There is a reason I use very few photos of today’s Quazer in the ensuing interview: They don’t exist.
Seriously. Try Google Imaging “Esquire” and “Chris Jones,” and see what comes up. I found five pictures—two of which were the size of miniature stamps.
Why is this the case? Why is Jones, a writer at large for Equire and arguably the finest scribe out there, a pictorial ghost in the golden age of the me-me-me journalist? Answer: Because he’s not a whore. I mean this is the kindest possible way. As men like Stuart Scott and Skip Bayless and Stevie A. Smith and Mike Lupica do everything within their powers to be recognized in airports, Jones—a genuine craftsman—avoids the limelight. He doesn’t care for the “Hey, aren’t you …” comments; doesn’t need to be told how great he is. The guy writes because he loves writing; reports because, quite simply, he wants to know.
That’s why his stuff is so friggin’ good.
In case you haven’t heard of Chris Jones, take a moment and read this. And this. And this. And, most important, this. The last one is his breathtaking profile of Roger Ebert; a story as gripping and detailed as any I’ve ever had the pleasure to absorb. Chris also writes for Bill Simmons’ new site, Grantland, has his own blog, Son of a Bold Venture, and Tweets here.
Now kick back, grab a soda and enjoy this week’s Quaz. It’s my honor to welcome Chris Jones …
JEFF PEARLMAN: As I write this, I’m listening to a recent interview Jarrett Payton did with Sporting News Radio. No cliches are missed, no lame questions are avoided. This drives me friggin’ crazy—and has for years.
“You play with a lot of heart—where did that come from?”
“You guys battled back—what was the key?”
On and on and on and on. Literally, it’s part of the reason I left SI. I just couldn’t stand having to enter another clubhouse, have some slick-haired TV guy elbow me aside and ask Matt Morris, “Matt, you looked good out there today. Was everything working?” I’m babbling: Chris, you are not a cliched writer. Fuck, you’re anything but a cliched writer. Was this a conscious decision at some point in your career? Does it just come naturally? And do you think Joe Slick, the guy asking Matt Morris about his stuff, can be helped?
CHRIS JONES: Ah, this is a tough question to start off on, because there’s no way for me to answer it without my sounding full of myself.
I think, really, what saves me is that I just don’t care that much about sports. Don’t get me wrong. I like sports a lot. I like playing them more than anything else. But I really don’t care much about whether any particular team wins or loses, except for hockey, which I care about quite a bit.
That generally means that I don’t care much about the things that a lot of sports guys care about, so I don’t ask the same questions.
It’s also a function of the kinds of stories I’m usually writing. If I have to write several thousand words about a guy, I need more than the clichés. I need to try to get inside that guy’s head—to break down that wall that he’s built up, all those calluses he’s developed from years of the same boring questions.
When you ask different questions, you’re kind of breaking the accepted athlete-reporter code, which is, essentially, Let’s get through this together with a minimum of fuss or drama, and then we can each move on to something we’d rather be doing than talking to each other.
I usually tell someone up front that I’m going to ask some strange questions. It’s funny to see the different reactions to them. Some guys are really into it, because they’re happy to talk about something other the way the ball bounces. Other guys are like, What the hell are you talking about? But even that tells me something about them, right there.
As for saving Joe Slick … No, there’s no saving them. Why should they change, besides? They’re getting what they need. Get it and get out, and then let me go to work.
J.P.: On your blog you wrote this of Jason Whitlock: “Jason Whitlock has no soul. He’s neither a good reporter nor a good writer. He’s a bloviator who’s somehow carved out a niche for himself as a kind of anti-establishment figure by making references to The Wire and pretending he’s the second coming of Ralph Wiley, when Ralph Wiley would be fucking mortified to be associated with Whitlock’s brand of self-serving buffoonery.” I was actually shocked, because you’ve never struck me as one who enjoys calling out other members of the media. I was also shocked because, while I don’t agree with everything Whitlock does, I do think he can write. What was your motivation? And do you, literally, think he sucks at writing?
