By Nathan Bierma
Content & Context
Dialogue: Steve Rushin
The writing of Steve Rushin—who became a senior writer for Sports Illustrated at age 25, and currently writes the weekly "Air and Space" column for SI— is as well-crafted as you're likely to find anywhere in American journalism. In his witty travelogue Road Swing: One Fan's Journey into the Soul of American Sports, Rushin describes a dying television as "a Zenith at its nadir," and compares a golf course in the Pennsylvania hills to "a green silk tie across a rumpled bedspread." I interviewed him recently by phone.
B&C: Because of the precision and cleverness of your word choice, I've always suspected you're a writer for whom the writing process is exceptionally swift or exceptionally tedious.
Steve Rushin: It's the latter, I assure you. I'm ridiculously lucky to get a week to write 938 words. If you have a week, you better have the right word and spend a lot of time on getting the right transition between paragraphs. I treat it as my job; everyone works five days a week in the real world. It's hard to talk about this without sounding like a pompous idiot, but I try to follow the rule that the easier something is to read, the harder it was to write, and the harder it is to read the easier it probably was to write.
B&C: Your writing style suggests various literary influences. What do you like to read?
SR: I read a wide variety of things. I love to read—novels, nonfiction, it runs the gamut. I've always been a nerd in that regard. I was one of five kids, my mom was a schoolteacher, and we all had a library card growing up. I was the only one who actually took to it. On our family vacations to California when we were kids, I always went to the library, and checked out books on all the places we were going in San Francisco. … My wife [basketball star Rebecca Lobo] and I live in a small townhouse. If we ever get a house, I don't care what it has except a library. I'd like to just sit in a big chair with a goldfish-bowl-sized brandy sifter, and a globe, surrounded by books. We have boxes of books on bookshelves, boxes in our garage. … I was in a used bookstore and picked up a 1200-page biography of Charles Dickens. I will probably finish it in the time it took Dickens to live his actual life, but I will finish it.
B&C: Despite your literary interests, it doesn't sound phony when you take the tone of the Average Joe watching the game at the bar. How distinct are those two voices?
SR: I should sound phony talking about Dickens; I'm much more comfortable being the guy at the bar, the sports fan. It's not mutually exclusive; liking sports, liking to read. When you meet somebody and they ask what you do, and you say sportswriter, they automatically assume you're only interested in the team batting average of the Oakland A's or something. They're surprised to learn you have other interests as well. Frank Deford says people hear the first half of the word "sportswriter," not the second half of the word, when it's just the opposite for him; he's more interested in the writing than the sports. … It's a tie for me, a photo finish.
B&C: You're in your thirties and have been writing a column in SI for five years, with hundreds plausibly to go. Does that prospect arouse delight or dread?
SR: Dread. The prospect of writing next week arouses dread. People who write three columns a week would be laughing at this, saying, Get a real job, and God forbid I sound like I'm complaining. But the two toughest parts of the job are coming up with the idea and then sitting down and writing. Of course, those are the only two parts of the job. [There's that saying], "I hate writing; I love having written." This will sound like the sports cliché , but I take it one week at a time. I rarely have a column in the bank. I was supposed to go on vacation last summer; it was planned long in advance that I would write something before going on vacation. I ended up writing about my vacation in Ireland, golfing. That was a lesson not to stress out about it; something will come together, and the week it doesn't, I have my letter of resignation composed, I just have to hit F7 and send it in.
B&C: Road Swing came out in 1998. How much longer must we wait for the sequel?
SR: I've had a few e-mails from people offering to ride shotgun [on my next trip]. The next book I have coming out is a collection of my longer pieces for SI, mostly on exotic places … that also has a travel aspect to it. The next book I write, I'd prefer if it didn't require me to drive 25,000 miles. That was something I've always wanted to do once. In the last five years I've started to write a weekly column, and I haven't had the time or zeal [for another book].