In Losers (Penguin Books, Aug.), journalists Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas assemble 22 essays, most of them previously unpublished, by athletes, novelists, and sportswriters, all presenting the typically unconsidered perspective of the competitors who did not win. Pilon is the author, most recently, of 2018’s The Kevin Show: An Olympic Athlete’s Battle with Mental Illness; she writes for numerous outlets, including the New Yorker, Esquire, and Vice. Thomas, a former Grantland editor and current New Yorker contributing writer, is most recently the coauthor, with John Urschel, of 2019’s Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football. They spoke with PW about the unexpectedly winning topic of losing.
As women sportswriters, do you have a particular point of view that allowed this collection to come into being?
L.T.: This is kind of a chicken and egg question. Being a woman in a male-dominated field has made me more sensitive to the person who’s quietly been overlooked, but I’m also drawn to sports for that reason— because I see so many of those stories in it—and I don’t know which came first. I find it all very moving and human, although it can be pretty ugly.
M.P.: Sports is like the religion beat. When people start talking about sports, their eyes glaze over with awe. There’s this really weird bromance that can happen between sports reporters and their subjects; I covered Wall Street and no one was cheering for the banks. That’s why this book came about. Losers was a huge area nobody was touching, a great example of stories hidden in plain sight.
What’s so compelling about the idea of losing?
M.P.: What draws me to losing as topic is that it’s taboo but also a reality. Louisa and I have both been laid off from sports gigs, we’ve had breakups; loss is life and it’s shaped me and most people I know. My instinct is to poke into what’s uncomfortable. We had a list of dream contributors for Losers who had a range voices and experiences. [Olympic decathlete] Jeremy Taiwo wanted to write about what it was like to go from being in the Olympics one day to driving an Uber the next. I love how varied the pieces are in sports and tone.
L.T.: The thing I love about this collection is it’s all over place. We both defined, and allowed the other writers to define, losers broadly. Some are not sports stories in the traditional sense. There’s a funny personal essay about growing up and being bad at sports [“The Peanut Vendor and the Curse,” by Green novelist Sam Graham-Felsen]. I liked moving through all these different ways people thought about losing.
Have things changed for women who write about sports?
L.T.: I had the chance to interview [NBA columnist] Jackie MacMullan, and she has amazing horror stories of getting hair dryers thrown at her in the locker room. The sports world was one of last places where there was this benign misogyny, which is not really benign, where someone would say things like, “He throws like a girl,” and where the only women visible were cheerleaders and a sideline reporter. There’s been an evolution in that people are moving away from that kind of language and view.
M.P.: Louisa and I started writing about sports in 2011. What’s changed recently is people seem to notice us more and care a bit more. Still, a pet peeve of mine is seeing that for Father’s Day, bookstores put out collections of sports books, but my mom also took me to football and baseball games. There’s this idea that no women are reading about sports. It’s a world where weird tropes have been allowed to exist.
Who’s the readership for this collection?
L.T.: Mothers on Mother’s Day.
M.P.: I hope we speak to people who feel that they haven’t been spoken to before. The last line in the introduction is, “This book is for the losers—which is to say, all of us.”