We chose Wright Thompson’s ESPN.com piece “The Kid Who Wasn’t There” as our latest Notable Narrative because the story added a chilling layer to the odd life story of Guerdwich Montimere, the grown man who passed himself off as a Texas high schooler and became a basketball star. So much of Thompson’s work, though, merits an admiring read: the why-you-should-love cricket story out of India, the Billy Cannon story out of Louisiana, the ode to writing and writers out of a bar called Elaine’s. A Kansas City Star newspaperman turned long-form features writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, Thompson writes off the world news, via the prism of sports. “He writes long and often personally, and he lays his heart out there, which is a rare thing these cynical days,” as Esquire’s Chris Jones once put it.

We caught Thompson on the road this week in our mutually native Mississippi. He was driving from his home in Oxford to a story in Alabama, but didn’t want to say, at least publicly, what the story was. It was kind of hard to hear each other, and Thompson kept yelling things like “Oh look! The Natchez Trace!” but we managed to cover everything from story conception to deadline music. You may want to think of Thompson’s comments as part master class on narrative journalism and part travelogue.

I had just re-read his great piece on Junior Johnson, the godfather of stock-car racing, and was saying how fun it can be, covering NASCAR, and so we started there.

Paige Williams: Those guys are just not like anybody else.

Wright Thompson: And the way Junior Johnson talks – those are poems. It’s “bored-out” and “stroked” and “cammed” – they’re like the best kind of poems because it doesn’t matter what the words mean, it’s just how they sound.

Those boys are smart, too.

Thompson at Hemingway's house during a reporting trip to Cuba. The line above his head marks Hemingway's height.

Junior Johnson has an innate understanding of physics. I mean if Junior Johnson had been born to your family or my family, Junior Johnson would’ve been, like, a particle physicist. The things he invented!

The best thing about writing about racing isn’t so much the tech stuff or who won or lost, it’s the characters. I remember this thing about Richard Petty rolling a car pretty good – he went over an embankment and out of sight and everybody ran over to find out if he was dead or alive, and he was sitting there in front of the smoking wreckage and all he said was, “Anybody got a Coke?” 

They’re like that! It’s unbelievable! Like Junior Johnson threatening a U.S. marshal – Junior Johnson is not someone you want mad at you, even at 80. Junior Johnson would whip my ass. I wouldn’t fight Junior Johnson – are you kidding me? Like, the story about him cheating in his son’s soapbox derby, hiding the lead in the floorboard of the car –

They figured out how to get by.

I talked to Mike Krzyzewski, the coach at Duke – the thing that’s interesting is that Junior has an eighth-grade education and is really embarrassed about it. The thing he wants more than anything in the world is for his son to go to college, and so they went and toured Duke. And to hear people describe – Junior Johnson’s father had a second-grade education, so to go from a second-grade education to an eighth-grade education to touring Duke? I mean, the look on his face.

What about your family, if you don’t mind my asking? 

My mother’s side of the family were well-to-do Delta planters. My dad’s side of the family was sort of the opposite; they grew up in South Mississippi, very, very small farm. My grandfather was a really smart man who had to go home and run the family farm – I feel like there’s a little Willy Loman there, had to go home and do this job. And so they were middle-class as that era of Mississippi goes, but my dad and his brothers all went to college. There’s a doctor, a lawyer, an advertising executive. So in some ways it’s from the farm to working for a media company, with a generation in between – a pretty standard story. From making things to helping people who make things to working with ideas. Oh, hey, “Welcome to Okolona: the little city that does big things!”

Is that Monroe County?

I do not know the answer to that. My father, who could name every county in Mississippi, would be very upset.

Chickasaw County. I’m Googling.

Oh, look at this! This is the high school football field! It is the Charles Faulkner Field, “home of the Chiefs.” Faulkner died in Okolona, I think, right?

Byhalia.

Oh, that’s right, at the sanitarium, drying his ass out.