C.J.: Let me say one thing right off the top: Writing that was a mistake. Not because it was technically wrong, but because that was the first (and still only) time I’d ever taken a run at another writer—the opening shot, I mean. So now, whenever I counsel young writers not to resort to snark or feuds to build their names—to do good work instead—the weasels out there can point to what I did to Whitlock and say that I don’t practice what I preach.
I did that once, it was a mistake, and I regret it.
However, for years, Whitlock has done the dirty on a number of my close friends. He’s been an unrepentant asshole. So it’s not like I dropped bombs on a guy like Joe Posnanski, this smiling benevolent force for good. Here I was, with this new outlet, this new blog—I think that was maybe my second entry—and I just vented years of anger. It felt good, to be honest. I’m not sure Whitlock even knows who I am, but I felt better for having written that. It was cathartic.
And I believed it. I still believe it. I don’t think he’s a good writer. I think he’s a clumsy writer with a small bag of tricks. Somehow, though, he’s made himself famous and successful doing that, which I give him credit for. He’s made a name for himself in a tough business. But I hate the idea of kids thinking that’s how you have to be to make a name for yourself. I’d rather they choose Team Posnanski.
That’s why I wrote that. I shouldn’t have, but that’s why I did.
J.P.: In an interview with FishbowlNY you said, ““I taught at the University of Montana in 2009, and I was worried then that too many kids made a direct connection between being famous and being good.” I couldn’t agree with you more—but I’m also at a loss how this happened? Do we blame Chris Berman and Stu Scott? Do we blame sports talk radio? Because it does seem that fame goes to the loudmouths, not the talented.
C.J.: I guess the problem, ultimately, is TV. The guys who are on TV are much more famous than the guys who aren’t. Gary Smith is one of our best-regarded sportswriters, but he’s not famous, I wouldn’t think. I don’t imagine Gary Smith gets stopped very often when he goes to the mall.
And fame, at least small doses of fame, is kind of nice. I’ve been stopped a couple of times, and I’m always flattered. I like getting lots of hits on my blog, and I like having followers on Twitter. I mean, I write to be read, and it’s a nice sort of validation. Fame is an easy way to tell yourself that you’re doing good work—you must be, right? Because people are responding.
But it’s a lie. I think we all know—from movies to music to writing—that popularity and quality are often two different things. Do I envy Mitch Albom’s book success? Of course I do. Any writer who says that he doesn’t is lying. Would I like to go on a sixty-city book tour and make millions of dollars and have big audiences show up when I speak? Absofuckinglutely. But I’d also rather have written “The Devil in the White City” than “Five People You Meet in Heaven.”
The dream is that you can have both—that something like “Into the Wild” might be out there waiting for me, a beautiful book that also finds an audience.
It’s a really tough trick to pull, though. Quality isn’t always rewarded. Fame is almost always rewarded. Which is why lots of young people pick fame. It’s just an odds game. I wish they wouldn’t, though, if only so that I might have better books to read.
J.P.: How’d you get here? What was your path? When did you know you wanted to be a writer, and when do you know you were good at it? Did you have a clip—a singular journalistic experience—that made you say, “Man, I can do this shit!”
C.J.: I was late to the game. When I was young—like, in high school—I had teachers tell me I should write, and I wrote a lot for myself (mostly under the pen name “James Evil,” which is pretty fucking embarrassing). But I didn’t really think of writing as a career. I thought of it as a hobby. So I went to school for different things. I took politics in undergrad and then did a Master’s in Urban Planning, because I like architecture and buildings but couldn’t draw well enough to be an architect.
