If you do this job long enough, connections begin to be made. Certain athletes recognize your face when you enter the clubhouse. The ol’ Yankee Stadium equipment manager calls out your name. There are PR guys who wind up in the same press boxes, stat guys who look eerily familiar. Over time, life in journalism starts to feel like an eternal family reunion, and bonds that began as mere conversations turn into decades-long connections.
This is how I have come to feel about Jonathan Eig.
We probably met, oh, a decade ago—two authors with the same agent. Through the years we’ve chatted about everything the business brings you, from frustrating literary tours to Amazon.com bewilderment to fantastic venues and dreamy publicists. Jonathan is, for my money, one of the best biographers in the game, and when I have questions or frustrations or … whatever, he’s one of the first people I turn to.
Jonathan Eig also happens to be the author of a fantastic new book, Ali: A Life, which I’ve had the pleasure of reading (and loving). When he first told me about the idea, I was slightly skeptical. Ali? Really? Haven’t we heard enough? Yet there’s reporting, and then there’s reporting—and Ali: A Life is overflowing with details, anecdotes, stories, facts, nuggets that will leave you dazzled and riveted. Without exaggeration, it’s one of the best sports books I’ve ever read. That good.
Jonathan is the author of four other books, including the phenomenal Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. One can visit his website here, follow him on Twitter here, Instagram here and listen to his killer Ali-based podcast here. Oh, and buy Ali here.
Jonathan Eig, a new book is exciting. A visit to the Quazland is legend …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Jonathan, so here’s something that fascinates me. When I’m seeking out a new book idea, one of my priorities is that the subject has never been tackled. Your new book, “Ali,” is about Muhammad Ali—a man who has been written about, in book form, by David Remnick, Norman Mailer, Thomas Hauser and a solid 20 other biographers. Soooo … why Ali?
JONATHAN EIG: To write a great book, you have to choose a great subject. Herman (The Great White Hope) Melville said that. Or something like that. The point is, it helps to have a subject no one’s written about. But sometimes, if the subject is great enough, it’s worth tackling. The question to me is: Can I add something of importance? In this case, the answer was an obvious yes because none of those terrific writers (and I would add George Plimpton, Budd Schulberg, Wilfred Sheed, and others to the list), had not taken the Moby Dick approach. They hadn’t gone big. Mine is the first complete unauthorized biography of Ali. To paraphrase Ali: It ain’t bragging if it’s true. Remnick covered the first couple of years of Ali’s career, Mailer covered two fights, and Hauser wrote an oral history in which Ali had the final say about what to include. Also, I had the benefit of time and perspective. I had the time to go back and interview all three of Ali’s surviving wives and more than 200 other people, people who could speak more openly than they might have earlier, and people who can view events with greater perspective now. I also have the benefit of reading FBI files and medical records that weren’t available earlier. Finally, Mailer and Plimpton, for all their gifts, couldn’t see in 1970 or 1975 how Ali’s life and career would change the world. It’s been more than 50 years since Ali took his stance against Vietnam. That’s time enough to understand what it meant. I think it’s almost beyond argument that he was the most influential athlete of the 20th century. But that was far from certain when the first generation of Ali biographers was working.
J.P.: I’m a huge admirer of great reporting, and this book is overflowing with great reporting. So I wanted to focus on one small area, and learn how you went about snagging the information. Specifically, on page 406 you write: “Publicly, he had little to say about his mentor’s death. But Ali spoke at length in a private memorial service for Elijah Muhammad, in remarks that were never reported by the press or previous biographers.” You then go on to share his words. Jonathan, this guy is probably the most intensely covered athlete in history. How did you go about tracking down the material?
J.E.: That one came to me; I didn’t have to track it down. I got to know Elijah Muhammad’s grandson, Elijah Muhammad III, and he gave me a CD containing a video recording of his grandfather’s memorial service. Ali’s speech was on the CD. Elijah lives in Chicago. He’s an Uber driver. And he loves talking about his grandfather. He’s trying to get a documentary made about Elijah Muhammad and trying to get his grandfather included in museums dedicated to African American history. We became friends. He helped my daughter with her history fair project. I helped him rewrite some of the letters he was sending to museums. He introduced me to some of his siblings and other members of the Nation of Islam. As a matter of fact, Elijah’s sister turned out to be a great source, too, because she’d known Ali’s second wife when they were small children. And it was Elijah’s sister who showed me MRIs of Ali’s brain that she had found in her father’s home. She happened to have them in the trunk of her car on the day I met her for lunch. I think that’s one of the rules of journalism, isn’t it? If you want to find brain scans of Muhammad Ali in the trunk of someone’s car, you have to get out of the office and do some face-to-face reporting.
J.P.: You wrote a lot about Ali’s love of women, his mindless infidelities, his weaknesses as a man. Two questions: A. Do you worry about backlash? B. How do you know what to use, and what not to use? What I mean is, did you worry about going too far?
