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The Art of Basketball, Writing, and Good Smack Talk: Shann Ray and Jess Walter in Conversation
Ed. Note- As the NBA season kicks off this evening, we decided to ask two of our favorite literary hoopers to drop a few dimes for us. As they are prone to do, Shann and Jess sprinkled the court with beautiful jumpers that covered a wide range of topics including faith in writing, Shann’s new novel American Copper (out November 3rd), and all things basketball. Of note, no mention of defense was addressed by either chucker.
I met Jess Walter in 2004 over basketball and words, and the friendship formed has been a beauty. Jess is one of those writers who gives uniquely and fully to the community, and it’s tangible and refreshing how the community has such genuine affection not just for his work, but for him and his family. His novels, stories, and nonfiction speak to us and surprise us, informing us of things we didn’t know about ourselves but needed to know, and things we knew but perhaps were afraid to more closely consider. Add to this the fact that he’s a true hooper. He has a gorgeous rainbow jumper. He’s a wonderful teammate who goes all out every time he plays: scoring, passing, and defending “with alacrity” (in the words of my favorite basketball announcer Bill Raftery). And as you’ll see below, he can talk smack, be it material or meta-physical, with the best of them.-Shann Ray
Shann Ray: Let’s start with some basketball junkie material. What’s your favorite shot on the court?
Jess Walter: My favorite shot is one that you’ve mastered–No passes, just the ball handler pulling up way beyond the 3-point line (with you, just over half-court.) Bringing the ball down, pulling up and draining a three is the equivalent of a slam dunk. Demoralizing. Nothing anyone can do and it causes the other player to just drop his arms. It’s an ace in tennis, a kickoff return in football, a knockdown in boxing. As an opposing point guard once said to me as he pulled up for one of those, my arms at my sides, knees buckled, “Read it in the paper, baby.”
I’d love to know about the places in Montana where you lived, and whether, growing up there, you were aware of the things you write about, the awful injustice perpetrated against tribes, the long shadows of the mining industry. I would also be curious if there are books that, for you, manage to get the interior West right. I think we both admire Fools Crow more than just about anything. I thought Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams was great and spare, too. What else do you find yourself returning to? First, your favorite shot though.
SR: I appreciate the deep fade away from the corner with a couple of defenders draped on you. Something so fulfilling about the ball on a strange high arc from nearly behind the backboard on a far baseline angle, with an all net finish. I’ve seen your rainbow J hit pure net from there, my friend! It’s a crowd pleaser. A rainmaker. And the sound of the ball in the net seems somehow amplified. But that might be just in my head. I recall the all-state player Joe Pretty Paint from the Crow rez in southeast Montana bombing those threes like he was shooting from the lobby. His follow through was beautiful, like the neck of a swan. Oh, and good trash talk is a thing of beauty too. One of the favorite lines another player used on me after he put his jumper in my eye: “Got him, Coach.”
I grew up all over Montana, born in Billings, then moved to Sitka, Alaska for six years, then back to Montana, to Bozeman, then Billings again where my dad coached basketball on the nearby Crow reservation, then we moved to the Northern Cheyenne reservation where I went to middle school (so much great basketball–the passing, shooting, and fast break speed impressed me so much and really helped form my game for years to come). After that, Livingston, between the Crazies and the Beartooths, huge mountain ranges with rivers like mercury.
I didn’t know of the genocidal tendencies of America at that time. I could, however, feel the deep tension between dominant culture and non-dominant culture. I knew nothing of the grave harms against humanity, committed by U.S. military against the Cheyenne. In fact, Cheyenne people gave so much love to me and my family when I lived on the reservation, it humbled me and shaped me into a more graceful human being. The gift culture, circular and full of quick wit and near constant humor, so counter and subversive in its way, made me question the rigid linear way I’d perceived the world around me before living there. Certainly, the shadow of America, that unspoken history of colonization, revealed deep wounds: high unemployment, rampant addiction, and a certain oblique grief like a pall over everyone. But in the midst of this, I encountered profound love, a love that remains with me, given by friends Lafe Haugen, Russell Tall Whiteman, Cleveland Bement, and Blake Walks Nice.
