017: Yo! Philly Attytude with Tom Coyne
You can take the boy out of Philly, but you can’t take Philly out of the boy. Tom Coyne, author of A Course Called Scotland, makes friends out of strangers on the golf course, while searching for the secret to golf. He finds the secret within, confronting his own demons and changing attitudes about golf being a good walk spoiled. Golf is time well spent with friends, even if you just met them. Tom’s a gifted writer and talented talker. And if you want to argue about cheesesteaks, hit him up on Twitter. And bring your attytude!
by Tom Coyne
Full Podcast Transcript
[00:00:12] Recorded live from the Sweet Tea Studios in Wellesley Massachusetts. You’re listening to the podcast, Why I Read Nonfiction. Hosted by broadcaster and author of The Perfect Catch and Follow the Dog Home. Here’s Kevin Walsh.
[00:00:30] (Kevin) Hello. Welcome to the program. We got a good one for you today. I have an old golfing and writing friend from my hometown of Philadelphia, Tom Coyne, on the phone. He’ll be joining us in just a moment. But first, a couple of housekeeping things. Big thank you to Nirvana on beautiful Cape Cod for sponsoring the program. If you’re looking for a great vacation getaway, it’s right on the elbow of Cape Cod. For spring, summer or fall Nirvana is your place. Check out why I read non-fiction dot.com for information about that. Also, our discussion today and all discussions with all of our past guests, transcripts of them and book links to what we talked about are also available on the Web site https://whyireadnonfiction.com. Subscribe to the program, leave a rating and tell a friend. That is how we grow and that is the housekeeping. So let’s get Tom Coyne into the picture. Tom, what’s going on? It’s been a long time since we talked. How’ve you been?
[00:01:23] (Tom) Kevin? I’ve been great. I was so excited when you reached out. It’s. Yeah. It’s been a while. We you know, we’d gone back and forth on a bunch of things years ago. And. Yes, it was great to hear from you.
[00:01:36] I’m well, busy as heck. But that’s always good for a writer to have a lot on one’s plate. So things are good. Things are really good.
[00:01:44] (Kevin) I don’t know about you, but whenever I catch up with somebody from Philadelphia or I see them in a different place, what is it about Philly people? Can you put your finger on it? How do you describe why we have a tribal sense about ourselves and a connection with people that we may not know them personally, but because we share the roots in that place, we feel like where we were cut from the same cloth kind of sorta. (Tom) It is true.
[00:02:06] It is. It is a bond and it is quite tribal. I think that’s the right word. I think it probably has to do with, you know, the Philly Philly attitude, which probably comes from feeling like we’re somewhat overshadowed by that big city just to the north of us and that we know how great we are.
[00:02:27] But other folks don’t know how great we are. And we have to offer. So we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. And it’s funny. You know, I’m traveling around America now working on this new book. And when I run into Philly people, it’s just like an instant, like we speak the same language. Right. You know, usually, we start off by making fun of one another.
[00:02:48] So that’s good. You know, busting chops is sort of part of a part of the way we communicate. And yeah, I just ran into one of my friends from Philly in Minnesota. And after like two weeks of Minnesota Nice to have a friend from home come in and bust my chops for about an hour, It was like, aaaah, this is nice. I feel like I’m at home.
[00:03:09] (Kevin) Here’s the thing, though. Like we have no less love to give. It’s just we just don’t give it as quickly as they do in Minnesota. And I know what you’re talking about. Minnesota Nice. I went to college in the Midwest. You did, too. They’re just nicer. Well, we have an equal amount of love. We’re just a tougher nut to crack. Does that sound about right?
[00:03:27] (Tom) I think that’s fair. Oh, yeah. Oh, there’s nobody. I mean, hey. Well, we have a good heart and we love our visitors and we love, you know, we have a lot of love to give, you’re right. But it’s just very just beneath our hardened surface. So. But that’s good.
[00:03:45] (Kevin) Our guest today is Tom Coyne. He is the author of A Gentlemen’s Game, Paper Tiger, A Course Called Ireland, A Course Called Scotland. He’s working on something new, which I’ll see if I can drag it out of him. But, Tom, you know the drill here with our past guests. Before we get into the book discussions, we always want to know the reader’s story. Just when reading started, when it became an important part of their life and how much it continues to be a big part of their life. So when did you know that you needed reading in your life and it was a big part of who you were going to be?
[00:04:15] (Tom) You know, I’d say very early and I don’t probably see most of your guests would say, you know, I was always a reader. It’s funny. I remember.
[00:04:26] When I was in first grade, I had a little dictionary of a Christmas dictionary, right. Of all these different terms with pictures of Christmas things. So I wrote this two page Christmas story and I tried to use every word that was in this dictionary. And, you know, for a first-grader, I gave it to the teacher.
