Reyan Ali and I have been working on his book together for four years alongside Mike Williams and the rest of our great BFB team. Over email, I caught up with Reyan for an overtime Q&A.
Reyan Ali with Jam Announcer Tim Kitzrow
Gabe Durham, BFB: This book has been in your hands for years. What does it feel like to be finally releasing it to the world?
Reyan Ali: Amazing. Surreal. Gratifying. Terrifying. Lots and lots of things at once. I told myself in my head time and time again how I wanted the release to go and imagined all these things, and seeing readers actually say they've received it or hearing their feedback is a strange and satisfying feeling.
The reception has been fantastic so far, to the point that I can't keep up with all the messages and inquiries and the like. But I do know that the work isn't entirely done yet by any stretch of the imagination, as I want to support the book for the next year with appearances, new projects, and the like. I still want NBA Jam (the book) to blow up, and for Midway staples like Mark Turmell, Sal DiVita, and Tim Kitzrow to become full-fledged video game cult icons. I'm really curious as to how I'll come back on this time next year and what in my life will be different.
Though there are a ton of voices in this story, Mark Turmell feels like the closest thing to a main character. How did you come to realize that his presence in the story should take center stage?
The first time I called Turmell for an interview, I asked him one question and he spoke for something like 30 minutes straight, telling me a summarized version of his life story and what happened with NBA Jam. I was caught off-guard by the lack of actual interviewing I was doing at first, but what was nice is that he gave me all the building blocks of a story in one fell swoop. I already knew Turmell was interesting, but that conversation solidified that he should be who I base the entire book around.
Turmell's ride has been so fascinating I'm a little startled this is the first book about him. Starting his career programming games as a teenager in suburban Michigan, he's been through it all, from being part of the blossoming Apple II homebrew scene to overseeing teams working on mobile games at Zynga now. Turmell exudes a unique kind of charisma, and the fact that he was the very best character in his own game (Never forget MJT, March 22 in NBA Jam) just adds something else to him. In basketball cliches, making him the protagonist was a lay-up.
You employ a lot of storytelling devices to each chapter that are more novelistic than a lot of nonfiction. How did that style emerge?
I started doing nonfiction writing because it was a way for me to make a living as a writer (as meager as it was) after I graduated college and introduce myself to people, but my first love was always fiction. At this point in my career, I find it much more rewarding and interesting to spend my time setting scenes and creating characters -- or piecing them together from whatever details I have -- than getting introspective. I have had a genuinely unusual and fascinating life, so I know that I can always reach for those experiences if I need to, but right now, I want to tell other people's stories in compelling ways.
I'm a huge fan of the author Gay Talese, as well as games writing OG David Kushner and his brilliant book Masters of Doom. They set the scene, they build the characters, and they give you reason to keep reading -- very much like a novel. They are the kinds of nonfiction masters whose work I aspire to evoke.
My long-term goal is writing novels, comic books, and screenplays, so this made an excellent training ground, too. Stay tuned to my name; I have huge dreams I have every intention on fulfilling, and I hope you'll stick around for the ride.
In the time since you started the book, you got married and had a baby. How did that change the book's content or how/when you worked on it?
They didn't play any role in changing the book's content -- I was always going to write the kind of book NBA Jam became -- but the marriage and baby (especially the baby) made it substantially harder to work on this monolith of a project whenever I had a spare moment from the day job. I wrote NBA Jam on nights, mornings, weekends, on lunches, and on paid time-off days. Really, above all else, doing this against a 9-to-5 day job has been the hard part.
Add all that to the day-to-day stuff that comes up, my own anxieties, social obligations, a lack of budget, etc., and there were times when honestly I was just so done and wanted to tap out. But the perfectionist in me wouldn't let me quit. I'm proud I never gave up, and now I have more confidence as a writer than ever before. I've overcome a serious amount of hurdles, and the book has turned out well. I'm feeling pretty damn good.
Are there any details that didn't make it into the book that you'd be excited to write about down the line?
Lots of off-hand anecdotes and tiny details here and there had to be cut -- I would have loved to flesh out the section on WWF WrestleMania -- but above all else, I'd love to go back to the well with Midway and document more of that company's history in some form. I'm certain there are many fantastic stories that haven't been told or touched, and I want to unearth those, too. I want to keep digging.
How did your @nbajambook Twitter account evolve from book updates & Jam memories to the museum of 90s video game and sports culture that it has become?
When I started the account in July 2017, I wanted to do something to promote the book and get the word out. It started innocently enough, with just NBA Jam-related items and a little bit of '90s NBA nostalgia. Then, I expanded to Midway in general, which led to more Mortal Kombat posts. Then I noticed traffic was really picking up steam, so I expanded into arcade culture, old video game magazines, cool artwork, and more. I have a knack for finding and framing all kinds of old deep cuts in interesting ways, and it has really taken on a life of its own.