Welcome to the first edition of “People Who Makes Stuff.” The goal is to sit down with a creative person and to walk through a particular creation, from the moment of inspiration to the finished product. This first installment is going to be exceptionally meta, as I sat down with Jonathan Knight to discuss his new book, The Making of Major League: A Juuuuust a Bit Inside Look at the Making of the Classic Baseball Comedy. So this is a making-of of a making-of. (How’s that for a terrible sentence?) You can read my review of the book HERE.
A Dayton native born to Cleveland parents, Knight is an Ohio University graduate who has now authored nine books about Cleveland sports. During the course of a nearly two-hour interview on the morning of July 3, 2015, we touched on many topics, ranging from the inspiration behind the Major League book, the path he took to make it a reality, his dealings with publishers, and his thoughts and advice about the creative process. Even though this is an abridged version of the interview, it still clocks in at 10,000 words. It’s long, but that’s the point. My hope is that “People Who Make Stuff” will be an interesting exploration for fellow writers and other creatives. Since I’m curious about these things, my hope is that others will find these conversations as illuminating as I do.
Before we get started, I must offer a heartfelt thank you to Jonathan for being my “People Who Make Stuff” guinea pig. He was incredibly gracious with his time and insights. Also, since this is my very first attempt at this, I’d love to hear reader feedback. Feel free to comment on the blog, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet @stevesirk. This is the first of what I hope will be many, so I’d love to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t, because as much as it exists for my own curiosity, I also want “People Who Make Stuff” to be a useful and enjoyable resource.
So with that, “People Who Make Stuff” now presents Jonathan Knight, who takes us through the making of The Making of Major League.
SIRK: Obviously, every book starts with an idea. How and when did this come about, where you thought, “I want to make this book about Major League”?
KNIGHT: I think the first real seed, and it wasn’t an I-want-to-write-a-book moment, but the first real inkling or idea that there was a story here was in 2010. I was at an Indians game and it was the day after James Gammon died. [He played fictional Indians manager Lou Brown.] It was before the game and they put his picture up on the scoreboard. He was Lou Brown and he had his cap on. It said James Gammon and it had the dates from his life, and they announced they were going to have a moment of silence. It was not a joke. It was not funny. It was really special and it was really cool because everybody knew who he was and what he represented. It was a very solemn moment, and in that moment, I remember thinking that if you weren’t from Cleveland and were dropped into this situation, you’d be thinking, “What the fuck is going on? That is an actor. That is an actor who died yesterday. He’s not from Cleveland. He’s never been employed by the Indians. He has no connection to any of you people, yet you’re observing a moment of silence. What the fuck are you doing?”
But it wasn’t like that to us. That’s essentially what you do when Lou Boudreau died. If a storied member of your franchise passes away, that’s what you do. Like Al Rosen for example. Al Rosen died this year and they put the patch on their jersey. But I thought, “No, this is completely appropriate. Everybody got it.” And that’s the moment where it was like, “But he’s still a fictional character from a movie. This is something bigger than a movie.” That’s when I realized that this is something bigger than a movie that has the Indians in it. This legacy has spiraled into something that is indefinable. So I think that’s the moment, not where I knew I was going to write a book about this, but the moment where I realized that there was something different and that this was more than a movie and had a legacy. It would still be about two more years before I started to work on it, but that was the moment that it was born.
SIRK: So you said it was two years before you started working on the book. What prompted you to get started? Were you just thinking, “Okay, what am I going to do for my next book?”
KNIGHT: Once I finished up the Browns Bible, I was like, “Okay, now what am I going to do?” And that idea just kind of popped up. At that point, it crystalized into a book idea.
But even then, once I decided it could be a book, I tip-toed into the waters a bit. My first thought was that it would be cool and it would be fun to do, but the first problem is that I’m never going to get in touch with these people. It’s so fucking hard and they’re never going to want to talk and so I’ll only talk to two or three people and it will just die on the vine. The second problem was going to be how many publishers would even be interested in this? That’s the unfortunate part of this. After doing this a few times, I know it’s not just a case of, “Hey, that’s great idea so I’m going to go write it. It would be fun to write, so let’s go write.” The next thought is, “Okay, what’s next? How marketable is this?” Not in the sense that it’s going to make a ton of money, but you have to convince a publisher to publish it. If you start thinking “I’m going to publish this book and make a lot of money!” then you’ve already lost. You’re a lost soul.
SIRK: Unless you write, like, vampire S&M erotica.
KNIGHT: Yes, but that’s neither here nor there. So my thought was that if I could find [writer & director] David Ward to see if he was interested, I’d take his temperature and I’d take it from there. If he’s not interested or if I can’t get in touch with him, I’ll just move on to something else. For several months, I tried and tried and tried and couldn’t get in touch with him. I couldn’t find him and I couldn’t figure out how to try to find him. I thought I’d found the agency that represented him, so I got in touch with them and it turns out they didn’t and they didn’t know who did. He’s just really off the radar. There aren’t too many ways to get ahold of him.
I know Bob DiBiasio [Cleveland Indians V.P. of Public Affairs], so I got in touch with him and asked if he knew David Ward or anyone associated with the movie. He did, because Bob worked for the Indians back in the day and worked with them. He had kept in touch with Chris Chesser, who produced the movie. I didn’t know who that was, but Bob said he was a really good guy and he gave me his information. So I sent Chris an email and quickly explained what I wanted to do, and if he knew how to reach David or could put me in touch with anyone who did, and sent it off. I didn’t hear anything for several weeks.
I was just at the point where I was like, “I tried. I couldn’t get in touch with anybody and/or they’re not interested.” I was basically one email away from giving up. I was going to move on to something else because this wasn’t meant to be.
