Talking Sports Literature—with Dr. Angie Abdou

The topic of sports has been on people’s minds lately, with the current NHL hockey season ramping up for the playoffs as well as the recent Olympic and Paralympic games in PyeongChang.  In Part two of our interview with AU’s Creative Writing professor, Dr. Angie Abdou, she talks about her upcoming books that combine her love or writing with her lifelong love of athletics.

Sports writing has been a big part of your works; swimming and wrestling in The Bone Cage, skiing in The Canterbury Trail.  What attracts you to writing about sports and what makes you want to write more about that subject area?

For my first novel, I took the advice to write what I knew—and particularly to write a world that I knew well and that readers might not know as well.  I swam my whole life (on the Thunder Bay Thunderbolts when I was four-years-old, then the Moose Jaw Kinsmen Flying Finns, the Regina Optimist Dolphins, and eventually the University of Western Ontario Mustangs when I was twenty-seven).  I also watched my brother wrestle his whole life, eventually competing in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.  I knew those two worlds very well—their sights, sounds, smells, stories.  And I found the people—the athletes—to be fascinating, wild characters who I hadn’t seen represented on the page.  It made sense to tackle my first novel by trying to get them there.  So I started with sports.  It’s the world I know best.  Similarly, with The Canterbury Trail, a ski-town offers its own weird little sub-culture, one I hadn’t seen between the covers before, but that I thought would make for fun reading.  Living in one at the time, I had no shortage of material.

I’ve moved away from sports to other topics, but now I’m thinking about athletics from a parent’s perspective, with both of my kids deeply involved in sports.  I can’t seem to escape! But I do like writing that is rooted in the physical—as a reader and a writer.

Not many people realize that there is a whole genre about literary sports fiction—sports writing is more closely associated with sports journalism, or more about the pop culture aspect.  Is sports literature a growing field? Or do you feel like you are somewhat of a pioneer in that regard?

Some of my favourite Canadian novels focus on sports: Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse (hockey), Paul Quarrington’s King Leary (hockey), and Bill Gaston’s The Good Body (hockey).  Some good Canadian sport books even focus on sports other than hockey!  I’m a fan of Steven Heighton’s Every Lost Country (mountaineering), Samantha Warwick’s Sage Island (marathon swimming), and Thomas Wharton’s Icefields (mountaineering).  Sport often functions as a vehicle to talk about the meaning of life.  Characters imbue their lives with a sense of purpose and significance by having a dream in sports—that athletic goal sets them on a quest which lends a story narrative momentum.  Often, though, their quest ends in a different place than they intended—not with a gold medal but with some new understanding.  I like sport literature for that quest narrative, for the cast of wild athletic characters, for the physical writing, and for those stories about re-evaluating a dream and individual’s purpose.  Sport in literature is not new.  But sport literature courses—English courses devoted particularly to looking at literary writing focusing on sports—are fairly new and spreading.  Writing the Body in Motion is meant as a resource for such courses, for teachers and for students.

Have you noticed any differences about the approach and perspective of how men and women write about sports?

To be honest, if you gave me most sport novels with the author’s name scribbled out, I don’t think I could tell if it was written by a woman or a man.  Take Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese and Twenty Miles by Cara Hedley.  Both are hockey novels.  Both have beautiful descriptions of the sport.  Both have characters who run into doubt and obstacles, and who eventually undergo re-evaluation of their circumstances.  There is nothing particularly feminine or masculine about the way Wagamese or Hedley writes about hockey.  Hedley does, though, write about women finding their space in a sport traditionally designated as male.  Her goal is to carve out a place for women at centre ice of the sport that allegedly defines our country.  So Twenty Miles is a feminist project.  But that’s not, of course, true of all women’s sports writing.  So, no I couldn’t generalize about a difference in the way men and women write about sports.  In the novels included in Writing the Body in Motion, almost all authors write about sports that they themselves have competed in.  Maybe they write more as athletes rather than as women or men.

Do you think that literary sports writing will be taken more seriously in the future, or do you think it will always remain a bit on the “fringes” of writing?

I’m not sure that literary sports writing is on the fringes.  Lawrence Hill’s very successful novel The Illegal is about a runner.  I call it sport literature.  Much of John Irving’s writing is about wrestlers.  I call that sport literature.  W.P.  Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, which was made into the baseball movie Field of Dreams, is commercially successful sport literature.  A lot of popular writing features sports and athletes.  Sport literature courses, on the other hand, do need to fight for place within English Departments and for respect within the discipline.  There’s a tendency to dismiss this type of study as a little fluffier, as “just sports,” but I do think that is changing.  I belong to an international Sport Literature Association and attend its conference every year, usually in the United States, and those scholars take their work very seriously.

