Author Series: Robert Andrew Powell Part 2
In the second part of my interview with This Love is Not For Cowards author Robert Andrew Powell, we talked more about writing and life in general.
The interview took place a few weeks before Ron Burkle pulled out of Sacramento Republic FC, so apologies in advance for any Republic fans reading. That being said, Powell proved quite clairvoyant. If you missed part 1 of my interview with Powell, click here.
Evan Ream: This is a good segue to talking more specifically about the book. I think its strongest part is the second half of the chapter “Fear.” In my reporting class in college, I had to read a non-fiction and write a paper analyzing it. My report focused on that part and my conclusion was that you kind of lost your mind a little bit, not that that’s a bad thing, any rational human being probably would. How was the process of writing that part of the book specifically? I’m not sure what I’m trying to ask, I just want you to talk about the “Fear” chapter.
Robert Andrew Powell: When I went into the project, I had a book under my belt and another that I had completed but hadn’t been published. I thought that there were only going to be a maximum of three characters and I wasn’t going to be in it. But during the writing, it became clear that I was a character. There’s a movie about the horrors of war where John Cusack’s exposed to radiation and then you see through him how the experience impacts him as he degrades and dies. That’s kind of the role that I ended up playing because I was exposed to everything in Juarez and then became numb to it. I went in so paranoid and in a way became kind of used to it. My experience was interesting and explains a lot about Juarez, how people live there. The “Fear” chapter, all these chapters...when I started writing, when I was doing the outline of the book, I still didn’t see me as a storyline and my experiences and my attitudes. But as I was writing, that’s what emerged. The book that was in my head was the greatest book ever written, but when it came out, it wasn’t what was in my head. I thought I was writing a really different book. I didn’t know that the “Fear” chapter would be kind of its heart. It is a central, core chapter of the book. I was just trying to explain what it was like to live there.
Ream: Is that the feedback you’ve gotten from other people about that chapter?
Powell: The feedback I’ve gotten on this book surprises me in that it’s been really positive. This book really resonates with people and I don’t really know exactly how or why. I didn’t think when I handed it in that it would have that power but it really does. And I don’t know why. The feedback I get isn’t universally positive, it never is, and some people are very comfortable telling me that I suck -- what a fun part of publishing. I’m in awe of the way the book resonates with people because I feel like it’s bigger than me. I’m the guy who wrote it. It’s my story and I’m responsible for it but it feels bigger than me. I couldn’t do this again if I tried. To go back to what I was saying earlier, I really feel like I was the right guy in the right place at the right time for the right reason. All these years later, it still makes me happy. I’m amazed that I got it done and that it came out.
Ream: There is some merit to what you say regarding that and I wouldn’t necessarily call it lucky, but you did happen to be there when the murder rate was the worst and during the Indio’s last season in the top division. That’s lucky, but everything in life requires a bit of luck. I think the reason why it really resonates with people is because it’s one of the most human things I’ve ever read. I don’t even have a question here, I just think that’s why it works.
Powell: The humanity part...I think really benefited from me doing this project that I had done in Colorado before where I had written my first try at a memoir. The whole purpose of that process was to explore myself and explore what I’m thinking and feeling. When that didn't get published initially, I was devastated. But if I had gone to Juarez before I did the running project, the book would be wildly different because my brain would have been different. My brain while trying to write a memoir was wired to think about what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling and how I’m reacting. All that became central to the Juarez book. I feel like the book is honest. Some people don’t like me or like the book, which in a way, is a good thing. They’re still having the connection. Some people don’t like that I’m not a Mexico expert even though I personally feel that that helps the book. But everyone brings their own self into the reading of it. Even some people who don’t like it obviously connect to parts of it and don’t knock it for being dishonest. It’s radically honest and that’s a good thing I think.
Ream: How long were you actually in Juarez for?
Powell: Chronologically I’m there for nine-and-a-half months but in reality I had two years of intensive relationships with Juarez. I had a girlfriend at the end of the experience but not most of the book. She didn't make the book but certainly kept me around Juarez after that. I asked her to live in Miami or Mexico City and she said, “no, I can’t leave Juarez. I love it here.” We broke up, it is what it is, I still love her. She immediately moved to Mexico City, but she came back to Juarez. The connection and affection that people have for that city is real. People who leave come back. The No. 2 in the Indios press office in the book, he still lives there and he has the resources to move. He just doesn’t want to. He absolutely loves Juarez. Marco Vidal lives in El Paso now. I think that’s a compromise, but they’re still on the border and still have an intense relationship with Juarez because if you live on the border, you’re in both cities at the same time. He doesn’t have to live there but he wants to. People, smart people, working people, educated people, they still want to live there and that’s important to me.
