Jeff Benedict is an author, journalist and TV and film producer. His football books include Steve Young’s autobiography, QB: My Life Behind the Spiral, and The System, co-written with Armen Keteyian. He has also written a range of non-fiction books including Poisoned, about a 1993 E. coli outbreak, and Little Pink House, about a woman trying to save her home from an eminent domain order. His latest book, The Dynasty, tells the story of how Robert Kraft took over the New England Patriots and created an unprecedented run of success.
Tell me how this book came about.
I thought about this book for a number of years but I started two years ago, and I began in a very old-fashioned way: I wrote a letter to the owner of the team, Robert Kraft. I had never met him, he certainly wouldn’t know me. I also didn’t know anybody else in the organisation. I had never met Tom Brady or Bill Belichick. So I wrote and introduced myself because I thought if I’m going to write a book about this franchise, I wanted to try to establish a relationship with him first and wanted his participation. I was pleasantly surprised when one day a letter came back. That impressed me because not many people write letters these days and the fact that he responded to me, a complete stranger, said something about who he is. Our communication went from letter-writing to phone calls, then meetings, and that was my entry point. I made it clear that I wanted to tell the definitive history of this team and write a serious book about greatness and how you build a champion; not just a championship team, but one that can sustain itself for 20 years because I’ve never seen a team stay on top for that long.
Full review: The Dynasty by Jeff Benedict
It’s Kraft’s participation that sets The Dynasty apart from everything else I’ve read about the Patriots. You seem able to take us inside his head and Tom Brady’s head. I know you interviewed Bill Belichick for the book, but I didn’t get the feeling we were going inside his head. Is he just much cagier?
I didn’t feel comfortable trying to do that with him because my interview with him was all done in writing. I sent him questions and he responded in writing, which was great on one level because the answers were thoughtful, serious responses. The downside is that it doesn’t provide opportunity for the spontaneous follow-up that may come in conversation. But I was just really grateful that he would participate. He wasn’t the only person to do a non-traditional interview. With Randy Moss, an important player in the book, I sent written questions because he requested them, then he talked into a camera, recorded his answers and sent me a file that I watched.
When you’re writing about people who are this successful and this much in demand, you have to be nimble and flexible in terms of how you get your information and you should be grateful no matter how you get it. But I felt more comfortable dealing with the thought process of Robert Kraft or Jonathan Kraft or Tom Brady or Drew Bledsoe because I had the opportunity to ask them face-to-face about what they were thinking in a particular moment. In Belichick’s case, I didn’t have that opportunity.
So were you able to be a fly on the wall?
The first year of the process, I didn’t do any writing at all, just a lot of observation, recording and interviewing. I spent an enormous amount of time at the stadium and around the organisation where I was just watching. Whether I was attending meetings or traveling, standing on the sideline before a game, up in the owners box, or in the locker room after the game, I was not asking questions. I was just watching and keeping my mouth shut but my mind would be racing because I would see things that I knew I wanted to put in the narrative. A lot of the scenes from 2018 through 2020 are things I observed firsthand.
It’s a pretty hefty book, so the amount of material you must have had to marshal to put that together would be vast, I imagine.
If you saw my office, you would think that I’m the most disorganised man you’ve ever met. My office was turned into an archive of all things Patriots. I have a whole shelf full of three-ring binders stuffed with interview transcripts. I have boxes and boxes of files. I have books everywhere. The way I work, I get all the information that is going to be in a chapter and lay it out on the floor. So here are the transcripts I need. Here’s a book that I need a quote from. It’s just all out there and I basically did that for 44 chapters. It’s a lot of work, some organisational skills and then just discipline and patience, because it just takes a lot of time to put that much of a story together.
You’ve worked in different ways over the years. You do the film and TV stuff, you’ve worked with co-writers like Armen Keteyian on the the Tiger Woods book and The System, you’ve worked on things like Steve Young’s autobiography. How is it to be working on a project like this by yourself?
That’s a good question. Most of my career, I’ve worked alone. The three books you’ve mentioned are the exceptions. Normally, I write by myself. It’s more what I’m accustomed to, so it felt normal. It’s on the heels of the Tiger Woods biography, where Armen and I were partners. One of the upsides of having a partner on a book like that is you divvy up the workload, so it feels like he’s got half the load and I’ve got half. Obviously, when you’re working alone you shoulder the entire load and you feel the difference. But it’s really challenging to write a narrative when it’s two writers. That takes that takes a lot of discipline and work. When you’re the only writer, you’ve got the heavy load, but it is just your work. I find that a little easier in many respects, but maybe that’s just because it’s what I’m accustomed to.
“When I read Dickens or Steinbeck, I find myself trying to see how they CRAFTED THAT SCENE”
How do you define good writing?
One of my mottos in writing is, “story, story, story”. I want the reading experience to be as effortless as watching a film. One key to that kind of writing is pacing. I spend a lot of time on the architecture of the narrative before I start writing, much like someone designing a building. I think long and hard about how I’m going to design the narrative and the construction of chapters. If you look at the table of contents for The Dynasty, in the beginning the chapters are shorter. That’s by design because I don’t want to reader to get exhausted in the first chapter. This is a long book, as you said, and you need to build up the reader’s endurance to a point where they’re conditioned to read a 30-page chapter. By then they’ve been reading enough, and have become engrossed enough, that they don’t notice that they’re reading a 30-page chapter. It feels like five pages.
