October 15, 2011
Neal Pollack changed my life one time; the year was 2002 and I was twenty, by day studying for the second year of an English degree, by night working bar in city clubs. Like most of my peers I was still trying to find my way in life, and the bloated, over-serious study materials and ever-duller blend of vampire fiction and subtextually desperate classroom readouts that flooded my Creative Fiction classes had all but killed my ambition of writing for a living in favour of the idea of moving into hospitalities management (not that I was by any means immune to the lure of inflicting my bad writing onto everyone around me; most of my essays were fanboy attempts at being Chuck Palahniuk and falling leagues short of Chuck Shurley).
And then a friend loaned me a copy of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, and I, for the first time in my life, found a book I truly couldn’t put down. It was as flawlessly put-together as any of the best works I’d ever read, excruciatingly funny, and it viciously ran a satirical razorblade across the hamstrings of the 20th century’s most puffed-up, pretentious pieces of creative non-fiction and literary journalism. And, most importantly, it was the first time for a long time that reading had provided me with a genuinely good time.
I’ve been going to bed lately on a pile of jagged stones covered only by a thin cotton blanket half-eaten by moths. This is one of the worst possible sleeping arrangements I could imagine. Sometimes I wonder how things got this way, but I have to remember that I am a journalist, novelist, radio producer and poet, and I am here in Albania to find out what life is really like for a family in the poorest country in Europe. I have personally borne witness to much human suffering. People here are beset by unwanted refugees, obscure diseases, and limited opportunities to express themselves through fashion. I must tell you: things are not good.
– The Albania of My Existence, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature
In short, Pollack made me want to be a writer again, and I started to follow his blog (which in turn lead me to the likes of Matt Tobey, Ian Carey, Greg Robillard, and Darci Ratliff. And, regrettably, Wayne Gladstone. And shortly after Pollack followed up the Anthology with Never Mind the Pollacks, a rock and roll novel that featured a(nother) fictitious version of himself as the world’s greatest rock critic, and unwitting instigator of some of the greatest moments of rock history.
The rain came. Pollack opened his mouth, filling it with acidic water. He spat a broad stream of it onto the stage. It caught Dylan between the eyes.
“Judas!” Pollack cried. “Judas!”
– Never Mind the Pollacks
From there, Pollack moved into non-fiction territory with his parenting memoir Alternadad, the detailing of his quest to maintain his lifestyle and coolness in the face of becoming a father, and Stretch, the yoga memoir that now sees him carrying out pose requests at readings. Oh, and he’s one of the guys behind the parenting community Offsprung.
And now Pollack has released his newest work, Jewball, a book featuring basketball players, Nazis, punches to the face and knives to the heart, drinking, gambling, sex, love, and standing up against the forces of darkness; not necessarily in that order. In a sign of the time he’s released it himself through Amazon, and now, on TNB, Pollack discusses Jewball, basketball, the realm of noir and the age of the ebook.
SS: In brief, what’s Jewball about?
NP: It’s a noir comedy centered around a Jewish basketball team in the 1930s. The team’s coach unwittingly incurs a gambling debt to the German-American Bund, and the team has to do battle with American Nazis while also trying to claw its way to another basketball championship.
Do you think it’s a book you need to be knowledgeable about basketball or Judaism to enjoy? It keeps pretty faithfully to those two themes throughout – that being said, I don’t know a point guard from a plate of brisket, and I loved it.
I think having knowledge of or interest in those subjects would certainly help you get interested in starting the book, but once you’re immersed, Jewball is a pretty breezy read, intended for a general audience. It’s more of a noir book than a Jewish one. The Judaism isn’t laid on too thick, and while there are a lot of basketball scenes, most of them don’t get very technical.
What’s a point guard?
Point guard is a position on a basketball team. He (or she) is generally one of the shorter players; their function is to handle the ball efficiently, and to make it easier for other players to score by passing intelligently and reading defenses. They should also be able to score a bit when needed, and it’s important for point guards to make their free throws. They get fouled a lot, particularly at the end of games, because they’re always handling the ball.
It’s a cut of beef that’s often served on Jewish holidays. Generally braised, with vegetables and stock.
The characters of Jewball are all drawn from real life – the SPHAs, the Bund, David Berman and William Dudley Pelley; these were all real people. How did you find the process of writing characters that were at once a blend of fact and fiction? How much did the real-world origins of, and events surrounding, these guys color their roles in Jewball?