I decided I’d send one last email to see what happens. I sent Chris one more email and just said, “Hey, I just wanted to make sure you got the email I sent several weeks ago. Let me know if you’re interested. Here’s my number.” I sent the email and I remember this distinctly because it was Valentine’s Day in 2013, and it means nothing other than it was Valentine’s Day, but I hit send and within 30 seconds my phone rings. I pick up the phone and say hello, and then this deep voice says, “I did NOT get your other email.” He was very friendly and very enthusiastic. It was Chris. He is one of the finest human beings I have ever met. He is so much the opposite of what you would think a Hollywood lifer would be like. He’s been working out there for almost 40 years at this point and he’s just the super nicest guy in the world. He’s totally sincere. So we talked and he said, “Yeah, this is really great. Let me talk to David and I’ll see if I can introduce you and we’ll take it from there.” I was like yeah, this is great.
Chris kinda checked me out. He talked to Bob and Bob vouched for me, thankfully. Then he talked to David and then a few weeks later we were on a three-way call and we talked for like an hour and we totally hit it off. They were like, “We can help you get in touch with the other people you need to talk to.” In my mind, we were off to the races. We were, but it was a tortoise race. Everyone was always very cooperative, but we moved on Hollywood time. Even at that point, it was probably another six months before I really started interviewing people.
So it was basically a two-year process for this book. But that is how it started. Then it was just a matter of collecting everything and talking to everybody and getting all of these checkboxes checked.
SIRK: Once you got David and Chris on board, what was your next move? At that point are you pitching it to publishers? Or were you waiting until you got more done?
KNIGHT: I was, but typically I don’t start pitching to publishers on an idea until there’s more. At least until there’s a draft or something or real substance to go on. That way if they ask to see something, I can give them something. For this, I had very, very little.
For example, for the six months that I’m waiting to really get started on interviews, I’m doing whatever I can. It was probably to the benefit of the book because I was ready to go, but I couldn’t write anything yet because I couldn’t talk to anybody. So I’m researching these obscure things about it since it was the only thing I could do. I couldn’t talk to the cast yet, so I started really digging into some of the little nuggets that I did know about. For example, the backstory with Calvin Griffith in Minnesota, and how that was the basis for the story. Since there was nothing else to do, I’m going to research the fuck out of this. It turned out kinda cool because I think had I jumped right in and been able to talk to people right away, I would have jumped on that ship and the Griffith thing would have been one sentence. But I spent weeks digging and digging and digging into that specific situation and understanding what the situation was, and while it’s not a huge part of the book, when I read that now, I think that’s kind of cool. I had time to kill and used it to find that information. There were a couple other things like that. That’s kinda rare. Normally you just hit the gas pedal and you go. You don’t have to wait to start.
So in this case, I did start to pitch it before it was ready because the goal was to get it out for the 25th anniversary in the spring of 2014. That would have been perfect, and that’s why I got so frustrated when publishers would turn it down out of hand. I was thinking it’s the 25th anniversary. It’s going to market itself. There’s going to be a shitload of retrospectives—which there were. You could piggyback and ride that wave. You could tie it in with all this other crap. But nobody was interested.
Some of the logic …there were so many publishers or people who work for publishers and you’d pitch them the thing and they’d say, “Oh my God! I love this movie!” And then they’d rattle off lines from the movie and say it was the greatest movie ever, and then they’d say, “Yeah, but we’re not interested.” I’m thinking, “What the fuck is wrong with you? What do you mean? I missed a turn in the brain there. Why is this happening?” That’s just the nature of it. I think that there was the sense that the movie is popular, but that it wouldn’t make for a good book.
As it turned out, talking to some the last few people, especially Charlie [Sheen], took too long. It wouldn’t have been ready [for the 25th anniversary] anyway. That was frustrating, because you reach a point in February where you’re like, “Fuck, I have to wait a whole ‘nother year to bring it out.” That was a tough moment.
But I was pitching the idea and telling people I have David Ward on board and Chris Chesser on board and everything is set to go, and I’m going out to California, and blahblahblah. I was talking an awful lot about what it was going to be, so that may have been part of it. If it had been written at that point, maybe they would have been more enthusiastic. All I had was these promises that I was going to talk to Charlie Sheen and talk to Berenger and all these guys.
It worked out fine in the end. It took longer than I thought, and it may have gotten a more enthusiastic response if it had gone according to plan, but it’s fine.
SIRK: So you’ve spent your six months doing research and now you get to talk to people. How did you start? You said you went out to California?
KNIGHT: I went out to California and saw David and Chris. I spent a couple days with them. The original idea was that I’d go out there and hit a bunch of people and interview them while I was out there, but it didn’t quite work out that way. It was worthwhile because I got to meet them, which I was really important, to meet them face to face. I got to know them and I went to Corbin Bernsen’s house and got to hang out with him.
SIRK: Was he in the solarium?
KNIGHT: [Laughs.] You know what? Half way through my conversation with him…
The thing is, when I went out there, he had been in Hawaii the previous two weeks filming an episode of Hawaii Five-0. He had flown back the day before, which was his birthday. So he flew back on Saturday and then went out to dinner with his family and whatever, and I was meeting with him first thing Sunday morning.
So I got out to his house and half way through the conversation with him, I thought, “Holy shit, we’re reenacting the Jake Taylor ‘cut your nuts off’ scene in the solarium!” Basically, that’s what we were doing. It wasn’t a solarium, but it was this nice living room with nice art on the walls and he’s got his foot up on the coffee table and I’m sitting in the seat across from him and I’m thinking, “Holy fuck, we’re reenacting the scene!” I felt like at some point I needed to stand up and say, “I’m going to cut your fucking nuts off…” But it was kind of funny how that worked out.
