Award-winning journalist and bestselling author H. G. ("Buzz") Bissinger has an undeniable knack for capturing the rhythms of life in big cities and small towns alike. While working as a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, he and two colleagues shared a 1987 Pulitzer Prize for their six-part investigative series on corruption in the city's court system. A year later, reports of "the winningest high school football team in Texas history" led Bissinger to the economically depressed and racially divided town of Odessa, where he followed the team in question, the mighty Permian Panthers, on their quest for the state championship. Upon its publication in 1990, Friday Night Lights became an instant classic -- a cautionary tale about the dangers of sports obsession that remains required reading in many American high schools. It was filmed in 2004 and inspired a critically acclaimed television show.
Bissinger shines at "immersion journalism." Granted unlimited access in the mid-'90s to then-mayor of Philadelphia Ed Rendell, he crafted a superb behind-the-scenes account of Rendell's uphill struggle to rescue the decaying city from economic decline. Published in 1998, A Prayer for the City became a New York Times Notable Book of the year. Then, in 2005, he parlayed his relationship with Cards manager Tony La Russa into the bestseller Three Nights in August, an intriguing view of major-league baseball filtered through the lens of a three-game series between the rival Cubs and Cardinals.
In addition to his bestselling nonfiction, Bissinger has produced in-depth articles for a variety of publications -- most notably Vanity Fair, where he works as a contributing editor. Among his best-known pieces are an exposé of Stephen Glass, the disgraced New Republic reporter fired for journalistic fraud; a probing profile of the merciless, mercurial radio shock jock Don Imus; and a poignant story about the life and death of the great thoroughbred racehorse Barbaro.
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Some fascinating outtakes and fun facts from our interview with Bissinger:
"One of the inspirations for my becoming a writer was the baseball board game Strat-O-Matic. I started playing it as a kid when I was ten or eleven. The game featured individual cards for every player in the major leagues. The results were incredibly realistic and after each game I would sit down at my typewriter and type up a game story as if I was writing for the New York Times."
"My grandmother got her law degree from Syracuse University in roughly 1911 and later co-founded with her husband an investment banking firm on Wall Street known as Lebenthal & Co. My parents worked at the firm and so did my uncle. As for my grandmother, she worked at Lebenthal until her early nineties."
"I am the father of twin sons that were born in Philadelphia at Pennsylvania Hospital in 1983. They were 13 weeks premature. Gerry weighed 1 pound 14 ounces, and Zachary 1 pound 11 ounces. They were the first male twins to ever survive at Pennsylvania Hospital. They are thriving today. Talk about miracles."
"I am 5'6" and desperately wish I was taller."
In 1998, Vanity Fair published Bissinger's article "Shattered Glass," an exposé of the career of disgraced New Republic writer Stephen Glass, who was fired for journalistic fraud. The article was later adapted for the 2003 film of the same name.
Bissinger admits to having an "abiding hatred" for the blog-o-sphere. In April, 2008, he appeared on Bob Costas's television series Costas Now and launched an angry tirade against Will Leitch, creator of the sports blog "Deadspin."
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In the summer of 2005, Buzz Bissinger took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas. The first 15 years of my career were spent as a print journalist. I hungered for books of nonfiction and Lukas's book is an immaculate blend of reporting and narrative writing as he traced the roots and effects of the Boston busing crisis in the 1970s. The book serves as a model for everything that nonfiction book can be: insightful, dramatic, human, revealing. I read it 19 years ago, and nothing I have read since has ever topped it.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas.
The Path to Power by Robert Caro -- A brilliant book of reporting and narrative writing much like Common Ground. Caro is so exhaustive, you can feel and taste the very south Texas soil from which Lyndon Johnson emanated. No detail is too small for Caro. As the reader you feel and smell everything.
The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer -- About the execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah. Beautiful, and so haunting. He gets inside Gilmore's head as if he lived there. Like Truman Capote in In Cold Blood, Mailer also brilliantly captures a sense of place, in this place the desolation of Utah.
Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden -- Exquisite reporting and even better narrative writing as he traces the battle of Mogadishu in Somalia. Nobody has ever captured the reality of war.
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell -- The true street poet of New York City. In this anthology, Mitchell captures the down-and-outs and oddballs and characters that make the city the greatest in the world with poignancy and humor and beauty.
Saturday by Ian McEwan -- Centered around single day in the life of a neurosurgeon in London, a mesmerizing book about midlife and desire and the ways in which we long to feel and stay connected.
Independence Day by Richard Ford -- The greatest fiction writer living today in my estimation. There isn't anything he cannot describe with piercing clarity.
Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon -- Fun, free spirited and with great narrative drive. Also a great book about the effects of early success and how nothing in life may actually be more destructive and debilitating.
Freedom of Fear by Paul Kennedy -- History writing at its best as Kennedy chronicles FDR and the making of the New Deal. Chock full of fact and anecdote but surprisingly smooth and easy to read.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen -- His fractured tale of a fractured family beset by illness and inhibition and reality avoidance is a page turner, despite its 500-page plus length. Like Ford, Franzen can describe anything and make it captivating.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?The Good Bad and the Ugly -- I had a major jones for Clint Eastwood as a kid and I still find this spaghetti western unforgettable: incredible scenery, the best soundtrack ever, and I love Sergio Leone's take as an Italian on the obscene violence with which the United States was forged.
LA Confidential -- My favorite movie of the past decade. Great storytelling. Great noir depiction of Los Angeles in the 1940s. Incredible acting by the likes of Kim Basinger, Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce.
Sid and Nancy -- I love books and films that delve deep into a subculture, and this film delves deep into the bizarre and troubling and self-destructive world of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon in their love affair of drugs and leather and punk and mutual mutilation. Gary Oldham is remarkable.
Friday Night Lights -- I consider myself one of the luckiest authors ever to have a film made of my book as good as this one. Gritty, well-acted, exciting, with the great scent of authenticity.
Schindler's List -- A brilliant reminder of how hideous mankind can be and the ability of heroes to rise from the quagmire of hate. Great acting. Once again an incredible feeling of authenticity. Told admirably without treacle and sentiment. Spielberg's very best.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
When I was researching Friday Night Lights, about high school football in a town in Texas, a lot of kids on the team listened to Bon Jovi before games to psych themselves up. When I sat down to write the book I did the same. I put on a pair of headphones and cranked up Bon Jovi as loud as I could to help stimulate the sounds and feelings of what the kids on the team were going through.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Saturday by Ian McEwan. Beautifully written. But beyond the writing a provocative book about desire versus conformity, materialism versus creativity, expectation versus the disappointment of reality. What does it mean to really live and free yourself of the shackles of responsibility, making a living, and conforming to the standards that are expected of you? Is it still possible to feel something, anything, when you are in the thick of mid-life?
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Any book that I get is a great and special gift. I of course love to give as gifts books that have had a special significance for me.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I try to establish a daily routine and just stick with it. I am a morning writer and my best hours by far are between 7 a.m. and noon. After five hours or so, I feel tapped out and very anxious, the writer's fear that I have really accomplished nothing. About five years ago, I started taking a nap every afternoon. It is a delicious luxury and one of the great perks of a life that is often isolated and lonely. I nap every day for an hour or so. I turn off the phone and pull down the shades so no one can get to me. It helps to alleviate the anxiety and also helps to make the late afternoons somewhat productive. I absolutely hate the hours between 2 and 4 p.m. I find them depressing and trying to do anything during that time is a worthless exercise for me.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Before I wrote Friday Night Lights I was a print journalist for 15 years at the Ledger-Star in Norfolk, Virginia, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. When I left the paper and moved with my family to Odessa, Texas to write the book, I had confidence as a reporter, but I really did not know anything about writing a book. I did not use a written outline and it showed terribly. When I turned in the first 30,000 words to my editor Jane Isay at Addison-Wesley, she flipped. The partial draft had no narrative engine, no pace, absolutely no reason for the reader to turn the page. Jane not so politely told me that at the rate I was going, the book was going to be longer than The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. We had an emergency meeting in New York where she forced me to finally focus on what I planned to say and where the book needed to go. From then on, I used a written outline. As for the 30,000 words I turned in, about 4,000 of them managed to actually make it into the book. The rest got thrown out.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
In Three Nights in August, Tony LaRussa talks about trying to teach his players to react to pressure. One of the points that LaRussa stresses is focusing on the process and not the result: if a player comes up in the bottom of the ninth with his team down by a run and thinks he has to hit a home run to tie the game, the odds are he is going to fail. But if he comes to the plate fully prepared with the knowledge of what the pitcher is most likely to throw him, and simply tries to put his very best swing on the ball, the odds are much better of success in LaRussa's estimation. I think that what LaRussa says about ballplayers is also true about writers: If you write with one eye on the bestseller list, all that is going to do is add to the pressure of what you are already doing. So focus on the one thing you can control -- the process of making what you are working on the very best it can be. Success will come, and success of course comes in all sorts of different ways.
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