Chances are you are familiar with Friday Night Lights, Buzz Bissinger’s best-known work. He’s also the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who had unprecedented access to Philadelphia’s mayor, Ed Rendell, and recently wrote a memoir, Father’s Day. On Thursday, Bissinger visited Cornell as part of the Lawrence and Judith Tanenbaum Distinguished Speaker Series of The Sigma Phi Society to give a talk about college sports. The Sun sat down with Bissinger to talk journalism, corruption and the pain and joy of writing.
The Sun: How did you transition from writing about court corruption to high school football?
Buzz Bissinger: Well, all journalists have a dream of writing a book. I had a Harvard Nieman Fellowship in 1985. It was an incredibly stimulating year. You can take any course at the university — you get to meet all these professors and amazing people. I took a trip out west with a friend and that’s when you would see these stadiums and they were immaculate — the grass would be watered even if there was a drought ... I decided there are a few places to do this — Texas, a town in Georgia, or Western Pennsylvania. Then I called a few college recruiters and they said you have to go to Texas. I went to Odessa — not technically a small town, but it felt like a small place because it’s so isolated. This was high school football — it was a really big deal.
Sun: Many students are interested in journalism but aren’t sure where to start. Where did you begin? Was it your education at Andover and UPenn or external influences?
B.B.: It was definitely my education. My uncle had been a photographer for Life after college. He had worked on the Princeton paper and he had actually also written on the Andover paper, too. And because of him, I became enamored with journalism and Andover had a weekly newspaper and I joined it and fell in love with it. And I really learned the basics of journalism. I often wonder if my life would have been different if I had not been afforded that opportunity. And at Penn, like the Cornell paper, it comes out five times a week. I went there the first day and basically lived there for the next four years. It was great — worked with really smart people and as you say, there’s a lot on the line. You’re covering a community and a complex community, and a community filled with some of the most thin skinned people there are — administrators. But you become a key source of news and that was great training and off I went to join the professional life.
Sun: Journalists are motivated by different causes — a drive for public service, a love for investigation, a passion for storytelling. What does your personal connection to journalism stem from?
B.B.: I was always drawn toward the storytelling part. It was a massive puzzle of public documents and interviews and trying to put them together to tell a story. That was the part that was most challenging to me, and that I loved the best. I think most of the great nonfiction writers, and most of the best journalists enjoy putting together a puzzle. There’s no greater feeling than finding that document you never thought you would find.
Sun: What has been your biggest challenge in all your years of writing — either situational or overall?
B.B.: I think my biggest challenge was writing A Prayer for The City. It was a long time, it was trying to write something exciting about government, and government moves slowly. You’re writing about things that aren’t inherently sexy — it’s not like high school football where kids are being sent out like gladiators to an early death. It’s politics. It took me five and a half years to write the whole process and it was hard. There were times when I got extremely depressed. I couldn’t find the voice for the book and I lost confidence. But, you know, bit by bit you see pathways, and it’s the book I’m the proudest of. That and Father’s Day.
Sun: We’ve been really lucky at The Sun to have different journalists come to Cornell and have had the chance to meet with them. Last spring, Ian Urbina shared a few stories about what he does as an investigative journalist. Do you have any stories about being an investigative reporter in Philadelphia?
B.B.: It’s endlessly arduous. Weeks and weeks and weeks to find a little crumb. When I was doing A Prayer for The City, the thing about Ed Rendell is that he is like a kid. He loved to give me access. So I remember, and it was a really important piece in the story. It was at the beginning when the labor unions were up against the city ... It goes on for months. But all that matters is the meeting — they called it “the meet” between the head of the unions and Rendell. There’s no way they’re gonna let me into that meeting. No way. So there was his head of security who said Rendell had two entrances to his office. And so he propped [the door] open — I sat on my hands and knees so I could hear their meeting. … That’s reporting, just a hell of a lot of work.
Sun: How did you keep yourself motivated on your long term assignments?
B.B.: It’s hard. I went through a terrible depression. I took medicine, which I still take now. ... What kept me going was that there were certain moments that were so magical. And so engaging. ...
So the best thing about writing is that when it goes well, it’s almost orgasmic. But when it goes bad, it’s really bad. You just get stuck. The best advice I heard from my friend who writes mysteries is that whatever you do, you have to write every day. And I keep to that ... When you become confident with where you’re going, that’s when it becomes really exciting.
Visit cornellsun.com for a video excerpt of The Sun’s interview with Buzz Bissinger.