But I got a lot done in LA, and that was like passing a kidney stone. It was like, “Ahhh….finally, I can start.” It was just the tip of the iceberg, but at least I could get started. Especially with David and Chris, that was just the beginning. After going to LA, I finally had enough to get started and finally had some work to do.
I would talk on the phone with David twice a week for the next three months. We talked constantly and it was hours and hours and hours and hours. It was great. Looking back, it was really cool of him to give me that much time and to be that open to it and that accessible. I talked to him more than anyone. Along the way, I’m getting in touch with Dennis Haysbert’s people, and Chelcie Ross, and everyone else down the line. By fall, I really got cooking and had Uecker and everybody by the end of the year.
SIRK: How were you getting in touch with these people? Did you have to reach out to their agents? Were David and Chris helping you contact people directly?
KNIGHT: David and Chris were still in touch with some of these guys, so some of it was firsthand. They said, “Don’t even go through their people. Here are their numbers.” So that was great because it saved that level of bureaucracy. The majority of it was here’s their agent or here’s their manager. Even having to go through that extra layer, everyone was really excited. Charlie Sheen and Rene Russo were the only ones that took a little longer, but everybody else I did in two months.
SIRK: How much time did you get with these people? Obviously you talked to David a lot.
KNIGHT: David was a lot, but for everyone else, it was 1-2 hours usually, and then if there were follow-ups, that was through email or phone calls. I tried to be conscious of that. Don’t go on and on. Get it and get out. As an interviewer, you don’t want to be like, “Yeah, four hours. How long have you got?” Get to what you need and get out. These are busy people and they’re being very gracious and you don’t want to overstay your welcome. I tried to be really precise, which is to the benefit of the book as well. As much as it’s like, “Oh my God, I could sit here for HOURS with you and hear all of your stories!”… you still need to fit this within 250 pages. This needs to be tight. It forces you to really focus on what questions you need to ask and focus on. “So what were you doing before Major League?”…you can breeze through that and it forces you, as an interviewer, to pinpoint your questions so you’re probing and getting what you need and you get exactly what you want in a short period of time.
SIRK: What would be an example of one of the actors and how you prepared and what questions you asked?
KNIGHT: There would be a lot of the same questions that were asked. Like, what was it like shooting in Tucson when it was super hot? What was it like shooting all night long in Milwaukee? So for the lot of them that were together, there were a lot of the same questions. And why do you think the movie has stayed so popular? What did you first think when you read the script? The basic kind of stuff, not that you’d necessarily use everybody’s, but you’d pick the best ones. But then there’s something unique about each of them, whether it’s what they’ve gone on to do or a character question. Or what was it like to have to shave your head if you’re Dennis Haysbert?
Where it was really kind of fun was some of the ones who were not the ballplayers. So Margaret Whitton, Rene Russo, Bob Uecker, you could ask, “What was your experience like because you weren’t doing all the baseball scenes. You weren’t at County Stadium every single night. What were you doing during this time? How were you dealing with this role?”
Uecker, especially, was really fun. First of all, Uecker is hilarious. He’s funny without even trying to be funny. When I talked to him, he had just had hip replacement surgery like a week before. He still wanted to talk. He’s 80-something years old, and there was even some sort of problem where they had to up his painkillers afterward or something, like he wasn’t recovering as well, and he still did the interview and he’s just naturally funny. If I had had surgery the week before, I would be kinda pissy, but he’s just naturally funny. I liked talking with him because his experience was so different. He’s basically not interacting with any of the cast. He met them, but he obviously didn’t have any scenes with them. All of his scenes are in the booth with Monty. He shot all his stuff in two days and he’s working—he’s the Brewers radio announcer and he was doing Mr. Belvedere. So it’s like, how did this work? He did it all in two days. So how did he approach it? Because his experience was so unique, it was fun to find out what his experience was.
It’s mostly just really hunkering down and think about what does this actor do? What did this character do? How did they approach it? How was it different from stuff they’d done before? How was it similar to stuff they’d done before? It wasn’t just, “Yeah, Major League was cool. Talk about that.” You try to be as specific as you can and lead the horse to water and get what you need and get what you want. You really want to be prepared, especially with these types of people who are really hard to get in touch with and to get their time. You really want to make the most out of it.
SIRK: So now that you’re talking to people, are you writing as you’re going? How many drafts did this go through?
KNIGHT: To me, it’s almost like now that we’re done with typewriters, there’s no such thing as a second draft. It’s just constantly a draft until it’s published. Basically, I was writing it in chunks. Whoever I would talk to, or whatever I would research, that’s what I’d do. It definitely didn’t start at the beginning and run all the way through to the end. David Ward is the closest thing to a propulsion to the interviews because we started with his background and then every time I’d interview him, it would be here’s your background, here’s The Sting, here’s when you started writing this, and we’d go from there. That was the only interview that was really over a long period of time. Everything else was just as soon as I’d do an interview, I’d work that in to what I had, or if someone told a story, I’d put that in. So it was gradually putting up a Christmas tree and hanging the ornaments, and then we don’t have the lights yet, so let’s put the tinsel on, and now we have this ornament on, so we can plug the light into it. So even half way through, if someone wanted to see the book, it would have been, “Well, there’s nothing to see. I can show you chunks.”
It was sort of like making a movie in a way. You don’t film it linearly. Rarely will you start at the beginning and film through to the end. You film this scene and then that scene and you don’t know what it looks like until you put it all together. So it was very late in the game, almost a year, before I had any sort of sense of okay, this is what it’s going to look like. Then it was just filling in gaps.
SIRK: Was that your experience on any of your other books?
SIRK: So it’s fitting that you made a book about a movie and your book was assembled like a movie.
