The first part of an interview with Sports Illustrated senior writer Thomas Lake appeared in our June 1 issue, but he had many useful insights into learning to be a writer that are worth publication in this back-to-school special issue. To see free examples of excellent writing that will interest boys turned off by standard school fare, please go to sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault.
When did you start writing as a child? From a pretty early age my mom encouraged us to keep journals. One time she told me and my siblings to go out in the yard and write down everything we saw and heard and felt. That was a great experience. I sometimes still do that. The act of putting experience into words is a skill just like anything else: The more you do it the easier it gets and the better you can do it.
Prospective writers stuck standing in line should never find that a boring experience. We all have our limits.
Sure, but looking at people and describing what their faces are like. ... True. Earnest Hemingway once said we should watch the way people get out of taxi cabs. You want to be a sharp observer and learn how to use specific and concrete language to describe what’s happening.
Some of our older readers remember Paul Harvey, and you do too, right? Paul Harvey on the radio years ago for a long time used to do a daily feature called “The Rest of the Story.” It wasn’t very long, something like five minutes, but it was a surprising story about a mysterious place or figure. I always found it fascinating, and now I try to find out the rest of the story, the part that happened after all the other reporters left or after the TV cameras went away.
How did you come to write your first newspaper story at age 17 for the local, upstate New York newspaper? I used to have a route where I carried this ink-stained canvas bag on my shoulder and delivered newspapers. It was bitterly cold in the winter, and so one day a lady named Doris invited me in to get warm. She told me she wrote historical novels, so I asked, “Can I write about you for the paper?” She said “Sure,” so I walked into the publisher’s office and said I would like to write a story. I didn’t realize then but came to realize that the editor of a small daily newspaper wants copy, especially if it’s not very expensive.
He said yes? Exactly. So I wrote the story with some overwrought language: I used the word whence, maybe even correctly. The next day I saw my subscriber and said, “Look what I did.” It was a magical moment.
After graduating from Gordon College in Massachusetts with a concentration in journalism, you spend seven years yo-yoing up and down the East Coast—Georgia, Massachusetts, Florida—in a series of newspaper jobs. What were you learning? It was a chance to find out how big the world is. The beauty of working in newspapers is that I had to watch people in action and see how decisions get made, see how a police investigation works, see people in moments of great emotion—whether they’ve just lost a loved one in a car wreck or had some major success. It was an education in how life and the world really work. I wouldn’t trade that for anything because every time I do a story now I’m drawing from that reserve of experience, of being in the middle of history being made.
Which job did you like the most? Each one had its own advantages, but I’d say the St. Petersburg Times. I was covering the crime beat and in a period of barely 18 months wrote about a habitual traffic violator who literally had no arms and only one leg, a woman who faked her death and then attended her own funeral, a woman who was reported missing only to be discovered in her own home. She had died and fallen behind a bookcase, but the house was such a terrible mess that no one even noticed a body decomposing there.
It happens. Another story was about counterfeiters who found a way to bleach the markings off $1 bills and reprint them as $20 bills. There was a guy who was hungry, went out in the woods, shot a woodpecker, and got in big trouble. He was 19 years old, out of money, and just looking for a meal—but he was trespassing and I think the gun was improperly registered, so even though he shot the woodpecker he didn’t get a chance to eat it before he was arrested.
More of a snack than a meal, but they say it tastes like chicken. I’ve heard that. So I interviewed him and he was very pitiful. I asked, “What would you like the most?” He said, “I’d really like a seafood platter—fried shrimp, lobster.” I said, “Call me when you get out of jail and I’ll buy you one” —but he never called. So, Nick, if you’re out there, I still owe you that seafood platter.
Did you do some sports writing in the process? No. College students sometimes ask about how to get into sports writing, but I tell them it’s a mistake to wall yourself into this specialty so early. What serves me the most isn’t so much a knowledge of sports but the ability to go and dig out a story—find sources and the right public records, track people down and sift through the evidence and try to get to the truth. That’s going to serve you really no matter what you’re writing about.
Your story about the death of Darrent Williams is an example of that. Tell us about it. In 2007 a player for the Denver Broncos, Darrent Williams, was in the headlines because he was killed after a party at a nightclub. In the media reports afterward it was easy to get a very simple impression: Williams was behaving in a risky way, he was out with bad characters, he was flaunting his wealth, probably shouldn’t do that. The end. But I found a bunch of the guys who told me a story much more surprising and complicated than the initial one. I didn’t want just to believe what they told me so I ran this past the lead detective and prosecutor in the case.
So what really happened? Darrent Williams wasn’t the aggressor that night. He was in his limousine ready to leave. He would have gone on to have a successful career. But he looked out the back window of his limo and saw a teammate who had caused some of the trouble and was now in trouble with some gang members out there and needing help. Williams jumped out of the limo and went to go help his friend. Yeah, he made bad decisions, but a big reason he died is because he was loyal to his friend.
Watch Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Thomas Lake: