Roll another number

I guess the most surprising thing about the actual writing of “Losering” was how fast that part went. By the time I was putting words down, I had less than six months to finish and I was genuinely worried that wouldn’t be enough time. When I wrote a novel, “Off The Record,” it took three years just to finish the first draft, followed by another three years of editing (plus an unsuccessful go-round with a book agent) before it finally felt done.

Maybe I would have finished that one faster if I’d had a deadline to meet. And of course, there’s a big difference between writing fiction where you’re making it up out of whole cloth and a work of criticism/journalism, where events dictate content to a large extent. But still, there was intense deadline pressure. To finish on time, I needed to be generating 2,000 words a week, on top of writing for the paper (and whatever other extracurricular projects came up) plus tending to home and family matters. Nothing for it but to take a deep breath, jump in and start swimming.

I tried various openings, some so bad that the memory of them still make me wince. But I figured out pretty quickly that I should start, as they say, at the very beginning: the first time I interviewed Ryan, a night that’s become a fairly legendary piece of local-music lore. Ryan was one of four singer/songwriters performing at the Berkeley Cafe in Raleigh, a venerable bar/burger joint where I still have lunch every week with my pal Scott Huler (a brilliant writer whose books you should read, if you haven’t already). A drunk dude managed to talk his way onstage with disastrous results, but the fun was just beginning. As I was attempting to interview Ryan afterward, drunk dude went nuts and declared himself armed and ready to kill. Cops summoned, standoff ensued, interview wrecked, but what a hilarious story it’s been to tell over the years.

That all made a nice hook for the Preface. From there, I backed up a few years to cover Ryan’s pre-Whiskeytown days in Jacksonville and Raleigh. That led very naturally to splitting the book into three sections — “Before,” “During” and “After.” The middle “During” part covers the Whiskeytown epoch, and it makes up the bulk of the book because that’s when I had the best view and firsthand access.

I had both an abstract goal of telling the story, and a concrete one: 50,000 words. It wouldn’t come out to exactly that many words, of course. But word count was an easy metric for measuring progress, especially with MS Word handily giving that number in the lower left corner; yes, I wrote the whole thing in a single Word file, all 300KB of it, which probably was not a great idea (although I did e-mail backups every day). With 50,000 words as my goal line, I began marking how far along I was with cryptic Facebook and Twitter updates like this one from March 28, 2011:

10,370 down, 39,630 to go…

That was a good-sized chunk, more than one-fifth of the way there in less than a month. I was able to pick up the pace in April, passing the halfway point (25,622 words) by the end of the month. By the end of May, I was almost three-quarters there (39,435 words). And by June 26, 2011, I was somehow…done.

Or rather, done with the first draft, which came in at 54,668 words. But getting all the way to the end was a massive relief, even if it wasn’t the ultimate end. And accomplishing that in four months gave me a few months to tweak it before submission. I printed out a few copies, passed those out to some friends to get feedback and didn’t touch it for a couple of weeks. In mid-July, I started tinkering based on people’s suggestions; taking one last spin through it to tighten it up here and there. It was sort of like the final mix-down and mastering stage of a recording.

One hot August night, I put up the following status update:

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North Carolina’s family tree rambles on

As 1994 turned into 1995, just around the time Whiskeytown was coming together, I undertook a rather insane project for the News & Observer: to construct a local-music family tree, showing lineup connections between different North Carolina bands through time. I took inspiration from English music journalist Pete Frame’s family trees, which were elegant-looking genealogies of classic bands. So for a couple of months, I carried around a big piece of paper with diagrams, circles and arrows, soliciting input from people at shows.

I got input from around 100 people and slaved over it for months, doing several dozen versions before I finally let the darned thing go. It never really felt “finished,” but I had to stop at some point. What emerged was something closer to a solar system than a family tree. I was fascinated at how it was possible to link up so many notable local acts from a quarter-century, spanning wildly disparate styles — everything from Corrosion of Conformity’s hardcore to Squirrel Nut Zippers’ hot jazz.

Superchunk, Arrogance, the Connells, Ben Folds Five, The Right Profile, Cry of Love, The Veldt and other notables were all in there, too. Dubbed “N.C. music galaxy: The big bang theory,” it was published in March 1995 and captured a key moment in local-music history. Within two years, the Zippers and Folds were both on their way to platinum, and I was positive Whiskeytown was soon to follow (read the danged book for further details).