[00:04:49] She was kind of looking at me like, you know, who are you?
[00:04:52] You know, I was sort of surprised by what I guess I put together. And she asked me to go around. We went around to the other classrooms and I had to read the story for them, like the third and fourth graders, you know, she was showing me off or something. And I remember getting that that feedback, that notion of that satisfaction. It made me feel good to write. It made me feel good to be reading. That was kind of an early episode where I felt like, ooooh, I really like this. Reading was always I mean, as a kid, I always had a pile of books next to my bed and that reading lamp where, you know, I could stay up as late as I wanted to if I was reading. And, you know, a lot of times it was comic books or, you know, kids’ novels. I read all the Lloyd Alexander stuff and all Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe stuff, and I was into all that fantasy when I was really young.
[00:05:52] (Kevin) But you need reading in your life is what you’re saying. It’s always been there and continues to be?
[00:06:00] (Tom) There’s no doubt about it.
[00:06:02] It has to be and I mean, now I wish I did more reading for thinking back on those days of early reading days when reading was just pleasure.
[00:06:13] I probably. I wish I did more of that now because reading is often research and often not that the research isn’t pleasurable, but it’s often research. And I’m also a professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philly so it’s often related to my courses and various different things. But just that. I mean, I could lock myself away with a book when I was a kid and read it from the first page to last. And just be happy. I mean, I came from a family of big readers. And it’s just what we. It’s just what we did. You know, we had books everywhere and, you know, and I just grew up loving books. And I still do.
[00:06:58] You know, I have I’m looking at my office right now, and it’s floor to ceiling books that go back to probably high school.
[00:07:04] (Kevin) Do you have the typical college professor’s office that there’s, you got a stack of stuff on your desk, and you can’t fit another bookshelf in there. And it has some sense. Nobody can put it in order.
[00:07:18] But you know, where everything is? (Tom) Pretty much. You know, it’s like one. Yeah, the bookshelves are full so then the books go on top of the books sideways. Right? So that’s what they all are. The coffee table here is piled up with about six stacks of books. And you know, in this digital age of, you know, books on your Kindle and what not to have so much paper around, it feels a little bit antiquated, but it feels it’s comfortable, you know.
[00:07:47] And the only problem is when we move, which we have a few times, That’s the only time when you wonder, like, why do I have so many books? Just they’re the heaviest and most difficult thing to do.
[00:07:57] But yeah, I’m surrounded by them. It just feels like it just feels good, especially when I’m sitting down trying to write a book and look around at the books that have inspired me and have been important to me.
[00:08:09] It’s essential to sort of be in this kind of environment for me.
[00:08:12] (Kevin) Well, you’ve brought the library to you, it sounds. It’s almost like when we were in school and we really needed to lock in and study on something and not just research something, but maybe study being in a place where you’re surrounded by books and intelligence. It just, I think, puts you in the right frame of mind, at least it always has for me. Our guest today is Tom Coyne. He is the author of A Gentlemen’s Game, Paper Tiger, A Course Called Ireland and A Course Called Scotland. For more information about everything that we talk about and for a transcript of this program, you can just log onto our Web site at https://whyireadnonfiction.com Tom, tell me about a book that has stayed with you through the years, one more than any other that you often think about. Or you can think about a time in your life that you read, what you were going through and it just was a tipping point.
[00:09:02] (Tom) Yeah, I think I mean, obviously, there’s a few. I mean, as a young person, the books of S.E. Hinton when I was 13 years old were really important to me. They were probably the first Sam I’d grown up. I mean, they were young adult novels, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish and those books I just thought were so cool. And I just loved reading them. They were books that were laying around my brothers and sisters read. But a turning point kind of book, probably when a high school teacher introduced me to Raymond Carver and his story collection Where I’m Calling From because there was something about Carver, I guess people would describe as a prose writer or something of a minimalist, which is not a label I love because I think it discounts the quality and the magic of what that kind of prose does.
[00:09:54] But basically he wrote in simple sentences and but those sentences and those constructions added up to something incredibly powerful. And they were stories that were about simple people doing simple things and everyday things that had just this that could break your heart. And so as I started reading Raymond Carver and reading that book, that was a moment were probably when I first thought about myself writing because I think probably Carver did this to a lot of people.
[00:10:29] He makes it look easy because, you know, there’s no word there are no words there that you don’t know. They’re sentences, like, I could write that sentence. (Kevin) Isn’t that important though Tom?
[00:10:39] And don’t you find, I’ve found, and I’ve actually researched this with intelligent people. Intelligent people use simple words because they know the most important thing is to get the message across. When you get an email from somebody or some kind of writing and maybe you see that with your students, it’s a little high falutin.
