One of the upsides to working at a bookstore is stumbling across hidden gems of the literary world. The gem I happened upon a couple of weeks ago, Nic Brown‘s new novel, Doubles, isn’t exactly hidden: the acclaimed author of Floodmarkers takes his sophomore swing with a story entrenched in the world of tennis. I got my hands on a copy of an uncorrected proof a customer was buying just long enough to jot down the title and author, and found that Brown had the thumbs up of many a folk, including The New York Times Book Review (from his prior work): “What Brown does so expertly is to summon the brief, intimate moments—the single word shared between two characters, the simple gesture that quietly reveals hope.”
Doubles was released last week, and TSF got the chance to interview the tennis-loving author via email. Check out our revealing and candid exchange from this bright writer below.
TSF: First and foremost, why name your main character “Slow Smith?” We’re obsessed with it, but there’s gotta be some calculations behind such a name. Explain.
Nic Brown: Slow is almost seven feet tall and has a ridiculously long service routine. His doubles partner, Kaz – who started playing with him when they were five years old – coined the nickname when they were kids. At the time, Kaz didn’t know much English, but he did know the word “slow” and would yell it at Smith when he took too long between serves. Hence, the nickname. It stuck. Also, because of Slow’s height, he just sort of lopes around the court in these big floppy steps.
TSF: Golden. And sure as heck better than “Bepa.” Did you take into consideration the name of famous American tennis player Stan Smith? There’s some similarity there…
NB: Yeah, the name is a nod towards Stan Smith. I mean, I knew Slow was going to be the character’s first name, so I figured I’d make it alliterative and give him a last name that echoed Stan Smith. Also, Stan Smith’s kids played college tennis in the area [Brown is a North Carolina native] – his daughter played at UNC and his son at Duke. It seemed a fitting allusion, albeit one that is totally unrelated to the actual narrative.
We’re digging the Doubles cover, photographed by Michael Rolph.
TSF: Before we dive too far into your narrative work in Doubles, tell us a little about yourself.
NB: I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. I spent most of my time playing drums and skateboarding, but – barring skating – the only sport I played or was even remotely into was tennis. I did play quite a bit of it – losing 100% of my matches against my primary foil, Ralph Brabham from down the street – but was never on any teams or leagues or anything. I was a fan, but it wasn’t until later, when I became very close friends with the tennis player Tripp Phillips, that I started to become really obsessed with the sport, both as a spectator and player.
Read more about Doubles, and Brown’s adventuring in the world of Challenger tennis, his thoughts on tennis relationships, who his favorite players are and how he discovered John Isner 10 years before his 11 hours of fame-making.
TSF: Got it. So for you, why then base a novel around the tennis world? What sort of dramatics helped play into your story telling? How do you think an audience can connect to something like this?
NB: As I mentioned, tennis became really important to me after I became good friends with Tripp. We met through a mutual friend when we were 19 or 20, and have been close since. At the time we met, Tripp was the star tennis player at UNC, in Chapel Hill, where I live. After he graduated and went pro, I took advantage of some down time and went to several tournaments with him, using his coaching pass for entrance. Tripp is a rather extreme character, and so many hilarious and amazing things happened at these tournaments with him that I found myself re-telling the stories all the time when I came home. Since I was starting a new book at the time, I figured I should probably just write about what I was obsessed with. Tripp is a doubles specialist, and the red-headed-stepchild nature of the doubles niche within the tennis world appealed to me. More so, the fact that people have to work together to win lends itself to a successful dramatic narrative, one that anyone in any sort of partnership can identify with. But mostly, I was just obsessed. I mean, I was crunching doubles rankings points off obscure stat sheets on Steve G Tennis. So, to try to keep myself from wasting too much time, I just combined my interest with my writing. It made me feel like I was doing research when I was goofing around, either playing or watching tennis.
TSF: That’s kinda how we feel about TSF, working and goofing off all in one! Too bad we don’t get paid for it. From the reviews, it seems as though Doubles (full disclosure here, we haven’t read the book) could be more about relationships of an unhealthy nature: Slow and Kaz have this rift but they can’t seem to win without each other; Slow’s wife Anne is in an unfixable coma; and his Manny is obsessive. What sort of statement are you trying to make there? To me, it is a recipe for great storytelling.
NB: Like any partnership, doubles teams – especially those that have been together for a long time – function very much like a marriage. The players are close, their world is insular (they’re traveling internationally sometimes every week), they rely on each other financially, and just like a marriage, the relationships, at least those in the book, are complicated and complex. Add a few actual marriages to the mix and you have enough dramatic potential for five novels. I wouldn’t say that the relationships in the book are unhealthy, though. They’re just complicated and messy and hopefully resonate as true.
