Community of Writers: Jerry Price

Jerry Price is the Senior Communications Advisor and Historian for Princeton University Athletics. He has been writing for nearly 40 years in a variety of venues, including the daily sports TigerBlog. He recently published what he intends as the first of several novels, entitled With You, and shares here this experience and an excerpt from the first chapter. For more information, and to purchase With You, please see:

What draws you to writing?

I went to the University of Pennsylvania and graduated in 1985. I had thought I wanted to go to law school, but I had a friend [at Penn] whose brother was a sportswriter at The Times [of Trenton], and he asked me if I wanted to cover some high school football games in the fall of 1983. I said, “I don’t know the first thing about writing, or what I’m doing, or anything like that!” He said that was okay, so I went, but he warned me — I’ll never forget it — that “Once you start writing for a newspaper, you get ink in your blood and you never get it out.” And he was right! I gave up on ever being a lawyer, and I’ve been a writer ever since.

Who is your audience?

I’ve been in sports my whole career. Everything I’ve ever written has been about sports [except the novel]. I was at the newspaper for 11 years, and I’ve been at Princeton since 1994, and everything has been sports. I always wanted to try to write fiction. I started writing something a few years ago, and I wrote two pages, and I said to myself, “This is terrible,” and so I deleted it. I said, “I’m not meant to be a fiction writer.” Then my brother-in-law wrote a book, and I was in the middle of reading that, and I said, “If he can do this, I can do this!” His wasn’t a novel, it was a series of essays modeled after podcasts that he does. So I decided to try again. I had the framework of a story still in my head, and I had what I thought were some pretty decent characters, so I just started writing it. Once I got going, it just flew.

What is your writing process?

I never had an outline of where I was going. I just went wherever the story took me, and it took me 49 days to write 100,000 words. Once I got going, that is. So the book is 20 chapters long, and it’s basically two sections, but it’s all the same story, just that the cutoff is between chapters 10 and 11. It took exactly seven weeks to write it, although the first two weeks were just the first chapter since I had no idea what I was doing, going back and forth and all that. So when I got to the finish line, I was pretty happy. Then that started a two-year editing process! So the writing part was easy; the editing part was a little trickier. But I’m pretty happy with it. There’s a lot of me in the main character, and then I borrowed from other people I know who I thought would make good characters. It was really fun telling a story. When you read a book or watch a movie, you don’t know where the story’s going: “Oh, I hope something doesn’t happen to that guy!” But when you’re writing it, you can control all that stuff. When you get to the part where the reader is supposed to think, “Oh, I hope this doesn’t happen,” you have to be the one to make it happen.

I wrote at night — pretty much every night. I write a blog every day in the athletics department, so I’m used to writing a lot, and I can write pretty fast, from being in the newspaper business through all this and the blog and everything. One thing I learned is that I write better when I write fast, because the ideas stay in your head. That’s 180 degrees from what I was told by the person I’ve talked to the most in my life about the writing process! That would be John McPhee [in the Journalism Program]. One thing I did have was a running timeline, because the story takes place over 45 years, so I just kept track of the timeline because events needed to happen in the right chronology — this character was born in this year, so they’re this old, and they graduated college at this point — just to make sure that it made sense. Part of the editing process is that when you write that much, you lose track a little bit of things that you may have made reference to in the wrong order in the final version. I hired a woman, a professional editor, and she read it, and there’s one piece of the plot where I wasn’t sure if it worked when I first wrote it. She said, “I’m not sure that works. Have you tried redoing it?” And to redo it, I had to introduce a new character, so I rewrote it and sent it back to the woman, and she said it was much better. Then six weeks later, I got an email from her saying, “I can’t stop thinking that it was much better the first time! But to keep it [as it was] the first time, you have to do some other stuff to make it work better.” So I redid that too. I ended up cutting out something like 20,000 words and adding 15,000 back in. The last time I read through it, though, the very last time, I found a place where I had referred back to one sentence with the character I had written out. So I had to get rid of her right at the very end!

What is it about the world you want to capture or change through writing?

[The protagonist] is basically telling the story of himself, his life, his relationships. He’s in his 50s now, and the story goes back to when he’s six years old and a family moves in next to his, with a girl born on the exact same day that he was born, their relationship, how that affects the rest of his life. I put him in the same ballpark as me, so it was nostalgic for me to go back and write that, to put me back in places I’d been in earlier in my life. The basic theme [of the book] is destiny. The phrase I hate the most is that “We’re in control of our destiny.” It’s destiny! It happens to you; you can’t control it. So that’s where I went with it, with these things that happen to him that he’s trying to make sense of, and he can’t make sense of them, and he’s trying to figure out why. And it’s not until he realizes that he can’t make sense of them, the why, that he’s able to move forward. I was pretty happy with how [the story] got there.