At the time this was published, the worldwide web was still taking shape, and the newspaper’s big projects were printed on dead trees. So the only way to see the whole thing in a readable state is on whatever paper copies remain; I’ve still got a few and they’re yellowing with age. Someday perhaps I’ll put the whole thing online, although the thought of trying to update it makes my head explode. But here’s a relevant chunk of it, maybe one-sixth of the big picture:

Over on the right edge a bit more than halfway down is Whiskeytown (“Whiskey Town”), then recently arisen from the ashes of Ryan’s former band Patty Duke Syndrome. And look in the upper left corner, where the Red Clay Ramblers reside. Idiosyncratic stringband to the stars, the Ramblers were already a long-standing North Carolina institution in 1995, and they’ve become even more of one since. They’ll mark their 40-year anniversary this month and there’s a feature about it in Sunday’s paper, which you’ll find linked from here.

As for the 1995 local-music galaxy, I wrote an accompanying essay that attempted to explain it. And here is how that concluded:

So what does it mean? As much or as little as you’d like. It certainly doesn’t imply that the Triangle music scene is one big happy family. But I think this shows that it is, at the very least, one family.

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Words, between the lines of age

It was March 2011 by the time I got revved up enough to start actually writing “Losering.” Although I say “writing,” when an outside observer would have witnessed long stretches of me doing things like rearranging my CD collection; watching televised sports; puttering aimlessly around the house. You might conclude I was wasting time with busy work, but I prefer to think of it as “the creative process.”

Okay, I’m not continuing until you stop with the snickering. Done yet? Show some respect.

As March wore into April, I was well into that long hard slog familiar to anybody who has ever done this. And “Losering” isn’t even all that long or complicated — 50,000 words, a tale told in roughly chronological order, much of it drawn from things I’d already written over the years. I don’t want to represent the process as more than it was.

Still, it was a tall mountain to climb. Most stories I write for the paper come in somewhere between 500 and 1,000 words. Occasionally, I’ll do a 3,000-word story for a magazine, and that feels like a lot. But 50,000 words is the equivalent of 17 of those long magazine articles. Well, 16.666; but close enough.

Maybe there are people who can blast out 50,000 words without feeling overwhelmed. Sadly, I’m not one of them. The only way I know how to do this is jump in, get fully immersed and let the thing drive me nuts as I attempt to subdue it. So I spent the first half of 2011 basically chained to my laptop. It involved a brutal amount of word-processing. Between interviews and multiple drafts of the manuscript, I bet I typed at least a half-million words — not including what I was writing for the paper during regular business hours.

I did most of the writing either at my kitchen table or sprawled in a recliner, evenings after dinner and late into the night. I took my computer everywhere, writing in coffeeshops, waiting rooms, nightclubs, hotel rooms, airplanes. If I had a spare half-hour, I spent it on this book. I’ve always been a light sleeper, and my sleep shrank to almost nothing that spring. I’d work on it until I couldn’t keep my eyes open, pass out and awaken a few hours later, mind and stomach all a-churn. Since I wasn’t sleeping anyway, I’d sometimes get up and resume writing.

It takes a fairly maniacal level of focus and it isn’t exactly what you’d call “fun.” But there is still something exhilarating about the process. I don’t miss the headaches, the insomnia, the exhaustion or the neck/shoulder/back pain from being hunched over a computer for long stretches of time. But I do miss that sense of being in the moment of creation, putting the pieces together. It was a challenge, and I did my best to be equal to it.

I wish I could write a book all the way through to the end, start to finish, before going back to revise. But I just can’t work that way. Instead, I have to advance it along in a slow torturous process that goes chapter by chapter, section by section, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence and even word by word — repeatedly. It’s a painstaking grind, trying to figure out if there’s a better way to say something, down to the last punctuation mark.

Each chapter of “Losering” consists of three to six sections, ranging from several hundred to several thousand words. I’d start a section and get as far as I could with it. First crack at each one, it would usually break down into something resembling a rough outline after not too many paragraphs. So I’d go back to the beginning of that section and start over, again and again, as many drafts as it took. I’d get a little farther with it each time, and eventually that section would be solid enough to where I could move beyond it and start on the next one.