And he’d had a heart attack.

It wasn’t drinking that killed Faulkner, it was stopping. It was like: Heroin didn’t kill Jerry Garcia, quitting did.

Faulkner died at the Wright Sanitarium, Wright.

And this is the 50th anniversary of his death. He died 2 1/2 months before Ole Miss integrated.

Oh, he was only 64.

Yeah, well, those were 64 hard-ass years. Did you read William Styron’s obituary about him in Life magazine? It’s incredible. (His niece), Dean Faulkner (Wells), who’s just died, she had this great collection of first editions because every single writer who came to town came by to kiss the ring. She had this Gideon’s Bible inscribed: “Dear Dean, I wrote this book for you. Love, Bill Styron.” You know.

It’s 11:15 in the morning. How long have you been up?

Today? I snoozed until about 6:30.

Morning is your best writing time, right?

I want to be in the chair writing by 6:30, and I want to be done writing for the day by 2. There are always five or six stories going at once so I need to sort of do the daily maintenance on them. I’m just much better right in the morning. And also, I can have a day ruined very easily, which I’m trying to get better about because it’s stupid to be superstitious, but, like, if I oversleep the day is shot for me. I can’t go start at 10. It’s ruined.

When did that start for you?

It was by necessity. At the Kansas City Star I wrote a 3,000-word takeout every week. We would have a meeting on Monday – we would go out to lunch and plan. I would either stay in town or be on an airplane that night or Tuesday; I would report Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, usually come home Thursday or Friday. The story would run on Sunday, so I would wake up Saturday and write live. Every hour counted.

Yeah.

The difference between starting at 6 and starting at 10 was the difference between having a story that worked and having a hot mess. So I just got in the habit. And I just do better if I have a long stretch of day in front of me. To the eternal annoyance, I think, of my editors, I don’t want to conference-call about the presentation of a story before I’ve written the story. I like the long stretch of a day in front of me.

What do you do to get yourself into that writing space?

I drink an absurd amount of coffee. And I have a song mix that I listen to that I’ve listened to basically for 10 years. I mean, I add songs as I find them, but I listen to music.

Wait, wait, wait – you listen to the same song mix that you’ve listened to for the past 10 years?

Yes. That started for a very specific reason, though: I wrote in press boxes, where it’s loud as shit. And so you need something to drown out the noise. So I had a mix that I made that was calm. If I had 17 minutes to write I wanted a little soothing music.

Now you know that I have to ask what’s on that mix.

Hold on. Okay. (Reading from his iPhone.) “Writing Mix: Charlie Daniels Band, ‘Mister D.J.;’ ‘I Don’t Like Mondays,’ Tori Amos; ‘Little Rock,’ Collin Raye; ‘Hallelujah,’ Jeff Buckley; ‘Brothers in Arms,’ Dire Straits; ‘Good Ol’ Boys Like Me,’ Don Williams; ‘New Orleans Ladies,’ (LeRoux); ‘Good Riddance,’ Green Day; ‘This Old Porch,’ Lyle Lovett; ‘Sunrise,’ Norah Jones” – fuck, that’s an odd one – “‘Lonesome Blues,’ Shooter Jennings; ‘Stuck on You,’ Lionel Ritchie; ‘Walking in Memphis,’ Marc Cohn; ‘Photograph,’ Charlie Robison; ‘The Wrestler,’ Bruce Springsteen; ‘Amsterdam,’ Coldplay; ‘Little Motel,’ Modest Mouse; ‘The Freshman,’ The Verve Pipe.”

Well, now I have to make the playlist.

That’s embarrassing! Why couldn’t I have said, you know, Motley Crue, “Home Sweet Home?”

No! It’s great!

I’ve stolen songs. “Amsterdam” is Tom Lake. “Little Motel” is Chris Jones. Somebody’ll mention a song that they write to and I’ll go, “Ooh, I like that,” and I’ll put it on the mix. Sometimes I’ll take things off. I took off Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” because I liked it too much. It was distracting.

