TUSKERS – The backstory
Karen and I were at a party one evening back in the late 1980s, and I had a conversation with a gentleman named Bob Starck. Bob was a good friend, a literary type, art collector, film maker, etc., and I knew him because he and another friend, John Spence, had worked on some film projects involving my books. So this party was a fairly artsy one. During this conversation, Bob mentioned that he’d like to go out in the field with me some time, so I told him that I was leaving at 3:00AM the next morning for a one-day fish collecting trip out to the South Platte River at Roscoe, my main research site near the Cedar Point Biological Station for about 20 years. Bob decided to go, and I picked him up about 3:30 the next morning. We drove out to Roscoe; he helped me seine fish (Fundulus zebrinus), and we drove back to Lincoln, all on the same day. We took the blue 1973 Gran Torino station wagon that I’d bought for $600 a couple of years earlier so Karen would have something to drive to the beach at Lake McConaughy instead of her new station wagon. So for five or six hours going out, and five or six hours coming back, we talked about literature, film making, and writing.
As we talked, I complained that my more creative writing endeavors were being declined by my literary agent. I was tired of writing essays about nature, and was essentially out of ideas and material, and had been trying a number of different things, including fiction. Bob told me I should write a book about Nebraska football. He talked about how rabid the state’s citizens were about football, and how I could create all these characters, etc. I thought about simply typing 300 pages of GO BIG RED in different fonts, but decided that was not such a great idea regardless of the fact that it would sell like hotcakes. Nevertheless, a book about Nebraska football intrigued me.
About this time I was either still Interim Director of the University of Nebraska State Museum, or had just finished my first tour over there. Every day I went to work in a building with magnificent mammoth and mastodon fossils, and one of our curators was an expert on these extinct giants. I don’t know where the idea of TUSKERS actually came from, but I knew that it would not be smart to write about the current or recent coaches, so that the book, if I wrote it, had to be set far in the future. Bob Starck’s important contribution to this project was his “what if?” question: what if Nebraska won every game for ten years, then what? The “then what? became TUSKERS. Once I decided what to write, the book essentially wrote itself very quickly.
The literary problem was how to create a despicable character, one who used everything in his power to make Nebraska lose its most important football game, without any of the standard techniques for creating villains (crime, violence, sex, etc.). The solution was to use really offensive language and extremely disrespectful dialog. So I decided Arly Hockrood needed to be a real foul mouth because he’s not a criminal and he’s not really hurting anyone, at least on purpose. TUSKERS is rated R because of language. The narrative device used at the end of chapter 4 was borrowed directly from a movie, PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES, with John Candy and Steve Martin; Martin supplied the movie dialog. Charlie Robbins is modeled at least in part on our son who was the tuba rank leader in the UNL marching band when he was in college.
My literary agent loved this book and suffered through 23 rejections before she quit trying. Our youngest daughter, Jena, was a superior athlete and as she went through college and into sports journalism, she continued to say “Dad, you’ve got to publish TUSKERS!!” So eventually, when the self-publishing industry became viable I did. Sahara Cathcart, a former architecture major turned pre-med, designed the cover. The Museum gave me permission to use the image, a Marc Marcuson mural in Elephant Hall.
I really am fairly happy with TUSKERS as a piece of writing and consider it one of my better, and most important, works, mainly because of what it says about our obsession with sports. And, of course, more and more frequently we read about efforts to resurrect woolly mammoths from DNA in frozen carcasses.
John Janovy, Jr.