There are certain books that are guaranteed to sell, and there are certain books that a guaranteed non-sells.
Example: David Maraniss’ amazing biography on Vince Lombardi was going to do enormous numbers. It’s a legend, it’s a legendary writer, it’s football, it’s Green Bay. Odds of success: 100 percent.
Example 2: Dustin Diamond’s “Behind the Bell” was going to shit the bed. It’s Dustin Diamond, it’s nearly two decades after his mediocre TV show’s non-prime, it’s a cover straight out of Quark XPress. Odds of success: Not good.
In between these two disparate lands are books that could sell. What I mean is, they’re put forth by excellent writers; they focus upon riveting topics that—if lightning strikes—might very well capture the attention of thousands upon thousands of readers. I’m talking about Seabiscuit and The Boys in the Boat. One was about a horse no one heard of. The other was about the 1936 U.S. rowing team. Both are off-the-charts huge.
When I heard that my friend Amy Bass was writing a book about a Maine high school soccer team and its influx of Somali refugees, that’s exactly what flowed through my skull. This could sell. This should sell. It’s a tremendous read, it’s beautifully done. But it’s not Vince Lombardi, or Babe Ruth, or Jackie Robinson. It’ll need buzz.
Well, here we are. Amy’s fantastic book, “One Goal: A Coach, A Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together,” came out yesterday, and it’s kicking some serious ass. The wife and I watched with great glee as it flew up the Amazon rankings, and beamed with pride as Amy appeared on The Today Show. Or, put different: There are people you root for in this business, and Amy Bass is one of them.
Today, Amy talks book writing, refugees in the age of Trump, shoes that smell like peaches and three keys to surviving dull meetings. You can order One Goal here, follow Amy on Twitter here and visit her website here.
Amy Bass, your one goal has been fulfilled. You’ve been Quazed …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Amy, so I wanna start with this: Your upcoming book, “One Goal,” is strictly a commercial effort. And you’ve spent much of your adult life in the world of academia. So, writing-wise, does this call for any sensibility shifting, or writing adjustment? Do you have to think of things differently?
AMY BASS: I’m the daughter of writers; I grew up in a very word-intense, literary, household. My dad would get home from his job as the arts editor/writer/columnist for The Berkshire Eagle, eat dinner with us, and then disappear into his cellar office to work on one of his many novels. He always, always, called me a writer before he called me a scholar or a professor. He saw me as a writer. My mom, now in her 80s, just published her third novel and still churns out a column every week. So this all felt very right to me. But it doesn’t mean I knew exactly how to do it. The first thing I did? I bought a book about writing. Which everyone around me thought was hilarious. “One Goal” is my fourth book, so I guess I’m expected to know how to do this. But I went into this project with the intention of relearning a whole lot of things, rethinking a lot of things. As a historian by training, I already knew how to dig – how to assemble evidence to prove something. But I wanted to make sure I knew how to tell a story. Historians tell stories, to be sure. And I’ve dabbled with crossing over, from my work with NBC Sports to my writing for places like CNN and Slate. But this felt like a whole new game. So I started reading about writing – it was the first step of this project. And my copy of Jack Hart’s Storycraft, which is about writing narrative non-fiction, now sits on my shelf looking like it’s done some serious battle, dog-eared and worn. It provided a lot of security, a lot of backup, when I needed it. But I think there was only one time that my editor told me I sounded “too academic” – something he undoubtedly was nervous about. I never stopped believing that I had to prove myself.
J.P.: Your book comes along at a time when, obviously, immigration is a huge topic in America. And it seems like one of the takeaways is the power of exposure—you hate/fear until you know. So how much of the unease in Lewiston to the Somali refuges would you say was hate, vs. fear? And how long did it take for that to dissipate?
