Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Novel Road Interview: Doug Merlino

The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White
   Have you ever considered the last episode of a TV show? The show you followed, season after season, before it met its Nielson doom?

   The story and characters just end.

   In real life, our lives and events are seldom experienced alone. Friends, family or strangers in the background are misted in recall, but they are there. Then the personal scene ends…

   Or does it really ever end?

   My guest today on The Novel Road is the talented debut author Doug Merlino. His book, “The Hustle”, picks up where a time in his past ended, only to begin again. His view of the misted edges of memories are brought clear and crisp into today in the form of the stories of individuals that made up a time and place that was frozen in promise.

  Doug paints a timeline vividly, in fact and circumstance, to unveil twists and turns, sadness and joy, conscience and tragedy. In stirring detail, he provokes thoughts we can each share and roads left untraveled. Doug shows there is no done and done, but days ahead for all who touch our lives.

  A journalist and writer, Doug has contributed to or worked at news organizations including Slate, legal Affairs, Men’s Journal, Wired, The Seattle Times, the Budapest Business Journal and the PBS show Frontline/World. He received a Master’s degree in journalism and international affairs from UC Berkeley.

   Originally from Seattle, he now lives in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City with his wife.

Merlino skillfully weaves the personal biographies with the biography of a city that relegated blacks to neighborhoods that were segregated and poor, to the margins of economic life, to public schools that were overcrowded and underfunded. The book’s precise focus enables troubling considerations of the role of race and class in America.” - Kirkus

 I’m pleased to welcome Doug Merlino to The Novel Road…

Doug Merlino
Me: Your novel "The Hustle" is a great story as well as in depth article on social and racial stratification in Seattle in the mid-80's. Was it difficult to step back into your past when you researched "The Hustle"? 

Doug: It ended up being a lot more difficult than I expected. Because my background is in journalism, my original approach to this book was in the manner of a newspaper reporter – I thought I’d go, find the guys from this mixed interracial basketball team, and write about them in an “objective” manner. The joke was on me. First, I found that reconnecting with people I’d known as a kid inevitably brought me back to that era and the feelings and insecurities I had as an adolescent, which I thought I’d long packed away. I also realized that trying to write this story from a detached, “journalistic” remove simply drained the life from it. These guys were my friends, and many have gone through hard times in their lives. If they were going to dig deep, I needed to make a reciprocal effort.

   On a practical level, that meant exploring my own past. For example, I went to private school from 5th grade through 9th grade, and then left to go to public school. I always had mixed feelings about private school, but could never really articulate where they came from. As I worked through it while I was writing this book, I realized that my unease came from a fundamental split between my parents. My dad, who grew up in an Italian-American family in Seattle, never seemed comfortable with me going to school with a bunch of elite rich kids. My mom, on the other hand, didn’t have that history and always seemed proud that I had gained admission to what is generally considered the best school in Seattle. This split was then reflected in my school performance, which swung between stellar and abysmal. Once I started coming to terms with some of these facts about myself, my interviews with my teammates went to a much deeper level as well. But going back and analyzing your fourteen-year-old self is not always pleasant.

Me: Talk about the characters from your past. Were they all supportive of your project? Awkward moments?

Doug: The characters in the book are from two distinct groups – white guys who went to Lakeside, an elite private school in Seattle, and were from either the suburbs or the wealthy enclaves of the city, and black guys who grew up in Central Seattle. One guy, Eric Hampton, bridged both – he grew up in Central Seattle but began at private school in the 5th grade, the only African American in our class of thirty-two.

   I’d lost touch with every single guy – I started this at age 30, sixteen years removed from the team. I was actually surprised at how welcoming all the guys were, which I attribute to the impact the team had across the board. It left a mark on every single player, and I think there was a feeling that participating in this book was one way of moving forward what had been started in the 1980s.