The writing I return to comes from the heart of Montana: James Welch (Winter in the Blood and Fools Crow), Sandra Alcosser (Except by Nature), Ivan Doig (This House of Sky), Melissa Kwasny (Thistle and Reading Novalis in Montana), Wallace Stegner (his collected stories), M.L. Smoker (Another Attempt at Rescue and her anthology of human rights poems edited with Melissa Kwasny, I Go to the Ruined Place), Richard Ford (Wildlife and Rock Springs, not the later books), A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town, and Annick Smith’s Homestead. I cherish Train Dreams too.
Tell me, whose game do you like the most in the NBA right now? And after that, I find in your books something like the sting of American capitalism gone awry next to the emotional capacity for a love that still shocks us and makes us whole, even as things disintegrate around us. How do you do that? What gnaws at your innards to craft these people who make us yearn for so much, and who make us hope again even when our capacity for hope is less than empty?
JW: That NBA question is interesting, Shann. I played basketball as a kid because, unlike football, the other huge sport at the time, basketball seemed like it was about grace and athleticism rather than sheer brute force (of which I had none). But basketball is, clearly, also about force. There are players looking for space and players looking for contact. I’m a space guy. So, for me, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are the most thrilling players to watch because they glide around the court looking for the tiniest bit of space for their perfect jumpers. But LeBron James has their athleticism and brute force. He will drive right into a player’s chest, or use his huge shoulders to create that space. It’s fascinating to watch the NFL and the NBA continuously alter their rules to make their games less violent, to give space a chance against brute force. Because we know what wins in the end.
And you? Probably few of your readers know that you were a terrific college basketball player at Montana State and Pepperdine and pro ball in Germany’s top league, the Bundesliga—and that you’ve continued to play exhibitions and pickup games against the best players in the country. Whose NBA game do you admire? And who is the best player you ever scored on? (I not included.)
I suppose I write inside-out—create characters with as much specificity as I can and then put them in the world they might know, so if they bang against walls of capitalism, authority or society, it is through the endless loop of a bank’s computerized phone system, or a pawn shop that no longer has use for 3-year-old, $2,000 television. I think it’s fascinating, and audacious, that you often go for the full scope and sweep of the worlds you’re creating—the first image you paint in American Copper is of miners going into the earth, “where no man belonged,” immediately creating a voice that exists above, a voice that can descend on a family with “more money than the Montana state treasury” or the heart-rending massacre of a Cheyenne village. I imagine you seeing your landscapes almost like a painter does (or like the poet you are) … do you sense that you work outside-in?
You also move seamlessly through time. There’s a famous saying (its origin is foggy)—“The past is another country. They do things differently there.” But I wonder if that is less true in the literature of the West. Is it just the relative youth of the Western United States that makes us more connected to its past? Or do we still do things the same way?
SR: I love that idea, Jess… giving grace (and space) a chance against brute force. It speaks to me of elegance of movement, elegance of thought. My favorite players have a nearly unconscious foresight in which they make the imaginative move, and finish with beauty, in the midst of brute force. Like you, Steph Curry is one I love to watch, and with him, equally as devastating in accuracy and grace, Kevin Durant. I’m in awe of how both of them, one near 7 feet tall, the other closer to 6 feet, have such similar understanding of meta-rhythm as they play, passing, shooting, defending and scoring with such grace and ease. I could watch them work all day. I also admire their surprising sense of humility, their love for family and community. Perhaps strange for NBA stars, and certainly refreshing.
