A Q+A with David Gessner about his high-flying Frisbee tome
Boston native David Gessner is an acclaimed essayist and author who has taught at Harvard and UNC Wilmington. His most recent book is Ultimate Glory: Frisbee, Obsession, and My Wild Youth. I caught up with him before his July 31 visit to Brookline Booksmith and Aug 1 reading at Harvard to discuss the Boston ultimate frisbee scene, why the sport isn’t taken seriously, and how he got banned from playing in DC.
Why write this book now?
I really wanted to publish it. I wrote half of it in 1998. I’d been out of the game for two years, and my agent looked at all the different projects I had and suggested I do a George Plimpton sort of project, where I go back and play with the champion team, which was Boston at the time. So I did, and I took notes, and then I came home to Cape Cod. I got up really early and wrote for a whole week. It was the first time I thought of it as a real subject. I was finally given permission to write about it. So I cranked out all the sample chapters, we had publishers interested, it was going to sell. And then the publicists and marketers were like, “Is that the thing you do with dogs?” So it didn’t sell. It was like being lifted up and then body-slammed. I let the book die, wrote the essay [also titled “Ultimate Glory”] instead, and it sort of had a life of its own in Longform and USA Today.
What made the book relevant for me again was that the Olympics was considering [ultimate], so I tried again, and this time the publishers could understand it. I wrote a lot that was new, but a lot of it was from that sort of blazing first draft.
How long did you play after college?
I started as a freshman at Harvard in 1979. My last year, in Boulder, was 1996. I’m back out in Boulder to play the Great Grand Masters Championship this week. I’m 56 now, and I’m going to play this weekend. So I’m probably going to break something. I got all sorts of terrible injuries back in the day. Actually, when I submitted my first draft of the book, my editor said there were “too many examples of blatant self-destruction.”
Why do you think Boston was such a hotspot for ultimate?
It primarily evolved in the Northeast. The students from Columbia High School went to good colleges, and the areas people migrated to most were Boston and New York. Boston just happened to have 2 of the 3 best teams in the world in ’81 and ’82. I don’t know why it happened, but I’m sure glad it did. I’m actually working on a Boston piece right now, because the current men’s, women’s, and mix champions are all from Boston, for the first time since the ’80s.
I wouldn’t have gotten hooked on ultimate if there hadn’t been two such contrasting and charismatic teams in Boston, with the Rude Boys being Dudley Do-Right, and the Hostages being grubby and living in little warrens around Boston. It was the time of [Larry] Bird and the Celtics, so I could watch pro sports in Boston and be fired up, and watch ultimate in Boston and be fired up.
Most of your other writing is about the environment. How did you get interested in that field?
In a weird way, that came from ultimate too. I lived in our family house in Cape Cod because it was cheap and I was playing ultimate. I had only spent summers there, but then fall came and the bird migrations swept through, and it really got in my blood—the tides, and being down there. I had trouble writing novels, but I kept journals filled with birds and filled with nature, all through my 20s. So I had all these big journals filled with nature observations. Finally, I decided to turn away from fiction and toward nonfiction, using that “journal voice.”
Some passages in Ultimate Glory are written from the perspective of your former teammates. Are you still in touch with everyone or did you have to get back in touch to ask them about their memories?
Half of the book was written during 1998—that blazing period of probably the most intense writing I’ve ever done. It was a lot closer in time, so I remembered a lot of the stories. And a lot of the stories were oral tradition, stories I already told. And then I went through all the principal characters and either visited them and taped them, or did it over the phone and did a lot of basic journalistic research. And it was really nice to get back in touch, have some beers, and relive our memories.
In the book, I mention that I got together with some friends from Hostages and talked about this camp called Ultimate Peace, where Israeli and Palestinian kids go and play. They really bond—some of them end up in each other’s weddings. But that conversation wasn’t all high-minded. We also talked about how great we were. I mean, we weren’t great compared to pro athletes, but we were good at telling stories about ourselves. And so much of the ultimate world has been oral tradition, so it was nice to put it between covers.
Just from the names mentioned in the book, it seems like most of the big teams were all-male, but were any of them co-ed?
The game started out co-ed, and there were a couple women on my team at Harvard. And then Suzanne Fields, from Boston, started the women’s league. It got bigger and bigger, and now there’s women’s, men’s, and mix national champions. In fact, it looks like for the Olympic bid, one of the attractive things about it is that the team from America that is competing at the Worlds right now is co-ed.
Do you think ultimate’s going to get picked up for the Olympics?
I have no idea. I’m really curious. I think eventually it will. It’s still, like I said in the book, like telling someone you’re a professional tiddlywinks player. I was doing a reading in Portland and 5/7 of my Uber drivers, in an informal survey, didn’t know what it was. But when people see it being played at a high level, they get it really quickly. It used to be “the thing you play with dogs,” and now people think it’s Frisbee golf. They say, “Oh yeah, Frisbee. I have a course near my house,” and I’m like, it’s not fucking Frisbee golf!
But on the other hand, it’s the 50th birthday of the game coming up. At 50, basketball was just being included in the Olympics. So it’s not way behind other “real” sports.
Does the game still have a stoner reputation?
There’s a split. My wife just listened to the audiobook, and her favorite line was “I really wanted to win Nationals, but I also wanted to lose and drool on the trophy.” And that’s still there. I think people like that there’s a sort of irreverence … Back then, our whole thing was to be aggressively immature. One reviewer said, “It’s a coming-of-age story, just a really slow coming-of-age.”
I’m actually only halfway through the book, because I just got it yesterday. What do I have to look forward to?
One of the key things that happens later in the book is I play in a Nationals semifinal where it looks like I’m going to be the hero, and I’m not. And so I did all this drunken buffoonery, and I ended up getting banned from ever playing again in Washington, DC. The guy who wrote the letter telling me I was banned said that he was sure his letter would be greeted with “gales of arrogant laughter.” And of course, when I read the letter with my team, we read it with gales of arrogant laughter. And that was sort of a turning point—I could have been this champion, but I ended up going the buffoon route.
I never won Nationals, which was my dream. After I got diagnosed with testicular cancer, I had surgery and found out that it was the good kind of cancer and I was probably going to be okay. Right after that, I had a birthday party, and I looked around the room and 48 of the 50 people there were ultimate players. I didn’t win Nationals, but I got this community, this tribe. It’s a little corny, but it’s the true meaning of ultimate. It really sustained me before becoming a writer. I didn’t have an audience or a community, but I had this place where I was known. It took a while to understand how much the game had given me, even though I hadn’t gotten exactly what I wanted out of it.