[[A few weeks ago, I asked Andrew Friedman, co-author of James Blake's recently published autobiography, Breaking Back, to write a post taking TennisWorld readers behind the curtain to see how such a collaboration occurs, and how the book gets written. Here are Andrew (aka Rolo Tomassi's) thoughts. James Blake opens his US Open quest today -- Pete]]
I’ve been reading The Courts of Babylon recently and was struck by a line from the introduction: “Over the years, I’ve interviewed a lot of tennis players at their homes,” writes our TennisWorld host, Peter Bodo. “These were often palatial residences, but they were often so new that they still smelled of paint."
Well, in describing my experience of collaborating with James Blake on the book Breaking Back, that line is as good a place to begin as any, because the first thing my nose detected when I walked into his house in Fairfield for our inaugural working session, just a few days before Christmas 2005, wasn’t fresh paint, or the leathery stank of just-unwrapped furniture, or any of the other olfactory oddities you might associate with an unlived-in home. Curiously enough, the first thing I inhaled was the buttery, sugary aroma of cookies right out of the oven, and the first thing I learned about James was that he had housemates: two young women, classic Connecticut blondes (platonic friends dating back to his high-school years), were standing in the open kitchen of his living room, giggling and baking cookies.
To put it mildly, this was not what I was expecting.
Not that I really knew what to expect: I’d never worked with an athlete before, and though I was and am a tennis junkie, the truth is that to me, James Blake used to be, more than anything, a verb. My buddies and I used his name to describe a shot in one of our matches, usually a go-for-broke forehand that took an opponent by surprise (e.g., “And then, we were in the middle of a crosscourt rally, when I just James Blaked it down the line.”)
Several years ago, I switched literary agents for one reason and one reason only: to go with a guy who could get me into position for a shot at a tennis project. It was a longshot, to say the least, because I’d never written anything but cookbooks, food articles, and a few half-novels that were gathering whatever the virtual equivalent of dust is on my Vaio’s hard drive. I selected an independent agent named David Black with deep roots into the sports world, who promised me, “I’ll whack away at this until something gives,” and proceeded to put my name out to a number of colleagues. Not much came of it, until three years later, when he received an email from Lisa Queen, who merchants books for IMG. He forwarded the email to me. This is all it said: “Would Andrew have any interest in writing the James Blake book?”
I was on the phone in a heartbeat, telling David that he had to get me a meeting. Weeks later, he did: with James’ mother, Betty Blake—familiar to me from her appearances in the players box on television—and Carlos Fleming, James’ agent at IMG, a real gentleman and, if I may say, an exceedingly well-dressed dude. (When I die, I want to come back as Carlos’ wardrobe.)
We met, it went well, and a few weeks later, a date was set for me and James to have a first interview at his home in Fairfield,Connecticut, to begin work on a book proposal. The timing and circumstances were less than ideal: the miserable holiday season transit strike had just ended, James would be flying in from Chicago on the morning we were to meet, he had to conduct a photo shoot for Nike during a portion of our interview, and I was leaving for vacation with my family the very next morning.
Nonetheless, I took a train up to Fairfield, and walked to James’ house. I rang the bell, and there he was: James Blake, in a sweatshirt and jeans. I’d not spent any extended time in the company of other professional athletes, but in my work as a food writer, I’d collaborated with a number of the best, most famous chefs in the US, and in a former career worked for a film producer and came face to face, quite often, with international superstars (one surreal afternoon I dropped in on a child’s second-birthday party and found myself scarfing down cake with Robin Williams and Jamie Lee Curtis). There’s an air that a lot of, maybe most, celebrities have, a sense that there’s a spotlight perpetually trained on them or, worse, that the world is their PA (Hollywood-speak for personal assistant). James has tremendous star presence on the court, but he doesn’t exude that kind of “look at me” vibe in intimate situations. And I mean that as a compliment.
We sold the project to a publisher just before the US Open last year. Over the next few months, I spent considerable time with James, though much of it was “virtual” – we did a lot of interviewing by phone and traded some of the longest emails I’ve ever been a part of. When he was around, like right after the 2006 Open, we did some in-person interviewing. But the schedule of a tennis player is something I never fully appreciated: the travel, photo shoots, interviews, personal appearances, and so on. It’s just endless.
If we’d had more time I’m sure we would’ve spent more of it together, but the publisher wanted to get the book out between Wimbledon and the US Open this summer, so we were dancing as fast as we could—we worked in Inside the Actor Studio fashion at first, covering James’ entire life and career chronologically, then decided what to really bear down on and cover in detail in the book. We talked by phone once or twice a week for one to two hours, and in the fall, when the Tour headed overseas, we traded notes (and then chapter drafts) by email: I’d try to time my transmissions to get to him right before international flights so he could work among the clouds, then hit the send button when he touched down, and put the thing back on my desk.
This might sound like an odd way to write a book, but James was very engaged (much more than I understand most athletes are with their books) and would actually take the time to throw in little side stories and joking commentary that made it feel like we were just gabbing on the phone.
One of the great perks of this job was that IMG arranged for a credential for me to attend the US Open. (It’s now in the possession of my tennis-obsessed son, who calls it his “tennis necklace.”) I used it to the max: coming out to the grounds to just watch practice sessions, or outer-court action. I also, of course, attended all of James’ matches: three with the J Block, one from the IMG suite, and one from the player’s box. (I was in the box the afternoon James had a much anticipated showdown with Thomas Berdych. Berdych was in a surly mood, failed to convert a ridiculous amount of break points, and James, who was really on his game that late-afternoon, basically rolled him. As the athletes shook hands, James’ coach, Brian Barker, turned around to those of us in the box and beamed. I’ll never forget it.)