A.B.: Well, exposure speaks to the unknown, which I think adds a third element to your question: hate, fear, and the unknown. I do think they’re all linked, deeply embedded to a point where we don’t know where one begins and another ends. I think fear is a huge factor of hate, but I don’t think it is the only factor. Just because a person might stop hating and fearing something or someone on a very local, very personal level – really get to know someone – doesn’t necessarily mean that his or her worldview has changed, or that some kind of a big picture take has opened up. I think we live contradictions like that all the time. When Trump’s presidential campaign hit Maine, for example, and he made political hay out of the Somali population that was based on air – literally without fact – his intention was to create fear and intimidation, to capitalize on what already existed. And it had an impact. “You’re okay here,” someone might tell one of the championship soccer players I’m writing about, “but no more.” So it doesn’t dissipate as much as there’s an ebb and flow to it – an embrace that might be followed by a pushing away. My very earliest pitches about the book put that front and center: I wrote, and somewhere in the book some kind of line like this still exists, that amidst the play-by-play sports action, what I wanted to do more was put fear into a context. I wanted to situate soccer in the midst of this rising tide of hate as a way to think about community and sports and immigration and religion and race, and so on and so forth. This is a soccer team in one of the whitest states in America with a roster that looks like the UN. It’s a microcosm for so many questions America is dealing with today.
J.P.: How did you actually find this story? And what made you transition from, “Oh, that’s interesting” to “That’s my next book!”?
A.B.: Facebook! I went to Bates College, which is in Lewiston, Maine. I have a lot of friends who are still in Maine, and one posted a short article about the soccer team to Facebook. I messaged her: I was riveted. The terrorist bombings in Paris had just happened, the first of which was at Stade de France, where a soccer game was going on, and reaction to Syria and its refugee crisis was everywhere. In the wake of Paris, a bunch of U.S. governors started giving statements about “not in my state” in terms of taking in refugees. And then here was this soccer team. I put together 900 or so words that ran for CNN, and the reaction was … well, I still have a hard time wrapping my head around it. I thought I was immune to the comments section at this point, but this was different. So much hate. So much fear. So many vulgar assumptions, based on so little reality. But then an editor reached out and asked if I’d been thinking about a book. I still have the email. “I’ve thought of little else for the last 48 hours,” I replied. And off we went.
J.P.: I used to see you in the New Rochelle, N.Y. Starbucks … oftentimes at a nearby table. What was your approach toward the literal writing of this book? Did you report it all, then write? Did you write as you went along? Do you always write in cafes? Can you write at home? What’s your ideal time of day?
A.B.: So back then, when we were side by side, I was working on another book, one that is still on the backburner. Poor thing. So neglected. ONE GOAL halted everything – there has been very little else since for me since it started. And the process for writing it is probably not what I would teach my MFA students at The College of New Rochelle. I started with a mad reading and research scramble – reading everything ever written about Lewiston, its sports teams, this soccer team, and then watching whatever I could find on You Tube. I wanted to make sure that when I headed up to Lewiston for the first time for the book, which I think was February, 2016, I was prepared. And I think it paid off. The first time I really sat down with Coach McGraw, we could really talk soccer. He would say “Hey, like when Ben scored four!” and I’d be able to respond “Oh yeah, the second half of the Lawrence game – that was cool!” So I moved back and forth between my life in New York and my work in Maine for months and months. I don’t want to ever add up the mileage on this book. I would report, transcribe, write, repeat. I learned to back off from an aggressive agenda and just hang in Lewiston, letting people find me, get comfortable with me. I had a really rough shell for the book based on the secondary research early on. In fact, I kind of forgot I had done that before I started the heavy reporting and interviewing – it was almost a relief to find it when I really sat down to write. And yes, in cafes – I rarely write at home anymore – and starting mid-morning and pushing through until I drop. My first book? I never left my bedroom. If I showered, my day was over. Now? I have to leave. And I used to need total silence, and now it’s earbuds and music, often the same songs on repeat, that make me get it done. My mom, who is one of my best editors, told me recently that my writing has a rhythm to it, a beat. And I think that has to be connected to what I’m listening to at any given moment.
J.P.: I don’t think I’ve ever written a book where I really, really came to love the people involved. I mean, I gained friends, bonds, etc. But from reading your blog posts, it seems like you feel something deep for some of these kids. And I wonder, how does that impact the process? Would it cause you to rethink words? Critiques? Maybe go easier? Anything?
