Episode 85: Wright Thompson

Wright Thompson is a senior writer at ESPN, and the author of Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things that Last. That book just came out earlier this week. It’s published by Penguin Press.

Pappyland had a strange route to publication. It was initially supposed to be a book Thompson ghost-wrote for Julian Van Winkle. Van Winkle is a bourbon genius who found a way to rebuild a business that was built by his grandfather and lost by his father. 

In the process, he’s created a bourbon that people pay more than $3,000 a bottle for.

But ultimately, Thompson saw the book become something more, a book about a man who makes bourbon, and one who drinks it.

The book is also about fatherhood. It’s about both Thompson’s father, who passed away several years ago, and Thompson, who in the book, is in the process of becoming a father. 

It’s almost magical that just five days before Pappyland was released, Thompson’s second daughter was born.

Pappyland is actually Thompson’s second book. His first, The Cost of These Dreams, is an anthology of his best work from ESPN. He’s still writing longform narrative pieces for ESPN. He’s also producing the TV series True South, which focuses on southern food and culture. The show airs on the SEC Network.

Thompson was a guest in the early days of the podcast. He was featured on Episode 11 in October 2013. At the time, we talked about his profiles of Michael Jordan and legendary wrestling coach Dan Gable.

Wright Thompson (2013)

 

On this episode, I’m going to replay an interview I did Wright Thompson back in October of 2013.

Thompson’s first book was just released by Penguin Books this week. It’s titled “The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business.” It consists of 14 of Thompson’s previously published stories for ESPN. That includes the two stories that I talked with Wright about on this episode of the show – “Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building,” and “The Losses of Dan Gable.”

Thompson’s profile on legendary wrestling coach Dan Gable is a perfect example of how and why reserved people open up to him.

The Dan Gable story came up right on the heels of Thompson’s profile of NBA legend Michael Jordan. That’s the story that leads of the book. With the Jordan story, Wright said he kept thinking of the classic Esquire profile on Ted Williams, which was written by Richard Ben Cramer. That story was titled “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now.”

“That story is very much a North Star, and the thing I’ve always wanted to do, always, is write that story,” Thompson says. “I knew going in that they’re only a couple of athletes famous enough to make that even possible.”

The book is fantastic, of course. And it’s no surprise to me that after one week of sales, it’s already showing up at No. 4 on the New York Times Best Seller list for paperback nonfiction.

Episode 11: Wright Thompson

 

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Thompson is widely regarded as one of the top literary sports journalists in the country. His work has been featured in seven editions of “Best American Sports Writing.” This year, his story “Urban Meyer will be home for dinner,” was included in the anthology.

2013 was an epic year for Thompson, who reported and wrote several memorable stories, including a profile of Michael Jordan as he turned 50 years old, a story about Italy’s racist soccer thugs, a story about a paralyzed fly rod maker in Montana and a profile of legendary wrestling coach Dan Gable in the wake of the International Olympic Committee cutting that sport.

Since joining the podcast in October 2013, Thompson has written an incredibly in-depth piece on Tiger Woods as well as a piece on New Orleans on the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. That piece took up the entire feature well in one issue of ESPN: The Magazine.

Thompson also took part in the Gangrey podcast episode that focused on the work of Michael Brick, and the book “Everyone Leaves Behind a Name.” 

In this podcast, we talk about the Gable story, which Thompson says he wouldn’t change a thing about, and the Jordan story. Both are intimate profiles of people you wouldn’t think would ever open up to anyone, let alone a reporter.