Alan Shipnuck and Michael Bamberger, Sports Illustrated writers and authors of several solo non-fiction works, have joined forces to novelize the Tiger Woods scandal in The Swinger, due in stores and via download starting Tuesday.
Telling the story of "Tree" Tremont through the eyes of a former newspaper-writer-turned-paid staff member, The Swinger is a raucous, lively and at times laugh-out-loud funny look inside the world of professional golf and modern celebrity. While it sails along only to bog down briefly during the protagonist's stay in a sex rehab clinic, the surprising ending should leave those still frustrated with Tiger's post-scandal actions feeling satisfied.
And I guarantee you’ll never think of Altoids, Vijay Singh, the wine cellar at Augusta National or, for that matter, Tiger Woods, the same way again.
Shipberger offered to answer questions via email in advance of the book's July 12 release.
GS: So a certain famous golfer crashes his car on November 27, 2009, is outed as a serial philanderer and patient of a PED using shaman, then returns to the course a different man who is clearly not the same golfer he was before. Somewhere along the line one of you two had the bright idea to write a novel inspired in part by the events. Considering we writers tend to not share our ideas with other writers, approximately when and how did you two first hatch The Swinger?
SHIPBERGER: In December 2009, Michael told Alan he was thinking about writing a novel about a sportswriter who goes to work for a swinging golfer. Alan told Michael he was thinking about writing a fictional autobiography of a swinging golfer. We talked briefly about collaborating but each of us wanted to keep noodling on our own. The 2010 golf season began in earnest and neither of us got very far. Writers tend to procrastinate. Maybe you've noticed. In November 2010 we had a roughly 40-second phone call that went something like this:
Michael (in Philadelphia): Maybe we should do this together.
Alan (in California): Cool.
Michael: Christine's calling me to dinner.
Alan: Yeah, and I got to get the girls to gymnastics. Send me the first chapter and let's see how it goes...
GS: Ultimately what was the "why" factor in using Tiger's situation to inspire a work of fiction about the modern day PGA Tour and a superstar player?
SHIPBERGER: Tiger's situation, as you say, was just sitting there,
begging to be explained more. The New York Times Reviewer, Janet Maslin,
wrote that we don’t insult the reader’s intelligence by claiming that these characters bear no resemblance to persons living or dead, and our protagonist, Tree Tremont, certainly does shares some qualities with Tiger. But he is not Tiger. Tree has shades of Manny and Lance and Wilt in him, among others.
Our novel is our fictional reaction to Tiger's situation. We've been covering Tiger his whole career. The scandal that upended his life and career is one of the biggest stories in recent sports history but with the walls that Tiger puts up how could any reporter really get close to it? So in creating the alternate universe of the novel we were able to truly get to know the world's greatest golfer, and understand his struggles and motivations and insecurities and passions. When Tree finds himself in the middle of his own scandal we can see and feel every thought and emotion.
GS: Once the idea was agreed upon, how did you decide to collaborate and how did the writing process work?
SHIPBERGER: We'd talk about ideas and loosely map-out the chapters and then take turns writing. Each of us would edit the other. There was no ego invested in who had written what - we were constantly improving each other's ideas and words. It also made the book come to life very quickly, in about two months. There was always pressure to keep typing, because we didn't want to disappoint the other guy. We enjoyed the benefit of a 27-hour workday, with Alan in Monterey County and Michael in Philadelphia.
GS: How far along in this process did you get before you decided to seek the support of a publisher and presumably, frequent interruptions from their lawyers asking questions?
SHIPBERGER: Part of what got us to finally start working on this book was a conversation Michael had with a very talented editor at Simon & Schuster, Jofie Ferrari-Adler. We sent him chapters as we went and he was a thoughtful editor and tireless cheerleader. We also had terrific guidance and suggestions from our bosses at SI, Jim Herre and Terry McDonell. Once the manuscript was finished lawyers from both S&S and SI vetted it. We're lucky to live in a country that prizes free speech. We've taken advantage of it, in this book and in our SI writing, too.
GS: "Tree Tremont" is both a sleaze-bag and an incredibly sympathetic character manipulated by a host of folks, most impressively his father, agent and one particular company that sponsors him. Yet I don't think Tiger will be posting a blurb on his website. Will you be sending a copy to Tiger or Finky, err...Steiny?
SHIPBERGER: We don't think of Tree as sleazy. He's more like a freak show. He grew up in a bubble, like a lot of superstar athletes. At an early age he had global fame and unimaginable riches, and with that came a ton of pressure and temptation. He's certainly selfish and makes a lot of bad decisions but he is not irredeemable, as the book shows. The book explores his growth as a golfer and as a person. Tiger's people have had the book for a while and we hope Tiger picks it up. He's an ideal reader: he'll get all the jokes and understand the historical allusions and recognize the various folks who make cameos in the story. The shrillest criticism of this book will likely come from people who don't read it.
Covering one of the greatest athletes ever, in his prime, has been a thrill for both of us, and seeing Tiger's life implode has been sad, really. We tried to write about our character Tree Tremont with sympathy. We had no interest in "piling on"--what would be the point in that? Tiger's fall from grace raised huge, unanswered questions. Why is an athlete's sex life anybody's business? On the other hand, were we doing our jobs--were we telling people what he's really like? (Turns out, we didn't know ourselves!) Are the enablers around him in any way culpable for his misdeeds? Can redemption be achieved through sport? We used Tree Tremont to get at these questions. We don't know what made Tiger the way he is, but, through the magic of fiction, we were able to come up with some ideas about how Tree Tremont became the way he is. Many people think the Tiger story came and went and now it's time to "move on." We think it's way bigger than that.
GS: Some people in the game not used to having their feathers ruffled are taken to the slaughterhouse in The Swinger, does that concern you in your future attempts to write about the PGA Tour?
SHIPBERGER: "Slaughterhouse" is a little strong, Geoff!
[GS: I enter into evidence the scene where the fictional Commissioner--a large man with a dye job--is conspiring with Tiger...errr...Tree to cover up his positive test for nearly every PED known to man. Go on...]
We do poke a little fun but we think it's pretty gentle. We love the game and the people in it. That's why we are able to write about golf with the enthusiasm we do. We think golf is better when it's written about with candor. Sometimes that means some people get upset. That hasn't stopped us in the past. It didn't slow us down in writing this book. We'll keep doing what we do.