J.E.: Sure, I worry about backlash. I worry about going too far. I worry about everything. But the biographer’s job is straightforward: You have to be honest, you have to dive deeply into your subject’s life, and you have to make your subject’s behavior understandable to the reader. I try to focus on that rather than worrying about the consequences. Everyone around Ali knew about his sexual affairs. His wives spoke openly to me about the subject. There are some horrifying and also some hysterical stories about his affairs. So I couldn’t ignore it or try to hide it. At the same time, I didn’t see any point in being inflammatory. It wasn’t the most important part of his personality, but it was a part that needed to be understood. Does it hurt book sales if Ali is revealed as a flawed person? Maybe. Will I be criticized for knocking an icon off his pedestal? Maybe. But as long as I’m honest and doing my best to reflect the truth, I can sleep at night.
J.P.: You’ve had books that, sales-wise, exceeded your expectations and books, sales-wise, that underperformed. One of those, I believe, was your marvelous Jackie Robinson bio, “Opening Day.” And I wonder—did you ever figure out why? Do you understand, at all, what makes a book sell vs. what makes it not sell? How much can an author control?
J.E.: I don’t understand what makes a book sell, and I don’t think an author can do much to control it. My dear friend Joseph Epstein (one of America’s great essayists and short story writers, whose books generally don’t sell very well) told me early on not to worry about sales or reviews, two things I will never be able to control. The only question in the end, Joe said, is whether you did honor to the subject and wrote the best book you could. He’s right, of course. But I still find it impossible not to worry. In the case of “Opening Day,” I do have a theory about why it didn’t sell as well as I’d hoped. The book was timed to appear on the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s first game, April 15, 2007. That turned out to be the first time that every player in the majors wore 42. I was on almost every TV and radio station I could have hoped to be on. My publisher advertised the book on the radio during Mets games and bought a big ad in The New York Times. It was a perfect storm of publicity and marketing. I should have sold boatloads of books, right? But all the publicity and all the interviews focused on Jackie, not on my book. One might have easily watched me on CNN or on The Today Show and not known that I was hustling a book because all the focus was on Robinson and his incredible achievement. Which is perfectly just and understandable. It didn’t move merchandise.
J.P.: So I know you worked as a feature writer at newspapers in Dallas and New Orleans; know you were a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal. But, soup to nuts, how did this journalism thing happen to you? When did you first know this is what you wanted to do? When did you first realize you were good at it?
J.E.: Junior high. I started writing for the school paper. I’ve been doing the same thing ever since: filling up notebooks and writing stories. I was a shy kid, and the reporters’ notebooks gave me a license to talk to people—even girls! It was like a disguise. I didn’t know if I was good at it, but I knew I liked it. The notebook offered me a disguise, and the writing process gave me a chance to make people think I was smarter than I really was, because I’d go over the words and rewrite them until they didn’t sound quite so dumb. I still feel the same way. I’m just fooling a lot more people.
J.P.: I might be wrong, but it seems like the project you put the most of yourself into was the Lou Gehrig bio, “Luckiest Man.” What was it about Gehrig and his plight that did it for you?
J.E.: Gehrig was my first book, so it’s special. I was giddy about it. And nervous as hell. I get to be Gehrig’s biographer? I get to have my name on a real book that, you know, will actually sit on someone’s shelf and maybe even in a library? Me? I thought it was the coolest thing that could possibly happen. I also thought it might be my only shot, so I’d better not screw it up. I put every ounce of energy and smarts I could into it. I didn’t leave anything in the tank, as the sportscasters say. Plus, I absolutely fell in love with Lou. He was such a sweetheart, so insecure, so kind, so brave. I had many of the same feelings about the Ali book. I get to be the biographer for Muhammad Ali, one of the most interesting and important figures of American history and the guy whose poster hung in my room as a kid? Me? It’s ridiculous. I better not screw it up!
J.P.: You and I are two of the few idiots dumb enough to try and make a living off of (generally) sports-based biographies. Would you recommend the field to writers interested in this sort of thing? I can’t tell if the stress, anxiety, uncertainty all eat into you the way they eat into me …
J.E.: Stress? I have no idea what you’re talking about. If you’re passionate about writing, you’ll write. If you’re passionate about writing sports biographies, you’ll write sports biographies. Nothing I say is going to make a difference, nor should it.
J.P.: It’s sorta lame, but I’ll be lame. What’s your process? Not the whole thing, because that would take 70 years. But you decide upon a book topic, you sign your contract—what’s next? How do you go about diving into a project?
