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So What Do You Do, Gary Smith, Sports Illustrated Senior Writer?

This magazine writer 'hopes to heck' the long-form narratives he pens will be around in a decade

By Noah Davis - September 17, 2008
Gary Smith is a rare sports writer who's transcended the label and become something much greater. In 2003, Slate's Ben Yagoda called him "the best magazine writer in America," praise Jon Friedman echoed earlier this year. For the past 25 years, his 8,000-word articles have graced the pages of Sports Illustrated, earning Smith countless honors, most notably four National Magazine Awards.

Those four stories, plus 16 others, appear in his newest book, Going Deep: 20 Classic Sports Stories. It's a compilation of the writer's best work -- chosen by the author himself -- that showcases the intensely human tales Smith details. He describes his writing method as getting "swallowed inside one person's life," and after speaking with him, one understands how he does this so effectively time and time again. Even when he's the subject of a phone interview, Smith conveys an easy manner and a genuine interest in the details of the world around him. mediabistro.com spoke with the writer on the eve of Going Deep's publication about his storytelling process, his relationship with Rick Reilly, and whether he'd ever want to be on TV.


Name: Gary Smith
Position: Senior writer, Sports Illustrated
Education: B.A., English, La Salle
Hometown: Lewes, Delaware
Resume: Worked for the Wilmington News-Journal (4 years), Philadelphia Daily News (7 years), New York Daily News (6 months), Inside Sports (3 years) and Sports Illustrated (25 years).
Birthdate: October 27, 1953
Marital Status: Married, three children.
Favorite TV show: "I don't watch TV, except for sports."
Last book read: On Deep History and the Brain
First section of the Sunday Times: Front news section is first, usually followed by The Week in Review.


You write about four stories a year for Sports Illustrated. Tell me about the process. Are you writing more than one at once?
Every once in a while, they overlap, but pretty much it's one at a time because they are wall-to-wall, full-court, you're-in-up-to-your-ears kind of thing. It's much better if you can be swallowed inside one person's life instead of two or three.

You must feel pretty lucky to have that luxury. You're one of the few people who has that type of contract.
I spend about two and a half months on each story, so it ends up being a full year's work. I came in on that basis with SI and I've kept it that way. I wanted to feel like I really got to know the subjects. To do the kind of writing that I like to do, I feel like really understanding the character and being immersed in them is what it takes, so I've been very fortunate that Sports Illustrated has given me that time and space to really delve in that way.

Do you have an editor you always work with or do you have a different one for each story?
Usually, my front line editor is a guy named [senior editor] Chris Hunt and SI always has a backup editor, someone else who edits as well. That's recently been a guy named Mike Bevins, but most of my years it was Rob Fleder. He was my secondary editor. Chris Hunt has been the first editor on all my stories for a long, long time, and I've been very fortunate to have that kind of relationship.

Where do the story ideas come from? Does Chris bring them to you, do you go to him, or is it a little of both?
The stories can come from any direction. I'd say it's about 50-50, where half of them are mine and half are theirs. I can veto their idea, they can veto my idea, but as soon as we have one that's mutually agreeable, it's a go.

The story ideas can come from anybody at SI. There are researchers and fact-checkers who sometimes come up with good ideas, as well as the editors themselves. I'm wide open to any direction. Sometimes I'll read a sentence or two in a newspaper that suggests to me there might be a lot more there to the story. It can unfold in many different ways.

What are you working on now?
I'm working on a story where I spent four days up in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. Until this past week, they had the best record in baseball. And I'm also working on a story about a NASCAR driver who's also a Hollywood stuntman.

When are those going to be coming out?
I think the third or fourth week for the bleachers story [It will be in SI's September 22 issue] and I'm guessing, but I really don't know, sometime in October for the stuntman/NASCAR one.

"The response you get from people on [long narrative] stories seems to justify their existence. They just seem to hit people in a different way and in a different place [than] the quicker, little blurb-ier stories."

One of your recent pieces was the obituary for NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw. His death was rather sudden and the story was only a couple pages long, much shorter than your usual work. Was your writing the obit pre-planned or did the editors come to you and ask you to write it after he passed away?
They came to me because I'd done a long story about Gene about nine months ago [it came out in January, 2008]. Naturally, when he died, the editors turned to me and asked me to do it because I'd had a lot of background and a lot of contact with people who were close to him.

You have a book, Going Deep , coming out on September 16. What was the genesis for the book?
It was a lot of mutual conversations. I'd been talking to Rob Fleder, who recently left Sports Illustrated, over the past year or so, but we'd had the idea going back three years. We all got together and Terry McDonell, the managing editor of Sports Illustrated now, really got behind it and made it happen now.

How much work is putting a book like this together? All the articles are already written, but what do you have to do to get them ready for inclusion?
I went back and edited them all. It takes a lot more time then you would think on first glance -- it took a lot more time then I thought it was going to take. Figuring out which stories you want to put in there, how to pace them or how to order them, and then editing them all. To me, they're always a work in progress in a way. Every time I look at a story again, I see things I want to do a little bit differently. It's a decent amount of work, but mostly worthwhile.

Did you have final say on all the stories that went in?
Yeah, pretty much, they did give me final say. If [SI deputy managing editor] David Bauer, who was the editor on this book because Rob was leaving, felt really strongly one way or the other, he'd urge me or make a recommendation, but in the end, he would leave it up to me.

In the acknowledgements of the book, you write: "in an industry in which the long narrative is gasping." In 10 years, do you think there will still be a place for the type of contract that you have and the type of writing you do?
I hope so. God, the way the industry is changing, I couldn't tell you with total confidence, but I really hope so. The response you get from people on these types of stories seems to justify their existence. They just seem to hit people in a different way and in a different place that the quicker, little blurb-ier stories don't seem to be able to. Everything has its place, and that type of journalism has its audience and significance in a different way, but [these stories hit] more human aspects and get into who they really are. I hope to heck it's still there, but God only knows.

Are there any younger sports writers who you're really excited about seeing where they go?
Scott Price at Sports Illustrated is younger than me and does a great job with it. He has a lot of talent. There's a guy at the St. Petersburg Times and I've been reading some of his stuff -- Tom Lake. He seems to have a lot of potential to me. Jeff MacGregor is another fine long-form writer. Those are a few names [of sports writers] that pop into my head that have more than enough talent to write 8,000 words.

[Former SI and current ESPN writer] Rick Reilly wrote the introduction for Going Deep. What's your relationship with him like?
We're friendly. There are some years where we'll see each other a couple times a year, and some years we might not see each other at all. Whenever we seem to intersect, we really have a lot of fun together. Great guy. A lot of life and a lot of laughs.

Has that relationship changed at all since he went to ESPN?
No. That's secondary. It was a big change for SI that he's not with us, but that doesn’t affect how I feel about Rick.

It seems like one of the things that drew him to ESPN was the opportunity to go into television work. Do you have any desire to do that?
No, I am really not pulled to TV. That's one aspect of media that really [doesn't interest me]. I've gone on and done things before, but it's not a driving urge or a need to be on TV.


Noah Davis is co-editor of FishbowlNY, mediabistro.com's New York media blog.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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