Home Feelz Interview with Jeff Benedict: Writing the Right Way

Interview with Jeff Benedict: Writing the Right Way

written by josh.adams November 19, 2016
Jeff Benedict answering an interview question.

Jeff Benedict answering an interview question.

I think that the biggest geeks in the world are sports fans. Dressing up as your favorite player, rejoicing in the success of your favorite team, seething in their failure, comparing and measuring stats, traveling for big events, purchasing memorabilia and collectibles. It all sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? How could you not call someone who plays fantasy sports a geek? I do, and I most certainly am! The worlds of sports and entertainment bring out the enthusiast in us all in one way or the other. While some might geek out over Marvel’s latest movie trailer, others might go just as crazy over a first round draft pick. We all have our fandoms. We’re all geeks.

Jeff Benedict, author of the recent hit biography, QB: My Life Behind the Spiral, is a veteran non-fiction writer. He, among other things, has written about the reclusive Duke basketball program, unseen crime in college football, intolerable violence in professional sports, and, most recently, the legendary Steve Young, former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. To put that into perspective, that’s like interviewing Stan Lee, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, and Bill Watterson, all rolled up into one! Jeff has the uncanny ability to spot a story worth telling from a mile away, and if there’s anything a geek worth his salt can appreciate, it’s a good story.

I met Jeff working at Southern Virginia University where he was a teacher, and where he is now the head of the Institute for Writing and Mass Media. Southern Virginia is a small place in a small town; one of those ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ kind of places. But it’s no small thing that he agreed to sit with me to talk about writing, film making, Steve Young, and what it takes to have your voice heard. At the heart of being a geek, we all want a platform for our opinions and views. We write, and debate. We create fan fiction, theories, and parallel worlds. Jeff goes the other way with just as much passion. He tells the story as it is; finding all the sweeping drama of fantasy and fiction in something as simple as the playing of a game of football.

DHTG: Jeff, thank you very much for this interview. It’s my first one as a free lance writer and I’m really excited for this opportunity. We’ve only got about 20 minutes, so the first thing I want to ask, just as a bit of an introduction, is how long have you been writing, and is it something that you’ve always been passionate about?

JEFF: I’ve been writing for – first of all, congratulations on being able to do this.

DHTG: Thank you!

JEFF: Sure thing. I’ve been writing for 21 years. I wasn’t really passionate about it before that, because I wanted to do other things. But once I started doing it, I became very passionate about it. It’s, on one hand, a job, and there’s lots of jobs that you wouldn’t be passionate about. But this is a job that’s more than a job, and it’s pretty much what I’ve been doing every day of my life for the past 21 years.

ME: So it’d be fair to say that you got your start in college?

JEFF: I was 30, so, yeah, right around that time. I had just started law school, so it was between grad school and law school when I started writing.

DHTG: And, you only write non-fiction. What drew you to that?

JEFF: Writing fiction is a very different. Just like writing something like a children’s book is a very different thing. Non-fiction is what I did when I first started writing, so it’s what I learned. It’s what I was personally drawn to. I was never drawn to fiction; it wasn’t something that I wanted to do. Once I started writing, I never really had a moment where I said “boy, I’d really like to write a novel!” It’s simply not something I wanted to do. I don’t know how to do that. There are writers who try to cross over. A novelist might try to write a screenplay, but it very rarely works out, so I’ve stuck with what works. There’s a lot of different things within non-fiction though that I’ve had to learn. When I first started, I was mainly writing investigative journalism in book and magazine form. Now, I mainly write biographies and memoirs, which are very different things.

DHTG: How do those things differentiate? It seems like everybody has a blog, and they try to find stories, write stories, share opinions. You’ve written for Sports Illustrated multiple times. How does something like that differintiate from your most recent project, which is a biography on Steve Young?