   To give one example that really shocked me, one of my teammates, John “JT” Thompson, had pretty much disappeared when I first started trying to find him. He’d been a very popular member of the team, but had gotten involved in street life soon after our season ended. I sent letters to a few addresses I found in his court records, explaining what I was doing and that I’d like to see him. He called a couple days later and was extremely enthusiastic. When we met, he told me that our mixed-race basketball team was a highpoint of his life, a time he felt part of a larger “family” and that people really cared about him. It was obvious he really wanted to feel some of that camaraderie that had been stripped from his life in the intervening years.


“A thoughtful, perceptive, and moving chronicle of the journey from adolescence to manhood.” - Booklist

Me: I've had a ton of authors for guests on the The Novel Road of late from the Pacific Northwest. It's the rain isn't it? Keeps you indoors writing, waiting for the skies to clear?

Doug: Yeah, there’s something about the place – water, trees, mountains, rain, and the oppressive grayness that drapes it about nine months a year – that seems to encourage introspection (grunge really does sounds like the Pacific Northwest put into music). There’s also mix of countercultural values – everything from lots of vegans to being the cradle of the riot grrl movement, and on and on – with the world-dominating ambition of companies such as Microsoft, and Starbucks. I think a lot of creative types from Seattle feel pulled between those two extremes and some ambivalence about both.

   I actually have a really hard time writing anything decent when I’m in Seattle – I wrote this book while living in New York and flying out to Seattle to do research. I think I needed the distance, and I like the feeling of being just another writer in New York bringing his lunch pail to work every day and putting in the hours.

Me: You get to have lunch with any author from throughout history or today and why?   

Doug: My first response is Martin Luther King, Jr., who was an amazing writer as well as being one of the greatest leaders our country has ever had. If I was choosing a pure “writer,” I would go with James Baldwin. His insights into the ways we as humans are motivated by submerged pain, pride and shame in novels such as Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room and Another Country are just staggering. His essays are some of the sharpest, most lucid statements on race relations in this country ever put on paper. He always saw not only the impact of racism on African Americans, but the psychological toll it took on whites to maintain the delusion of superiority. I would love to hear his analysis on where we are with Obama in the White House.

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Me: Talk about your agent and why you two are the perfect match.

Doug: My agent, Zoë Pagnanenta, is great for a number of reason – she represents writers with “serious” projects, avoids hyperbole, is extremely steady on the tiller, is a great sounding board for ideas, and she delivered this book into the hands of exactly the right editor.

Me: Give me a two sentence "Hook" for "The Hustle."

Doug: The Hollywood pitch would be Boyz n the Hood meets Dead Poets Society, they play basketball together, and then reunite twenty years later Big Chill style. Less facetiously, this is a book about a group of men from across race and wealth lines who were friends for a time as kids in the 1980s, and how those race and class differences inevitably played out in the trajectories of their lives.

 Me: You are able to paint a vibrant timeline of how events coalesced, then over time deconstruct from the dream to reality. Thinking back to those days, can you name a personal tipping point when youth was substituted for concerted thought about what the future held for you and your teammates?  

Doug: The first shock came in August 1991, when Tyrell Johnson, our shooting guard, made the front page of the Seattle Times. He’d been shot in the back of the head, dismembered, and left in a ditch in South Seattle. The headline asked: “What Went Wrong? Tyrell Johnson was Young, Black, Male – and Murdered.” Reading the article, which quoted the coach of our team, you could see that the reason Tyrell had made it into the paper was because he’d been involved in our team and one other local integration program. At the time, there wasn’t a good explanation for why Tyrell had been killed.

   From that article, I knew that the high hopes we all had for the future at the time we played together hadn’t panned out for everyone. That never left me over the next decade, and I think it was the moment where it was settled that I’d find all the guys one day. It took a decade until I had the personal maturity to even begin tackling the project.

Me: Publishing is going through an evolution. How are these changes affecting you?

