An Interview with
Interviewer Luan Gaines:What was your inspiration for Winners?
Eric B. Martin: The story came to me in two pieces. First piece: I've been playing pick-up basketball my whole life with guys called Skeletor, D1, Porno, that kind of thing, guys of every shape and size and color and kind. But none of those differences mattered on the court--the point guard robs convenience stores? the power forward's the world's best kindergarden teacher?-- and you can play with these guys week after week for years and never know who they are. But then this guy I played with killed himself, and it brought the walls tumbling down and pulled us together in this strange and powerful way. We had to know about those outside lives, suddenly, we had no choice, and it made us realize what the bonds of the court really meant.
Part two was the insanity that was San Francisco during the bubble years. As a writer, you find yourself in the middle of a moment like that and you think: history is happening right now. Grab it. But what I was interested in was how this American dream on steroids--from slacker to millionaire in 30 days or less!--changed the relationships between people who thought they knew each other, even loved each other. The human cost of the boom. Money changes everything. You live through a boom like that and your ideas about money and what it does to people will never be the same.
Chimney sweep is an unusual occupation. Besides working for himself, how does Shane feel about continuing his father's business?
I'm not a chimney sweep, although I met a woman a few weeks ago who'd read the book and wondered if I could come over and clean her chimney. There's something romantic about chimney sweeping, isn't there--Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Danny Kaye singing cheerfully with smudge all over his face. But basically, chimneys still get dirty, and chimney sweeps still clean them. It's one of those professions that's more prosaic than it sounds. But the magic of it is that going to work means being on the roof all day. And for Shane, that's worth alot. He loves San Francisco, and he loves it best working by himself, alone, sitting on top of the city, he would never want to work inside, in an office, even though he could. You work outside, you work for yourself. That's the other thing about being a chimney sweep: you can work alone. That's the kind of guy Shane is.
There is a particular camaraderie on the basketball court, a guy's world where they recharge before dealing with real life. Is this common in your experience?
Basketball takes its toll--you play long enough, you're going to get hurt, bad--so there must be something about it that keeps us coming back for more. And that thing doesn't quite have a name. I do know that there's nothing like that feeling of doing something with strangers, or semi-strangers, and yet having this single goal, this single understanding of the way things work, and not saying a word. I've played ball all over the world, and it's the most amazing way to meet people. You sweat and bump and fight and shoot with guys in Mexico, Germany, Thailand, Ecuador, Brazil, and in that moment you're just one of them, just a player on the court. The court destroys differences. It's all about how you play. And it also annihilates time and troubles. You can't concentrate on your problems and play basketball at the same time. It's simply not possible--I've tried. So you get up there and play hard and then sit on the sidelines talking about nothing. For alot of guys, that's pretty much as good as it gets.
At first glance, Shane and Lou appear complete opposites, but their personalities actually balance the marriage. Is this due more to Shane's attitude than to Lou's? Why/why not?
They make each other laugh. That's a good place to start. And Lou--it feels weird to explain this, but here goes--Lou comes from a broken family where she was her daddy's girl until her father left her mother for a younger woman. So she sees Shane as the most stable human being on the planet. And he is, or was. And Shane loves Lou for making life seem exciting, even when it's not. I feel like I'm gossiping about my characters. It's so naughty. Lemme just say that they're a good couple, that opposites do attract, and I'll leave it at that.
Lou is magic at her job, but not very aware of her spouse. Does she ever consider her recent disengagement with Shane?
Yeah, it registers, but she simply doesn't have time to deal with it, and she trusts Shane so absolutely and completely (he's the most stable human being on the planet, after all) that she thinks she can put it off and deal with it later. You can't overstate the work frenzy of the boom: people were willing to work 16-hour days seven days a week, because they really did think they would be millionaires in a year, and never have to work again for the rest of their lives. And all of these couples, like Shane and Lou, made these tacit agreements that okay we'll just put our lives on hold.
Why is Shane so patient with his younger brother?
