Episode 17: Wright Thompson on Ted Williams' Cycle of Suffering
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Paul Kix: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Now That's a Great Story, the podcast that examines a single piece of work from the world's greatest writers as a means to help you do your best work. I'm your host, Paul Kix. Today, I'm joined by my friend, Wright Thompson, the best sports writer working today. Wright, how do you feel about that?
Wright Thompson: Well, I mean I don't know why we have to just completely with my inescapable vanity, but it is your podcast.
Paul Kix: Wright is a senior writer a ESPN.com, an executive producer of two television series True South and Backstory, both of which air on ESPN. His story collection The Cost of These Dreams is a New York Times bestseller. His stories appear basically every year in the Best American Sports Writing Anthology, and for eight years, I served as the editor for Wright's pieces at ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. It was kind of hard for us to choose just one story that reflects Wright's ambition and world view as a storyteller, but Wright and I kind of both agree that we should go with his profile of Claudia Williams, Ted Williams's daughter, published 13 years after Ted died. I remember when Wright first told me about it. I didn't want him to do it. As his editor, I didn't see the point. Today, it's my favorite piece. In my mind, the best he's ever done. Mr. Thompson, thank you for coming on Now That's a Great Story.
Wright Thompson:Oh, it's my pleasure.
Paul Kix: Why did you want to write a magazine piece of Ted Williams and his daughter 13 years after Ted's death and two years after an 800 page biography of Ted's life appeared?
Wright Thompson: I think... First, to see it the way I always saw it. It wasn't a profile of Claudia or even Ted, although in the long stretches, it served that purpose. I mean, I think to me it was always a profile of multi intergenerational hurt, and someone like Ted Williams... I wanted to know where someone like that came from, and I wanted to know who someone like that created. I mean, as we talk about it in the story, Ted's mother lived through his entire baseball career and never saw him play, and when she died after he retired, he went home, paid for the funeral, and destroyed all the family photographs. When you know that, you realize that in many ways, everything that Ted was, his stardom, his fame, his celebrity, his greatness, his post career sort of mythology, all of that flows from a pain that existed before he was born and that continued to exist after he died. It was so much news about his children cutting his head off and freezing it, and... Yeah, I read the 800 page biography, which was methodically and very well reported, but it didn't answer the central question I had about Ted, which is why would someone do that? I felt like the more I learned about the cryogenics and all that, the less I understood Ted Williams.
Paul Kix: You have this line that sort of became the North Star for the story. It was he came from damaged people and he left damaged people behind, and I think that kind of eludes to what you were just talking about with his mother. But I'm wondering if you could help us understand how that influenced how he was a father himself.
Wright Thompson: He hated his mother and yet every bit of pain brought to him by her he inflicted on his own children. It's like he could never quite... He felt guilty about it. He wasn't unself aware. He wasn't a dummy. He was a profoundly damaged person trying to manage that. And so what becomes the driving force? Since it is a profile of an existential thing, it's a profile of one family's damage.
Paul Kix: Ted's kind of famous during his day for refusing to come out of the dugout and give a salute to the fans that cheered him on at his at bat. It was that famous home run that he hit. And that's in part because he sees that the Boston faithful and the press, both of which I think he perceived as ridicule, and then throughout his life, he got so mad at his mother. We already talked about the ways in which upon her death that he ripped up the family photos. The first line of his autobiography is him... And I just, this is from that John Underwood book. It's him saying that I'm glad it's over. The greatest baseball player of all time, arguably until that day is saying, "I'm glad it's over." And the reason he says that has as much to do with his anger that he felt on the field as it did away from the field on himself to succeed. And then you come out of that and our first real introduction is to Claudia. And I'm hoping you can help the audience set this up. She's in a parking lot and she's sitting, and she's stewing, and what is she sitting and stewing about in this office parking lot?
Wright Thompson: She is stewing about whether or not she's been invited to this gathering of friends because her father was Ted Williams. She is still struggling to have an identity separate from his fame. What's so interesting is Ted Williams hates, hated his fame, and it was the most tangible piece of a father his children ever had.
Paul Kix: Yeah. Yeah. Could you go, could you tell us the ways in which Claudia was so very much Ted Williams's daughter?
Wright Thompson: Well, I mean she... One, she can curse like him. I mean, this is a family podcast.
Paul Kix: We can go explicit if you want, but I mean some of the things that were in that piece were super explicit.
Wright Thompson: Yeah. No. I mean like she used series of words that I mean... Yeah. Syphilitic as an adjective. I didn't even know that was a thing. I mean, yeah. I mean like crazy stuff. And so, she's hyper competitive. When she wants to learn how to play tennis, it's not enough to play tennis. She ends up as a grown woman on a junior college tennis team. When she starts... I mean, she made a real concerted push to try to be an olympian. She decided she wants to be a nurse, so she wants to get a master's degree from Duke. She also never ever tells anyone who were father was.
