When did you decide to write Phoenix? Did you set out to write and sell a book or did this begin as a personal project?
I started writing Phoenix when I was 38. I set out to write a short nonfiction piece about my brother's death, and I really hoped that by writing it I might be done with it--his death had been haunting me for years. Once I'd done that, I realized I hadn't really done justice to my brother. The thing was skimpy at best. So I decided to write a book about all of it--not just his death but what made him such a heroic figure to me when I was a little kid, and what made us eventually grew apart. My brother died when he was 39 and one month, and soon I would be 39 and one month--I would be older than my big brother. So I set that as the deadline for when I'd get the first draft finished. And I made it.
In some sense, I think all writing is a personal project; that is, whether we're writing fiction or nonfiction, we're writing about things that matter to us, things that keep us focused on such a long process, things that allow us to take risks. But that's just the beginning. Then comes the hard work of transforming that raw stuff into something, hopefully, of lasting value.
Has Phoenix enabled you to put some of your past behind you, to come to terms with your brother's death?
In some ways, yes. The act of writing is an act of discovery, so, in writing Phoenix, I did discover things about myself and my brother and my family. Some of this was revelatory, and some of it was painful, but all of it seemed essential to the book.
To what degree did you trust your memory to fill in the specific details of conversations and anecdotes? How concerned were you with accuracy?
Most of the stuff I wrote about was, and is, vivid in my memory. For example, I'll never forget the time my brother came back and picked me up and took me for a drive in his Corvette. I was a little kid, and that small act of kindness meant a lot to me. In writing out such memories, I remembered other moments, other details. (And there were lots of memories that, for one reason or another, never made it into the final incarnation of the book.)
Accuracy is of the utmost importance, although sometimes this means aknowledging the inaccuracy of a particular memory, or acknowledging that your perspective might be suspect. One of the interesting things about writing a memoir is seeing how memory works, and how memories change. That's a more elusive form of accuracy.
Were you concerned about exposing your family or your brother's memory? Did your honesty raise any objections or conflicting accounts of the past?
No. I didn't make any effort to expose my family. I did, however, make a serious effort to write the best book I could, and since I was writing about my brother's death this necessarily meant writing about my family. And myself. I didn't put myself under less scrutiny than I put anybody else.
When I showed my oldest sister the book in manuscript, she only corrected me on one point: she said that her husband, Ernie, didn't drive a Mercedes at the time my brother was hospitalized; he drove a Porsche. I was happy to make that correction.
If your readers walk away understanding one thing from your book what would you like it be?
I guess I'd want readers to understand that life is complicated and precious and brief, and that memories are complicated and precious and long.
What are you working on now?
I'm at work on a novel based on the life of Ralph Greenleaf, the greatest pool player of all time. He was world champion during most of the 1920s and '30s. He was a superstar, earning as much money as Babe Ruth, and even performing trick shots on the vaudeville circuit with his wife, the half-British, half-Chinese vaudeville star Princess Nai Tai Tai, the Oriental Nightingale. Greenleaf was handsome and funny and glamorous--a born showman. He was also a tragic character: he was one of the worst alcoholics many people had ever seen, and he basically drank himself to death. One former world champion said, "Nobody ever beat Greenleaf. Alcohol beat Greenleaf." His wife loved him dearly, although this love wasn't always cuddly and nice. Once, during a world championship match in 1933, Nai (as she liked to be called), smashed Greenleaf over the head with an ashtray to try to prevent him from taking another drink.
In some ways, this book is a continuation of my interest in Phoenix. My brother was a hero to me when I was growing up, and Greenleaf was a hero to a whole generation. F. Scott Fitzgerald (he and Zelda were friends with the Greenleafs) once said, "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy." He might have been thinking of his friend Greenleaf.
Why do you think heroism and tragedy are so often linked?
I'm sure the Greeks have some sort of theory of heroism and tragedy nailed down.
Heroes often seem to have divine powers. They do what other people can only dream of. Of course, they generally reveal themselves to be as wretchedly mortal as the rest of us, and herein, I think, lies the tragedy. A NASCAR racer (Dale Earnhardt) died the other day in the Daytona 500, and he died a hero's death, a tragic death. Even in a sport with such a high risk of injury, people were stunned that such a mighty driver might succumb to a mere concrete wall. Heroes can never remain the fastest, the strongest, the bravest, and they ultimately fail to meet our expectations. And that is indeed tragic.
What makes someone a hero?
Well, in Greenleaf's case, he took risks (and any hero has to take risks). Pool was a wildly popular and relatively dull sport when he burst onto to scene in 1919. In that world championship, he played a guy named Frank Taberski, a great but incredibly slow player, one who would play safe rather than shoot a difficult shot. The sportswriters of the day nicknamed Taberski "The Sloth." Greenleaf would shoot the difficult shots, and he rarely played safe. He was creative. He was confident. He was dazzling. And he was the first player to have truly high runs on a pool table. Games were played to 125 points, and Greenleaf, on many occasions, ran 125 and out. That's 125 called shots without a miss (on a 5' X 10' table). His nicknames were "The Aristocrat of the Billiard Table" and "The King of Billiards." An old friend of mine, Babe Cranfield, who was world champion in 1964, said of Greenleaf: "His name was magic."
Who are the heroes of today?
I think we live in an age of celebrity worship, so many people today are regarded as heroes although they've done nothing heroic. People magazine is filled with pictures of them. But the Civil Rights Movement had a number of real heroes: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and others. Nelson Mandela is one of today's great heroic figures.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Yes. Be a greedy reader.