JEFF: First of all – you mentioned blogs – when I started, there were no blogs. I actually think blogging is a good thing, especially for fledgling writers, because it gives you practice, and it gives you a platform. It might not be a big platform, but it’s a platform. And, one of the most important things when you’re trying to become a writer is to write, and to write regularly. Blogging gives people an opportunity to do that. There might not be very many people who read it, but that’s okay. You’re writing. I wish that was something that was out there when I started. I think it’s a good thing and I encourage people to do that.

As far as the differences between writing a magazine piece for Sports Illustrated, or anyone else, and a book, there’s an obvious difference in available space – word count. A magazine article can run anywhere from 750 words on one end to – the largest you’re ever going to see, in the New Yorker or Vanity Fair – 7500 words for big name writers, and those are the big pieces. But books? Books can easily run 75,000 words. A biography like Steve’s, you know, you could be north of 100,000 words; and it is! Writing something that sustains the readers interest, and is clean and crisply written – it’s one thing to do it in the space of 2,000 words, but it’s another thing to do it for 100,000 words. Again, when I talk about people crossing over from, say, fiction writing to screen writing, or non-fiction writing to fiction writing, not many people do that well. I would say that most writers who are accustomed to writing newspaper length, magazine length pieces, will struggle in having to write book length material, and write it well. You probably know some book writers who write for the New York Times, or for the New Yorker. But if you look at most newspaper writers, they won’t write a book and write it well. And it’s the same thing with magazine writers. I’ve done mainly books. I’d say that books are my bread and butter. I actually STARTED by writing books, which is weird. Usually, people work up to that, but the first thing I ever wrote was a book.

DHTG: What was it?

JEFF: It was a book about athletes and violence against women, and it was called Athletes and Sexual Assault, and it wasn’t read by many people.

DHTG: But that’s a topic that’s garnered a lot of attention recently.

JEFF: Well, at that time nobody was writing about it, but Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson were in the news doing it. I was in grad school, and that’s what got me into writing. I learned how to write by writing book length material. I sort of went backwards and had to learn how to write a magazine length story. I was used to having a year and a half to write something that’s 75,000 words long. The first time I wrote a magazine piece, the learning curve was very steep. I thought, “wow. I only have 3,000 words, and I have to finish it in a month!”

DHTG: It’s kind of like having a house built, and then trying to find a foundation to put it on.

JEFF: It is different, yeah. Anyways, I wrote a fair number of newspaper pieces early on. After my first couple of books, I started getting asked to write op-ed pieces for the New York Times, the L.A. Times, and they only give you 750 words! If you’re much over that, that’s long for on an op-ed; that’s a long piece. If you can write it in 650 words, that’s even better. So I learned how to do that, and that’s what my progression has been – books first, then magazines, then op-ed page stuff, editorials. But I learned how to do those on the job, not in school. I was never a journalism major – I wasn’t even an English major! So, I was really learning how to write by writing.


DHTG: But you have taught. You’ve taught at Southern Virginia University, and you’ve recently spear headed the creation
of the Institute for Writing and Mass Media at that school. How did your experience writing professionally prepare you to teach it academically, even though your writing background isn’t founded in academia?

JEFF: Well, it was easy – not to diminish the difficulty of teaching – but, what I’m saying is that my background isn’t coming from writing in an academic perspective, but rather a more practical perspective. I think, as someone who’s been to undergraduate school, graduate school, and law school – I’ve done my bit on the student side of things, so to speak – I think there’s value in having some professors, or faculty members, or guest lecturers who come into any program, whether it’s business, medicine, law, journalism, who are actually doing it. I remember in law school, some of my favorite lectures were ones taught by judges, criminal defense attorneys, and prosecutors who came into the law school. I mean, it was fantastic! They were actually practicing law, and they were doing it every day! That was my approach to teaching writing at the collegiate level. I write everyday. I work with editors who edit every day, producers who produce every day. Those kind of folks, in front of a student, not that it’s better than what a professor does, it’s just different. And, to me, it’s quality education, and you should want to get more of that. You need an academic foundation that professors bring to higher education, but I think there’s some tremendous value when you can bring a writer in who’s actually writing every. Single. Day. And, as I said, I’ve been writing for 21 years. There are some aspects of writing today that are incredibly different than they were 21 years ago. Not the mechanics –