Paul Kix: And I find that so fascinating, all of that. But in particular that last bit because there's this quote from her where she goes, "I think I'm looking for the ways for him to still be proud of me." That's when I as the reader, working with you on this, that's when I first realized what this story is about. This woman is trying to live up to the standards of a man who she refuses to acknowledge to the outside world. And so this is one fascinating, complicated woman.
Wright Thompson: And what's interesting to me is that I think that in quiet ways, lots of people are fascinating. I think the outsized nature of Ted Williams' live and and death is gasoline on that. And his offspring carrying so much of him even down to like in their genetic code, demands that it is going to be strange and complicated. I really didn't know, for instance, when this story... I didn't know where this was going to end. I just knew that... It's like not knowing when a volcano is going to erupt, but understanding the tectonic forces at work. You know it's going to because it's just basic geology. And so I knew that this story had all of the actors in place to really have something interesting, and when I started, I didn't know what any of that would be. I mean, it's one of the reasons that I think that I've been very, very lucky to be on staff at a place and to have enough leeway to go do something even when people are like, "I don't see it," because I'm not very good at articulating that, and I also start these stories with no idea what the story is going to be, just knowing that the human actors present in it just guarantee that something interesting is going on. I don't know. Does that make any sense?
Paul Kix: Yeah, no it makes a lot of sense. And this is one, I mean this is part of the reason why I fought you so hard on this because I kept thinking to myself, "What is there to say here?" I mean, aside from just the, well the things we've already discussed, Ted had been dead for more than a decade, Ben Bradley's book had been out for a couple of years. And I'm thinking like, "What is there left for you to... What is there possibly left to say or to do?" But as you're starting to tell me about Claudia, I'm starting to see, "Oh man." Again, it's that North Star idea, he's leaving damaged people behind, and so in some sense, it's like can she break that, right? Can she find a way through that. I'm wondering at what point though did you realize that she was as complicated as the woman who is rendered on the page?
Wright Thompson: Just from trying to secure the time with her. Because I grew to like her a great deal. And so, just because I... Claudia, I wrote about this actually. Claudia's the kind of person that you just want to give her a hug. You could just tell that she's really valiantly struggling with a lot of internal stuff, but the sort of process, the... It took me a long time to get them or her to agree to say yes, and then once she said yes, she was one thousand percent all in, to the point of like just dropping me off in the office at Ted Williams' house where his filing cabinets were and just saying, "Have at it." Just going through his files.
Paul Kix: Why did it take her so long to believe in what you wanted to do?
Wright Thompson: I think that she wanted to make sure that I was interested in her.
Paul Kix: Oh really? And not her dad?
Wright Thompson: Yeah. And I was. I mean, I was a lot more interested in the living embodiment of this multi inner generational pain. And then I just, you know, she's very much a control freak like her father. She had one sort of ground rule of the reporting, which is no one has ever asked me for this before or since, and I'm still not entirely sure what it means, but I had to stay with her and Eric. I couldn't get a hotel room. That was the deal. She wanted me to stay at their house.
Paul Kix: Why?
Wright Thompson: I don't know. But I was like, "All right, well this strange. This is going to be interesting."
Paul Kix: I don't even know that I knew that throughout this whole process. She never gave an explanation for why? She was just like, "You have to stay here with us?"
Wright Thompson: The number of interesting things I talk about, like I don't think I remembered to ask.
Paul Kix: Yeah. Yeah.
Wright Thompson: It's interesting. Like I found... I don't know why I think about God and the after life. I do think... I go back and forth on that a lot. But I do think that people have this energy, whether you want to call it a soul, whether you want to call it energy, or whatever. And that like matter, it is neither created nor destroyed. And it was very, very interesting to see how close you felt to Ted Williams in the presence of Claudia.
Paul Kix: Wow.
Wright Thompson: Yeah, like there was something... I don't know. I found it.. I mean, I love reporting the story because I mean, not to get on my preachy high horse, but this is the sort of stuff we should be doing because there are not that many icons. And like for instance, I don't think there's a single active American athlete who rises to the level of Ted Williams, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan. I mean, maybe Lebron James, you know?
Paul Kix: Yeah. Yeah.
Wright Thompson: Probably, actually you know what I'm wrong. Definitely Lebron James. Who else? I mean, who else?
Paul Kix: Well, I mean, I would argue Tiger Woods, and I mean this was part of the struggle that-
Wright Thompson: Tiger Woods. Yes.