A.B.: Well, I now root for the Lewiston Blue Devils as hard as I root for the Red Sox, so we can just throw any kind of objectivity out when it comes to games, no question. But I think there’s a few things at play. First, the best way for me to get at this story was to be immersed. And I was patient about it, so much so that I would occasionally have these “whoaaaa” epiphanies about where I was and what I was doing. Like the moment I stopped and realized I was in the locker room before a game, and no one batted an eye. It was just assumed I’d be there. Or the time one of the assistant coaches said to me as we walked back to the sideline from the halftime team huddle, “If you’d told me a year ago that you’d be on the infield with us, I would’ve laughed at you.” And I was thinking, me too! How did this even happen? And then I think there’s the subject at hand, the big picture. Writers report on tough stuff all the time, and then they have to move on to the next thing to write about. I actually had a back-and-forth about this a while ago with John Branch, whom I revere. He had just written this poetic, heartbreaking, gorgeous, piece for the New York Times about the Las Vegas massacre, which he was on the scene reporting, and his daughter’s soccer team. There was a devastating, personal, connection between the two. So, I mean, how do you move on from something like that? But he does. My husband works in television news, and I will never forget the day he came back from a shoot at Fresh Kills landfill after 9/11 – the look on his face, how he threw his clothes away before he entered our apartment. It was one of those stories for him. But he had to move on. But me? These players, these families, this community? Yeah, they’re in my heart, because to do this ethically and not fake it, I had to really get to know them. And also? Think about what we’re talking about here: displaced peoples, refugees, which are at the heart of this story – there are some 60 million of them on this planet. And we are living in a moment when the President of the United States – the President — called many of the places they are fleeing or have fled “shitholes.” So what do we want this story to be? Do we want these people to cease to exist? When their own places, their homes, are destroyed by forces outside their own scope of power, do we want them to fade into the ether and use profane language to describe their homelands? Or do we want to be humans, and recognize that whatever happens to them is part of all of us? Because that’s humanity, right? So did thinking like that have an impact on my storytelling? I hope so. I don’t think it’s bias. I think it’s passion.
J.P.: I’m gonna ask you a question I ask myself all the time: So you bust ass and write this book. Then you bust ass and promote it. It becomes your life. So … what if sales are just … meh? I hope you sell 100 million copies. But it’s all so out of our control. So do you prepare for the worst? The best? Neither?
A.B.: I think the best we can do is make sure we’ve used all our powers, all our efforts, to give the book a shot. I don’t think you can do more than that. And I laid it all out there – wrote and researched harder and faster and with more passion than I ever have before. So I’ve done what I could, I am doing what I can, to give it a shot. I always think that the best day in the writing process is the day before publication – it’s exciting, thrilling. And the worst day? Publication day. Because then it is completely out of your hands. Through this entire process, I have felt so incredibly honored, there’s really no other word for it, to be able to tell this story. I just really hope that the people who trusted me to tell it like it. That’s what I want.
J.P.: So you teach at the College of New Rochelle, which went from all-women to coed a couple of years ago. I’m always riveted by dynamics. How did that shift the dynamics? Besides the mere visuals of having more men around. Can you feel a change? Sense things that have shifted?
A.B.: You know, it’s early days, so I don’t know that I have anything profound to say about it yet. The School of Arts & Sciences was the only single-sex school at CNR – so schools like Nursing and Graduate were always co-ed. So the visuals haven’t changed quite as much as you might think. But I think we likely still need a little time to really grasp the shift, and what it means.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your teaching career? Lowest?
A.B.: I love teaching. Love it. A good class is like a runner’s high – it’s just awesome. Greatest moment? Impossible. I had a great class last Friday on the Salem Witch Trials and the processes of history. Students were excited and enthusiastic and just so into it – that’s what you want. I have a drawers full of the notes and letters they’ve sent me over the years, and I love looking at them, thinking about the number of names and faces that have sat in front of me, with me, doing the hard work. But if I had to pick one, it was probably when Dr. Erica Morin invited me to speak at Westfield State University. Erica was a student long ago when I taught at Plattsburgh State University, and she went on to graduate school and then nabbed a tenure-track job in the history department at Westfield. Her introduction of me that night, during which she got really emotional about my impact on her life – it ruined me. And my mom was there, of all things! My mom never goes to stuff like that, but she lives close by and she met me at Westfield and was sitting there as Erica went on and on. It was awesome. So, low point. I think the single worst day I’ve ever had in the classroom was after the presidential election of 2016. It was awful. It was a first time anyone in the class had voted for a president. They were crushed and – argh, this was awful – they were scared. And there was nothing I could say. I still have a really hard time thinking about it.
