Buzz Bissinger on Why He Refuses to Teach His Book Friday Night Lights at Penn
Plus, his leather obsession, his new book, and how he felt about ghostwriting for Caitlyn Jenner.
There are few men we could interview in this space who could talk about their Gucci leather addiction, winning a Pulitzer at the Inquirer, their passion for a 1944 football game in the South Pacific, and a penchant for wearing women’s clothes. People of Philadelphia, we give you best-selling author and Penn professor Buzz Bissinger, whose new book the Mosquito Bowl just landed.
Buzz, when I was doing some research for this interview, I was shocked to learn that you published Friday Night Lights 32 years ago. Is that possible?!
I don’t even want to go there. Nineteen-ninety — is that 32 years? Aye-yi-yi. I’m ambitious, but I know I am not going to top the success of that book. It became a noose at certain points in my life. There was just an obit of the coach from the book in the New York Times. Obviously, the only reason this coach’s obit wound up in the New York Times was because of my book. Weird.
My 15-year-old daughter discovered Friday Night Lights over the summer thanks to the TV version, which was streaming on Netflix. She loves it and wants to know if you were a football player at any point.
I did play, but I was small, and I realized there was no future for a 140-pound pulling guard. I love the game, and my family loves the game. We once went to three football games in one weekend: Harvard-Dartmouth, the Jets at Shea Stadium, and the Giants at Yankee Stadium. But I didn’t see Friday Night Lights as a football book. More like it used football as a sociological study of how small towns tick.
Right. Calling the book a football book is like calling Raging Bull a boxing movie.
That’s very kind of you to say. But let me ask you this: Has your daughter read the book?
Not yet. It’s on her list.
Tell her she better or I’m coming after her.
I’ll relay the message. Now, you have another book that just came out, Mosquito Bowl, which is, in very general terms, about a football game that took place well before you and I were born. Why should we care?
It’s an incredible story that simply had not been told, about two regiments of Marines playing real football on Guadalcanal on Christmas Eve 1944. Both regiments were stocked with some of the best college football players in the country. And to find out that of the 65 who played in the game, 15 were killed at Okinawa — that was mind-blowing. It’s a story of poignancy, loss, bravery, and it’s even a love story, really. Everyone is flawed, but the men who served and died or lived through Okinawa were magnificent men, and from a time and place so far away from where we’re at now that it can make you cry.
How did you even come across this obscure football game from 1944?
I was fucking around on the web. I think it was when I was doing some research on Caitlyn Jenner’s father for the memoir I ghost-wrote for her. Caitlyn’s father served at D-Day, and I came across this website that mentioned the game. I just had to find out more about these men. All but one were dead, so I wrote the book through letters and documents they left behind, and I was really able to make them come alive. Please, tell everybody to order the book!
You’re Buzz Bissinger! The author of Friday Night Lights! Of course people will buy the book.
Ugh. It’s impossible to get people to read things these days. We look at a website for two minutes and say okay, this is boring, and … click.
I know you have an apartment here in Rittenhouse and then your big place in the Pacific Northwest. Did you write the book in both locations?
Really, in our place in the southwest corner of Washington state, in the middle of nowhere. It was the pandemic. I had nothing to do but work. I wrote at the kitchen counter, surrounded by my wife, Lisa, and our dog, Pippie. Some days were great. Some days were terrible.
And are you already on to the next project?
No. I’m not good at that. I spent an exhausting five years on this book. I don’t understand people who jump from book to book. But this book was really great for me. My life was … strange. It was fucked-up. I don’t know if you saw the documentary about me on HBO, but I was all over the place. I lost sight of myself. Why? Because I didn’t have a book; I didn’t have a project. I don’t want to exaggerate, but this book really helped put my life back on track. Before that, I did the Caitlyn Jenner book, but that was ghostwriting — a role I really hated. But hey, I did it for the money. And I spent all of that money on leather.
Oh, we’ll get to the leather.
But first I want to ask you about your teaching at Penn. You’re a person who tends to say what’s on his mind. Do you worry that this might get you into trouble in an environment like Penn, now that you’re back this semester after taking a break to write Mosquito Bowl?
