On Top of His Game: An Interview with Sports Journalist and Humor Novelist Dan JenkinsBy Anne Walls
December 16, 2009
So you think you’ve been writing “forever?” Dan Jenkins, sports journalist and novelist, may have you beat– he’s been writing for over SIXTY years. Successful at just about everything, he has tried his hand at columns for Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest, non-fiction golf retrospectives, and hilarious sports novels. Jenkins’ writing features his signature wit and sly observations.
WordHustler sat down with this sports writing legend to learn about his start in the industry and his adventures over the years. The real question is: how has Jenkins managed to stay on top of his game for so long? The answer: dedication, hard work, and…Twitter.
Read on to learn how you can score a touchdown for your writing career, with Dan Jenkins as your coach.
WordHustler: You have a journalism background, and have spent time writing for Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Playboy…what do you consider your first big break, writing-wise?
Dan Jenkins: My first big break was getting hired by Blackie Sherrod at the Fort Worth Press a month before I finished high school. For the school paper, the Paschal Pantherette, I’d written what I thought was a hilarious parody of a columnist on the rival paper in town, the Star-Telegram. Blackie read it and hired me.
The Press was an afternoon paper. They existed in those days. I worked at the press while getting a degree at TCU. Which means I went to college with a by-line. My first good journalism tip came from Blackie, who said about writing for a p.m. paper, “See how many paragraphs you can go before you put the score in.” Next big break, of course, was enticing Sports Illustrated to hire me. I like to say that I chose them. Sold them four or five freelance pieces. One day the editor called and asked if I’d like to join the staff in New York. I said, “Let me think about it for two seconds.” Big Town Gotham had always been my goal.
WH: You retired from journalism in 1985 to devote yourself full-time to novel-writing (while still maintaining a Golf Digest column). Why did you decide to change paths?
DJ: I still write on deadline for Golf Digest. The fact is, I’ve never had the luxury of just writing books. Always juggled two careers. And why not? It’s what I do, and what I love doing. If I’m proud of anything, it’s that I’ve been able to do the only thing I ever wanted to do since I was a kid and loved to read newspapers and magazines.
WH: You’re basically the John Updike of sports writing, with your lovable Billy Clyde Puckett series of books chock full of humor and wit that span multiple decades. What would you say is the biggest difference between the publishing industry today and the industry when you first started publishing novels in the 1970s?
DJ: Updike? I was rooting for Dostoyevsky, maybe. I write what I’ve known and observed and experienced and stolen shamelessly from my friends. Never been to war, so I can’t write that. But I’ve spent a large part of my life in press boxes, locker rooms, taverns, restaurants, and journalism newsrooms.
The biggest change in book publishing, as far as I can tell, is everybody wants a blockbuster written by a guaranteed best-seller or a celebrity, even if the book isn’t worth a sh*t. Taste no longer counts.
WH: You’ve also written non-fiction books, like “Jenkins at the Majors- Sixty Years of the World’s Best Golf Writing.” Was it a nice change of pace to put your non-fiction pieces together? Were you asked to write the book or did you come up with the collection of essays yourself?
DJ: My non-fiction stuff has sometimes been my idea, and sometimes my publisher or agent’s idea. You do them knowing full well that collections don’t sell, but the material deserves the permanence of hardcover.
WH: You have been very smart about evolving with the times- you even Tweeted from the US Open this year– how did that come about?
DJ: You want the truth about my tweets? The closing dates for Digest were too late for my deadline essays in 2009, so the editors asked if I would tweet the U.S. and British Opens as things happened. I said sure. It worked out so well, they asked me to do the PGA, which I did. It’s fun.
As a journalist on deadline my whole life, I’d learned to “write to fit.” In fact, in my 24 years at Sports Illustrated I would always know my word count and try to nail it exactly, never going too long because if you give an editor choices, he will invariably cut the wrong things. It’s no trouble for me to think in 140 characters. I’m not sure it’s writing, but it’s fun.
WH: What are a few of your favorite books out there today?
DJ: I have heroes I read. Mostly, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, Vince Flynn, Lee Child. I read so much for research, I want to be entertained. And of course I read friends, and my daughter [Editor’s note: noted journalist and author Sally Jenkins], who long ago became the best writer in the family.
WH: What is your preferred writing method? Do you have a certain writing spot or technique?
DJ: I went most of my life on manual typewriters, but finally joined the computer world about 20 years ago.
But one thing you have to guard against is writing too long—because it’s so easy to correct. I used to be a 16-hour a day workaholic. Now I get tired. One day I realized that anything I wrote after, say, 3 in the afternoon had to be redone. It read like some stranger had slipped into my office. Now I’m generally at my best in the mornings.
WH: How do you best balance writing with your family life/other interests?
DJ: Writing has always been part of everything I do. My lovely wife and kids understood this from the beginning. Sure, vacations with no work at times, and holidays, but I always seem to be working on SOMETHING. My youngest son, Danny, was once asked by a friend what it was like to grow up in New York City with us for parents. He said, “They went to Elaine’s every night, then came home and went to Europe.”
WH: Do you find similarities between the game of golf and writing? Has being a life-long golfer helped your writing (besides giving you excellent material, of course)?
DJ: No sport is worthwhile if it doesn’t have a literature. Golf has a wonderful literature. Happy to be a part of it. Football, too. As for golf, I think having been a decent competitive golfer in my youth has helped me write about the game more incisively, but the intelligent writer can handle any subject. It requires study and caring and, at times, the sudden desire to caretake a subject.
WH: What are three things you’d advise aspiring writers to do?
DJ: Be well-read and learn from what you read. Study the ones you consider to be the masters. My hero as a sportswriter, although he was really an essayist, was John Lardner. Not Ring, but his son, John. Newsweek column, New Yorker pieces, etc. Best there ever was. Other heroes of mine were Red Smith, of course, and S.J. Perelman, and Raymond Chandler. Mostly the humorists. Finally, if you want to write, WRITE. Don’t just talk about it. Get a job on a newspaper, if there are any left.
WH: What are three things you’d advise aspiring writers to NEVER do?
DJ: I have my own rules, and some I borrow from Elmore Leonard. Never start a piece with a quote. Learn to establish your voice without using “I.” Give credit all your sources. Listen. Listen. Listen. And don’t try to force-feed an anecdote into a piece when it doesn’t belong just because YOU are fascinated with it. Save it for when it DOES work.
But the best Elmore Leonard quote is this: “If it sounds like writing, I re-write it.”
Spoken like a true champ. So take Dan’s advice and get out there and make your voice heard, Hustlers! Why not submit your work to any of WordHustler’s over 300 publications dedicated to sports & collectibles? Simply click the “Sports/Collectibles” tag on the Publications page and a world of opportunity will appear before you. Keep your eye on the prize and your heart in the game! Keep on Hustlin!