Last month, I ran over to the East coast for a few days to see my family and give a talk at The Korea Society in NYC. While I was up there, I sent a note to my buddy, Chris McDougall, who lives a couple of hours from my mom’s place. I figured catching up with him would be a long shot given his insane schedule. But Chris and his wife Mika met me at the Philly airport right before I was flying out. We grabbed a quick lunch at an adjacent hotel and, after much juicy and delicious off-the-record talk, Chris let me turn my recorder on and pepper him with questions he has probably answered 50,000 jillion times already.
And why’s that? Well, some of you know—either because you’ve read his book Born to Run or because you’ve heard me go on at length about the book in my workshops—Chris spent a long time chilling on the NYT Bestseller list. His book is so effing phenomenal. It focuses on the Tarahumara Indians who live in isolation in the Copper Canyon’s in Mexico. They are these superhuman folks who can run hundreds of miles at a stretch, all while wearing what the folks at Nike might try to get you to believe is really shitty footwear. Chris spent a lot of time with the Tarahumara, he became a supermarathoner, and he met such a cast of characters along the way that they make the inhabitants of Gilligan’s Island seem like utter dullards.
I’m not shitting when I tell you this is one of my all-time favorite books ever. I love it for the story it tells. I love it because of my friend’s fantastic and much deserved success with it. And I love it because as I was reading it (okay—confession: I audio-“read” it, but the narrator was awesome) I felt like Chris was totally, totally schooling me about writing. And I don’t mean he was schooling me like putting me to shame. I mean I was paying attention to what a tightly woven story he put together. The tension, plot, all of it just fucking amazing. I really didn’t want the book to end. (Fortunately, he’s working on another one.) And I really hope one day I can write a book that's just 1/10th as exciting.
I should mention that Chris’s first book, Girl Trouble, is also a wild ride with characters that also read as if they are pure fiction. But they’re not. Tell ya what—I want to cut to the interview here, so you can read more about Chris's books right here. Also, Born to Run just came out in paperback so you should buy a bunch of copies. Also, I think I’m posting this contest too late for you to enter, but here’s a video of Chris with info on his big book giveaway. Even if you can’t enter, it’ll give you a feel for what a lovable nut he is.
After the video, scroll on down to catch my interview.
How has your life changed since BTR went uber-viral?
Here’s an example. There’s a local race. The race director ordered 500 copies of he book to give away as race prizes. So I had to sign all these bookplates to slap in the books. I went to deliver them and he said, “I’m sure this is just a drop in the bucket for you.” I was like, “Dude, I’m a freelance writer, 500 of anything is a big deal.” But he was apologizing for ordering only 500. My first book sold maybe 5,000 copies. This was like 1/10th of those total sales in one day. On the one hand it’s amazing on the other hand it still startles me.
Sometimes people want you to run with them and show up at events. What’s that like?
The weird thing that you don’t expect… as a magazine writer you’re used to being anonymous. You write the thing, you send it out and people are either interested or not in the article. They have no idea who wrote it and they couldn’t care less. That’s what you’re used to. The different thing with the book is they don’t seem to care at all about the book, they just want to be involved with you, they want to ask you questions, or spend time with you, or have you show them something. I get emails all the time from people saying, “I haven’t read the book yet but I’m wondering if you could tell me what kind of shoes I should wear to work.” Or “I’m getting ready to read the book but I’m wondering if you ever come to Washington could you join my friends and me and go for a run?” And suddenly you become personally connected to people. The other thing is it always becomes so repetitive—the same questions over and over to the point where you think, “Is there some message board where they’re all circulating the same question because I get it…”
Give me an example.
Here’s one question I’ll get over and over, “Are you concerned what effect your book has had on Tarahumara Indians? Are you concerned maybe you shouldn’t have written the book?” It’s one thing to hear the question, it’s another thing to hear it over and over and over and over and over. You’re sort of like, how is it spontaneously around the world—I’ve heard this question in Singapore, London, Cincinnati, San Antonio…
So it makes you crazy?
The thing you have to do… this is when I actually decided to cut back on the book tour at the end of the first year because I could feel myself getting ready to go into battle. I was starting to really resent the people I’m hoping are going to be nice to me and buy my book. At that point, if you realize you’re ready to attack your audience, it’s time to get off the stage. But let’s move away from the downside, the petty stuff.
Tell me the good parts.
The good stuff is that—and [me telling you] this will probably end any possibility of having future magazine work— it is so nice not to be hamstrung by magazine editors. When you get into books it’s a whole different game. Editors are not involved, they almost don’t care. I felt I’d been so under the grip of editors for so long—you gotta do their idea and you have to write their way. I love that the first few paragraphs of Born to Run were a lede that I fought to get an editor to run and he said, “Oh no, no it won’t work won’t work won’t work.” I finally surrendered, changed the lede to the story to something that sucks—probably the worst lede I’ve ever had on a story. But then when I published the book I used that lede this editor didn’t want and now it’s a bestselling book.
Advice for writers who are filled with envy and professional jealousy of your success?
There’s a period when you have to get down there in the mud and hack it out and do a bunch of shit that you don’t even want to admit anymore that you did—like testing out sex toys for Men’s Health Magazine or writing a 5,000 word story for City Paper for $400. You know, all that kind of stuff. Writing stuff that you don’t even understand for financial magazines but you don’t care, you’re just trying to put any kind of words in sequence so somehow you get a check. Years of that. Then you get people—when you start to get magazine work— people come up to you and say, “I want to do what you’re doing,” and I’m like, “Dude, I’m not gonna give you the fucking shortcut. Get back there and do the sex toys story. Take the $500 story for City Paper for 5,000 words.” But what’s happened now that I think is really cool is that the Internet is a whole different game. You’re free from all that servitude to magazine editors. Anybody can… all the bloggers who are getting these book deals are a perfect example… you can cut through the middleman and get right to your public. Anybody who wants to stick it out and work at it, that’s an opportunity. In the past you could have a guy who was a really talented writer and they just got battered by the whole impenetrable wall of editors and magazines. But now, boom, you can just do it. Whether you’re going to stick with it or not is up to you but at least now you have the opportunity.