[00:10:58] Their word choice is a little too much. Don’t you feel like they’re stretching?
[00:11:04] (Tom) I think that and that’s something that Carver definitely instilled in me and something that I try to keep and always instill in my students is clarity and precision that it’s not about. The quantity of language or the word you found in your thesaurus that your reader. You know, the clarity, precision of your language will always win the day.
[00:11:30] Of course, you want to have style within that and you want to wield your words with a certain voice and character that that that’s you. But yeah, I think clarity, above all, is number one.
[00:11:41] And that takes a lot of, it’s ironic, though, because that takes confidence to learn to write simply.
[00:11:49] You know, I showed up at my graduate writing program. I went and did an MFA and, man, if I looked at those first few stories that I wrote for that program.
[00:11:57] I was just trying to show off, you know, like look at the kind of sentences I can write. Look at all these clauses. Look at these words I know. And, and it took a while to sort of beat that out of me and start to write with a voice that felt genuine. That actually felt human.
[00:12:13] You know, that becomes relatable. And that had real clarity to it so that the story isn’t about the writer and the writers. You know, how sharp the writer’s knives are, but the stories about the characters and their experiences and challenges. And you want to, you know, express that and get that across with this with as much precision as you can. And right, like you said, there’s often a lot of languages if you’re trying to show off or whatever that can get in the way of that.
[00:12:41] (Kevin) Just enough, not too much. And I found, as I’ve read your books through the years, that your writing has improved. I can’t exactly express why that is. But actually, I can as we get into A Course Called Scotland, because I think you were much more honest with me, not think you were dishonest in the past, but you were telling me about places.
[00:13:05] But I thought in A Course Called Scotland, I got more of you. (Tom) Mmmmhmmm. (Kevin) And especially when you talked about Robert, your friend. (Tom) Right. (Kevin) As you were going around and playing the different golf courses and his troubles with the drink and your witness to it. And then in the end. Robert and Tom were the same person. (Tom) Yeah. (Kevin) How did you arrive at having that kind of disclosure, that confession about some of your struggles?
[00:13:35] (Tom) Yes. So I think, you know, it’s one of those things that I was, again, preached to my students is honesty and vulnerability, particularly, you know, in writing nonfiction, you know, not pulling punches that your reader, not only will you be shortchanging your reader of something if you do pull punches, but your reader will know. So that sort of relentless willingness to put yourself on the page.
[00:14:00] It’s essential. It creates a connection with the reader. It creates a bond. Your reader appreciates that kind of honesty. So for that reason, I certainly wanted to be very honest about my life. I also thought it was important to the story for a few reasons. One, in the previous book, My Ireland Book, to which the Scotland book is something of a sequel. In the Ireland book.
[00:14:25] I drink pretty much everything in Ireland that’s put in front of me, plus something. And then, you know, in Scotland I’m going to write a book where there are no real pub stories, where the story is going to be about a lot of different things. So I wanted to be honest about why there was that change.
[00:14:45] And I also wanted the reader to understand what the story and what this journey around Scotland was really about. Yes, it was about going to see all these great golf courses. Yes, it was about discovering the character and identity of Scotland and finding the secret to golf and all those things. But what it was really about for me was this miracle that I was able to do it at all, considering where I had been a few years before.
[00:15:11] And I just felt like if I left that out of the story, then I’m leaving out what the story actually meant to me. And I can’t leave that out.
[00:15:21] And, you know, that’s the contract that you make with the reader. When you sit down and say, OK, I’ll be a character, I’ll be the main character, I’ll write truthfully about that experience. Then then I have to give them what that experience actually means to me.
[00:15:34] (Kevin) Yeah. And you stuck to the landing. I appreciated that because that’s the thing. And I think sometimes writers are insecure, and not just writers, but people in general that they’re afraid to show a vulnerable side to themselves. But when you do that, and you show a confidence to do that and a willingness to say, look, I’m not perfect, I have problems too, then other people identify with you and they want to help you and they want to love you, and they want to see you through your struggles, whatever they are. Do you feel that way?
[00:16:02] (Tom) Absolutely. I mean, writing good stories are about challenges. You know, characters facing challenges and overcoming or not overcoming, you know, whether it be comedy or tragedy, whatever. So I think people, you know, there have to be struggles for a character to relate.
[00:16:17] And I think when you sit down to write non-fiction, especially when it’s, you know, about yourself, you know, a challenge is to get a reader to really care. You know, to make, why is my story about something I did or my daily life, my memoir or whatever, why is it worth your time, you know? And in order to create that connection and to gain that interest from the reader, you know, I think that being vulnerable, being honest by telling them that, you know, you’re not perfect, I think by making them laugh a little bit as well.
