Talking books, Athens and Stephen King with Will Leitch, 'How Lucky' author (Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 37)
Let's talk some new Southern literature today.
Welcome to Flashlight & A Biscuit, my Southern storytelling/sports/culture/food offshoot of my work at Yahoo Sports. Thanks for reading, and if you’re new around here, why not subscribe? It’s free and all.
Way back in 2006, I was toiling away as an information services provider in the environmental mitigation industry. That’s the LinkedIn version; the truth is, I was writing about landfills for a three-person consulting company. But I was also freelancing sports stories on the side, and one evening, while in the Turner Field press box, I caught sight of an established writer scrolling through a relatively new sports site called “Deadspin.” I hopped over to the site, a melange of indie sportswriting that ran the gamut from provocative to compelling to ridiculous, and, well, I didn’t watch much of the ballgame after that.
The rise and fall of Deadspin is its own Greek tragedy, but the important part of the story for our purposes today is that the site was founded by the wonderfully talented Will Leitch. He left the site not all that long after I first spotted it, but much like Paul McCartney and the Beatles, the shambling ghost of Deadspin will follow Will around forever.
Or will it? Will has just published a novel, HOW LUCKY (on sale today at Amazon and indie bookstores everywhere), a worthy pinnacle among his work at outlets such as New York, MLB.com and his own must-read weekly newsletter.
HOW LUCKY is the tale of a wheelchair-bound young man who spots what he thinks is a crime in progress … but did he? It’s set in Athens, Georgia, and it’s such a faithful depiction of the town that if you’ve been in Athens in the last five years, you’re probably a character in this book. It’s tense, heartbreaking and uplifting all at once, and it’s a perfect book to help you find your way through the late stages of the pandemic. Seriously, go get it.
Will was gracious enough to spend some time with me kicking around the book, the South, Stephen King and much more. Please, enjoy what I’ve inventively titled …
FLASHLIGHT & A BISCUIT Q&A: WILL LEITCH
First off: bless you. The world needs more novels, and especially GOOD novels like this one. But WHY a novel in 2021? You've got a long history with internet journalism, you know that a single viral tweet will get more eyeballs than everyone who's ever willingly read Shakespeare. What inspired you to write in this form?
The thing about a single viral Tweet is, well, it doesn’t mean anything. I’ll confess to always being baffled by so many people’s thirst—people I respect!—for those likes and retweets. I mean, I get the endorphin rush, I guess, but it doesn’t mean anything when it happens and it means even less in 24 hours when everyone has forgotten about it. I’m not trying to be dismissive of it, and I do think social media has considerable utility in its ability to amplify voices that have long been shut out of the conversation, but I have never understood why anyone would even WANT that. Every time I’ve ever Tweeted something that got around a bunch, it has made me feel antsy, uneasy, and uncomfortable. I mean, it just doesn’t mean anything. Maybe if we got a nickel for every retweet or something? Maybe? But we don’t. I have never understood it, and I suppose I never will. I’m sure it’s my issue rather than the world.
it has been more than a decade since I wrote a book—children, right?—and I was trying to figure out what I wanted the next one to be. Then, through workshopping and research, I figured out Daniel, the lead character of HOW LUCKY. Once I figured him out, it was just a matter of finding the right place for him. I just wanted to get his story right. I do not know if it was the right career move or not, but I was just happy and fortunate to get to write it.
What was the moment where this story went from idle speculation to, hey, this could be a novel? Where did it click into place for you?
All told? It wasn’t until I sold it. I wrote this whole thing with not only any assurance it would be published, but without my agent even knowing I was working on it at all. I met him for dinner one night in NYC and just handed him a printed-out copy of the thing. It was performatively dramatic and totally unnecessary, but I’ll confess liked the theater of it: here is this thing that I made because I felt as if I had to. If you think this is publishable, I’d love to have someone publish it. But I really just needed to write it. I didn’t know if it worked as a novel at all. There was a non-zero possibility that he could have read it and said, “Uh, this is horrible. Perhaps there’s you can maybe ghost-write an Adam Wainwright autobiography someday?” But he was excited about it, and after a lot of tweaking, Noah Eaker, my editor at Harper, bought it. That was the first time it ever felt real.
Stephen King likes your book!
Holy shit! King once told me to eff off from onstage at a rock concert, but this is so much cooler! Tell me about the moment you saw that tweet, what it felt like, what it meant to you.
The thing about Stephen King is that he’s not just the most famous living author. It’s that to most normal people—and this includes just about all the friends and family I grew up with in Central Illinois—he is in fact the only thing they think of when they think of books at all. He’s the only author they know, or would think to know. So when he is as kind with this book as he has been—and it feels weird to talk about him like that, considering I’ve never met him and don’t actually have any personal connection to him at all—it draws all sorts of new attention. His endorsement is the sort of thing that leads your seventh grade English teacher to send you a message on Facebook saying “this has now vindicated my career.” That sort of thing. It’s incredibly flattering, and even more overwhelming. It also says a ton about him, not that he liked it, but that a guy as busy and legendary as him would even pick up a book by a new author he’d never heard of, let alone feel compelled to Tweet (twice!) about it. That’s the sign of a guy who truly, profoundly loves books.
You live in Athens. The book is set in Athens, right down to the names of football coaches and cross streets. The town is, as a college professor would say, very much a character in HOW LUCKY. What is it about Athens that's so compelling to you, particularly as a guy from the Midwest who lived in New York?
I love that Athens has a little bit of everything. You’ve got your Normaltown crowd, which is basically what it felt like to live in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. (The good and the bad.) You have your good old boys. You have the college scene. You have the music scene. You have little pockets of different people everywhere, all right next to each other. I could write stories the rest of my career about Athens and not get close to getting to half of them.
How do you reconcile what Patterson Hood calls “the duality of the Southern thing,” taking pride in the beauty and promise of the region without ignoring the evil that happened—and continues to happen—right here?
When I moved to Athens from New York in 2013, so many of my NYC friends said things like, “wow, I’d have such a hard time with the racism down there.” This from people who went to lily-white private schools in Connecticut and think the world begins and ends in a place that brought us stop-and-frisk, which elected Rudy Giuliani mayor TWICE and didn’t do much internal reckoning after Eric Garner. I love New York, and I love Athens, and there has been evil both places, and continues to be. Everybody, everywhere, has a ton of work to do and a long way to go.
What's the best place to grab a meal in Athens, and what do you order there?
I am a National guy. And you can’t go wrong with anything.
Finally: I've got a running F&AB playlist of music, new and old, that's hit me in just the right way over the last year. What's a song that just makes you FEEL, every time you hear it?
We spent forever trying to come up with a title for the book, but when I heard John Prine’s “How Lucky,” I knew that had to be it. Prine is the default background music of my life.
Added. Check out “How Lucky” and the rest of the F&AB playlist right here:
This has been issue #37 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. And if you dug this, share it with your friends. Invite others to the party, everybody’s welcome.