Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Neal Thompson

Neal Thompson is a veteran journalist who has worked for the Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, and St. Petersburg Times, and whose magazine stories have appeared in Outside, Esquire, Backpacker, Men's Health, and the Washington Post Magazine. Already the author of two critically acclaimed books, Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard, America's First Spaceman and Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels and the Birth of NASCAR, he has just published Hurricane Season: A Coach, His Team, and Their Triumph in the Time of Katrina.

Hurricane Season is a full-access account of the Patriots of John Curtis Christian School, who played in their final pre-season football game just days before Katrina hit, and their quest for a record twentieth Louisiana state football championship in the 2005 season.

Thompson graciously replied to my questions about the book and his work:

Q: What do you think readers would be most surprised to learn from Hurricane Season?

A: I'm hoping readers will be surprised by two things... First, at how Katrina affected so many lives on so many levels. It wasn't just those whose homes got entirely swept away who suffered ... even those who got an inch or two of water in their homes were rendered homeless, because that water sat baking in the house for two weeks, causing mold to crawl throughout the entire home. The students I write about literally, in many cases, lost everything they owned. Secondly, I think people will be surprised at how such a small school, and a football coach with such a simple gameplan, have created a powerhouse of a football team. That success says a lot about how unique and special Coach JT is, as both a mentor to these kids and as a human being.

Q: How much responsibility do you feel toward the people you're writing about? Do you worry about pleasing them, when at the same time you have to please your editor, your readers, and live up to the standards of journalism?

A: I've always felt an enormous sense of responsibility, but not so much toward pleasing my subjects but toward getting it right. I never expect the people I write about to be entirely happy with the results, but I also never want them to say, "You got it wrong." My responsibility is more toward being a journalist than being "nice." But you raise a good point about the readers.... I do feel a sense of responsibility toward them, since the onus is on me, the writer, to entertain or inform or intrigue the reader. They're spending the money, so I always feel strongly that I owe them a good story, a good book. As for my editor, Emily Loose at Free Press, we were very much a team on this book, and I think we both felt mutually responsible for telling this important story, and telling it well.

Q: Is Hurricane Season more or less the book you thought you'd wind up writing when you started?

A: This was the rare book in which the story was all right there for the telling, and it was up to me to not screw it up. So, yes, this turned out to be the book I had hoped and planned to write. The most difficult part was cutting out stories (about people affected by the story, and parts of the back story of the school's founder), that were important but just didn't fit.

Q: In the course of writing your book, you must have come across people and events that, for whatever reason, didn't wind up in the book. What is the most interesting thing you left out of the book?

A: During my research, I asked the teachers at the school to give students an assignment... to write an essay about their Katrina experience. These papers were amazing, and often heart-breaking, but there just wasn't enough room to tell everyone's story. Here are two (#1 and #2) of many examples of stories that were painful for me to cut:

#1. One boy, who lost family photo albums, the TV, and a huge movie and video game collection (including his favorite movie, "You Got Served"), also temporarily lost his parents. His father got transferred to Chicago and his mother stayed to work in Texas, while he stayed with grandparents. He stayed in touch with his parents by phone and swapped letters and pictures. His mother finally came back to New Orleans, and they moved into a trailer park, where they spent their evenings washing and drying the flood-soaked clothes of their extended family. But the boy's his father stayed in Chicago. "I'm sad and worried I'll never see him again," he told a teacher.

#2. Taylor Schwab was looking forward to cheerleading tryouts and the start of her freshman year at Andrew Jackson High in Chalmette. After evacuating to Alabama and then Lafayette, Louisiana, she heard from a friend that her house was under fifteen feet of water. She and her mom logged onto Google Earth, the website that offers satellite views of the earth. Sure enough, they found the roof of her house, now an island surrounded by a fetid lake. She started crying, " My house, my room, my everything, and it's all gone in one day and there's nothing I can do about it!" She wouldn't return home for two months, and again broke into uncontrollable sobs at the sight of her house. "Everything I knew and depended on had been lost and would never be the same," she told her teacher at John Curtis, where she transferred. "I want my life back."

Q: I grew up in the metropolitan New Orleans area and know well the high school football milieu you describe so vividly in the book. I like sports, but my own view is that too many schools -- and too many people in the community -- care significantly more about the quality of their high school's football team than they do about how well students fare academically. How well do you think John Curtis Christian School balances academics and athletics? Or, to put it another way, if you lived in New Orleans and had a child who was a pretty good football player (but clearly not destined for a football scholarship at USC) as well as pretty good student (but probably not destined for an academic scholarship at Harvard), would you send him to John Curtis or to, say, Newman High School, which despite graduating a couple of NFL quarterbacks is better known locally for the quality of its academic program?

A: It's a good, and valid, question, and as the father of two sons, it's an issue I was keenly aware of during my research. And in the book I tried to address this issue that John Curtis gets accused of, i.e. being a football factory that devalues academics. The truth is, John Curtis has created the perfect environment for the hypothetical student you describe, and has developed a nice balance between academics and athletics. They don't over-obsess about academics, and instead provide a nurturing environment where kids are taught to think for themselves, to write well, to work on projects as a team, and to care about the world around them, rather than simply learning how to do well on standardized tests, which might produce better grades but not necessarily better people. As for athletics, they're clearly very good at that, but again, I feel they have the right balance... for example, there are no try-outs, and no one gets cut from JT's team. That's a concept that's almost unheard of at most US high schools. As a journalist - and a former education writer, no less - I'm trained to be skeptical. But nothing I saw at John Curtis triggered my inner skeptic.

Q: A friend from Paris recently asked me about the novels being read in American high schools. From my youth, I could only remember To Kill A Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies. What are the students at John Curtis reading? What books, fiction or nonfiction, would you encourage them to read?

A: Another good question... I can't tell you what the Curtis kids are reading these days. I just didn't come across that information. But I do think that they should be reading novels, and especially classics. Currently, I read almost exclusively non-fiction books, in my ongoing efforts to become a better non-fiction writer. But my best experiences as a reader (indeed, some of my best experiences ever) were getting lost in Victor Hugo (Les Miserables is one of my favorites), Cervantes, Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, and, more recently, Haruki Murakami. I miss those moments of pure joy and discovery, and envy those (like my sons) who will discover their own favorite, life-changing novels - as long as their parents and teachers do their job and expose them to the right books. I think, in this digital age, it's VERY important for educators to convey the value of literature.

Q: What was the book that most influenced your career as a writer?

A: The authors listed above had a big influence early on, but I always knew I wasn't smart or talented enough to become a novelist (a conclusion reached after two failed novels). So it took books like Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights (an absolute classic of the genre) and Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm and the work of David Halberstam and Elizabeth Gilbert and New Yorker writers to teach me how to use my journalistic skills to write books that, at their best, read like novels.

Q: You've written about NASA, NASCAR, and now a high school football team. What's next?

A: I wish I knew... I have a dozen ideas I'm considering, but after NASA, NASCAR, and New Orleans, I feel I need to stick with the 'N' theme in this niche I've carved out. Any suggestions? Feel free to send your ideas (and have your readers send ideas) to me via the 'contact' link on my website, www.nealthompson.com. All I need is a vivid, important story with lively characters, lots of emotion and a somewhat inspiring theme. That's all.
Learn more about Hurricane Season and Neal Thompson's other books at his website and his MySpace page.

The Page 69 Test: Driving with the Devil.

--Marshal Zeringue