The Craft: An Interview With Jonathan Abrams
Feature writing is an art. And Jonathan Abrams, current Grantland writer, is known as one of if not the best at taking a story, extracting information from its every crevice and painting a picture that makes you feel like you’re in the interviewee’s living room listening to their words.
Luckily for me, and us, he took a little time out for a phone interview with yours truly. I’ve transcribed the dialogue below (nearly word-for-word but I had to do some mixing-and-matching with the questions to help the flow).
Andy Liu: What got you into writing? Was it a career choice or did you stumble on it (I.E. after law school, working other jobs)?
Jonathan Abrams: I was a person who loved to read and write and always loved sports. It was a natural marriage. I played basketball, football and baseball in high school. But I knew it wasn’t going the way I wanted it too. Even as I graduated high school I did little stuff for the newspaper like covering Little League All-Star Games. We were a family that got the newspaper in the morning so I was a newspaper guy from the get-go. And when I got to college, I went to USC, and I majored in print journalism because I knew it was something I wanted to do. It was a career that I always sought.
Liu: How long do these feature ideas germinate before you start to get working on them? How much does Grantland or New York Times have editorial shaping of the ideas?
Abrams: At the Times, it was a daily flow. Sometimes it would be to go cover a Knicks game, or cover the NBA Finals, so you had to find a feature piece and cover that before the Finals were over. So with that, you had to go with the flow and has advantages and disadvantages. People expect to read about the Finals when the Finals are going on. I would always try to be working on some type of feature even when I’m working on daily stuff. I love features and profiles and I try to stick with that.
The good thing with Grantland is that I don’t necessarily have to stick with where the news is going. I can write about Jonny Flynn out of nowhere. Or Shaun Livingston, who no one was talking about when I wrote about him. And that’s the good thing, because we try to go for the best story and not necessarily the hottest story out there. We try to go write about interesting people and people readers aren’t thinking about at the time. It’s a lot of back-and-forth between me and the editors: Sean Fennessey and Bill Simmons. We email back and forth to get ideas going. Sometimes it’s Sean’s idea, sometimes it’s Bill’s and sometimes it’s my idea. A lot of it is whether the person wants to be written about. That’s the big one. If they don’t want to be written about, it’s hard to get something on them. It takes about a month or so to do as far as reaching out to everybody and to shape it.
Liu: And you’re usually working on more than one at a time?
Abrams: I’m usually trying to work on more than one at once. If I’m getting close I just push everything aside to work on the one I’m getting close on. The book I’m working on takes a lot of time commitment.
Liu: The book is about high school basketball players, to keep it short. What’s your inspiration on that? You just had one on Korleone Young and was it sort of the start of that idea?
Abrams: Yeah, it was always interesting to me. I’m 29 and a lot of those guys were my age. It always seemed like such a huge jump to me. I was in the same high school year as Eddy Curry, Kwame Brown and Tyson Chandler. I always thought man, it must’ve been a crazy jump from a kid to the pros. I was in my freshman year of college and I’m not ready to grow up yet or be a professional yet. It always seemed like it was interesting to me and jumped out. I went out there for the Korleone Young story for the book but he talked for a long time and I thought it was so good that I didn’t want to wait a year or so, or whenever the book is out, to get his story out. I talked to Grantland and they said go for it.
Liu: How do you prepare for these interviews? Do you have any specific things you look for?
Abrams: The first thing I do is try to pull up everything about that person. I spend a whole day reading those and I end up circling people who know that person. Then I try to get interviews with teachers, friends, family, and whoever is available. I try to interview them before I talk to the person so I have better questions to ask the profile subject.
Liu: When you’re getting down to writing it, how do you differentiate how much voice you give yourself to the piece as to the person? How do you find the balance between their quotes and your writing?
Abrams: I don’t try to input myself into the story that much. I hate writing in the first person. Because I’m writing about somebody I’m not writing about myself. Even in a story, I try to take out my opinion. Especially with a controversial person like J.R. Smith or Stephen Jackson, I consider it my job to try to be as fair as I can, lay down the events, anecdotes and let the readers decide what they think about this person. I don’t think it’s my job to say hey, this person is a bonehead. I think if that’s what you get out of it, then that’s what you get out of it, but I don’t want to explicitly say that.
Liu: Which feature have you had the most fun writing? Which on was the toughest (though they could go hand-in-hand)?
Abrams: The most fun to write about was pretty early on in Grantland when I visited with Jerry West. I got to listen to him for a long time. He was knowledgable and was the freaking NBA logo. The toughest one was the Korleone Young just because this was a guy who seemingly had it made before he entered adulthood. And now he’s 34, and not a young guy anymore. It’s almost like he never got over not making the NBA and doesn’t know where to start his life anew. And I think he realizes that now and he’s trying to get started but doesn’t know where to begin. That was tough to write about. It’s always tough when you have to write about somebody’s life.
Liu: Do you have a list of things you were going to write about that just never happened? Because of lack of interviews, editorial obstacles? Is there anything you wish you could have written about?
Abrams: One of the ones I wanted to write about was Chris Anderson during the Finals last year. Chris said no. When Brandon Roy was coming back in Minnesota I wanted to write about him. There’s more. Most people don’t really want to be written about.
Liu: The toughest part is getting in touch with people and gathering consent?
Abrams: Yeah but it’s not just that. The NBA has a great policy where the guys are available but for my stuff, they need more commitment, as far as above the 10-15 minutes talking after a game. It’s tougher for the players.
Liu: Is there any advice or any noteworthy experiences for aspiring writers?
Abrams: One of the things you have to do to become a better writer is to read as much as you can. I read Chris Ballard and Lee Jenkins and they’re great writers and great examples for longform journalism. A quote I heard and I apologize because I forgot who said it, she said “A lot of writing is to write a story you yourself would enjoy reading”. I think that’s a big goal because if you’re trying to write what you want to read then you obviously think it’s a good story and you want to make it good and readable and to remain passionate about.