Ream: Is Marco still with the same woman from the book?
Powell: Yeah and time flies because they have a kid now who’s 10. He’s going to be playing pro before I get my next book out. I feel like I’m being productive and then I’m like, “oh shit, this kid is in fifth grade now.”
Ream: When I picked this book back up, I thought it came out super recently, but when I thought about it, I realized that you released it nine years ago.
Powell: I mean, this book is out of print. You can get it on Kindle but otherwise you have to find it at a used book store. Last year Rory Smith of The New York Times called it his gold standard of soccer books, but my book’s out of print. Then The Washington Post read’s Rory and says, “sorry for the delayed review, this book is great.” I’m like, “thanks, but it’s out of print.” The book is still very alive in my soul and I still circle back to that experience all the time. I still have the dog, Benito. He’s kickin' around here, but he’s getting old too. He’s slowing down a little but he’s adjusted to life in Miami -- he speaks Spanish so he’s alright. But in the bigger picture, this is a closed chapter (of my life), it’s over, it’s well behind me in a lot of ways. I was supposed to go to El Paso this year but everything got canceled. But I’m not talking to Marco regularly, that’s all behind me. That’s one of the things about journalism, you do projects and then you move on, but I always think that even if I write five more books, this will always be my best one just because...it’s fair to call it the “luck factor.” Just the right guy, right place, right time, right reasons and I was able to get it down on paper, which still strikes me as a miracle. It still makes me vibrate. I still like this book and I’m still amazed that I wrote it.
Ream: I think that’s fair because the only reason I ever heard of the book or you was because Grant Wahl was an early champion.
Powell: No Grant Wahl and no one would have ever heard of this. I know that because my running book has no Grant Wahl. Nobody’s ever heard of my running book, it’s a very different book and I think the Juarez book is much better, but the Grant Wahl effect was very real. If Grant Wahl didn’t like it, no one would have ever picked it up. It’s interesting because I still would have written it and it still would have been the same book, but you wouldn’t have heard of it.
Ream: How did you even get it in his hands?
Powell: I wrote the book on American football years before and lost my agent in that process. She didn’t want to work with me and I didn’t want to work with her. So when I went to Juarez, I had just spent some time in Colorado and no one wanted to publish my book. I was not a hot prospect and I didn't have a pitch when I went to Juarez, I just had an idea in my head. I just finished the Colorado book and managed to get a new agent, who turned out to be much better and liked the project. It was a cold call when I pitched him the book. He was a runner and he liked it and he took me after that but we couldn’t sell it. So he told me to do the Juarez book, which he didn’t really get, but he’s also Grant Wahl’s agent. That’s not how I came to him in soccer and I don't even know Grant Wahl was with him, but that’s how Grant got it in his hands. Grant Wahl’s reaction about the book was honest as well. I’m really sensitive to that kind of bullshit people are asked to do to help someone else out, but Grant Wahl didn’t know who I was. I was shocked by his response when he read it. There were professional connections to get it in his hands, but his response was meaningful and I always felt like it was honest. I felt like he did really like the book and that changed everything.
Ream: Is there anything else that I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to add?
Powell: Well the question I have for you, and we’ve been dancing around it, is why does the book resonate with you? I’m still interested in that question.
Ream: I actually thought of your book and a specific part of it. A couple of years ago, I went to Mexico for the first time and I went to Tijuana. I was walking down La Revolucion, the main street. It’s the middle of the day and there’s a guy in a wheelchair brandishing an AK-47, which I assumed was fake? But maybe it wasn’t? I just thought, “what is going on here?” But I thought back to your book and obviously Tijuana and Juarez aren’t the same.
Powell: They have a lot in common.
Ream: They do. I went to a Xolos game the next year with my buddy Nate, who used to do English language radio for them. We were walking around Tijuana and I just thought to myself, “this can’t be real.” It made me think of your book. When I first read it, I just thought that it was the most human thing that I’d ever read. It’s been on my bookshelf ever since. I let a friend borrow it a few years ago, but she didn’t finish it because she’s a public defender and has like 9,000 clients.