(Charlie Daniels is playing out of position on that list for now − clearly he doesn’t like being told what to do − but the others should work.) What else is on your list, from other writers?

I’ll have to do a reconstruction of it.

Do some liner notes.

Exactly. Liner notes. The Green Day song got added because I was writing a story about Tara Peck, a high school soccer star in Kansas City who was killed in a car wreck. Her mom was a nurse. Her mom was in the car, tried to give her CPR. I basically spent several days between Tara’s death and her funeral with her family and her best friend. They put together a playlist for her funeral and her mom sort of went through her closet, the whole thing. I was basically embedded with the family as I wrote this story, and all I remember is the last line: “She would have been so many things.” That was 10 years or so I guess. So they played that song at her funeral – it was her favorite song – so I put it on the mix.

See, it’s all connected. It’s not just a playlist. It’s not just a mix. There’s important stuff at work there. I have “Shadow Boxing” up (in which Thompson tracked down the boxer Jim “Sweet Jimmy” Robinson) and was reading that before we started talking, too.

That’s my favorite story.

Why?

Well, the persistence. I like that it worked. I mean, I chased that story for seven years. That’s an exaggeration because that’s not all I did, but every couple of months for a couple of days I would go look for Jim Robinson. And the thing that broke it open was, I figured out that he was in Miami. I write about this in the story, but I set up a 305 phone number and made up a flyer and put it up all over town, the last place he’d been seen. And I went home. And four days later the phone started ringing. It was just really interesting in terms of what it means to exist. It’s sort of a story about the effacement of memory and the nature of loss. My editor and I worked on that a lot. His name’s Jay Lovinger and he’s unbelievable. He’s a lion. He’s edited Gary Smith and David Halberstam and Hunter Thompson and Richard Ford. He was the managing editor at Life magazine and the No. 2 guy at Inside Sports. I’ve said this a lot but it’s true: He changed my life. The experience of doing “Shadow Boxing,” sort of walking around the block in the Bronx, where he lives, and talking about it – that’s a very, very special story to me.

And there are echoes of it in the Jerry Joseph story. How do you pronounce Joseph’s other name, (Guerdwich Montimere)?

GURD-witch Mont-a-meer.

Okay.

Although I slip up and still call him Jerry. It’s weird.

These stories sort of echo each other. They’re quest stories but they’re also about identity.

Identity comes up a lot in my stories. Because I like to write about place and all place is, is a way to code identity. People love a place as a sort of construct to pass things on. I wrote this thing about Nazareth, Texas, about the girls’ high school basketball team, and I’m sort of obsessed with this idea of reverse manifest destiny. Frank and Deborah Popper are professors – one’s at Princeton and one’s at Rutgers, they’re married, and they do all this incredible research about Buffalo Commons, but essentially – you’ve seen the end of “Dances with Wolves” where they have the quote, something like, “In 1890 the frontier closed.” The thing that’s interesting, the frontier is reopening. I mean there are counties now that were settled in this mad rush West – all these places settled in this mad rush West, and some of them are drying up and blowing away. If the central core of American identity is manifest destiny and if it turns out that we didn’t actually settle the continent in the way that we say we did, what does that mean? This is just a really interesting time for identity in America. The little towns are drying up and blowing away. If you’re from a place like Mississippi, you see it – everyone moves to Memphis, they move to Birmingham, they move to Atlanta, they move to Charlotte. All of the ways in which we learned who we are, they’re changing, and they’re changing very, very rapidly.

Do you look for stories that allow you to explore that, and are you interested in exploring that idea in a longer-form way, like in a book?

Not really. I mean my attention span is such that I’m sort of over it when I’m over it. You know?

Yeah. I do.

Maybe that’s bad but the last thing in the world I want to do is go revisit Jimmy Robinson. I mean that just sounds crushing to me.

