Ride the Puddles

A Conversation With Bill Strickland: Part 2: Writer / Reader Relationship

Posted by bikezilla on April 29, 2011

Part 1, Emma O’Reilly’s Anger at Bill Strickland, Part 2, Part 3, Bill Strickland’s NPR Interview, Part 4, Part 5, Postscript

Bill objects to making a defense of his writing and thinks that it is good and right that any reader should interpret his writing either in a manner that brings him praise or in a manner that damns him.

And of course, readers who feel either way tend to believe that most or all readers surely feel as they do.

Here’s are some of his thoughts from our conversation, discussing his philosophy regarding the writer / reader relationship.

Bill Strickland:

“I have come to found a big part of my understanding of writing on the belief that the compact between writer and reader is simple: The writer puts the words together, then shows it to the public, and from then on the story belongs to the reader, who individually and without obligation to the writer or to the writer’s intent (or the story’s intent), can think anything about it he wants, can perceive in it what he wants, can absorb or discard the parts of it he wants. To me, anything the reader comes up with is fair enough.

I mean, who’s to say that readers don’t finally know what a story is about better than the writer does? For me, at least, putting a story together is a mysterious and uncertain process, and readers — at least the ones who tell you what the story is about — seem to interpret with much more certainty than I create.

I’m interested in all the various opinions and ideas a story generates in readers (so keep those cards and letters coming, folks — Bikezilla). I like to hear them, and think about their substance, try to figure out what it is in the writing that led to that specific opinion.

I try to understand how, for instance, X in writing generates Y in a reader, and if X is somehow useful to me as a technique or if it was accidental and won’t work that way again. I try to figure out if an opinion was created because the reader reacted to Z or missed Z, and why some readers miss Z while others react to it so strongly that as soon as they read it they cannot fully absorb the rest of the paragraph.

This kind of input is extremely valuable to me from a technical point of view. It makes me better — or at least I use it to try to become a better writer.”

— Here’s an interview that Bill Strickland did with Podium Cafe.

Throughout the remainder of this series I’ll be presenting occasional quotes from that PC interview. But I need to make a confession, first.

That Podium Cafe interview if far more in depth than what I’m doing with this series. Though I quote it several times, some of them long, I’ve only taken the passages or portions of passages that mesh with the discussion that I had with Bill Strickland myself.

If you have serious favorable or unfavorable interest in Bill Strickland and his writing, you should read the full Podium Cafe piece.

I have not intentionally altered the intent or meaning of any quote, but I have not quoted completely.

All emphasis is mine.

On the sport of cycling:

Bill Strickland:

“Maybe I’m romanticizing the sport. I am horribly prone to that as well.”

That particular quote should be kept in mind as you read through later portions of this series.

On why his book with Johan Bruyneel, “We Might as Well Win” barely mentioned doping, and didn’t even touch on the topic of Michele Ferrari and Manolo Saiz.

Bill Strickland:

“Johan’s choice – it’s his book. I mean, that’s rich material for sure but not even close to the point of what he wanted to accomplish with the book.

He took some unfair hits for not addressing that, but the whole idea was to create a collection of the lessons he’d learned through racing and directing. If he’d set out to write a complete biography, or a reputed tell-all, and not even mentioned them, then I think the criticism would be warranted (and I don’t think I’d have stayed on to help him).

As a storyteller, looking at the structure, in that particular book those subjects were not omitted but simply didn’t fit.”

Is that an adequate explanation? Is it a believable explanation? Or is it merely a shield for both Bruyneel and Strickland?

On Lance Armstrong’s peronsality:

You can see from the Podium Cafe interview that there’s a lot more to the Bill Strickland story than just his relationship with Lance Armstrong. But Lance Armstrong and doping are the parts that really irk most cycling fans, whether they worship Lance or loathe him.

Bill has a perspective on this that you will either find to be reasonable and fair, or obstructionist and frustrating. In fact, you’re likely to see most of what I present here, entirely in one light or the other.

From the Podium Cafe interview:

“I’ve concluded that he derives nearly equal energy from the time that, say, his sixth-grade teacher teased him and the time L’Equipe accused him of doping.

It’s kind of binary for him: either you’re in his way or you’re not, you harmed him or you didn’t, you believe him or you don’t. He seems not to care much about the nuances, if the barrier in front of him is a single brick or a wall forty bricks high and forty bricks deep: he’s going through it if he can.

(I think of it as the kind of determination or drive that, existing in people with different sorts of skills and gifts, ends up giving us Steve Jobs, or maybe Winston Churchill, or Mother Teresa, or Bernie Madoff or Atilla the Hun.)”

From Tour de Lance, p. 230-231:

“He’s not a naturally funny person. Even his close friends say his humor tends to be corny and repetitive. He’s best described not as clever or smart but as cunning.

And for as moneyed and as cultured as he has become, he is still in essence, as I was told by a person who was employed by one of Armstrong’s sponsoring companies and worked closely on him with several projects, ‘the kind of guy who would be happy putting his car in a ditch every weekend.’ . . . He became exposed to the idea of appreciating art (and architecture) during his first trips to Europe in his pre-cancer era . . .today, he likes to reference artists in his Twitter posts . . . [and] the walls of his home have displayed Michael Gregory, Bettie Ward, Barry McGee, Tony Berlant . . . It’s an impressive collection, yet there’s a dissonantly competitive spirit to Armstrong’s pursuit of it all, as if when he understood that art was something sophisticated people should enjoy, he set out to be the best at enjoying it.

Someone who worked with him on an extended commercial project told me that ‘When Lance found out I was a visual person, he took me around his house to see his art collection, and we had to stand before each one and dutifully appreciate it. And we couldn’t move on until he felt he’d accomplished the appreciation.”

How should those descriptions be taken? As evidence that Strickland in fact has a sober view of what Armstrong is really like? They aren’t flattering, but they aren’t damning, either. Are they too little, too mild, to ho-hum in relation to Strickland’s long delayed admission or realization that Armstrong was (is?) a career doper?


This series will be at least 5 parts long, maybe as long as 7.

Part 3 should be up in 2 – 3 days, again.


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