It was during one of those forced celebrity chats during the Bob Hope Classic a few years ago that I heard a nugget of truth worth noting. Broadcaster Jimmy Roberts had to chat up Glenn Frey of The Eagles after he came off the tee on a par-3 hole. During the brief interview, Roberts asked Frey why he'd never written any songs about golf. Frey didn't hesitate in his answer: "Because they wouldn't be any good."
Frey is probably right, for the same reason that the blow-by-blow details of your round seem fascinating but the hole-by-hole account of anyone else's round is of zero interest. It's also probably why the phrase "golf novel" makes me cringe. Golf novels, especially the ones that are really mystery novels, usually suck. That said, the best golf novel I've read this year (with apologies to a couple of my SI colleagues) is Danny Mo by John Haines.
In the interest of full disclosure, I play a small part in the book. I supplied a fictional Sports Illustrated-type feature story on the book's main character, Danny Moran that Haines included in his tale, and Haines gave my son, former Marquette University All-American golfer Mike Van Sickle, a cameo role as one of Danny Mo's competitors in the Wisconsin State Open near the book's end.
The story chronicles Danny Moran (Danny Mo for short), a legend in Wisconsin golf who won everything except the big one, the State Open, and how he gets talked into playing the Open one last time.
Though a golfing savant, Danny Mo is a slightly flawed character with a dysfunctional family, including an athletic son who tries to follow in his dad's top-five-in-the-world footsteps. The big payoff at the end is the State Open, played at the Majesty, a stunning new lakeside course that sounds an awful lot like Whistling Straits. Haines is a good player himself, so for once all the golfing parts ring true. The ending, like most of the book, may not be what you expect.
Here's a question-and-answer session with the author, who vaguely remembers playing golf with me once in suburban Milwaukee 20-some years ago when I was a sportswriter at The Milwaukee Journal and the world was still young:
A lot of people think they can write a book. How'd you come down with the virus?
I took a shot at trying to write one in the early '80s. That was before computers. I'd write it out longhand on legal pads and my mom typed it up. The premise of that one was a baseball player who hits a line drive and, by a fluke, kills the pitcher and later injures another one. The working title was Blue Darter, a term my dad used for ripping one up the box. I had no idea where it was going, no idea what I was doing. When I think about that process now wow, I don't think I can even write longhand anymore. I don't know how I ever did anything on a keyboard without a backspace key.
What's your day job?
I've sold paperboard packaging for a couple of decades for two different companies, interrupted by a six-month stint playing mini-tours around Orlando in late '92-'93. My strategy of taking fewer shots per round than the other guys was sound, but I couldn't pull it off so it was back to packaging. I'm now a free agent between jobs, a recent development. So I really need to sell a lot of copies of Danny Mo.
So you decided to spit out a golf novel in your spare time. How'd that start?
In 2004, I started writing essays for Golf Talk Wisconsin, a new website. I got a little bit of a cult following and I got an e-mail from Gary D'Amato, your successor at The Journal-Sentinel, as it's now called, who encouraged me. He said, "All you have to do is come up with a story." That was the kick-start. My mind immediately raced back to Blue Darter.
So we can blame D'Amato for all of this?
He likes to take the credit because he's a believer. I wrangled you in, too, so there's no escape for you, either.
I read about Golf in the Kingdom being made into a movie, which I tweeted was likely to be as good as the book, "which means it'll be absolutely useless." When I started getting hate mail from Kingdom fans, I tweeted back that it wasn't a golf book, it was a religion book and that Danny Mo was better.
My first 13 reviews on Amazon.com were all five stars. My 14th was three stars and the writer said, "For a really good golf novel, check out Golf in the Kingdom and Dead Solid Perfect." They're classics.
It's hard to believe the same person liked both books, they're so different. I tried to finish Kingdom, but it was boring nonsense. It reminded me of the bad sports movie genre where gosh, kids, if you just try really, really hard, you can win the big game against a team that's physically far superior. What a load. Hitting a 3-iron is a learned skill. Inner golfer? That's crap to appeal to those who can't and never will.
I read it wanting to love it, especially with all that Scottish romanticism. I was buying into it the first 40 percent, but near they end when it got weird, they lost me. I didn't finish it, either.
So for the would-be novelists out there, what was it like doing the book? It was seven years from start to finish, right?
Right. One thing I did, I decided to have a team of beta readers, including D'Amato. I wrote four chapters first and then showed it to them, about a dozen people. They were so encouraging and I was filled by this belief that it could happen. It was sustaining for me, energy that I needed. Also, by letting it out that I was doing this, it held me accountable. By announcing it, basically, I had to live up to it and finish it.
