About a year ago, I got a call from an old author of mine. Paul Shirley is a former basketball player who enjoyed a long career that included several stints in the NBA. In the midst of his playing career, he wrote a book that I published called Can I Keep My Jersey?, which was about his life as a basketball vagabond. I've always been a fan of Paul's funny, observant, self-deprecating writing--so I was happy when he told me that he was thinking about doing another book.
Stories I Tell on Dates, Paul's second book, was published in October--and while his first book had a mostly male audience, there's a good chance this that new book will have strong appeal with female readers (read on to learn why).
Paul has gotten some great notice so far, but best-selling author Jeff Pearlman's blurb caught my attention: "I'm sure at some point Paul Shirley--former NBA journeyman--thought he was destined for basketball greatness. He wasn't, and thank goodness. Because his hoops shortcomings brought forth literary genius. This is the most engrossing, honest memoir I've ever read--equal parts hilarious, heartbreaking, cringe-inducing, and triumphant. Simply put: I love this book."
After reading--and loving--his new book, I asked Paul if we could do an interview.
A Conversation with Paul Shirley
Chris Schluep – So we have a past. I thought maybe we should talk about that. How long ago was that? I was trying to remember…
Paul Shirley – I think that book (Can I Keep My Jersey?) came out in 2007, so it’s been ten years. My favorite moment of our time together was when I lost my mind about the cover with the photographer, and you took me out into the hallway and you were like: Just calm down, I’ll take care of this.
CS – Thankfully, I don’t really remember that. I must only retain good memories. You’re in LA now. What are you doing there?
PS – Later today I will go to Writer’s Blok, which is a non-profit organization I run to help give writers a place to work and meet other writers. We just expanded to Sundays—big news—and so now it’s three days a week, which means a lot of work. It’s not a lot of financial boon to me, but it’s pretty rewarding. And then I also teach creative writing and English at a prep school for the police academy. I’m an adjunct professor at West L.A. College. So really my life is one of poverty and hecticness right now.
CS – But you get to do what you like.
PS – Yes. There’s a sense in my mind that I’m building toward something, which is fun. And I think it would be impossible to talk about me, the book, etc. without noting the fact that I had this other career for a really long time. I stopped playing basketball when I was thirty-three, and it’s still kind of the beginning of my writing career in a lot of ways. I’m going to turn forty this year, so it is difficult to reconcile sometimes that I’m almost forty years old and I’m living like I’m twenty-five. But a lot of that is because I had this whole other life. One of the things I like about The Stories I Tell on Dates is that it gave me a chance to talk about that transition and just get into what it’s like to be aging and realize, oh, shit, I kind of gave away my twenties to this job.
CS – Did you enjoy basketball?
PS – People assume that what's fun about it is the hoopla and the excitement, and that gives you a charge, of course--but I think when I really dig down to what I loved about basketball it was going into the gym in the summers between seasons and knowing that when I got to the gym I might not be able to do a thing—but by the time I left the gym, I could probably do that thing.
CS – And writing’s kind of the same way, right? It’s a craft like basketball. You have to practice and work at it. And athletes are willing to put in the work.
PS – That’s one thing that I see with my fellow athletes. Most everyone was hyper-vigilant about routine and about doing the same thing over and over, and that lends itself well to most things in life. So the ex-athletes I’m around are the ones I can trust to get things done on time, show up, just do the right amount of work each day, and that’s what I think writing is. When I am talking to writers—at Writer’s Blok especially—it’s so hard to get across to them that writing is not just perseverating about what’s my character. It’s more that you’re going to have to sit your ass down in this chair and do it every day for a really long time, and then you’re going to look up after a while and you’re going to have a body of work, and then you can start to chop that down into something. And sports is so much like that. I didn’t know, based on the day-to-day, whether I was going to play for an NBA team or in the minor leagues. I just had this sense that, if I keep doing this thing every day—there’s no magic here—I will eventually succeed.
CS – So when did you start writing the stories for this book?
PS – I wrote a bad novel that I spent three year on and thought, oh, this will be very artsy and this will be my thing. I’ll just write books. And when that finally fell to pieces, I had a little dark night of the soul here at a coffee shop in LA. And I realized I just wasn’t working hard enough at it, and thought—kind of as an experiment—I have these stories that I find myself telling on dates. I should just write down as many of them as I can think of, and then see where that leads me. So I wrote down fifty of these stories. I think we’re all prone on dates to go into material, because we know, oh, well that story makes me seem funny, or that one makes me seem heroic but modest, or whatever it might be. So then I started to work on which ones worked together, which ones make sense, which ones were repetitive. I got some really great advice from people in different ways, and cheerleading from people like you, and then that led to it making a little more sense as a book because I was able to frame the stories by the date on which I told them.
CS – Do you have favorites in the collection?
PS – I like the small town ones, because it’s fun to remember that there is beauty in the small towns where I grew up. I think I’m a little nostalgic for that as well, but I think there’s some value there.
CS – These stories do take place all over the world, though. You could be in Greece or you could be in your hometown. And each time it’s still you.
PS – My hope is that I could be able to balance the two things—so it’s, here’s a little of something you’re never going to experience, and here is something that you can totally relate to because you remember what it was like to be standing by the wall, wishing you could dance with a girl, while Paula Abdul plays.
CS – What have you heard from early readers?
PS – I’ve gotten some really nice things said by some writers who I admire. Jonathan Eig, who has a Mohammad Ali book out right now, wrote the first blurb for it, and he was super complimentary, which meant a lot. A lot of other people are really, really loving it, which is kind of unsettling. I’m sure you’ve seen this with authors, where you’re like eh, is there a price I have to pay for this? People have mostly been overwhelmingly kind about it. I think you have to not attach too much to the positive, just as you would try to not attach too much to the negative.
CS – You have to focus on the work.
PS – I’m thinking about this Young Adult novel I’m working on. You have to do all the promotion and get excited about it and enjoy the ride, but if you allow yourself to get too high then that means you’ll also allow yourself to get too low.
CS – Who do you see as your target audience, because I feel like there are a few different types of people who would love this book?
PS – There are the ultra-sensitive male sports fans who will read this book, some of my audience for the first book. But there are about fourteen of those people in the world, so that’s not a great marketing demographic.
I think that it’s going to mostly resonate with women. I was lucky to have my friend Katie Savage edit my book. She did a really good job, because she’s so good at writing about vulnerability. She was able to always turn me—when I was maybe trying to make myself look a certain way—she always aimed me back to just talking about the truth about how I felt right then. And for the most part, female readers really seem to be responding to that sort of truth. I think some guys don’t really want to think that hard about their emotions. There are guys who are ok with that, but it seems like they are few and far between.
CS – I think there are more guys who will like this book than you think. They’re not necessarily sports fans, but guys will enjoy your book, too.
PS – My hope is to get it beyond the sports fans.