The great Don Dixon once told me that making records in the studio “involves a lot of ditch-digging,” and this is kind of similar. I’d liken it to building a ridge of dirt with a shovel. You have to pat down, firm up and stablize each section before it will bear your weight enough for you to move on to the next part.

Either way, you’re using a shovel. And it’s hard work.

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Discouraging words

We all talk a good game and pretend not to care, but every writer (including me) is desperately insecure regarding negative feedback. It comes with the territory when you put stuff out there, and developing a thicker skin is a survival mechanism. I’ve been writing in public for long enough now that it doesn’t bother me much to get bashed over record and concert reviews. There are times when it’s so far over the top that it’s funny — like how worked-up some people got over a John Mayer review five years ago (Seriously, people? John Mayer?). And in 2010, a record review prompted a torrent of rage from people who felt I wasn’t nearly gushy enough. Alas, that review’s online comments seem to have vanished into the ether. But the one I remember best is something I had as my Facebook profile-page tagline for a while:

Who is this David Menconi f—-r?

Still, that’s the dayjob. When what you’ve put out there is a labor of love you’ve poured everything into, you can’t help but feel every jab — even the little ones. “Losering” is still early in the press cycle, and the only “official” review to turn up so far was a nice one in Publishers Weekly. And while it wasn’t a review, I also got a little shout-out from San Antonio magazine.

I was feeling pretty good about that, along with some of the feedback from people I know who have read the book. But humility is always just a mouse click away. Last night, I was seeking a link for one of my upcoming readings when I came across the following, which surfaced a few months ago on someone’s blog after the book’s excerpt went online:

Well, it sounds like this person might actually buy the book, so that’s good. Still, typos (?) and some not-very-stellar writing…That was, um, not-very-stellar to see, thank ya very much. My first bad review! Kinda. Yay? Still, as long as I’ve been slinging barbs, I can take it.

But do tell: Would it be catty of me to point out the grammatical mistake in this dude’s first sentence?


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Yackin’ it up

As cool as a lot of my old stuff was, it still wasn’t going to be enough to fill out “Losering” all by itself. I had already started interviewing people in and around Ryan’s past, and I kicked that process into high gear during January-February 2011. I set a goal of at least one Ryan-related interview per day, and some days I managed two or three. It was most often in the evening (very late in the evening, if they were on the West Coast) or early morning, or weekends — whenever I could get people on the phone. Everybody at the N&O had to take a week of unpaid furlough days that quarter. I put those days to good use working on Ryan.

I caught a few breaks, too, where the Ryan book dovetailed nicely with other work. For example, Carol Burnett was coming to Durham that spring, and I got to interview her. Ryan had dated her daughter for a stretch, the late Carrie Hamilton (she’s the woman pictured in the Gold CD booklet), and they wrote at least one song together. Along with a nice Q&A for the paper, I got a Ryan-related quote from Burnett, who called Ryan “very sweet.” How could I not use that? In my household growing up, “The Carol Burnett Show” was a weekly ritual.

Then there were the Old 97s. Before I’d even made up my mind to try and talk to Rhett Miller about Ryan, I got a magazine assignment to interview him. So I did that assignment, got some hilarious stories about the 97s’ late-1990s “feud” with Whiskeytown for the book and also wrote something for the paper when the Old 97s tour came through Chapel Hill. Triple-plus-good; quadruple, if you count the fact that the story also ran in the N&O’s sister paper, the Charlotte Observer.

When I queried potential interview subjects, I just told them I was writing a book about Ryan and asked if they were willing to talk; nothing more, nothing less. Most people readily agreed without asking any questions, but a few did ask whether or not Ryan himself had agreed to participate. If anyone asked that, I always told the truth: No, he hadn’t. That put the kibosh on a few folks I’d hoped to interview, but it turned out to be not as much of an issue as I’d feared.

Like reporters always do, I fretted about whether or not I’d have enough material. But I had plenty, arranged in stacks of papers and notecards in file folders with circles and arrows and asterisks and such. There was still some interviewing to do, which continued as I wrote the book. But as 2011’s spring thaw set in, it was time for me to begin my private version of March Madness: the herding of the words.

