Excerpts from a November interview with Gary Smith about his story “The Power of One,” which appeared in Sports Illustrated in September:
Q: When did you first hear about Bonnie Richardson? How long did you work on the story?
A: I guess it was within a week of when she won her second state title. I read a shorter story in the Charleston paper here where I live. It took me about two months to do, start to finish.
Q: “The Power of One” reads very smoothly, yet it also feels like you’re refusing to put Richardson into a Cinderella box.
A: It’s not so much that I didn’t want to put her there as that she doesn’t fall in that box. Hopefully the reader will realize that it wasn’t so much my design—I wasn’t trying to steer the reader away from it. If you lay out the real situation, exactly as it is, not ending up in that box is the consequence of it.
Q: You sometimes give the end of the story away up front rather than following a classic narrative structure. Why is that?
A: I don’t think I try to do that generally speaking. I guess in this case, maybe there was a feeling that the headline writers would put it out there if I didn’t. Getting people to read a story about a 17-year-old girl in Sports Illustrated, maybe you need to pull them in and give them enough ground to get started. It’s such a curiosity that if you didn’t give a strong hint of what was to come, or just come out and say it, maybe the reader wouldn’t pursue the story.
Q: Your stories have real scenes and chapters. Do you begin with a lot and then winnow down to the critical scenes, or do you decide before you start writing which scenes you’re going to use?
A: I usually have a general idea of what scenes will be pivotal and work on a piece from there. Sometimes that changes mid-game, but I pretty much like to have an idea going in what I want to use before I start writing.
Q: Reading your work, I almost hear you as a narrator reading the story aloud in my head—kind of talking to me as a reader.
A: Underneath that is a drive to really keep the reader right there with me. That’s one of many techniques that can be used to keep the reader close at hand.
Q: You sometimes tuck some complicated information into your stories. I’m thinking of the Richie Parker story, in which you go into the unstable molecular structure of cesium, and then turn around and use it as a metaphor for the human interactions around Parker. Can you talk about that?
A: I guess in that story, it was a case of sensing one explosion after another after another. It just sets off this sense, this feeling that it must be like what occurs in chemistry. I asked myself, “What is it in nature that could cause a series of explosions?”
That led me to call a professor at a university. I knew just enough to know that sometimes the explosive nature of a material has to do with an extra electron and where it hooks up, but I didn’t have enough to write it the way I wanted to. So I asked him exactly why that happened and which were the more volatile elements. It just seemed it would give me a vehicle to lay out a complicated thing but give people a handle on it so they could ride with it and understand how that can play out in the human world, too.
Q: Sports stories resonate because they have those big moments: winning, losing, risk, and a small shot at glory. You seem to invert that and have the sports as the background for the drama of life.
A: The human aspect of all this is much more fascinating to me, and I feel like it plays out on the field or the court. To me it’s more important to go to through the life stuff and then see it rippling out into the sports rather than vice versa.
Besides being truer to me, it also connects more to the reader, because he’s in the life arena and many of these same things are the things he’s experiencing or has bumped up against. And so you’ve giving them a stake in the story much more than if you put the spotlight on this extreme talent or just the narrow part of the pyramid. I’d rather look at what’s spreading out underneath that narrow part.
Q: What do you want your stories to do?
A: To make readers think about life and about themselves and why human beings do what they do.
Q: What’s the last story you read that knocked your socks off?
A: I just read a great story by Justin Heckert. What was the title?
Q: “Lost in the Waves”?
A: Yes. It’s just an incredible story idea—this father and his autistic son. The father is trying to let this child live and have the experiences other kids have, but in pursuit of that goal, they literally end up in deep, deep water. It brought in so many elements about parenting. I really enjoyed that.
Q: Is there a story you’ve written that you feel good about—that you don’t have second thoughts about how you might have done it better?
A: I’m not sure I want to answer that question… If I had to pick one, it would probably be “Damned Yankee.” It’s about a guy that could have been the guy that replaced Yogi Berra as catcher for the Yankees, but he has this explosive secret. At the age of five, he’d accidentally thrown a javelin through the head of his uncle, who was also his best friend, and killed him. The story told of the incredible way it rippled through his life. It’s in my anthologyGoing Deep.
Q: What would you say to people who aspire to the kind of narrative journalism you do—the people who would like to take your job?
A: Go for it, man. I’ve been led to understand that it’s becoming much more difficult to get this kind of job. It seems that there are fewer platforms for this kind of writing. But I wouldn’t let it stop you from trying. It’s great work, and I’m really lucky to get to do what I do.