Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

September 4, 2007

SI's Provence Bureau Chief

Sports Illustrated writer S.L. Price spent a year in France covering non-US sports for America's biggest sports magazine. He came out of it with an unexpected, unconventional memoir.

Michael Myser

After writing for Sports Illustrated for a decade, Scott (S.L.) Price landed his dream assignment, living in the South of France with his wife and three kids while covering European and world sports and athletes in 2004. His travels took him to the Olympics in Greece, historic cricket matches in Pakistan, the breeding grounds for the NBA's next potential cache of big men, and other venues for the world's biggest sporting events.

Scott Price/Photo by Simon Bruty
"You really have to be not afraid to ask really stupid questions. That's one of my few talents."

Scott Price/Photo by Simon Bruty

Price goes beyond those events in his new book, Far Afield: A Sportswriting Odyssey, introducing readers to his life, his family, and the political and cultural undercurrents of European sports. Part memoir, part travelogue, and part sports book, Far Afield is called even by Price himself a "possibly unwieldy" combination. But besides the occasional stumble between these diverse subjects, Far Afield is a bittersweet and entertaining ride through a sports world few Americans ever witness. And Price proves that sportswriting, when done well, and sportswriters, when living well, can be extremely interesting.

In the following interview with Gelf, conducted by phone and edited for clarity, Price spoke about his good fortune in landing the assignment, his struggle convincing himself to get the book published, and his inability to judge the quality of his own work. (You can hear Price and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, September 5, in New York's Lower East Side. Price was also interviewed earlier this year by Gelf.)

Gelf Magazine: This book is about your year living in the South of France covering European sports for Sports Illustrated. How did you convince SI to spring for this?

Scott (S.L.) Price: In one sense, I don't know. I'd gotten a job offer from the Chicago Tribune from a guy I love, Dan McGrath. I love newspapers (it took more than a month for me to leave the Miami Herald in 1994 for Sports Illustrated). So then the Trib came, with a guy I'd worked with before in Chicago, a great sports town. If ever there was a columnist job to consider and find out if I really wanted to be a columnist, it was this one.
Very quickly, Terry McDonell and Norman Pearlstine made it clear that they wanted me to stay at SI and were going to match an offer. I was a bit mystified, but I realized they were going to ask me what I wanted. That never happens in life, when someone would really grant you that if you throw it out there.
So I threw it out there: "Why don't I go to Europe and report on sports?" The reaction was instantaneous. They said yes and said we could live wherever we wanted in Europe.

GM: Did you feel like after 10 years with them, and writing for about 20 years, you in any way deserved, or were entitled to, an assignment like this?

SLP: I felt more fraudulent. (Laughing) No, I don't think I've deserved anything my entire career. I grew up with not a lot of money and expected to make 20 grand a year as a journalist. Anything that's come since, to me, I've thought of as gravy. From the Sacramento Bee to the Miami Herald…
I didn't think I was entitled to it at all. I was a little bit shocked. You know, it was one of the great gigs in sportswriting, to me, anyway. I'm fascinated by that whole nexus of sports and culture and politics that seems to really bubble up in Europe on a regular basis. I couldn't believe it.

GM: You were there to cover foreign sporting events for SI, and you write that your stories sometimes got cut down, or cut out. Did part of you expect that to happen?

SLP: I had no idea. The magazine, like all magazines, has to cater to the readership. SI has always been a big enough tent that it'll give you meat and potatoes, and it'll also give you the unusual piece.
Overall, I have no complaint about what they wanted me to cover. But I felt bad. I thought they invested to send me there, so I figured they'd want to go whole hog—they'd want reams of stories. But I think that was my delusion more than anything else. I don't think I was really thinking very clearly.
People are always battling to get stories in the magazine, and for obvious and understandable reasons, it's American-centric. It wasn't like they were suddenly going to have a weekly letter from Europe. It just wasn't going to be that way.

GM: How early did it cross your mind that you were going to write a book?

SLP: Not very early. As a whole, I don't think writers, especially nonfiction writers, are very interesting. We know it, and that's why we go seek out fascinating and interesting people to write about.
A friend of mine convinced me to do it. He said, "You're a Sports Illustrated writer. People will be intrigued by that."
I finally started to think that as a Sports Illustrated writer—living in Europe when Americans are not popular at all, Lance Armstrong, India and Pakistan, the Olympics—in this one case, this one concentrated form for a single year, maybe a sportswriter's life is interesting.
I started writing it in my spare time about seven months in, but I wasn't convinced of it. I ended up putting together a possibly unwieldy mix: It's one-third memoir, one-third examination of sport in Europe and one-third a year in Provence with my family.
I wrote the whole thing without a publisher, because I wasn't sure how to even sum it up as a book proposal. I finished it not long after we came back, but wasn't sure if I wanted to publish it, or if it was even publishable. There's not another book like it, but there may be a really good reason why.

"I realized they were going to ask me what I wanted. That never happens in life, when someone would really grant you that if you throw it out there."
GM: You say there's not a book like it, but Far Afield does read a bit like Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, in the way you use games or matches to relate bigger political or societal stories. Is that the model you used when you started writing and researching this book?

SLP: I read How Soccer Explains the World, and to tell you the truth, it didn't really explain the world—it was a great job of packaging. Franklin Foer probably said, "I like to go around to different countries, and I think soccer really reflects more than just sports. I'm going to put it together under this unified theory of how it explains the world." I'm not knocking it. I think it's excellent, and it's exactly the kind of story I love to do.
But I didn't have a model, and again, that's problematic. If there's not another book out there like it, there may be a reason. It's a weird combination of things, and I just sort of winged it. There was no grand unified theory.

