Monday, October 15, 2007

[Interview] Steven M. Reilly

Steven M. Reilly is a practicing attorney, a baseball coach and an author.

Since 1976, he has coached Babe Ruth, Senior Babe Ruth and American Legion teams in Connecticut's Lower Naugatuck Valley. He has also spent the last 20 years assisting high school coaches. Schools he has been involved with include Derby High School; Emmett O'Brien Regional Vocational Technical School and Seymour High School.

His book, The Fat Lady Never Sings tells the story of the 1992 Derby Red Raiders and has been described as "a marvelous adaptation from an exciting era... which blends emotion, humor and ultimate success."

In a recent interview, Steve Reilly spoke about his writing.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

My writing so far has been of a true story that I was fortunate to be a part of. I think even if I decided to write fiction, I would likely use my personal experiences at least as a starting point. I believe it would be hard to avoid unless I decided to write science fiction or a vampire novel. I’ve watched a lot of Star Trek... TNG [The Next Generation], Voyager and Enterprise episodes (probably all of them) but they never motivated me to write a science fiction novel. I’ve never experienced warp nine point five, but baseball is something else.

For example, before writing this interview, I just got back from coaching a fall baseball team in a scrimmage against a neighboring town. The only thing that stopped the game is the fact the sun went down. I think the events of that one scrimmage, without any umpires and the kids calling balls and strikes and making out and safe calls themselves and the personalities of everyone involved is a compelling enough story. But that’s just me. Perhaps no one may want to buy the book about that game, but I would love to tell the story and I’ll bet you’d listen, unless you just flat out hate baseball or stories about teenage kids.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I decided only very recently. In my case it was simply the desire to write a memoir concerning a remarkable group of high school athletes which I helped coach back in 1991 in my then home town of Derby, Connecticut.

Derby, is the smallest city in the State of Connecticut. Like the town of Odessa, Texas described in the book Friday Night Lights, high school football was everything in Derby for many years. Up until the 1991 season, Derby had not had a losing season in twenty-eight years. That streak ended on Thanksgiving day 1991. After blowing the streak, the football players, were labeled losers forever.

Three seniors on that football team, including the quarterback, also played on the school’s baseball team. One of the seniors was the Mayor’s son and almost all of the other players on the baseball team played football. The head coach of the baseball team was also an assistant football coach who was also battling his own difficulty.

Their last chance at redemption was playing on the baseball team. Two of the Seniors were pitchers. The smallest school in the league, Derby battled for and made the state tournament and ultimately, as the late North Carolina State basketball coach Jimmy Valvano would say, they “survived and advanced” to a state championship game.

But the game turned into a nightmare after an early lead disintegrated. The team ended up down by two runs with two outs in the last inning. With two runners in scoring position, the quarterback came to the plate and ultimately got a base hit to tie the game and send it into extras.

The excitement continued as each extra inning resulted in Derby scoring and their adversary tying the game. Complicating matters, a pitching limitation rule forced one of the senior pitchers to return to the mound several innings after being removed. In the eleventh inning (the fourth extra inning) another Derby senior fouled off seven pitches in a row with a three-balls two-strikes two-out count until he ultimately drove in the winning runs. In the bottom of the last inning, Derby’s senior pitcher hung on despite barely being able to pitch.

The fifteenth anniversary of that state championship team was coming up and since no one else ever wrote their story, I decided to write it.

Who is your target audience?

My target audience is a rather large one or at least I’d like to think it is. I believe anyone who has been involved in sports, especially youth sports, whether as a parent, coach, athlete or fan understands the pressure high school athletes face to succeed. In many places, high school sports binds communities. Like the basketball team in the town of Milan, Indiana (in the book and movie Hoosiers), Derby’s football team was always the center of attention in Derby. Imagine what the movie Hoosiers would have been like if the final game went into triple overtime or if the stakes of that final game had been ratcheted up.

The challenges our players and coaches faced and how they faced it motivated me to write the story. My experience with the team dictated the genre.

Who would you say has influenced you the most?

As it pertains to writing, no one person stands out in my mind other than my first editor who was gentle enough to encourage me, yet firm enough to make me think about the story I was telling and how I was telling it. Prior to and during my writing of the memoir, I read a ton of books, magazines and web articles about the craft of writing, but it’s not the same as actually writing.

It’s like me as a baseball coach telling you how to throw a curveball or providing you with books and video tapes by baseball gurus. They help, but you still have to go out, take the mound and throw a ton of them in the dirt before any of them resemble a decent pitch. I think writing is the same. You have to keep doing it. To some degree that scares me a bit since I don’t want my first book to be my last, unless of course my book is turned into a movie in which case I’d probably retire to some beach area like Malibu Adjacent and sell ice cream. Hey,“What would that be like?”

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Making sure that what I write is compelling and interesting enough to entertain and inspire.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?

