Birmingham-based author/journalist Lars Anderson is one of the most prolific sports writers in the country. But The Storm And The Tide isn’t a sports story.
Sure, the University of Alabama football players and coaches are some of the central figures of the book, but it’s deeper than that. Anderson’s account of the events and aftermath of the devastating April 27, 2011 tornado paints a universal picture that anyone can relate to—not just Southerners or football fans.
We were hired by Time Inc. earlier this year to do local and regional publicity for the book—as handled by our own Ashley Fulmer, APR—and we were honored to be involved in sharing such a powerful story.
But we wanted to share it even further.
So we sat down with Anderson to discuss the process of writing, researching, and enduring the real-life events that became The Storm And The Tide (which is currently on sale and would make a wonderful last-minute Christmas gift).
Here’s what he had to say.
When did you get the idea for The Storm And The Tide, and what sparked it?
The idea can be traced back to the SI cover story I did on the tornado going through Tuscaloosa. That was about three weeks after the storm. And immediately upon publication, I think within 48 hours, I’d literally heard from people all around the world. As far away as Japan—people in Japan saying that they could really relate to the people of Tuscaloosa because of the tsunami that they had just gone through. And then all throughout Europe, South America. The impact of that story was greater than anything I had done in my 20 years at Sports Illustrated, so I knew I was sitting on an amazing story that was bigger than sports, bigger than Alabama, and I knew I wanted to turn it into a long-form narrative at some point. It became abundantly clear after Alabama was the only team to win two National Championships after the tornado that I had a really great story. So that’s when I went forward with it.
When you were first presenting the idea for The Storm And The Tide, how did you pitch it to the athletic department, coaching staff, etc.?
For the magazine story, I went through the normal people, the Sports Information Department. They knew me—I was an adjunct professor at Alabama at the time, so they were familiar with my work. I also enlisted the help of one of my students who was a swimmer at Alabama, Allison Angle, and Allison was really plugged into the scene there, and also was able to get me in touch with different athletes. She was personally friends with Javier Arenas, and he was the first person I talked to for the story. In fact, the first pictures we shot were of Javier outside of his condo, which had been shredded, and that ended up being the SI cover story picture. Then when I wanted to turn it into a book, I’d done most of the reporting already. For the magazine story, I was slotted to spend 15 minutes with Nick Saban, and we ended up talking for an hour and a half. And I only used two sentences in the magazine story from that interview, so I kept all my notes, and when it came time to do the book, everybody at Alabama was really great. Except with Saban—Saban didn’t want to be a part of the book because his agent, Jimmy Sexton, wants Nick to do his own book.
About the same subject?
Not just about the tornado, but about his career.
Which would be part of that book, of course.
Yes, so on the advice of Jimmy Sexton, Nick passed on it. But again, I’d already spent so much time on it, it didn’t impact me at all. But everybody was really generous with their time.
The impact of that story was greater than anything I had done in my 20 years at Sports Illustrated, so I knew I was sitting on an amazing story that was bigger than sports, bigger than Alabama.
You’d written about Alabama football for Sports Illustrated before. How did this experience compare?
This was just so different because you’re dealing with people who lost everything in the storm. It really isn’t a football book, and it’s not really a football story—athletics is almost secondary to the powerful stories within the book of mothers and fathers losing their sons and daughters, and how they were able to navigate their way through the grieving process. The sports aspect of it becomes a look at how football can serve as almost therapy for people who are gripped in the throes of this darkness, this tragedy. That’s really where I think the football aspect comes into it. But this book, again, it’s much more emotional and personal because I’m writing about the worst moments of people’s lives. It really doesn’t compare to anything I’ve done.
You mention the emotional aspects of the book, the darkness. Compared to your previous books, was it tougher to write this one?
It was. This is a highly personal book to me, because, for one, my affiliation with Alabama. I teach there, and after the storm blew through, it took me a good three days to get in contact with my 18 students to make sure they were okay. It’s just, having lived through it, and having people sit down with me and open up their hearts and navigate me through the darkest corridors of their memory, it’s tough, you know? It’s tough to even keep that distance of sort of a disinterested observer that you need to try to maintain as a reporter. You can’t necessarily do that when people are sharing so much with you. And so it was really important to me that this book get read by a lot of people. And it has. It’s very gratifying to hear from the people who are in the book say how much they appreciate all the hard work. Many people feel as if their sons or daughters, their memory is living on through these pages.
You mention the shift from observer—someone who experienced it—to being the actual reporter. How did your perception change at that point?
Well, it’s hard. I think your best writing comes from when you are emotionally stirred about something, about a certain topic. So I definitely feel as if there’s more passion and emotion in this narrative than any other thing I’ve done. But, again, you try to be the third-party observer as much as you can, but I think it’s okay to be a human and embrace your subject and let them know that you’re going to try to tell their story with as much integrity as possible. I told Ashley Mims, who lost her daughter Loryn Brown in the tornado, that she’s now like family to me, and I’ll do anything for her. We talk at least once a week still, and I’m really grateful for that relationship.