Paul Kix: ... you and I had. You also profiled Tiger, but we wanted to go... You and I wanted to discuss this one I think because it ends up representing much more of an idea, which is harder to pull off than even the Tiger story, which required talking with hundreds of, in the end, hundreds of people who worked in the Navy, many of them Navy Seals, right? She's a complicated woman in a complicated family, and as a result, this was a complicated narrative for you to try to pull off.
Wright Thompson: Yes.
Paul Kix: Could you tell the listener a little bit about the ways in which you struggled with this piece?
Wright Thompson: I mean, it inhabited my life in a way that honestly I feel like I blocked some of it out. It was really terrible. It was the story that almost made me go get a new line of work because I couldn't figure out how to take this idea I had that I was reporting. Do you know what I mean? This was working. I was getting the information and I could not figure out how to create a magazine story shaped box to put it in. I mean...
Paul Kix: And just to be clear, this idea is the... I want to make sure that we're both talking about the same thing. It's the idea of the damaged, the idea of damaged pain, inner generational pain, yes.
Wright Thompson: Yes. Yeah, and I couldn't figure out how to do it. You and I talk all the time about Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love Love in the Time of Cholera and Hundred Years of Solitude.
Paul Kix: Yeah.
Wright Thompson: And the huge sprawling books, and I really struggling. I mean, one of if not the most influential people in my life, and you and I have talked about this, was Jay Lovinger, who recently passed away, who was magazine editor to God, Hunter S. Thompson, Gary Smith, Mike Seger, David Rimnick, David Halberstam, Richard Ford, on and on and on, and was the person who sort of changed me from a aggressive newspaper feature writer into somebody who even considered how to do stories like this. And I don't know how much even you know about this, but like he and I worked on drafts of this, and this is actually sort... this is the last story he and I really worked on together, and it just sort of, we couldn't figure it out. I remember you came in with a really clear, once you were in, you were totally in and had a point of view of it that totally unlocked it to me. And so, there were many drafts of this that existed before whatever first draft you saw. That by the way, bears almost no resemblance to what ended up running.
Paul Kix: Yeah. Yeah. And I think-
I mean there were many, many iterations of the story.
Paul Kix: I think it's probably fair to say, because I remember you and I worked on at least five drafts, but maybe more like six or seven.
Wright Thompson: There'd been three... I don't want to... There'd been at least two full drafts before that.
Paul Kix: Yeah.
Wright Thompson: Maybe more.
Paul Kix: During the midst of all of this struggle, of you shaping it over the course of like months, basically, right? You're constantly working on this piece for the course of months, it's fair to say, right? Right?
Wright Thompson: Yes. Oh yes.
Paul Kix: Okay. So during all of that, this story, as you said a minute ago, it nearly breaks you, and so what... This I do remember from that period. What do you end up doing as a way to try to cleanse yourself of this?
Well, God. So many things. I mean, which one are you talking about?
Paul Kix: I'm talking, okay so if I remember this correctly, one of things you did is you got so frustrated with it not working. And I don't know if I was like officially working with you on this or you were just saying that there wasn't yet something that you wanted to show me. But you went off to go do another story. Am I remembering this correctly? You went to Vietnam? [crosstalk 00:16:34]
Wright Thompson: Yes, no, I totally did that.
Paul Kix: Okay, so what's going on there? Walk us through this.
Wright Thompson: Well, I just need something that I could just crush so I could feel good about myself again, so I could get back into this one. And I think it was that Jason Rabedeaux story. I'm not entirely sure.
Paul Kix: It was. Yeah.
Wright Thompson: Yeah. And so I just needed something that was simple, that... Well, that story wasn't simple, but it wasn't like this. Like where... Every draft seemed to get worse. So I put it up and went about other things, and...
Paul Kix: Had you ever done that before?
Wright Thompson: I don't think so. Not with a level of intension, at least. I'm always procrastinating by inventing new work. That's why these TV shows exist.
Paul Kix: Yeah.
Wright Thompson: Because there was just a story that I couldn't figure out how to write, so now I got to make a God damn television show. Do you know what I mean? Now I'm in it. Now I have to keep making a television show all because a story almost killed me, and I thought, "Well, that's it. It's been a really good run and now I don't know how to do this anymore." It's funny like because I don't remember... It blows my mind sometimes how I... I just get locked into something, and what I really need is distance from it.
Paul Kix: So you get this distance from it in the Rabedeaux piece, and I'm wondering as you're reporting that, are you... You're a confident guy. You've always been confident. Is this at a low point for you when you're reporting Rabedeaux? Are you thinking, "Man, something's not clicking here?" Does this begin to affect you as a writer and even begin to affect some sense of who you are as a person that you're not able to get Williams right?
