Scott Raab hates Lebron James. He even wrote a book about it. Well, sort of, but not really… He did write the book, but The Whore of Akron really isn’t just a hateful rant about the Ohio-bred hoopster who infamously took his “talents to South Beach.” While it is a linguistic evisceration of James, it also humanizes the despised superstar while serving as both an ode to the Cleveland sports fan and a partial memoir for Raab.
Raab came to journalism via the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an esteemed program known for churning out award-winning fiction writers. For the last 20 years Raab has written for magazines, first GQ and now Esquire. He has written Esquire’s series on the rebuilding of Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He is also known for his celebrity profiles and interviews. Along the way and while on the job, Raab smoked weed with Tupac, got a Chief Wahoo tattoo with Dennis Rodman and wore an Iron Man t-shirt on the streets of Venice, Calif. while interviewing Robert Downey Jr. the on-screen version of the comic book character.
In the following interview Raab talks about his mom, Lebron, Cleveland and boxing a woman.
Jerry Barca: You are kind of an open book.
Scott Raab: Yeah, I’ve always been that way. I’m a pretty happy guy actually. But I came up so miserable and I was like that from an early age. Before my parents split up, which you can look at legitimately as a watershed moment, I was just moody. My father used to say, “We’re going for a ride and you’re not bringing a book.” I was always inward looking, but after a certain point I kind of had a fuck-it attitude. When I started writing seriously I was pretty young and my classmates laughed at me so I just stopped turning in my work.
JB: When was the first time that happened?
SR: It was sixth grade and they made fun of the poetry I was writing and I was really hurt by that. I still have my report card: “Stopped turning in work.” I was very unhappy and I started getting fat at the same time because I was living at my grandparents’ house. My grandmother would feed us all day and then my mother would come from work and say, “We’re going to eat dinner like a family.” So I would have two dinners. At some point along the way, by the time I started thinking of writing as not just something I thought I had to do, but as the only thing I was actually good for, I was in my 20s. I think about being an open book, I was going to write about whatever I felt like writing about. If the family didn’t like it or anyone else didn’t like it, they could go fuck themselves, I didn’t care.
JB: Do you remember the poem from sixth grade?
SR: Yeah. We had spent a week at a camp, a sleep away thing. I was away from the family and a really nasty house. It was kind of a transcendent experience even though I’m not a nature guy. So I wrote a poem and it had a refrain that went “God is nigh.” At one point – and I can’t remember if I made this up or if it happened – there was a wounded bird and one of the counselors, who I’m sure I adored, helped nurse the bird back to health and that was what the poem was building toward – the nearness of God. I’m sure it wasn’t a really good poem. Part of it was that I entered the class in the sixth grade as this broken-home kid. This class had been together all through elementary school and they were what would now be called gifted and talented. I started gaining weight; it was not like I was going bowling with prettiest girl or anything like that. But the poem was more of a sensitive-boy poem.
JB: Who encouraged you? Who said, “you might have something here?”
SR: The people who really encouraged me were the people who were doing the writing that I was reading. My mother threw out Portnoy’s Complaint because it was hugely controversial when it was published in 1969 and I was 17 that summer. It’s a seminal novel about a Jewish guy who grows up obsessed with masturbating, obsessed with sex. It’s Philip Roth’s turn from being a serious, although somewhat plodding novelist, to becoming the guy I consider the greatest American novelist ever. That and Charles Bukowksi a little later after I started getting loaded all the time. Reading writers encouraged me, but no one in my life.
JB: Did your mother have any reaction to The Whore of Akron?
SR: She didn’t talk to me for months.
JB: She read the book?
SR: I wouldn’t call it reading. She went through the book looking for passages about her and then she would call my brothers and read them the passages. Of course, she’d leave out the parts that weren’t entirely nasty. So, there was kind of a scorched earth campaign because she really felt that I had waited all these years and to her the book was entirely about her.
Then I saw her and she said, “I thought we were closer,” which is kind of funny because she hasn’t been at my house since Gore and Bush were debating Florida. This is a very difficult relationship.
JB: This was a shock to her?
SR: No. Nor was it so different from a piece of fiction I published 20 years ago in terms of some of the dirty laundry. But when she said that to me, it was a chance for me to say, “We are closer. This is just a book. This is just a version.”
“Now, my friends are going to read it,” she said.
“First of all your friends aren’t going to get through it. Secondly, if they think less of you rather than the schtunk who wrote it, were they really your friends?”