KNIGHT: Yeah! That’s a good way of putting it. But all of my other books, I would start the narrative at the beginning and start writing. Then as I’d interview people, I’d go back and add stuff. So I’d be writing the narrative and then interviewing people and adding stuff as I go. It would be smoother I guess. More linear. This was jarring, and I think that added to the frustration at the beginning because I’d think, “What the fuck do I have? I have this random little segment about Calvin Griffith and this other thing about the Troggs. Like, what am I doing? I have nothing to show and I’ve been working for six months. I just have these random vignettes.” So it was a little frustrating, but it paid off in the end. It was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. You’d step back and be like, “Ah, okay. We’ve got the border now. Now we’re filling it in.” It worked.
SIRK: Okay, so we’ve got to do this. Charlie Sheen.
KNIGHT: Charlie Sheen. That was the toughest one. I heard that from the beginning. Chris had been in touch with him and part of the problem, and there were several problems, is that Charlie goes through cell phones like once a month. His number is constantly changing, so Chris would occasionally be in touch with him directly, and then not. Charlie would just go dark. Then you’d have to go back through the loop to get back to him. What I had been told from the beginning is that it’s going to take a long time to get to Charlie, but once you get him, you won’t be able to get him off the phone. He won’t shut up because he loves talking about this. And part of his problem is that he is super gracious, and that’s something that really surprised me about him. He was such a gentleman and such a prince to me and to the book. He was so respectful, and he’s like that to basically everybody. He’s going to give people more time than they expected, and that backs up everybody else that’s waiting. It’s like a doctor’s office where the really good doctor who asks you about your kids and that’s great and it makes you feel good, but now those other people have to wait an extra half hour. It’s similar to that.
It took so long, but then once I got him, we talked forever. At the end of the first one, he even said, “Can I call you tomorrow so we can keep going?” And he did. It was worth the wait. It was incredibly frustrating, but it was worth the wait. That was the hardest part. It took longer to get to Charlie than it did to anybody.
SIRK: When did your conversations with Charlie happen?
KNIGHT: Almost a year before the book came out, so April of 2014. That happened and then we were off to the races. We’ve got this, we’ve got the foreword, we’ve got everything we need.
SIRK: I imagine you needed Charlie for the book to feel whole.
KNIGHT: Yeah, and I wonder if I’d had him at the very beginning if more people would have been interested. I don’t know. Not that there are any regrets. It worked out fine and Gray & Company is the publisher I wanted all along. Everything worked out.
But yeah, it would be weird to have this book about Major League and Charlie is the most vibrant character and actor who is in it, and you don’t talk to him. For example, there’s a book that just came out about Back to the Future. It’s a great book and the guy who did it has written several making-of books. He talked to dozens and dozens of people, but not Michael J. Fox. It’s a great book, and it may not have made any difference, but I’m sure it just bothers the hell out of him. I’m sure he wanted to get him, but it was probably a similar type story where he tried and tried and tried and tried and just couldn’t get him. It may not have impacted the final product in that case, but in my case, I think it would have. We needed that perspective. The Back to the Future book is a great book anyway, but I’m sure it gnaws at him that the biggest piece of the puzzle is missing.
SIRK: You’ve got a lot of interesting artifacts in the book. You’ve got storyboards and cool stuff like that. Perhaps how you can talk about how you got all that interesting stuff from Morgan Creek? How did that come about?
KNIGHT: Happenstance. Morgan Creek didn’t really have much of anything. Morgan Creek is the production studio that produced the movie and paid for the making of the movie, but it’s Paramount that distributed it and they’re the ones that kind of control everything. Morgan Creek, they don’t do as much. They don’t keep as much, let’s put it that way. So, like, the dailies, those were in Chris Chesser’s garage. The storyboards were in his closet. A lot of the pictures are, like, in somebody’s parents’ garage in Montana. Stuff like that. It was just a matter of asking people to get stuff. Other than the cover photo, the logo…the three things that you see on the cover are the only things that came from the studio. Everything else was just that people had it, which was great in a way. It was sweet because I could just get it from people.
SIRK: So Chris just told you about this? It was just, “Oh by the way, I have…”
KNIGHT: When I had gone out to LA, he had just found the dailies. And he was apologetic. He said, “I’m sorry this isn’t all of them.” It was like 25 tapes and then he sent me a few more later. It wasn’t quite everything, but I couldn’t believe he held on to any of them. It wasn’t quite everything, but it was a good chunk of the movie. What was nice about that is that while I was killing time [before all of the cast interviews], I was watching these dailies. That took time because we’re talking about over 20 tapes that were an hour, hour-and-a-half, two hours each. Most of them are the same scene ten times in a row. You’re like, “That’s the one they kept!” And you could go through and check by the dates and put together a loose production schedule. They shot this scene on this day, and they shot these two scenes on this day, and so on. I got a general sense of how it was put together. But he found those in his garage.
The storyboards, I met with the Morgan Creek people and Chris met me at this restaurant outside the studio, close to their offices. He goes, “Here” and he hands me this binder that has all the storyboards in it. I’m like, “What the hell is this? You just have this?” He says, “Oh yeah.” And it’s the only one. Nobody had that. It’s the only one in existence. He’s just like, “Take it.”
And then David Ward ends up finding the original script. He’s like, “Here it is” and I’m just like “Jesus Christ! It’s like the Declaration of Independence, dude! This is unbelievable!” It’s handwritten and there’s scratch out marks and calling the characters by their original names. Wow! It’s just really cool that these people held on to this stuff and that they were willing to give it to me. It was great. I never would have thought that was possible. It was out of the blue. I thought that if anything existed, it would belong to the studio and it would be in a warehouse somewhere and it would be like Raiders of the Lost Ark, where you’d have to, I don’t know, it would be buried under stuff from these six million other movies that they’d done. Thankfully I didn’t have to go down that path. There may still be stuff in a box somewhere. I don’t know. There are so many layers of bureaucracy. There are so many levels you have to get through to get to the right person who knows. So it worked out beautifully. All this stuff just kind of came to me.