Wright Thompson: All of these stories in a way that I'm much more... I'm almost uncomfortable to admit, for whatever reason, I end up deeply tied to them in terms of self-worth. I mean, I... You're always looking for the story that is proof you've peaked.
Paul Kix: It's affecting you in some way, right? Whether you want to admit it or not.
Wright Thompson: Well, that and it... No, it definitely is because every magazine wants to be able to write their version of Falling Man, that story by our colleague Tom Junod. And these really great stories are about ideas and the people who are very, very good at this craft are good at figuring out how to take really, really complicated things and put them in magazine size boxes. It's never a failure of the form, it's your failure to visualize the way in which it can work for you. It really felt like one, the failure to be able to figure this out was indicative of some sort of larger failure, and ultimately the fact that we did figure it out made me feel very confident, not just in sort of my ability to try increasingly more difficult nuance things, but also in our ability to do that together.
Paul Kix: Thank you. Thank you. I want to know, I want to go back for people that aren't that familiar with you. From where did you derive this ambition and this confidence in our work?
Wright Thompson: I mean, the ambition, well it's a multi-layered thing. I mean, on one level it's... I'm just broken inside and that's the way I'm broken. I've always wanted... thought that if I did well enough, then I would feel great about myself. I mean, I think the ambition for stories definitely comes from Lovinger. The idea that every story should be about the larger human condition, and that if you're writing a story about... that's just about baseball, then that's a waste of everyone's time. What a story could be definitely was born from him and this belief that... this hope for what it could be, I guess, is a better word than belief. And look, I mean Jay liked to always say that I was very strange mix of arrogance and insecurity. And so, you know, I mean, I'm very confident when things are going well, and I'm... at the bottom of a deep dark well when they're not, which is like... certainly this story, that this was a difficult story. This was therefore a very satisfying story to see on the page.
Paul Kix: All right, so let's get back to the piece. Claudia's own upbringing was challenging to say the least. Maybe as difficult as what this piece ultimately was for you. Could you describe for the listeners what those early years in that isolated cabin were like for her?
Wright Thompson: Well, I mean she lived in Vermont with her mother who was ultimately divorced from Ted and he would pop in and out of their life, but mostly as an instrument of chaos. She went on a school trip to Fenway and some of the other people didn't know. Do you know what I mean? It was like, it was a strange thing that she was connected to him even though he was her father, connected to him in much of the same way that every kid in New England was connected to Ted Williams. Basically, her only friend was her brother. So you end up seeing how devastated she was. I mean, her poor brother just never had a chance.
Paul Kix: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Let's get into that a little bit. So John Henry was a sensitive kid, and you have a couple of passage that I just love, and sum them up so well. If you don't mind, I want to read them. John Henry Williams loved frogs. He loved anything small and weak. During storms, driving up the hill to their house in Vermont, he'd jump out of the car in the pouring rain trying to get the frogs to move before they died beneath the wheels of the car. And then later after their parents divorced, Claudia and John Henry would go to the Florida Keys to visit their father. The first time they visited Ted in Florida together, excuse me, he made sure she knew not to annoy him, advising him to use the bathroom before leaving the airport. At Ted's place, she got a terrible sunburn. Terrified of Ted raging at them, John Henry quietly fed her ice chips and got her Ginger Ale when she vomited from sun poisoning. She was about nine, he was 12. John Henry rubbed Vaseline on her shoulders and told her not to cry. Where did that sensitivity come from in John Henry?
Wright Thompson: I think that he... He's clearly an empathetic kid, and when you're very famous father who you idolize is either missing or mean, I think it forces you to ask yourself all sorts of questions that sharpen your empathy in the same manner as a knife is sharpened. And I think that he was doing for her what no one was doing for him.
Paul Kix: All right, so one night you write in Claudia, and her husband Eric, right?
Wright Thompson: Yes.
Paul Kix: You guys are driving in the rain and she saw something off on the side of the road. Could you describe what happened that night and what she saw?
Wright Thompson: Well, we're driving up the driveway, and... Well, no, no. I'm sorry. We're driving down the road and she thought she saw frogs, and that she had hit a frog. And as we were pulling into their driveway, she stopped and cleared out the frogs so she wouldn't run over a frog.
Paul Kix: Why does she do that?
Wright Thompson: I mean, it's clearly a silent tribute to her dead brother, and she's also protecting the living things she can protect since she couldn't protect the two living things that really mattered to her.
Paul Kix: From the exterior, she's a very difficult hard-assed woman. You see a moment like that and you're able to piece it together in a way that you just described, what it represents. When you get that frog anecdote, is the writer in you starting to think about how this ties in with what you heard earlier?
Wright Thompson: Oh yeah.
Paul Kix: Are you starting to think about how you're going to fit all of this together in this piece? Or excuse me, as you're reporting it?