J.E.: I do at least six months of research before I sign the contract. That’s how long it takes to write a strong proposal and get a contract, usually. Then I don’t even think about writing for at least six months more. I interview old people who might die before the book is done. I read everything I can. I find experts who can help me become an expert. Then, when I think I have some mastery of my subject, I begin writing, but slowly, because I’m still learning, and there’s no point in writing too much or too fast when I’m going to have to go back and redo it all. I continue to do research as I write. At some point, usually near the middle of the book, I’m spending equal amounts of time writing and researching. Even if I think I’m ready to write a chapter, once I start writing I find that new questions pop up and I have to stop and do more research. To me, writing is research. I can’t write a thing without a file cabinet full of documents. When I get near the end of the book, I can write more quickly. In the beginning, it’s two or three months per chapter. By the end, it’s two or three weeks per chapter. By then, I’m spending perhaps 90 percent of my time writing and 10 percent on research. That’s the fun part, when you’re knocking off chapters faster than you’re turning the pages on the calendar. Here’s something I’ve never told anyone: When the writing comes fast like that in the home stretch, I find myself humming the theme song from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That’s when I know the big rolling stone isn’t going to crush me and I made it out of the cave with my hat still on. Dah-da-dah, dah-da-daaaaaah…
J.P.: I wonder if, at the end of this, you see Muhammad Ali as a great man? Because, if I’m being honest, I don’t. He seems as if he were a mostly good man, a moderately intelligent man, a man with a big heart and also a lot of luck. But great? I’m not so sure. What says you?
J.E.: You’re not going to get me in trouble on this. There were times while writing this book that I thought I could never forgive him, never love him. No doubt he was deeply flawed, selfish, and downright stupid at times. But he won me back. He always won me back. It’s funny, I got the feeling that even his ex wives, whom he treated terribly, still loved him as long as he lived. I think it’s because he never bullshitted. He lied. He cheated. But owned up to his flaws. Thelonious Monk once said that a genius is the one most like himself. Ali was definitely a genius by that standard. He was a narcissist and an egotist and yet he was humble in a way. He loved people. He never acted as if he were better than anyone—except maybe Joe Frazier, which is another subject for another time.
J.P.: You went to Don King’s Christmas party. How the fuck did that happen?
J.E.: I spent more than a year trying to get an interview with Don King. I called him 25 times, and he never answered or returned the calls. I followed him to Vegas, where he gave me five minutes. Then I tracked him to Easton, Pennsylvania, where he was appearing at a ceremony honoring Larry Holmes. I followed him around for a day and a half, trying to get some time with him one-on-one. Finally, finally, I got him in a corner of a crowded room. I knew I had to ask a good question, because if you’ve ever heard Don, you know he likes to do his shtick, and he can talk for an hour without saying a single damn thing. So I shoved my tape recorder in his face, and I said: “Don, how come no one ever killed you? You’re dealing with the mafia, the Nation of Islam, with a lot of dangerous guys. You’re taking money off all of them. How come no one killed you?” That got his attention, and we had a great interview. He was smart and engaging and shockingly honest. When we were done, I could tell he was really a social person. So I asked if we could go to dinner next time I was in Boca Raton, where he lives and has his office. Don said, “Sure, come to my Christmas party next week!” I told him that it just so happened I was going to be in Florida with my wife and kids, visiting my in-laws, for our winter vacation. “Bring your kids to the party,” he said. “There’s going to be presents for all the kids.” So I did. And the food was great.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JONATHAN EIG:
• Ali in his prime v. Evander Holyfield in his prime. What’s the result?: Ali by unanimous decision.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Alexis Arguello, Moo Shu Shrimp, Lexington, animal crackers, Ken Reitz, Elijah Muhammad, Yonkers Raceway, Corner Bakery and Café, Steve Bannon, Jon Krawczynski, Los Angeles Times, salt bagels: Jon Krawczynski, Los Angeles Times, Elijah Muhammad, Lexington, Alexis Arguello, animal crackers, Yonkers Raceway, salt bagels, Ken Reitz, Corner Bakery, Steve Bannon, Moo Shu Shrimp. Obviously.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Not in a plane, but in a lake once. I remember thinking, “Don’t die, dumbass.”
• Five reasons one should make Chicago his/her next vacation destination: The Green Mill, Lake Shore Drive, Art Institute of Chicago, Subway stations that smell way better than NYC, Rick Bayless restaurants on every corner
• Four memories from your Bar Mitzvah: 1. Tall girls; 2. Fleetwood Mac songs performed by Buddy, an accordionist with a gold tooth in front; 3. Dancing with my grandmother, and even she was taller than me; 4. Slipped away from the reception to watch the Yankees on TV. They won 11-2.
• One question you would ask Turk Wendell were he here right now: OK, Mr. Wendell: Celine Dion calls and offers $500 million for you to ghost write her autobiography, “Celine: The Gerbil in Me.” The catch: You have to sleep on her floor for a year, you can never look her in the eye, you have to pierce your tongue and she refers to you as “My Little Bitch Writer Bob.” You in?
• Celine Dion calls and offers $500 million for you to ghost write her autobiography, “Celine: The Gerbil in Me.” The catch: You have to sleep on her floor for a year, you can never look her in the eye, you have to pierce your tongue and she refers to you as “My Little Bitch Writer Bob.” You in?: Ah, good question. I do get a lunch break, right?