It’s like you put all your energy into it for this one amount of time and burn yourself out on it.

Yeah, and then it’s over. And I want to move on to the next thing.

Jerry/Guerdwich: A lot had been written about the guy but no one had done a long-form narrative until Michael Mooney’s GQ piece – what did you want to do with your story that had not been done?

I love Michael’s piece. I thought he did a great job. And he also had a mission and I thought he nailed it. Everything that’s in the story I had, basically, when his came out, but I kept trying to fill the gap. I was really relieved that he didn’t have a couple of (my) people, because that would have killed (my) story. I remember when it came out – I was at dinner, I got a text message that it was out, I drove up to Off Square Books, I bought it, I drove back to Snackbar and I read it in the parking lot. And I immediately thought, “Wow, he nailed this.”

I was also relieved. There were so many different stories to tell and I think all of them are good. I just had to make sure he didn’t tell mine. That was the thing I was worried about. I was always locked into the twin-brother narrative. That was going to be my story no matter what.

The other thing was, I was coordinating with a television producer, so this was a TV piece too – I went to Texas as a print reporter, I went to Texas as a TV reporter, they went to Texas without me, I went without them, and so we were working on the story the whole time with Drew Gallagher, the producer, and then the people who shot it, the Texas Crew.

So it was a logistical challenge because the story existed – right now it exists in three forms. There’s the television story, the dot-com story that we’re talking about, and there’s the magazine story that’s totally different. The hardest part was sort of bringing it to the finish line in all of its manifestations. I’m glad we did. I could be wrong about this but I don’t think there’s anybody in media who’s doing it like this. Honestly, I think this is the first integrated newsroom. It’s not like having a photographer go shoot some video. It’s world-class producers and camera crews – it’s just an interesting thing that’s happening, and it’s cool to be a very small part of it.

The New York Times interactive team is doing some interesting stuff, but taking smaller pieces of big stories –

Yeah, but these are television networks. So it’s a little unfair. We have an enormous news-gathering operation – the walls are gone. Everyone talks to everyone. It’s totally exciting. It’s hard sometimes because you end up being the center of the hub and some of the logistics are difficult, but it’s fascinating if for no other reason than I have found out that a shot of tequila perfectly fits between the wings of an Emmy.

Good to know.

And you can spear the limes on the lightning bolts. It’s perfect.

So anyway, you knew you wanted to lock in on the twins narrative.

I wasn’t interested in “what happened in Texas.” I was interested in why. And then once I figured out the why it all sort of fell together. I thought the most interesting thing was that these two brothers switched lives, and I became obsessed with that. I have no idea whether that was the right call.

Not sure there is a right or wrong. You go with the line that speaks to you. At least it’s yours. It’s unlike anything else that’s out there –

Two people wrote really long magazine stories that didn’t overlap at all, which is a sort of testament to the complexity. The other thing that killed me on this, I wanted it to end with the trial. So we were waiting on the trial. I had a plane ticket for Texas and was all set, and two days before (I was supposed to leave) they pled it out. So the thing I had waited to be my climax was now gone.

You can never bet on a trial, though. They can always plead out.

I’d flirted with that thing, the trial, being the structure. None of this was written and I actually was lost for a while, trying to figure it out. The outline of this was especially difficult.

What did you do?

I had five or six hundred pages of typed notes and a huge stack of letters that (Montimere) and I had written back and forth and then, I don’t know, three, four, five hundred pages of public documents – I just carpet-bombed South Florida with (open-records) requests. The twins were juveniles, so their names were redacted, so you couldn’t search that way. So I basically got every address of where they’d ever lived and then filed (open-records requests) for every police call for every address where they’d ever lived.