I, on the other hand, am a braggart! What a word. Actually, I cherish the give and take friendship-based trash talk in basketball, the underlying respect it entails, and the way it gives a community of ballers joy. There’s rude/mean/low trash talk, and there’s just good quality friendship/humor trash talk. I subscribe to the latter, and practice it near constantly. I’m delighted when others trash me back. Like when you talked about my mom the other day… something about you taking her to school. I’m pretty sure she took you to school in reality though. Of those I’ve scored on, most are from the distant past: Penny Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill (I had 22 at Cameron Indoor with one two-handed smash), Stacy Augmon and Greg Anthony (those two were the filthiest trash talkers around, but gave me a nod of respect when I tried to throw down on Moses Scurry and got fouled), and Baron Davis (28 at Pauley Pavilion), but generally they all worked me over and their teams always won more often than mine did.
The outside in or inside out I hadn’t considered until you mentioned it; that conceptualization and visioning work we go through. I think I envision a kind of beauty that exists below all, below the paradox and mystery of human existence, below the evil we do to one another and the existence of uncommon good, below the binary rigidity and the fracturing, and below the simple kindness. I think of this beauty as love, and it reminds me of Calvin’s notion that perhaps each of us has 1,000 angels walking with us, trying to help us find our way, and that their sorrow is sometimes felt raking the earth. I think of it as captured in Hopkins’ desolate sonnets and also his poems of ecstasy… that bent fierce line he utters despite his own great depression and the world’s industrial raping of Nature… “The world is charged with the glory of God.” I think engaging our doubts with courage is a grave responsibility, and though I often have no idea what faith is… I hope for it. I hope in us, in the notion of beloved things, people, existence… of a beloved. My wife and three daughters embody this to me.
As for the past, in the West, and around the globe, I think we forget too quickly, and I believe remembering is a kind of grieving we need in order to lean us more fully into atonement. Remembering and grieving together, toward atonement. The return to oneness. At-one-ment. Remembering the past, in the present, toward the future. My research into forgiveness and reconciliation worldwide has been a shattering journey of the last 25 years, and one in which I feel art is renewed and made more musical, more rhythmic: I think of Morrison, Milosz, Lorca, Silko, George Elliott, Erdrich, Coetzee, Berger, Li-Young Lee, the painter Mako Fujimura… back to your idea of making room for grace against brute force.
And what is grace, in art, in life, and in basketball? Does grace exist through its unity with grit? What is it about something pure or close to pure in life and basketball that attracts us? What is chemistry, how do artists and athletes gain that nexus of real chemistry/connection resulting in something transcendent between writer and reader, between an athlete and her or his teammates? What’s your experience of it? I hope I’m not projecting some false assumption but I hear it like a clarion call in your stunning collection of short stories We Live in Water and in the deep painful echo of our shared humanity in The Zero, The Financial Lives of the Poets, and Beautiful Ruins.
JW: Shann, that is an amazing all-star team you’ve played against! It does strike me as odd that you didn’t put my name in there, but I’m guessing that was just an oversight. It says something about your abilities, too, that you might be the best player I’ve scored against. And dude, I have OWNED you. Well, maybe not owned, but I do recall a little floater that caused you to shake your head once. I also stuck a couple of jumpers in Richie Frahm’s eye one summer when he was home from playing in the NBA, but I have to think he was going about half speed since he was wearing loafers.
And you are NOT a braggart. You show great humility. If I had played against those guys, I’d begin every sentence with, “The time I took Stacy Augmon off the dribble …” However, you DO talk your share of smack, as anyone who has played against you will attest. I’ve never been a smack talker. I prefer to let my air balls and turnovers do my talking for me.
I also loved that smooth connection you made between gracefulness in sports and the idea of grace in humanity (and in fiction.) It was a sweet rhetorical crossover dribble, from one meaning of grace—fluid, elegant movement, Durant and Curry—to the other—the idea of favor and forgiveness bestowed upon humanity (or aspired to by humanity), a blessing, an earned peace. I always hitch on this kind of grace though, because of the implication that something has bestowed the grace, in the religious sense, as in a supreme being.
Also great and thought-provoking was your question, “Does grace exist through its unity with grit?” (There’s no grace left in my basketball game, it’s all the grit in my knees where the cartilage used to exist.) But my view of the world, yes—I do like to think that hard work and humility lead to this quality of grace that the meek shall indeed inherit … well, if not the whole earth, at least the 46 percent of it that the 1 percent isn’t using to play tennis.