You changed the original ending, which was Danny Mo hitting a shot close on the final hole to win the Open and then falling or possibly jumping to his death from a precarious lakefront ledge. That was the basis for my fictional SI story you included. But the publishers told you that it wasn't commercially viable to kill off the main character?
Yes, and a lot of readers said the same thing. I argued hard for the triumph and tragedy and that it allowed such an ambiguous interpretation. He'd hit the shot so close, winning was an inevitability. But that little bit of unfinished business bothered some people. You and my brother, a priest, are still onboard with that original ending. He's still proud of how it turned out in the rewrite, though.
I liked how unexpected it was. But deep down, everyone kind of hopes for the happy ending. Was it tough to change?
The thing about writing a book is, you're never really done. You can second-guess yourself forever.
I guess you learned how messed up the publishing industry is?
It's prehistoric. Their business model is blowing up.
They thought their business was selling books to bookstores. They never thought of selling directly to readers.
They make it almost impossible to even discover new talent. It's a dying industry, at least the way they do things.
They're like newspapers, they never had to compete for business. Now that they do, they don't have a clue. They never bothered even with basics like marketing.
I never wanted to be the guy who's always talking about his stinking book, but you've got to do it for marketing purposes. It's a little tougher to do with a day job.
The publishing part took longer than the actual writing, didn't it?
Finding an agent is important. The guy I found, I saw that the only hobby he had listed was golf. He was a former CEO of New American Library when Stephen King and Ken Follett were there. He said my intro was very interesting, he'd love to see the full script. He sat on it for a while, I didn't realize that was normal. I told him he could have exclusivity for 30 days, like I was granting him some big favor. He had to be laughing about that. After 30 days, he still hadn't gotten to it. So I said, "How about another two weeks?" It's hilarious when I look back at that. He finally called me on a Sunday morning and said he was taking it to Peter Wolverton at St. Martin's Press.
But that was only the beginning?
Right. St. Martin's held on to it for two-and-a-half years before finally saying no. I found out later that it came down to my book, a big book by a no-name, or a private eye/golf novel by some CBS anchorman in New York. He got the two-book deal. I read both of his books, there are at least 40 golf things he got wrong, stuff you'd never allow if you knew the first thing about playing the game. I got at least 20 e-mails from St. Martin's. A woman editor there liked it, too, but Peter used her to confirm that Danny couldn't die. Each e-mail was a new burst of wind for my sails but nothing ever happened. The killer was Black Wednesday, Dec. 3, in 2008, I think, when the big five publishers cut their staffs 40 percent. When the economy dumped, that was it. Nobody had time for anything and Danny Mo was back-burnered.
Was that a big blow?
I was playing the Ray Fisher Tournament in Wisconsin. We had a rain delay, I still had 32 holes to play, and when I went to get a towel, I got the message. I'd read all the stories of other writers about their crying-in-your-beer moment. That was mine. I wasn't sure what to do. I was encouraged by the feedback I'd gotten, but nobody was in the market for a 507-page golf novel.
My agent kept looking. Ultimately, independent publishing has become a lot more feasible these days. If you can get distribution, it can still get out to the world. So I collaborated with some friends to start a company and get the book out that way. Chambers Street Press, the publisher, is owned by me. The editor is an editor for medical journals in Madison and the cover art came from an independent artist in Denver.
How many books do you have to sell to consider it a success or is just being published enough?
I had a lot of reasons for writing it. It's ranking in sports fiction has been as high as No. 11, and it was in the top 30 every week early on. Anytime there's a mention of it, sales shoot up again in hard copy and e-book. D'Amato was convinced that if I got it out there, golfers would talk about it. The problem is, I've got a lot of friends who are golfers who just aren't going to read a thick book. I get that. Then their wives read it and say they loved it. My agent said, you need 1,000 to 2,000 smart people to read it, then the book will do what it's going to do.
You must get a lot of questions about the characters and the courses who they really are.
People say half the fun is figuring out who's who if you're familiar with tournament golf in Wisconsin. But every character is a composite, except for the occasional real people. I'm not Danny Mo, for example. He's way better than me.
Are you considering a sequel?
I have a story in mind about Danny Mo that I would be excited to cultivate. I'm just going to let this one play out. I can't thank my wife enough for the weekends she let me dig into the writing. It required a lot of alone time. Even if I was ready to write another one, I'm not sure she is.