SIRK: This is kind of an aside about David Ward, but when the movie came out, I just thought he was this guy from Cleveland who managed to get a movie made about the Indians. Obviously this is mentioned in the book, but it was probably five years ago or something and I was talking to my buddy and we wondered what else David Ward even did besides Major League. I looked at his IMDB page and found out he wrote The Sting! That just blew my mind. In my mind, he had always been some schlub from Cleveland that got this great Indians movie made, but in reality, this guy wrote the fucking Sting! He had already reached the pinnacle!
KNIGHT: Yeah, he wrote The Sting when he was 26 and he won an Academy Award when he was 27. Where the hell do you even go from there? Not to say that he’s been a letdown, but Jesus, wow! When you’re that good and you start out at that level…
What’s really cool about him is that most of the stuff that he’s written since then, you don’t even know that he wrote it. One, because he’s a script doctor. He does a lot of, “We’re about to film this movie and it isn’t working and we need someone”…and then he’ll come in and polish the script uncredited. There have been a lot of movies that he’s come in on and made the movie better, and in some cases made it the movie that we love, but his name’s not attached to it.
Another thing he had done after The Sting was that he wrote this epic western. He loved the story and it probably would have been great, but right after he finished writing it, Heaven’s Gate came out, which killed the western. It was one of the biggest bombs and it killed the western. So it was like, “Well, fuck that. There goes three years of my life because you assholes made that movie.” But it was this epic script. And he still has lots of stuff in the pipeline now.
But that’s what I thought too. I thought, “Oh, this funny guy from Cleveland…” and then it’s like, “The Sting? Wow! Those two don’t really go together!” But that shows again how talented he is. He can write a movie like The Sting and a movie like Major League, which people love, and they’d have no idea. It’s like Bo Jackson being really good at football and baseball. Like, how do you do that? And he did.
SIRK: So when did you start approaching publishers in earnest. I mean, I know you were getting turned down a lot when you started, but when did it start getting serious?
KNIGHT: The subplot to this is that I had an agent for a while who was a super guy. He knew a lot of New York publishers, so he was the one who was getting a lot of the “Oh my God! I love this movie! This is so great!….We’re gonna pass.” He told me, and he has been in the business for 20 years or whatever, “I have never seen so much enthusiasm for a project that they don’t want to publish.” He just couldn’t figure it out. I worked with him for several months and then he finally said, “Dude, I’ve done all that I can do.” Okay. That’s cool.
Gray & Company was always who I kind of hand in mind when I got in touch with this agent. He said, “I think this could be bigger than this. You could maybe go to a big New York publisher.” I said we could give it a shot, so we did, and it turned out that after almost a year, I wound up right back where I started after a nine-month journey around the moon. I had talked to David Gray, who I had known, and he was kind of interested and wanted to make it happen. But even that took another year because I hadn’t gotten to Charlie yet. I needed to check all of those boxes. They were interested and another publisher was interested, and I looked at the pros and cons either way, but I went with Gray & Company.
There was a lot that I learned through it. In a way, it was a cautionary tale. If you’re going to pitch to particularly bigger publishers, but really any publisher, you have to have your shit together. I didn’t necessarily. Like I said, I was pitching it before it was written as a necessity to speed things up because we were under a timeline to get it out for the 25th anniversary, but I think that was to the detriment of the pitch. It was a concept. It was an idea. But I needed something more solid, whether it was, “Yes, I’ve talked to these people and here’s what they said”, or “Here’s a section in which I’ve incorporated their words.” It can’t just be, “Well, I hope to talk him” or “I’m scheduled to talk to him.” It needs to be much more precise. And even then, I don’t know if it would have made a difference. You really have to pinpoint why someone really wants to publish it and you have to have your act together in order to answer whatever questions they have.
But in that sense, hopefully it will help in the future. It’s like, okay, you can’t just ride on your coattails or ride on your idea. It can’t be about why this could be good potentially. It has to be why this is good right now.
SIRK: So when did you officially get that settled with Gray & Company?
KNIGHT: Officially, we signed the contract a little bit before Christmas of 2014. And even that, I think I first talked to David Gray about it in January. Again, that was this journey around the moon. The agent was pitching it out even before January. And then around Christmas of 2013 was when I decided to go back to my original idea of talking to Gray.
You get to where “when it’s done it’s done.” But when it’s done, yeah, that’s great, but then you get into the thing where when is the right time of year to release a baseball-themed book? That’s less of a big deal for Gray. For a lot of other publishers, if they’re going to crank out a baseball book, it has to be in March or April. It needs to come out there. If it doesn’t come out there, they wait until next March or April. There’s no sense of, “May’s fine. June’s fine. Whenever.” Gray was like, “Ehh, it doesn’t really matter.” And they’re probably right. They just cranked out Terry Pluto’s last book with Tom Hamilton, and that came out in November. It was for Christmas. There was none of this, “People don’t want to read about baseball in November.” Bullshit! It’s about Christmas. Whether it comes out in April or it comes out in November, you’re going to sell at Christmas in the same amount.
SIRK: That Pluto/Hamilton book was a very popular Christmas gift in my family.
KNIGHT: It was huge! Especially with the combination of those two people, it was going to be successful no matter when it came out. So there was at least that flexibility with Gray because we weren’t going to hit March or April this time around. And in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “Fucking hell. I can’t wait another year. I will jump off a windmill if I have to wait another year for this thing.” So it worked. It was fine that it came out when it did.
SIRK: So what sort of shape was your manuscript in when you signed? How much more work needed to be done?