Wright Thompson: Yeah. I'm not outlining as much as I am. Now I know that I need to be able to write that frog thing and have the reader understand everything you and I just explicitly talked about without ever saying it. Like if it's not layered in so that the meaning stands on its own, it's a huge failure.
Paul Kix: Yeah.
Wright Thompson: And so, I mean in that way, I now know that I need to report enough around it so that it makes sense. Because if you're explaining a scene, it sucks.
Paul Kix: Yeah. You need to set it up a little bit, but as soon as that, but as soon as you start to say, "And this is why it's important," then it's not important anymore.
Wright Thompson: Yeah, what if the movie stopped? And they were like, "Okay, this is Tessio! Now he's about to be taken to be killed. And you understand that the look on his face," like you'd get up and walk out of the theater.
Paul Kix: Yeah. All right. Another just beautiful piece of writing you have in the piece. This is about Ted wanting to know his children when they were kids. In public, he seemed to revel in the solitary pursuit of baseball greatness and fishing greatness. It's probably, in case you haven't read the piece, Ted goes on to become this sort of master fisherman as well, deep sea fisherman. He's just amazing at it and becomes like a salesman for it even. So he has this solitary pursuit of baseball greatness then fishing greatness, but really his lonely existence was a self-imposed exile. Not because he didn't want to know his children, but because he was scared of hurting them and of being hurt. Could you tell us what he wrote in his fishing logs about John Henry as a fisherman?
Wright Thompson: Well, John Henry... I mean, if John Henry would have read these at 12 or 13, or 10, or however old he was, it might have changed his life. When I was going through Ted's filing cabinets, I found his old fishing logs, which were actually a diary. I mean, they were incredibly intimate. Both for what he talked about and what he didn't. On the day that John Henry was born, Ted was up there fishing in Canada, and there was no mention of the new boy who'd entered the world-
Paul Kix: That's just amazing, yeah.
Wright Thompson: ... just the fishing. But when John Henry started fishing with him, he talked very lovingly and gave him a lot of praise for how proud he was of how John Henry did catching his first salmon. And John Henry would have done anything to hear those words. And so the fact that you see Ted... You're allowed access into Ted Williams' interior life, which you see is completely different than his exterior life, and now this is where the shit gets good because it's... You're watching someone who you think you know everything about in deep internal consulate.
Paul Kix: And trying to find a way to resolve it. And at the same time, his kids are trying to find a way to resolve their own conflict with their father, right?
Wright Thompson: Everyone's doing the same shit over and over and over again.
Paul Kix: The kids are in awe of him but they also wanted to know him as much as he wanted to know them. It's fair to say that, right?
Wright Thompson: It is. And so then we get to the freezing, which as opposed to being crazy, now makes perfect sense. So imagine, all Ted wanted was to know his kids. And yet, a million different bits of ego and pain and insecurity and fear and anger got in the way. All these kids wanted was to know their father who was this distant celebrity who entered their life like a storm to call them fat, or ugly, or syphilitic, or you know. And they finally, at the end of his life because he's so sick that he needs them, and they are at an age where they now can help him. After all of these years, they finally have this relationship which lasts maybe a year, and then he gets really sick and goes down-
Paul Kix: Yeah, because I think it's important to understand this. This isn't just like, "Oh, they start talking." They start to spend a lot of intimate time together.
Wright Thompson: No, they basically lived together and are his caretakers. And Ted is... He's been so racked with guilt for how his own hurt has hurt them. He's not an idiot. He understands what he's done. And so this late in life change to try to make it right and assuage some of that guilt leads him to sort of fully dive into this relationship, which they then have, which is very real. And then he gets sick, goes downhill, and dies. So they have gotten this miracle, right? That the thing that was never going to happen for any of them has happened, and in spite of all of this sort of these huge boulders of inner generational pain, and they've just carried on each other's shoulders, they've somehow managed to put those things down, and then wouldn't you know it, he gets sick and dies, and his kids fucking freeze him so that they might have another life together.
Not only when you tell it like that does it make sense, it seems in this crazy weird reality that the story creates, logical.
Paul Kix: Inevitable, really.
Wright Thompson: Inevitable. And that's when you know that's what I wanted to know about Ted Williams.
Paul Kix: Because he had been a punch line for so long. And it did seem so very strange. And I remember working with you on this, and by the time we figured out sort of the order for it, once we figured out the order for it, it's like, "Oh, this is actually the revelation." Well, not actually the revelation, but one of the big ones is everybody's public opinion of Ted and of the Williams family is that these people are freaks. Who would dare do that?
Wright Thompson: And it's these monster children to do this to this famous hero father.