Jimmy's the baby of the family. The baby of the family gets away with murder. And Jimmy, like Lou, makes life interesting for Shane. He's got verve, he's got spark, he says stupid things and does stupid things and Shane gets to be a little stupid and irresponsible vicariously through him. And Shane's the man of the house, he has to take care of Jimmy, no matter what, just like his dad used to do, and Jimmy knows that, and also understands Shane better than anyone, especially when it comes to his injury. So that's a long way of saying Jimmy gets away with as much as he possibly can.
Shane is fascinated by Sam's potential as a basketball player and what that talent means for his future. Is it only the young man's talent that causes the others to care about him, or something more difficult to define?
That's one of those questions that makes me just wanna say: thank you. There must be something more difficult to define, which maybe is why Shane can't define it. But he feels it. Everyone feels it. There's something about this kid. And part of it has to do with your question about Jimmy: Shane takes care of people, he solves problems, and here, in Sam, is a problem he thinks he can solve.
The quest for the missing Sam takes Shane and Jimmy to unexpected places, where their wits are vitally important. Is Shane surprised by the harsh reality of Berkeley versus the projects? Has he ever directly experienced the projects before?
Shane doesn't know anything about the projects. He's seen 'em. But he's never thought about what went on there, just knew that he had no reason to go there and that he didn't belong. Now he's got a reason. He's got to cross the lines of race and class that don't get crossed a whole lot in this city--any anywhere, really--and he doesn't know how to do it. And that's a bizarre feeling for him, that he grew up in San Francisco, this is his town after all, but he steps into the projects and he might as well be in Bangladesh or Mars.
Your description of the basketball game in the projects is intense. What is the most revealing aspect of this hardcore game for Shane and Jimmy?
But it's not Bangladesh. It's not Mars. It's San Francisco, and basketball is the way in. You step on that court and if you can play--and Shane can play--that's your ticket in. So the stakes are high in that game, because he knows that if he can get someone's respect by playing ball, then he might have a chance at getting the help he needs to find Sam. And even then, even when he knows the stakes are high and the pressure should be on, he steps on that court and forgets about why he's there, it's just the game, a hard game, a game that pushes him to the limit physically, and he loves it, he feels more alive there than he has for a long, long time. Let the contradictions begin!
Debra, Sam's mother, is an enigmatic character, clearly wary of the young men's intentions. Why does she let Shane and Jimmy into the apartment?
Debra is sharp. She sees immediately that these guys are not a threat, but she knows that having a couple of white guys on your doorstep, that news gets around fast, and a part of her just wants to get them off her doorstep even if that means bringing them inside. But the real reason is that she's powerless, she's got no one on her side, and in that split second when Shane and Jimmy show up she's sees that possibility of getting someone. It's not as mercenary as it sounds. It's part survival and part loneliness and part what do I have to lose.
Why is Shane so willing to help Debra? What keeps him coming back?
I don't know if I can answer that one. Not because I don't know. But because in a sense that's what I spent three years figuring out as I wrote the book. What is Shane looking for? Where's he going to find it? What do Sam and Debra mean to him? (insert enigmatic look here and key eerie music...)
How does Shane feel about his life with Lou in contrast to Debra's world?
Shane's behavior is more erratic after he introduces Lou to David Fulton. What is the dynamic at play here? What is Shane's instinct telling him about Fulton in general?
Shane wants to help his wife. And this Fulton guy likes Shane for a bunch of different reasons, which puts Shane in the position to help his wife. But it means giving her up even more than he already has. So as Lou and Fulton start doing business together, Shane sees Lou less and less, gets sucked into Sam's world more and more, and the contrast of those two worlds starts tearing him up. Partying in a Pac Heights mansion one night and hanging out in a one-bedroom apartment in the projects the next. Shane knows Fulton is bad news, although he thinks that bad news is mostly harmless. So Fulton likes to drink, do drugs, flaunt his money, go slumming in strip clubs and bad neighborhoods, so what? Shane can hang out, do a little partying, which he doesn't mind, he's a guy's guy like that, and help out his wife along the way? Good deal, he thinks.
