Fabulous (and very nice) thriller writer Mark Sullivan joins Murder She Writes today with a wonderful conversation he shared with debut novelist Bill Syken. I hope you enjoy it! ~ Allison
Mark Sullivan in conversation with debut author BILL SYKEN
MARK SULLIVAN: Why did you choose a punter as your protagonist?BILL SYKEN: I wanted to write about a punter because he is both an insider and an outsider. He is part of a team but not entirely of it, performing one simple and specialized task. If his team plays a perfect game, he does nothing at all. This means he can stand back and see the broader universe, and he can also be wishing he could do more—which helps explain why he steps up to right a wrong when his universe is disturbed.
MARK: The punter is the forgotten guy on the team. J.C. doesn’t even know Gallow’s name. Is that common?
BILL: J.C. not recognizing Nick is in part a riff on a likely apocryphal story about Rickey Henderson not recognizing John Olerud after the former Mets teammates were reunited in Seattle.
But punters are also sometimes derided as not being real players, and this incident draws on that as well. When Jeff Feagles set a record for consecutive games played, pundits argued about whether the record should count because it was set by a punter and not a regular player.
MARK: Freddy calls football “a Ponzi scheme of caring.” Do you believe that?
BILL: A little. From the players’ perspective, money is more of a motivation than they allow in their public pronouncements, which are more about winning. And while fans really, really care about their teams—I am an Eagles guy and I am currently inhaling the dribs of information that trickle out of their training camp—I know that if the football games somehow disappeared, I would carry on just fine (especially if the Sixers stopped stinking).
Whenever a player is seriously hurt, people talk about how this reminds you what is really important in life. But even as fans scream at their TVs about the latest interception or overthought play call, that awareness is always running in the background. For most of us.
MARK: Who are some of your favorite crime fiction authors, and how does their influence show in this book?
BILL: My favorite crime fiction authors include Patricia Highsmith (creator of Tom Ripley) and Donald Westlake (creator of master thief Parker). Even though those characters are both criminals, they approached their tasks with the ruthlessness and single-mindedness that is shared by great competitive athletes. Nick Gallow is a detective and not a criminal, but I tried to give him a similar mentality to Parker, in particular. Or at least an aspiration to that mentality.
MARK: Is this book more an indictment of football or a fan letter to it?
BILL: It’s both. I was really trying to describe this setting, more than take a position on it. To honestly describe football you must acknowledge the damage that is does, particularly to its players. But you also must recognize the excitement of this country’s most popular sport. Americans are competitive about an awful lot, and football feeds into that very successfully.
MARK: Are any of the characters based on real people?
BILL: No, although some began with a seed of reality. For instance, several years ago I briefly interviewed Julius Peppers, the notably press-shy All-Pro defensive end who was then with the Panthers. That encounter, after taking a few spins through the fictionalization machine, helped inspire a character in the book. (Hint: his last name is Sault.)
But having said that, Sault is not Peppers. There’s a major character in the book, Freddie Gladstone, who is the punter’s best friend and the son of the team’s owner. I initially patterned Freddie, not in circumstance but in spirit, on a friend. This friend has since read the book without knowing this character began as a re-imagined version of him—nor should he have. Characters evolve greatly as they are written.
MARK: Let’s talk about J.C. and the victim, Samuel. They’re opposite ends of the spectrum. You’ve got the flashy, cocky, club running, money-blowing superstar, and the rookie Bible belt kid who’s vicious on the field. What’s your take on what football, the limelight, and money does to players. Do NFL teams work with kids like Samuel to get them ready for the money, the fame? Is it enough?
The NFL holds symposiums for rookies where former players who have blown through millions, been ripped off by trusted advisers, or had their career derailed by drugs tell their cautionary tales. But even 22-year-olds who know history are still going to repeat it, especially when they have been told for much of their lives that they are superior beings and then are given comically large piles of money. Mistakes will be made.
MARK: There’s a theme running through the novel concerning what happens to players when their time runs out. Samuel ruins 11 quarterback careers between high school and college. Gallow’s always thinking he’s going to be cut. J.C. is 31 and feeling his age. Talk about that.
BILL: In the course of writing this book I talked to Sean Landeta, who punted in the NFL from 1985 to 2005, and was the named the punter on the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade team. He told me that every year he came into training camp believing he might be cut. I’ve read that Tom Brady feels the same way, which sounds insane when you consider that Brady is a top-five all-time quarterback. It’s fascinating, this insecurity that it’s all about to end.
While some players continue to achieve in other fields after leaving football, many don’t. Recently Sebastian Junger wrote in Vanity Fair about an under-regarded aspect of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is that when soldiers leave the Army, they go from being surrounded by others all the time to being either more alone or completely alone. Looking at the broad history of human existence, we are not all that far removed from tribal living, so being cut off from the tribe can be a major shock for soldiers. I would have to believe this applies to football players too, especially if they do not move on to another workplace.
MARK: At one point in the book, Gallow says that a large percentage of people don’t even like playing football. They do it for the money, pure and simple. What does that say about the sport?
BILL: It says, simply, that aren’t many other jobs where the average worker makes two million dollars a year.
MARK: There are serious mental consequences to playing football, not the least of which are concussions. Is the league doing enough to help these guys?
BILL: When the NFL settles a class-action lawsuit with its former players for $765 million and the common analysis is that the league got a bargain, it suggests that the league didn’t react to the science about brain injuries as quickly as it should have. The league has since stepped up, with penalties that discourage head shots and protocols that prevent concussed players from returning to games. But head injuries will always be a part of a game in which athletes who are big and fast and strong hit each other with all their might.MARK: Where does the Nick Gallow series go from here?
BILL: HANGMAN’S GAME takes place during the off-season, with players only convening for a three-day minicamp. I am planning a second book that takes place training camp. In my fantasies I would like to write enough Nick Gallow stories to cover an entire season. It would be the craziest season ever, but that’s okay.
MARK: Who do you like in the Super Bowl this year?
BILL: Predictions call for the illusion of certainty. So I’m telling you here and now, bet the house on this one:
Packers over Ravens. Furthermore, the Packers will cover the spread, and I would also bet the over.
Mark Sullivan is the author of Robin Monarch Thrillers and co-writer of several bestsellers along with James Patterson. He is an Edgar finalist and resides in Montana with his family.
Bill Syken spent eight years as a staff reporter and editor at Sports Illustrated, where he continues to work as a writer and editor for its books division. Syken rings a decade of experience in sports journalism to his fiction debut, HANGMAN’S GAME a masterfully plotted mystery set in the world of pro football.
Note from Allison: My son Luke predicts a Super Bowl between the Packers and the Colts or Steelers. Just saying. All I know is my Raiders don’t have a chance in the next 3-5 years … sadly. But I’ll always have the Giants … baseball, that is 😉
On another note, as I was reading up about Bill and his debut mystery, I came across this fantastic review — a starred review from Booklist:
Author Syken, a veteran Sports Illustrated editor, nails the pro-football milieu. His mystery is also spot-on. He engages a moody, lonely protagonist in a very complex mystery in which nothing is as it seems, at least until the conclusion, when Gallow and the reader can see it very clearly in the rearview mirror. This is the very best sports-themed mystery in years and a robust debut novel. Don’t miss it!
HANGMAN’S GAME is on sale this week!