Interviews / Journalists

Interview with Jonathan Eig: “My job is to discover and share the discovery.”

Jonathan Eig is the author of five books, three of them New York Times best sellers. Ken Burns calls him a “master storyteller.” Joyce Carol Oates referred to his book, Ali: A Life, as “an epic of a biography.”

Eig was born in Brooklyn and graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He is a former staff writer for The Wall Street Journal. His books have been published in more than a dozen languages. His first book, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, won the Casey Award for best baseball book of the year. Ali won the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sportswriting.

Ali was named best book of the year by Sports Illustrated; one of the ten best non-fiction books of the year by The Wall Street Journal; and one of the New York Times’ notable books of 2018. Esquire magazine called Ali one of the 35 best sports books ever written. 

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Hi Jonathan, welcome to Famous Writing Routines! It’s great to have you here with us today. Can you tell us a little bit about how you first became interested in writing about Muhammad Ali and what made him such a compelling subject for a biography?

I had an Ali poster in my room as a kid. He fascinated me even then, although I didn’t understand even a fraction of why he was such an intriguing figure. I suppose I had some vague awareness that he was different. He had this unusual name. He talked about race and politics, but he also joked around in an endearing way. My friends and I were mostly into baseball and football, and we argued about everything, but we agreed that Ali was the greatest athlete in the world.

Fast-forward a few decades and I’m older, better able to understand why Ali mattered, why he still matters, and it dawns on me one day that no one has ever written a full-blown biography. How is that even possible? By 2012, when I had this epiphany, Ali was still alive. Most of the people who knew and hung out with him were still alive. I could talk to them!

Ali’s life could be examined with some historical perspective. And his life resonated in today’s universe. His life offered lessons about race, religion, sports, economics, and so many more things. I’d been writing newspaper stories and magazine articles and books for a long time – I started out as a sports reporter for my hometown newspaper when I was 16 – and I’d written thousands of stories along the way, but I knew almost instantly that this was the best story idea I’d ever had.

How did you go about researching and writing the book? What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

I began reading everything I could on Ali and racing to interview as many people as possible – especially the older people, because, obviously, they were not going to be around forever. I wound up doing more than 500 interviews. Challenges? I had a few. A lot of people wanted to be paid for interviews, and I wouldn’t pay.

Ali’s wives presented their own challenges. It took me a long time to convince them to talk, and then, of course, they sometimes told conflicting stories, and I knew there was no way I could make all of them happy, no matter how I told the story.

The other problem – and this might sound strange – is that I sometimes found myself with too much material. Ali lived one of the most public lives in American history. He had reporters with him all the time. He had cameras recording him all the time. He talked and talked and talked, but he almost never wrote letters, and he didn’t keep diaries. So I had a fantastic view of his public life and a limited view of his private, inner life. But I can’t really complete it.

A biography is always going to be an incomplete work. It’s an exercise in failure, really. You can never tell a full life story. It would be four million pages long. You work with what you’ve got, like Ali with his rope-a-dope strategy; you play the angles and throw your best punches when you see openings.

You’re known for your attention to detail and ability to paint a vivid picture of your subjects. How did you approach bringing Muhammad Ali to life on the page?

Lou Gehrig was tough. Ali was easy. As I said, Ali lived his life in the spotlight. The challenge isn’t creating a vivid picture so much as competing with the picture people already have in their heads, it’s competing with YouTube. How do you write a fight scene when you know people can pause their reading and check out that same fight scene on YouTube?

You’ve got to make the scene so compelling, first of all, that the reader is so deeply absorbed that they can’t stop reading, that their first instinct is not to say, “I’d rather watch this on YouTube.” Then, when they do go check out the video, you want the reader to appreciate how nicely you set the scene. In that way, I tried to use the tools I’ve picked up as a reader of fiction. Engage the senses. Apply heat. Maintain the pace. Put the reader in the scene. Make the reader wince when Ali’s hurt. Make the reader cheer when our hero escapes from a dangerous spot.

In Ali: A Life, you delve into the complexities of Ali’s personal and professional life. Can you talk about some of the most surprising or intriguing things you discovered while writing the book?

It’s no surprise to discover that our heroes are flawed. The interesting thing is discovering how they’re flawed and it’s even more interesting if you can explain why they’re flawed – but also why they’re great despite their flaws.

Dick Gregory said to me, don’t bother writing this book if you can’t explain what made a Black kid born in 1941, same as Emmett Till, think he could talk back to white people and get away with, worship Allah and get away with it, call himself The Greatest and get away with it. Those words rang in my ears every day for five years.

On a more mundane level, I discovered that Ali’s grandfather was a convicted murderer, his great-great-great grandfather was a heroic escaped enslaved person, that Ali was punched 200,000 times in his boxing career, that he showed signs of brain damage almost a decade before the end of his career, that he loved magic tricks but always revealed how he did them.

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How do you balance the research aspect of writing a biography with the creative aspect, especially when writing about someone as well-known as Ali?

Research first, writing later, much later. I didn’t even think about writing for the first year. Can’t hit what you can’t see, Ali used to say. Can’t write what you don’t know, I would add.

The book has received widespread critical acclaim and was named one of the best sports books ever written by Esquire magazine. How does that recognition make you feel, and do you have a favorite review or moment of recognition that stands out to you?

It feels great of course. My favorite part is that my parents have been able to travel with me to book events and hear me speak in all kinds of amazing places, like the Baseball Hall of Fame and Library of Congress. After my first book, on Lou Gehrig, the Yankees presented me with a plaque. I stood on the field at the old Yankee Stadium, the same spot where Gehrig stood when he delivered his “Luckiest Man” speech, and I heard my name announced on the stadium loudspeaker by the legendary Bob Sheppard (even if he did mispronounce my last name). For a lifelong Yankee fan, that’s pretty tough to beat.

You have been referred to as “master storyteller” by Ken Burns. How do you approach writing a story and what do you believe makes a good story?

I approach writing systematically. The human brain is wired to receive stories. My job is to discover and share the discovery. I do tons of research, searching for new and interesting information, so I might have a good story to tell, and I try to share it in a way people enjoy.

As a longtime newspaper reporter, I’ve been taught to write simply and concisely to make my stories easily understood. I’m lucky I get to do what I do – travel the world, learn about stuff I find interesting, and share what I learn with readers. I try to keep it as simple and honest as I can. 

If you could have a conversation with an author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

Louis Armstrong.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favourite reads?

I’m reading Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, as well as Hope Against Hope, by Nadezhda Mandelstam. Favorite reads, of late, not including books by friends, are Thelonious Monk by Robin D.G. Kelley; A Song of the Lark by Willa Cather; and A Childhood by Harry Crews.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

I just cleaned up the office, because I finished my Martin Luther King book. Until a few days ago, there were books and papers covering almost the entire floor and every inch of my desktop. My office also doubles as the family’s laundry room, so the attached picture is taken from the couch, which is usually covered with clean but unfolded clothing.

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