All the while, I wrote. Just for me. Hardly ever showed any of it to anybody. Until my headmaster in grad school, a former journalist named John Fraser, saw me writing one night and asked me what I was writing. I slipped a few stories under his office door. He read them and lined me up with an interview with a guy named Ken Whyte, who was about to become the editor of a new newspaper in Toronto, the National Post. I’d written exactly four published stories at that time, all stories about music for my college paper, but for reasons that remain unclear to me, Ken gave me a job. It was a ridiculously lucky break. I’d applied for an internship at another big paper up here, The Globe and Mail, and I’m not sure they even opened the application. Why would they? But Ken gave me a job, writing for a national newspaper, when I’d never taken a single journalism class in school and had never really written any actual journalism. Again, I don’t know why he did that, but I’ll be forever grateful, because it changed my life.
I don’t have the kind of personality that will ever allow me to feel as though I’m really good at this—I’m an envious reader; yesterday I read “Big Red Son” by David Foster Wallace and I was like, What am I doing?—but I’ll tell you the first time I felt like this was something I could do.
I wrote a story for the paper about Trevor Berbick, a boxer. He was once the heavyweight champion of the world, until Mike Tyson beat him silly. Years later, fat, old, and well past nuts, Berbick was fighting for the Canadian heavyweight title. I wrote a story about him before that fight, which he somehow won, and it was probably the best thing I did at the paper. My editor, a beautiful man named Graham Parley, called me shortly after I’d filed, and said really nice things to me. I was in my hotel room in Montreal, the rain pounding off my window, and I hung up the phone, and I felt for the first time as though I’d found what I was meant to do.
J.P.: You are a “writer-at-large” for Esquire. What the fuck does that mean? Do they call you randomly with ideas? Do you pitch them? Are you pulling down an annual salary, and is there an X-number-of-stories expectation?
C.J.: I don’t care if this sounds like bragging, because it’s true: Being a writer at large at Esquire is one of the best gigs in all of journalism, straight up.
I get a salary, more money than I deserve. I have the comfort of a check arriving every month, which, now that I have a wife and kids and everything like that, is pretty important to me.
Contractually, I’m supposed to write six stories a year, but I write more than that, if you count little front-of-book pieces and stuff like that.
Sometimes, those stories are assigned. Sometimes I pitch them. There’s no set rule. Right now, I’m on the road for an assignment. I have a story for the December issue that I pitched. Most of the bigger stories I’ve written, the big reported stories, I’ve pitched, because they generally won’t assign you a big, intensive story unless they know you’re really into it. Those stories, you can’t write them because you have to. You have to want to.
Esquire is a hard place to pitch. I would say that I pitch at least ten ideas for each one that gets taken… Maybe more. But almost always, if I get a bug in my ear and really can’t let something go, my editor, Peter, will say yes at some point. It might not be right away, but I think one of his tests for a good pitch is whether it keeps me awake at night.
And then they let us write at length, and with experimental styles, with beautiful layouts and tremendous editorial support.
You know the expression, I really couldn’t ask for anything more? It applies exactly to my job at Esquire.
J.P.: What is the actual writing process like for you? I know this is a cliched question, in that every writer will be asked this at some point. But I’m genuinely fascinated. You’re assigned a story—what happens next?
C.J.: It’s easy, Jeff. I report the shit out of something, as intimately as I can, until I can tell the entire story from start to finish from memory, basically, and then I sit down, probably around nine o’clock at night, and then I write till, say, two or three, and then I’ll do that for several nights in a row until there’s the first draft of a story sitting there. And then I’ll edit it a few thousand times on my own, and then I’ll submit it, and then I’ll pace around the kitchen until Peter gets back to me, and then we’ll work on it a lot more, sometimes starting from scratch, sometimes not doing all that much, and then it’s done. And then I go work on the house.
J.P.: I was surprised recently when you expressed disappointment for not winning some award for your dazzling Roger Ebert profile in Esquire. I say “surprised” because: A. I haven’t cared about awards in forever; B. You strike me as someone who hasn’t cared about awards in forever. I don’t say this insultingly—I just don’t think, at a certain level, there’s necessarily such a thing as “better” in writing. Was your piece better than something Gary Smith or Wright Thompson or Sally Jenkins who … whoever wrote? Some would say yes, some would say no. So, I ask, Chris–why did you care?