GM: There are also a couple sections where it seems to be for the writers out there, or trying to get people who aren't writers to understand what it feels like. Why did you want to explain your trade, your job, like that?

SLP: You know, it sort of goes back to [the idea of], write what you know. I felt like I'm taking this reader on this ride, and in exchange, I have to tell him a lot about myself. The fact is that sportswriters, when people think about them, are a fairly misunderstood breed. People just think, "Ah, what a great job." Every sportswriter I know is for the most part a smart, driven, passionate, neurotic, crazy person!
I'm always drawn to stories about passion; it's when people are most honest about something. I thought: This is what I know, it hasn't been written about that much, and I could show why this was important.

GM: You describe the process, or the feat, of achieving the perfect story. Did you get any of those stories while you were in Europe?

SLP: The horrible thing about writing is there are times where I'll think, "God, I nailed it." Then I'll go back to it six months later and realize how bad it is. Then there are times when I didn't think much of a story, and I'll stumble upon it later and think, "Whoa, that's great." The horrifying thing is that, yes, I've had that feeling, but my problem is that it's extremely hard for me to stand back and judge a story.
I get so emotionally tied up in it. I'm trying to think of an example. Actually, an essay about Daron Rahlves and Hermann Maier [for the Scorecard section of SI]. I knew I had a story, and it wasn't a long blowout story, but as a piece, it was pretty good.
I went to Pakistan to do that story [about a Pakistan vs. India cricket match], thinking I had everything I needed. But I've read it since then, and I think it was kind of flat.

GM: I think the most interesting story to cover, especially given the timing, would have been that India vs. Pakistan match. Which was your favorite story to cover?

SLP: That was absolutely my favorite one, because it was certainly the most surprising. When I envisioned going to Europe, I didn't imagine going to Pakistan. Wimbledon, the French Open, Tim Howard, Lance [Armstrong] all made sense, but Pakistan came up and it was a completely different world.
Like the World Cup, you feel like you're at the center of the universe, because everyone cares so desperately about it. Nothing compares to that—the Olympics aren't like that. Pakistan/India cricket was like that, and there was something at risk here besides the final score—relations between two nuclear-tipped powers.

GM: Did you have enough background beforehand about the politics and the sport to write about it?

SLP: I'm a parachute guy: I'm one of those guys who drops in and has to become the expert. This was in some ways the ultimate parachute job. Not only did I have to write about a country, I had to write about a sport I didn't know and no one in America cares about. I had to explain, with authority, the sport, India/Pakistan's relations, and this rivalry, often bloodstained.
You really have to be not afraid to ask really stupid questions. That's one of my few talents. And because I was going with SI, people actually answer your questions. For someone like me, that's a wonderland.

GM: At one point you describe a precocious journalist at the Miami Herald telling you that when you wrote for the Sacramento Bee, "You weren't that good." What was that about?

SLP: When this guy said that, he was absolutely right. That was the glory of working for a superb, mid-level newspaper, pre-internet. There was this training ground where you could make your stupid mistakes. You could fail in obscurity, and you could work on it. He had to go to the Library of Congress to find my writing, and I was overjoyed that it was buried.
At this point, it would be tough for me to be a young journalist coming out, because everyone just gets hammered and criticized on the national level. It's tough to have that thick skin when you're just coming out of college.

GM: Sportswriters have also expanded well beyond writing, especially onto TV.

SLP: When I started, to be a sportswriter was it, period. Today, for self-preservation more than anything else, sportswriters are trying to get into radio and TV. We don't know where newspapers are going. The [space for news] is shrinking. Nowadays people aren't criticizing [sportswriters'] writing, but what they say on TV. Ancillary products have overwhelmed the craft.

"The horrible thing about writing is there are times where I'll think, 'God, I nailed it.' Then I'll go back to it six months later and realize how bad it is."
GM: You've avoided TV for the most part.

SLP: I'm just not very good on television. I've done ESPN SportsCentury; I'm happy to answer questions. But to be a great columnist, or on the radio, you really have to feel that the world needs to hear what you think three or four times a week. And you have to have that opinion.
And I just don't feel the need to be screaming everyday, and that's not why I got into writing. Again, I'm not criticizing these guys for doing it. Nobody knows where the industry is going, so it's smart, but it's not what I care about.
And the other thing is, I don't want to worry about my hair. My hair has enough trouble.

GM: You lived with your wife and kids—rented a house in the South of France—but you traveled all over the continent without them. You even write about an argument you had with your wife about whether it was even worth it for them to come, if you were always working, anyway. After that argument, did your work habits change at all?

SLP: No, probably not. Not to be flip, but this is what I do. I'm the only one working in the family as my wife raises three kids. I gotta keep my job. Working for SI is a great job, and it calls for travel. That's the life we're in. I don't have much training to do anything else.

GM: It seems like an amazing experience for you and your family. Ultimately, was it worth this trip?

SLP: First of all, I'd be an idiot to say I spent a year in Europe and it was awful.
Living in a foreign country is just regular life at a higher degree of difficulty. But you forget all those inconveniences and disasters. And even those you do remember become part of family lore and become fun.
My kids had a great time. It was a dream assignment for me, to do the kind of stories I love to do. As always, my wife bore the brunt of it, but she looks back upon it incredibly fondly. She was calling me on my BS, which is her job and her right and I'm thankful for it.
In the end, it's just one of the great gigs ever.

GM: So is a year long enough?

SLP: No, it's never enough time, but they [SI] were ready for me to come back, and to a certain degree, I was ready to come back.

Michael Myser

Michael Myser is a freelance writer in Morristown, New Jersey. His writing can be found at michaelmyser.blogspot.com.







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Article by Michael Myser

Michael Myser is a freelance writer in Morristown, New Jersey. His writing can be found at michaelmyser.blogspot.com.

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