill-seeking me would love to be a star. The money, glamor, and excitement would make it a tough opportunity to turn down. However, the highly sensitive, introverted me is not so sure I could handle it, especially given my recent peak into some of the unique challenges.

I can barely cope with my often well-meaning, yet highly judgmental mother much less a million plus people all craning their necks to see what I'm writing on Facebook, eating for dinner, or doing with the little spare time I have. And that's on top of their ongoing evaluation of whatever the heck it is I would be doing to warrant such a mob following.

My guest today, Alan Shipnuck, along with his colleague Michael Bamberger, has delved into the exclusive challenges of being a famous athlete. Alan and Michael, both successful writers for Sports Illustrated, have brilliantly swung over to the realm of fiction in what seems to be a fateful collaboration between two golf experts who discovered they were both driving in the same direction.  Their novel, THE SWINGER (Simon & Schuster) illuminates the life of the modern world-class, life-by-the-tail athlete. It's also a meditation on love, sex, marriage, friendship, celebrity, and the media.

The world is expanding as our technological capabilities skyrocket. Our lives are becoming open books strangers can easily flip through during coffee breaks or while getting the oil changed. Maybe that's great for creatives; maybe it's helping us express ourselves and reach out in new ways.  But it's painfully true that every rose has its thorn.  All of us, especially those who are watched the most, are increasingly more vulnerable to both lies and the truth.

I like to think of Aberration Nation as a unique hub where highly creative individuals can share their stories ... warts, successes, and all.  I was thrilled to have Paul Rudd join in that happy, dysfunctional  circus, and was embarrassed over how it turned out. I realized that some of those who have achieved high levels of success may not be free to support a grassroots forum like Aberration Nation. 

Apparently, some celebrities must protect themselves from lies involving hackers and stalkers, and some, like Tiger Woods, must work to protect against the truth. They give so much of themselves in their chosen fields, but it seems that in many cases, they must hold back the very thing we'd benefit from tapping into--their true spirit.  I suspect that, in many cases, that unique spirit somehow enabled them to rise above so many. It somehow made the difference we are trying to achieve.  Imagine how much could be learned from uncovering and studying the journeys (PR machine free) that these highly successful people have taken, and the real price they pay to stay on top.    

We're all human no matter what we may have achieved. Alan writes that "Whether it’s Tiger or other fallen stars, I’ve always viewed their travails like everyone else on the outside, with a mix of fascination and judgmental superiority. But writing this book was a visceral experience and at times I could feel Tree’s panic and exasperation and shame. It certainly has given me more empathy for what a guy like Tiger has gone through. Certainly Tiger has acted very selfishly and made some poor decisions but he’s also paid an incredibly high price for actions that weren’t unlawful." 

He and Bamberger have written a great novel that shines a light of reality on celebrity that, in Alan's words, "allows us to go deep into the life of a cloistered, conflicted star athlete. The result is fiction that in many ways is more true than real-life."

The journey to celebrity is much more than simply a series of fortunate events.

You have both had interesting, successful careers in sports journalism. What was the mutual key driver for tackling fiction, and how did your partnership come about?

Michael and I have both shared a fascination with fiction. We grew up reading novels, and it’s such a venerated art form. But making that leap is intimidating for a career reporter. Whether it’s our work for SI or previous non-fiction books, we both pride ourselves on our ability to gather information. To just sit alone in a room and make it all up? That was certainly a different challenge, but we both ultimately felt liberated having to rely on nothing but our imaginations.

As for the partnership, Michael and I had both independently come up with the idea of writing a novel about a fallen golf hero but neither of us got very far. Still, we felt there was a great story to tell and felt invigorated by the idea of teaming up.

THE SWINGER focuses on Herbert X. "Tree" Tremont, the most dominant golfer of all time and the richest sports figure in history. According to Simon & Schuster, the novel is written with a smile, not with disdain for athletes like Tree, but with empathy and affection and hope that Tree's transformation, redemption, and return to greatness may be around the corner. What about the character Tree, and real top athletes who may have similar lives, inspired you to write the novel, and why should readers be interested in this particular story?

Well, clearly there are some echoes to the life and times of Tiger Woods. To deny that would be silly. But this book isn’t a forensic recreation of Tiger’s scandal; really, that’s just a jumping-off point. We wanted to write a story that was uniquely our own. It is only through the magic of fiction that we can go behind closed doors and get to know every thought and emotion of the world’s greatest golfer. We can place him in the middle of a tabloid frenzy and eavesdrop on every conversation, not only of the embattled superstar but also the enablers around him and the reporters who are treating him like prey. I think readers will appreciate the intimacy of this story. As reporters we’re merely proxies for the public – it’s been frustrating for all of us to never get to know Tiger, and the revelations about his secret life certainly drove home how elusive he’s been. The book allows us to go deep into the life of a cloistered, conflicted star athlete. The result is fiction that in many ways is more true than real-life.

