What, you didn’t know Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the most famous and accomplished basketball players of all time, was also a prolific author of both fiction and non-fiction? That he’s written said fiction in both prose and comic forms? Allow him to enlighten you:
Book Riot: I’ve heard it said you would have been a career writer if “that basketball thing hadn’t gotten in the way.” What brought you back to writing? What was the process of reacquainting yourself with writing like? Any books about writing you’d recommend as particularly entertaining or helpful? Do you have a particular writing routine?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I’ve always been an avid reader, devouring books on pretty much everything from history to fiction to politics. So, at first, writing was a way for me to indulge in my passion to research subjects that interested me. For example, I’d always had a deep fascination with the men and women of the Harlem Renaissance, so I spent a year researching everything I could about it and wrote On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance. I did the same when I wrote Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement and Brothers in Arms about an all-black tank battalion in World War II. After a while, I felt confident enough to try my hand at fiction as well.
My schedule can be a bit hectic due to my traveling and speaking engagements, but I try to write in the morning before all the problems of the day interfere with my thought process. I sit down, write a few sentences, hate every word, and rewrite them until I can stand them. Some days I never get to the point where I can stand them. Writing is all about discipline, something I’m familiar with from my years as a player.
I don’t read books on writing so much as use the writing of authors I admire to teach me. I learn about metaphoric language from Lorrie Moore; pacing and dialogue from Walter Mosely and Elmore Leonard; complex characterization from Gillian Flynn and Jennifer Egan. In non-fiction, I am more interested in expressing powerful truths with depth and elegance, which I learned from James Baldwin, Alex Haley, Malcolm X, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
BR: What do you like to read? Any favorite genres? I’d imagine you’re quite a busy gent; how do you fit reading into your schedule? Do you read comics as well as prose? What are some of your favorites in either medium? Any particular works which influenced you as a writer? Any works you go back to when you need inspiration (besides Sherlock Holmes)? Any reading “comfort foods?”
KAJ: Reading is my favorite pastime, so I always make time to read no matter how busy my schedule. Reading is both intellectually stimulating in that it informs me, and it also keeps me connected to the daily personal and social struggles that we all share. Some of my favorite books are Fearless Jones by Walter Mosely, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Reckless Eyeballing by Ishmael Reed, Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, and dozens of other books that would be too long to list.
My favorites comic books and writers are Y: The Last Man and Saga by Brian K. Vaughn; The Watchmen by Alan Moore; Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross; Garth Ennis’s The Punisher, Preacher, and Hitman. Mark Millar’s Wanted, Kick-Ass, Kingsmen. Anything by Matt Fraction, Grant Morrison, and Frank Miller. Again, I’m leaving people I love out. These works have taken the comic book to the next level of edgy realism and sophisticated stories.
BR: When did you first encounter the Holmes brothers? Was it in literary form or in some other media? What drew you to Mycroft over the more popular, and more lauded, Sherlock? Was it his personality that grabbed your attention? A particular moment in a particular story? Something he said or a quirk of personality? Does he remind you of someone in your own life?
KAJ: I read the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a kid and was immediately fascinated with his near supernatural ability to observe everything so thoroughly. It was as if he could see the world in color while the rest of us saw it only in black and white. I wanted to see in color, too, so I tried to emulate him by honing my observational skills and by reading as much as I could. Where I fell short in real life I was able to make up for in the fictional world I created with Mycroft.
I picked Mycroft because so many others had already claim to Sherlock. I liked the idea of developing a character that was so shadowy in the stories. I was free to go with him wherever my imagination led me.
BR: How did you go about developing Mycroft as a fully realized character? What about his presence suggested an exciting playboy/gentleman adventurer early years scenario to you (other than “it was cool,” as anyone who has read your work knows). What did you take from Conan Doyle? Did any other literary characters clamor to be included in your characterization of the elder Holmes? Any plans to write about his transition from seat-of-the-pants secret agent to staid power-behind-the-throne?
KAJ: I wanted him to be the opposite of what’s implied about him in the stories, that he’s a brilliant but bloated, officious bureaucrat. Remember, it’s Sherlock who describes him and Sherlock is not always a reliable source. He has his moments of pettiness. Most important, I wanted the opposite of Sherlock’s social personality. Like Sherlock, Mycroft is damaged in the ways that only people of such towering intellect can be, but he handles it by engaging in gambling, women, and indulging himself. Most important, he’s got a great sense of humor. I hope we’ll keep writing about him because I enjoy his company so much.
BR: What about Mycroft do you find particularly relevant to the current social/political climate?
KAJ: Mycroft is reluctant to become involved in the problems of humanity. He’s fine living the life of the charming rogue. But the more he becomes involved in this adventure, the more he starts to see his responsibility to others. That’s a lesson for all of us who need to become involved if we want to see positive changes in our country.
BR: Your Queen Victoria is one of my favorite depictions of an oft depicted historical figure: is she modeled on anyone in particular (literary or otherwise?) Was there a difference for you in adapting a fictional character versus a historical one? Do you have a Victoria reading list?