Paul Kix: But then once you read through that and you sort of go through those rhetorical steps that you just laid out, it's... I still get goosebumps about it today. It's amazing.
Wright Thompson: That's the business we should be in, you know? I'm working on this podcast and I'm talking about an episode, I mean, I want to do Carl Yastrzemski, I want to Sandy Koufax. I don't have any idea what's going on with them, but I can tell you that whatever's happening in their interior lives is interesting. It's a lot more interesting than a story about Kyler Murray.
Paul Kix: And some of that I think is fair to say is just lived experience, right?
Wright Thompson: Yeah, you just do this enough and you know.
Paul Kix: Well, you do this enough and you know. I'm talking about the athlete's perspective.
Yeah, yeah, oh yeah. A 22-year-old doesn't know shit about shit.
Paul Kix: Yeah.
No, for sure. And I mean it's... I always want an old guy or woman.
Paul Kix: Yeah. Let's keep moving toward the end of the piece because for me, like that was the first, there were two big reveals here in this story. The first was Ted's death meant something other than you imagined. And let's start to talk about the last third of the story. We mentioned earlier some of the things that Claudia has done with her life and how she's tried to prove herself. What is it that Claudia wants?
I think that's complicated. I think she wants to be... she wants to be a woman on her own two feet, totally independent of even the knowledge that Ted Williams existed in her life, and she wants to be worthy of Ted Williams. And she is faced with the idea that she is the last of something and that there is sepia toned sort of yesterdays everywhere around her, and she is this young woman made unnaturally old by the weight of the ghosts.
Paul Kix: How does she see a way for herself and a way for the Williams' line to continue? What does she begin to consider?
Her brother has sperm frozen before he died of leukemia, and she begins to consider finding a donor egg and raising this baby, raising her nephew, raising Ted Williams' grandson, which would eliminate her being old and it would, sorry, it would eliminate her being alone. But it would also pass on this inner generational pain to another generation. And so she is then faced with that decision.
Paul Kix: Does she want to go forward with this? All right. Let's first go back to the sperm thing because the Williams family is a...
Wright Thompson: I know. I know.
Paul Kix: You have this line in a piece. It's a family. It's a strange family, but it's a family nonetheless. And the Williams family is a strange family. When you hear about John Henry had some of his sperm frozen, what do you, how do you respond to that? How do you process that?
Wright Thompson: I wasn't remotely shocked.
Paul Kix: Why was that?
Wright Thompson: I'd been in it now. No one great something is normal, man. And honestly, like what is normal? I mean, the story should at least obliquely deal with stuff like that. This is a family doing the very best they can with a very strange cocktail of external forces pressing on them. And that's interesting. If the story doesn't evoke a huge sweep of time even in like the language of it, it fails. I mean, that's the big problem with something like this is it needs to do six things to work. Which I mean, to go back to the process, I mean I just remember thinking like... I feel like we worked on a lot of stories before this, but I think this is the first one where I was just like, "I need a lot of help here." I don't need... This has nothing to do with words on a page at this point. This is... Once you're bought into the idea that this is interesting, I need to figure out what order this goes in and why. I mean, I feel like the editing happened in a level like that.
Paul Kix: And I bought into it in part because that last question was kind of judgy, right? And kind of flippant. Like how weird is this family? But the reality is yeah, you need to judge this family on its own terms.
Wright Thompson: Correct.
Paul Kix: And it felt that what it felt the best thing for it to do was for John Henry to freeze his semen. Is it with the hope, is it explicit between John Henry and Claudia that if I freeze this, you, Claudia, that can perhaps then have you know like [inaudible 00:36:13].
Wright Thompson: I think it's a family on multiple fronts afraid of dying and grasping after the afterlife, or grasping at another chance.
Paul Kix: This family's afraid of dying. At the same time, they know that if they continue to exist, there is a high risk that they will continue to perpetuate the pain. And so, how does Claudia begin to rectify that?
Wright Thompson: Well, I mean one, she is actively engaged in working on herself in a way that is totally authentic. She is chasing these big ambitions for her own life. She's a really remarkable person handling all those external forces we talked about with as much sort of grace, and I mean I don't know if I would have done it. She is definitely a human being engaged in a earnest attempt to be her best self.
Paul Kix: What are you hoping to see to show that she might actually be the first one in this family to recognize this pain might continue with her and to try to find some way to counteract it?