Doug: A lot of ways. First, I come from a journalism background and have seen the newspaper industry shrivel. Many of my friends and acquaintances have lost their journalism jobs. There are some interesting new opportunities opening in non-profit investigative work with places such as Pro Publica and the Center for Investigative Reporting, but the outlook for rank and file journalists isn’t good. We’re starting to see the seeds of some new types of online local journalism, but this transition is still in the early stages. We’re also seeing a lot of companies and non-profits launch websites with proprietary editorial content – they’re employing people with journalism skills and the work is similar but not the same as reporting for a newspaper.

   As far as the future of book publishing – such as what e-books will mean, and if people are even going to read long narratives in the age of Twitter and streaming video – I haven’t heard anyone articulate a convincing vision for the future. I’ve been fortunate to land some ghostwriting projects, which I really enjoy. So, as a writer, I’m finding that there is demand for people who can effectively tell stories with a minimum of fuss. I’m trying to focus on  advancing my craft as the business side is in such flux that it’s impossible to tell where it will be in a few years.

   The exciting part for me is the ability that digital tools such as my website, Twitter and Facebook pages give for readers to interact with me and with each other. Already, before official publication, I’ve been getting a stream of e-mails from people across the country with observations and comments. I think it’s great that as authors we can now communicate directly with readers and hopefully encourage ongoing conversations on the subjects we write about. Circling back to James Baldwin, just imagine how amazing it would have been to read his Twitter stream.

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Lakeside School
Me: Your thoughts on the School voucher and private school trend. Based on your exposure to both private and public schools, in which were you best served?

Doug: I think the voucher/charter school trend and the explosion in interest in private schools are coming from the same place – a deep unease about where our country is headed in an age of increasing economic globalization and competition in the digital, knowledge-based economy that’s now arriving. The privileged see private schools as a way for their kids to have access to the best education and the most opportunities possible. Charter schools are an admission that a wide swath of our society is not being served by an overburdened and sclerotic public system that seems slow to adapt to new challenges.

   I enjoyed having a “dual” school experience. The instruction at private school was great for analysis and critical thinking, and also learning about how some basic decisions get made in our society, and who makes them. The suburban public high school I went to after I left private school wasn’t bad, but not great as far as the level of teaching. It wasn’t that racially diverse, either, but certainly had a much wider range of economic backgrounds represented, so I was happy to broaden the range of my friends. My mom always said she thought I approached school as a junior sociologist, so I guess I probably would have found something of interest anywhere I went. If you have the personality of a writer, you are likely to always be a bit of an observer.

    “Part history text, part sociological study, part memoir. The Hustle is more than just a book about basketball. It’s a book about America. It’s a book about the country’s past and present. It’s a book that you have to read.”
                                                    – Slam Magazine

Me:  Life experience. How important is an expansive life experience to an author today? Are we turning to Wikipedia research instead of going out and experiencing people and events first hand?

Doug: I love Wikipedia. It’s amazing to have all that (somewhat reliable) information there for the asking.

   I still see myself primarily as a reporter though, and I firmly believe that going out and doing actual interviews is a tremendous privilege. You always learn things that overturn your preconceptions. For example, one character in The Hustle, Myran Barnes, has been in and out of jail for years on minor drug charges -- he’s been addicted to crack cocaine, and has been caught up in low-level busts in which he’s acted as the middleman in street deals. He is the type of person who doesn’t have a voice in public discussions, though people in his situation are often portrayed in movies and on TV shows. In the book, Myran emerges as an intelligent, very funny human being who has been mired in some severe struggles. He is very able to analyze his own situation and relate his own regrets and aspirations. As a writer, I want to give someone like Myran the space to tell his own story so we can perhaps move beyond polemics and statements of opinion to a point where we can see the complexity of the individual and be in a better position to analyze the way our society chooses to deal with low-level drug offenders in the same situation.

I'd like to thank Doug for his time and talent in doing this interview. Look for his book, "The Hustle" in the shelves. Not only is it a great read, but how often do you get to catch a rising star?

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