Writer and essayist Abe Streep discusses the years he spent doing the research for his new book of nonfiction, Brothers on Three.
Abe Streep has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Outside, The California Sunday Magazine, WIRED, and Harper’s. His writing has been anthologized in Best American Sports Writing and noted by Best American Essays and Best American Science and Nature Writing. He is a recipient of the 2019 American Mosaic Journalism Prize for deep reporting on underrepresented communities.
In this post, Abe discusses the years he spent doing the research for his new book of nonfiction, Brothers on Three, when he realized it deserved more space than a magazine story, and more!
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Name: Abe Streep
Literary agent: Sloan Harris
Book title: Brothers On Three: A True Story of Family, Resistance, and Hope on a Reservation in Montana
Publisher: Celadon Books
Expected release date: September 7, 2021
Elevator pitch for the book: When the Arlee Warriors won the 2017 Montana Class C Basketball Championship, the community was there to watch. Because for Arlee, a town on the Flathead Indian Reservation, the victory was about so much more than just basketball.
What prompted you to write this book?
In the spring of 2017, I passed through Arlee, Montana, on a reporting trip and saw a small wooden sign about a championship basketball team, the Arlee Warriors. I love basketball, so I did some cursory research about the team, discovering that one player, the point guard Phillip Malatare (Séliš/ Cree), was a serious college prospect. I proposed an article for The New York Times Magazine about the team tied to Phil’s college ambitions. It was a frame that made sense to me and to my editors at the time. Looking back now, I wince at how little I understood. The Warriors had won the championship in the midst of a suicide cluster that affected the community, and they played with incredible grace under pressure. The next season, when I followed the Warriors for the Times, they went undefeated, defending the championship while also publicly addressing youth mental health and suicide prevention. They represented, in my mind, all that sports can do. They didn’t just win; they also buoyed their community and brought healing. It was clear that this was a large story, one that even a lengthy magazine piece could not fully explore. It only became a book with the consent, encouragement, and ongoing gracious help of the boys and their families.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?
I started reporting the magazine story in the spring of 2017, so I’ve been working in Arlee for about four years. The story evolved constantly, but I always anchored myself with something that Phil’s father, John Malatare (Séliś/ Cree), told me: “It was about these boys from Arlee.” That idea did not change. It was always about the boys. But they were teenagers! Changing like the weather. I knew that adulthood would bring new and distinct challenges and that they would have to find their own paths in places that were often unwelcoming to them. The book chronicles their incredible championship seasons and then follows these young men as they make powerful choices about how to live on their own terms.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
For me, the greater learning process lay in the research and reporting, and I tried to stay around long enough to let some of my ingrained assumptions and expectations fall away. When I arrived in Arlee to report the magazine piece, I thought that, as a journalist who lived in and had read some about the American West, I was prepared. I was not. The history in this story cannot be contained in a single paragraph or section. It is everywhere and it continues. I thought a lot about the narration of time. I thought about the essence of athletic success, and what it means to “make it,” as it is so often framed. I thought about community and place and purpose. I reported for about three years— long enough to allow my literacy to expand a bit, and a hiccup in the grand scheme of things. The education continues.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
When it came to writing, I struggled to find a structure that served the story. There are many characters, and many deep family connections, and stories that span back decades and longer. The team played a style of basketball that was intentionally cooperative. But a cast of many is difficult to navigate for both a writer and a reader, and it took a long time to find a structure that allowed me to introduce the many characters without losing the thread. Put more succinctly: Early drafts were catastrophic. Eventually, I tried simply moving back and forth between Phil and his co-captain and cousin Will Mesteth, Jr. (Séliš/ Oglala Lakota/ Diné), with the complex narrative rotating around them. It seemed almost too basic, but it also worked.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
I hope that readers in Arlee, Montana, find it honest, respectful, and human. I hope that readers who are less familiar with the issues in the book might reflect on their own lives, and the ways in which history affects us all; and how, even when faced with deep injustice, people can assert control. I hope readers might question certain expectations or assumptions about success and purpose. I hope issues of inequity and representation in college basketball in Montana are examined. And I hope readers enjoy spending time with one of the most thrilling teams to ever take a court. Before the Warriors played, their coach, Zanen Pitts, a first descendant of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, prayed, “Let the refs keep up.” He meant it.
If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?
I don’t want to be prescriptive so I’ll just talk about my experience. When I was deciding whether or not to write the book, an author I trust told me that if I did it, the commitment would be lifelong. I believe you need to be accountable to the people you write about and you need to stay accountable. A book like this isn’t something to take on lightly, and it’s not something to simply write and leave behind. A number of years ago I thought about pursuing a different book on an entirely different subject. I’m glad I didn’t. I wasn’t obsessed with that story, and I’m still not sure it was a story that needed to be a book. For me, Arlee has been all encompassing. It has entirely taken over my life for four years. I don’t say that with any regret. It would be terrible to be tethered to something about which you have ambivalence.