I went through all the notes. The thing I always do is, I underline, I tab. I kept trying to go through the notes and write down on note cards everything I’ve underlined, but it just wasn’t working. I was 100 pages in, and I already had 300 note cards. I’m like, this is a disaster. So I went back to the Word doc of the notes and started making separate Word docs for everything that was related to either a certain idea or time period or character – they were all cross-referenced. I ended up with 30 different Word documents. Then I printed them all out and went back through them again and was able to outline. I mean, this was a nightmare.

Touch of the voodoo, maybe.

Voodoo’s one of those things I don’t believe in but that I don’t want to mess with, just in case.

In terms of structure, design played a cool role because your personal narrative plays out on the bits of “taped-up paper.”

Yeah, and thank God for that because in the outline those were called “Reporter’s Notebook.” Which I never liked. But you know how things happen – they’re in the outline and then they’re in the draft and then all of a sudden you’ve filed it and you’re like, “I hate these things.” It sounded cheesy, so I asked (the ESPN designers), I said, “Can you make them an actual notebook?” They’re like, “Yeah of course we can do that.”

The visuals flow nicely, whereas if you’d had a “Reporter’s Notebook” subhed –

It would’ve been needlessly meta.

Yeah. This solution is perfect because the “torn paper” is a visual cue that lets us know we’re back in your narrative. And then you can keep the other subheds, with the twins’ names and dates, which anchor us in chronological time. Easier on the reader.

And if you’ll notice we’ll call him “the twin,” instead of Guerdouin, because we worried about everyone getting confused. (Guerdouin and Guerdwich) had two names that were very strange but also similar. Somewhere an Associated Press editor died a little inside, because we went through every single reference to Guerdouin and changed it to “the twin.”

The change also sets up this eerie echo self, which is what a twin is.

Yeah. And it’s written as if they are one person.

In your opening sentence I like how you cue readers about exactly what kind of story they’re going to be getting with the phrase “weird true-crime story.”

This may be way too literal but I wanted people to know right off the bat that there was a crime and that it’s weird and there are gonna be twists and turns, and that it’s a mystery.

It’s a declaration. You’re establishing expectations: This may be a difficult story to unpack but at its essence it’s this.

You’re referencing a genre that they’re familiar with, so they’re on board from the beginning.

And the kicker of the opener – “In the beginning there was an impostor” – is kind of Biblical. It’s creation, it’s about self-creation. Echoes of identity.

The story was always called, when we had meetings or conference calls about it, “The Impostor.” On the whiteboard in my editor’s office in Connecticut, under my list of stories it was, “The Impostor.” Every time you can be reductive and simple, you should be it.

That’s what’s interesting about it – I don’t think you’re being particularly reductive with that line. What’s great about that seven-word sentence (seven also being a mystical number, by the way) is that there’s so much behind it. It’s a complicated idea.

A lot of things have to be true for someone to be an impostor. And it immediately poses a whole bunch of questions that you don’t have to ask because everyone else is already asking them, from “what is the nature of identity?” to “what the fuck?” I over-ask questions in stories – I go through and cut a lot of them, but I just think the beginning of a story should ask a question that the rest of the story shows the answer to. Sometimes I’m just so evangelistic about that. There are sentences in there that you’d want back after it runs, but in this one, I thought, made people ask questions.

You set up Part 1 with a short section called “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” a string of bumped quotes that functions almost like confessionals. You’ve got different people sort of stepping in front of the camera and saying who they think Guerdwich is. Everybody’s saying something different and it works.

I’d love to lie to you right now and take credit, but that was added just before we filed it, and it was entirely my editor’s idea. That was never the first section.

Really?

Yeah, and it changes the whole story. (Jay Lovinger and I) were on the phone and he said, “Something’s not right.” He called back later and said, “Here’s what you need to do: You need to pull a bunch of contradictory quotes that in effect put all of these different characters, like the blind men and the elephant, in a room arguing with each other. Because that’s what the story is.”

Yep.

He said it and I was like, “Oh my God.” Honestly, I did (the section) in 15 minutes. I knew what those quotes were gonna be. And then he flipped the order. He ended it with voodoo. I had ended it with the quote from the old basketball coach, about the JFK movie.