C.J.: Well, first off, I wasn’t disappointed not to win; I was disappointed not to have been nominated. Although had I been nominated and then not won, I would have been disappointed then, too.
I care about awards, and I’ll try to explain why.
I like to pretend I’m a nuanced, thoughtful person, but I’m not. I’m black and white about most things. I don’t have many close friends, because I demand a Mafioso-level of loyalty from them, which means I’m easily let down, and I need to be let down only once to write someone off forever. For me, just about everything is either good or bad, true or not true, right or wrong. That’s how I think.
The trouble is, I make a living in a world that’s the opposite of black and white. I work in an almost totally subjective world. You’re right, of course. How can you judge writing on an absolute scale?
Except that we do, with what we call awards. So for me, awards are this one chance to make my working world fit within the framework of my own rigid internal outlook. Awards are black and white. The best. The most. The greatest.
When I win them, I feel good. When I don’t win them, I feel bad. It’s not that complicated.
And with that Ebert piece, I’d been told for the better part of a year that I was going to win. I’d never had a response to a piece like I did with that one. So I got my hopes up. And when five other stories were judged to be more worthy of a nomination for a National Magazine Award, I was disappointed. I still don’t understand why saying so turned into such a big deal.
If winning an award feels good—and you can pretend that you don’t care, Jeff, but you can’t pretend that a National Book Award or a Pulitzer wouldn’t make you feel good—then I don’t see why it’s wrong to feel bad when you don’t win one.
Being black and white and all that, of course.
J.P.: Along those lines, I loved the Ebert piece. Loved it. In fact, I’m giving you the jeffpearlman.com Roger Ebert Story of the Decade Award. Mazel Tov. Question—when you write a piece like that, and you’re dealing with illness, mortality, etc—what precautions do you take? What I mean is, do you feel like you have to walk on eggshells with the subject? Or is it just the opposite—do you barge straight ahead as you would were you profiling, oh, Derek Jeter.
C.J.: I’m honored to receive this award, and I’d like to thank Jeff Pearlman for giving it to me.
I did not barge right in on Roger, no. When I first knocked on his door—we’d emailed to set up the story—I had a pretty good case of the shakes. I didn’t really know what to expect, or how the interviews would work, or whether he’d feel comfortable around me or I’d feel comfortable around him. And if I’m being honest, it took me more than a few minutes to get my bearings, for us to establish any kind of rhythm, the writer and the subject.
But once we established that rhythm, it was as comfortable and as joyous as any writing experience I’ve ever had. Roger and his wife, Chaz, were wonderful to me. I really enjoyed their company. We laughed a lot, genuinely. I made an idiot out of myself a few times. I had to wear his jacket to go to a meal, because I hadn’t brought one. The restaurant made me put on a pair of house shoes because they didn’t approve of my sneakers. That happens with Jeter, I’m not sure the night ever recovers. With Roger, it was just part of a larger, life-affirming experience.
I frequently write about mortality and death. Some ridiculous percentage of my bigger stories feature at least one body. It’s hard to explain, but once you’ve written about life and death once, it’s hard to go back to writing about stuff that doesn’t matter as much. And the fact is, nothing matters as much.
Writing about Roger Ebert changed my life. That hardly ever happens, but when it happens, it changes the scale of everything else.
J.P.: I don’t know who Tom Scocca is, but he blasted you on Slate somewhat recently. To give my 12 readers some background. On Chris’ blog, he wrote: “Someone like Albert Pujols is obviously an outstanding baseball player, but I think it would be very hard to write a good profile about him. I’d be willing to bet that the bullpen catcher for the Milwaukee Brewers would make for a more interesting story. That dude—and I just looked him up: Marcus Hanel, who apparently has enormous hands—would be my pick every time.” To which Tom responded, I thought, quite snidely and, also, stupidly by saying it’s easy for someone like Jones to say this—but try pitching those stories if you’re a scrub.
