Dave Hollander on George Plimpton and the Art of Interviewing

The following is an excerpt from a March 2011 interview with Dave Hollander by Jerry Barca for the Plimpton! Book Club:

Author and sports columnist Dave Hollander is the last person to record an interview with George Plimpton.

Plimpton established the Art of Fiction interview series in The Paris Review, the Plimpton! Book Club spoke to Hollander about the art of interviewing. Hollander, an attorney by trade, gave away the secret as to why he can get away with the sometimes smart-aleck style of his interviews. He offered up the most surprising information he ever heard from an interviewee, and he wondered what Plimpton would think of today’s sports blogger.

Jerry Barca: What did you think of George Plimpton’s work?

Dave Hollander: His work is affectionate and intellectual. He really likes the subject matter he engages. When you read, I guess, what we can call his sports writing, he’s throwing all his powers of observation into it. I don’t find his writing to be clinical as much as it is exploratory. He is like a man who has been dropped on a foreign planet and who is trying to describe everything for all of us who have never been to that planet. And he does it with such affection. Some people try to take a slant or try to make a point. The only point he tries to make is description of what it is he’s writing about. It is often lilting toward humor, but mostly it is affectionate. He is just enjoying himself with tremendous fondness for the subject.

JB: It is interesting what you say about him in describing the foreign planet. I think people mistakenly look at Plimpton as if he performed a series of stunts. That’s not it. He performed the act – quarterback for the Detroit Lions, goalie for the Bruins – but his writing delivered a world readers could only get to by reading him.

DH: To the extent that he coined the phrase “participatory journalist,” he just used that as a jumping off point to talk about everything connected to the subject. That is the uber-extremist investigation of what he was writing about – actually stepping into the shoes of another profession. Contrast that with the trend today of the sports blogger who prides himself on being as far removed from the actual activity, who writes from his couch through the limited lens of media. I wonder what a man who took a punch in the face from (boxing champion) Archie Moore would think of this movement of fan-journalist, not even journalist – fan-opinionator who says, “I’m the real perspective. I’m the more enlightened perspective. Somehow I can connect better with everyone. Read me because I have no direct contact, no primary expertise.” The two couldn’t be more opposite in what they’re trying to do.

There are sportswriters. There are beat writers who go to games. But the word “sports” has been polluted and the connotation for most people when you say “sports” is a professional, corporate, cultural monolith. A commercial experience. It is not what Plimpton or (Norman) Mailer or Joyce Carol Oates or Ira Berkow or any other latter day sports writers saw it as; they saw it as an unlimited real and separate cultural forum that was not a media creation, but a manmade man-played creation. We’re so far away from that, that if you go to an NFL game now, the movement is to put more digital screens and media enhancements in the stadium, in your seat, so the live game can be more like the experience at home, which just blows my mind. What has happened is that the real game – the actual thing – is not enough anymore. How can that possibly be true? But it is. We don’t trust that people can understand it so we’ve dumbed it down. We feel that if you go to the game you’re going to be so bored that we have to give you a TV screen in front of your face so you can follow the actual game.

….

JB: How would you describe your interviewing style?

DH: I would say it is conversational, but deceptively intelligent.

….

JB: Is there somebody you’d want to interview that you haven’t yet?

DH: If you’re looking for someone who transcends sports, but within sports was so far ahead, it’s Bill Russell. I just think everyone should study him and understand just exactly what he accomplished – his understanding of sport and what it took to win, his incredibly high ethical and moral standard as an athlete, which came from him as a human being. They were totally congruent. He refused his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame when he was offered it in 1974. He said it was for personal reasons and people didn’t understand. They thought it was race related, but he just said, “I just don’t believe in halls of fame. I don’t believe in all-star teams. It’s a team game.”  It makes no sense to him.

Russell was just so far ahead of the game. He was never really in it for the money or the fame. He wasn’t driven by those things. He just woke up every morning and was committed to being the best human being he could possibly be. Oftentimes being that for him came at great expense to potential fame and fortune. I think he was amazing and still is.

To read the complete interview, click here.

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