With 'Love and Infamy,' sports is history for Deford

December 07, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

People are telling Frank Deford these days how hard it is for a Westerner to write a novel about Pearl Harbor, one that is told mostly from the Japanese viewpoint and that delves deeply into the nuances of a culture so different from one's own.

Writing such a novel would be a daunting task, Mr. Deford agrees. Then he says, deadpan:

L "Good thing I wrote the book before I heard all this . . ."

But Mr. Deford, 54, did not become a leading journalist -- twice he was named America's top sportswriter by his peers -- and best-selling author by being timid; his other books covered such disparate topics as the roller derby, Miss America, football in his hometown of Baltimore and the death of one of his children.

So when Mr. Deford sat down to write "Love and Infamy," his sixth novel, "it really was just another story. I went about it the same way I had any other -- with a lot of planning and a lot of research."

"Love and Infamy," published this week by Viking, has many of the elements of a best seller. It's a broad, sweeping historical novel set around imminent war and its effect on three characters -- a Japanese man and an American missionary who have been best friends since childhood, and the Japanese woman they love. It has gotten early rave reviews, including this from the Los Angeles Times: "After decades of eminence as a sportswriter, Frank Deford makes this dramatic stylistic departure with expert command."

Perhaps it's the satisfaction of pulling off such a challenge, or perhaps it's his return to a city he still loves, but Mr. Deford is upbeat and reflective over lunch recently at a downtown Baltimore restaurant.

JTC He was a tall, skinny kid when he played basketball for Gilman School almost 40 years ago. Now he's a striking-looking man: 6 foot 4 and angular, dressed impeccably in a dark suit and striped shirt, spiffed up with a lavender tie and handkerchief.

And he's grown weary of writing about sports, having been with Sports Illustrated from 1962 to 1989 (he's now a contributing editor for Vanity Fair).

Since his other five novels were sports-related, Mr. Deford says, when he was thinking about the next one, "I wanted to get as far away from sports as possible."

He had always liked historical fiction, and sometimes had wondered: What would it have been like to be an American in Japan just before Pearl Harbor?

He knew a little about the country and liked the people, but by no means considered himself an expert. "The story interested me at first more than the culture," Mr. Deford says. "I backed into the culture, more or less, because once I began writing, I saw I had an awful lot to learn about the country and the people."

He says he tried to make "Love and Infamy" as historically accurate as possible, but allows he claimed one literary license.

"The Japanese readers who read this book for me all pointed out that Miyuki [the lead female character] was much more assertive than Japanese women were at that time," he says. "Women were so subservient then, yes. But if I had depicted Miyuki that way, I never would have had a book."

His next book, though, covers more familiar ground. Mr. Deford is about halfway into a novel on growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s, and he says, with palpable affection, "I hear that you need an unhappy childhood to write, but the fact is I had the happiest childhood imaginable." Though the story may be familiar, he still wants to tell it his way. "You know, all the books I've read on the '50s -- I'm not sure they've ever caught them right," he says. "Books I read usually concentrate on things like the A-bomb and Joe McCarthy. Well, we sure weren't worried about the end of the world. We were just interested in being a kid in Baltimore."

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