Tweetables by Mary Pilon (@marypilon):
“I can’t think about writing a big project. It’s too overwhelming for me but I can think about a thousand words a day and then this magical thing happens which is you end up with 90,000 words.”
“I think you have to have the basics down as a writer before you can even think about playing with how to tell it. I would say I spend 80 percent of my time on this one reporting and another the other 20 writing.”
The Creative Nonfiction Podcast (subscribe) is the show where I speak to the world’s best artists about creating works of nonfiction: leaders in narrative journalism, essay, memoir, radio, and documentary film to tease out origins, habits, routines, key influences, mentors, self-doubt, so you can say, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool. I’m not alone. I’m not a loser.’ And apply those tools of mastery to your own work.
I welcome back Mary Pilon, who hasn’t been on the show since Episode 18, now we’re on Episode 90.
Mary comes back because she has a new book out: The Kevin Show: An Olympic Athlete’s Battle with Mental Illness. Have you ever heard of Truman Show disorder, where people think they’re on a reality show? Well, Mary’s central figure, Kevin Hall, had that before the movie The Truman Show was even a thing.
Mary does an incredible job with this story and I think you should pull out your preferred method of payment and go buy the book.
Hey, you know the show needs reviews and ratings, right? If you leave an honest review, I’ll edit a piece of your work up to 2,000 words. Just show me evidence of your review and I’ll reach out. It’s that simple. You can leave a rating too, which takes about five seconds, also helps the pod, but that doesn’t get an editorial consult.
Transcript of Ep. 90
Brendan: Right. So so and during our last conversation two years ago. Kevin show which is your book that’s coming out which will have been out for three days one by the time this podcast airs. Yeah. And so it’s out in its nascent stages then. So how did you come to this story and then realize that it was going to be what it turned out to be which is this long and you know a great you know long book-length worthy project to
Mary Pilon: Both of my books the monopolist and the Kevin and show accidents great accidents though. I heard about Kevin Hall from a colleague of mine at The Times Andy Lehrer and he walked from a desk and was like hey there’s this really rare thing called a Truman Show disorder and I think this Olympian had that. And he knows me well enough to know that again like my mother worked as a shrink and I kind of had carved out this niche of doing offbeat sports stories and sometimes that also meant dealing with folks who were you know quite frankly unhinged or angry or I was doing a lot of yoga at the time so if it were stable dealing with angry agents and you know whatever controversies might arise. So I reached out to Kevin kind of thinking like any reporting call it’s like you know nine out of ten times, people don’t don’t get back to you.
Or you know at best I thought maybe it’s a cool Sunday dress page story. You know I. And then as I kept talking to Kevin I thought well maybe this is more than like a cool Sunday dressed or maybe something more like tomato can working you know convince people that the folks on the digital staff that kind of put some more resources into it and then I got laid off in the middle of it.
But I was working on it. Kevin stopped in my spare time and I kind of left the door.
I was like well I want to keep doing this story. I think it’s really important. It’s about the reality of being an athlete.
It’s about mental health which you know even now more than then feels so important to me to be changing the way we talk about and I kept and I had to make this really awkward you know reach out to Kevin and say hey I’m so interested in this story and I really want to put more into it. I totally lost my job this week. And you know I got to he believed in me like I was like You know I don’t know where I’m in the land but I really really want to do this. And I think you know he’s I mean he’s done three or four America’s Cups and the Olympics.
He’s seen the good and bad of the media cycle and I wouldn’t blame him if part of it was like Oh yeah right like she’s really got to follow through with this. And I kept reporting and reporting and I was freelancing and thought well maybe it’s a magazine piece. But then the the weirdness of the story and kind of the scope of it got so big that I had you know stacks and stacks of notes and interviews and I thought God there’s a technology piece there’s a sports page there’s a mental health piece. There’s a science piece there’s all this stuff and I called the agent and I was like my book agent and I said you know I have a mountain of stuff I haven’t even pitched this anywhere because I don’t know if it’s an Esquire story or if it’s a Times Magazine story I don’t know if it’s a multimedia thing and she said Mary that’s called a book like what you’ve described.
