What Inman Majors Knows: A new comic novel: Love's Winning Plays
We talk SEC football, coaches who dress like pro-golfers, getting an MFA, and comic novels.
Inman Majors is an associate professor of English at James Madison University. His comedic novel, Love’s Winning Plays, has just been released by W.W Norton & Co. His previous novels are: The Millionaires, Wonderdog, and Swimming in Sky.
Love’s Winning Plays tells the story of Raymond Love, a “graduate assistant coach” at an unnamed, but undeniably high profile football program. He is hoping to snare an open full-fledged assistant coaching position where he will actually get to be on the sidelines during the game. He also may or may not be in love with the athletic director’s daughter. First, he has to successfully navigate the summer pigskin cavalcade, where much football booster flesh is to be pressed. Love’s future is on the line in every possible way.
John Warner: The book explores the world of SEC Football. We should let the folks know upfront that you have an important, some might say, legendary connection to this world via a familial bond.
Inman Majors: Well, a few bonds actually. The most well known connection would be my uncle John, who was a long time head coach at Tennessee, Pittsburgh, and Iowa State (and the runner-up to the 1956 Heisman Trophy as a player at Tennessee). I had four uncles total play for Tennessee. My dad played at Florida State, where he was a teammate of Burt Reynolds. And my grandfather was the head coach at Sewanee (University of the South) for twenty years, where he coached another uncle of mine. So I grew up hearing good, and often funny, football stories about the SEC and college football in general.
JW: Any favorite memories from seeing Uncle Johnny at work?
IM: The national championship game at the Sugar Bowl in 1976 was pretty sweet. Pitt (my uncle’s team) was playing Georgia and all week long the Pitt fans had endured a lot of smack from Georgia fans. The Pitt folks were outnumbered about 8-1 so everywhere you turned there was somebody hollering, Hunker Down, You Hairy Dog, at you. Their mascot is the bulldog and I guess it’s an unusually hirsute breed. The taunting was all in good fun, but it sure was nice to hear how quiet those little doggies were after the game. A 24-3 beatdown will teach you a little humility, I suppose.
JW: This book is a straight-up comedy. Your previous novels have had humorous elements, but this seems of a different stripe. What made you want to write one?
IM: I consider Wonderdog a straight up comedy as well, though it did have a bit of pathos. But you’re right, this novel is comedy undiluted by pathos, earnestness, or much else of anything. It’s meant to be an unadulterated assault on the funny bone. The novel before it, The Millionaires, was nearly 500 pages and I was still kind of tired creatively even a couple of years after I’d finished it. I didn’t really feel like writing, but I’m superstitious about going too long between books. I’m afraid the muse will head off to livelier ports. Anyway, I thought the easiest way to get me back at the computer would be the call of a nice, short, breezy comedy. And I had a lot of fun writing it. It was like shooting fish in a barrel satirizing college football and the beer commercial ideal of American masculinity. The book basically wrote itself.
JW: A lot of the best jokes in the book are at the expense of the ways and rituals of football coaches and football fandom, including how the contemporary coach dresses. Why do head football coaches dress like professional golfers?
IM: I have no idea. It’s almost like it’s written in the NCAA rules that they have to wear golf slacks, shirts and visors, regardless of weather or personal sartorial inclination. My theory is that the coaches just want to remind the fans that if they keep booing, they’ll just take their guaranteed money, walk right off the field, and hit the nearest golf course for the next couple of years. Yeah, kiss it, you fair weather fans! I’m going to tee one up right now! And get paid to do it! So boo! Boo your little hearts out.
JW: Who was the best dressed coach of all time?
IM: All the coaches used to wear coat and tie and I much preferred that look. You knew they didn’t have visions of birdie putts dancing in their heads while the game was going on. The most effective use of formal game attire had to be Bear Bryant in the last decade of his career. I’m not sure he was the best dressed, but when he was in a coat and tie and that Houndstooth hat and was coaching against one of these golfer fellows, you just had the feeling that whenever the game got tight, he’d put the opposing coach over his knee and remind him who was boss. He looked the part, is what I’m trying to say.
