Q&A with Michael Stahl, Co-Author of "Big Sexy: Bartolo Colón in His Own Words"
Michael Stahl is a writer, editor, and author from Queens. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, Vice, and Narratively, where he serves as a features editor. He's also been published with Newtown Literary; an essay of his was featured in issue #3 of our journal back in 2013. His new book, Big Sexy: Bartolo Colón In His Own Words, co-authored with the major league pitcher, is available from Abrams Books this month. Below, he spoke with us about New York sports, mental health, and writing non-fiction during a pandemic. Find out more about Michael on his website, or @michaelrstahl on Twitter.
How does Queens influence your writing? I like to think my writing is pretty dynamic, especially in terms of the topics I’ve covered and the kinds of writing I’ve executed. My voice is manifested most in the way I structure my sentences. I feel like I come right at you in my writing, which is how I am “in real life,” and I think that’s very much a New York—and Queens—thing.
How did you come to co-author your new book, Big Sexy... with Bartolo Colón? I’ve been friends with Garrett McGrath, who edited the book for Abrams Books, since shortly after I became a writer 8 years ago. We bonded over New York sports, mostly. He came up with the idea of publishing a book by Bartolo, but knew he’d need a writer. I guess he thought I could do the job, given my skill level and my fandom of the Mets and Bartolo, individually. It’s my first book, and I’m forever grateful to him and Abrams.
What do you think it is that makes Colón special in the hearts of so many Mets fans? He’s just a character. Maybe the most beloved of all Mets teams was the ’86 squad. Talk about a cast of characters! So the franchise has a history of embracing players with unique, layered personalities, and giving fans the chance to embrace them, too. Bartolo’s one of them, forever. He’s shy yet a showman. He’s humble yet competitive. He’s not ashamed of what he looks like or how he goes about his business, which, in each case, is very different from the prototypical athlete of today. I think fans just always found him relatable, partly because he looked and acted differently than just about anyone else on the field. They saw themselves in him a little bit, too.
While not a Mets-specific book, Big Sexy... will no doubt become a valued addition to any Mets fan’s library. What are some of your all-time favorite books on the Mets and why? For the record: The book is about Bartolo’s entire life and career, but Mets fans, I think, will be very pleased on how Mets-heavy this book is. Perhaps that is because it was written by a Mets fan, but I’m not so sure that was the primary reason. Bartolo had some of his best moments with the team—including the home run, of course. He pitched in his only World Series with the Mets, and just really enjoyed his time with the franchise. So I think if, say, a Phillies fan wrote the thing, there’d still be a ton of Mets stuff in there. Regarding Mets-focused books: I love The Bad Guys Won, by Jeff Pearlman, which is about that ’86 team, and really does a tremendous job of highlighting the color of those characters—if I can be a little redundant here. The Kings of Queens, by Erik Sherman, is also about the ’86 team, but features compelling individual stories about its members. Keith Hernandez released what was ostensibly a journal of the ’85 season called If At First…. I remember reading that at about the age of 9 or 10, and it provided me tremendous insight into the mind of a professional ballplayer. A big takeaway I recall from it was, during one game, he went 0 for 4, but didn’t get down on himself because he hit the ball hard something like three times at the plate. They just went for outs. What a terrific life lesson that could be for all of us, right? Always try your best. The results are so often secondary to just the experience of putting forth that effort.
What does your writing process/routine usually look like? In what ways has the pandemic affected this, if any?
When I’m writing an article, first there’s research, tracking down sources and interviewing them. (Technically, before all that, there’s the pitch process, too.) I just kind of immerse myself in all that information, and there’s always so much that doesn’t make it into the piece, but that’s just part of the experience—and part of the fun, the learning. When that’s done I start writing, spending a ton of time on the opening few paragraphs, editing as I go. The more you write a piece, the more it kind of starts to write itself, which is partly why the opening takes so much longer. It’s like a puzzle. The more pieces you fit together, the quicker the pace becomes because there’s fewer pieces left to worry about.
I happen to find writing to be extremely difficult. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy it. In fact, I love it. But it’s mentally exhausting. I’ve written openly about my mental health issues—anxiety and depression—on many occasions, and the pandemic has chipped away at my emotional threshold, and mental energy reserves. So, in short, it’s been difficult to piece together full days of work, to rally myself to sit in front of my laptop for six or seven hours in a day, particularly when there isn’t writing on the menu. Those first few stages of writing a story—the pitching, the research, and finding sources—require a lot more motivation than the writing, and I’m finding those elements of the job very difficult to get up for, so to speak. Even though writing, itself, is difficult, it’s the most fun, so when it’s time for that, I’m rarin’ to go. It’s just taking me longer to get there than it has in the past. What have you been consuming (books, movies, television, or food, etc.) during quarantine that has brought you some measure of joy or peace or just plain old escapism? For the most part I’ve relied on familiar tomes to help me get through. I re-read Catcher in the Rye and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Just funny, yet insightful stuff that I don’t have to invest too much into, because I already did so years ago. This past week I started Into the Wild, for the first time, and I love it—though, sometimes, again, it’s tough to mentally get up for consuming something new like that. Krakauer’s a tremendous writer, but it’s hard for me to read just for enjoyment. I’m always looking to learn some writing trick as I read, so I turn reading—even reading fiction—into work, which I’d like to change about myself. For food, there’s been ice cream, which I need to keep a lid on, literally. What is your favorite bit of Queens trivia? That the first-ever transatlantic air flight—which was not piloted by Lindbergh, folks—took off from out of Queens! I wrote about that for amNewYork last year.