KAJ: I did a lot of research on her, most of which I couldn’t use. I found out so many interesting facts about her that, at first, I tried to fit them into the story. But they interfered with the pacing so I removed them and just focused on making her as interesting, intelligent, and spirited as I imagined her to be.
BR: Do you have a favorite classic Holmes family story?
KAJ: I have a few favorite stories but I prefer the novels because they are so much more intricate and developed. My favorite Holmes novel is The Hound of the Baskervilles because it’s such a compelling mixture of gothic atmosphere and noirish grittiness.
BR: You wrote your novel Mycroft Holmes (with Anna Waterhouse) in 2015 and then Mycroft Holmes and the Apocalypse Handbook (with Raymond Obstfeld, Joshua Cassara, and Luis Guerrero) in 2016: what was the transition in medium like as a writer? How did you prepare? Do you feel one medium comes more naturally? Do you enjoy prose or comic writing more? Any writerly books that helped with the shift? Any particular comics you used as models?
KAJ: I thoroughly enjoyed writing both the novel and the comic book because the stories are so different and the demands of each genre have their own unique challenges. I approached the novel as a part of the traditional Holmes universe. The style, setting, dialogue, and characterization are all reminiscent of the typical Arthur Conan Doyle story. I loved immersing myself in that world that has so delighted me my entire life.
My approach to the comic book world of Mycroft Holmes was completely different. I looked at it as similar to the DC Elseworlds in which they speculate on different “what if?” scenarios. I really enjoyed the freedom of creating an entirely new Mycroft from the one in my novel. I wanted this Mycroft adventure to be more in the spirit of Indiana Jones and Guardians of the Galaxy.
BR: I can’t help but notice the graphic novel of Apocalypse Handbook is listed as “Vol. 1” on Amazon. Does that mean there’s more coming?
KAJ: I hope so. I have some exciting stories I’d like to tell.
BR: What are you reading right now?
KAJ: I just finished a terrific mystery novel called IQ by Joe Ide. It’s actually a nice addition to the Sherlockian universe in that his main character is a black kid from the rough neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles who exhibits the same abilities as Sherlock. It’s a tribute to the versatility of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock character that he can be adapted to so many situations and character types. For me, Sherlock and Mycroft represent the height of human aspiration to be rational, curious, and to solve the great mysteries that we face every day. But the stories are also cautionary in that too much dedication to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake can untether us from humanity.
BR: Are you writing at the moment? What can you tell us about your current project?
KAJ: I always have several projects going at the same time. I’ve just finished a draft of the second Mycroft novel but still have some polishing I’d like to do. I also finished Becoming Kareem, which is an autobiography from my early school days through my first year in the NBA.
BR: If there were to be a TV/film adaptation of either Mycroft Holmes or Apocalypse Handbook, who would you cast as Mycroft?
KAJ: Nicholas Hoult, who broke our hearts in About a Boy, and scared us silly in Mad Max: Fury Road, is versatile enough to handle the role.
BR: Downey or Cumberbatch? More importantly: Fry or Gatiss?
KAJ: As I said, there’s room for so many different Holmesian universes and interpretations. I love Guy Ritchie’s take for its sheer audacity of style. But the BBC’s version is the gold standard for what the stories could be. They elevate the Sherlock Holmes stories to the height of literature. The characterization is sublime, the plots sophisticated, the action suspenseful—yet always with a rich literary theme at their core.
I love Stephen Fry, whose delightfully quirky portrayal of Mycroft in Ritchie’s films adds a lot of fun to those films. I’ve loved him in his many roles from Blackadder II to Kingdom, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his writing. But Mark Gatiss has had many more episodes to develop Mycroft’s character and he’s done so brilliantly. The combination of snarky superiority over and yet compassion for Sherlock gives the show an extra portion of heart.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and a six-time NBA champion. He is also one of a handful of influential and respected black men in America who has a national platform as a regular contributing columnist for The Washington Post and Time Magazine, where he shares his thoughts on some of the most socially relevant and politically controversial topics facing our nation today. After 50 years as an athlete, activist, and New York Times bestselling author, he offers his perspectives on how we can work together to solve some of these issues as a nationally recognized speaker who regularly appears on the lecture circuit. His new political book, Writings on the Wall—Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White was just released in Fall 2016 by Time Books and offers his personal perspectives on political issues facing America today.
In 2012, Kareem was appointed to be the U.S. Cultural Ambassador by then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Currently he serves as the chairman of his Skyhook Foundation whose mission is to “Give Kids a Shot That Can’t be Blocked” by bringing educational opportunities to under-served communities through innovative outdoor environmental learning. Kareem’s most recent projects include the HBO Sports documentary, Kareem: Minority of One, which debuted in early November 2015 as HBO’s most watched and highest rated sports documentary. His debut novel Mycroft Holmes—a mystery novel and the first of an action/mystery series based on Sherlock Holmes’s savvy older brother—was released by Titan Publishing in September 2015. Following the success of his novel, the comic, Mycroft Holmes & the Apocalypse Handbook was developed into a series of 5 comic books that will be released in the third and fourth quarter of 2016.
Mycroft Holmes (Titan, 2015) and Mycroft Holmes and the Apocalypse Handbook (Titan, 2017) are available now.