Like it has a beginning middle and end and it’s really long and you know that’s what the book is and I was so I had a blast promoting The Monopolists. But I was exhausted. You know I was like God I spent five years in this thing. And I told her I was like I feel like you’re telling me that I am pregnant when I’m in the delivery room. Like the idea of doing another book like is just totally exhausting to me. And she said Well do me a favor and just this weekend just sit and try and write a proposal. Right.
Like if it comes to you great if it doesn’t that’s totally fine. But just just give it a whirl because it seems like you’ve done a lot of reporting on this. And I sat and just like boom 70 pages and that was the first time that had happened to me my monopoly proposal took a year and was agonizing torturous process. And so I thought oh my gosh you know I kind of like went back to my agent with my tail between my legs.
I was like I this is definitely a book and so so that’s how we went about it. But it was totally I was very resistant to the idea from the get go and not having anything to do with Kevin or the merits of the story or why it matters. But just because the whole book gauntlet even though Bloomsbury was great to work with even though the monopolist did well it was like the idea of running a marathon again after you just finished.
Felt like my legs are so tired. Like you’re going to do what?
Brendan: So this story is you know it must have been a challenge for you to report on this story. Everyone is alive and well. Well they’re alive and you had to speak with them about very very sensitive topics. And what was that like for you and how did you garner the trust of everyone involved to be able to then handle this story in such a really tender way that you were able to tell it?
Mary Pilon: That’s a really great question because it is like you know no pun intended but it was a crazy proposition right.
Like I basically was like Hey Kevin I want to talk about your brain and your infertility and your marriage and your family and your teammates and stuff.
And I got to hand it to Kevin and Amanda like I’ve just never asked more of sources than I have of them. I mean just in terms of time and their patience.
And they were able to kind of round out their story with photographs and journals and medical records and all this stuff. And it was incredible. And I don’t know. You know I was talking to Kevin about it yesterday. He told me that his approach was kind of all in and I kind of feel this sometimes with folks I send stories that I’ve done in the past that I think are kind of what I’m shooting for again or give a sense of the tone and if people don’t like the output if they don’t like the work then that’s totally ok. You know. And if they. And so I think I kind of was able to make the case that you know I’m not a tabloid. I’m you know here’s the monopolist here was how I worked with Ralph and that story and what our process was like and I whether it’s a newspaper article or a book I don’t believe in surprises. I don’t want you to say things you’re not comfortable with. We could talk on the record off the record.
You know what what what are your terms that you want to work with? And they were incredible I mean it became this joke that I was like the Hall family biographer because I had never done anything quite like that. I was kind of embedded with them in a lot of ways. And they you know with The Monopolists it was such a departure from my newspaper work because I love history and I love libraries and documents.
But it can get a little lonely because you have these moments where you’re your characters you want to just pick up the phone and say Lizzie McGee like why did you do this. And you can’t.
So it was a nice change of pace for monopoly to have a story that was so that they were still living. You know Kevin was having you know episodes while we were reporting this and so I had to figure out how to report the story while being sensitive to someone who very much dealing with huge life transition. I mean he was on the America’s Cup boat in 2013 that capsized and one of his teammates passed away and that’s I think was a big transition point for him. And you know in the last year or two they they’ve moved back from New Zealand to the United States which has been a big deal and they’ve got young kids and you know so you’re very conscious of OK this is something that someone is you know who’s not necessarily a full public figure. I mean he has been on the national stage and he has competed. But this is something his kids are going to need some day and how you know if it was me how would I want that portrayed. And I think Kevin and Amanda also had some time and distance from a lot of the events in the book. So they were really able to kind of put it into context for what you know certain episodes meant in the grander scheme of things and they just had an incredible amount of self-awareness. And I never reported on delusions before so you know Kevin was really great about saying I know this sounds crazy I probably hallucinated this part this part I think it might be real.
