Author Shea Serrano interviewed by Peter Kafka on Recode Media


Shea Serrano is a great talker. And a great writer.

Those two facts are connected.

Serrano, a bestselling author whose newest bookMovies (And Other Things)is out this week, writes about basketball, movies, race, and a grab bag of topics in a casual, just-thought-of-this style that looks easy to do but isn’t. Like lots of other things that appear effortless, Serrano’s writing takes lots of work. And that work starts by him talking.

Before he sits down to write, Serrano starts a conversation with his wife Laramie, or a friend, and chats about the ideas he’s interested in typing up. It’s the ensuing conversation, the former public school teacher says, that he tries to replicate when he actually sits down to write.

“If I can take that and get it on the page somehow, then when you’re reading it, it doesn’t feel so much like this is a guy standing on the mountain throwing lightning bolts down,” he told me on this week’s episode ofRecode Media, which you can listen tohere.

Serrano’s style would work well in any era, but it’s particularly well suited to the time we’re in, evoking the now-there’s-this barrage of stimuli you get when you unlock your phone.

And the approachable prose, along with the fact that he’s often writing about seemingly innocuous stuff, gives him the ability to do something extra-difficult: Serrano often slips in perceptive and provocative ideas about race and class, right alongside topics like The Best Gangster Movie Moments.

In his essay about the low-brow, highly popular movieFriday, for instance, Serrano takes a diversion to talk about the effect that seeing a movie with a primarily black cast, made for a primarily black audience, had on his Mexican American friends and family. It’s an idea I would have never thought of — and one I might have been much less interested in engaging in had Serrano taken the topic head-on. Slipping it in as an aside is like a magic trick.

Serrano talked to me about this writing process — as well as his personal story, his favorite movies you may not have seen, and his remarkably effective use of Twitter — in our conversation. Here’s a sample of our chat:

Shea Serrano

I want it to feel conversational, but also I wanted it to be sort of informed and nuanced. That’s important. It doesn’t work if you’re just like glancing at an idea but not getting quite there. So there’s some work that goes into it ahead of time, but as far as deciding when to do it or where to do it, it’s a byproduct of the way that I write all this stuff.

Which is before I write anything down —it doesn’t matter what it is, a book chapter, an essay, an article, whatever — before I write it down, I’ve got some notes that I take and then I take those notes, and I have a conversation — like an actual conversation with an actual person, and in most cases it’s [my wife] Laramie because she’s around the most. Every once in a while it’s a cousin or a friend of mine, [and] I’ll be like, “Hey, let me run this idea by you.” And then we’re just going to have a conversation. “Yeah, we’re going to talk about the movieFriday. We’re going to talk about the movieSelena, or we’re going to talk aboutJoker,” and we’ll have a conversation and I’ll have my notes and I’ll be, you know, throwing this stuff out.

And you’ll say some stuff back, much like what’s happening here. And then I’ll take all of the stuff that we just did in my head, sort of catalog it all, and then write it out.

So if I was writing a biography of some sort, I would take this conversation that you and I just had about [my] career, because you’re asking questions, you’re pushing in certain directions, and you’re making it more full. If I can take that and get it on the page somehow, then when you’re reading it, it doesn’t feel so much like this is a guy standing on the mountain throwing lightning bolts down. It feels like I’m having a conversation.

Peter Kafka

So you have a very conversational style. I really appreciate it. And it sounds easy. Or it looks easy, but it’s a hard thing to do. Because you see people doing it poorly all the time.

Shea Serrano

Yeah.

Peter Kafka

Bill [Simmons, who hired Serrano to write for his siteThe Ringer] sort of nailed that. But when it comes to stuff like race and class, I find that … people don’t write about it. They go, “I don’t want to write about it. I don’t want to touch it. I don’t see color. Why is this being introduced into my sports?” Or whatever it is. Or, “Why are you introducing politics?” Or, it’s specifically a piece about politics and sports or politics and race. And you’re doing a thing where you’re delivering interesting, provocative, useful ideas, but you’re sort of bringing them in the side door sometimes.

Shea Serrano

Yeah.

Peter Kafka

It’s not really a question. I’m just impressed with it because I think there’s stuff in there that if you wrote it a different way or inverted it and said, “This is a story about race and the movies,” a lot of people would tune out.

Shea Serrano

Yeah. It doesn’t work like that because people … I can’t speak for everybody, but I don’t talk that way. I can tell just hanging out with you, you know, we’ve been in here for 30 minutes. You don’t talk that way. There’s never a straight line of stuff. It always goes off into the side a little bit, and when you get off into the side a little bit, that’s when the interesting stuff works.

If we’re talking about what’s your favorite whatever, you’re not just going to go, “Oh, my first favorite is this. My second favorite is this. My third favorite …”

Peter Kafka

“I happen to have all those answers cataloged in my head.”

Shea Serrano

Yeah. You’re going to hit like one or two and then you’re going to remember a thing and you’re going to start talking about that and it will lead to something else.

Peter Kafka

You know who doesn’t do that? Politicians.

Shea Serrano

Yeah.

Peter Kafka

And then people who answer questions professionally for a living, like a lot of people who come in here: “Well, I’m glad you asked me that.” Then they have the canned thing.

Shea Serrano

Yeah, exactly. And when you’re doing it the other way, when you’re just sort of following where your nose is taking you, you get into the interesting stuff and then it makes sense for me to be like, “I’m going to talk about this movie.” And then there’s some other stuff going on because you can see how we got there and how we’re going to get out and get back to the movie.

Read More

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here