Chris, this made my blood boil—because I think greatness comes in looking outside the box; in walking past the mob surrounding Pujols and tracking down the backup catcher. Hell, it’s been my strategy for every book I’ve written … actually, my strategy since college. Avoid the obvious. Seek out the unique. You fired back at Tom, but now that you’re removed I’m wondering what you thought of the brawl, and whether it impacted your thinking in any way.
C.J.: I write my blog mostly for young, aspiring writers. It’s my way of answering all the emails I get, most of which have something to do with breaking into the business. No young, aspiring writer will ever get their break pitching a celebrity story, unless it’s a story about the time they fucked a celebrity. They will get their break pitching a story that nobody else has pitched, that seems essential, and for whatever reason, they are the only person in the world who can write it.
For established writers, writing about celebrities is part of the deal. I like to think about it the way George Clooney—NAME DROP—thinks about it. He made Ocean’s Eleven so that he could make Good Night, and Good Luck. He made Ocean’s Twelve so that he could make Syriana. He made Ocean’s Thirteen so that he could make The American. You do the work you have to do so that you do the work you want to do.
Ask any writer about the stories he’s most proud of. I would guess that maybe one percent of them would tell you that it was the celebrity cover story they wrote about Jeff Bridges.
But for whatever reason, Tom Scocca, who I didn’t know and had never heard of, decided to write on Slate that my advice was wrong. He was basically trying to make the point that only celebrity journalism sells, so that’s what writers should be pitching. Which is terrible advice. It’s totally, totally wrong. Yes, most magazines have a celebrity on their covers. But look at Esquire. The features, the real heart of the magazine, are almost always about something else. And the vast, vast majority of the time, the cover stories are written by staff. Tell a magazine you’d like to write about Justin Timberlake for them, and see how many of them invite you to do so.
Anyway, it’s not really up to me to decide whether a young writer takes my advice or someone else’s. All I can do is give the best advice I can when I’m asked for it. Tom Scocca countered with his own advice. Kids can look at our respective work and careers and choose who they want to believe.
J.P.: Give me your lowest moment as a journalist, and your greatest …
C.J.: Greatest moment? The story I’m most proud of is “The Things That Carried Him,” which was about how a soldier’s body gets back from Iraq. I was proud of my reporting for it, and I’m proud to work for a magazine that let me write 17,000 words about it.
But my greatest moment … There’s a paragraph in the Ebert piece, where he’s mad about Disney pulling down videos of Gene Siskel that he’d posted. We were living in Montana when I was working on that story. I was sitting in the basement of our house there, really late at night, listening to Modest Mouse’s “Little Motel” over and over again, and that paragraph just rolled out, and it just felt unbelievably good. For a writer, that moment, when everything’s flowing, when everything just seems to work… It doesn’t happen very often, but it makes everything else worth it.
Lowest moment? This will sounds strange … But back when I was at the newspaper, one of our writers, a good friend of mine, was in Denver, writing about the Broncos. And for whatever reason, the Internet in the press box went down on deadline. He couldn’t file. So he called the newsroom and had to dictate his story over the phone. I didn’t know much about the NFL, but I was there, and I could do it, so I did it. He was shouting over the noise, dictating this story to me, and I was typing as fast as I could, trying to get it into the paper. Anyway, one of the players was Junior Seau. I know who he is now, but I didn’t back then. I thought my friend said Feau. I even said, With an F? And he said yes. And then later in the story, my friend had a pun, about how when Junior hit guys, they would “Fay-OW.” I didn’t get it, but I went with it. We made deadline by seconds, and the story ran just like that. And my friend got killed for the mistake, which was bad, but it wasn’t his. It was mine. And to this day, I still feel bad when I think about that night. I feel a hot rush of terrible shame, like when you go to a bar and you shit yourself.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CHRIS JONES
• Would you rather go on a two week vacation with Buddy Biancalana or John Oates?: While I imagine that anybody named Buddy is probably a dude, I would almost always choose to hang out with a musician over an athlete. Unless that athlete is Ricky Williams.