With regard to THE SWINGER, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Not one moment in particular. But I remember when we were four or five chapters into the writing there was this exhilarating feeling that what we had was pretty damn fun to read and I could see the rest of the book stretching out before us. This was strictly an experiment in the beginning. We didn’t have a publisher and for a while we were considering just posting the chapters anonymously on the Internet as we went, or self-publishing. It was truly just a couple of writers writing for the sake of writing. At some point we showed the material to a few readers we trust and their enthusiasm and interest changed the trajectory of the project, but really this started out as mere farting-around.

Each novel I write seems to change my life or create a shift in my thinking or perception in some way. Did writing the novel change or impact your lives in any way that perhaps goes beyond the other sports journalism that you do?

It’s certainly changed how I think about future projects. The idea of doing another non-fiction book is pretty daunting. All that flying around and doing interviews and transcribing tape – man, that’s so much work! I’m definitely eager to dabble more fiction, and not just golf. This book has a lot cool insidery stuff about the PGA Tour but it’s also a meditation on love, marriage, friendship, sex, celebrity, the media. Writing about so many different things has given me the confidence to branch out from just sports.

With regard to your work with Sports Illustrated, some folks may struggle with understanding why and how creativity factors into the delicate mix of relaying real life information in a powerful way. In general, how does creativity factor into sports writing?

Subscribers don’t get their SI until Wednesday afternoon, or maybe Thursday. Long gone are the days when we’re informing people who won or lost. The challenge in this 24/7 media environment is to give readers something new, to take them places they haven’t already been. So fresh information is important, as is unique analysis and access. But storytelling is also paramount. There is so much byte-sized information, I think readers want to get lost in something longer and more elegant. The creativity you mention can be through the use of certain devices, like writing a magazine story in the form of a screenplay or a diary, to cite two things I’ve done in the past. But really I think the challenge is to make every story compelling and different from what’s already out there. I feel like that’s my mandate every time I sit in front of my computer.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being writers have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so? Did those experiences help you to identify with Tree in any way?

After all these years I’m definitely more comfortable expressing emotion through the written word. Give me a blank greeting card and I can make almost any family member cry, but it’s much harder for me to express these kind of feelings face to face.

Writing Tree’s story definitely affected me. Whether it’s Tiger or other fallen stars, I’ve always viewed their travails like everyone else on the outside, with a mix of fascination and judgmental superiority. But writing this book was a visceral experience and at times I could feel Tree’s panic and exasperation and shame. It certainly has given me more empathy for what a guy like Tiger has gone through. Certainly Tiger has acted very selfishly and made some poor decisions but he’s also paid an incredibly high price for actions that weren’t unlawful. Why do we feel such disappointment in him and hold him to such a high standard? He’s not a minister or an elected official, he’s just a jock. Certainly some of these feelings inform the book.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand some of the personality traits, interests, or drive that goes along with being a writer? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

As a writer it’s hard to turn your brain off. When I’m in the middle of writing a feature I’m always thinking about it. There have been plenty of times when my exasperated wife has caught me staring off into space during a meal or standing motionless in the shower for half an hour, just thinking and writing in my head.

I’ve always believed one of the best ways to improve your writing is to read a lot. Again, I can be easily distracted. My house often has a half dozen dog-eared magazines laying around, and stacks of books here and there. So I guess it takes a certain understanding from those you live with. It’s not like an accountant who leaves all his work at an office. A writer is sort of constantly haunted by words.

Have you developed a specific process that enables you to meet both your nonfiction and fiction writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role of discipline and organization?

We wrote the bulk of this book over the winter, when the golf season was more or less dormant and we had some downtime from our days jobs at SI. It would be very hard to find time to write fiction during the heart of the golf season.

Modern life is not conducive to writing. There are so many more intrusions than there used to be. Writers love to procrastinate anyway, and the Internet is the greatest tool ever invented for avoiding work. Then you throw in the constant barrage of emails, texts, phone calls, tweets – it can just be hard to find the peace to get lost in the process of writing. It’s embarrassing to admit but when I need to do some serious typing I sometimes disable my Internet access just to make it a little tougher to let my focus wander. I also do a lot of my writing after 10 p.m., when my wife and kids are asleep and the rest of the world has stopped bothering me.

Were there specific challenges to writing a novel as a team that you can share with us? How did you deal with these, and also, what were the advantages of teamwork?

It was a very seamless collaboration. We spent a lot of time talking about the direction of the book and hashing out plot details and then we just let if fly. Writing a novel can be a lonely experience; while there were certainly moments of banging my head against the keyboard, it was a huge help to have Michael there to bounce around ideas and pick up the thread whenever the muse departed. Certainly I wanted to keep impressing him every time it was my turn to type. Importantly, there was no ego invested in who wrote what. We were both editing and improving each other’s work and cherry-picking each other’s best ideas, and over time this helped meld the two voices into one.

Will there be more Bamberger and Shipnuck novels?

Michael and I had dinner during the week of the PGA Championship and we kicked around a few ideas for a sequel to THE SWINGER. We have great affection for these characters and it would be fun to revisit their lives and careers. At this point Tree and the gang are like old friends—we don’t want to lose touch with them. But there’s nothing to announce…yet.

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