Talking Tennis, Sports Books and More with Joe Samuel Starnes

A conversation with the author of "Red Dirt," a tennis novel with Southern flair.
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Joe Samuel Starnes is a Southern writer living in New Jersey. His work has appeared in several places including The New York Times, The Washington Post and right here at The Classical. His third novel, Red Dirt, was published in April by Breakaway Books and follows the rise and fall of Jaxie Skinner, a tennis player from Georgia. The following conversation is about the book and tennis and other things.

BH: Most authors setting out to write a tennis novel would probably opt for Wimbledon as their main stage. What made you opt for other venues? Was it planned or did it just sort of happen in the writing process?

JSS: I didn’t set out with a plan other than I wanted to write a novel about a professional tennis player from rural Georgia who comes up from outside the country club and tennis academy channels. I’ve always enjoyed watching the red clay of the French Open, and Georgia, where I grew up and my main character in this novel resides, is famous for its red clay. Years ago some courts in Georgia used the natural clay for the surface, although you don’t see it anymore. In the opening chapter, my main character’s father scrapes a red clay court out of the backyard of their farmhouse, so it made sense that the terre battue of Paris would be his first big breakthrough. For his come back years later, the U.S. Open in New York seemed like the best place to make a run.

BH: On the novel’s jacket is the claim “Red Dirt is the Rocky of tennis novels”, but the novel’s shape and sentiments also embody Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and Walter Tevis’ The Hustler and The Color of Money. What novels, either sports-related or not, did you consider in the writing of Red Dirt?

JSS: The Natural is certainly a novel I’ve long admired, and I re-read it while writing Red Dirt. I like your comparison to Tevis’s books about pool—I read Jon Wertheim’s excellent nonfiction book, Running the Table: The Legend of Kid Delicious, the Last Great American Pool Hustler while writing an early draft, so maybe there’s some subtle influence there. Another sports book by a writer I greatly admire is Budd Schulberg’s boxing novel The Harder They Fall. Boxing and tennis share more than most might initially think—both are individual sports that pit competitors head-to-head in one-on-one struggles trading punches or shots.

BH: Did you happen to read any novels or books that dealt specifically with tennis?

JSS: There aren’t that many, and there are fewer good ones, but my two favorites were from the 1980s: Michael Mewshaw’s Blackballed, and a translation of a slim Swedish novel by Lars Gustafsson called The Tennis Players.

I thought the void of fiction about tennis would be to my advantage, but I learned when it came time to find a publisher that literature about tennis, especially novels, doesn’t sell very well. When you go into any bookstore, most of the sports shelves hold books about baseball and golf, fewer about football and basketball and running, and then a small selection about tennis, down next to about the same amount of books about volleyball and windsurfing. I’m still not sure I understand why there is such a smaller body of writing about tennis when compared to golf and baseball. My agent told me that editors have a theory about sports books that says the smaller the ball, the better the books sales: golf and baseball books have big audiences, but football and basketball don’t sell very well. The problem is that this formula leaves out tennis altogether. A friend of mine, golf writer Tom Coyne, and I stumbled upon a theory in conversation based on the speed of the sports in relation to books. In a slower sport, there is more time for reflection and storytelling, hence the appeal of literature about those sports. Golf and baseball move at a leisurely pace, but tennis is quick, with little time for reflection. I think there might be some truth in this idea, but I still don’t understand why there is exponentially more literature about golf than there is tennis. Tennis has a long and epic history with no shortage of colorful characters.

BH: Several matches within the novel are described by Jaxie as the most important of his career. He also finds himself saying of several off court moments that they are incomparable or just can’t be beat. What’s the value of such a philosophy, especially for an athlete? 

JSS: Considering I played all of the big points very badly in a close 4.5 USTA league doubles match I lost just the other day, I’m not one to consult about sports psychology. But I do think it’s true that a player who rises to the top can look back and pinpoint any number of matches on the way up that if they had lost, they never would have made it higher up into the game. For my own mediocre junior tennis career, I know I lost a number of matches that kept me from moving up, mostly in the Georgia State Qualifyings, which was the stepping stone to the Southerns and ultimately the nationals, neither of which I reached.

