Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ian Plenderleith talks football fiction...

A handful of years ago Ian Plenderleith wrote a bagful of football fiction short stories. Some of them are very, very good, but the exquisitely titled For Whom The Balls Rolls will be reviewed soon enough.

Plenderleith clearly knows something about writing football. Mind you, he's been doing it for years, in places like The Guardian and When Saturday Comes and more recently in the US where he now resides. He was happy to answer a couple of questions for us. Happy enough that he may even answer a few more, so eh, like they say, watch this space.

thesimplestgame: we’ve read you made a calculated move to write about football because that’s what your publisher was looking for, but there must be something beyond that (you’ve written about football as a journalist for years). What is it about football that appeals to you as an author?

Ian Plenderleith: It wasn’t quite as calculated as that. I wrote to a publisher that had put out a compilation volume of short stories (‘A Game Of Two Halves’), which I thought were pretty average bar one or two. So I sent them three stories on the off-chance they were planning a second volume.
It was calculating in the sense that I thought, as an unknown writer, there would be no chance of having a volume of short stories published without a theme running through them. And as football books were extremely popular with most publishers in the late 90s, I thought football was as good a theme as any, given that it was an area I knew well. Also, somewhat naively, I thought that the shortage of good football fiction meant there was a literary gap in the market waiting to be filled.
But once I started thinking about football as theme for fiction, the ideas came. Almost every time I went to a game, or played in game, I had a basic idea I thought could be turned into a story. It could be something as fleeting as the expression on a player’s face, and my interpretation of that expression, that would lead to a story. Or a quip or a heckle from a fan.

tsg: Did you think then (or do you still think) there’s a defined market for football fiction?

IP: At the time the book was published I idealistically hoped, as all first-time authors do, that my book would define a new market! Now I think that if there is a market for adult football fiction (there’s always been a market for Boy’s Own football fiction aimed at the under 12s), it’s a very small one. Part of the problem for my book was that the publisher put virtually no resources nothing into marketing it. I was told that marketing budgets were only for already established authors. It’s apparently too big a risk to market a new writer, because they might not sell, but market an already famous name, and you’re guaranteed a certain number of sales. Cold hard business practice! Which needless to say quickly shattered my illusion that publishing houses are stacked with people who love and care about good literature (my editor is one of a number of editors, I should add, who nobly fight their corner for good writing).

tsg: Your fictional work is very engaging and the 'lonely luckless' characters are so well drawn, you put the reader right beside or inside them. How do you think you are able to do this?

IP:I didn’t really notice that a lot of my characters come across as lonely until a friend pointed it out. It wasn’t something I consciously set out to do. It helps, of course, if you’ve had phases of your life when you’ve been lonely, and can empathise with the world view that for the majority of people, bad luck outweighs the good, and that a stoical acceptance of that fact will help you endure and even thrive. I don’t think loneliness is any kind of affliction, just a state that of mind can hit us all at any time, like any other mood.
I’m flattered that you think the characters are well drawn, and I’m not sure how I’ve achieved that. Years of reading fiction, perhaps, and an awareness that all people are multi-dimensional characters. Even the ones we think we despise.

tsg: There seems to be a general belief that men prefer reading non-fiction over fiction -- it’s been put forward as one of the reasons for the dearth of football fiction. Another theory is that footballers are better at expressing themselves with a ball than a pen, why do you think there is so little fiction about a sport which is so popular?

IP: I think that belief is put out by publishers’ marketing departments. I wrote a (non-football) novel set here in the U.S. that was about a (non-sexual) male friendship, and my agent was told repeatedly by publishers that it was well written but wouldn’t sell “because there’s no market for male fiction.” That’s a crudely ignorant and insulting assessment to any male who reads fiction (not to mention a blow for my chances of ever getting a book published again), and an example of the narrow, myopic attitude that aims the majority of fiction at middle-aged women readers in the Book Club Belt (who might themselves not be averse to reading “male fiction.” Whatever that is).
As for the lack of football fiction in general, I think that’s partly down to the way that sport is used in fiction, either in books or films. The majority of it follows the formula that works towards a final scene where the hero scores the winning goal in the cup final, having no doubt overcome a number of standard obstacles on the way. So it’s a lack of imagination on the part of writers and the publishers who think that’s what the reader wants. But then again, maybe that is what the readers wants. It’s hardly as though the sales of my book suggest otherwise!
I do think, however, that good writing about sport avoids action on the field of play as much as possible.

This avoidance of the sports action on the pitch is worth a blog on its own. Its also one of the things thesimplestgame wants to discuss a little further with Ian Plenderleith. In the meantime, we'd like to thank him for his time, his help, his epic answers and for patience he will have to show in our future pestering of him.