Who are your favorite writers?

John [McPhee] is a legend. My experience with him wasn’t really guidance, but years and years of friendship, years and year of riding bicycles together, bouncing ideas off of him, learning about the writing process. My brother-in-law, obviously, because I said that if he could do it, I could do it, too! Also John Irving: I love the way he does storytelling. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a great book. When I read it, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to write a story like that, so I wanted not to imitate that, but to try to go down that path. Also, I was really, really lucky that I had three great high school English teachers. I learned so many important things in high school that resonated with me throughout the years: grammar, syntax, style, how to write, how to think. I was really fortunate to have had those teachers when I had them, because I was exposed to high standards of what writing should be, and I really responded to that. Not just for my novel, but my whole career, trying to be creative. I owe a lot of it to all of them.

Interview by Elizabeth Durham

Photo courtesy of Jerry Price

With You

Chapter One

I was in Dublin, figuratively at least, when I heard the water in the shower turn off. It was only when the bathroom door opened and my wife walked out, wearing just a towel draped over her hair, that I was jolted back to my literal location, our apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, in the early afternoon one seemingly random day a long time ago.

“Am I showing yet?” she asked me.

“C’mon Q,” I said. “You ask me that every day. You’re not going to be showing for a few weeks yet.”

Q. I’d called her that shortly after that day when we were six and she moved into the house next door to me, long after I knew her name was Susan Diane Michaels, long after everyone else called her Suzy. At first, she was Suzy to me also. Then Suzy Q. Then just Q.

It’s hard for me to know exactly when it was that I first fell in love with her, at least in the adult sense of the word. At first, we were just next-door neighbors, who, in some strange coincidence, were born on the exact same day: January 27, 1968.

She was my first best friend, and, in words equally accurate, my best friend first. Eventually we’d cross into becoming lovers – it’s a great story – and eventually she would become my wife. My first wife anyway. Ginny was my second wife. Neither of those marriages lasted very long.

Q and I ran a business together, and it was that other side of our partnership that took me to figurative Dublin that morning. We had found out that Q was pregnant a few weeks earlier, but we had yet to share that information with anyone.

“Are you sure?” she said. “Not even a little yet?”

I just smiled at her. There was nothing else I could do. She was excited, and I’d learned long ago that when she got like this, I should just let her go with it.

“I want to wear those pants that pregnant ladies get, the ones where the waist stretches,” she said. “Maybe I’ll stop today and get some on the way.”

“Just don’t be late, okay?”

She was late all the time. She moved at her own pace, did things when she wanted to. It drove me nuts, but it was part of who she was.

I knew she’d be late that night. We had a business appointment, and I wanted her to come with me. Then I could guarantee that she’d be on time.

But nope. She wanted to swing by and pick up her mother and then meet us where we were going. That was even worse. By the time she did all that, I’d be sitting there by myself, looking at my watch, making excuses for my wife. This had happened a million times before.

She got dressed, wearing all black, no makeup and her long blonde hair in a ponytail. I’d seen this a million times before too.

She almost never wore makeup. Her two favorite things to do with her hair were to wear it in her ponytail or to simply wear a baseball hat. And yet she always, always looked incredible.

“Where are my keys?” she asked, knowing perfectly well where they were, where they always were. She was only doing it because she knew what I was thinking.

She could push my buttons like nobody ever has. It was our game. She knew I’d never let her see that it bothered me, even if it did. It was just part of being with her, and I loved to be with her, that was for sure.

“Found them,” she said.

I still hadn’t spoken. I just shook my head at her.

“What time did we say this thing starts? 7?”

“It starts at 6,” I said.

“I know babe,” she said. “Just fucking with you.”

Then she paused for a second and looked at me. She smiled, that big Q smile. She knew that smile had hooked me long ago.

“Six. Okay,” she said. “I won’t be late. I promise.”

“Yeah, right,” I said.

She opened the door and was almost completely in the hallway when she looked back at me.

“I love you, you know,” she said.

Then she started towards the elevator, as the door closed behind her.

That was more than 20 years ago. I’ve never forgotten any detail of that afternoon, maybe because I’d never see her again.