Yes, I do worry. Students are in a whole different atmosphere of “woke.” And being a teacher is a performance, in part. I have to perform to keep them awake and engaged. Otherwise, they’re just sitting there listening to me babble and looking at me like I’m a corpse. But I do worry about getting “canceled.” There is a tendency of schools to protect their students rather than their professors. I used to use Friday Night Lights in my course at Penn, but a student went to counseling because the N-word is in the opening paragraph of the book. It wasn’t gratuitous. I had to use that word. Not all writing is meant to be comfortable. But this went all the way up to the dean of students. Guess what? I am never, ever using Friday Night Lights in my class again. I have eliminated it from my syllabus. I have, essentially, banned my own book from Penn. It’s just not worth it.
I know you won the Pulitzer at the Inquirer in ’87 —
Shit, was it ’87? Ugh.
Yep, ’87. But you didn’t start out in Philly, right?
No. I consider myself a Philadelphian now, but I’m from New York. I went to Penn, and then I left to work for various newspapers in Norfolk and Minnesota. And then I came back to Philly to work at the Inquirer, because it was the most special paper in the country.
Do you really believe the Inquirer was “the most special paper in the country” back then?
It was in full bloom. Pulitzers all over the place. Where was I gonna go? The New York Times!? Please. I didn’t wanna work in that backbiting, horrible atmosphere. So I went to the Inquirer. But my kiss of death at the Inquirer was when I decided to become an editor. I said to myself, Why am I doing this? I was taking other people’s stories and elevating them and at times completely rewriting them, and they were getting all the credit. Screw that! So once Friday Night Lights came along, I was gone.
It’s been nearly 10 years since you famously exposed your high-end shopping and Gucci leather addictions in GQ. Numerous pairs of $5,000 pants. A $22,000 jacket. Are you still at it?
It’s cooled off considerably. I’m no longer buying these ridiculous leather jackets. And honestly, that’s just because this new book completely occupied my life.
What is it about leather, exactly? The sensual feeling of the animal’s skin against your own? A sort of rebellion, a feeling of sticking it to The Man?
I like the rocker look, the hard look. My shrink said, Who cares where it comes from? It’s there. I don’t know. I like the feel and the power and the texture and the smell. I’m proud of it. I love strutting down the street. Women love it. Minorities love it. White men are terrified. [laughs] It’s a thing. I’m working through it.
Speaking of working through things, I recall the 2019 New Yorker piece about you, your Caitlyn Jenner memoir, and the HBO documentary. The author posited that Caitlyn had come to a conclusion about her gender and her sexuality and done something about it. But you … not so much.
I think that’s true. Caitlyn did figure it out and made a daring decision. I don’t know who I am, but gender has become increasingly irrelevant to me. I have aspects of being a man. I have aspects of being a woman. I like to dress up. I like to wear women’s clothing. So maybe I am more like Caitlyn but didn’t have the guts she had. I’m a lot of different things at different times. Hell, when I was at the Inquirer, I wore button-down shirts and bow ties. And now I’m dressed in black leather. If you can figure it out, please tell me.
Your 1997 book A Prayer for the City is, in my opinion, required reading for any Philadelphian, or at least it was. Is it still relevant today?
Yes, because it highlights problems of cities that we put aside and ignore. I am proud of that book. It’s my second-best book next to Mosquito Bowl.
So Friday Night Lights is third?
Yes. Prayer and Mosquito Bowl are much more complex. Friday Night Lights has a great energy, and I did capture what it was like to be a football player in Odessa, Texas. But with Prayer and Mosquito, the writing is more controlled. In Friday Night Lights, I turned up the volume knob a bit too much. There was too much purple prose. But it struck a nerve and still sells 25,000 copies a year.
I had in my head that I was going to leave politics out of this interview, just because politics are everywhere all the time these days. I’m fatigued. But right before we did this interview, you announced that you and Lisa will move to Italy if Trump gets reelected. A lot of people said that they’d leave in 2016. They’re still here. Are you for real?