KNIGHT: It was done basically after I talked to Charlie. It was done and basically sitting there. There were a couple of little interviews I did and I’d add a line here or there, but it was 96% done a year before it came out. That was hard. That’s so hard. I had already been on it for over a year at that point. It’s like, “Here guys! It’s ready! Let’s go! What’s next?” But then you have to wait on the pictures, and getting all that arranged, which took time. Parts of it are very, very frustrating. Those are the parts that are frustrating. Writing it and researching it was smooth sailing. There were never any problems. It required a bit of patience, but there were never any problems. The contacting people, and waiting, and getting permission and all that stuff, that was the frustrating part.
SIRK: On the bright side, when we briefly talked last month, you said you were really happy with the cover and how Paramount gave you permission to use everything.
KNIGHT: I never thought that would happen either. If you look even at the Back to the Future book that came out last month, there’s nothing official about it. There’s no official logo. There was a Slapshot book that just came out and they just put a pair of black glasses on there. I thought we’d sort of mirror the cursive script. I thought it would be something like this. [Knight points to the cursive on the spine.] I thought we’d never have a picture or anybody. I thought maybe we’d have a picture of a baseball with glasses on it. It would be something really generic. And that’s something that as we went through, we were going to try to get official whatever from Paramount, but if we don’t, here are some ideas. We had some mockups and they were fine. It’s what I expected. But they scored it. Gray got the logo and they paid their fee, which I don’t know that any other publisher would have done. The bigger publisher that just did Back to the Future, they didn’t do it.
So I was thrilled. I never thought we’d get that. It really is kind of a stamp. It doesn’t say official, and it shouldn’t, but there’s a sense that there is a legitimacy about this that you wouldn’t necessarily get with a generic cover.
SIRK: Another thing you said to me last month was that this was the first book that turned out even better than what you had in your mind. Could you elaborate on that? What makes you feel that way?
KNIGHT: Starting with the cover, obviously. Just the way it looks. That’s a perfect example of I expected this, but it turned out to be THIS. And I think that carries on to the inside, from the photos, to who I was able to talk to. I think for each of my books, I sort of had a book in mind—another book that has nothing to do with this, but where it’s like I want to make THIS book, but only with THIS topic. So, for example, Summer of Shadows was like Devil in the White City. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it. It’s not sports at all. It’s a fantastic book that is two stories in one. One is about a serial killer and the other is about the World’s Fair in Chicago. It’s intertwining these two stories. I loved this book, and it wasn’t so much to copy it, but ideally I wanted mine to feel like that book. I don’t mean to match it in tone or content or style, but I want it to feel like it to me.
I think each of my books have been that way. This book, there was a great book about the making of Psycho that came out like 25 years ago that I adored. It was actually the basis for the movie Hitchcock. That is what I had in mind. That was the golden chalice. I wanted my book to feel like that book. I knew it wasn’t going to be like that book, but I want it to feel like it to me. And this did. Even when I started out, I thought it won’t be THAT good, or it won’t have THAT much in it, or be THAT comprehensive, but that’s the goal. And it did. It’s different, obviously, but I can hold the two books and say, yeah, it feels the same way. I didn’t have to compromise that much. I got more than I ever thought I would get and it exceeded what I had hoped.
SIRK: So when Gray got it, did they like it mostly as is, or did they tinker much at all?
KNIGHT: They did a little. It was like, “Hey we need more at the beginning. Can we move this from the middle?” Or “We need a little bit more of this, that, and the other.” So it was like, yeah, we can move this from the end to the beginning, and we can cut this section, and we can change how we did this. It was marginal. There again, because I had worked on it for so long and it was done and you have nothing else to do but read it and revise it… I don’t know what I’ve done more, seen Major League or read this fucking book. It’s a close call, man. It’s a bang-bang play at first. From the time I finished it until now, I’ve read the thing like 150 times, changing it here and there. So by the time Gray got to the point where they were ready to copyedit it, it was pretty tight. We had to fix things of course. They had a fresh set of eyes, but yeah, it was pretty much set to go just because it had been revised, edited, and reviewed by myself so many times that it was pretty much ready to go. More so than any of my other ones.
SIRK: Before this one, my two favorite books of yours were Opening Day and Summer of Shadows. I was at the first game at Jacobs Field, so it’s great to have a document of that game, and I liked how you intertwined all of the backstories along the way. I thought it was a pretty neat structure. And then Summer of Shadows, I liked how you weaved two completely unrelated stories that both took place in Cleveland in the summer of 1954. All of your books have been Cleveland sports related, but with Summer of Shadows, you also had this true crime aspect with the Sheppard murder, so maybe that broadens things for you. Same with this. Now you’ve got Cleveland sports, but now you’ve got Hollywood and stuff that goes well beyond Cleveland. People all over the country love this movie. Are you seeing any of that? Do you feel that this broadens things for you beyond Northeast Ohio sports?
KNIGHT: I think that it shows me that I can do that. I have that club in my bag now, which is great. The flip side of that is that after spending two or three years on it, I don’t want to do it again. I want to do something different. I at least don’t want do it again right away, but I guess it’s nice to know that maybe I can do it again. That was a big thing after Summer of Shadows because it was so different than anything I had done before, so people were like, “Oh, so you’re going to do more true crime now!” No. Not today. I’m tapped out. Maybe someday I will do it again. I don’t know. I don’t know that I’d ever want to write a strictly true crime book.