Why did he want to end with voodoo?

I think it was the punch in the face that he liked. If there’s a sentence he says to me more than any other it’s, “You’re stepping on your ending,” either in a paragraph, a section or a story. He’ll say, “Just stop. Don’t explain it.” And I have this sort of urge – I worked at a newspaper for a long time. I’m a newspaper guy. And so I think, “Well, what if they don’t get it?” He says, “Clarity isn’t God.” That’s not me. I want to hold somebody’s hand and explain it to them.

In newspapers we’re trained to close it out. But in this case, if you’d moved the voodoo line up somewhere within that montage and ended “I don’t think you’ll ever get a why,” the story shuts down, dead-ends. To me the reader could say, “Well, why am I even reading this then?”

Yeah, what’re we even doing? It’s funny, I’ve never even thought about why (Lovinger) said (to end the section that way), because when he says do something I just do it. You know how this works: Writers don’t trust editors up until the moment they earn the trust, and then you trust them implicitly. I’m so thankful for that relationship. It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.

What was the original Part 1 opening?

“The Blind Men and the Elephant” was just inserted, so –

Oh, so the original start, just after the intro, was, “Two of the few certainties about Guerdwich Montimere are that he has a twin brother and that they are nothing alike.”

Yeah. Exactly.

The elephant sets up all the different possible answers and also creates a sense of chaos.

You’re getting questions. If you look at it, the story answers every one of those questions posed.

There’s a quote under “February 2007” – “The ball stops bouncing.” That’s sort of a transcendent quality of the whole thing: You’re gonna get found out, you’re gonna get old, you’re gonna die. It’s shorthand.

Yeah. What is it, “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.”

Nice.

There has to be a transcendent quality, some subtlety. What’s that Steinbeck quote? Something like, “A story has to be about everything or it’s about nothing.”

You hired an investigator in Haiti for this story. Why?

I’d just been to Haiti and wasn’t really looking to go back. I was gonna go to Haiti depending on what (the investigator) found. I just wanted someone to check first, before I flew to Haiti fishing.

How did that work? Did he send you tapes, or?

He sent me transcribed tapes and documents. He was unbelievable. He went to two different places and found me every family member in Haiti. He’s the one who got me the cellphone number for the dad. I wanted to know if someone could tell me for sure if the mom took Guerdouin to see a voodoo priest in Haiti right around the moment Guerdouin and Guerdwich started changing lives.

The mom is such an interesting character – now that you’ve had time to process all of this, what do you make of her?

There’s something odd that came through, and I still don’t completely understand what went on. From talking to sort of third-party people, she wasn’t really involved, but I don’t want to get in the business of insulting mothers. You know what I mean? Everything’s complicated.

Juxtaposed with Jimmie Wright (the Texas woman who took Montimere in as her own) she’s an especially interesting character. I wondered if you were tempted to make more of Jimmie.

I wrote the entire (earlier) magazine story only about Jimmie Wright. I didn’t leave stuff out of the main story, save it. She’s a fascinating person. She and (her husband) Danny are the only untarnished people in this whole thing.

And there’s interesting complexity and tension even within that relationship: She believes one thing about Jerry/Guerdwich and Danny believes another. That stuff about the lighthouses was great. She’s obsessed with lighthouses and the backstory is incredible. How’d you get it?

I was there and the house was covered in lighthouses and I asked why. I’m just like, “What’s up with all the lighthouses?” I’m a real Woodward and Bernstein. I’ll ask anything.

Not every writer asks, though.

You just cover yourself in the blanket of cute nosiness. You know? The true genius of Chris Jones is that he notices things and he always asks. So you end up with the girl in the flowered dress, or Roger Ebert’s wedding ring.

A lot of people notice details but don’t say anything, or, worse, they assume they know what the details mean. That’s dangerous, assuming that the lighthouses –

Yeah, that she always wanted to live in Nantucket, or something.

