Chapel Hill native and UNC graduate Will Blythe moved to New York City–after picking up a graduate degree at the University of Alabama and a doing a short stint as writer-in-residence at a Washington, D.C. prep school–to become an editorial assistant at Esquire magazine, a job he expected would last about a year. When those 12 months were up, a piece of his short fiction had been selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories, but soon after Blythe was named Esquire‘s literary editor and his writing career got, well, sidetracked.
In 2004, three and a half years after his father’s death and 25 years since Blythe last lived in North Carolina, the writer returned home, at least part-time, to begin work on a book about the Duke-UNC basketball rivalry. The book, however, grew to be much more. To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever not only focuses on the relationship between two shades of blue, but the nature of loss–of a father, a marriage, a career, youth and place, as well as that which occurs on a basketball court.
To Hate Like This received the signature review in the March 1 issue of Publisher’s Weekly, and excerpts have recently appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated and Oxford American.
We spoke in Blythe’s New York City apartment the night after the Tar Heels’ 82-75 victory over Georgia Tech.
Independent: There really aren’t any heroes or true villains in this book. But since To Hate is written by a Carolina fan, if there is a villain then it’s Coach Krzyzewski. What do you have in common with Mike Krzyzewski?
Will Blythe: His way and my way of relating to the world, actually. I have more in common in some ways with him than I do, say, with my kind of hero, Dean Smith. I mean, I’m more profane and I have a harder time letting go of intensity. I like to win. I don’t think I have quite as much of his “us against them” mentality, which I think he likes.
That bunker mentality gives Krzyzewski strength.
That’s exactly right. He loves the bunker. And he’ll make a bunker wherever he is, you know. He could be in Yosemite and he’ll make a bunker because that is his way of relating to the world and making himself into a passionate, active guy.
And yet the bunker mentality stems from his status as an outsider. He’s from Chicago. He’s Polish. He’s from a family of immigrants. Have you ever played your part as an outsider to an advantage here in New York?
You mean the sort of standard “Southerner in New York” kind of gambit?
Yeah. Let people think you’re stupid until it’s time to slapass them wrong. A kind of variation of the Dean Smith sandbag.
Let them underrate you or something. No, but I think there’s also another aspect of that where you play up your sort of relative exotic nature. Because for people up here, especially native New Yorkers, we really are strange in their eyes, and it’s easy to play on. And some people, I think, make a profession out of that. I feel like, you know, there’s some writers who really capitalize on that more than we probably do. And they always play up the part of the South in a way that I find annoying. It’s hard to read, you know. But the South is different.
But your Southernness should be part of you. It shouldn’t be your business card.
Right. That’s right. And professional Southerners really annoy me. You know, when people are highly conscious of a myth that they can play on, it turns them into actors and everything becomes an act of theater and so you feel the way you do around sort of highly theatrical people. You feel like you better watch out, man. Those guys, you can’t trust them. You cannot trust them.
Let me get back to Krzyzewski by reading a line from the book. You write, “Until his mother died, Kryzewski called her after every game.” You do that with your mom.
Oh yeah. I called her last night. I called her after the game last night. I still do that. That was what was interesting. I mean, when he said that I felt a real sense of, again, kinship with him. It’s been a great bond with my mother. It’s so peculiar. I don’t know when exactly she became such an extraordinary fan but we really tended to enjoy the victories together and take care of each other after the defeats because we both felt them so keenly. That’s why, for me, I think a scene in the book that I feel really sort of deeply connected to, and that really is, I think, word for word exactly what happened, was when I came back after the first Duke game and I walked in and my mother said, “What was he
thinking?” And I mean that is such a representative moment.
I think that’s the same night that your mother’s taking the clothes out of the dryer and it’s after midnight.
Yeah, that’s right. That’s the same scene.
And mothers aren’t supposed to do laundry after midnight. That act is an attempt to cope with the loss.
Exactly. That’s exactly what it was.
You have to do different things in order to …
Bust yourself out of the gloom. That’s exactly what it was.
But that’s the sports side of loss. Does the process of writing this book propel you further along in coping with the other kinds of loss—youth or marriage or your father’s death?
Yeah, it does.
All of them?
Yeah. And also you know it was the fulfillment of a pledge I made to myself, and whenever you kind of complete a promise you made to yourself it helps close a chapter, I think. And also because I tried to write about some of those things, the feelings of loss and all. It’s a mysterious alchemy. I don’t know exactly how it works but it definitely eased, greatly, feelings of loss and pain and all that.
What was the promise you made to yourself?
Just that I would write this book–a book, and then this book in particular. And it allowed me to write about things that meant a lot to me. I don’t even mean particularly basketball by that. I mean, you know, what seems probably sideways in the book, or kind of peripheral, actually I think for me are some of the more central moments and passions of the book, and so, yeah, it definitely helped.
Alabama native Rob Trucks is on the thin side of handsome, a veritable pole vault stanchion of a man, as well as the author of the recently released The Shortstop.