J.P.: Back in 2016 Donald Trump came to Portland, Maine, and said that Somali refugees were making Maine more dangerous. You wrote a CNN.com column that was, unambiguously, angry. Do you think Trump doesn’t get it, or is simply lying?
A.B.: Did I come off as angry? Sigh. I was so sad. So, so sad. And angry. So that’s fair. One of the really difficult parts of this book’s journey has been its increasing relevance. I mean, you want your book to be timely, to be relevant. But it’s hard. I’ve gone into absolute panics about “we have to publish this RIGHT NOW” because I thought things couldn’t get any more dramatic and then? Yep. Something new happens. Walls and travel bans and profanity and just on and on and on. And I’m to a point where I don’t care if Trump is lying or doesn’t get it – I don’t care. What I care about is the country, the world, I’m raising my daughter in, that you’re raising your kids in, and that these soccer players will raise their kids in. That’s what I care about. Regardless of where this stuff is coming from in that man’s head, as well as the people he surrounds himself with and the people in Congress who support his agenda, it is not coming from one iota of humanity or charity or kindness. I have a screenshot on my computer of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tweet after the devastation in Puerto Rico came to light – when he told Trump he was going “straight to hell…No long lines for you…They’ll clear a path.” Alongside snapshots of Lewiston’s Great Falls on the Androscoggin River and the Blue Devils warming up before a summer game, I look at that tweet a lot. I listened to “Hamilton” a lot while I was writing this, because as a historian it was fascinating to me how Miranda rewrote a piece of American history that still shapes so much of who we are – and who we are supposed to be – as a country. And that tweet? Yeah. I’m angry, too.
J.P.: Along those lines, I’m losing my shit. Every day there’s some Trump awfulness. How are you staying sane? I’m being serious.
A.B.: I don’t know that I always am. I think I have some pretty serious unhinged moments, and many of them catch me by surprise. I lost my mind watching the footage of the father who tried to attack Larry Nassar in court recently, and I think that speaks volumes to just how fragile an edge we are all balancing on. I find sanity in the fight, no question. I marched in the first Women’s March with my daughter, who was then 9 years old. That mattered to me. And I think likely that’s the real root of staying the course. ONE GOAL is dedicated to my daughter, but it’s dedicated to a few other kids, too, kids in Lewiston, with a hope and a wish for what I think will take us in the right path. To welcome all. Everywhere. Always.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH AMY BASS:
• What do your exercise shoes smell like? Peaches.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Lisa Kudrow, Maulid Abdow, New York Jets, Anderson Cooper, fake holiday cards, Chance the Rapper, Michael Dukakis, Ellen, the new Diet Coke cans, “The Post,” Swirl Coffee and Tea: Maulid Abdow, Swirl Coffee and Tea (RIP), Chance the Rapper, Lisa Kudrow, Anderson Cooper, Michael Dukakis, New Diet Coke cans, Ellen, Fake holiday cards, New York Jets
*I haven’t seen The Post. But “I, Tonya” would’ve ranked right behind Maulid.
• Five reasons one should make New Rochelle his/her next vacation destination?: 1. You might run into Mariano Rivera at Starbucks; 2. You might run into Christopher Jackson (or General Washington, as we like to call him) at school pick up; 3. The rum punch at Alvin & Friends; 4. Davenport Park; 5. The Metro-North station that will whisk you into NYC in no time at all.
• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Linda McMahon? What’s the outcome?: I’m a lover, not a fighter.
• Three secrets to surviving long, dull meetings? Doodling; writing the alphabet vertically on a piece of paper, coming up with a category, and then filling it in (a-z band names from the 80s, go!); coffee.
• In exactly 21 words, make an argument for House Party II: As terrible a movie as this sequel is, and it’s bad, you should never overlook Queen Latifah because she’s Queen Latifah.
• Who should the Democrats run in 2020?: Kamala Harris, Deval Patrick, Sherrod Brown, or Chris Murphy. Any combination will do.
• What’s your all-time favorite quote?: I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.” – e.e. cummings
• How did you meet your husband Evan?: In Australia at the Olympics in 2000.
• One question you would ask Joel Skinner were he here right now?: What did you think about Chief Wahoo?