You reference a South Florida paper’s timeline of events –

To me there’s nothing more disingenuous than media, the most powerful force of dissemination of information in the world, pretending it doesn’t exist. People interact with the media. And to think that that doesn’t drive these things – this is my little diatribe but it makes me crazy. So you have the thing like with the Cambridge cops and Dr. Gates – you have satellite trucks camping out in each of their yards, yelling questions at them and their families, so somebody says something and then they air these things next to each other as if they’re arguing with each other, and then you have 6,000 television stations calling the mayor of Cambridge to give a press conference, and so he decides to do it all at once, and then the commentariat talk about should he have had a press conference. It’s not even an estate anymore, it’s a weather system. (Media presence is) driving the whole thing and pretending it doesn’t exist.

There’s this passage that functions as a sort of nut graf:

All these questions coalesce into one − crazy or con? − and in that reduction I finally understand that the most important thing Guerdwich Montimere and Jerry Joseph have in common is the reaction they inspire. People see what they want to see, maybe even what they need to see, and the longer they spend thinking about it, the more the focus turns inward. What does a name and a number mean? Do we really ever know anybody?

Up until very shortly before the story ran there was another sentence on the end of that, and it was, “Do we ever really know ourselves?” And I cut it because it just didn’t pass my own smell test. I could feel myself rolling my eyes at myself. Maybe I chickened out – I’m not sure that was the right call or not, but I just thought, this is just psychobabble –

The preceding sentence is enough.

Yeah, to me, that is the whole (story) – everyone was trying to see (Joseph/Montimere) through their own prism. I mean this may sound crazy but sometimes I Google his picture, just to make sure any of this was real. I go back and forth on the crazy or con, still.

A little of both, maybe.

Probably, as is everything.

Did those insights drive the narrative or did they bubble up out of you as you reported?

They were bubbling up out of me. None of that stuff was outlined, those sort of things. It would’ve just been “crazy or con?” in the outline. The reason I was wary about taking that (aforementioned) line out was because that’s what came out in the moment, and I sort of think that you should defer to how you feel in the moment. I had been thinking about all of these things.

There’s a layering of thinking here that gives the story heart.

I try to seek out stories that make me think about things. Sometimes I’m drawn to ideas that are hard to wrestle into shape. Sometimes I kick myself because I’ve avoided a story because I thought the arc was too simple and I go back and read what someone else has done and they’ve just crushed it. And I realize I was wrong and the story wasn’t simple at all.

So if you did miss the meaning, or failed to think about it in the way you wish you’d thought about it, what happened there? Where did the breakdown happen? That’s happened to me too. You look back on some stories and think: I blew it.

It’s when you’re tired.

Yeah.

It’s when you’re tired.

Yes.

I’ve had a real long run – I’ve been on the road a lot. I have a vacation scheduled at the end of this month, and I’ll be a roaring freight train when I come back from vacation. But if you’re just tired, you just miss it. I just missed a great story and I’m so pissed at myself. Sugar Shane Mosley is a boxer who’s been a champion, who’s had doping things going on. I think he’s fortysomething years old and he fought sort of the younger version of himself Saturday night in Las Vegas. I watched that fight and you realize that you’re watching someone at the end or near the end of his career and at the end it looked to me like – he wasn’t even fighting to win, he was fighting just so he could walk out of the ring. There was something inspiring about it. I should’ve seen it. If I’d seen it two days before that, I could’ve been at that fight.

Totally get that. Don’t know what to say to make you feel better about that, so back to the thinking, which is probably 80 percent of writing: In all of your stories, not just this one, there’s something deeper at work than the basic arc of events.

You’re looking for stories about the larger human condition – that’s the prerequisite. It needs to be about something. It needs to be about something to me.

*The conversation has been edited lightly for clarity, length and, occasionally, for words that might displease our mothers. 

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