DHTG: Not the grammar, or –

JEFF: Yeah, exactly! You either know how to write or you don’t. But I’m talking about venues, platforms, approaches, how you sell a product. We’re in a different world today in those regards than when I came onto the scene 21 years ago. So, if you’re teaching from the perspective of 21 years ago, there’s a limit to what you can transmit to a student versus someone who’s on the ground doing it every day. That’s what I tried to bring to the table at Southern Virginia, and it was the impetus for starting the Institute for Writing and Mass Media. I didn’t want to bring just me, but colleagues from all over the country that are in television, in radio, photography, video, book publishing, magazine publishing, digital newspapers; and that’s what we’re exposing our students to.

QB: My Life Behind the Spiral

DHTG: Exactly, and we’ve already had one of those events and that’s what I want to transition to for this next question. The first event for the Institute was centered around your most recent book, a biography about Steve Young – QB: My Life Behind the Spiral. What goes into a book like that? Steve is kind of known for not being very outspoken in the media, which is rather anomalous because he’s also a very popular athlete. And, nowadays, popular athletes tend to be very active in the media. So, knowing that, what was the thing that impressed you the most about Steve?

JEFF: Well, it’s kind of hard to think of one thing that impressed me most, but one of the things that impressed me about him early was his lack of interest in publicity and attention. Usually, when you’re around celebrities, they crave attention. Steve doesn’t. He actually works to avoid it, and I found that appealing and interesting. He wasn’t interested in all that stuff. He wasn’t interested in the publicity. He didn’t want to publish his story. He wasn’t interested in the financial component of publishing, the fame component of publishing; he really just wanted to have his story written down for his posterity. He wanted it written for his children, because his kids were all born after he retired.

That’s another unique thing about him because most NFL players are married. Most NFL players have children. He went through his whole career single, without children, and I found that fascinating! He had a law degree which he earned while he was in the NFL! Very unusual! He had a photographic memory, a 4.0 GPA all through high school and college. All of those things, when you looked at the football landscape, were unusual. Like, this guy looks like the one guy who doesn’t belong in the NFL – until you look at his athleticism and you go, “woah. Yeah, he absolutely belongs in the NFL.” Those are the things that I would point to.

DHTG: Obviously, you’ve learned a lot about this man as you’ve written this book. And, further, working with NFL network to film the episode of A Football Life that was based on the biography that you wrote. Obviously, to a film from the written page, a story is going to change a lot. You have to visualize things on film in order for it to even be considered for inclusion in a project. How did the process of filming Steve’s A Football Life episode differ from writing his biography?

JEFF: Well, obviously, writing a book and creating a film are very different things. Even within film there’s major motion pictures, documentaries, etc. The Steve Young picture is not a major motion picture, and it’s not a documentary by the strictest definition. It’s almost like a docu-drama. It’s a one hour docu-drama about his life that’s based on the book. The script for the film IS the book. And that’s another thing that’s different. In a book you have as much space as you need. In a film, you have almost no space! You’ve got to take a mans life and compress it into 44 minutes. You can’t do it all, so one of the first things you do is you look at the book, which is the basis for this film, and you say “which sections of this book are we going to feature in the film?” You got five segments, in a one hour film, so you’re loooking for five segments that you can lift out of the book. Then, you’re lifting text out, and that becomes your script for the film. The challenge you NOW have is you’ve got to put pictures to those words.

DHTG: Yeah, you’ve got to visualize all the selections you’ve made.

JEFF: Right. The good thing is, Steve’s story is a very visual story. It actually lends itself very well to film. And we actually had the double benefit of NFL Films, the film makers, owning all this extra content we needed, which you’ve normally got to go out and buy. But they own the video, the audio, the still photos, and they make their own music. So THAT part of it was actually easy because the library was so deep for us to pull from. We could find pictures that matched every game we talked about.

