Big thanks to Erik Hahmann for pulling together this Q and A with Spencer Hall. Enjoy. Here’s Erik:
I’m going to be disappointed if Spencer Hall never writes a novel. That’s not something you can say about most sports writers. He writes mainly about college football, yet even those who don’t care about the sport can find something to enjoy in his voice and superb story telling abilities. If you’re a fan of good writing, be it newspaper, magazine or online, Spencer Hall is a name you’ll need to bookmark.
Who is Spencer Hall?
I’m a 35 year old guy who lives in Atlanta with his family. I was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and raised around the Southeast and attended public schools. This experience, having zero athletic talent, and being raised Catholic around a swarm of fundamentalist evangelicals who were mostly Tennessee and Alabama fans pretty much determined everything I am and am not.
I’m less of a writer and more of a conduit for things that go through me. I don’t add much. I like sports because they’re absurd, violent, and very moving. That’s pretty much the M.O. here.
How did you end up at SBNation?
I’d been writing about sports since 2005 on EDSBS.com, and started part-time with the Sporting News in 2007 or so. By 2008 the traffic and part-time work coalesced into something like a full-time job. Eventually you hit a point where being independent hits certain limits, and in 2010 that’s where SBN comes in because they know how to build things, sell things, and make your life a lot easier. I’ve been there ever since.
Your writing runs the gamut, from a serious, captivating recount of the national championship weekend in New Orleans to a masterful, and hilarious, take down of a New York Times columnists’ ignorant column on Jeremy Lin. Those are just two recent examples. Have you always had such a wide ranging voice?
I’ve never figured out what I am as a typist, and thus there’s a lot of playing around with voice. Also, I have a manageable level of operational schizophrenia, so being a perpetual amateur is a natural fit. I’m never going to be really good at any of it, but I’ve always preferred singles to albums anyway. I’d prefer to work light-humorous most of the time, but I’m fixated on death/violence, and that never really fades from the picture.
As for takedowns, I try to pick my spots because a lot of what the blogosphere was in 2005-7 was definition by opposition. You cannot do that forever, though some people can do both and do it very well. (Mobute from Mr. Destructo and Drew Magary both come to mind.)
But sometimes David Brooks, a person paid a lot to weave moral hazard fables on a weekly basis, attempts to write sports. That is when you have to set him on fire and throw him off the bridge. I don’t think I’ll ever turn in my arsonist’s card. There’s too much fun, even when you know you’ll eventually get your own house burned down. It’s what arsonists do.
Sticking with your piece on the weekend in New Orleans, my single favorite thing I’ve read this year, did you go there with the specific theme of a funeral in mind, or did you let the city help inspire you?
I was stuck for what to write, and went out drinking. (That’s not uncommon.) There was a bumper sticker on a fridge in a bar. It read “NOLA: We put the ‘fun’ in ‘funeral.’” It clicked from there: the death of interesting football, the zombie city of New Orleans, the end of the BCS, Les Miles torching his good credit in a single night. You can’t write about NOLA or college football without mentioning the hangovers and body bags. They are part of the scene, and doing so would be dishonest. I also wrote that in a 200 year old kitchen at three in the morning by gaslight in the middle of a rainstorm. You weren’t getting happy out of it even if you tried.
Included in the piece mentioned above is my single favorite paragraph of 2012 thus far: “It is very early Sunday morning. There is a cab ride you take in New Orleans late at night. The windows are foggy with humidity. The lights are too bright when they pass, and the dark far too dark when it comes. The wall is high, and shot through with cracks from moisture and the slow prying of trees and vines. Behind it, tiny white spires and crucifixes. Cities of the dead all over the place, stowed behind walls and rusty iron gates, that pass in the night between the bars and the restaurants and the one last bar you hit before checking your watch aghast at the hour.”
If possible, would you take us through your process in piecing that paragraph together? Were you taking notes by hand? Mental pictures? A collection of experiences over numerous visits?
That’s a collage of a lot of drunken late night cab rides in NOLA. A passenger in NOLA is always kind of stepping through the dead, something you don’t do in a lot of other cities in America or elsewhere.
What is the piece you’ve struggled with the most in your career and why?
I sweat blood over writing anything involving my life. I hate writing about me. So “Two Men At The Rail” was hard not because I was emotional in writing it, but because I did not want to oversell it. There’s emotion in there, but you don’t want it to be cheap, saccharine emotion. I don’t want to write about “daddies” they way a lot of dudes from the South do, because that’s a.) been done, and b.) been overdone. My father and his father were a very different breed of dog, and you can’t be weepy over it all. There’s some charming bastards back there. Give them the proper accord and name tags.
But yeah, I’m fine writing about “I” and how things are done there, but “me” is a whole different matter.
In the same vein, what’s been the most rewarding?
Writing the piece on Leach was the most rewarding because it was completely accidental, and had no script, and yet still worked out for me. I can say this because I’m completely partial and in the bag for him now, but meeting Mike Leach is one of the best things you’ll ever do. He’s relentlessly positive, intellectually restless, and grows where he’s planted. If you forget those things, you’re in trouble.
You write for an online publication that’s a rising star in the world of sports journalism. How do you foresee the battle between online and print media going over the next 10 years? Is it even a battle?
I do not see it as a battle. We are the same entities now chasing the same ad dollars. Some of us will skew more entertainment, and some will skew more news-y, and everyone has to find their corner and defend it. They’re losing seven dollars for every dollar of online revenue made while we’re already on the correct market value for advertising. Someone’s going to sell some mansions, and someone’s going to buy some.
You have free reign for a day, what changes would you make in the way sports are covered in America?
Less piety about the wrong things and more reverence for the right things. The Jay Cutler injury controversy in the playoffs was the most insane thing because we were debating the toughness of a football player who has happily taken excruciating physical punishment for over a decade because the NFL has this deranged eminence front encouraged by the owners and by extension the league. I love the English soccer media’s open skepticism of ownership. It would be nice to see more of it here. I have no idea why NFL writers feel the need to extol the personal virtue of an owner at every turn. Bob Kraft’s holiday parties must truly be that spectacular.
I would also like more simplicity in the actual coverage. Live coverage of games with more in-game, in-stream advertising and fewer breaks would be lovely. I’ll take a bit of clutter on the screen and around the field to keep the continuity of the game intact. (Again, this is harping on the NFL, but CBS covering college games is just as guilty, if not more so because of the length of college games.)
The rest I can rely on the internet for because we all have our own little islands now. Pangaea is gone, and I’m fine with that if it means Skip Bayless is somewhere antipodal to me in the sports universe. Oh, and I’d cancel First Take immediately and replace it with Aussie Rules Football games. If I want to watch cruelty, I’ll take it in an entertaining form.