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Q&A: Scott Raab, author of “The Whore of Akron”

Posted by Jackie Mantey | January 17, 2013 12:53 PM

Scott Raab does not mince words. Just take the title of his book, “The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron James.” The Cleveland native, who also writes for Esquire magazine (his year’s-long series of articles on the rebuilding of the World Trade Center is definitely worth your time), is visiting Ohio State tonight for a free discussion on writing, LeBron and who knows what else. Joining him is Dan Kois, senior editor at Slate, an online current affairs magazine, and a contributing writer to New York Times Magazine. Find details about when and where here. Can’t make it? First, your loss. Second, find some of 60-year-old Raab’s honest musings on MFA creative writing programs, inspiration, comedians, Cleveland and more, below.  

I left [Cleveland] in ‘84. I still go back. I always thought I would settle back down there but it became clear not that many years ago that if I was, it would be retirement or what would pass for retirement. I think partly because I became a dad in New Jersey. … In general my experience has been [that Clevelanders] don’t feel great about the place. People who live there I’m talking about. There’s a sense of being trapped somehow. You wouldn’t want to bring a kid up in that atmosphere.

I like New Jersey for some of the same reasons I’m so fond of Cleveland. Like Cleveland, New Jersey doesn’t get great publicity but it’s a very livable place and the people, for lack of a better word, are very real. They have better attitude, I think, about themselves and their environment than Clevelanders generally have. But part of the Cleveland thing also is the sports thing. Pittsburgh and Detroit have known really hard times in much the same way Cleveland has economically, but the failures of the sports teams in Cleveland have reinforced that sense of, “Well we’re all losers in loserville.”

I think the whole inspiration thing is wildly overrated. I’m not a nature writer. I’m not John McPhee or someone who seeks adventure to find something to write about. At 10, 11 years old, writing started to become really important to me. … My parents split up, and I’m old, they split up in a time when divorce was relatively rare. … Writing became a way of withdrawing a little from some of the nastiness around me. … When you’re 10 or 11 you don’t have a lot of resources , you’re not going to go drinking.

Writing became a retreat, something that was self-reinforcing. It still is. It’s work and I do it for money, but I still enjoy it, as painful as the process is of dealing with what comes out first, which is always crappy. Some people say it’s great to find something you love and something you have a passion for. And I agree that’s true, but at some point the idea of it as a “calling” just seems like bullshit. It’s just working at a craft you’re really interested in.

I’m kind of conscious of my time and energy in a way I wasn’t when I was younger. Maybe that means my stamina isn’t what it was or my passion isn’t what it was, but I’m reluctant to just sit down and do the work involved with crafting good sentences and paragraphs unless I’m getting paid for it. It’s that crass at some point.

When I talk to people who are much younger starting out [in writing], part of it is trying to stress how important endurance is. The career path is really uncertain, even in journalism. Actually especially right now in journalism. It’s very difficult to project some straight line to making a decent living. It’s tough.  It’s not like P90X. I think it’s a self-selecting group that doesn’t get winnowed out into a public relations track. I was surprised, it was in late 2011, when the LeBron book came out, I visited a [social media journalism class at OSU] almost everyone in there was interested in either broadcast journalism or PR. And I understand that given the fact that there are plenty of people who think of college as vocational preparation—how is this going to help me get a job? It took a long time in and out of school to get my bachelor’s degree and that was in English. And then I went to the MFA program in writing in Iowa. It was the MFA program not that taught me about journalism but that helped me make some connections, kind of reinforced the idea that writing is a really worthwhile thing to devote yourself to.

As the years have gone by, I can see that having spent eight or nine months writing advertising for a software developer, direct mail letters, magazine ads, catalogs, helped me. It helped me become a sharp writer. The skills are transferable. But I’m not sure that’s true for everyone. When you look back at your own stuff, your own evolution, it’s so subjective. I think being around people that took writing seriously and getting into a program that was considered selective, meeting people who were writing fiction but also writing nonfiction for magazine. I think all those things helped me evolve just as someone who looked at writing as a job or as a craft or as a trade, not as a matter of creating art or being inspired. That was important to me.

For a while, I didn’t really make anything that would resemble a living. When I was 40 I was still selling columns to an alternative weekly for $40 a column. And not every week. I found other ways to make money. I’d sell body fluids, a whole range of pretty menial jobs. The things that I did for the broadest period of time that weren’t writing, like selling shoes or tending bar or even working as a part time academic advisor at the college of liberal arts at the University of Iowa, they didn’t feel like things that I had any deep attachment to. There were aspects of that job that were exciting or fulfilling. I was pretty single minded about it. I never thought, you know I’m not making it as a writer I really need to maybe reconsider. Part because I really don’t give a shit, or I certainly didn’t at the time, about a career. I didn’t have to. I didn’t have goals of having a family or buying a house or any of that stuff. There was nothing compelling me away from writing.

The fact that I was able to write a book about, outside of my wife and son, the thing I care most about in the world really, not LeBron James, but Cleveland sports, that that came together in some kind of weird and perfect storm where there was a major publisher willing to assign a book about a star athlete knowing that the writer wasn’t going to have any access to that athlete because they knew that I was crazy and they thought that … well they didn’t know what they were going to get. I loved that experience. I had a great time almost every step of the way. But I love my job [writing for Esquire], too. ... I think, like anyone, a book is somehow more of a landmark achievement than a story in a magazine, even one with the prestigious history that Esquire has. A book is a book.

I would write another book even absent of a perfect storm. I’m really interested in standup comedy. Not performing, but the people who do it. I’m talking with an agent and editor and a young comic about possibly doing something about what it’s like to try to build a career as a standup comedian. I’ve interviewed a lot of really successful standups and they’re by far the best interviews. Really among the smartest people I’ve ever interviewed, and that includes rocket scientists. I have nothing but respect for people who ply that trade. Out of all the performing arts, what could be more naked than standing up alone on stage?

I couldn’t write a book about something I didn’t care deeply about.

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