The harder part was the parts of the film that didn’t involve football, where he’s dealing with the things that are going on in his mind. How do you take a viewer – it’s one thing taking a reader inside someone’s mind – how do you show someone the inside of a man’s mind? That’s where we got creative and did different things. We actually used two Hollywood motion pictures, City Slickers and the Shawshank Redemption, which are films that are talked about in the book. We bought footage or photos from those films and layered them over the film. We took Steve to places, like a hotel room that he literally slept in every Saturday night for thirteen years before game day! We put him back in that room and that enabled us to look inside his head. But that process, from a creative stand point, is different from the creative mindset that you have to occupy to do a book. I found both of them invigorating, challenging, enjoyable, and the movie is a great compliment to the book.

DHTG: And the movie came out fairly recently?

JEFF: It’s out now, actually!

DHTG: Was there a part of the book that you wanted to see in the film, but didn’t make the cut?

JEFF: No, actually. I was very pleased with the sections that we chose.

DHTG: Having seen it, it really was excellent! And, just to steer things back to writing for a bit, as you’ve said, people are writing independently in greater numbers now than ever before. We’ve mentioned blogs, and, even though people aren’t necessarily scrambling for a platform anymore, they seem to be scrambling for instruction. It’s like, “oh! I have this blog that I can write in my free time. How can I get people to read my stuff?” As a veteran writer, what tips do you have for a fledgling writers, or writing hobby-ists to elevate their work?

JEFF: Well, fledgling writers…(Steve Young actually called Jeff at this point in the interview. Interrupted by Steve Young, I guess I could have been upset. I wasn’t.)…and hobby writers are totally different things. What I would say is that if you’re someone who’s trying to get started, and I hate to use the comparison to bike riding, but it really is like that in the sense that you’ve got to “get on the bike.” You’ve got to start peddling. And, typically, you don’t start with a big bike, you start with training wheels, and then you get comfortable and you take those off and start to ride bigger bikes to the point where you can race! Writing is like that. You really have to do it all the time.

If you want to be a good basketball player, you have to shoot everyday. If you want to be a good pitcher, you have to practice all the time. Writing is like that. In terms of getting a platform, people gravitate toward good content. If your writing is horrible, you’re not going to get people to follow you. If you’re writing about something interesting – and nowaday’s you can cheat a little with video – and you build in a little video component, you’re much more likely to get eyeballs. I think, for today’s young people who are trying to write, you really have to look at the landscape and say, “what works today?” What works today is video, but you have to be able to write them first. Having cool videos, if you want to be a writer, won’t help you if you can’t write well. You’ve got to be able to write well first, but you can use photography and videography to help you gain an advantage online, which, again, are things that weren’t around in the same way when I first started out.

DHTG: I think that’s right on the money, thank you! And, I guess, just for fun, who’s the person you’d most like to interview? Who’d be the dream subject?

JEFF: Tom Brady (laughing). Yeah, Tom Brady and Bono.

And with that, my 20 minutes with Jeff were up. His advice stuck with me even after we ended the interview. I thought about how today’s media marketplace has never been kinder to the geek demographic. We’ve got movies, TV shows, books, comics, games, clothing, domestic items, themed vacations, you name it. And, best of all, the demand for geek content continues to grow! We want more. Just as a lifelong football fan can’t wait for the NFL season, others wait patiently for their favorite properties and franchises to get the representation they feel they deserve. When your team has a winning season, when your favorite hero gets a movie, when your hometown athlete breaks a record, when your most anticipated game finally releases – these are the moments that geeks live for, and we want more of them! We want others to know about them, and we want to be the person to tell them. The great thing is that you can be! Just like Jeff said, you just have to get on the bike, and, soon, if you put in the time, you’ll be off to the races!

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