Q. Tell us about the stories you’ve selected for this book?
A. The stories include profile pieces of politicians, looking at them from different angles. I explain Bill Clinton from the perspective of his hometown, not Hope but Hot Springs, Arkansas. I look at Barack Obama through the dreams of his mother, not his father. I examine the soul of Al Gore through his work as an investigative reporter. And Jesse Jackson through his difficult relationship with Martin Luther King. Then there are long narrative pieces on two of the tragic events of the early 21st century -- 9/11 and the Virginia Tech shootings. Plus there are stories about some of the sports figures I’ve written about, from Muhammad Ali to Roberto Clemente to Vince Lombardi, along with a personal story about the death of my little sister and stories about my childhood.
Q. How did you choose which stories to include in this book?
A. Into The Story is a collection of my work, mostly narrative nonfiction, some long-form, some short-form. Many of the stories are articles I wrote for newspapers (including The Washington Post and the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin), others come from magazines, and some are chapters from my various books. The subjects are the obsessions of my writing: politics, sports, various personal stories and stories about loss.
I narrowed it down to 32 stories from thousands I’ve written by looking for pieces that seem to hold up over time and that present in their totality my work in nonfiction and my sensibility as a writer. I try to write with both immediacy and history in mind. Immediacy because you want to capture a moment, but I always have in mind as I’m writing, ‘what will be important to know 10, 20, 50 years from now?’ So much of writing is transient. Some things seem profound at the time; but after a few months they have lapsed into the ether, without meaning. So for this book I looked for pieces that stand the test of universality.
Q. You mention in the introduction to the book that you are always looking for the “universal in the particular.” What do you mean by that?
A. Looking for the universal in the particular is something I try to do in all my stories. In 30-plus years of journalism and writing I’ve developed certain themes I hope this book will underline for readers. As a writer, I am always trying to use detail for a purpose. For instance, in a story about Virginia Tech and the slayings there, I write about a student walking into a classroom and talking to a professor before class, and what are they talking about but their favorite football teams, the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons. It’s such a prosaic, common everyday piece of life that precedes such an extraordinary tragedy. It’s a detail that illustrates the point that life is ordinary until the moment it is not.
Q. The subtitle to this book mentions politics, sports, life and loss. Why those topics?
A. The central themes of my writing career are politics and sports, but in neither case are they just about pure electoral politics or the games of sports. I’m fascinated by the sociology of both endeavors. They both offer a dramatic arc to a story and characters that appeal to me, and more than that, they are ways to explore the central themes of modern times and the way that different forces shape human beings. That’s what interests me. Writing about Vince Lombardi was a way to write about the mythology of success and competition. My book on Bill Clinton was a way to write about the themes that shaped my generation.
Q. You’ve included some pieces about your own family. Why?
A. So that readers can get a sense of my own sensibility, which has been shaped by family more than anything else. The stories range from one about the death of my little sister, Wendy, in a car crash, to a little story about my dad, who infused me with all of my love of writing and sports and politics, to my brother, Jim, a wonderfully eccentric professor.
Q. What is meant by the title “Into The Story”?
A.The title Into The Story is meant to evoke several things at once: the way I get into a story that I’m working on; the title from one of my books, They Marched Into Sunlight; and hoping that people will get into the idea of stories themselves. Even as forms of communication change from newspapers and books to Twitter and whatever, the story is still the central part of human communication.
Q. What is the best piece of advice on writing that you ever received?
A.The two mentors of writing in my life were my father, Elliott Maraniss, and my first editor, Dick Harwood, and they both told me to “unpack” the story. Just tell the story. Don’t try to pack everything in and get it jumbled up, just tell the story. All too often writers have so many ideas bouncing around in their heads that they try to tell it too fast and all up front instead of letting the story unfold naturally.
Q. Who is this book geared to?
A. The ideal readers for this book, I hope, are people who share an interest in the forces that shape human beings and movements. That really is what I write about. So it’s not just for people who like politics or sports, by any means. I also hope that this book will impart something to students of writing and journalism. One of my strongest beliefs is that nonfiction narrative writing, good reporting and fluid writing are not separate and not in competition. To do the best writing you have to do the reporting and the thinking from the very beginning.
Q. Do you remember the first story you ever wrote for a newspaper?
A. The first story I wrote for a newspaper was about a high school football game between Middleton High School and Jefferson High School in the rural areas outside Madison, Wisconsin, and it was probably a fairly pathetic effort. Somehow the sports editor saw one sentence that was good, and he encouraged me to keep writing. Some of my other early stories were about student protests at the University of Wisconsin, so from the very earliest part of my career, sports and politics were there at the forefront.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. Right now I am working on a multigenerational biography of Barack Obama. It’s about the world that created him and how he created himself. It will be published in 2011.