It depends; for some of the supporting characters like Berman and Pelley, I often turned real-life stories, garnered from nonfiction accounts, into scenes. As for secondary leads like Gottlieb, Litwack, and Kunze, I used their bios as jumping-off points, deploying some true-life stories. But because they had to play a bigger role in the narrative, I inevitably had to fictionalize a lot of their personalities and their actions. Inky Lautman, who technically was a real person, I cut from whole cloth. There’s very little material available describing Inky’s actual character and personality, so while he’s the protagonist, he’s also the least historically accurate of all my major characters. Meanwhile, certain characters, like Natalya and Charlie Shostack, were wholly fictional. That mix and match between the “real” and the “fake” informs most history-based fiction, and I drew upon the writing of historical fiction writers who I admire, like Gore Vidal, Conn Iggulden, and Kevin Baker, to try and achieve historical versimilitude while also spinning a fun story.
Tonight, like after every Saturday SPHA game, several virginities would be lost and seeds of future generations would be sown. Lips would get sucked on until they bled. Everyone was togged to the bricks and ready to stroll down Seduction Avenue. The folks in the crowd had suffered the requisite tight-quartered Shabbat with their toothless bubbes, whose apartments stank of boiled onion, whose stories about the Old Country were growing increasingly maudlin. Yes, yes, the Cossacks killed your cows and burned your synagogue. Your pain is immense. Thank you for sharing. But now it’s Saturday night.
I was thinking about a blog piece you wrote some time back about watching Shaolin Soccer and the idea of good and evil meeting across the sports field occurred to me as a motif that both Jewball and Shaolin Soccer share; one of these big, human themes that’s more than just which team gets more points on the board. More than that, though, there’s something of heroism in both of them – and in just about any good sports story you care to name. Add to that the noir ideal of the not-so-good guy fighting the good fight in a not-so-good world and you’re got Inky Lautman, the protagonist of Jewball. These larger ideals of good and evil – were they something you kept in mind throughout the writing process?
Since the novel is about Jews fighting Nazis at the dawn of World War II, those themes inevitably arise. But I also wanted some shades of gray in there. My “Inky” character is a basketball player and also a thug, though the real-life guy wasn’t. The Nazis are evil in the book, but I also wanted to paint them as bumbling and somewhat human. All the good guys have huge character flaws, except Litwack, which is kind of a flaw in itself. I read a lot of novels by Alan Furst, and he’s excellent at creating flawed protagonists who suffer from broken hearts and come from broken homes. He puts those characters against a broader historical backdrop. I tried to do the same thing with Jewball.
Did you find any inherent challenges in writing a sports novel? It’s not that common a field; did you draw any particular inspiration from either other sports works, or from non-fiction sports writing?
I don’t think a sports novel is harder to write than any other kind of novel. You have your subject matter, and your story, and you just have to lay them out with clarity and intelligence. I didn’t read much sportswriting specifically for the book. For inspiration, I mostly turned to the classic noir writers of the 30s and 40s, for mood, dialogue, and sentence structure. The book is well-served by that, I think. I like a good sports magazine feature as much as the next guy, but they’re not a great source of novelistic inspiration.
I agree with you on the noir front and how well it serves Jewball; there’s a certain peculiar enjoyment to the genre itself, and how you can sink your teeth into it – which compliments how enjoyable it always is to watch some Nazis getting their just desserts, in the face, at speed. And I liked how you paid such attention to creating the neighbourhoods and urban scenes; giving them a life of their own apart from the narrative – another noir twist?
A sense of place is very important to me as a reader. The best noirs have great plots, of course, but I rarely end up caring or thinking about the story when it comes to say, Raymond Chandler’s books. In fact, as a noir reader, I often find myself skimming narrative bits so I can get to the parts where the writer describes the vibe of place, or somehow captures the essence of a time. I wanted to do that as much as possible in Jewball.
You’re a big Jim Thompson fan, if I remember correctly – did his work touch on Jewball at all?
Only very indirectly. I turned more to David Goodis, who wrote so beautifully about Philadelphia, for this book, and I’ve also been reading a lot of Donald Westlake lately. For the Harlem chapter, I went back and read some Chester Himes.
You know what? Gottlieb thought. Fuck New York. Try spending a few months in Philadelphia and see how you like your life then. We’ve got all the soot, all the dirt, all the bums, all the corruption, and all the venereal disease that New York has, but we ain’t got DiMaggio or Broadway. Our dames are shorter and maybe not as smart, and lots of them are Catholic. It’s a real shit sandwich without the trimmings. But we still wake up in the morning, or sometimes the afternoon.
I’m always curious about how people learn and develop their writing chops and how it shapes their later work – the famous example being Hemingway and his ‘journalistic’ style of prose. In a book like Jewball, as opposed to your last couple of non-fiction offerings, you’re writing a fiction novel, you’re writing a big cast of characters, some action-packed scenes of basketball and fighting, and wrapping it all up in this over-arching storyline – and that’s a combination that I haven’t read in your work before. A lot of that seems counter to your original journalist background – is it something you draw on, nevertheless?
