Friday, November 13, 2020

Corey Sobel

Corey Sobel is a graduate of Duke University, where he was a scholarship football player and received the Anne Flexner Award for Fiction and the Reynolds Price Award for Scriptwriting. He has reported on human rights abuses in Burma, served as an HIV/AIDS researcher in Kenya, and consulted for the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations. He has written for numerous publications, including HuffPost,, and Chapel Hill News.

Sobel's new novel is The Redshirt.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

That depends on a reader’s familiarity with college football.

If you know even a little bit about the game, you will know that a “redshirt” is a term used for freshmen who don’t play their first season and thus retain a year of NCAA eligibility. My hope is that this reader—let’s call them Reader A—has their interest piqued because a redshirt freshman, being the lowest of the low of players on scholarship, isn’t an intuitive focus for a novel. We won’t see this player play in games or impact their team’s season in any real way, which is usually the status quo for the heroes of what few literary novels exist about sports. So what will be the focus? Why will this player’s experience warrant an entire book? Maybe this is a long way of saying that, for the football-savvy, the title will signal that this isn’t your usual sports story—which it isn’t.

My experience so far, though, is that very few of the book’s readers know a single lonesome thing about college football—and that I haven’t heard reports of people setting The Redshirt on fire or using it as a doorstop suggests that this hasn’t been an obstacle to them enjoying it. For this reader—Reader B—the title will be a bit mysterious. Why is it “redshirt,” one word, instead of “red shirt”? Less literally, I would hope that readers’ minds wander to books that contain something similar to a red shirt; what I’ve heard most often is that they are reminded of Nathanael Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. I am over the moon when people tell me this, because that association is very much intended. Hawthorne is one of my favorite writers, and I had his masterpiece in mind when settling on this title. Just as is the case with The Scarlet Letter, my book focuses on the customs of a deeply conservative society and on the stigma that’s affixed to anyone who dares to rebel against those mores.

My ultimate hope is that, by the end of the book, Reader A will have a new, perhaps Hawthorne-inspired take on a redshirt, Reader B will have learned at least enough about college football to see it’s a worthy literary subject, and both will have their perspective changed enough to come out of my novel a new reader—let’s call them Reader C.

What's in a name?

When I started working with my press’s absolutely stellar copy editor, Ann Marlowe, she created a working “style guide” that included, among many other things, the name of every single named character. There were 70-odd names on that list, and if we were to have counted the unnamed characters, I would guess that that number might approach 100. This isn’t surprising, given that The Redshirt is about a Division One college football program, which is allowed to have up to 85 scholarship players; will usually have another score (or two) walk-on players; more than two dozen coaches; and let’s not even get into all the maintenance staff, announcers, groundskeepers, and sundry other folks who make a program run.

This guaranteed my book would be an even bigger headache than novels usually are for their writers. Because I don’t really enjoy naming my characters, and am not sure I’m very good at it. I write fast and, at least in the beginning, a bit recklessly, and at this initial stage characters’ names mostly exist to not slow me down—there is no long rumination on the symbolic etymology of a character’s name in Walloon, no onomatopoeic function like what Dickens (so wonderfully) employs. That isn’t to say I’m not inclined toward certain sounds, and if anyone were ever interested, I’m sure they could read my names like a palm-reader does hands and suss out all sorts of fascinating nonsense about what these names say about me.

I pay closer attention to names as I begin revising, though at that point a character’s first name will be stuck in my head and will probably stay as-is. I know there is a trend these days to leave characters totally unnamed, and that there are also folks who have surprisingly strong antagonism toward writers who dare to give their characters a last or even [clutches pearls] middle name the reader is expected to memorize. Those people can go with God—in football, names are of tremendous importance, not least because you need some way to tell apart all the bodies flying around a field. So last names were a must for me, and as I said I did put some thought into the last names of my characters; I would often see what fun meanings I could generate by pairing a last name with the existing first name.

But this was only the case for the more important characters, and at a certain point I needed to just pull names out of whatever orifice I could. Sometimes, I used the name of a friend who I happened to have seen that week; sometimes, I would associate this character with that childhood bully and indulge in a little meaningless revenge; more than once, I looked up at the bookshelf that hangs above my desk and used a name on one of the spines.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Depends on the year of teenagehood.