BH: The novel does not exactly portray Andy Roddick or the state of U.S. tennis in the most flattering light. Are the failings of contemporary American players singular or is there something about U.S. culture that has impeded the development of its players not named Serena? Should we even being using the word ‘fail’ at this level of competition?

JSS: By no means we should consider Roddick or John Isner or the other Americans in the top 100 as failing. The legacies of Sampras, Courier, Agassi, McEnroe, and Connors were impossible acts to follow. Yes, it has been a dozen years since an American, Roddick, won a Grand Slam, but the game is so tough and so competitive, I don’t think we appreciate the skill that players in the top 250 have developed, much less the top 20. Most fans who flock to the U.S. Open and ooh and ahh over the top players wouldn’t cross the street to watch a Challenger match between players ranked in the 100s, but all of those players are immensely impressive and have devoted their lives to get to where they are.

As far as tennis and American culture, it’s no secret that there are far fewer players on tennis courts and the game has a lower profile in this country than in the seventies and eighties. I can think of at least two places where tennis courts were paved over for parking lots. I’m not sure what caused the decline, but possibly it’s due to the rise of many other games for kids to play like lacrosse, soccer, and field hockey.

And I did have a little fun with Roddick in the novel. The truth is it’s probably because he is my mother’s favorite player and maybe I’m a little resentful (and bless my parents’ hearts, all the sloppy junior tennis they watched me play). He’s definitely the tennis son my mom never had. I watched many of his matches over the years, and pulled for him in a number of Davis Cup matches I attended, including 2007 when he led the U.S. team to the cup, but I also saw him unravel a few times in big matches and those were on my mind when I wrote the novel. Because this book took me longer to write and find a publisher for than I had planned, by the time it was published I had to bring him out of retirement for the U.S. Open scene. In the first five or six drafts, he was still playing, but then he retired in 2012. One of my favorite things about writing fiction, you can do almost anything you want in telling your story, like bringing Andy Roddick out of retirement. It is an interesting coincidence that he is coming out of retirement this summer to play a doubles match in Atlanta in a few weeks; I wouldn’t be surprised to see him return to play singles at some point.

BH: Another element of the novel that was rather enjoyable is its appreciation of tennis style. Besides Bjorn Borg, what players would you deem stylish?

JSS: I’m not that interested in fashion, although Borg’s Fila warm-up suits and shirts of the seventies had a distinct look that’s hard to forget. I am fascinated with the way players carry themselves on the court, and how they strike the ball. The one-handed backhand winner that Stan Wawrinka hit around the net post in the finals of the French Open still boggles my mind. Being that my backhand has been shaky for forty years, I’m a big admirer of Wawrinka’s backhand, as well as Federer, Richard Gasquet, and the retired Justine Henin.

As for looks, I saw Anna Kournikova play a few matches at the U.S. Open after the turn of the millennium, and I definitely understand what all the fuss was about. She was like a movie star, walking out onto the court like she was Lana Turner making that first appearance in the Postman Always Rings Twice. I remember visiting my younger brother once when he was in college and he and about five of his friends, none of whom were even remotely interested in tennis, were all sitting around a television watching one of her matches very intently.

BH: Any thoughts on how the rest of the 2015 tennis season will unfold? What developing storylines are you looking forward to?

JSS: I had hoped to see Djokovic roll into New York with a chance for a calendar Grand Slam, but as tough as the competition is, I don’t know if a calendar year slam will ever happen again on the men’s side. There’s a reason it last happened in 1969. I am hopeful Serena can finish the second half of a calendar slam, but when you think about the prospect of winning 28 matches in a row at the highest level, it’s probably too much to ask. I always pull for John Isner, being that we are fellow University of Georgia alumni, and would like to see him make a big run somewhere, especially now that he is into his thirties.

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