“Well, ah, ah, I’m seeing a counselor thanks to you and I had to double my anti-depressants.”
She did the best she could given her resources and the circumstances. As frontloaded as I like to think my misery is there is worse misery all over. You don’t have to go to Darfur to find the monstrous abuse of children that I never suffered and I’ve milked mine for dramatic narrative purposes. The truth of the matter is I’ve had a long, very nice life, creatively and personally. I have to own up to using her and using that material in a way. I don’t think it was meant to engender sympathy, but certainly drama. It’s narrative. It’s real, but it doesn’t mean it’s not simply employed for the purpose of narrative.
JB: A lot of times from a journalistic perspective I feel we’re takers.
SR: Absolutely. It’s true. Parasites. I have been doing a series of stories since 2005 about the rebuilding of Ground Zero, the World Trade Center. The last time I wrote a feature and the through line character was a fella whose wife went to work that day and died in the North Tower when the first plane hit. So here’s a guy, who is somewhat media savvy, who is vetting me to make sure I’m not totally going to fuck up what happened to him. Even though he is a little media savvy he’s still a civilian. He’s not an actor or an athlete. He’s not a public figure. He lost his wife on 9-11 and without him I don’t have a story worth writing or reading. In that sense, you know how much you owe someone and what a parasite you really are in a lot of ways. There have been a lot of stories over the years – nothing to do with profiling celebrities – that I’ve felt strongly that way and that was the most recent one.
Now, I’m trying to generate another chapter about the rebuilding and I’m trying to find iron workers who work at the top of the rebuilt Tower One. This is a much happier circumstance, to say the least, than someone whose wife was killed, but it is still the same kind of thing. “I need you as a character man. I’m going to engage with you as if this is a very meaningful relationship to me. It’s meaningful to me because I need you for a character in the next story I’m writing.”
So, I’m hyper-aware of that.
JB: How do you reconcile this? You have a tremendous amount of self-awareness—
SR: Tremendous. I’ve read a lot of Janet Malcolm. She is someone who has written extensively about this. I’ve thought about it for many years. The morality of it depends on what you do, what you write and how you relate to that person. It all depends on what words you want to put on it, in terms of “taker” or “parasite.” I’m not an ethical relativist, but I don’t think there is anything inherently immoral or wrong about the relationship between writer and subject or writer and source. I don’t think, in and of itself, that it is an immoral relationship. I think it depends on what you’re writing and what you’re doing.
JB: You boxed Ann Wolfe; she is no joke. What were you thinking?
SR: I was thinking I was going to be boxing Vonda Ward. Then Ann Wolfe concussed Vonda Ward. If you could have heard the conversations between me and my editors when Vonda Ward was concussed and could not participate. We tried to find other people to avoid a confrontation with Ann Wolfe — the magazine asked me to sign a waiver. I said, “Why so you can leave my wife and son bereft in case this woman kills me?”
JB: She is no bullshit.
SR: No. Have you seen her fight?
SR: We both arrived in Cleveland on Saturday the day of the fight. We met in the gym and sparred a little. She was so strong and so quick and not just her feet, but her hands. At no point in my life have I been quick that didn’t involve my brain. Physically, it never has been, never will be. I was so terrified because I knew a lot about Vonda Ward, including that she was basically a big stiff. Not that I was going to win against Ward, but at least I wasn’t terrified. Ann Wolfe? I knew little about. She had been incarcerated. She had been homeless and she was clearly letting me know in the sparring session, physically letting me know, who was the Alpha male. I really contemplated driving home rather than going through with it. I think I’m the only person who has seen a tape of the fight, and I look like a drugged bear. There is a point at which she landed three of four body shots and when my hands went down she kissed me on the cheek. She wasn’t trying to be mean or cruel, but she was toying with me. If I threw four real punches in three rounds I’d be surprised. I was almost paralyzed by fear.
JB: The same outcome, but that was a little different than George Plimpton fighting Archie Moore.
SR: That was heavily Plimpton influenced. I first came across Plimpton in a sports and literature class in a short-lived return to Cleveland State. I think that was where I first read Paper Lion. I still have almost all The Paris Reviews. I was always jealous of him in the exactly the same way I was jealous of people who had cars. I used to wait for the bus and watch people drive by in their cars and wonder how they got their cars. I would read Plimpton and wonder how he got to training camp. I used to attribute all kinds of magical things based on whatever little stuff I knew. “Oh, well he’s some patrician, Harvard motherfucker.” It never occurred to me – anymore than it occurred to me that people who had cars earned money to have those cars – that Plimpton worked his ass off as both a writer and someone who could participate at some level that wasn’t entirely laughable. Then I read him.
