Chapter 16
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Tough Love

Inman Majors talks about his latest novel, Love’s Winning Plays, the subtlety of satire, the mechanization of modern college football, and the toughness of coaches’ wives

Even as a child growing up in Knoxville, novelist Inman Majors had a public persona: Johnny Majors Nephew Inman. But the football line of the Majors family tree doesn’t begin or end with Johnny Majors, the legendary University of Tennessee head football coach who won 116 games in sixteen years, including three conference titles. Shirley Majors, Inman’s grandfather, was the head football coach at Sewanee for more than two decades, and famed Nashville lobbyist Joe Majors, Inman’s father, briefly played pro ball as a young man. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Inman Majors grew up loving the sport and absorbing all the stories that come from a family with tales worth hearing a few times over.

Majors’s fourth novel, Love’s Winning Plays, follows Raymond Love, a non-coaching graduate assistant for an unnamed SEC powerhouse football program. Love’s adventures during the Pigskin Cavalcade—a pre-season weekend of schmoozing between coaches and fans—provide the setting for a lot of fun-poking at the corporate attitude of Big College Football. Through cringing book-club experiences (Love has a thing for a literary colleague and joins her book club to woo her), romantic false starts, and several forced fist bumps, he navigates a world he is only barely beginning to understand. Majors’s roaring comic voice and football acumen make Love’s Winning Plays a hilarious story that perhaps the SEC should hold up as a mirror.

Prior to his public reading at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville on April 25, Majors answered questions from Chapter 16 via email.

Chapter 16: In writing a satire, how carefully do you have to work to avoid cynicism?

Majors: It seems to me that a good satire should be the equivalent of the little boy who shouts out that the emperor wears no clothes. That is, it should be pointing out absurdities in situations that are generally taken at face value. The whole purpose of the satire should be this kind of rakish truth-telling, yelling that the emperor has no clothes but finding his nudity, his pose, funnier than you do irritating. It doesn’t make you mad that the emperor is trying to put one over on you, but you just can’t let it slide. Regardless of how the public reacts or how the powers that be react, you must, you absolutely must, speak your mind: The dude is naked!

Satire should walk the line between comedy and message, with comedy the far more important element in the equation. In short, you can’t sound preachy and you can’t sound angry. You have to say: That’s absurd! but say it with a smile on your face. Otherwise no one will listen, and no one will laugh.

Chapter 16: You must have enjoyed poking fun at both college-football fandom and book-club culture.

Majors: You know, it wasn’t until I was about halfway through the book that it struck me as odd that I was satirizing two such seemingly contradictory things: football and book clubs. It gave me pause for a while, actually, these two unlikely bedfellows I’d decided to spoof. Ultimately I realized that satire is only ever fun and satisfying if you’re taking on an entity that takes itself pretty seriously. And say what you want, but college football and Book Club America both take themselves pretty seriously. It seems pretty evident that book club culture is the tail which wags the publishing industry dog these days. So I thought, why not try and kill two birds with one stone. Well, not kill. Just nick it a little. I promise it’s all in good fun.

Chapter 16: It’s hard not to believe that Coach Woody’s monologue about the old days, particularly the story of what got him fired at Wyoming, was among the sweeter pleasures of writing this book. True?

Majors: Yes, the scene you mention was fun to write, writing about a more innocent time in college sports. And Coach Woody was a pleasure to spend time with. He represents the coach who is in it for the right reasons: love of the game, the teaching of values, that sort of thing. He’s a bit of a rounder, but he’s also dead honest and possesses a profound sense of honor. Plus he’s funny and doesn’t care what other people think of him. He’s kind of a dinosaur in the current athletic/entertainment landscape, pre-dating as he does the current era of social media and twenty-four hour cable.

I made up the story about his getting fired in Wyoming, but it was in character with stories I’d heard from my dad and uncles about college football in the fifties. I come from a family of good storytellers, so I drew inspiration for some of Woody’s yarns from my relatives and their former teammates. It just seems to me there were more characters back before all the media coverage, and the players and coaches seemed more human, less like products to be marketed.

But the message of the story you reference, the story of Coach Woody getting fired, is basically Woody’s philosophy on kissing up to get ahead: he won’t do it. So the story is his Johnny Paycheck moment: Take this job and shove it. I ain’t working here no more.

Chapter 16: You move the story forward through dialogue, but Love seems to learn more about himself and the exterior world by reading the subtext of conversations. Was that superficiality of discourse something you consciously considered while writing?

Majors: I don’t think I have many talents, but if I have one it’s this: I can walk into a cocktail party and observe fifteen or twenty people simultaneously, tell who’s having a good day, and tell who isn’t. Once I make that distinction, I sprint with undue haste toward the fun people.

But this ability of Love to discern what is being said versus what they mean or are angling for is not something I planned. It did occur to me while writing Love’s Winning Plays that all the protagonists in my novels find themselves in these situations where they are kind of with ‘em but not of ‘em. There’s always this subtle sense of being slightly other—not superior, just other than the folks they’re around. In this book, Love is the absolute low man on the totem pole, so even though he realizes when someone is blowing smoke, he can’t say anything for fear of losing his job. The humor happens when we’re privy to the thoughts running through his head that he doesn’t dare speak. Love’s forced silence, the silence of the powerless, adds comedic tension, I think.