Wright Thompson: Well, one... I thought it was interesting because she had written this book, and she, for the first time in her life, her willingness to talk about her father is... I thought that was an extreme sign of emotional growth, right? That some of the strange sort of things that had sprung up as defense mechanisms she was actively in the process of putting down. She became a nurse. She realized her calling was to care for old people. That's what she wanted to do. That's long been her favorite people because she had a very... her father was old. She had this one patient, and she was a student nurse, and he was sort of difficult to the other nurses so she started talking to him about baseball. And he says, "I love the Red Socks." "Me too," she replied. "I was there at Fenway Park when Ted Williams hit his last home run," he said. "It was a bright sunny day and I was there." "I was told it was a cold and overcast day," she said. And then she did something she never does. She told him she was Ted Williams' daughter. She then applies to Duke. She never mentions in her cover letter that her father was Ted Williams, which is the kind of thing a school like Duke would go crazy for, and then she had to wait to find out if she got in. And finally she got an email from Duke that says, "Log onto the website for the school's decision." And she opened it and started to read the letter, and it began, "Congratulations." And she was finding a life of her own. She was going after something of her own. She was finally stepping out of this partially self cast shadow. And yet, I was there right after it happened. I got on the plane when I found out she got in and flew down to see him. This is the last paragraph. The house felt different than before. Desolation replaced by hope. A Louisville slugger laying in the same cabinet as toothless the dragon. First bit of baseball memorabilia in the living room. The renovations on Ted's old house are complete, and she and Eric will move in there soon. Once she gets her nurse practitioner's office open and running, she is still planning to use John Henry's sperm or her egg to create a baby. Ted's old study would make a perfect nursery. A tire swing already hangs from a thick branch of an oak tree, plenty of room to run and play in the shade. The child could start a new future of the Williams family, built on love, or become a casualty of the cycle that shaped Claudia's life and her father's life before that. She's hoping for a boy.
Paul Kix: I love it. I love it.
Wright Thompson: Yeah. It's so good. I was like, "Shit, I got to walk that off."
Paul Kix: In your mind, is it when she realizes that she can help old people that she begins to actually find this path for herself because is in some way honoring the old man who was her father?
Wright Thompson: Well yeah. One, I think it's that she enjoys it and that helping old people is the connection for her to this world that she lost. Yet while also sort of not just swimming in regret in memory. I mean, she's out there in the world doing something. I mean, there are nurses she works with who doesn't know that her father was Ted Williams.
Paul Kix: Yeah, that's kind of crazy. And at the same time, does it feel as though she needed to realize that she was her own person for her-
Wright Thompson: Yes. Well that and that she wasn't just the daughter of.
Paul Kix: The daughter of Ted Williams. And it was in knowing that that she wasn't just the daughter of Ted Williams, do you think that that's the way where she said, "Is it only until I can fully appreciate that I am this person completely on my own, that I can then begin to entertain the idea of bringing another Williams into this world."
Wright Thompson: Well, that's an interesting question. I think that once I'm able to see myself as my own person, then I'm able to put down the past and consider the future. I mean, I think there's certainly some of that. I also think that... I think we're very careful in the story to... A lot of these conversations like the one you and I are having now, we had when working on the story, but I thought we were very restrained in making sure none of them sort of made it through onto the page.
Paul Kix: No, because the reader shouldn't intuit whatever he or she wants, right?
Wright Thompson: Exactly. I don't need to be telling you what to think about the decisions and life of Ted and Claudia and John Henry Williams. I mean, the actions they took were so striking that I felt like the greatest thing we did was to in no way really try to say what it means.
Paul Kix: So she's hoping for a boy. I don't want to get too prescriptive on that line, but at the same time, what I love about it is actually it's restraint, right? Because within that, she's hoping for a boy is this undercurrent of if it comes, it may just continue the cycle.
Wright Thompson: Correct. Well, that's... Yes. The story needs to end because the cycle doesn't. I mean, I wanted the thing to narratively feel like... You know those jump rope games that kids play?
Paul Kix: Yeah.
Wright Thompson: Where you sort of have to... You have to time it to jump in and then jump out through the ropes? I mean I felt like the story needed to feel like we were ducking into something that had existed for a long time before we arrived, and that we were ducking out of something that would continue long after we left. I didn't want it to feel like something that had a beginning and an end. I wanted it to feel like something eternal that we were just going to look at for a little while before we left it alone to continue about its journey.
Paul Kix: That's really why... There was a part of me that wanted to ask about did she have the baby? But I don't want to know that. Even all these years later. It's actually... It's an Amber right now. And-
Wright Thompson: I don't know the answer.
Paul Kix: Yes, exactly. Because this moment is calcified now. You've put it-
Wright Thompson: I'm assuming I would've gotten like a letter or a card or something, but you know, no, I haven't ever asked.
Paul Kix: We've talked a fair amount about the struggle for you that went into putting this one the page. I think all told, it was what? 18 months in total before you got it right?
Wright Thompson: Probably. I mean, you know what? I could tell you. You know it's funny because I have my email here. All right. I pitched it to the magazine on February 1st, 2013. And I'd already had communications then with Eric.