JB: Do you think people miss the point of The Whore of Akron and do you care?
SR: I do. I really do care a lot. I’ve avoided a lot of the reviews. I know the first time it was written about in Sports Illustrated it was great. The guy who writes by the name of Bethlehem Shoals, who writes for the Free Darko website, wrote a review for the Wall Street Journal that I thought missed the point. The guy who wrote it for the (New York) Times, Henry Abbott, is a huge Lebron fan and an ESPN employee. A lot of people – Parade magazine and Slate – got the book. It’s about an obsessed guy. Lebron is a real guy and he is a real guy in the book and I reported it to the best of my abilities and he is a vehicle in a lot of ways.
JB: What don’t’ people get about Cleveland?
SR: It’s unique among American cities. While it had a lot in common with its Rust Belt brothers Pittsburgh, Buffalo and especially Detroit, I don’t think there is a city that literally became a punch line and remained a punch line for decades like Cleveland. Everything that followed in the wake of its metamorphosis into a punch line has tended to reinforce the punch line. But that’s not what they don’t get. What they don’t get is that Cleveland not only became a symbol of urban decay and water pollution and to some degree air pollution and Rust Belt decay, but that the sports teams became reinforcing symbols of ineptitude and an ineptitude of a particularly laughable kind. You’ve got the mayor whose wife didn’t go to a White House event because it was her bowling night. Dennis Kucinich, who was a very positive national figure at first, became kind of a laughing stock. You have a town that has some real pride and some real reasons to be proud eventually noticing everyone – Johnny Carson on down -laughing at it all the time. You have a very angry, sullen city.
JB: Do you really hate Lebron?
JB: Really? You’re a loving guy.
SR: Those aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s a thin line. The passion that’s there means that the love and the hate don’t contradict each other. Were I indifferent to Lebron that would really be the contradiction. Do I hate Lebron is the most global way to ask it. And yeah, I try and say yes or else you get into this, “well I loathe him. I despise him.” So then people go, “Do you really wish a career-ending injury upon him?” There have been those moments and I have written such. I’m not abandoning those. I’m owning those. I often have said – because people come back at me when they don’t like me or haven’t read the book or hate the book – they go, “You’re a piece of shit. That’s so wrong.” And, I honestly feel if I had superpowers and I could inflict that injury on him, then you can call me a monster. But I don’t. This is as impotent as impotent could be. I recognize that and so should they. I’m not consumed with the wish that he destroy one or both knees. If you call yourself a sports fan and tell me you’re a passionate sports fan and have never quietly wished for an injury, I’m not sure I agree you’re a passionate sports fan. In the U.S. and around the world it’s not so uncommon to cheer even when a home team player gets hurt if they’re sick of that player. I don’t think I’m such an outlier in this regard.
JB: You came to journalism through the unorthodox route of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
SR: When I was at Iowa there were a lot of people who had only been to school and I had done a lot of other things and I was really loaded everyday. It wasn’t like I was a binge drinker. I was fucked up everyday, all the time, 365 days a year. But I was also a guy who had read more than they had. I remember when William Kennedy visited one of the literature classes and he talked about rewriting Ironweed seven or eight times, rewriting the whole thing as it got rejected by publisher after publisher. I don’t know what Kennedy’s lifestyles issues were, but he was very somber, very, very, serious and humble. This example made sure I couldn’t take my writing that seriously. I mean seriously in a way that I would consider myself an artist and that I would be inspired and that what I would create was beauty. I’m not built that way anyway. What they exemplified to me was that you work really hard on trying to perfect your craft and if art should happen in any given sentence or paragraph or section that is for someone else to decide. You have to do the best you can and move the fuck on.
JB: Well, you said you’re not an artist. What are you?
SR: A writer. I like to come to terms with almost everything with words. I’m a great lover. A somewhat loyal friend. It’s up to my son to say what kind of father I am. I don’t know what my wife would say about what kind of husband I am. But pretty much I’m a guy who likes to write and I like to try and figure out how to entertain and delight myself and anyone who is reading. I don’t really have a good answer to that question. I’m a dork who can write.