Sunday, September 27, 2009

You Don't Find Books, Books Find You: An Interview with Joe Drape

As a kid I would sometimes watch ABCs the “Wild World of Sports,” and I especially loved the opening credits when Jim McCay would intone those words “the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat…the human drama of athletic competition,” while ski jumper Vinko Bogataj’s awful 1970 crash would flash across the screen. But honestly the opening credits were about as dramatic as the ensuing shows often got for me.

Author and New York Times sports reporter Joe Drape actually captures the highs and lows, the drama and melodrama, the beauty and the horror of the sports subjects he writes about.

A Kansas City native, he worked his way up the journalism ladder from the news desk at the Dallas Morning News and later the Atlanta Journal Constitution to the New York Times.

He made the switch to sports in 1993 when, he said, AJC wanted someone with a news background, but an affinity for sports, to be the lead Olympic reporter. He started writing for the New York Times in 1996, and moved to New York City in 1998.

His latest book “Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen,” is currently on the New York Times bestseller list.

The following is a brief interview with Drape.

While writing your newest book “Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen,” you lived in the small Kansas town in which your subject, a high school football team looking for its fifth state championship in a row, is located. Was living in Smith Center part of your plan from the start?

The opportunity to live in Smith Center was key to the book as well as personal growth. I wanted to understand the community, and the best way to do that was become part of it. When you embed yourself somewhere, you can take your time and earn people's trust. You listen rather than ask questions. Selfishly perhaps I also wanted to take some time with my wife and 3-year-old son. I'm a Midwesterner, and I wanted them to see how I grew up.

Was there a hard transition for you and your family going back to NYC after spending time in a small prairie town?

For my son, Jack, none whatsoever. We should all have the resilience of a 4-year-old. For Mary and I, we had to reaccelerate our gears, and get used to the hustle and bustle. We also returned at a time when the economy was stumbling along so we landed in a different New York than we left.

What was it about this high school football team that interested you enough to write a book?

It really was the town and people that made me understand this was a book length story. When Coach Barta told me that none of what he and Smith Center did was about football, instead it was about raising kids, I believed him. I've had famous coaches tell me things like that and I knew it was just a line. I could tell that these folks practiced love, patience and hard work - call them old time values. I wanted to see how it became the foundation for their success in football and life. I also liked the fact they were in the middle of a 54 game winning streak and needed 13 more to set a state record.

What draws you to a subject generally?

There has to be a kernel of intrigue there that makes me so curious I have to know more. I want to learn something, and if I can learn something I can pass that on to the reader. Or at least I hope I can.

In your books you seem to be able to take the potentially limiting beginning point of a sport (horse racing, football, basketball) and open it up to a whole range of deep and universal ideas and emotions. Do you look for stories that have that potential or do you unearth the universalities while writing about a given subject?

I look for stories first that are going to entertain me, that I want to know more about. I discover what all means, or the macro thought, or emotion as I report and write it. I go in with a pretty cursory point of view and let my heart build from there. In Our Boys, it was "here's this out of the way place where people are happy and kind, and they play very good football. Why?"

You’ve had a lifelong interest in horse racing. What is it about this sport that continues to fascinate you?

The actual handicapping and betting of races is a mental exercise not unlike chess or crossword puzzles or even investing. I get lost in it. I turn off my internal dialogue and just be the racing form. The professional side is really simple: There are great stories in the sport and people want to share them. It's the last democratic sport in America. You can't buy a championship. Everyone is bonded by the love of a horse. Red Smith. Joe Palmer. They weren't wrong to spend all their time at the racetrack. I'm one of those people who believes that a bad day at the racetrack is better than a good day anywhere else.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered about Jimmy Winkfield (in a life that seemed full of surprises) while writing "Black Maestro"?

How passive and persevering he was. Jimmy was not a big personality or particularly decisive guy. He rolled with the punches and never gave up. He didn't have choice - over a remarkable life he had Jim Crow laws, the Bolsheviks, the depression, Hitler and civil Rights bearing down on him. He had what Hemingway called "grace under pressure."

Being both a sports writer for the New York Times as well as an author, do you prefer one type of writing over the other?

They complement each other in the sense that you work different muscles. Sports writing is immediate gratification. It could be done in an hour or a couple of weeks or months. But you are limited by space. It helps you identify a story and tell it quickly. Books, however, allow you to shade in the complexities of a story. They let you take your time, and set up a narrative. You get to use more tricks.

What are you working on now?

I've got a screenplay working its way to production, and I'm messing with another one. It's just another form of storytelling, and it's interesting. I'm doing my work at the NYT. As far as a next book, I'm just keeping my antennae clear.

You don't find books. Books find you.