JW: I’m going to confess that I was once a reasonably passionate football fan. As a kid, I had virulent case of Wolverine-itis transferred from father to son, going so far as to throw a book through a window when they lost on a last second field goal to Ohio St. In college, I had season tickets even though my alma mater is never all that good. As this season approaches, I find that I may sit this one out, ignore college football entirely as a silent protest against what I see as its outsized place in American university-dom. Should I try to rekindle the joy, or is the whole enterprise as corrupt as it seems, and as it’s portrayed (at times) in your novel?
IM: Nah, why bother. I mean if it wasn’t Big 10 football you used to watch, I might advise otherwise.
In all seriousness, the excesses of college football are about to do me in as well. And I say that as the son of a man who would have had a hard time affording college without an athletic scholarship. So my gripe is not with the game or even athletic scholarships. It’s just that more and more, the football tail is wagging the university dog and at some point the university’s going to have to regain control of the situation. The money’s too big, the fans are too crazy, the media too ubiquitous.
It’s funny, I’ve noticed that I can only write a good comedy when I get really mad and really disgusted with something. Then I let that feeling stew for awhile until what used to make me angry begins to seem ridiculous and then just really funny. As Elvis Costello says: I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.
So here’s what I do now. I don’t really have a team. If I happen to turn on a game and it looks good, I watch it. Watch for the pure fun of the sport and the spectacle of it. And if you get a good game going and a good announcer who isn’t trying to make it sound like World War III, then it can be a nice way to spend a Saturday afternoon or evening. I find that if I’m in my recliner with a fire going and Brent Musburger announcing, I can just enjoy the game and forget all the ancillary nonsense.
JW: In a novel with an SEC football backdrop, you also manage to skewer book clubs, including a list of discussion questions in the back that read like a parody of book group discussion questions. Clearly, you have some thoughts on this phenomenon.
IM: About halfway through the book, I realized that I was satirizing two very unlikely bedfellows and I wondered how that had come to be. I think that satire works best when you are examining entities that really take themselves seriously. And I don't think there's any question that both SEC football and Book Club America take themselves seriously. Both are powerful and virtually unchallenged. Both can dictate terms. It seems to me that the first question a publishing house would ask when an agent sends them a book is this: how will this fly with book clubs? There's nothing wrong with that. Frankly, Book Club America is keeping the publishing industry afloat. But I do wonder if it will limit the types of books, fiction especially, that is published in the future. And I don’t think that’s a good thing—a narrowing of scope—for a nation’s literature.
JW: You write, you teach writing at the college level. You’ve got what we might call a nice career going. You must have students that express interest in following in your path. What do you tell them?
IM: I usually just tell them how I got to this point: how it took eight years from first sentence to publication of my first novel. How I spent five years teaching a 5/5 load at community college and then three more in visiting year-to-year positions. How it took a full decade and two novels to finally end up in a tenure track job at forty years of age. The hundreds of rejections, the failed trips to MLA. The feeling I had when I had just turned forty and had two children under the age of four and was staring eye to eye with unemployment. After this uplifting story, I tell them about the number of people who apply to MFA programs and then the fraction of those who are accepted. And then I tell them that every year there are probably less than a hundred creative writing job openings at the college level.
Finally, I tell them that under no circumstances are they to attend an MFA program if they must borrow money to do so.
Usually, when they leave my office either their hair is on fire or their eyes are brimming with tears.
But here’s the thing: if a person is a writer, it doesn’t matter what you tell them about graduate school or the market for fiction or what their life might look like at forty if the breaks don’t go their way. They’re going to do it regardless, come hell or high water.
JW: What are the five best books about sports?
IM: In no particular order:
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh—Robert Coover
The Breaks of the Game—David Halberstam
When Pride Still Mattered—David Maraniss
Field of Dreams—W.P. Kinsella
JW: How about the five best comedic novels?
IM: In order:
1. The whole of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves series
2. Confederacy of Dunces—John Kennedy Toole
3. Lucky Jim—Kingsley Amis
4. Norwood—Charles Portis
5. Cat’s Cradle—Kurt Vonnegut
JW: What’s next for Inman Majors?
IM: The most pressing thing is to get my syllabi finished by tomorrow. Yes, today is the last day of summer for me, or as it’s officially titled here: The Saddest Day of the Year.
John Warner often Tweets about books he likes: @biblioracle.
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