So there’s spoon-feeding in the beginning, with short chapters that are packed with action and revelations and dialogue, and all the things that that bring a reader in and get them invested in a story. Then you can feed them larger bites, bigger chunks of information, denser chapters. I think if your story is rolling out that way, that helps take you to the crescendo. By the time you get to the last chapters of the book, there’s so much going on that it’s almost happening in a warp speed. But by then that’s kind of what the reader wants. It’s like you’re racing to the finish line and hopefully they’re racing with you. All that hinges on whether you’re giving them a movie watching experience on the page.
Is it something that takes quite a lot of rewriting, to get the pace and feel that you want?
Absolutely. Just to give an example, the second chapter, which is called Bobby, is Robert Kraft’s upbringing, boyhood, coming-of-age chapter. I have to compress the first 25 years of his life into one chapter because you can’t expect the reader to live there that long. This is not Robert Kraft’s biography. So you’ve got to figure out the beats that the reader needs to hear. I spent more time writing and refining that chapter than any chapter in the book. It’s one of the shortest chapters, but to get it as close to perfect as I could took a tremendous amount of refining. Over and over, polishing, changing, shaping words here and there. Trying to get a sentence a little shorter, a paragraph a little tighter. How do I illuminate this emotion a little stronger? It’s a tremendous amount of time, but the rewriting is the key. If you’re a professional writer you can lay tracks down fast, but you’ve got to get those tracks connected and it’s got to be seamless or the train’s going to come off the track. That’s all done in the rewriting.
Do you have a writing hero or a mentor?
I certainly had some mentors when I was getting started. There was a columnist for the New York Times named Robert Lipsyte, who has now retired. He had a big influence on me. Interestingly, we write very differently, so it’s not so much that I tried to model my writing after his, it was more that he took me under his wing and taught me a lot.
Writers from the past that I admire the most and think about a lot when I’m trying to write stories would be Charles Dickens and probably John Steinbeck. Obviously, they are fiction writers and I am not, but there’s so much to learn from them because they were such masters of the craft. When I read Dickens or Steinbeck, I find myself stopping and re-reading things, trying to see how they did that paragraph or crafted that scene. But the writer that probably impresses me the most is Alexander Hamilton. He may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of great writers, but he was probably the most prolific writer I can think of, and he was so sharp and tight with his writing.
Do you have a running list of ideas you want to explore at some point?
I have a ‘bucket list’ of dream books that I’d like to write – and it’s not a long list, but this book was on it. So the list is a tiny bit shorter now. A couple of books remain on that list. Then I have a more practical list, books that are more doable. There’s the dream, and then there’s the practical ones that are within reach.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t like to read, so I went out of my way not to”
I don’t know how much you read football books overall but can you remember the first one you read, or one that stands out?
That’s an interesting question, because I actually hadn’t read a lot of football books prior to working on this book. I probably read 25 football books before writing this one – that was just part of my research. Before working on The Dynasty, I probably, in my lifetime, have read a dozen football books. It’s not a subject I’ve invested a lot of time in. One book that I thought was really interesting and well-done was League Of Denial, which was about the concussion situation and professional football. I found that a fascinating read.
When you were younger was it sports writing that inspired you or was it more the fiction you’ve mentioned, like Dickens and Steinbeck?
I’m going to make a confession that’s going to not reflect well on myself. When I was a kid, I didn’t like to read, so I went out of my way not to read. I was a huge sports fan, like most young boys, and I was a subscriber to Sports Illustrated, but I didn’t get the magazine to read the articles. I got the magazine for the pictures. I didn’t have dreams about being a writer.
That changed when I was in graduate school in my mid-20s, and I started writing for the first time. I’d been doing all this research and I thought it was interesting, and instead of writing for an academic committee, I thought why not try to write this for a popular audience. I was really naive about how publishing works and how you need to have a literary agent. I didn’t know about any of that. I just set out to write a book thinking it would be great to get this material published. Then I was going to go off to law school and be a lawyer.
This first book did get published and I was satisfied, thinking I would probably never write anything again. I applied to law school, got accepted, and then I got offered a commercial book contract to do a second book. When I realised that this could actually be in a career, it caused me to rethink everything. I did get a law degree but by the time I graduated I was in my third publishing contract and I knew that’s what I was going to do for a profession.
I was writing about all kinds of things but later in my career I gravitated to sports subjects. Eventually I started writing for Sports Illustrated magazine, the same magazine that I used to subscribe to as a boy so I could cut the pictures out. At the same time, my books started to become more sports-centred. My last four books have been on the New England Patriots, Tiger Woods, Steve Young and college football. So that’s four in a row that are sports topics.
That’s a fascinating journey. One last question: if you were trapped on a desert island, what are the five books that you would want with you?
Wow. Maybe A Tale of Two Cities, maybe East of Eden, Seabiscuit. And if I’m trapped, I’d probably want to find two books that are very inspiring. I’d have to think of what those would be. You’ve got me thinking about something I’ve never thought about. I hope I’m never trapped on a desert island.