How does the story extend outside Tuscaloosa city limits?
Well, it’s a story of overcoming tragedy. Natural disaster. And I think everybody can relate—even if you’ve never been through a tornado, people who’ve seen tornadoes. I sort of make the argument in the book that the tornado is the scariest of all natural disasters because you can kind of anticipate it coming, but you can’t—even if it’s coming right at you, it may turn at the last second. With all sorts of other natural disasters, there’s some sort of forecasting involved, but with a tornado it’s just a haphazard phenomenon. I really get into tornadoes and the science behind tornadoes, and again just hitting on these universal themes that you don’t have to be a sports fan to connect with. Universal themes of resiliency, of overcoming horrible, horrible loss, and trying to see light through darkness.
I think your best writing comes from when you are emotionally stirred about something, about a certain topic. So I definitely feel as if there’s more passion and emotion in this narrative than any other thing I’ve done.
You’ve been a professor at UA for five years, correct?
This is my first year being full-time, and this is my fifth year of teaching.
How did that experience help shape the book?
I think just being down there and being around the students day in and day out, you get a feel for just how horrible that day was—April 27, 2011. If I had parachuted in from the upper west side of Manhattan (where I used to live) just for a week and tried to write that story, I never could’ve been able to write it the way I did. My frame of understanding wasn’t as wide as it is now. You know, I’m close with a lot of my students, and even a year later, I know a bunch of my students had to wear mouth guards at night because their nightmares were so bad. Whenever they’d hear the alarms go off, they’d be sent right back to the terror of April 27, 2011. I think it just gives me a deeper perspective on the totality of the story, being down there with the students. This would’ve been a hard one to write if you hadn’t been there and lived through it.
How would you compare Nick Saban’s Alabama program before and after the storm?
The beat keeps going on for them. Saban’s now 62, I believe, and he shows no signs of slowing down. To me, what the storm did was it sort of fostered this really unique dynamic between team and town. I think it bound them together in a way that was unprecedented in college football history, because you had players who’d spent the summer of 2011—the majority of them did—out on clean-up crews. Working in 100-degree heat, clearing debris, having survivors come up to them crying and tell them that they had lost everything, and it’d be great if you guys could just do what you do best on Saturday, and give us a sense of hope. And really, when people are in the grip of tragedy, what they want more than anything is hope, and a reason to look forward. That’s what Alabama football came to represent. I don’t think it was necessarily a coincidence that Alabama ended up winning the next two National Championships, because these kids just had this unbelievable motivation. Yes, there was an element of luck involved in both the ’11 national title and the ’12 national title, but at the same time, they were the only team that got it done.
You mention this being a universal story. Why should non-Alabama fans read The Storm And The Tide?
It’s the bigger themes of resiliency in the face of unspeakable tragedy. It’s a look at just how fundamentally scary tornadoes are. I try to put readers in the shoes of both people who survived the storm and people who didn’t survive the storm. I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of people who didn’t know or care anything about Alabama football tell me how much they loved the book. As you’re reading it, you’re not sure who’s going to survive and who’s going to make it. I tried to present everything as if it’s happening in real-time, and I let it slowly develop. For all the main characters, it gives all their backstories. I think it will make a good movie some day. It looks like it’s going to get optioned here pretty soon by an outfit in Hollywood, so we’re looking forward to it.
Are there any details you can tell us about the movie?
Not yet, not yet. My agent’s still working it out. But there’s a lot of interest in it.
How has the response been to The Storm And The Tide thus far?
It was on the New York Times Best Sellers List for two months. Kirkus Reviews named it one of the top nonfiction books of 2014. Sales have been excellent—it’s my sixth book, and it’s the best-selling book I’ve ever written.
Oh yeah. It has done well from New York to Seattle, from Los Angeles to Miami. It is definitely not a regional book. The editor and the publisher are happy, so if the publisher’s happy, I’m happy. [Laughs]
I think it will make a good movie some day. It looks like it’s going to get optioned here pretty soon by an outfit in Hollywood, so we’re looking forward to it.
As a writer, all of your published works are meaningful. What does The Storm And The Tide mean to you?
Every book sort of takes on—it’s like you develop a relationship with each book individually, but this one to me, I think it’s the most important book I’ve done. It told so many stories that I felt needed to be told, and I was really passionate about. And I know it’s had a positive impact on the people who were hurt the most by the storm. We’ve raised a bunch of money for scholarship funds in honor of Ashley Harrison and Loryn Brown, two young victims who were students at the time in Tuscaloosa. A lot of good things have come about because of this book.
What’s next for Lars Anderson?
I am teaching at Alabama still, full-time. And I’m starting to work on my seventh book, which is going to be about the Manning family. Just a deep examination of how they came to be, and how Archie and Olivia Manning were able to raise two of the best NFL quarterbacks of their generation.