Markovits discusses basketball, literature

After leaving Yale and pursuing his dream of being a basketball player, Ben Markovits ’96 returned to Pierson College for a Master’s Tea on Tuesday to discuss another path he has recently followed — that of a novelist.

At the tea, Markovits spoke about the dramatic career shifts — from playing basketball in Germany to reviewing books in London — that led him to author two novels. He read excerpts from his newest book, “Either Side of Winter,” to an audience of eight in the Pierson College Master’s house.

Markovits said he likes to write about dark characters who eventually move toward contentment with their lives.

“I like to write about what it is like to become happier, although no one has ever been able to spot happiness in my books,” he said.

Markovits began his debut novel, “The Syme Papers,” as a sophomore at Yale. He said he had originally hoped to continue writing while playing basketball after graduation, when he joined the 2nd Division of the South German League. His fluency in German led many people he encountered to believe that he was a native, Markovits said, even though he said they thought he was “a bit stupid” for his clunky grammar.

But Markovits said his athletic career turned out to be “a terrible mediocrity,” so he turned to writing full-time.

“My claim to fame would [have been] that I got dunked on by Dirk Nowitzki — if I hadn’t been running so hard the other way,” he said. “I needed a job that had no contact with other human beings.”

Markovits said that after his year in Germany he moved to London and eventually began writing book reviews for publications including the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.

The reviewing experience was useful, Markovits said, because he had not previously read much contemporary literature, preferring the work of Dickens. He said he found the British literary scene more lively than the American one.

Markovits said he has felt out of sync with more irony-laden authors such as Dave Eggers, and prefers to read contemporary authors such as Alice Munro, Colm Toibin and Alan Hollinghurst.

“My values are slightly more old-fashioned,” he said.

During his time as a reviewer, Markovits said, he was still attempting to get “The Syme Papers” published. It went through six drafts and was rejected by more than 20 literary agents, he said, and he included some of the rejection letters in the final draft.

Today, Markovits said, he is writing a three-part historical fiction series on Lord Byron. Asked how he approached historical material, Markovits said he does not attempt for full historical accuracy.

“I’d rather fool people than get things right,” he said.

Two of Markovits’s sisters attended the tea. One of them, Julia Markovits ’01, said her brother often formed characters out of “bits and pieces” of real people for his first novel, which sometimes got him in trouble with friends and family.

Jonathan Bernstein ’01, who said he is interested in writing, said he chose to attend the tea in order to hear an author discuss the techniques of his craft.

“It was really interesting to hear Ben talk about writing and getting into people’s heads,” Bernstein said.

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