But my agnostic inclination is to break your question in half: “Does grace exist?” As I said, I always find myself not quite tracking that second meaning of grace, like a defender who hasn’t quite kept up with the ankle-breaking crossover. Of course people act with something we might call grace. They seek something we might identify as grace (or another great word you used, atonement.) I think, as a writer, especially in We Live in Water, this is what I’m exploring: the characters’ capacity for finding this quality in themselves and others. I often think in terms of the word redemption, and I wonder if my little characters can make significant changes in their lives or if they are ultimately like the fish in the aquarium in the title story, constrained by patterns and limits they don’t even see. It’s something you explore beautifully in your writing, and often from terrific vantages. You seem especially drawn to historical darkness and to violence. I almost imagine you seeking out this quality like a deep-sea diver intent on discovering life existing even at the darkest depths.
But I wonder if there isn’t a big distinction in the way we are imagining this thing we are calling grace, and if this doesn’t go back to my earlier idea of inside/outside. You describe this quality of grace, this beauty, as existing “below all, below the paradox and mystery of human existence …”
That’s such a lovely idea, but the empiricist in me suspects that grace is not a free-floating state of being but a construct of society and language (as is “the paradox and mystery of human existence.”) Not to get too far down the philosophical rabbit hole, but to me, the mystery of feline existence doesn’t exist until the cat contemplates it. And my cat usually just seems to be contemplating his own ass. Now I don’t think I’m a complete logical positivist (believing that meaning can only be ascribed to those things that can be empirically measured) but the satirist in me, the ironist, can’t really see how grace or beauty or love, as much as I hold these concepts above all the others, would have more inherent meaning than those other things whose existence are proven by the mere fact that humans believe they have “experienced” them: superstition, fear, grandiosity, psychosis, delusion (but also humor and pride and happiness.)
But enough of my amateur philosophizing: this is what I’ve always loved about our conversations—playing basketball and then grabbing a hamburger and six Mountain Dews (five of them yours) and debating the nature of grace! And I also find it interesting that our two different approaches might arrive at similar places. We generally value the same things—families and friends, basketball and literature. We both have a powerful sense of social justice and I imagine we would almost always agree on what is the right course, that we generally have arrived at a similar answer to Montaigne’s challenge that philosophy be used to determine “the way to live.” So there’s some smack talk to end with—Montaigne: “Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know.” Read in the paper, baby!
SR: For the audience, did anyone notice how Jess said, “I’ve never been a trash talker.” Then he followed it up with a litany of smack. I like that, how trash is always laced with a disruptive and often hilarious undertone. Not only that, he took his smack to a new level, talking metaphysical trash! Game on, my friend. By the way, Mountain Dew is the nectar of God.
I take a little pride in the fact that the country of my grandmother’s heritage, Czechoslovakia, somehow generated the Velvet Revolution which helped bring about the end of oppressive communism in that country, without bloodshed. Then they elected Vaclav Havel, a playwright, a writer no less, as the president of their new democracy. They turned from logical positivism, from the world’s number one experiment in atheistic materialism, back to more ancient forms of humility in the face of the collective, in the presence of the divine. Havel stated in his essay The Power of the Powerless:
“Consciousness precedes Being, and not the other way around, as Marxists claim. For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human modesty, and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better.”
This begs the questions: what is salvation? and who guides the human heart? Like Havel, and his precursors Masaryk, Patocka, and Husserl, I find it too self-embedded to think we solely guide ourselves, and too elusive or irresponsible to say only forces beyond us guide our lives. In the Czech lands the martyrdom of Jan Hus, mirrored during the Prague Spring by the self-immolation of Jan Palach, form an important part of this dynamic. What makes sense to me, having encountered love, is that we are anchored by divine Love and we have ultimate responsibility to embody that love with one another, our individual and collective being anchored to greater Being which is the morality that destines us toward compassion, even, or perhaps especially when faced with the evil we find ourselves capable of at every turn. Back to what do we do with our own evil? I believe the divine helps us answer that question, and calls us to discern our most ultimate response to life.