How does David Fulton personify the greed of the dot-com invaders and their attitude toward success at any cost?
Fulton is actually extraordinary, I think. He's got more perspective on the moment than most people did. But the Fulton's of the world were and are interesting. They've got their money, they're going to have more, and now they want to make things interesting. They want more out of life than money or love. They want excitement, and they're willing to do anything to get it. Now, most of the dot-com types were not like this. They saw a moment in history when they could get rich, and thought they had to take it. But the Fulton's saw a moment when they could take what they already have and bring it to another level. And that level of wealth would allow them to become more than just rich. They could shape this city in their image, squeeze a good time out of every corner and person in it. Fulton isn't greedy anymore for money, not really. He's more greedy for a good time.
Although married to the down-to-earth Shane, how is Lou any different from the rest of the profit-centered dot-com culture? Doesnít some part of Shane recognize this?
She is, she has that side of her that has perspective. She makes jokes about herself, and about the e-people. But she's also ambitious. She's more ambitious than she knew she was. If the opportunity of the dot-com boom hadn't presented itself, she might never have known. But now she knows. And her ambition is not all about money: it's about creating something new, something her own. That she shares with Fulton. And if the boom hadn't come along, she would have channeled that into something else.
The ending is a killer. Did you plan to finish the book like this or did the ending write itself?
The book changed a lot over the years I was writing it, and the ending changed with it. But when this ending came, it came all in a rush, and I knew that was it, and that the book was really done.
Have you lived in the area you write about? Do you play ball?
I've lived all over San Francisco, but when I started the book I was living in Potrero Hill, about six blocks away from the projects where Samson lives. I'm not getting any better anymore, but I still play a lot of basketball.
How broadly has gentrification changed the character of San Francisco?
We're still trying to figure that out, which is a good thing, I guess. It keeps happening. They're not making any more San Francisco, and they are making more people, who will always want to live here.
Have you always written with this edgy style?
I think so, I dunno, it's hard for me to tell. I know that my ear as a writer is the one thing I absolutely trust. So I hear my words a certain way and I know if they're right or wrong. I don't think that's something that will ever change a lot, although I guess it could.
How long have you been writing? Can you talk about your publishing experience?
I'm a lifer. Maine in the winter, where I grew up, was all about books. Reading and reading and reading and eventually you want to get in the game yourself. I wrote as a kid, I wrote as a teenager, I wrote as a young adult. I loved novels. Short stories and poetry and journalism never really interested me much. So the novel was what I wanted to write.
I wrote one when I was 22 or something like that. And wrote another one which was basically the same novel when I was 25. Then I went to graduate school where I developed better habits, if not much else, and that's where I wrote the first draft of Luck, which I finished in '98, sold in '99, and published in 2000. That's how long these things take, sometimes. Now I'm with MacAdam/Cage, this great San Francisco publisher, and they're going to publish my next book, too. I'm in the middle of that one. Most of it takes place in Mexico.
Are you working on another novel, and if so, can you share something about it?
Right now it starts like this:
She has never been inside a bus station before. Until a month ago she didnít even know Austin had a bus station, or where youíd find it, or who or what the hell went on there. For her first 18 years of life, buses and their stations have been none of her business. Now she stands in line behind two crusty senior citizens, a family of six chopping it up in Spanish, and an incredibly pale woman with an ass the size of Arkansas. So thatís who, she thinks. Ugly runaways and old folks and Mexicans and asses sized for Arkansas.
Do you have any advice for would-be writers?
The standbys: read and write as much as you possibly can. And one twist on the old maxim: write what you know--but know a lot.
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines interviewed Eric Martin, author of Winners (see accompanying review), about her book via email for curledup.com. No part
of this interview may be reproduced without permission. Luan Gaines/2005.