Jack Sheehan

The author talks about the art of the interview, his Billy Walters project and the one Vegas book he’d love to write

It’s always intimidating to interview a fellow interviewer. But when, after a recent Seven Questions session with Jack Sheehan, he said he had an interviewing workshop coming up and that I should attend, I thought, “Wow I’m really blowing this one.” Fortunately, Sheehan was simply offering a invitation to a young journalist, quickly assuring me that this Q&A had gone just fine. Hopefully he wasn’t just being kind, because Sheehan is a fascinating interview. The former golfer for a nationally ranked University of Oregon team made a living out of writing when his first love didn’t work out. A Washington state native, he has written 20 books, most of which pertain to Las Vegas, his adopted hometown. His next work, due out later this year, chronicles the life of high-stakes sports bettor Billy Walters, who is suddenly a hot commodity after a recent 60 Minutes episode. Sheehan, a frequent guest speaker and emcee for special events, is also known for his arsenal of oral stories about Vegas’ colorful characters and its history.

What is it about Las Vegas that piqued your interest?

I moved here 35 years ago with a master’s degree in English and a background as a sports writer at a newspaper. I came to Las Vegas just to visit friends, and everyone I met was so different from the last person I had met that I was intrigued by the eclectic nature of the city. Where I came from in Spokane, if you went to a dinner party, everyone would find a topic they could agree on and then everyone would spend the rest of the evening nodding their heads in agreement. In Las Vegas I would go to a dinner party and there might be a doctor, a lawyer, a homebuilder, a hooker, an acrobat, a baton twirler, an animal trainer, a pit boss, a guy that was probably in the mob, and as a writer, I live off of stories, and every time I turned around I would hear an interesting or unusual story. I decided very quickly that this would be a great place to be a writer, and I never left.

What makes a person interesting to you when it comes to telling their story?

I’ve written about a lot of bad people, like rapists and serial killers. The thing that interests you there is you’re just horrified by the things they do. That certainly has a dark fascination for people. I prefer to do stories on people who were big risk-takers, people who tried to do something that the odds were way against and succeeded. I did a book on the Naval Academy and some of the great graduates of the Naval Academy [Class of ’47, Stephens Press], and I loved every minute of that because I kept meeting heroic Americans who faced death head on and [who had] come out of tough backgrounds and achieved excellence in academics and were great patriots. I prefer uplifting stories, but I’ve also written about a lot of bad guys as well.

Was it difficult to get Walters to cooperate?

Not really. Did you see the profile on him on 60 Minutes? They asked him for 20 years before he agreed to that. But Billy and I have been friends for a long time, and it’s unusual to do a book with a friend. A lot of times when I do these books, I never meet the people until the book starts, but I have heard so many fascinating stories from Billy and about Billy that I just knew his life story would make a good book. I think it would make a phenomenal movie as well.

Was there anything that surprised you about him?

He was basically orphaned at the age of 2 and he was hustling pool at 10 years old. That to me is pretty interesting. I hate to give too much away but I’m intrigued by a guy who will bet $1 million on a football game. That’s just out of my realm of grasp, and he wins way more than he loses. In something that most people can’t do worth a lick, which is bet on sports because they always bet with their heart, how did you become so knowledgeable? How did you have the intestinal fortitude to bet the kind of money you bet and actually make a great living from it? That’s the central question we get at in that book.

If you weren’t a writer, or a professional golfer, what would you be doing?

I would be unemployed and holding a cardboard sign on Sahara and Fort Apache. I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since graduate school and I just fell in love with good writing and literature. If I were more talented I would have written novels, but when I tried to write fiction I hated everything I wrote. When I wrote nonfiction I would get compliments and people thought I was pretty good, so you stick with what you know and what you can make a living at, and I found I could make a very good living writing true stories.

Does being a writer and storyteller affect the way your friends interact with you?

It’s quite the opposite. Everyone’s favorite topic is their own life. If you go on a date, who would you like more, a guy who talked to you all night long about himself or a guy who looked you in the eye and wanted to know all about you? As long as he’s sincere and not doing it for ulterior motives, you would probably be flattered by the attention. It’s something I have studied a lot, how to interview people, and you always try to be polite and courteous and professional. Once you establish a rapport with someone and they know you’re not there to jeopardize their career, you’ll find that most people just open up like a river. They can’t wait to tell you their life story.

What book would you most like to write?

I would like to do a book on Phyllis McGuire of the McGuire sisters. I think she probably has more interesting stories to tell than almost anyone in town.

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