Having been firmly trained in the logical positivist worldview as a social science quantitative researcher (in the tradition of Locke and Newton), and also equally trained in the circular interpretivist worldview of the phenomenologists as a social science qualitative researcher (Gadamer, Heidegger, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and add in Foucault on power even with his violent rejection of the phenomenologists), the process is humbling. The benefit of both becomes readily apparent, of not carving out a binary but replacing it with a holistic sense of these two ways of viewing the world through human science, of looking at understanding life, having wisdom, or seeking what’s real or what’s true. Forgiveness research from an empirical positivist quantitative stance shows evidence of higher forgiveness capacities being significantly related to lower anxiety, anger, and depression, as well as significant correlations between forgiveness and less heart disease. For me, that evidence points to the nature of the divine in everyday life and the nature of the Divine below, within, and beyond us. Forgiveness research from an empirical interpretivist qualitative stance shows the essence of forgiveness lies in a bridge between people, a bridge made of modesty, surrender, vulnerability, strength and courage. Again, for me, that points to the interwoven chord of the human and the divine.
Of course human history is replete with devastating evil, often cloaked in religion (of all forms). All major religions have directly violated people en masse. Blaming this on God is too easy intellectually, I believe. In the name of science, atheism, and material positivistic “science,” the same violations have occurred (Hitler, Mao, Stalin). I think the blame should be placed on our conception of God or anti-God and our conception of each other. I believe the divine, or God, shrouded in mystery, exists below all, within, and beyond our conceptions, and is inherently good, or life-seeking. Counter to death, entropy, and closed systems.
Talk about longwinded. Sorry. Okay, I sort of swallowed up the air-space there for a minute. Back to trash talking. I agree with you, a hard-won agnosticism, or a hard-won atheism is similar in many ways to a hard-won doubt/faith continuum. I think you and I both doubt. We both believe in healthy skepticism, and we know that we can never really know. We both arrive at social justice, a love for humanity, and a belief in our responsibility to live responsible lives. It’s the facile, unconscious life as well as the unprincipled life that we hope to transcend in ourselves and in our writing. I love that about our conversations too. Your view of life influences me on the deepest levels.
That deep dive into human darkness is common to us both as writers. I find your sensibility gorgeous, deft, and something that blooms like the wildflowers of Montana from that high alpine soil. Something close to the sun.
That said, I’ll close with some words from the French Jesuit philosopher-poet and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. First, this passage that describes our friendship, for which you have all my gratitude: “There is almost a sensual longing for communion with others who have a large vision. The immense fulfillment of the friendship between those engaged in furthering the evolution of consciousness has a quality impossible to describe.” And second, more from de Chardin, now toward the metaphysical helping us see beyond the over-focus on “mastering the material” that I believe envelopes the Western world: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, [we] will have discovered fire.”
Got him, Coach.
Shann Ray grew up in Montana, played college basketball at Montana State University and Pepperdine University and professional basketball in Germany. Among other places, his work has appeared in the Best New Poets and The Better of McSweeneys anthologies, and been selected as notable in the Best American Nonrequired Reading and Best of the West. Rays first book, a story collection entitled American Masculine, published by Graywolf as Winner of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference Bakeless Prize, was named by Esquire as one of Three Books Every Man Should Read, and won an American Book Award. He now lives with his wife and three daughters in Spokane, Washington where he teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University. American Copper is his debut novel.
Jess Walter is the author of eight books. He’s been a #1 New York Times bestseller, finalist for the 2006 National Book Award and the PEN/USA Literary prize in both fiction and nonfiction, and won the 2005 Edgar Allan Poe Award. His work has been published in 30 languages and his short fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Harpers, McSweeney’s, Esquire and more.
*Caveat: Jess did respond to this last round, and beautifully, but to save space and my pride, we decided to go with the above; if you want to see his response please go to your local chapter of the Home for the Logical Postivistically Challenged and press numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 at the door.