Even as a child, novelist Inman Majors had a public persona: Johnny Majors’ Nephew Inman. But the football line of the Majors family tree doesn’t begin or end with Johnny Majors, the legendary University of Tennessee head football coach who won 116 games in 16 years, including three conference titles. Shirley Majors, Inman’s grandfather, was the head football coach at Sewanee for more than two decades, and famed Nashville lobbyist Joe Majors, Inman’s father, briefly played pro ball as a young man. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Inman Majors grew up loving the sport and absorbing all the stories that come from a family with tales worth hearing a few times over.
Majors’ fourth novel, Love’s Winning Plays, follows Raymond Love, a non-coaching graduate assistant for an unnamed SEC powerhouse football program. Love’s adventures during the Pigskin Cavalcade — a preseason weekend of schmoozing between coaches and fans — provide the setting for a lot of fun-poking at the corporate attitude of Big College Football. Through cringing book club experiences (Love has a thing for a literary colleague and joins her book club to woo her), romantic false starts and several forced fist bumps, he navigates a world he is only barely beginning to understand. Majors’ roaring comic voice and football acumen make Love’s Winning Plays a hilarious story that perhaps the SEC should hold up as a mirror.
Prior to his public reading at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville on Thursday, April 25, Majors answered questions via email.
In writing a satire, how carefully do you have to work to avoid cynicism?
It seems to me that a good satire should be the equivalent of the little boy who shouts out that the emperor wears no clothes. That is, it should be pointing out absurdities in situations that are generally taken at face value. The whole purpose of the satire should be this kind of rakish truth-telling, yelling that the emperor has no clothes but finding his nudity, his pose, funnier than you do irritating. Satire should walk the line between comedy and message, with comedy the far more important element in the equation. In short, you can’t sound preachy and you can’t sound angry. You have to say, “That’s absurd!” but say it with a smile on your face. Otherwise no one will listen, and no one will laugh.
You must have enjoyed poking fun at both college-football fandom and book-club culture.
It wasn’t until I was about halfway through the book that is struck me as odd that I was satirizing two such seemingly contradictory things: football and book clubs. It gave me pause for a while, actually, these two unlikely bedfellows I’d decided to spoof. Ultimately I realized that satire is only ever fun and satisfying if you’re taking on an entity that takes itself pretty seriously. And say what you want, but college football and Book Club America both take themselves pretty seriously. So I thought, why not try and kill two birds with one stone. Well, not kill. Just nick it a little. I promise it’s all in good fun.
It’s hard not to believe that Coach Woody’s monologue about the old days, particularly the story of what got him fired at Wyoming, was among the sweeter pleasures of writing this book. True?
Yes, the scene you mention was fun to write, writing about a more innocent time in college sports. Coach Woody represents the coach who is in it for the right reasons: love of the game, the teaching of values, that sort of thing. Plus he’s funny and doesn’t care what other people think of him. He’s kind of a dinosaur in the current athletic/entertainment landscape, predating as he does the current era of social media and 24 hour cable.
I made up the story about his getting fired in Wyoming, but it was in character with stories I’d heard from my dad and uncles about college football in the 50s. I come from a family of good storytellers, so I drew inspiration for some of Woody’s yarns from my relatives and their former teammates. It just seems to me there were more characters back before all the media coverage, and the players and coaches seemed more human, less like products to be marketed.
Love seems to learn more about himself and the exterior world by reading the subtext of conversations. Was that superficiality of discourse something you consciously considered while writing?
This ability of Love to discern what is being said versus what they mean or are angling for is not something I planned. It did occur to me while writing Love’s Winning Plays that all the protagonists in my novels find themselves in these situations where they are kind of with ’em but not of ’em. There’s always this subtle sense of being slightly other — not superior, just other than the folks they’re around. In this book, Love is the absolute low man on the totem pole, so even though he realizes when someone is blowing smoke, he can’t say anything for fear of losing his job. The humor happens when we’re privy to the thoughts running through his head that he doesn’t dare speak. Love’s forced silence, the silence of the powerless, adds comedic tension, I think.
Most people might imagine that a novelist born into a football family would grow up to reject the sport, but you seem to have absorbed it happily. How much of this book is shaped by your lifelong experience? Did you need to do any research at all?
My dad never pushed me into sports, and he wouldn’t even let me play football until seventh grade. So I never felt any pressure to be good in sports, other than the pressure I put on myself. That said, during my early life I was known by four names: Johnny Majors Nephew Inman.
Truthfully, my experience with college football was every kid’s dream. When my Uncle John was the coach, I got to stand on the sidelines during games, hang out with the players in the locker room, go on cool road trips. It was an enviable existence. When my grandfather was coaching at Sewanee and I was a real little kid, he’d get me to race the lineman at the end of practice. These were the big guys, and they were always dog-tired at the end of the day, just dreading the hell out of the closing wind sprints. I think my grandfather thought it was funny, or at least motivational, to make them race this little squirt who hadn’t been sweating and banging around for two hours. I was kind of the rabbit to their greyhound, I guess. I loved it, but I’m sure those players would have loved to wring my neck.
It would be easy to make Coach Driver a villain, but you give him a touch more humanity than we might expect. How much did your family history hang in the back of your mind as you wrote?
The character of Coach Driver is more of a commentary on the current state of the game, the current job of coach. The coaches these days just seem a bit dehumanized to me, a bit mechanized. You can’t blame them. One slip of the tongue in front of a microphone and social media will explode with calls for their head. So I’m sympathetic to anyone who has that job. I wouldn’t last five minutes having to deal with — be responsible for — 120 college boys. Or having to deal with the media. Or with pushy boosters and donors. It’s one of the toughest jobs there is, in my opinion.
Mrs. Driver is, quietly, the most tragic figure in the book in a lot of ways. What do you know about coaches’ wives that we don’t?
I don’t find her tragic, actually. In her mind, the only tragic thing about her life is that she has to attend football functions with her husband, despite being bored to tears by them. Frankly, the coaches’ wives I’ve known have all enjoyed their positions, despite the gypsy nature of the life a coach and his family must lead. It’s not a position that every person would be able to handle. You have to be tough and resilient and adaptable. And it seems to me that the coaches’ wives I’ve known all have a good sense of humor. I’m sure that helps too.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.