Monday, September 7, 2009

True Collaboration: An Interview with Tim Watkins and Carol May

Editors Note—Unless otherwise noted the major voice of the piece is Tim's, with additions by Carol.

Artists Tim Watkins and Carol May are a married couple who collaborate on public arts projects, including one of their latest, an exhibition and activity area for youngsters at the revamped Brooklyn Children’s Museum.

Watkins, who was born in London, England and grew up in Alberta, Canada, is primarily a sculptor while May, a New Yorker who has an MFA from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, is a painter.
The couple was kind enough to answer some questions for Look, Read, Listen.

How long have you been together and how long have you been working together?

Carol and I have been married almost 30 years. We met at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. I was the Canadian scholarship, she the New York scholarship. It clicked. We both had careers as independent artists. We both had some success showing in New York and elsewhere, but in the mid 90’s, we began to collaborate, and we realized that we had complementary skills and that if we put our heads and skills together we would have more opportunities. Besides it was fun.

What is your process like when working on public pieces? Is there a give and take between the two of you as well as with clients?

Most Public Artwork commissions begin as a competition. Artists answer open national or regional calls (RFQs), by sending images of past work and a resume. The selection committee chooses finalists, who then submit concept models and drawings. Final selection is based on this preliminary work.

We develop these initial concepts together. Each of us has different strength, so we pass the lead design role back and forth, as the art develops.

Do your artistic backgrounds—painting in the case of Carol and sculpture in Tim’s case—make it easier or more difficult to work together?

We have very different strengths and weaknesses, and by working together we can create better work than either of us could achieve alone.
Carol has strong training in both 2 and 3 dimensional design. I have strong technical skills, and I know material and processes. Together, we have a wide skill set.

Also, something amazing happens when true collaboration occurs.

Both of your personal work seems to have a lot to do with the natural world. Is there a relationship between being in the Hudson Valley and this predilection towards reflecting nature in your work or perhaps were you drawn up here because of the fertile landscape?

Our decision to move our shop from Brooklyn to Athens was a happy solution to the real estate problem in New York City. Until 2004, our shop was in Dumbo, Brooklyn, in a large industrial building. We shared the floor with several other artists and art businesses until the landlord decided he could make much more money by renting the whole floor to West Elm as back office space. Our options were to either rent something else (and fix it up and lose that in 5 years), or buy a property that would work for us as a permanent shop. As far as I am concerned we got very lucky.

I have always loved the landscape of the Hudson Valley, particularly our area, which includes Athens. Having grown up on the prairie in western Canada, I more readily identify with the combination of open space with mountains in the background. I am not a live-in-the forest type of person, I like meadows and fields and old architecture.

As far as our work and the relationship to nature, we have both worked with natural forms for years. A lot of my work was developed looking at the relationships of man, nature and technology, and my resulting exploration of ‘man-made’ nature. Carol’s painting explores natural forms and how they relate to human form, in both a physical and psychological way.

How does your public artwork differ from your personal artwork? Is there a parallel between the two? Does one play off the other or are they completely separate?

Tim: Yes the personal work is distinct from the public work, but the two do feed each other. In art school I started working with installation and ‘public’ sites very early on. I have always been interested in the interaction of viewer and art, and was always more of an ‘art for the masses type of person’.

Carol: Yes there is a parallel between the public and personal artwork. They feed each other, not in all projects, but in many of them. I find that ideas that I am exploring in my personal work are often translated into the media and scale of public art and vice versa.

What has been your favorite public work you have done and why?

Tim: Here we have to answer separately, although both of us feel our best one is yet to come. My favorite is ‘Roadway Boogie Woogie’ at Turkey Lake rest stop on the Florida Turnpike outside of Orlando. I like it because it is big, the mechanics work well and have survived 5 hurricanes, and a lot of people see it. For better or for worse, when you mention the propeller like pieces to anyone in Florida, they know what you are talking about.

Carol: My favorite permanent installation is ‘Blossoms’ at Florida Atlantic University in Jupiter. Although they are functional seating, the forms are sensual and sculptural, and the mosaic color is subtle and effective.

What projects—personal and public—are the two of you currently working on?

Last fall we had all of our scheduled work, but one, disappear into the black hole of the recession/depression. I likened it to having everyone’s wallets snap shut like bear traps. We hit the streets with applications for public art opportunities, rented a booth at the American Children’s Museum conference, and not so quietly freaked out.

I am glad to say that we are now currently working on three new public art commissions, one in Florida, one in Maine, and one in Oregon, and there is ‘chatter’ in regards to other projects.

In theory or in the good old days, it would seem that a downturn like this would allow one an excellent opportunity to dive into the studio work. Unfortunately, we now seem to be encumbered with things like health and liability insurance and a mortgage.