[00:16:54] I think those are all great techniques for getting a reader invested. You need to get a reader invested in your main character, whether it be fiction or non-fiction. It’s easier to do in fiction. You can write a flawed character in this that the other nonfiction. You have to be honest about the flaws and bring them out. I mean, no one wants to read a story about a perfect character having a very nice day. Because that’s not a story.
[00:17:15] (Kevin) Yeah, because it’s like the travel story. It’s like a travel story. Like nobody wants to hear about your trip to wherever you went and somehow you got lucky and got upgraded to first class. They don’t want all the, they like the horror story, not so much about the lost baggage, but about the weird stuff along the way and the pain and suffering within reason, because it just makes it more interesting along the way.
[00:17:39] (Tom) Yeah. I mean, the Irish have an expression, you know, good you know, good stories are no good for telling. You know, they don’t want to hear, you know, not how great you’re doing. They want to hear like all your troubles and your worries. That doesn’t mean that people love to gossip or they’re fishing for bad news, it just means that going back to the start of storytelling, stories were used to learn how to walk through this world. And we learn by watching other people’s struggles and learning from them. And every great novel, every great book of nonfiction has a big problem at the center of it. And we read because we want to see how the hero overcomes or doesn’t overcome. And that on some level in our DNA informs us how to better, you know, live our lives, how to not make the mistakes that the folks in these stories, movies, whatever that were, were taking in, you know, the mistakes that they made. I mean, that’s why we crave and needs stories because they help us learn how to live. And if our characters and our stories are all perfect, we’re not going to learn anything.
[00:18:44] (Kevin) We learn more from our faults and the faults of others around us. And then we try and improve upon things. And maybe if we’re a good person, we help them improve their lives. Our guest today is Tom Coyne. He is the author of A Course Called Scotland. Thank you to Nirvana on beautiful Cape Cod. If you’re looking for a vacation rental getaway in the spring, summer or fall, Nirvana is your place. Check out Why I Read Nonfiction.com for more information on that and all the books that I talked about today with Tom, including A Course Called Scotland. Tom, you befriended a lot of strangers. Or maybe it was the other way around.
[00:19:18] And you go to a foreign country and you end up playing golf. And by the end of your rounds, your friends, you still stay in contact with some of the people that you travel around the UK with?
[00:19:29] (Tom) I mean, that was the most amazing part of the story. Both books of Ireland. It was great. It was much bigger part of Scotland was meeting and engaging with these strangers. You know, my I guess my profile, I got a little bigger. So a lot of folks reached out to me and said, I’d like to come meet you and play with you in Scotland, which is crazy to me. But I thought, hey, great, if you’re crazy enough to do that, you must be interesting and you’ll bring an interesting character because, at the end of the day, these stories have to be about people. It can’t just be about golf.
[00:19:57] I don’t want to read a book about just golf courses. I don’t want to read a book that’s just about Scottish history. I want to have real people in the story. And so there all these folks traveled over and join me was you know, they gave me the book. They gave me the stories with their challenges, their personalities. They gave me so much. And because of that, yeah, we have all stayed in touch.
[00:20:23] It’s fantastic that pretty much everyone that shows up in the Scotland book is going to be back in my next book, my America book, which is great. We all stay in touch. I get text messages daily from about half of the folks in the book probably. We still travel to Scotland once in a while together every other year.
[00:20:40] And that’s been incredibly rewarding. When we had the book party, every single person in that that was in the book, whether they be from London, Canada, California, New York, Boston, they all came and traveled to Philadelphia for the party. So this little family, it’s become a family. And that, you know, I was at the party looking at this collection of the strangers and random people who would never know each other otherwise, who are now so tightly bonded because they’re a part of this adventure and now part of a book.
[00:21:15] I just felt so much gratitude for that and something I didn’t expect. And it’s and it’s just been it’s been the best part of the whole experience.
[00:21:23] (Kevin) Well, you started a new tribe and just having golf as the underlying culture and the common ground is really what pulls it together. You mentioned the new book that you’re working on in part two I want to talk about it, but what do we say goodbye for right now? So just to stay on the phone here. I got to do a couple of little housekeeping notes here Tom. And again, it’s always great to catch up with you. Looking forward to the next time we talk okay, buddy. (Tom) All right, Kevin, thanks. (Kevin) Okay. Stay right where you are. Okay. For Tom Coyne. I’m Kevin Walsh. Thank you for listening to https://whyireadnonfiction.com. And again, for more information about some of the books that we talked about, his books and other ones from past life and transcripts.
[00:22:02] That’s the wrong one, sorry Tom.
[00:22:06] All right. So we’re going to take a break here and we’re going to come back with part two of Tom Coyne right after this. (Part two will air next week).
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