A Q&A with Tommy Tomlinson on picking a profile subject, the process of writing and authoring a memoir

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with Tommy Tomlinson, who can accurately be described as one of the best writers on the planet. When Tommy writes something, it’s appointment reading. Here, he discusses his process as a writer, how he picks his subjects, the experience of writing a memoir. Plus, he names “the best writer of any kind in America right now.”

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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1. We start all our Q&As in the same way–at the beginning. So: How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now?

In a lot of ways I’m the worst storyteller in my family. When we’d get together for family reunions, down where I grew up in Georgia, everybody would sit around after supper and tell jokes and tall tales. As a kid I absorbed it all without even knowing it. My mom and dad were big readers, and when the afternoon paper arrived, everything stopped — we’d split up the sections and read it together. So I learned to love stories and was taught to be curious about the world. That’s ideal training for a journalist.

I learned a ton from Conrad Fink, the late great J-school guru at the University of Georgia, and even more writing for the campus paper, The Red & Black. After school I spent three years at the paper in Augusta, Ga., and seven-plus in various jobs at the Charlotte Observer before the paper gave me a job as local columnist. I did that for 15 years and loved nearly every minute. But eventually I wanted to try some other things, and left the paper in 2012 to write for Sports on Earth, which was just starting up. I’ve mainly done sports since, mostly for ESPN until my contract expired at the end of January. But over the course of a year I might write about pretty much anything.

2. You’re best known for writing deeply emotional, deeply reported profiles. Your story on UNC coach Dean Smith comes to mind. What’s your process for stories like these? How do you go about finding them and decide what is worth pursuing? At what point does the narrative for the story start to form? I know this is something best discussed over a beer or a glass of bourbon, but what do you think about when you think about writing?

The story about Dean started with the idea to describe what his life was like after his dementia set in — he had always been known for his astonishing memory. Then, once it became clear that Dean was too ill to to talk to me, the idea shifted to how the people close to him were dealing with his illness — sometimes, when someone close to you has dementia, it’s worse to be the person who still remembers. Early on in the reporting it became clear that Dean’s wife, Linnea, was the key gatekeeper. Several people I talked to had amazing stories, but they wouldn’t go on the record unless Linnea gave her OK. It took three or four months from the day I first contacted her to the day she agreed to talk to me. (One of the great things about writing these longer features is the luxury of patience.) She sat down with me at their house, and she was generous and gracious, and once she talked to me everything else fell into place.

To get back to the first part of your question, what I always look for in a story is something that moves me emotionally. Sometimes I’ll take an assignment because it sounds like fun (or the paycheck sounds like fun), but if I’m doing the choosing, the idea has to have some deep core — often something small and specific that can stand for something big and universal. Not everybody has dealt with dementia (although I heard from hundreds of readers who have, which was amazing and gratifying). But everybody has dealt with loss, or wished for a time they can’t get back.

I guess another way to think about it is that the best stories work on two levels — the literal narrative of what it’s about, and the undercurrent of what it’s REALLY about. The plot and the subtext.

3. Those stories obviously resonated with readers. Has any one of them in particular stuck with you? Which one left you most affected after you wrote it?

Man, they all stick with me. I try to come to stories with empathy — even if I don’t like the particular person I’m writing about, I always end up caring about them. I don’t often keep up a relationship with people I’ve written about — it feels a little weird, here’s that writer guy still hanging around — but I still think about them all the time. Every time I watch a Carolina basketball game, I think about Dean and Linnea. And I think about Roy Williams, sitting in his half-lit office the morning after UNC lost to Belmont, trying to talk to me about Dean and getting choked up every five seconds.

One of the reasons I left my job as a columnist is that the stories stuck with me a little too much. I covered a lot of dark stuff. My dear friend Joe Posnanski reminded me the other day that a few years ago, when he and some of our buddies went to Vegas for a comedy festival, I had to stay home and witness an execution. I haven’t forgotten that night, either. All those stories are still in there.

4. In the diction you use, it’s clear that you’re from the South. How much do you think about your language and word choice in stories? Do you look as it being regional? Or do you see it more as personal expression? I’m thinking of lines like this one from your Dale Earnhardt Jr. profile: “Sometimes he believes he is what he is only because of who his daddy was.” We Northerners would probably use “father,” but using “daddy” made me feel more immersed in the story because I assume that’s the language used around Dale Jr. and the culture he grew up in.

I went back and forth on “daddy” and “father” and “dad” in that story — I think I use all three at one point or another, and Dale Jr. does, too. It’s all in the context. The main thing I think about in language is to make it as simple and clear as I can. My mom and dad grew up as sharecroppers and didn’t have a chance at much of an education, but my dad was one of the smartest men I ever knew, and my mom is still sharp at 84. My goal is to write about profound feelings and complex thoughts in the simplest language I can get by with. Big ideas, little words.

5. You’ve been very open about your weight, describing your upcoming book, “The Elephant in the Room,” as a “memoir about my life as a fat man in a growing America.” Why are you so open about this part of your life? What are you hoping to accomplish? Do you believe it serves as some connective tissue between your readers or, occasionally, your subjects?