Paul Kix: So we're looking at two years.
Wright Thompson: Yeah.
Paul Kix: And what did it... When it was completed, it's satisfying of course, but what does it allow you to do going forward as a writer?
Wright Thompson: Just move on. Do you know what I mean? God, why did you have to bring this up? I've totally forgotten all... I'm not joking, by the way. I'd forgotten all of the facts. I totally buried it in whatever safe place where you're supposed to just push shit like that down and now it's all coming back. I feel like I'm going to throw up in my mouth.
Paul Kix: Flooding you again.
Wright Thompson: Yes. I literally had forgotten.
Paul Kix: Do you take satisfaction from it though, right? Or is it just something you're like, or is it almost like Ted Williams where you're like, "Thank God it's over."
Wright Thompson: Oh. Well, I mean one, I was very glad it was over. Two, I don't know. I just wanted it to exist in a way that the idea I had going forward, like the thing that it could be about, I wanted to figure out how to make that happen. I mean, there's a story or two that... There are a couple of things that like... I'm trying to think of an example. I thought we really struggled. I spent so much time with Pat Riley and knew Pat Riley so well I thought at the end of it that we struggled to figure out how the form of magazine story might transmit the kind of intimate knowledge of someone you can get after spending that much time talking to them.
Paul Kix: Yeah.
Wright Thompson: I mean, on some ways I feel like after... There is a sense that well if we can make Ted Williams into a story, then there's nothing that we can't fit into that, into a magazine story sized box.
Paul Kix: And after Ted Williams, do you think yourself, "Now, there is nothing... There is any direction I can go as a writer?" I guess really the way that I want to ask this is does Ted Williams in some way almost give birth to the idea that you can be... You're talking about how you're writing a book right now, right? You're executive producing these TV shows. Does Ted Williams do anything to broaden, widen your vista and think about what's possible?
Wright Thompson: It should, but I mean, honestly... He was much more relief.
Paul Kix: That's so fascinating.
Wright Thompson: Yeah. I don't... I just remember thinking, "All right, live to fight another day." Like this exists. It is interesting. I wonder... When we picked this, I hadn't read this story since it ran, and I ran it yesterday.
Paul Kix: Yeah.
Wright Thompson: And it is interesting to me how it was so much fun to sort of breathe life into it in a collaborative way because it seemed so impossible at the beginning. Like the drafts were just messes. And so the fact that it ran and that we never... We could have just written a Ted story. We could have just written a Claudia story. And that we didn't take that route, I don't know, I found that really satisfying.
Paul Kix: Yeah. I did too. That's why... of all the pieces you've done, and I'm deeply, deeply appreciative of getting the chance to work with you for as many years as I did, this is the one where I was like, "Wow, this..." There was something that you were going after here that ended up being expressed. And I sounded sort of pretentious when I was talking about this with other people at the magazine at the time. But I was like, this is basically like the scope of 100 Years in Solitude in a magazine form, right? It's in 8000 words. It's trying to get at an idea of what it means to be in a certain family across generations. I had not really read anything like that in magazine form before. That's why I was so happy when, and just so satisfied when it was done. It felt like not only is it great in its own right, but there may not be too many other pieces like it.
Wright Thompson: I certainly hadn't seen a lot of them.
Paul Kix: Well, Mr. Thompson, thank you for coming on the show. The music for Now That's a Great Story comes from Jeff Willet. Production help comes from him as well. If you like this episode, please remember to rate and review it wherever you listen to podcasts. The stories and books that Wright and I discussed will appear on my show notes page for this episode. That's at paulkix.com\podcast. If you would like to get a short weekly email from me that details what else I like from the world of books, and movies, and TV, and music, the artists whose work inspires me, whose wisdom I take notes on because I know I'll use it in my own work, head to paulkix.com\newsletter and sign up. Mr. Wright Thompson has begun to receive those emails as well. Is that right sir?
Wright Thompson: You know what? The first one I saw, and I was like, "All right, what is this?" It's actually really helpful. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I actually like them. People should definitely sign up. By the way, as a perfect koda at... as a window into how... Our magazine did many things right, but an organized workflow was not one of them. This is an email, Thursday, April 23rd, 2015 from Paul Kix to me. Here's the proof it says of the Ted Williams story, and it was sent at 5:10 AM. And let me just tell you, he hadn't set an alarm. That was what you call a building zero all nighter.
Paul Kix: Yeah. That's a true story.
Wright Thompson: Yeah.
Paul Kix: True story. That really happened. Well, as always man, it's great... great talking with you. For everybody out there, thanks for listening. Have a good one. I'll be back soon. Bye bye.