You might want to pull a police report on it and that’s why I kind of try to report around not just relying on Kevin and Amanda because even though they were these wonderful recounters of their stories I realized pretty early on that the nature of mental illness is that it’s experienced by not just the person who has it but their friends their family their teammates their loved ones and I wanted the book to not only serve the Kevins of the world but also the caretakers the family the friends the folks who were kind of on the outside looking in at which is something that evolved in the reporting. I didn’t set out originally to switch the perspective each chapter but I realized you know a little bit in that like that was going to be I think a more effective way of telling the story.
Brendan: The way that I kind of approached the reading of it you know given that Kevin’s bipolar disorder gave him these manic episodes that made him feel like he was part of a reality show and in a sense going from character to character. It was almost like changing the channel to. And so it was kind of like a TV experience at least for me like reading like I
Mary Pilon: Oh, that’s funny, I didn’t even think of that. Yes let’s go with that. Sure.
Brendan: But yeah whether you know whether that was the intent or not you do go from Kristina to you know the Gordon the father?
Yes am my remembering that right?.
And like Suzanne. Yes Suzanne. So like you go from each person to each person so you’re kind of like in the head of that person each time and so how did how did you arrive at that as your way of moving this whole family through this story.
Mary Pilon: Oh Lord I note-carded this one’s so hard. I had different colored note card for each character because I have a big note carder in general with longer projects. So and the structure when reading and doing a lot more work with screenwriting partially because that kind of grew out of the work with monopoly because I realized if I was going tell a longer story I needed to really go back to school on structure and how you piece those things together and so the monopolist was in some ways a harder book to structure because I had all these different timelines that were going back and forth and I was so worried about it not making sense.
Because you’re going back and forward in time with the Kevin show with the exception of the first chapter, which I knew pretty early on I wanted to open with. I really wanted to make it chronological. I felt like the nature of his the disorder was changing as he was growing up and I really wanted readers to kind of come of age with this with him and the idea of switching chapters.
You know I’m a big obviously reader of fiction and it’s actually a technique that you see is the mysteries and thrillers. And part of the reason I think it’s effective is that we as the reader know stuff that the other characters don’t. And with what I was finding in my reporting is that you know that there were actually wasn’t much disputing the facts. You know Kevin or Amanda or Morgan his teammate or whoever would they would agree on the dates the times the places like all of the kind of reporterly details. But their experience of them was so different which to me was more like a mystery right that you can be at a dinner party and if you’re sitting at one end of the table it’s very different than if you’re on the other and you’re still the same dinner party and there’s kind of this meta. I mean my head was spinning as I was thinking about this because that’s kind of. You know this meta-thing about reality right.
Like what is reality is a question that like I had in a post it note on my desk for a long time and then the election happened like halfway through all of this and I thought oh my god just been sitting on my own thinking about like male identity and reality TV for the last two years and then this happens.
So at least now like the book will be out and people understand why. And like a little bit extra crazy. And so I just thought like it’s a great tool and in fiction. Why not use it in nonfiction. And I look for examples of nonfiction that was really hard to come by I e-mailed my agent and a few other people like ‘Hey has anybody done this?’ And I honestly don’t know if I was going to work. That was not in my proposal at all. And I kind of cringed when I clicked send on the first draft to Anthony Miller Bloomsbury because I thought oh my God you know this could be like this this isn’t real. And it worked. I mean they were really into it. And I you know I really don’t like sports memoirs as a genre. I think they’re very formulaic and they can get very trite with a few exceptions they don’t really tell you the truth.
They don’t tell you what it’s like to be a supporter of an athlete. And so I kind of wanted to rip apart that genre a bit. So the whole time point of view thing kind of helped with that too. That it wasn’t just one athlete talking how great he is although that’s not really Kevin’s nature anyway. As the book describes so so yeah I wanted to kind of rethink how we tell sports stories too.
More generally yeah.