But I think those two books also show that I don’t want to write just the “this a great season for a Cleveland team” books. I couldn’t do Kardiac Kids again. I couldn’t do Sundays in the Pound again. I need more than that. Summer of Shadows was a step in that direction. I didn’t want to write about just the ’54 Indians. One, because it’s kind of a blah climax. But also because I need more than that. I don’t know that I want to read a book that is just about a baseball season. It needs something more. Part of that is myself, and part of that is reading books like The Bronx is Burning, which is similar to that. Yeah, the ’77 Yankees are an interesting story, but when you throw in the blackout and Son of Sam, okay, now we’re cookin’. I think you’re seeing that more and more.
And the evolution of sports publishing, I think you’re still going to see the single season story of whatever, but I think readers are kind of the same way I am. It’s like, “A book about the ’48 Indians…we’ve done that.” Even the Terry Pluto and Tom Hamilton book, if it weren’t those two, I mean, there were two books that came out last year about the ’90s Indians. The other was Tribe Reborn. So it’s like, okay, we’ve tapped that. Let’s move on. But because it was Terry Pluto and Tom Hamilton, okay, that works. But even if you read those two books, probably 30% of them are exactly the same stories. That’s just going to happen with that overlap.
I think you’re really going to see that, especially in Cleveland. When my first book was published, there were very few books about Cleveland sports. Very, very few. In the ten years since then, it’s pretty well covered. There aren’t a whole lot of subjects that haven’t been written about. Some of them have not been written terribly well, but there aren’t that many great moments in Cleveland sports that haven’t been written about. I can’t think of any. So if you’re going to write about it, you have to do it differently.
Of course, you can [write about the same old things], but it’s going to be harder to find a publisher. And two, it’s probably not going to be great. You’ve got to find these different ways to write about it if you’re going to write about it. Not that there’s a lack of material. With LeBron coming back and whatever’s going to happen with the Cavs, that will provide fodder of course for years to come.
But there’s this sense of, hey, I need to do something different. Writers do it. Film directors do it. You don’t necessarily want to go back and make the same kind of movie. Even if it was successful. Spielberg doesn’t want to go make Raiders of the Lost Ark again. So you’re challenging yourself to try and write things differently, even if it’s sports or whatever. It’s still, “let me do this differently” so you’re pushing yourself to do something that’s challenging.
SIRK: So how has the reaction to the new book been? I know when a new book comes out, as an author, you’re pretty much sick of looking at it, but there’s also the gnawing in the pit of your stomach knowing that now it is no longer just yours, and it’s out in the world, and was it all worth it? Obviously, there is the reward in doing it, but what feedback have you gotten from readers?
KNIGHT: I can honestly say it’s all been good. I haven’t gotten, for anything, a bad response, mostly because I think that at this level, there just isn’t a bad response. There’s just no response. So there’s good response and no response. You’ll take the good any time you can get it, but really, if Stephen King comes out with a book he’ll get some bad reviews. But for me, it will be silence. Just crickets.
This has gone the other way. This one has already gotten more feedback and more interviews than any of my other books, which is great. I think it says something to the topic. That’s rewarding, and it feels good, but yeah, you’re right, just like any writer, by the time that thing’s out, the last thing I want to do is talk about this fucking book. I mean, it isn’t, of course. It’s fun, but at the same time, it’s like “I didn’t know…” / [monotone] “Yeah, they filmed in Milwaukee.” I mean, it’s not fair because it’s new to them. They haven’t lived with this thing every day for two years. But that’s just the challenge for any writer. You have to be “YEAH!” even if you’re faking it while giving a canned response or whatever. “Yeah, that was really cool! I’m glad you asked me that question!” You have to keep that up because you have to remember that it’s new to them and it’s new to the reader. They’re much more excited about it than you are at that point.
SIRK: So the response has been good? Since you felt all that responsibility as a custodian of Major League because of all the people who love this movie, do you feel you succeeded?
KNIGHT: It’s like, okay, I met that bar. Everything I’ve heard, and even people on twitter who are big fans, it’s hitting those marks. So it’s like, this guy knew the movie and this girl loves the movie and tweets about it all the time, and she loves it. That’s when you’re hitting all those marks and getting that feedback, that’s rewarding and it’s gratifying.
SIRK: So have you figured out what’s next?
KNIGHT: No. I have a few ideas. You try to balance, especially when a book comes out, more so with this one where in a short burst, it takes almost as much energy to promote it. Especially at this level, where it’s been pretty constant. For me anyway. Not to compare to Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. That’s just stratospheric type shit. But for me, it’s like, wow this is a lot. You’re getting requests from the publisher, “Can you do this through social media? Can you answer these questions that we can post on the website?” You’re using a different part of your brain than you did to write it. Writing and researching was over here, and it was very right-brained, whereas now it’s all left-brain and let’s promote the thing. It’s not what I do, but okay, let’s do it. It requires a little more energy. So that’s what’s going on and it’s really in full force right now, which is great. It’s fun. It’s not really a problem at all. At the same time, it’s like, okay, what’s next? Even with myself, it’s like, okay, it’s going to take at least a year to write something and get it out, even if you crank it out. I need to keep going. I can’t just be like, “I’m not going to write anything for a year.” I’d go crazy. You’re only happy when you’re doing these. So it’s maybe take a few months to recharge the batteries.
That’s the fear– that you jump into something and your heart’s not really into it and you don’t have that fire in your belly. You’re like, “I’m not enjoying this.” So you’re trying to find the balance between recharging the batteries and finding what you’re going to do next so you can hit the ground running.
SIRK: Every book is personal and you have an attachment to it, otherwise you wouldn’t have gone through the bother of making it, but where do you hold this one in your heart?
KNIGHT: Right now, it’s at the top. There’s a fondness for the first one, because that’s your first. Up until this one, I thought Summer of Shadows, to me, not that it was the most popular, but that was the most fun to write. That was my best writing. That was a special one. That one may be better written, but this one is the most personal. This is the one where it’s like, “Yeah, that was pretty fun.” As time goes by, it will settle in, but it’s going to be tough to beat that.