I wasn’t blowing smoke. Lisa is actively jumping through the hoops of getting Italian citizenship, which she’s eligible for because her grandfather was from Italy. We have to do it. I hate him. Hate. Him.
Oh, I get it. You made it pretty clear how you felt about him in a piece you wrote online back in August. I mean, you mocked his skin color. You mocked his hair. You ranted about the man’s voice. How do you really feel, Buzz?
I didn’t write that to be over the top. That is exactly how I feel. I bristle whenever I see his face. We all know his politics are horrendous, but he is also nasty and venal and dishonest. He even looks like an idiot. I do think he is sort of street-smart — but he is absolutely stupid. And he hates intelligence in any form, and he has somehow made the nation a place where being ignorant is something to be proud of.
If Donald Trump returns to the White House in 2025, we’ll have to go to Milan to find you? Hey, at least there’s good shopping there.
Believe me: Lisa is a dog with a bone. If there is a way for her to get this citizenship, she will get it. And I will go with her.
What keeps you up more at night: climate change, the potential for mutual nuclear annihilation, global pandemics, civil war, or the availability of Gucci leather due to supply-chain problems?
[Laughs] Climate change. I don’t think we’ve come to grips with it. Certain places are going to melt into the ocean because it’s not considered a real problem by some people. It’s abstract. Some things are being done, but not enough. Why? The division between Democrats and Republicans. As for leather, there is no shortage. Not as many people wear it. It’s not “woke.”
How about something less serious, like, say, football, now that the season is fully upon us. Are you a casual viewer? Do you go to games?
I don’t go to games now. I’m a rabid fan, but that’s only because of fantasy football. I play in a league. I do terribly. But that’s how I follow teams and players. Most regular-season games aren’t very interesting to watch, but I do watch the Eagles. I watch all the playoffs. I must admit that I feel guilty about it. Football is a horrendously violent game. The injury rate is horrible. Something is wrong with it. But I like the violence. People say it’s a beautiful game. That’s bullshit. We watch for the hits. The violence.
When we asked you where we should photograph you, one of your three suggestions was Parc, and you explained that you and Lisa eat there every day.
I exaggerated, but it’s our favorite place to go when we go out. The food there is great. I’m amazed how many meals Stephen Starr serves. And whenever I go, I sit there trying to figure out exactly how much money he’s making.
My wife is going to read this, and as she does every time she sees Parc mentioned in this magazine, she’s going to remind me I’ve never taken her there. Oh, God. Jesus, Victor. What is wrong with you? I’m on your wife’s team for this one. Take her there. Now. It can be hard to get a reservation, but a piece of advice: Do not use OpenTable. The trick is to call the restaurant. You’ll get in. Pick up the phone, Victor. Be a man.
So, you’re a senior citizen who sometimes wears women’s clothes when you’re not decked out in $5,000 Gucci leather pants, and you eat way too much French food. Is there anything normal about you, Buzz?
[Laughs] Well, “normal” is a funny term. As Caitlyn says, everybody has their stuff. I love my kids. I love my grandkids. I’m productive. But normal is boring. I need to be stimulated, which is why I listen to loud techno music when I’m writing. I need the pounding. I need the noise. I need the stimulation.
To close, I thought I would give my esteemed colleague Sandy Hingston the final question, since she long ago wrote a profile of you. Here’s what Sandy wants to know: “I think most people go through life trying to go along to get along and not make waves. Buzz to me has this strong masochistic streak that makes him act out, and I’m not sure what the impetus is. I’d be curious what he has to say about that.”
Hmm. That’s actually interesting. I may well be masochistic. Yes. But at the time I’m doing those things, it’s fun. I like being daring. I like being out there. Does it get you into trouble at times? Yes. But I’m all about the experiences. They help teach you. I want to be different. I don’t want to be the same as everyone else. I have things I wish I could change. But I can’t. Did I really want to spend a million dollars on leather? It was an incredible waste of money. I’m embarrassed and ashamed. But … you know what? Fuck it. I have nice clothing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Published as “Buzz Words” in the October 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.