Actually a lot of the best comedies concern a fairly powerless person who is trying to negotiate a world that is hostile or indifferent to their very existence. Think of Chaplin’s Little Tramp, for example. His very lack of societal presence allows him to be a perfect observer, a perfectly objective observer, as he encounters the rich and the powerful and the pretty girls who don’t know he exists.

But to answer your question, this superficiality of discourse is not something I consciously considered. I think it’s really just the way my mind works and all four of my protagonists, of course, are some shading of my own personality.

Chapter 16: Most people might imagine that a novelist born into a football family would grow up to reject the sport, but you seem to have absorbed it happily. How much of this book is shaped by your lifelong experience? Did you need to do any research at all?

Majors: Well, I actually played football in high school and had a great experience doing it. I think the people who reject a sport or activity that a parent or relative has excelled in are the ones who were forced into that activity. But my case was just the opposite. My dad never pushed me into sports, and he wouldn’t even let me play football until seventh grade. So I never felt any pressure to be good in sports, other than the pressure I put on myself.

That said, during my early life I was known by four names: Johnny Majors Nephew Inman. And really, my entire family was pretty well known in the state. So I’m sure at some subconscious level I felt the need to be good at something, and good at something in the public eye.

Truthfully, my experience with college football was every kid’s dream. When my Uncle John was the coach, I got to stand on the sidelines during games, hang out with the players in the locker room, go on cool road trips. It was an enviable existence. When my grandfather was coaching at Sewanee and I was a real little kid, he’d get me to race the linemen at the end of practice. These were the big guys, and they were always dog-tired at the end of the day, just dreading the hell out of the closing wind sprints. I think my grandfather thought it was funny, or at least motivational, to make them race this little squirt who hadn’t been sweating and banging around for two hours. I was kind of the rabbit to their greyhound, I guess. I loved it, but I’m sure those players would have loved to wring my neck.

Chapter 16: The discussion questions at the end of the novel are hilarious satires, beautifully foreshadowed in the book. I haven’t seen that before: did it take some effort to convince your publisher to include them?

Majors: Yeah, those were fun to write. I got the idea when my publisher suggested doing a reader-supplement guide to The Millionaires. I had no idea what these things were, so I explored some of the books my wife had lying around. Well, the questions and the discussion topics really struck me as funny. I really enjoyed reading them. I’m kind of a private person and couldn’t imagine discussing these sorts of things in public, even amongst friends. A lot of them were pretty personal, it seemed to me. So I nixed the whole discussion question thing for The Millionaires. And once I started this book, and started doing the whole book-club-satire side plot, I knew I had to include the discussion questions. People have seemed to enjoy them, even those in book clubs. They’re really goofy, really ridiculous.

And no, I didn’t have to convince my publisher. My editor is Star Lawrence and he’s one of the coolest people on the planet. He thought they were funny too.

Chapter 16: It would be easy to make Coach Driver a villain, but you give CVD a touch more humanity than we might expect. How much did your family history hang in the back of your mind as you wrote?

Majors: I wasn’t easy on Coach Driver because I have a lot of football coaches in my family. The character of Coach Driver is more of a commentary on the current state of the game, the current job of coach. The coaches these days just seem a bit dehumanized to me, a bit mechanized. You can’t blame them. One slip of the tongue in front of a microphone and social media will explode with calls for their head.

So I’m sympathetic to anyone who has that job. You couldn’t pay me enough to be a college coach. I wouldn’t last five minutes having to deal with—be responsible for—120 college boys. Or having to deal with the media. Or with pushy boosters and donors. It’s one of the toughest jobs there is, in my opinion.

Also, as I tell my students, it’s best to avoid heroes and villains. The scene at the end of the book when you see how deflated Coach Driver is, how embarrassed he is—because he is doing the expedient thing and not the right thing—is one of the important moments in the book. The scene doesn’t work if he’s truly insensate, truly a “hairy cyborg” as Love sometimes thinks of him. This is the moment when you realize that for all his intensity and toughness, he’s still a human being, still possessed of human frailty like everyone else. And watching him shrink before Love’s basic decency is an important time in the book. It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Coach Driver, or at least it is to me.

Chapter 16: You realize that you made the Cavalcade sound really fun, right? Is the Cavalcade something you’ve experienced firsthand? Something you’d ever want to do (or do again)?

Majors: I have not experienced one firsthand, though I doubt they are as fun as I make them out to be in the book. It’s just too risky these days with all the media attention around for someone on the staff to cut loose like Coach Woody and Mrs. Driver do.

Chapter 16: Mrs. Driver is, quietly, the most tragic figure in the book in a lot of ways. What do you know about coaches’ wives that we don’t?

Majors: I don’t find her tragic, actually. In her mind, the only tragic thing about her life is that she has to attend football functions with her husband, despite being bored to tears by them. Frankly, the coaches’ wives I’ve known have all enjoyed their positions, despite the gypsy nature of the life a coach and his family must lead. The ones I’ve known are invested in the team and often get close to the players. And there’s usually great camaraderie between the spouses, a kind of esprit de corps.

It’s not a position that every person would be able to handle. You have to be tough and resilient and adaptable. And it seems to me that the coaches’ wives I’ve known all have a good sense of humor. I’m sure that helps too.