Powell: There’s no excuse!
Ream: But I’ve been working on my own book and have been interviewing authors about the process because I find it interesting and I figured that it had been about the right amount of time between readings so I picked it up again and it was exactly what I remember and exactly as good as I remember. You know how sometimes when you’re younger and you consume something and like it but then go back to it and wonder what you were ever thinking?
Powell: This isn’t a new concept but when you reread books as you get older, they become different books. At different stages of your life, different parts resonate. Someone might be jazzed about the soccer parts and then years later more into the humanity parts. It’s a way to turn a new page.
Ream: It’s interesting that you say that because I think I was actually able to tell just from reading it this time how far we’ve come as a soccer culture in the United States. There are certain things you wrote, like when the players were warming up you called it “keep away” or something that everyone would now just refer to as a “rondo.”
Powell: I know! I cringe every time I see the word “rondo.” I wrote “soccer volleyball” instead of “soccer tennis.” But I also used the term in the hardcover -- I fixed it in the paperback -- “defenseman.” Someone asked me why I used a hockey term and I honestly didn’t notice it because I had played hockey and soccer and it just slipped in and nobody caught it even though it’s not a soccer term. I mean in that time I’ve matured as a soccer follower. I know many more terms and I know much more about defense and “tiki-taka.” I can watch it much more critically. Most sports that I watch, except for American football, I just let it wash over me. I don’t get bogged down in the plays. I check out intellectually and I just let the games wash over me emotionally and I enjoy that so I’ve never been a very analytical writer. Though I was never really an analytical player either -- I wasn’t that good. I would mostly just run around and kick the ball.
Ream: But it’s not even that you’ve evolved, it’s that we’ve evolved. If you wrote “rondo” in 2012, nobody would have known what you’re talking about. It’s just interesting because it’s dated, not in a bad way, just that’s where we were as a soccer culture.
Powell: It’s a period of time. It’s a period piece and it always will be. There’s this book, Brilliant Orange by David Winner, which I think is a very good book and I recommend it to people and explain why I like it, but I also have the caveat that it has to be the most instantly-dated book I’ve ever read. I think that book expired six months after it was written, probably by the time it was published. There are so many references that were gone by that point already. I was writing with an eye towards timelessness, I was hoping that this story would be relevant 20 years from now, but even then, even when I’m conscious of it, it is still of its time and of its place. And Juarez is different now, the people are all different, I’m different. It is a time capsule still and always will be.
Ream: I don’t really have any more questions for you, it’s just really interesting to hear all of this because it is a book that I loved and still love and get a lot of inspiration from so I appreciate it.
Powell: That means a lot to me and it’s one reason why I’m happy to talk about this book. It’s in my past and it’s a project that’s over but it still resonates with me and the fact that it still resonates with people like you is meaningful to me. It’s a gift to me to know that something I put out there has that effect on people. It really is a gift.
Ream: Well I’ll probably read it again in another 10 years.
Powell: We’ll have to get back to each other then.
At this point we kept talking about a few different aspects of our lives before the conversation came back to writing.
Powell: The running book is all about my dad and that really won him over, he thought I was going nowhere. He was a runner. He started running at 40 because he was overweight and smoked three packs a day and then that same year he finished Boston in under three hours. It was always an illustration of who he was, that’s who my dad is, the type of person who, when he decides to do something, just fucking does it and nails it. I know everybody says this about their dads, but he was this larger than life figure and a chance for me to explore him, just like the Juarez book was a chance to explore Juarez. It really won him over, writing a book about him was just cool. And now he just wants me to write, whether I’m making money or not, whether my book’s picked up by Grant Wahl or not. I mean, writing kind of sucks and it’s kind of lonely. There are so many gifts in it when you actually finish the work and that’s what sustains me.
Ream: Hopefully, I’ll have a similar experience when I put my stuff out there, but you never know.
