(Steven) LeBron's Decision: Talking To Alex Wong About His New Book

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One of the most consistently exciting and rewarding and generally best things about doing what I do at The Classical is the opportunity to get to know -- if, generally, not actually meet -- so many new writers from so many different places and backgrounds. Our writers are our readers, by and large, and judging from my experience with the readers that have become our writers, you're a pretty interesting group of people. Great-looking, too. Really like that sweater. I'm off topic, sorry. But you look great.

As different as our writers are, though, there is one question they tend to ask, or one broad category of question. In short, it's "how?" -- as in "how does one pitch an article, or report an article, or get read, or get closer to making a living as a writer?" For all the intermittently horrifying/haphazard democratic leveling that the internet provides, there is still the sense -- and after years of making a living as a freelancer, I never really stopped feeling it -- that there is a secret code to which those of us on the outside just aren't privy. This looming "how" is the sort of secret and mostly unleveraged latent solidarity that freelancers know: we are, all of us, on the outside, and work in the shadow of that brief and daunting question. What we can do about that, in terms of helping each other out, is another question, and a good one. The more immediate question, though, is how we can best do this thing we're trying to do.

Alex Wong, who has written several pieces for us on The Classical, is one such outsider: an accountant and sports fan in Toronto who wanted to write about sports, and went about doing just that. When he had written enough to put out a book of his greatest hits, Wong decided to do it -- not through the byzantine and "how"-haunted publishing process, or by going the ultra-open e-publishing route, but simply by doing it. Wong brought together a talented group of artists, including some who will be familiar to readers of this site and our magazine, and made Steven Lebron: Volume One, a slim and beautifully illustrated actual-paper book of his writing, including several pieces that first ran on this site. I talked with Wong over email about why -- and, yes, how -- he went this route, and the book that resulted. You can learn more about it, and order it, here.

The story of how you came to write about sports -- let alone came to pull together a book of your writing about sports -- is an interesting one. Talk a little bit, if you can, about how you came to this point, and why you decided that self-publishing a book was the next logical step for you?

I don’t think people who follow me online know this, but I’m a CPA -- I think it’s Chartered Public Accountant in Canada, I’m not fact checking this -- in real life and I’ve worked in audit and financial analyst jobs for almost seven years since graduating from university. I’ll skip the part where I deep dive into how I feel meaningless at work and needed an outlet to express these thoughts and explore my creative side through writing, but that’s pretty much how I started to write regularly online in 2011. I’m from Hong Kong, having immigrated to Canada in 1993 as a third-grader, and started following sports a few years later.

I remember even early on, the appeal of sports went beyond just watching the games. I had such a great time devouring Sports Illustrated every week, and later with SLAM, and more recently of course, sites like Free Darko, Norman Einstein’s, Hardwood Paroxysm and now The Classical really pushed the possibilities of sports writing and made me want to be a part of it.

The idea for self publishing a book came to me early last year. I had found this community of illustrators who shared the same enthusiasm for sports as me, and were expressing that excitement in their own way. What I was trying to do with words, they were doing with images. While obviously not the first person to think this, I thought it would be cool to gather some of the writing I had done so far, along with new writing ideas that I had yet to pursue, and put together an anthology, and at the same time create a product that [brought together] two mediums. I’m not naive enough to think that I’m anyone who belongs on the A-list of great writers, so asking anyone to support a project of just my writing seemed doomed to fail, I needed my writing to only be one part of the project, a compliment of sorts to the artwork.

There were so many sports stories I wanted to write about, topics I wanted to tackle. There are personal pieces like a really lengthy article I wrote about my high school basketball career, which ended up in its final form becoming a longer narrative about being an immigrant in Canada, and finding yourself in a new country, with a new language and new people, and how basketball helped in some regard. There are also pieces that center around athletes such as Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant and Jeremy Lin. As I’ve written more, I’ve come to realize that the best sports pieces are sometimes ones that really aren’t about sports at all, but more about what you extract from the sport experience as a whole.

So, these athletes become a vehicle for larger ideas. The Carter piece is really about exploring the whole concept of loyalty in sports, between the fans, the home team, the athlete on that team and the franchise. The Kobe piece explores our expectations, and how they change over a career arc of a particular player, and how we have this desire to pursue the idea of a perfect athlete that doesn’t really exist. The Lin piece, not surprisingly, gets into the insecurities and day-to-day issues of being Asian in North America, and how our reaction (and my reaction) to the Linsanity story as it unfolded reflected those traits and what if anything there was to take away from that magical time in New York.