Buy the book at Ian's site. It's definitely worth a look.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Rough Diamonds

When thesimplestgame interviewed Coach Gianni Mininni a couple of weeks ago (interview), he had plenty to say. Like plenty. We’re a curious bunch, so we asked about his book. And he sent a copy. He even signed it for us.

So who is he? He’s a motivated Italian living in San Francisco. He’s almost 60 and, even though he thinks it’ll never happen in the US, he continues his battle to popularise the beautiful game. His first (and only) self-published book, The Team: a soccer novel, is just one of the many steps he’s taken to walk his formidable, enthusiastic, football talk.

It’s a fictional account of a mature (I nearly said old) Italian migrant to the US and his trials and tribulations in organising a football team. It focuses on what a team needs, what a coach needs and, touchingly, what it takes to bring it all together. To people who know Coach Gianni it’ll be a familiar story. It’s what he dreams of. It’s what he talks about on his site and I’m sure it’s all he talks about at BBQ’s.

The Team, like the man who wrote it, is the proverbial rough diamond. Part soccer novel, part football fiction, part coach’s pocket guidebook. It offers a coaching ethos, coaching wisdom and plenty of Gianni’s own views. Particularly on why football isn’t working in the US – 300 million population, 17 million players, and only 13 national league teams. Organised football has existed in San Francisco for almost 100 years, something concrete should probably have materialised before now. Mininni is as baffled as everyone else.

Maybe the Australian model, currently picking up power, momentum and most importantly, large-scale corporate sponsorship dollars, could be held up for the US authorities to have a squizz.

But back to the book. Through talking about the fundamental aspects of football’s success in Europe and the factors choking it in the States – some of them more than a little familiar after watching the fall and rise of the local game in Australia – Gianni takes his book beyond the simple frame of it’s storyline.

Each chapter opens with a nugget of wisdom. An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it for example - this one's from JFK I'm told. Some of it is pure Gianni, some of it is filtered wisdom gleaned throughout his long, and I’d have to say colourful, football journey.

There are some issues with the book. English is clearly not Gianni’s first language, but I knew that before I started reading. It needs a solid edit (copy and structural), but most self-published titles do. The simplistic story is fairly predictable, but while it’s more of a vehicle for Gianni’s thoughts and ideas, it’s still an effective means to draw the reader in. It’s certainly more engaging and imaginative than wooden how to guides for dummies.

Rough diamonds get their name because they're uncut and in need of a polish. While The Team might need a hefty polish, the sparkle is there. It may not be a work of literary aplomb, but, for us here at thesimplestgame, it’s football fiction with two very important concepts folded in. There’s football and there’s plenty to talk about. Isn’t that what we’re all looking?

Coach Gianni would probably tell you to scratch the surface and see for yourself. You can buy The Team here.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A matter of perspective

I watched Australia playing Qatar the other night. What a bag of shite. Great result, fantastic result. World Cup Qualification looms closer ’n closer. Which is fantastic, right? Right? The answer’s simple innit? It’s…


And no.

40,000 people turned up to watch an international football match in Brisbane on a (really) wet (by Queensland standards) and (really) cold (you see where this is going…) Wednesday night. A school night!

It’s incredible. Five years ago you’d have been lucky to get people to pay to watch football in Brisbane on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon. For the tormented creature that is Australian football, attracting 40,000 people on a brisk rainy midweek evening is the equivalent of having Jessica Alba (or George Clooney depending on your tastes) chapping your front door at six o’clock in the morning and, while your still wearing your breakfast head, asking, “Please let me take you away from all this?” Then, jetting you to a luxurious island in the Pacific where you’d have drinks and get naked and she’d call Jessica (Biel) and Angelina and you’d all have a party (read: Brad Pitt, Viggo Mortensen and, I don’t know, Danny Glover? if you’d prefer it not to be girls) before she dropped you back home with a Chicken Tikka Masala each for you n whoever's waiting for you at home.

I know. Sorry. I get carried away. Danny Glover was probably stretching things a bit.

But for Football Australia that what’s happened. And it will happen again should it be allowed to.

The flip side, the dark foreseeable problem side, is if Australia do qualify for the World Cup (and thesimplesgame thinks they will), we’ll all go mental!

We’ll celebrate, party, cavort and even maybe, gallivant. Then we’ll raise our levels of expectation to new highs and, inevitably, have them smashed to pieces when they don’t qualify for the second stage, like they, so luckily, did last time.

Then, as we leave it behind us, we’ll get all optimistic and philosophical. “Better luck next time,” we’ll say and, “we had a bloody good try, didn’t we?” And then two years later when qualification comes round…it’s on for young n old.

Imagine the pressure there’s going to be to qualify a third time? Imagine the pasting the Socceroos will get if they don’t qualify? Football Australia would be lucky to get a cuppa tea of my Nan if it happens.