• Yourself not included, the five best sportswriters in the biz right now: It’s hard to say these five guys are the best, but they’re five guys I never regret reading: Wright Thompson, Thomas Lake, Kevin Van Valkenburg, Jeff MacGregor, and Jeff Passan.
• Complete the sentence: Thanks to SportsCenter …: I’m Canadian. Our SportsCentre is different from your SportCenter, and not just in its spelling. So … Thanks to SportsCenter, I get a lot of hockey highlights.
• Would you rather have a wrench permanently glued to the side of your face, or spend three years ankle cuffed to Jason Whitlock?: I would always take temporary pain over permanent pain. And believe me when I say, this is a worse deal for Whitlock than it would be for me. He’d end up like Multiple Miggs.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details …: Yes, flying between New York and Toronto, on a crappy Brazilian airline called VASP. Big bang, plane just started dropping, thousands and thousands of feet. There was one of those TVs with the flight data on it, and we fell to 10,000 feet. Finally leveled off, climbed back up. Nobody explained anything. The flight attendants just started handing out sticky buns. What was funny about it was, you got to see how people reacted to death. I was swearing terrible things at the top of my lungs. The guy next to me just went white and gripped his armrests. He was stoic. I was not. The look we gave each other after … It was like we both knew each other better than anyone else in the world.
• You’ve chronicled your life of home improvements. Save for charm, are there any real advantages to owning an old house?: Have you ever watched a new house being built? They’re shit. We’ve made great advances in mechanicals, in things like insulation and heating and electrical. But in terms of actual construction, both in craft and in materials, we’re way, way, worse at building houses than we used to be.
There’s a beam in our basement, maybe sixty feet long and more than a foot square. It’s the backbone of our house. Beams like that don’t even exist anymore. Our house has triple brick, all the way around. Today, you’re lucky to get a front-face of veneer, and the rest of it is plastic. I’m not pop. I’m not living in a plastic house.
• I’m sitting in Starbucks as I write this. A woman is talking on her iPhone—on speaker. I want to kick her. What should I do?: This is funny, because yesterday I was in an airport bathroom, and the guy next to me, at the urinals, was shouting into his phone, which was also close to my ear. So I just turned and shouted, “HE’S TALKING TO YOU WHILE HE’S PISSING!” I don’t have a problem confronting people about their bullshit behavior, is what I’m trying to say.
• How’d you meet your wife?: I was Boomer the Parks Canada Beaver, and she was my handler. I’m not joking.
• Did you go to your senior prom? If so, share a memory.: I did. It was a disaster. Went on a double date with my friend Dirk. His date got really, really drunk before the prom, on a beverage we call Alcool. It’s basically pure alcohol. She was wearing a white dress. Before we even got to the prom, she climbed on top of a van, tumbled off, and landed on her head on the sidewalk. She sat up and was just pouring blood out of her head all over her dress. Then she threw up all over herself. That was the first time I’d ever called 911. Paramedics come and patch her up. Then we take her home—to her cop dad and nurse mom. Dirk’s standing at their door, trembling, with this pretty little girl who now looked like Carrie, plus puke. We finally got to the prom with about fifteen minutes to spare. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even dance with my date. But at least my date didn’t nearly die.
• Funnier to witness: A loud fart or a really deep nose pick? And why?: I think farting is one of the funniest things in the world. Think about what a fart is: It’s trapped, fermented gas, exiting your body through an opening so small, that the gas is compressed and makes a never-ending array of sounds when it passes through it. Farts are like sound snowflakes.