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Relics from the mists of time

Upon getting the definitive “No” from Ryan Adams Inc., I sighed heavily and got busy. Since I was working without input or approval from my subject, that meant I was writing the dreaded “unauthorized biography” — although I sure do hope that “Losering” is less tawdry than what that phrase typically implies. I certainly had no interest in going all Perez Hilton or Albert Goldman, digging through trash and focusing on the icky stuff. I’d like to think the book turned out fair and even-handed, the good as well as the bad. Whether or not it is, well, that’s not for me to say.

But here’s the thing about “authorized”: Even if Ryan had cooperated, he wasn’t going to get any sort of prior-approval veto power over the end result, or even to read it any sooner than the rest of the world. Which did not, however, solve my immediate problem of how to write the book.

Fortunately, there was a paper trail. I had a voluminous archive of vintage Whiskeytown material I’d kept over the years, notes and interview quotes and clippings going back 20-plus years. I also had some peculiar artifacts, like a feminine hygiene product (unused, thankfully) upon which Ryan’s old bandmate Phil Wandscher had written Dave — Whiskeytown ❤ you during an evening of heavy drinking circa 1996. I don’t know why he did that, other than it seemed like a good idea at the time; I have a dim memory of telling Whiskeytown’s members that their records gave me “that not-so-fresh feeling,” so maybe that was the inspiration. Neither do I know why I hung onto it, but I did. While that didn’t make it into the book, it was a fun little reminder of how non-serious and even goofy all this seemed back in the day.

One golden oldie that did make it into the book was a souvenir from one of my earliest interviews with Ryan, from 1995. As recounted in Chapter Five of “Losering,” he once showed up with a restaurant receipt he’d used as stationery for a statement-of-purpose manifesto, and I think it offers a priceless look inside his head. Here it is:

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Going it alone

I was apprehensive about attempting a biography of Ryan for a number of reasons, one being that my opinions about his career fall well outside the mainstream narrative. That was why I’d never bothered with trying to sell a book about Ryan to the big New York publishing houses. Such a pitch would have boiled down to something like this:

Yeah, the Ryan Adams record that everybody seems to know and love — “Gold,” the album that broke him through to the masses, got the Grammy nominations, cemented his “Almost Famous” career arc and already inspired one not-so-great book about him — actually isn’t very good. In fact, that might be the least-interesting record he’s ever done. Everybody needs to go back and listen instead to the obscure records he was doing with Whiskeytown, which are far, far more compelling…

I didn’t want to be “That Guy,” the one whining about how a favorite artist was so much better before the proletariat caught on. Besides, coming from an unknown writer in Mayberry, that wasn’t going to fly. I’d already had one frustrating go-round with the book world over “Off The Record,” a novel I’d written and set in the music industry, centered around a crazy brilliant rock star whose fictional flamboyance was very much like Ryan’s.

“Rock novels are a tough sell” — I heard that over and over from agents and publishers, many of whom said nice things about “Off The Record,” and all of whom passed on it. Rather than leave it in the drawer, I eventually decided to put it out myself and it did okay. I sold enough books to break even, and Greil Marcus was kind enough to put it at No. 6 on his “Real Life Top 10” one week (an indescribably huge thrill, since he’s always been an idol of mine; I don’t think I slept for a week). But after the book industry’s response to “Off The Record,” I wasn’t in a hurry to put much effort into pitching another book that didn’t comfortably fit the standard pigeonholes.

Then, suddenly, someone did want me to write that Ryan book. My bluff was called, forcing me to confront my biggest cause for apprehension of all: I was pretty sure Ryan wouldn’t cooperate. I’d tried to interview him repeatedly during his post-Whiskeytown years; the answer had always been nyet, and no one would ever come out and say why. He and I had a break, but I didn’t know what it was over. Still don’t. I did hear mixed reports over a 2000 No Depression magazine feature I’d written, and I’d also written an unenthusiastic review of “Gold” when it came out. But neither of those seemed like enough to put us on the outs. It seemed like others had done worse without earning the cold shoulder.

