Ask legendary sportswriter and broadcaster Mike Lupica about his role models for his amazingly successful series of young adult sports novels.
One answer will make immediate sense and the other will surprise the heck out of you.
The one making immediate sense: William Goldman.
"The Princess Bride is one of the great stories in the history of stories," Lupica says. "When you read it, it just gives off a beam of light. I can't write like Goldman, but when I read it, but I aim to do what he did with that book, to write books that anybody, adults or kids, can read."
The other writing role model? The late, great thriller writer, Elmore Leonard.
Elmore Leonard? A role model for a guy writing sports books for kids?
"Seriously," Lupica says.
Long ago, he interviewed Leonard for an Esquire piece and the two authors became best friends.
"I met Leonard in the late 1980s," Lupica recalls. "Several times a week, I would call at the end of a writing day and ask, 'Are you writing, or thinking about girls?'
"His response was always, 'Both!'"
Lupica has known William Goldman for 40 years, and Elmore Leonard has since passed away.
"My wife jokes, you've got to make younger friends," Lupica laughs.
Lupica's latest novel, Point Guard, is a fast-paced, deeply enjoyable story about gender and ethnicity, cleverly disguised as a basketball novel for young readers.
Cassie, modeled on his daughter, is a girl playing on a seventh-grade town team in basketball.
Her teammate Gus is Latino and (at times) a love interest. He bumps up against the nativist attitudes of a bigoted teammate whose father happens to be the town’s mayor.
Like all of Lupica's young adult titles, the story goes deep.
"I grew up reading the Chip Hilton series of books about friendship, team work, and loyalty," Lupica recalls. "Those are the same values I write about in Point Guard. Especially the importance of getting up when you get knocked down. I don't make it easy for Cassie or Gus. I won't give away the ending, but my goal is that you'll stand up and cheer when you get to the end of the book."
Lupica takes great pride in his dialogue, a skill he traces back to his writing mentors, Goldman and Leonard.
"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," Lupica says, with awe in his voice. "I saw that when I was a teenager. Two guys in a Western never talked to each other like that before."
He adds, "I love it when people say to me, 'Your kids sound like my kids,’ or when kids tell me, ‘Your characters sound like my friends.' I've been listening to the conversations of my four kids in the backseat, at the dinner table, and at the gym for all these years. There would be no excuse for me failing to get kids' dialogue right."
Lupica's wife puts it a bit more bluntly. "'You writing inside of the mind of a 12-year-old - that's a perfect fit,'" Lupica quotes her as saying.
The beginning of Lupica's career as a young adult novelist, in addition to his fame as a sports writer and TV and radio broadcaster, sounds like the plot of a movie. He mentioned a little more than a dozen years ago to NBA coach and broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy that one of his kids had been cut from a seventh grade travel basketball team.
"If this were a movie," Van Gundy mused, "You'd have all the kids who were cut making their own team, and then defeating the team that cut them."
Lupica did take the kids that were cut, made his own team, and ran with the story. Ten days after, it was published. Travel Team was number one on the New York Times Bestseller's List.
"I spent the last 13 years finding out how much kids still want to read," Lupica says. "It's a fun job. If you ask me about the real goal for these novels, that would be it."