TSF: Tell us a little more about your time with Tripp and the work/play life that led you to eventually writing a tennis-themed novel.
NB: I was with Tripp when he made his run at the  US Open, but more importantly, I was with him at some challengers and smaller events where I got to spend some time with other players and see the less glamorous side of the tour. I was living in New York during the few years that Forest Hills held a challenger in the weeks before the French Open, and Tripp would come up and play and I would spend as much of my time as possible there. The setting – this storied former site of the US Open – was amazing, especially when coupled with the contemporary reality of a sparsely attended challenger tournament on the grounds. It was poignant and melancholy, and much of the book is set there. This all happened before I wrote the book, though, so the act of doing research was inverted. I wrote the book afterwards because I had inadvertently done all this tennis research just through the rubric of a good friendship.
TSF: For a book about the quirks, drama and sexuality of the tennis world, why not stick with a more female-based cast of characters? You’ve got plenty of inspiration in the stories of Capriati, Kournikova, Mary Pierce and the like.
NB: For me, the odd relationship aspects in the book are less about tennis and more about the fact that any partnership, be it a doubles team or not, is a profoundly complicated thing. That said, I love the superstitions and rituals that pop up in the world of tennis players, and I definitely mine that trope for all it’s worth.
TSF: If, today, a producer came to you and said that they wanted to take Doubles to the big screen, tell us who you’d like to cast as your actors: Slow, Kaz, Manny, Anne. If you could pick any tennis player, who would get an on-screen cameo?
NB: OK. Well, when I was first drafting the book – and this was a few years ago – I had in mind that Slow was very similar to another tall, big-serving tennis player from North Carolina named John Isner. At the time, no one in the world had heard of Isner. Of course now, after his Wimbledon marathon, he’s doing Letterman and the international press circuit. So it might be hard to get him, but I think he’d have to make a cameo. Of course, I’d have to slide Tripp in too.
But since Isner isn’t an actor, he can’t play Slow. We’d probably need to get Owen Wilson to reprise his pro tennis role from The Royal Tennenbaums. Russell Brand would probably make a good Manny. Kaz is hard. He’s half Japanese and half African-America – not an easy casting call. For the sake of the film, we could consider the Japanese genes latent and call in Don Cheadle. And for Anne, put Carey Mulligan in a blond wig and I think she’d do.
TSF: Speaking of the pro tour, who lands in your favorite box? Both current and former players.
NB: First and foremost The Magician, Fabrice Santoro. After that, I love Boris Becker and Goran Ivanišević. And as for current players, I can’t get enough of Monfils.
TSF: What would Slow have to say about the Wimbledon that just took place? Was he impressed by Nadal’s play? How did he react to the Mahut-Isner record-setting serve-a-thon?
NB: Slow couldn’t have been more pleased with the Isner-Mahut match, considering he is basically a fictional version of Isner. In a similar way, he’d have been pretty happy to see Berdych and his big Czech self get through. As for the rest of it, Slow would have thought it was predictable. Including Roger‘s unfortunate and early departure, and Nadal‘s unbelievable play – even if he looked utterly beatable against Petzschner.
TSF: And what about you? If there was another storyline in tennis that you could write on, what would it be? Why?
NB: I think I’ve tapped the tennis world for all I can get in regard to fiction, but when it comes to real life, there’s always something I’m interested in. Right now, it seems like Ernests Gulbris is an infinite font of possible storylines, both for his crazy untapped talent as well as his somewhat unhinged Safin-like personality. And Thomas Muster just accepted a wildcard into a challenger and lost 2 and 1 in the first round. Would love to talk to him about the logic behind that one.
TSF: Eek! So would we! Finally, we totally dig your cover. Tell us about it and how it came about? Who is the photographer and do the four chairs symbolize the connectedness of Slow, Kaz, Manny and Anne?
NB: The photographer, Michael Rolph, isn’t someone I know personally, though I love the image too. I found it searching through some tennis photos and thought it resonated well with the book. I like that first and foremost, it’s a great photo. It’s just icing on the cake that the image works perfectly with the book as well. To avoid that problem of having a photo of someone contrast with how the reader envisions a specific character, I didn’t want images of any actual people on the cover. So, as it is, the empty chairs here do a good job of representing the main characters while simultaneously sounding a melancholy note that resonates with the storyline.
Doubles: A Novel by Nic Brown is available in paperback from Counterpoint Press for $10.85 or on the Kindle for $9.99 from Amazon.com. If you’re in the North Carolina area, catch one of Brown’s readings this month at a number of independent bookstores.