The closest I ever got to an explanation was a 2002 phone call from his then-manager, who called me in an agitated state to basically tell me that “some people were saying some things.” He wouldn’t specify who or what, only that he and Ryan were disgruntled because I’d done…something. One thing he did specify was a Magnet magazine profile the previous fall, which painted Ryan in a less-than-flattering light. I was quoted in the story and I’d also given the writer some phone numbers to find other people he interviewed, which the manager seemed to believe represented a breach of ethics. I was confused and couldn’t understand why everyone was so upset, so I asked if I could talk to Ryan directly about it.

“I don’t think that would be such a good idea,” the manager said, laughing mirthlessly.

I didn’t get to talk to Ryan then, or ever. Ryan doesn’t seem to play in Raleigh anymore — except for a show in 2005, he hasn’t played his old hometown since 2000 — so I’ve periodically tried to get interviews for pieces I’ve written about some of his records. Nope. Naively, I hoped that enough time had gone by for this book to be different. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Part of my procrastinational busy work during 2010 involved sending backdoor messages to Ryan via mutual friends who were still in touch with him. That went nowhere. Finally, in December when it was coming on Christmas, it was time for the direct approach. I screwed up my courage and e-mailed Ryan’s manager. John Silva, a heavy hitter whose other clients include Beastie Boys, Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth and Beck. I made it as neutral and straightforward as possible:

Mr. Silva — I wanted to get in touch about a project concerning Ryan Adams, which I hope he’ll be willing to participate in. University of Texas Press is starting up a “No Depression Biography Series,” and Ryan is to be one of the artists profiled. It has fallen to me to do the book. Below is some information about the series from the UT Press catalog.
Ryan and I have a long history going back to his days in Raleigh with Whiskeytown, although we’ve not spoken in years beyond a cordial e-mail exchange a few Christmases ago. But I’ve always been an admirer, from back in the day ( up to the present (
My hope is that he’ll agree to be interviewed. The book will come out on a university press, so the focus is to be very much on the music. Beyond a bit of interview access over the next six months, this is a process that should demand very little of him.
Happy holidays and please do holler back,

David Menconi

That letter went unanswered, as did several followups. So I turned to someone I knew I could at least get on the phone, Josh Grier, Ryan’s lawyer and someone I’ve known for 20 years. Josh has some history in North Carolina, having studied at Duke University Law School before going on to run Dolphin Records in the 1980s. His client list is as impressive as John Silva’s, and he’s worked with a lot of North Carolina acts over the years. I was hoping for some help here. But when I asked him about Ryan being interviewed for the book, it was the same answer as always.

“I know about this, I’ve heard talk,” Josh said. “Ryan’s not going to participate.”

Why not? I asked

“He just doesn’t want to revisit that time,” Josh said, adding that Ryan’s memories of his time in Raleigh had grown “fuzzy.” And that was that. Josh and I talked for a while that day, the way we always did about bands and the music business and projects he was working on. But it was clear that interviewing Ryan to get his modern-day perspective on the past was not going to happen.

(ADDENDUM, 9/27/12: I have been told by a friend of Josh Grier’s that Josh remembers this conversation a bit differently. His memory of it is that he used the word “faded” rather than “fuzzy” in describing Ryan’s memories. I’m not sure that makes a huge difference, but said friend seemed to think it was important. Anyway…so noted.)

By the time I hung up the phone, I was overcome with depression and dread. That was the early spring of 2011, and I’d accomplished little beyond some interviews with secondary characters. My Sept. 1 deadline loomed not much more than six months off, and I had to write a 50,000-word manuscript about someone I hadn’t interviewed in more than a decade. New interviews with Ryan could have simplified the process by suggesting possible structures for the story; a framework, a roadmap of where to go. But I wasn’t going to get any of that from him.

Truly, I was on my own this time.

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Newspaper rituals

So I have this book coming out, and it’s both exciting and nerve-wracking. But life (such as it is) still goes on at the News & Observer, diminished though it may be. And while the staff and the paper have both grown smaller, we’re still putting one out every day, which is not the case everywhere.