I think my early journalism work in Chicago prepared me pretty well to write this type of book. In my 20s, I covered some very gritty stories and wore out a lot of shoes walking the beat. This is definitely a new type of book for me, but it’s the type of book I’ve always wanted to, and always intended to, write, and I’m thrilled that I was finally able to make it happen.
As for the release of the book – what informed your decision to self-release it as an ebook as opposed to a traditional hardcopy?
It just seemed that the time was right. The technology has more than arrived, and I’ve always had an entrepreneurial impulse. Also, my agent was very encouraging, so I thought, why the hell not? The process hasn’t been without its drawbacks, and it’s certainly an underdog, but let’s put it this way: Other than the first chapter, which I wrote in 2008, I started this book in February, and as I’m typing this sentence, it’s October and the book is about to come out. If I’d submitted this via the normal publishing process, Jewball might not have appeared officially until 2013.
How are you feeling about the whole ebook revolution in general? Apparently ebooks are now outselling printed by two to one on Amazon, and incredibly, three to one on Barnes and Noble. It’s a far cry from the days when the industry was proclaiming the ebook would never take off and even Stephen King couldn’t make any money from it. How do you think the changing landscape will affect authors?
It’s hard to say. Big publishing is certainly not going away, and it does appear to be finally adapting to the new landscape. It will be hard to do a “quality” launch via ebooks because the industry is so invested in gatekeeping their so-called literary standards. I also think that the biggest-name authors will mostly go through corporate houses because it’s a lot less work for them. In general, though, I think this will be good for most authors, because the options are limitless.
The SPHAs scored three baskets almost before the Rens had their warmups off.
Finally, the other team woke up and got down to business, jostling inside, making long set shots from the perimeter, restoring order. It was 26–21 after Shostack split a couple of free throws, 26–23 a few seconds after that, and then they went back and forth for a while until Inky spotted an opening, swiped the ball from the Ren point guard, and drove down for a six-foot spot-on setter that drained the nylon out of the net and drained the life from the crowd. They’d gone to 36–31 with twenty seconds to go. It looked like the SPHAs were going to (yet again unofficially) claim the title of the best basketball team in the known universe.
What was the nuts and bolts process of writing and releasing the Jewball ebook, from start to finish – as a kind of Cliff’s Notes for other readers or writers who may be interested in going down that road but haven’t yet gotten to grips with the process.
I wrote the first chapter in 2008, rewrote it in 2009, showed it to my editor who basically ignored it, and then shelved the idea for a couple of years because I wasn’t quite sure where to take the book. Then my agent approached me with the idea of self-publishing, and I said I had this basketball story I’d been meaning to tell. He encouraged me, and that was all the spark I needed. I started writing Jewball in earnest in February. By Memorial Day weekend I had a first draft. My friend Tom Fassbender, who once ran a nifty noir-themed publishing concern in L.A., agreed to look at the manuscript. He did, gave me a few notes, and by the end of July, I had a manuscript. That was a little over three months ago. Since then, it’s been copy-edited. As I write this, it’s being formatted for the Kindle. From first sentence to first sale in eight months: Big publishing couldn’t begin to dream of that speed. Getting eyeballs to the book will be hard, but it’s hard no matter how you publish.
With the great power of writers these days being able to self-publish so easily to handheld or online platforms comes the great responsiblity of the traditional work of the publishing house – editorial, marketing, design, rights administration (if they get so far as the last one). Do you wonder if, with the gates as open as they now are, we might swing to the other side of the pendulum? A great morass of underdone, unskilled work clogging up the waters of the literary marketplace?
It’s possible, I suppose. But any serious writer is going to make sure that the editorial side of things is taken care of; you need to have pride in your work. I will always work with editors whether I self-publish or not. Designers are readily available for hire; I got a friend to do a brilliant cover for Jewball. Marketing is a ball that big publishers often drop; you can viral market yourself fairly easily, and if things start going well, you can always hire a publicist for a real big push. My agent is taking care of the rights administration.
So Jewball is kind of a hybrid project. I retained my agent, hired a great copyeditor, and worked with publishing professionals all the way down the line. I just did it a lot more quickly than I otherwise would have been able. And while the book may or may not find more success through this method, it’s certainly just as good a product as it would have been if I’d published it through a conventional stream. It’s an experiment, and experiments don’t always succeed. But sometimes they do.
If you had to recommend a noir primer to a reader unfamiliar with the genre, what would be your recommendations, and why?
There are so many choices. I’d start with Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith, and probably Jim Thompson. There’s a nifty collection from the Library Of America that collects noir novels from the 30s and 40s by masters like James M. Cain and David Goodis. That’ll fill your nightstand or your Kindle for months.
How do you think the Phoenix Suns rebuilding program is going?
The Suns don’t have a prayer as long as Robert Sarver is the boss. That guy is the tool of tools. He’s made a tragic mess of a proud franchise that should have won a couple titles in the aughts.