My fifteen year old self, who was a football fanatic, terrible student generally, and a resentful reader specifically, would have been disgusted to see his name on a novel that focuses on the exploitative nature of the sport. He would then go off to weep in the woods of his parents’ old subdivision, since his having published a book at the age of 35 would be proof his worse fear had come true—which is to say that he wasn’t in his thirteenth season as a future Hall of Fame linebacker in the National Football League.

But if he was nineteen, and trapped in a game he had come to despise, a game that was dominating his life so completely that he didn’t have the energy to keep his eyes open during his literature seminars at Duke, let alone the psychic space to work on the fiction he wanted more than anything to spend his every waking moment working on? Well, he’d also find some quiet place to go and weep—but this would be out of gratitude.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

In my first draft, I don’t find writing beginnings or endings difficult, mostly because I write obsessively fast. The beginning of the first draft comes quickly, in part so I can keep barreling on to get to the end as soon as possible.

But precious little of what I write is actually usable; what I’m after in a first draft is to feel, for lack of a better word, the “soul” of my book, which I guess means some energy that writing the book is generating in me which I can then recycle into writing more of it. As long as this soul exists, I can comfortably strip away all the embarrassing dialogue and overwrought descriptions and half-assed characters and write them over and over again, each try a new attempt to get what’s on the page to match the soul of the work. This happens in no set order whatsoever, and the letter and the spirit of the book’s final ending might match up many months before the same happens to the final beginning of the book.

Does this make me sound spiritual, even religious? It probably does, and that isn’t a coincidence—the only kind of magic I believe in is what happens when we use language to try and convey our experience. This modest mysticism also makes it so that I believe the beginning and the ending of a book are also invisibly and yet irrefutably linked—even though they reside at opposite poles, they are constantly, often imperceptibly, shaping one another.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

There is a passage in the second paragraph of Thoreau’s Walden that serves as a mantra for me: “In most books, the I, or the first person, is omitted; in this [book] it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.”

What I take this to mean is that, no matter how I might narrate my books, no matter whether a character has experiences that line up with my own or is of a race, gender, sexuality, or nationality that are radically different from mine, I will still, at base, be writing about myself. I mean this in the broadest sense possible, so that if I am writing about someone who has those different identifiers, and who thinks and acts in ways I never would (or could), I am still ultimately writing about myself—in this case writing negatively, saying who I am by who I am not.

I find this idea to be tremendously freeing. That isn’t to say I don’t sweat over and grapple with and bite my fingernails to the quick about doing my best to honor the experiences of the characters I write—I most certainly do. Instead, what Thoreau’s passage reminds me of is that I am always at the heart of my book, no matter what I do. And if I can succeed in making this tiny, humongous essence that is me compelling to the reader, that’s going to have to be enough.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I am an inveterate museumgoer, and try visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art as often as possible. The Asian wing is my favorite place in New York City, in particular the Japanese galleries. Unlike the rest of the museum, this place is never busy, and I assume because of the age of the holdings and the materials they are made of, these galleries have mellow, creamy-orange lighting that lowers my blood pressure the moment I step into it.

Then there is the art itself: wooden sculptures of the Buddha I can stare at for twenty minutes straight; watercolor paintings that manage to be vanishingly delicate and crushingly intense simultaneously; tall folding screens of gold leaf paper that depict farmers at work or cranes in flight. Japanese art is as varied and indefinable as any other culture’s, and even in these few galleries there is a galaxy of different styles and philosophies and media. But I will say that I most often find myself focusing on pieces that are more minimalist in nature; because of their limited number of colors, components, and/or subjects, they force me to focus for longer and more carefully than I am usually inclined.

I’m not sure whether you could make a one-to-one connection between any piece of art in the gallery and my writing, but I do like to think that the meditative state the Japanese galleries summons in me has cleared my mind of clutter and allowed for some fresh ideas to make themselves at home.
Visit Corey Sobel's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Redshirt.

--Marshal Zeringue