Although we’re smaller, the paper’s comfort-the-afflicted-while-afflicting-the-comfortable mission lives on. I do a bit of that myself, when the occasion arises on the arts beat. But most of what I do is about the art itself. I’ll be reviewing a concert Sunday night (My Morning Jacket, and it’s an outdoor show so I hope the weather’s decent), and Sunday’s paper has that time-honored newspaper ritual — the fall arts preview. This year, there’s the added benefit of a particularly intriguing series that pays tribute to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” one of my favorite pieces of classical music.  Take a look.

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The waiting is the hardest part

I am starting to learn that “publication date” in the book world is a rather fluid concept. Earlier this year, UT Press set the publication date for “Losering” as Sept. 5. But when I asked about scheduling readings for that same week, they were aghast. Apparently, publication date means “available for shipping” rather than actually in stores. Just to be on the safe side, they advised me not to schedule anything until October.

Eventually we compromised on a series of readings commencing Sept. 27 in Raleigh (followed by Sept. 28 in Chapel Hill and Oct. 4 in Durham), preceded by a mid-September launch at the Americana Music Association festival in Nashville. There’s other stuff pegged to September as well, including excerpts in the N&O and American Songwriter magazine. But at a certain point, that Sept. 5 release date turned into Sept. 15, leading me to fret about the AMA reading set for Sept. 13. Would books be ready by then? If not, gulp.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. UT Press sent out an announcement via Twitter on Aug. 13 that “Losering” was “in-house and ready to ship!” People who pre-ordered it started getting their copies in the mail shortly after that (thank you, Morgan McGuire!), and I’ve also heard from a few folks who have seen it in bookstores.

Best of all, however, was something very cool that happened on amazon. For a wonderful but regrettably brief period one recent evening, “Losering” nestled into the top-100. Not the overall top-100 (I wish!), just amazon’s listing of “music biographies.” Still, I was thrilled with the company. “Losering” came to rest at No. 73 — right behind Dylan and ahead of Elvis. It didn’t last long, of course, but that’s why screengrabs were invented.

So will that be the commercial peak on this thing? A few minutes posed with the gods weeks several before the actual publication date? Maybe, maybe not. Stay tuned!…

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Waiting to derail

After the Artiste X debacle, it was early 2010 and I had to regroup. On the plus side, I still had a deal to write a book. But on the minus side, I still had no subject. While I was in Austin that March for South By Southwest, I met with my UT Press editor to discuss possibilities. None of them seemed to move her too much, and she also seemed pretty noncommittal about everyone I mentioned — until Ryan Adams’ name came up. She asked for elaboration. I hesitated because it felt like I was about to jump off a cliff into an unknown chasm. I knew what would happen if I told this story, and also that there would be no turning back.

“Well,” I finally said, “I was one of the first critics to write about Ryan way back when, before hardly anybody outside of Raleigh really knew who he was. And the first time I ever interviewed him, a drunk went crazy in a bar and took the place hostage…”

We were having lunch at a little taco joint in East Austin, and the editor put down her fork. “That,” she said brightly, “sounds like the book to do!”

I gave her a pained smile, groaning inwardly because I knew this was going to be difficult. And yet… I think I’d been kidding myself about the Artiste X biography being anything like “fate.” That one would have been convenient, fun and relatively easy (which is not the same thing), resulting in a book that anybody could have written. But Ryan, if I may be so bold, is a book that only I could write. It’s the one I was truly meant to do, and only a situation like this — a university press where I had an in, and therefore didn’t have to explain my rather unusual take on Ryan in too much detail  during the pitch process — even made it possible.

Sure enough, after the editor conferred with her peers, the verdict was unanimous: Ryan was the one UT Press wanted. I had until September 2011 to turn in a manuscript. With much trepidation (which turned out to be well-founded — more on that later), I set to work. Or rather, I signed the contract and then set to procrastinating for the better part of a year before really getting started. I convinced myself I was working on it because I was listening to Ryan’s records a lot, but all I did was peck at it here and there through the rest of 2010; wrote a few outlines, started asking interview subjects for Ryan stories and so on. I had a couple of boxes full of relevant papers and artifacts, and I was overcome with fatigue every time I thought about diving in. So I really didn’t start the heavy lifting until the beginning of 2011. We’ll get to that.

Anyway, that is how, God help me, I undertook “Losering.” You’ll find the story of that first time I interviewed Ryan here; as well as in the book’s Preface (a.k.a. the “Ryan and Me” part of it).

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