For the longest time, I wasn’t open about my weight — obviously it was out there for anyone who saw me, but I hated talking about it. But one thing I preach in my writing classes is to write about what scares you, and I figured at some point I ought to take my own advice. I put it off and put it off until I wrote a story a few years ago about Jared Lorenzen, the former Kentucky QB who is still struggling with his weight. That story scared me, too, because I knew that I needed to be a part of it. But as I worked on it, I could see a way to write about my own struggle. I’ll always admire Jared for his honesty, and the way he helped me be honest.

I mentioned up above about writing on two levels. If I can pull it off, I hope the top level of this book is a straightforward tale of how one guy got to be so fat, what that does to your body and mind, and how hard it is to turn your life around. The subtext, I hope, is that everybody struggles with something — maybe not their weight, but everybody’s got a thing they just can’t get past. Maybe some of those people can see their story in my story.

6. We often (OK, like, all the time) ask our guests to reimagine how coverage of their particular beat should be done. But you don’t cover a specific sport — you write about people. What, if anything, would you change about the way profiles are done industry-wide?

The first answer to that is, there are SO MANY great profiles and longform features being written these days — I get the Sunday Long Read newsletter, and the Longreads emails, and there’s so much amazing stuff I can’t possibly catch up with it all. So the problem is not a lack of great work.

I do think the economics of journalism tend to gravitate to stories that suck up to their subjects. Also, the economics of celebrity — if that’s the right phrase — lean toward micromanaging access and smoothing out the rough edges. So there’s a lot of stuff out there, even in the best publications, that’s written basically as part of a deal to promote somebody’s new movie or to put their photo on the cover. Only the very best writers can make chicken salad out of stories like that. I’d be terrible at it. I like to write about people at the edge of the spotlight. That gray area is always a more interesting place.

7. You worked for a long while (23 years) as a columnist and reporter at The Charlotte Observer. Then you went national. Do you ever miss the parochialism of a local columnist? What don’t you miss?

It’s arrogant to think that you can sum up any person, any event, any subject in 600 words — but on that rare occasion when you hit it just right, you feel like you invented a magic trick on deadline. There’s no rush quite like it.

There’s also no more direct connection to readers — they see your face in the paper so they come up to you in the street and talk to you like family. To have somebody pull a clipping of yours out of their pocketbook, something they’ve kept for years — no award can match that. There’s another group of readers, of course — the ones who wake up angry and hate everything and decide to holler at you because you’re handy. I don’t miss those folks.

What I miss most of all? Just walking in the newsroom every day and talking with all those smart and funny and talented people. I’ll never be in a better club.

8. You were a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2008-09. This is, to put it simply, an incredibly prestigious honor in our industry. Why did you pursue the fellowship, and what did you hope to get out of it? What can you tell us about the work you did during your time there?

Several writers and editors at the Observer were Niemans before me, and they all talked about it as one of their best years of their lives. It was absolutely one of the best years of mine. I’m not sure exactly what I hoped to get out of it, but here’s what I got — time to think and breathe; access to the teachers and resources at the greatest university in the world; a new appreciation for Sam Adams in the bottle; and most of all, a big new group of lifetime friends. A bunch of us still call and text and visit one another. The friendships alone are priceless.

I’m not sure if what I did there could be classified as work. I took an English class from James Wood of the New Yorker and a sociology class from William Julius Wilson, who was a consultant to “The Wire.” (Sonja Sohn — Kima — spoke to our class one day.) We hung out with Desmond Tutu and saw Jeremy Lin play college ball. And that doesn’t even count all the long nights just talking and laughing and telling stories, knowing we didn’t have to go to work the next morning. Just writing all that, I can barely believe it happened. APPLY FOR A NIEMAN. DO IT.

9. We ask people often about their jobs and their old jobs and their new jobs, but I’m wondering, what would be your dream job? Is there something still out there in journalism you have wanted to do?

My life has lapped my dreams. I hope I get to write more books, and there are a few places I’d still like to land a story — like most everyone else, I’d love to have something in the New Yorker one day. But my main hope is that I get to keep doing what I do, and keep trying to get better.

Having said that, my secret dream job is to be a songwriter. Jason Isbell is the best writer of any kind in America right now. Some day I’d like to write just one song that somebody could mistake for one of his.

10. Generally speaking, this is a journalism Q&A series. Non-generally speaking, it’s a way to find out about the best places to eat across the country by quizzing other sportswriters. In your travels, and when you’re home, what meals or restaurants have stuck out to you? And where do we go eat if we’re in Charlotte?

Most of the memorable meals I’ve had on the road are about the people. A couple of summers ago I ended up having dinner in Vegas with Ramona Shelburne and Kurt Streeter and a couple of other folks. Ramona and Kurt are two of ESPN’s very best writers and very best people. I honestly can’t remember where we ate — it was a tapas place, and I think it had “fire” in the name somewhere — but that night was so fun and so rewarding, I hope it sticks with me forever.

When you’re in Charlotte, go to Brooks’ Sandwich House. The building is the size of a Hollywood closet. No seats, just long tables outside. Eat standing up or in your car. Cheeseburgers delivered straight from God. I’ve been avoiding it since I seriously started trying to lose weight. It’s killing me.

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