Writing the Body in Motion is an anthology that is a compilation of essays that discuss sports writing.  It’s being published through Athabasca University Press.  Is it a book that concentrates on the academic analysis, or can others get a lot from the essays as well?

Jamie Dopp (my co-editor) and I wanted the essays to be accessible so that a general reader might enjoy them.  However, the main goal is for the essays to supplement Sport Literature classes at the university or high-school level.  Teachers might use them as material for lectures or assign them to students as research or as a sample essays.  There are essays on ten of the most commonly taught Canadian works of sport literature.

Were the contributors easy to find, or did you have to do a lot of searching to seek out the authors?

Through the Sport Literature Association, I had instant access to the most active scholars studying sport literature written in English.  Most of the authors in our collection come from that group.

You have another upcoming book, Home Ice, Confessions of a Hockey Mom which will be released this coming September.  Tell us what readers can look forward to with that book?

It’s a voyeuristic peek into my life as it is now.  I follow our family through one hockey season, second-year Atom.  The story ended up being not just about youth-sport culture, but also about parenting and marriage and middle-age and the over-extended family.  The Goodreads blurb says: “With equal parts humour and anguish, Abdou offers a nuanced portrait of today’s hockey parent.  Her revealing stories and careful research of an often-troubling sport culture offer a compellingly honest and complex insider’s view of parenting today’s young athlete in a competitive and high-pressure culture.”

Basically, I wrote the kind of memoir I would like to read.  I like candid memoir with research woven in.  That’s what I wrote.

Being a hockey mom is something that a lot of Canadian parents can relate to—and presumably hockey parents talk a lot about it while they are watching their kids play—but there hasn’t been too much written on the subject.  What was the trigger that made you decide that you would be the one to write the book that no one else has before?

I wanted to read this book, but it didn’t exist.  I kept trying to get someone to talk me out of the idea of writing it.  First, I presented a paper (the prologue essentially) to my Sport Literature Association, thinking they would say “Well that was fun, but there’s not a book in it.”  Nope.  They loved it.  They wanted the whole book.  So then I sent the prologue and a bit of a rough proposal off to my agents, thinking they’d say encouraging things but then break it to me that nobody really wanted a book about a hockey mom.  Nope.  They loved it.  And so it went.  Everybody kept saying YES! where I expected to hear NO!  In the end, though, it really is a book that I (as an over-extended mother of young athletes) would love to read.  I hope other readers love it too.

Did you speak to a lot of hockey moms across North America, or was it written from more of your own experiences?

I did book-research about hockey around the world—and youth sports in general—but that research is woven into my own very personal story (as an athlete, a sister of an athlete, and a mother of athletes).

What can non-athletes take away from reading literary sports fiction, even if they can’t relate to playing the sports themselves?

Sport Literature is often about having a dream and setting goals to attain that dream.  What happens when a character realizes a dream has become unattainable? Once the dream dies, how do those characters reshape their identity? How does the loss of that defining goal shift their sense of themselves as well as the way they present themselves to the world? How do those characters find meaning in life once that dream disappears? These questions apply to everyone, but sport lit manifests them in a dramatic, visceral, physical way.

Sport Lit also examines the relationship between the body and identity – and how who we are changes as our bodies change, whether through aging or through injury or through deliberate manipulation.  Again, this issue of body and identity applies far beyond the sporting arena.

What are some of the lessons you’ve found through your experience of sports, both as an athlete yourself as well as a parent of kids who love sports, that you can apply to other aspects of life?

Swimming has shaped who I am more than anything else has.  Swimming taught me the discipline and work ethic and resilience that I bring to my writing life.  I spent my youth swimming two-hours before school and two-hours after.  The hours training far out measured the hours of competition.  I remind my students that: a lot of the writing you do will be training …  don’t expect it all—or even the biggest portion of it—to be published.  Like with sport, you have to put in those long hours of practice.

From swimming, I learned how to show up when I didn’t feel like showing up.  I learned how to come back after soul-crushing losses and disappointments.  I learned how to find pleasure in the training itself rather than the outcome.  Routine, commitment, work, discipline – I’m happiest when my life looks like that.

As a parent, it’s so easy to get caught up in the “is he any good?” approach to sport—to get carried away with victories and overblown ideas about future victories.  That’s not the value of sport—I always try to bring us back to process and life lessons.  In that way, I remind my kids that they learn more from the so-called losses.  Being able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, hold your head high, and try again—THAT is a useful life skill.

Writing the Body in Motion: A Critical Anthology on Canadian Sport Literature comes out May 2018 with Athabasca University Press:  http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120276  and is currently available for pre-order through Amazon.

Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom releases Sept 2018 with ECW Press:  http://transatlanticagency.com/2017/06/deal-news-home-ice-by-angie-abdou/  and is currently available for pre-order on the ECW site:  https://ecwpress.com/products/home-ice

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