It’s going to be tough to beat that, which is another reason why I may be hesitant to jump right into something else. What’s going to be more fun than this? What’s going to turn out better than this? I want to do something else, but kind of like David Ward writing The Sting, what now? Not that this is as good as winning an Academy Award! Don’t get me wrong! I’m not comparing myself to that, but in terms of personal satisfaction, now what do you do? David even talked about that to some extent. In those years after, he spent the next few years trying to write The Sting again. Not the subject matter, but “I need to write an Academy Award winning script.” It doesn’t work that way. You don’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write a bestselling novel.” That’s not how it works. You have to kind of write what you want to write and go with it, then accept that it probably won’t be as popular as this last one was. He spent a good several years writing good stuff, but it was, “What made The Sting good? Why did people like The Sting? I need to do that!” But then after a couple of years, he was like, “Fuck it. You can’t do that. Just write the way you wrote The Sting. I wasn’t thinking about that kind of stuff. I need to just write.”
That’s going to be hard. I know I’m going to struggle with that. Not even so much the writing of a book, but what’s going to make this appeal to a publisher? What’s going to make this appeal to the people? What’s my Charlie Sheen hook in this one? Uhhhhh, there probably isn’t going to be one that appealing. You almost have to let that ship sail. It is what it is. If it doesn’t go with that same publisher, or if it doesn’t go with that level of publishing, just write something that makes you happy. Write something that you want to read. Don’t write something that someone else wants to read, because then you’re going to write something that NOBODY wants to read. Odds are if you don’t want to read it, then nobody else is going to want to read it.
SIRK: That’s pretty much the advice that I’ve given to people when they ask me about writing. Do what you want to do and then hopefully you build your audience from that.
KNIGHT: Exactly. If you don’t want to read what you’re writing, if you aren’t enjoying writing what you’re writing, I’m 90% sure nobody else is going to either. That’s hard to accept. Especially if you’ve had any type of little success at whatever it may be, and you’re trying to follow that template, and you’re like, “Okay, I just need to hit these marks and I’ll make my audience happy, or whoever I’m writing for” and then you lose sight of whatever worked in the first place.
And I KNOW I’m going to fall into that trap. You can talk about it all you want, but you know that you will inevitably start to slip into that mentality. Especially if you have any type of resistance. If someone says, “Maybe this isn’t such that great of an idea” or “We’re not really interested”, then you think, “Okay, I need to make this more like the last one that you liked.” Whatever it may be. It’s so easy to fall into that. Not necessarily that you’re going to be unpublishable, but at the end of the day, it won’t be as good. That is why sequels, to tie it back to movies, are invariably not as good as the first one. They’re not just telling a story, they’ve got to hit the marks of why people liked the first one. “They liked the first one because of this scene, so let’s have something like that scene. They liked the first one because of that goofy character. Let’s have that goofy character come back.” You’re piecemealing it and you’re not freely telling a story. You have to hit these marks and include these things so that you meet expectations and get people to like it. Which they don’t like. But it’s profitable. Sometimes the sequels even make more money than the original, but sequels are rarely as good as the original for that reason.
SIRK: Any last advice to people who make stuff?
KNIGHT: I think that would be the biggest thing, whether it’s writing or whatever it is. You need to have fire in the belly for what you’re doing. It sounds so simple. It’s like, of course you do. But think about it. We are a culture of compromise. Whatever it is, creatively, whether we’re trying to get something published or we’re trying to impress someone to whatever, we’ll say, “I’ll do this because I know that it will work. I know that it will get applause or praise or whatever.” It may not be your vision of what you want it to be.
And that happened some with this book, which I had to turn away. What if you turned this into a picture book? Instead of going on your own, what if you partnered with the studio so this could be an official book? No, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want it to be this coffee table picture type book. It’s like, “Those are really successful!” Yeah, but they suck. I get that some people like these big glossy pictures and huge-ass books, and they’re like, “Oh, but it’s really profitable.” Yeah, but I hate them. I hate carrying them. I want to be able to hold a book in my hand and feel the book. Those big hardcover books, I can’t carry those around, I can’t take those on a plane. Not that it was a viable option for this book, so I didn’t really have that option, but there were a few publishers along the way, who were like, “Why don’t you do it this way?” No. I don’t want to go that way. I was lucky in that I was able to say no. Even if it was easier or quicker or even if you made more money on it, which none of those things would have been true, but even if those were true, I don’t want it. That’s not what I want this to be.
So the general advice would be, if you don’t have the fire your belly for it, don’t do it. Or find out what gives you that fire in your belly. It’s just like anything else in life, like a relationship or whatever. If you’re going half-assed, you’ll get out of it what you’re putting into it. If you’re thinking you’re not crazy about this, or if you started out and liked it and you started to drift, you’ve got to find the fire. Love what you’re doing, whatever the cost may be. It’s trite. It’s trite advice that’s overly simple and a little fortune-cookie-ish, and I don’t always adhere to that advice. I’ll tell you right now that I’ll do that all the time where I’ll find myself drifting, but yeah, that’s universal. It’s advice that goes for anything, whatever you’re making, whether it’s writing or whatever you’re creating.
SIRK: Well to conclude the formal part of our conversation, thank you for one hour and 45 minutes of faking your enthusiasm through an interview.
KNIGHT: No, but see, that’s the thing! When you can really hunker down and talk about it, the enthusiasm comes through. It’s not like I’m not enthusiastic on the radio, but you’ve been there…
SIRK: “You have five minutes…”
KNIGHT: Exactly. “You have three minutes.” Okay, are you going to yank me off the stage? So you train yourself to give these really quick surface answers because that’s what it needs. This is nice to have an actual conversation. This was great. This was fun.