Brendan: I’m sure you’ve read the how Tracy Austin broke my heart by David Foster Wallace
Mary Pilon: I love that piece
Brendan: Speaking about sports memoirs and the like you know his point in that whole thing is they can’t be reflective because what makes him so great is that they are not reflective people they can just be reactive in the moment. So they can’t really convey that in a way and it’s the thinkers like Wallace who who think themselves out of competitive sports
Mary Pilon: Yeah I mean Wallace is brilliant on so many levels and it was such a thrill to be able to. And he it was a big force for Kevin. You know a lot of I interview people with Truman Show disorder who aren’t named in the book. But in addition to Kevin because I felt like I wanted to understand how his experience compared to other people and one of the things that came up over and over and over again in my interviews and most of these folks were not in the sports world was they all read. WALLACE David Foster Wallace and James Joyce like
It was a secret language. Those two authors really connected with people who have this and a really powerful way and I love Wallace. And I read Joyce but I don’t read it the same way for me. I really need to sit with a pen and a highlighter and really kind of work my way through it. And I thought that that was an amazing lesson about kind of the gift of fiction and how comforting and that really basic sense of like you’re not alone. And I think that Wallace’s work at least to Kevin and a lot of the folks I talked to really really does that. And you know one of the things I love about the Tracy Austin piece is he you know he makes this point that an athlete’s job is to be good at being an athlete it’s not necessarily to be able to describe how eloquently they do it. And yeah you know Kevin and Amanda both just the way they described these delusions and the aftermath and stuff was so eloquent. I mean this is somebody who double-majored in math and French Lit. Like he’s more well-read than English PhDs I know it was such a gift to be able to have someone have these experiences both as an athlete and with the manic depression and be able to describe it in just such great verbal detail. And you know you zoom way out and you think about just kind of the sports landscape now and I would argue that we live in an era where our best athletes are also some of our most eloquent spokespeople like LeBron James Serena Williams Michael Phelps.
These are all folks who have really I think done an amazing job of expressing ideas in a way that is beyond sophisticated and kind of obliterates this you know jock stereotype of that you know that people who are good at sports can’t talk about experience as well. And I don’t know how or why that that is or how that’s become you know Aly Raisman is another name right with all these gymnastic stuff. I mean I don’t know if you could ask her better advocate for sex abuse right now. Gymnastics I mean she’s just been and all those women. So it’s that’s the other thing with this book too that I think was really great. Is it really took everything. I covered three Olympics by the time I was doing this and like it took everything I thought I knew about sports and writing and really turned it upside down and inside out and challenged a lot of that, which was really great. And it was an excuse to read Wallace’s work over and over again.
Brendan: You already mentioned the note cards as a way of keeping things straight. How else did you go about sort of setting up your day so you in your notes and in your general organization so you were keeping things straight and making sure that you were sort of on that narrative line very very well from from cover to cover. So I wonder how you went about structuring that and structuring your work so you could actually pull it off what you did of course.
Mary Pilon: Sure. So I I’m a big believer in Google Docs mostly because it’s searchable and it really really helps me. And I did the same thing that I did with The Monopolists actually a bunch of different investigative projects I’ve worked on as like you create a timeline. I felt like if I didn’t know the order of events and what was really powerful about doing that with Kevin and I told him I really try to include him in the process as much as I could because I wanted.
He was also just really curious about how journalists working how books are made. And I was like Are you sure you’re an Olympian. I think what you do is look like way more interesting.
But one of the things that was really helpful about that is we were able to look at this pattern of like a traumatic thing and then an episode and the relationship of the trauma to the nature of the episode and how long that had been.
So you know after his first episode 1989 in Boston you know Kevin and I talked a lot about what the triggers were for that and he’s described it as it was a fear of failure. You know he was a junior at Brown. It was the first time he might fail at something and that you know he was a world champion as a teenager and that was a really new and frightening thing for him. So it was really helpful to be able to just step back and look at the order of events.