Look, most importantly, last week’s game was a win. A dull, solid win against a team we should say less about. But let’s not get too excited. It was the first time thesimplestgame have ever seen a team, any team, score four goals in a game and still bore the living shit out of just about any football fan who was unfortunate enough to bear witness, BUT, it’s still a win and we should enjoy it. So long as we do it for what it is worth.

Which brings me to this week’s football fictive business. Now I’m talking about the parameters of the genre now. This weeks subject is perspective. Point Of View.

At present there is a bit of a pattern. I looked into a bit during my Masters. I’ve read books in first person (I kicked the ball), second person (you kicked the ball), limited third person (she kicked the ball) and omniscient third person (she kicked the ball and the goalie saved it. He thought, Yes! I’m a brilliant goalie. Dirty Bastard.) First person is a popular choice for authors, but limited third person is the most popular. I reckon it’s down to the fact that most football fiction is about or by spectators, observers rather than participants. But I’m going to come back to that. Because it also raises questions about the kinds of characters involved.

While your waiting on Jessica or George chapping your door or until levels of expectations will have changed so dramatically 40,000 on a Wednesday night will be commonplace, you could maybe have a think about the POV in the last piece of football fiction you read yourself. Maybe let me know about it.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Apologies... Match Postponed

The team at thesimplestgame have been flooded with well, stuff. So much so, we've had to postpone this week's fixture. Look don't get us wrong, it's not that we're fishing for excuses...

We just haven't the time to train, work out the drills for the free kick set pieces or maintain the usual quality repartee regarding football fictive matters.
Needless to say, we will return to full fitness with a barely credible, hopefully noteworthy and no less entertaining article.


Saturday, October 4, 2008

Coach Gianni on football and fiction

thesimplestgame is always keen to talk to authors of football fiction, especially authors who’re trying to plug the gap between playing football and reading stories about it. Gianni Mininni was a very successful young player in his Italian homeland. He won an U17 national title medal and played in youth teams at Milan and Inter. He has 50 years experience in the soccer industry. Now, in San Francisco, he successfully coaches and tirelessly promotes the beautiful game. You only have to look at his site to see how much this man loves his football. We talked to him about his book The Team, football fiction and heard some interesting views.

thesimplestgame: Why did you choose to write about football?

Coach Gianni: Because I came to live in a country that apparently loves football, but doesn't understand why it’s so deeply rooted in Europe. Football (soccer!) should be the expression of the territory we represent. To wear the jersey is a great honor. In doing so we represent ourselves, our families, our little towns, our teams and our coaches. This concepts is unknown in the US, so I’ve tried to fill the hole. Besides this, for young players, I think football is a kind of time machine that can transport them to a future (but just around the corner) reality in which they have to solve the same problems they will encounter in everyday life.

tsg: There’s a belief that men prefer reading non-fiction over fiction – it’s been put forward as one of the reasons for the lack of football fiction. Do you think this is true and do you think your fiction book will make it easier for your audience to access the game?
CG: Generally speaking, it seems to play sports is a 'macho' thing and, it seems, to read books is a girl’s thing! By reading non-fiction maybe the 'machos' realize this need. When you ask: Do you think this is true and do you think your fiction book will make it easier for your audience to access the game? I say Absolutely! Superficially, calling the book The Team and having a ball on the cover, it looks much more like a football manual than a novel (the word in the smallest writing on the cover) It’s only after, they realize it's a novel. The people who read it as a novel, without realizing, get the many football concepts that are buried inside the narration, so, I got both readers. The non-fiction and the fiction, transferring the information that I wanted to transfer.

tsg: Another theory is that footballers are better at expressing themselves with a ball than a pen, why do you think there is so little fiction about a sport which is so popular?
CG: This theory could be correct. Please don't misunderstand me but, as you notice in this moment, the majority of the top players are from countries deeply not developed. South America and Africa. With all due respect, we can't say that they have had an instruction when they where young. They just played soccer from a tender age and preferred that to what reality offered them: play soccer on the street bare foot instead to go to school (assuming that there was one there!)
This gave them the opportunity to get out of the misery and have a decent life. But they are not readers, so they will not become writers, which is the natural evolution of a 'real' reader!

tsg: That’s certainly one way of looking at it Gianni. What about the country you live in now?
CG: It's really a shame that a country with almost 300 million inhabitants, 16 million people playing soccer, 12 millions of which are kids, is so underdeveloped at a professional level. Ruud Gullit, after having coached here a few months, went away desperate. The standard is so low that it is hard to describe. And until it is understood that to play soccer doesn't mean you’ll be a soccer player, things will continue like this. And I'm also sorry to say, that is not a matter of time. Things will NEVER change because the problem is deeply rooted in American society so, this will never change. It will take a 'revolution' and this country had already had its revolution. A long time ago. Revolution time is really gone.

thesimplestgame would like to thank Gianni for the signed copy, the time he took to answer the questions and for his undying enthusiasm for the game that brings us all together.
You can buy Coach Gianni's book at The Team