Powell: You never know. My very first book, and I think a lot of writers have this thought, but I figured I was going to write this book and then be super famous and super rich and everyone’s going to love me. And it was a book about little boys playing football and it turns out that that’s not the way to be universally beloved. I remember being in the bookstore as my book had just come out and I’m watching, it was in the front of the store. This woman comes in and picks it up and immediately drops it like it was hot. I’m heartbroken but you can’t expect everyone to be interested in your book. The fantasy that sustained me into writing the book was being like, “Here, I’m a famous author guy, talk to me and warship me.” And that’s not what happens when you write a book.
Ream: For me I just like not having a real job.
Powell: Well that’s absolutely a factor for me too. I think about that, also in terms of Juarez. I really wanted to get hired by The New York Times. They made it clear that I never was going to be. They told me they liked me, they told me they respected me, and they told me they wanted to give me work, but not hire me. That left me in Juarez with exceptional freedom -- I didn’t have to do anything else and that was great and that’s one of the reasons why the book works. Most people who wrote about Juarez knew what they were going to say before they showed up, they would show up, write what they were already going to write, and then they’d leave. Just by being there I got a completely different narrative and I think that’s radically changed my journalism, my approach. If you can do that, that’s the way to do journalism because Google journalism is not very illuminating. Don’t get me started about journalism, we were talking about how crushing it’s going to be when your book finally gets published.
Ream: I’m writing the Sac Republic book and a lot of it has been finished for years…
Powell: Don’t get derailed and put it off, you can always just finish it.
Ream: I agree, it’s just they’re playing in the USL and the narrative isn’t going to be over until they’re done playing in the USL because the story is how did the team come from nothing to get to MLS.
Powell: But that’s interesting too because when I went to Juarez, I imagined that the team was going to be this miracle team that stayed up in the (top division). That didn’t happen and initially I was very disappointed. My original ending is with Marco’s team, Pachuca, who got invited to play against Real Madrid for a preseason game in Madrid and I imagined that that would be a really triumphant chapter, but that got canceled, and then the bomb (in Juarez) hit. So what I thought was going to be the narrative for a long time didn’t happen, but it turned out that what actually happened is interesting and could be more interesting and more illuminating. Obviously for Juarez the story of a losing team worked great, but I didn’t know that at the time. I was really disappointed that I didn’t have a winning team. And maybe Sacramento’s never going to make it to MLS and that could be interesting too. I’m serious, you know? People are investing their time (in the club) and maybe that’s the real story about Sacramento.
Ream: That’s what I’ve been working on for a while, but it is going to happen, it just got delayed because of COVID, but they’re going to play their first game in 2023.
Powell: So they’re in? I’ve lost track of it.
Ream: It was announced in 2019 that they got the spot. A lot of the book is about is thinking this was going to happen in 2014 or 2015, but then it didn’t for a bunch of different reasons. That sounds boring, but I promise you it’s more interesting.
Powell: That’s another thing about writing, you have to start with that initial enthusiasm, but every writer hates their idea and you have to fight against that and overcome that. I’m doing that with the project I’m working on now. I keep looking at it like it’s stupid and no one cares. Why am I doing this work? But I always have to remember that at some point I was very excited.
Ream: I understand what you’re trying to tell me. I actually recently picked up the book for the first time in a while and wrote 40 pages a couple of weeks ago. It’s still happening.
Powell: Well now’s a great time -- everyone’s stuck at home. By the way, any prediction when this all might end?
Ream: I have no idea but I actually got my first vaccination yesterday. I’ve randomly worked at schools off and on for the past 10 years. Right now I’m working with high school students who struggle with distance learning, so I’m in person with kids every day. Because of that they offered me the vaccine. But a couple of summers ago, I finished my goal of traveling to all 50 states and that made me less confident about the state of affairs in this country.
Powell: Seeing America didn’t make you feel good about it…
Ream: Yeah, but I think I agree with your general theory that people are good, I think that people are just isolated and want to help but they don’t know how to do that in the best way. Emotion is so much more powerful than evidence so people are just misguided, especially in this country. The last time I went anywhere was a playoff game between Sacramento and Phoenix this past fall and I drove to Arizona and nobody was wearing a mask. I remember walking into a gas station bathroom that smelled horrible and this dude had a mask around his neck and I just thought, “dude you don’t even want to put the mask on so that it smells better in the bathroom? You literally want to smell crap instead of put on a mask?" So that’s when I thought that we were fucked. I don’t know.
Powell: Well I’m glad you’re vaccinated, you can carry on the population when the rest of us die. It’s a big responsibility.