And then I think you have to have the basics down as a writer before you can even think about playing with how to tell it. I would say I spend 80 percent of my time on this one reporting and another you know the other 20 writing. And I like that ratio because when you sit down to write it’s a little less scary you have too much material on your organizing.
So I have a lot of note cards. I had a timeline that was a separate google document. I had all of my interviews. You know just in different folders and then I had you know other documents right so that police reports that’s medical records you know journals all this other stuff and then on top of that this is kind of a lost art. I think I read maybe 10 to 20 books related to this one and the back of the book there’s a big bibliography because I wanted to know what the lineage was. I wanted to know what other mental health memoirs were out there where how is this going to push things forward what sports books were there out there what stories.
You know I had never really written about psychology so I had to understand more about the history of mental health and I don’t know. You know it seems obvious to me that you should read a lot of books before you write one. I think academics are really good about this understanding kind of where they fall into the lineage of scholarship. I think with narrative nonfiction it gets kind of crapped on a lot by by journalists for or against by people being lazy. And I was just always in a library rat and I thought that that was an important process too so kind of. I was running on all cylinders with all of that. And then of course right when I would think I was done with the section I’d find another book or document or something I wanted to weave in. But I’m a big outliner so what’s I’d kind of done that I had made an outline so I was going into the draft. You know bare and I would say I made a schedule for myself of like OK the manuscript is probably going to be 90 to 100 thousand words. I need to do it a thousand words a day. And I just I took a calendar and I marked it out. And you know I had days where I had one by 10:00 a.m. And that was great. And I went on with my life and I had days where it was like pulling teeth and I can’t think about writing a big project.
It’s too overwhelming for me but I can think about a thousand words a day and then this magical thing happens which is like you end up with 90000 words. So I think that like when you take these big projects you have to break them down like that or else you will just totally feel like a loser.
But you have to think of him as a bunch of little wins. And I know I’m a morning person so I just write in the morning. And when I’m fresh and then it kind of gave me the confidence to go through the rest of the day thinking like well OK you know this New Yorker draft might not be where I want it to be and I’m not going to send it in today. But I got I had a good Kevin Show morning so it was a good kind of stabilizer in a strange way.
Brendan: And you did a pretty special thing throughout the whole book and this is a testament to your immense skill as the writer putting this together is that when I was just in the throes of the book like I kind of forgot about you as the narrator. I was like just you kind of dissolved away and I was just left with the story.
Mary Pilon: Music to my ears.
Brendan: Thank you. Thank you for doing it because that is that is so hard to do and when it’s done I was like holy like it’s like I blacked out on like Oh wow. This is Mary writing it. But like for like you know dozens of fruit for almost the entirety the whole book is like oh yeah I kind of forgot that there was actually like someone behind this like I just got that absorbed into it. So that is probably the the ultimate goal of any writer doing this kind of work.
Mary Pilon: That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.
Brendan: How did you pull it off?
Mary Pilon: I really tried with each chapter and again these were real people who I was able to interview to try and get in their heads as much as I could and see it from their perspective.
What what did they have at stake. What were they trying to win or lose. What were they experiencing.
And in the case of just about everybody in the book people were so eloquent in answering these questions and saying I was terrified or I was really excited or I was and you know Kevin’s mother in particular I expanded some of the later pieces because you know her changing about medicine changed quite a bit and I felt like that was really important to include more of.
And then you know I was kind of torn. I’m not like a memoirist at all.
And then at the end one of the notes earlier drafts the book. I rewrote the ending really heavily because I wanted it to be more open ended because the election had happened and one of the biggest notes I got from people was this is such a weird story. How on earth. Like why are you connected to it. And I realized it was about my Aunt Lettie who I never even met.
She died before I was born but her mental illness and then my mother taking on a profession where you know people with mental illnesses weren’t stigmatized they were my mother’s patients she she cared very much about them and that my Aunt Lettie had a life that she lived on a farm and you know raised chickens and wasn’t you know she was treated humanely at a time when that was certainly not the case particularly not for women in rural communities who didn’t have means.
