Seven Questions with Blake Sebring

OTTSIn what may be the most goal-oriented installment yet, the Seven Questions series continues with Blake Sebring, Fort Wayne author and longtime sportswriter for The News-Sentinel.

Blake has covered the Fort Wayne Komets for 27 years and authored several books, including the just-released On to the Show: Fort Wayne’s Lasting Impact on the NHL. Blake is also a colleague from my copy desk days at the N-S, one with a particular gift for finding and telling the stories of humor, faith, and perseverance that underscore every game. I don’t remember ever having to bug him about a name spelling or missing information … and you’d have to be an editor working on daily deadlines to fully appreciate that, but on to the show.

Blake’s latest includes stories with people such as Mike Emrick, Bruce Boudreau, Kevin Weekes, Dale Purinton, and others from Fort Wayne who have advanced to the highest level of the sport. Here, find out more about Blake’s laughs with legends, defining moments and what happens when a mild-manned sports reporter has murder in mind:

1. You mentioned this was the most fun you’ve ever had writing a book. Tell me what made it so.
 
SPT 08XX Blake mug3Every former Komet I reached out to called me back within a day, if not sooner. I told them it would take half an hour or so, but we usually ended up talking for two hours. The first hour would be reminiscing or catching up about past teammates and their families. There were always a lot of laughs before we ever got started on the actual reason for the conversation, and then they gave me incredible material to work with. Some of the stories I had never heard before, and that made me want to write the stories right away.
 
2. You’ve covered the Komets for so long, telling their stories on and off the ice. What is it that you wish more people understood about hockey?
 
A couple of things. I’ve never felt the sport has done a good job of selling how much better the game is in person than it is on TV because you can see everything. The other thing is hockey players don’t get enough credit for being such incredible all-around athletes. They aren’t the biggest, fastest or tallest, but they play a game that is almost as physical as football and requires as much aerobic conditioning as basketball, and they do it three or four times per week.
 
3. When someone mentions Bob Chase, the late voice of the Komets for WOWO (and the subject of Live from Radio Rinkside), what’s the first image/memory that springs to mind? 
 
Bob’s humility. When I wrote his obituary column, I talked about how everyone always felt comfortable coming up to say hi or ask him a question at almost any time, and he absolutely loved that. Every time I talked to him about an award he received, he’d always get misty-eyed and wonder why his life was so blessed. And if you asked him about his kids, the water works would really get going. Bob was exactly the same in private as he was in public.
 
4. What’s your favorite sports movie?
Probably “Miracle.” Usually, Hollywood ruins sports movies because the action looks fake (actors are generally horrible athletes) and they change the story by adding conflict and drama, which really ruins it if you followed it as it happened originally. They didn’t have to do any of that with “Miracle.” I’ve talked to former Komets Steve Janaszak and Mark Wells enough over the years to have some insight into the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team and what they experienced. Their stories are in the book.
 
5. Your last book, Lethal Ghost, delves into darker territory than sportswriters (or most police reporters) encounter. What, if any, challenges did you run into in the course of writing it?
 
(Chuckles) I wanted to try something totally unexpected and out of character to challenge myself as a writer. When I write a book, I usually try to experiment with something different, and in this one I wrote the bad guy in first person and the good guy in third person, and maybe the most fun was when they interacted. I had the beginning and the ending figured out in my head before I started writing and just let everything else flow. Every time I’d run out of material, my mom would come up with a new way to murder someone or I’d let it percolate for a few days and a new idea would pop in. I’ve got two sequels planned. Bwa-ha-ha!
 
6. There is a “defining moment” theme in the fictional The Lake Effect, certainly, but also in The Biggest Mistake I Never Made, which talks about Lloy Ball’s decision to play volleyball for his dad at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne instead of Indiana University Bloomington. Can you share one of yours?
 
I was 23 years old and working as a sports editor in Sturgis, Mich., and I left after 18 months because my boss kept lying to me. I didn’t have anything else set up, other than I knew I had to do something different because the environment was so bad. I needed to stand up for myself so I came home and worked part-time at The News-Sentinel and loaded freight at the airport for six months until the paper created a full-time position for me. Loved the freight job, by the way.
 
7. What is one thing you never leave home without?
The expectation that I’m going to find something or someone new that I can tell a story about if I just keep my eyes and ears open. The absolute best part of my job is that every day, every game is unique, and I never know what I’m going to find or see. How many people are lucky enough to say they are never bored with their job? How lucky am I?
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Learn more about Blake’s work at www.blakesebring.com.

Saying it with flowers

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Does a peony mean “anger,” or does it mean “shame”? (Photo courtesy Foter.com)

It’s one thing for a modern young person to develop a knack for growing things under the direction of a parent, grandparent, teacher, or other important adult. It’s quite another to also become versed in the meanings of specific flowers — rhododendron (“beware”), white poplar (“time”), snapdragon (“presumption”), mistletoe (“I surmount all obstacles”), and more. This is the the language of flowers, which in Victorian times was used to convey a surprising range of sentiments.

1431616332717These are the gifts with which Victoria Jones goes forth in Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel, The Language of Flowers (Random House, 2011). On her eighteenth birthday, Victoria ages out of the foster care system and is turned loose in San Francisco to figure out the next step. Isolated and mistrustful, she does little to help herself — but she does plant a garden. She eventually finds work with florist Renata, who is quick to recognize the young woman’s gift for helping people choose flowers for the people and special occasions in their lives based on their meanings.

Her work in San Francisco’s floral world reconnects her with flower farmer/vendor Grant, the nephew of her former foster mother, Elizabeth. Vineyard owner Elizabeth had been Victoria’s mentor in horticulture and the language of flowers. She also wanted to become Victoria’s adoptive mother. This is where the chapters begin to alternate between Victoria’s present-day reality — her work with Renata and her developing relationship with Grant — and the 10-year-old Victoria’s time with Elizabeth. You know something drastic is coming, because Victoria ended up back in foster care; and plenty of changes are unfolding in the here and now that are going to bring those old chickens home to roost.

Such as: the annoying tendency of any language, even the language of flowers, to not remain static and free from contradictions. Victoria visits San Francisco’s Main Library more than once to pore over every volume she can find on flower meanings. She has either been presented with a flower whose meaning she cannot decipher or is looking for a precise botanical response to Grant, who is also flower-fluent. The books are old, crumbling, tucked in between the Victorian poets and gardening books, but it doesn’t take long before she is confused and frustrated anew by multiple, often contradictory definitions of a single flower. She had given her caseworker peony to convey “anger,” but now she finds the flower also means “shame.”

“If peony could be misinterpreted, how many times, to how many people, had I misspoken?” Victoria wonders. Soon, she and Grant begin working on a flower dictionary of their own (it’s included at the back of the book).

Though I was fascinated by the way this young, contemporary character employed the Victorian-era language of flowers to express herself and, ultimately, to help herself and others, some of her behavior is inscrutable, even considering her history in foster care. I also felt disappointed and angry with Elizabeth, who was supposed to be the grown-up. But maybe there’s a reason the foster care system is the setting for stories like this … the actual as well as the fictional.