These aren’t new ideas, but I wanted to lend my own voice to them and hopefully give people another take that could make them think about things from another perspective. I mean, I’m not upset if people get the book because it looks beautiful, but at the same time I wanted to make sure that, if they actually read the words, they would find some quality there too.

For me, the decision to self-publish the book can best be explained by a book I read last year by the author David Grann titled The Devil & Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession. In the book, Grann profiles people that are relentless in the pursuit of something. Among these are Richard Lancelyn Green, the most renowned Sherlock Holmes fan in the world, who spent his entire life drowning in the fictional works of Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to the point that he became driven to retrace every detail of Doyle’s life in order to write the definitive biography on the man. There’s also a marine biologist from New Zealand who repeatedly ventures into the seas in search of the giant squid, the Holy Grail for oceanographers. Even Rickey Henderson is in the book, as Grann details his obsession of getting back to the major leagues even at the age of 48.

As a collection of pieces, the idea of people pursuing what they truly believe in resonated with me. You could say that this was my inspirational quote poster.

There’s a quote in there that resonated with me. The piece was about Forrest Tucker, a notorious stick-up man and escape artist who accumulated millions of dollars through decades of thievery. Even though he was arrested many times, he would constantly escape from prison, sometimes even just for a few hours before he would be found and returned to custody. This pattern of repeated behavior led one of his relatives to observe, “I think he had this desperate need to show the world that he was somebody.”

I think at the heart of it, that’s what this book really is. It’s fun, there’s insightful writing in there (I think), there are wonderful illustrations (I know). From my perspective, it’s the answer to the question: “what are you doing to pursue what you really want, instead of complaining about your current predicament?”

I know that you live in Canada, where things are different: Actual living drug-loafs are elected to run major cities, u's are added to the spellings of words seemingly without concern for the consequences, people are both kind and somehow circumspect not to just eat poutine at every meal and die at 24. But I presume the print-is-dying/print-is-dead conversation is happening by you as well. Why did you decide to do this as a print book, as opposed to an ebook?

I don’t come from a journalism or writing background, but just by being online so much and reading so many things that come through the Twitter timeline, it’s hard to not see where the print industry is going.

For me, personally, I looked at it from a consumer’s point of view. And, as a consumer, I've always valued the physical possession of something. I collect sports jerseys, comic books, action figures, Criterion Collection movies, and even as digital options have sprung up for just about everything, I’ve held steadfast the belief in buying actual books, carrying them around, reading them and finding a place for it on the bookshelf when you’re done (sometimes, half done).

I’m confident that if you ask people who write, they would tell you that all else being equal, they would rather publish a physical copy as opposed to the ebook. Of course, all else isn’t equal in reality, and ebooks does provide the advantage of a more cost-effective method of making your product available or profiting off it.

But for me, I approached this project not as a business venture -- again, I have a Bachelor in Business Administration, I’m really glad my parents aren’t regular visitors of The Classical -- but just finding a way to come up with a physical product that those in the sports writing and art illustration community would find appealing, and delivering it at a cost that was manageable for me.

There's a great deal of (awesome-looking) original art in the book, much of it by artists that Classical readers and magazine subscribers will recognize as old friends. How important was it for you to have this much art in the book, and why? And how did you (and the artists) approach this collaboration?

The art part of the book was very important to me. I would say there are at least three or four pieces in the book that are very much driven by the illustrations.

I touched on some of the longer-form pieces above, but there are also fun short pieces like a three-part Dennis Rodman series -- he really needs to relax with the North Korea thing, or I might have to push the print schedule for the book back to write an afterword -- that looks at specific moments of his tenure in San Antonio, Chicago and Dallas.

There are a few short pieces on Richard Hamilton’s mask, John Strickland’s tryout with the Knicks. From a word count perspective, it’s limited, but with thanks to the hard work of my art director Mark Malazarte, the words and art are put together in a way that breaths life into a piece that otherwise might be just one or two paragraphs on a really sad looking page.

In terms of collaboration with the artists, it was a very simple process. I would send over a draft of the written pieces to the illustrators and they would pretty much have carte blanche to create what they thought would be a fit for the article. Most of the artists in this book I had worked with previously at my blog or elsewhere, so there was a comfort level and trust that I knew they would deliver quality regardless.

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