A Haunting Tale of Soccer and Anger: Karl Taro Greenfeld on Writing “True”

Karl Taro Greenfeld

True, the new novel by Karl Taro Greenfeld, does an absolutely fantastic job of blending two seemingly disparate qualities: the title character (and the book’s narrator) can be detached and analytical while observing her life, but is also capable of deeply visceral acts as she makes her way through the world of women’s soccer in the late 1990s. As she balances a fractious home life with a skill for the game, her amount of internal tension approaches critical levels, leading to a series of harrowing episodes. I talked with Greenfeld about the genesis of True, writing about soccer, and more.

Much of True is set at a particular point for women’s soccer in the United States. What drew you to this specific period and this specific sport as the backdrop for your novel?

The 1999 team that won the World Cup was such a sensation. I was working at Time magazine at the time and we had to rip up the cover and put them on after Brandi scored that PK to win it and then stripped down to her sports bra. And they were so popular because they embodied what everybody already sort of knew: that soccer in America is more a woman’s sport than a man’s. The USWNT has won 3 world cups. We are the Brazil of women’s soccer. While we are the United States of men’s soccer. So if you have the misfortune, as I did, to write a novel about soccer in America, you better make it about the girls. Also, the challenges of writing from the POV of a different gender are hard enough that I thought it made more sense to set it in a period where I could remember being sort of young, so at least there was verisimilitude in her lifestyle. Otherwise, I would have to ask my daughters endless questions about how True and her rivals would fight it out on social media.

Were there any challenges, narratively speaking, of having a fairly hard and fast history that you had to remain true to? (No pun intended.)

Not really. I took so many liberties. I made up entire tournaments and the very Hunger Gamesish-world of the USWNT Residential program. The world I describe, the brutal selections of who makes the cut and who doesn’t, the girls physically breaking down, the intense competition to make the squad and the very deliberate manner in which coaches, doctors, trainers are supportive but at the same time always appraising the girls, even measuring them and weighing them and examining them, to determine who will make the team, that is largely fictional, almost science fictional.

Your nonfiction has delved into the world of sports; how much did that writing prepare you for this fictional exploration of it?

The very first fragments of the book that would become True were written over 20-years ago and were part of a planned non-fiction book about soccer in America that, even before I was 20-pages into it, had become a fiction book about rival soccer teams in a Los Angeles amateur league. I showed 10,000 or so words to my agent, who said the material seemed “hyperbolic” ,and then to my editor, who said he was interested, just as soon as the publisher earned back my advance for Standard Deviations, my second book. Well, Random House never earned back that advance. Those first soccer files were lost several computers ago.

But the world of pick-up soccer in Los Angeles continued to obsess me, and three years ago I returned to the material, only for some reason, this time, I was writing as a female soccer player, one so talented she could dominate in pick up soccer games with men. Her life story, how she came to be this girl who played on dusty, far-flung pitches on weekday afternoons, turned out to be the story I wanted to tell. Why had nobody heard of the best soccer player of her generation? She was the female soccer equivalent of basketball playground legends like Joe Hammond or Earl Manigault. While I was writing, I wasn’t thinking of the act of gender appropriation I was committing or the commercial risks of writing a sports novel. I just wrote until I felt I had all the pieces of a novel. After the usual second-guessing, anxiety and re-writing, I had a manuscript and when my agent sold it, and my editor edited it, I had a novel. It was only then that I began to think about what I had written. It was a sports novel, itself a fraught category. And this was a sports novel with a female protagonist. I could only think of one other such book, Lionel Shriver’s Double Fault, the 1998 novel that sold so poorly she considered giving up writing. She didn’t, going on to publish the best-selling We Need to Talk About Kevin. So if all goes according to plan, my next novel, if any publisher has the fortitude to bid, will be the one that breaks me out of something of a life-long sales rut.

One of the things that impressed me about True was structural: the extent to which True’s professional and personal rivalry with Alexis ends up giving the book its shape. Was this arc in place from the beginning?

No, I had to find it. Alexis began to loom larger and larger as True’s foil and rival. I thought the idea of two girls who grew up playing together through club, travel and select team soccer and then making the national team and both being these great players was fascinating when combined with the trials of teendom and high school. What starts as a friendship becomes a bitter rivalry and the more popular girl–Alexis–can use all the weapons a popular girl has, both in their high school and on the US Women’s National Team. And she’s as good a player as True, so it’s not like it’s easy for True to survive the hell of that US Women’s Team development program. And how that rivalry plays out very much drives the book and provides the best moments.

What was your experience with women’s soccer, both locally and overseas, before writing this novel?

I watched it. Both my daughters played. And I myself played soccer in youth leagues, in college, then in business school, then in various corporate leagues. But I loved playing pick up soccer and played all over the world. I wrote this piece about it in Salon many years ago that became part of a book of travel writing they were doing but it’s now 404d if you try to find it. Otherwise I would link to it. But there was always a girl or two playing pickup soccer in these men’s games, and they were occasionally good players and all of them had invariably played in college at pretty high levels. I guess some seed was planted in that, in the sight of a girl playing pick up with the boys.

Over the course of the novel, True ages several years; she also spends time on medication. To what extent did you feel that you needed to reflect those shifts in perspective in the narration?

It’s challenging and interesting writing a female first person novel as a middle aged man. And I suspect many people won’t give the book a chance because what business do I have writing this? But it just came out this way, and each phase of her life, from her teen years to her 20s to her post-soccer life, came very naturally to me. I think I reflected her various ages in narration. I don’t think I reflected the medications she was on, because she herself was constantly deciding to go off them because she believed they took away some of her edge.

Hey, when I think about it now, if someone described this book to you: a novel about soccer in America, with a female protagonist written by a man, and an ambiguous ending, you would say it’s a suicide mission. But sometimes, as a writer, you don’t get to decide what you’re writing. She’s just there. You’re character and you’re with her so what can you do about it?

Has writing True caused you to write differently since finishing it?

I’ve been working in television since I wrote True, as a writer for Ray Donovan, the TV Show. I have a non-fiction book that I’m getting back to. Also, I keep publishing short stories here and there, in The Kenyon Review, Agni, and so forth. I don’t think I’ll write another book about women’s soccer, that’s for sure.

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