So I think that you know with any story it’s a good note why are you the one to tell it. Why are you here. And you know Kevin I did the thing that you should most reporters shouldn’t do which as I said you know why are you telling me all this.
I remember thinking Like good lord like they’re just so open and so kind and honest about all this stuff.
And he said this is in the book but I want people to know you can be you can be a little crazy and have a life too.
And I thought that’s it. That’s the story that the idea that you know you…. I have a problem with victim stories. Because I don’t know if they serve people very well. And you know Kevin has had the Show his you know pretty much his entire adult life and you know he’s been married for you know 16 odd years and has these three great kids and main Olympic team and has done all this amazing stuff. And I think that that is the hopeful important part of it that just because somebody you know labels you something or you have something going on doesn’t mean that you’re you know forced to live a horrible life. And that was something I thought was really important and made me feel very urgent about about this book because that was a gift that someone of my family had. And I think it’s one that really matters.
Brendan: You know there was a note I had made that even before the Afterward which is when you you pop into too close to close the book I was like this book even though we mentioned you Dissolved the way. To me it still felt like a deeply personal book. And that’s where it comes through. There is a personal connection to you in the story.
Mary Pilon: Well also their family. You know it was interesting to kind of in my head compare contrast you know I grew up with two parents and I’m the little sister. The joke was like I was the Kristina in the book because I understand you know I have an older brother and he still lives in Oregon and we get along great. But he was he was a handful as a teenager and I think he would admit that too. And so I know what it’s like to have an older brother that can like totally take up the room and then be the rebellious one that you know. And there was also a lot of West Coast culture in this book which was fun to return to as well and so I. But then you know I had moments where I really understood where Kevin’s parents were coming from.
And the idea that they really wanted to help their son and be there for him and I have a lot of nieces and nephews and thank God if I you know if there was a young person in my life and my family who was going through this I would be really terrifying and you wouldn’t know what to do and so it was really really personal. And I’ve been heartened by the response that a lot of athletes have given me to because I don’t understand athletes in a lot of ways because I don’t know in journalism nobody lines this up once every four years and says You know one two three and you might even go broke trying to get to the podium.
And so that drive and that focus on that sacrifice to me is just such an extreme example of what so many people go through in their careers and day to day lives.
And I think it’s a story about family ultimately and that’s something that you know is important and fascinating to me and always has been and probably always will be.
So it was a good mix of topics and hopefully you know others agree.
But it’s funny I also just didn’t know anything about sailing. So now I feel like you know I can hold my own in the sailing conversation but that to me is like the least of it. One of the most interesting thing I think about Kevin for sure yeah.
Brendan: How were you able to maintain that sense of fun given the sort of the heaviness of the subject matter?
Mary Pilon: You know I think a lot of the book is very funny sad which is my favorite type of writing. First of all Kevin and Amanda had an amazing sense of humor about all this. They made it really easy because you know. What’s the expression that comedy is tragedy plus time. They really made a lot of that easier for me and they were really just wonderful to work with. I mean they were as low maintenance and you know wonderful.
I mean I just felt so fortunate that nobody was throwing plates nobody was screaming at me nobody was calling me at 4:00 a.m. or you know which considering they lived in New Zealand is very very impressive because of the time change.
So they made that easy.
But also I think when you’re writing a book about wellness in some ways it forces you to assess your own like you know I can’t write a book and say people really need to mellow out and rethink their relationship to technology and take care of themselves when I wasn’t going to do some of that myself.
So I think a lot of this stuff that I kind of wrote off as being like woowoo self-care B.S. I realize like I’m a better writer and friend and colleague when I get a run in in the morning and eat properly.
And so it did kind of force me to think about my own lifestyle and mental health and relationship with the world around me and others because every single piece of that was being examined in Kevin’s life. And I think for better or for worse. So you see the world through the prism of the book you’re working on.