The biggest challenges I face with my writing are simply to get someone to buy it. People will read my book, tell me they love it, but then tell me they got it from somebody else and are passing it on to someone else. I think people love to read books; stories are what life is all about. They just don’t want to pay for them. You know what I’m talking about. Go into any Barnes and Noble or Borders any day of the week and it's like a library with benefits. You can talk all you want and sit and read, at least until the store starts to experiment and slowly pull away the chairs without any music to see how it affects sales.

I’m just as guilty. I went to a Barnes and Noble last night and thumbed through about ten magazines and about ten books, (after checking my book out -- I just can’t help it) but at least I bought two magazines albeit with my wife’s discount card.

I just got back from The Big E, the largest fair in New England. I was one of the featured authors in the Connecticut Author’s and Publisher’s bookstore in the Connecticut Building. I had used a prop which was a gigantic baseball glove made by Academa. I met hundreds of people, many of whom loved baseball, pitched my book, allowed many of them or their kids to have a picture taken with the gigantic glove, talked to them about how Jason Giambi of the Yankees could use it or how the Red Sox catcher could snag Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball easier with it, but... in five hours, only sold four books. To sell those four books was a challenge.

From everything I’ve read and learned about writing and publishing, it seems as if the secret is to get the book published in New York but market it in Hollywood. If you can get a celebrity to endorse it, any celebrity, even My Life on the D-list Kathy Griffin, I believe your book will outsell over ninety percent of them out there.

How do you deal with these challenges?

By trying to be doggedly persistent. (Also I’m trying to write an adapted screenplay based on the book.)

Do you write everyday?

In my day job as a solo practicing lawyer, I do quite a bit of writing, just not of the entertaining type. Most of my writing on my first book was done late at night -- about an hour and a half -- sometime after Leno/Letterman (No offense to Conan meant) and longer on weekends/holidays, unless I got interrupted by a great classic on TCM.

It took me about six to seven weeks to write the first draft and then about a year and a half to have it professionally critiqued, edited and proofread. I wanted to finish the book before I turned fifty (another goal of mine that helped me push harder to complete it).

I read everything I could about the publishing field and its inherent delays as well as other options. I decided -- after having it critiqued and edited -- to publish it through iUniverse where, after additional editing and proofreading, it ended up being an Editor’s Choice, Reader’s Choice and Publisher’s Choice Book.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?

The editing process by far. Sometimes it felt as if I was dragging my feet in a desert without a compass or a hat. It sucks the life out of you. Each time I looked at all the red lining, arrows and highlighted areas of a draft, it was just a mirage. The end was never really near. But every once in a while, I’d see a new sentence that I created and think, hey that sounds pretty good.

Early on in the process, whenever I sent a draft, I would hear back, “You need more dialogue. You’ve got to have more dialogue.” I felt like I was listening to Christopher Walken on Saturday Night Live. “More cowbell, Steve, more cowbell!”

During my editing process, James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces got trashed when it was discovered he exaggerated some of the events he wrote about. It forced me to do a lot of thinking and research about what actually transpired back in 1991/1992 so that my book was as accurate as I could possibly make it. I can see where Frey probably got tempted and may have convinced himself he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He might have been hearing a similar voice telling him, "More cowbell Jim... It needs more cowbell."

What did you enjoy most?

Writing the first draft. It made me think about the great kids and coaches that I was fortunate enough to have been associated with. The research for the draft, reading a number of newspapers and examining the ton of photographs my wife took that year of the team brought back many pleasant memories.

What sets the book apart from the other things you have written?

Before my first book, I only wrote in the legal arena trying to be persuasive on the points of law I was arguing in legal briefs; a totally different world of writing.

In what way is it similar?

I guess in both you are trying to get someone to see your point of view. Remember Professor Kingsfield (played by John Housman) in the movie The Paper Chase? (a story about Harvard Law School freshman). Remember his famous quote, “You come here with minds full of mush -- and leave thinking like a lawyer.” I had a old professor once who criticized that statement arguing pretty strenuously that lawyers just think and write like human beings. So in many ways, all of my legal thinking and writing prepared me for the much different publishing world.

What will your next book be about?

I’m beginning to work on a screenplay now for The Fat Lady Never Sings and after finishing that will probably move toward another baseball memoir. I see that another fellow attorney and Myspace friend, John Grisham, is trying his hand at a fictional sports novel, Playing for Pizza... so who knows if I will ever gravitate toward the fiction arena.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Seeing the smiles on the faces of the characters in my memoir and talking to them about it at book discussions. The wife of one of the characters in the book told me that I am responsible for the fact she needed to get a new door for their house to fit her husband’s head through it.

I guess second to that would be the fact the book was a finalist in Pubinsider.com’s book contest and has achieved almost every award that iUniverse gives.

How did you get there?

Persistence, persistence and more persistence and a lot of help and advice from some very good people.

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