Salem-based sports journalist Roland Lazenby is the author of numerous books, including the best-selling Michael Jordan, The Life, a biography of the basketball star published by Little, Brown in 2014. It has subsequently been translated into 15 languages and remains an evergreen best-seller among basketball books. Other works include Showboat, The Life Of Kobe Bryant, also published by Little, Brown (2016). It has been translated into nine foreign languages, with three more forthcoming. He agreed to spend give some insight to his career and continuing work.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: You’ve had enormous success. What got you started on your path as a biographer?
Roland Lazenby: Well, my first book, about basketball player Ralph Sampson at the University of Virginia, began with my work in the graduate writing program at Hollins University, in 1984 (while I was working full time as a crime and news reporter for the Roanoke Times). Basketball is part of the strain for my work over the years, obviously, but I love writing about family, race, culture, with a deep look at family background which takes a dive into America’s racial history. I love writing about mothers, each and every one very different but with a profound impact on their successful sons. Fathers, too. For years, I’ve also written books about basketball that have little to do with biography. I’ve written or contributed to better than 70 books, dozens of writing contracts with many different publishers. All this work allowed me to get better, to learn, to settle into a writing style and to find a publishing identity, but mostly to do work that for me is personally satisfying and challenging, with the opportunity to travel and to meet and interview many fascinating people.
BCR: I always try to have a biography going as part of my reading mix, and they’re often more of a page turner than the fiction I have going. What do you think attracts your readers to the stories of your subjects or to biography in general?
RL: The family stories, the deep background of the figures I write about, their great, great grandparents, their grandparents, etc. From Jerry West to Jordan to Kobe Bryant, the backgrounds of the families are what drives interest. Readers can get basketball scores and game stories everywhere. I can explain how Jordan’s family evolved as sharecroppers and moonshiners through a series of cultural and societal tragedies. Greatness doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is the product of generations.
Jerry West had a tall mother, an awkward girl who grew into a deeply perfectionist mother who raised a deeply perfectionist son. Perfectionism is a troubling but vital ingredient for many top rank athletes.
Jerry’s mother was named Cecile but everyone in the family called her Cecil, like she was somebody’s uncle. I loved writing about her. She was fierce and angry, silently furious, just like her son.
BCR: That’s such a telling detail. It seems to hold the entire package of her personality. And clearly these people stay with you long after the book goes to print. What project are you working on now?
RL: My current project for Celadon Books (Macmillan) is writing a biography of Magic Johnson, the first of a two-book deal with Celadon.
BCR: You’re built for that. How do you first find your way into a subject? Do you start with a framing question?
RL: Well, for years my instincts for the markets drove my success selling book ideas to publishers. It wasn’t all that complicated for the simple sports books I did at first. That process has grown more complicated over the years as the value of my contracts has grown. Acquisition editors at the publishing houses now use analytics, statistics from internet searches, to guide their decisions on which books they want to do. Those analytics are fine, but I still trust my instincts about what is human, what is powerful. It’s quite a battle to get projects sold these days and into the publishing market place. I’m very fortunate to have found the niche I first began developing 40 years ago. I had no plans for that at the time. I was just trying to honor my recently deceased father (who dies of brain cancer in 1981) who absolutely loved basketball.
…I still trust my instincts about what is human, what is powerful.
BCR: What a tribute! And what a legacy. How about place? You could be anywhere. What role does being in the Roanoke Valley play in your writing?
RL: It’s a relatively uncomplicated place with a low cost of living, a wonderful community in terms of engagement, which is another way of saying I love the folks I meet here. That makes sense because I grew up in Southwest Virginia, went to Virginia Military Institute and Hollins for my education, and worked years here as a newspaper reporter and educator.
BCR: I agree. There’s a lot of opportunity to get involved here, to feel part of the place. What else, outside of writing, fuels your creativity?
RL: I enjoy viewing films, dramatic series, often over and over and over again, a practice that began almost four decades ago during my years in the creative writing program at Hollins. Also, I have spent years interviewing people and teaching interviewing to a few thousand college students. I’ve always enjoyed talking to the fascinating people all around us.
BCR: Are there any key craft tips that you’ve taken from a particular film or series?
Well, I began by studying film as a narrative art under Richard Dillard at Hollins. The structure of cinema offers a constant study in new ways to tell stories. I spend a lot of time pondering characters in cinema. It has long helped me shape the questions i ask in interviews for my non fiction projects. It’s great, I should say, to work in a trade that involves constant learning and engagement and challenge.
BCR: Richard has helped shape a lot of storytellers. How about life tips? How is a favorite fictional character a model for how we might live today?
RL: The closest I can come to answering this question is how a favorite fictional character influences my work. Lloyd Dobler, the main character in Say Anything (Cameron Crowe’s first film, from the late 1980s) is a study in offbeat charisma. It has inspired me to spend years contemplating how and why readers/audiences bond with fictional characters or figures in non-fiction.
I’ve seen Say Anything hundreds of times now. I used to get an absolute rush any time that song, In Your Eyes, came on the radio. Even now it still has a powerful hold on me. See, I’m also not fearful of being absolutely and completely silly.
BCR: That’s terrific! As much as we pretend to admire the conformist who has everything together, we really seem to love outsider with his or her own particular style and sense of self. And no joke: that song was playing on the radio when I turned it on this morning. I’m going to picture you now, holding a boom box over your head. Peter Gabriel sings. It’s a good scene to end on. ★