Friday Night Lights Was Never Like This
What has been started cannot stop. Not until it’s over.
In Eli Cranor’s searing Southern Gothic DON’T KNOW TOUGH, three people at the end of their ropes form an uneasy alliance—until it all blows up.
Trent Powers is the new coach of the high school football team in Denton, Arkansas, “a small town nestled in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains where poultry farms and trailers outnumber any other sign of civilization.” An outsider from California who bounced from foster home to foster home as a boy, Trent found it was the only job he could get after his previous coaching job imploded in spectacular fashion, and he was kicked out by the man who hired him—his own father-in-law.
Trent’s wife Marley doesn’t blame her father for it, though. She knows she and her two daughters are a thousand miles from home because her husband failed repeatedly, and she’s damned if it’ll happen again. She goes to all the games, watches all the scouting film on opposing teams: “These people will worship you if you bring them a state title…If we win, then we can get the hell out of here.”
However, all their prospects rest on the team’s star running back, “a sawed-off white boy with tree-trunk thighs, built hard and low to the ground,” named Billy Lowe. Billy is a hurricane force at football, but a boy consumed by anger: anger at all the people who laugh at him; at his unstable mother; at his mother’s abusive boyfriend Travis, who teaches Billy lessons by putting out cigarettes on his neck: “Just stared at Him when He did it. No way I’s gonna let Him see me hurt. No way. Bit a hole through the side of my cheek, swallowed blood, and just stared at Him.”
It is only a matter of time before that anger explodes, putting a teammate in a wheelchair. “If you don’t put a collar on that boy,” warns the principal, “he’ll tear your whole world apart, one piece at a time.” Instead, Trent takes Billy into his own home, much to Marley’s trepidation. He is hoping to protect him, but nothing can protect any of them when Travis is found murdered.
With rumors spreading like wildfire, sides being picked, and the authorities preparing to come down hard if they can find the evidence, everybody is fighting to survive, but not all of them will succeed. Billy is trying to see a way forward. His mother is trying to keep her head above water. Trent is trying to save Billy, save his job, save his faith. Marley is just trying to save her family.
But they are all hiding secrets, and no one is prepared for what’s about to come next.
You won’t be, either. This is a stunner of a novel about sports, about character, about bravery and betrayal and desperation; a propulsive story grounded in grit and authenticity; a dark novel filled with humanity.
Author Eli Cranor knows what he’s talking about. He played quarterback at every level, from peewee to professional, the latter in Sweden, and then for five years he coached the Russellville, Arkansas, high school team. It all provided fertile ground for DON’T KNOW TOUGH.
“Ah, man. I can’t tell you how many people have read this book and then given me that weird side eye. Like, maybe they’re not too sure about me anymore,” he says. “The truth is, so much of this story comes from my experience as a player and a coach. That’s what I drew from to make the narrative feel as real as possible. But the story—the murder, the mystery—all of that is fabricated. I promise!
“I was a lot like Billy as a player. I played pissed off, which wasn’t at all good since I was a quarterback. I really let my emotions fuel me. Billy’s the same way. Football is a release for him, a way for him to express the pain he endures at home. Trent’s indecisiveness, his tendency to be a zealot—that was me at my worst as a coach. Billy’s voice came naturally. That was where the whole book started. Everything just flowed when I wrote Billy’s chapters, no matter how brutal and dark they were. It was different with Trent. I bet I rewrote his scenes at least ten times. I think that’s because Trent was too close to home.”
Asked what it was like to coach instead of play and how he ended up in Sweden, Cranor says, “Coaching is nothing like playing. Nothing. It’s so much more work. So much more of a commitment. My daughter was born at the end of my fifth season. I realized how much I’d be away from home. How much I’d miss her. So I quit coaching and started writing seriously.
“Sweden, though, was a blast. There are professional and semi-pro American football leagues all across Europe. I was dead set on getting an MFA right after I finished up my college career, but then Sweden came calling. Probably the best decision I ever made because I don’t think I would’ve ever coached high school ball without Sweden. And as a result, I would’ve never written this book.
“This novel started off as a short story. I wrote that story while I was still a coach, back around 2016. I just heard Billy’s voice, talking about that burn on his neck, and then I started writing. I started the story on my lunch break and finished it the same day during my prep period. It was like riding a wave. That story ended up winning an award. It got way more attention than anything I’d ever written before. So I figured I should try and make it into a novel. It was my first attempt at anything thriller-ish, though. That really showed at the end of the book. My first draft had a SWAT team and this crazy shootout. The ending is much cleaner now, thanks to the help of so many people much smarter than me.”
Cranor has also written a lot of short-form nonfiction—columns and pieces for a multitude of newspapers and magazines. Did any of that affect the way he approached his novel?
“Not really. I was writing fiction long before I was doing any of that journalism stuff,” he says. “Honestly, the nonfiction came about during the dark ages. All that time while I was writing short stories and failed manuscripts and getting rejected over and over again. I just wanted to see my name in print. I wanted to start moving. So I turned to journalism for a bit. I still do quite a bit of nonfiction stuff. In the end, I just like to work. I don’t idle well. I’m always looking for a project.
“Everything in my literary world started with Larry Brown. I watched his documentary (The Rough South of Larry Brown) in college. I was already in a creative writing class, but that documentary changed everything. Larry just laid out the writing gig in such a workmanlike manner. He has this great line in there, ‘You can have it if you’re willing to hurt bad enough.’ I was also a
big fan of Ray Bradbury early on. Bradbury has the quote about not being a writer until you’ve written one million words. I really took that to heart. Kept up with my word count, and believe it or not, right when I hit one million, I wrote the first chapter for DON’T KNOW TOUGH. Other writers who have influenced my style: Elmore Leonard (I’ve read all his novels, some more than once), Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, and Jack Butler. The Drive By Truckers, Jason Isbell, early Jimmy Buffett, John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Harry Chapin—those are some influences outside of literature.”
Further influences inside literature came from another of his journalistic enterprises—a regular series called “Shop Talk” for CrimeReads in which he quizzes established crime writers about just how they do what they do.
“It changes something in my process every time I do one of those interviews,” he says. “I try and treat writing like football in a lot of ways. What I mean is, coaches are all the time trying to find ways to get better. They’re calling other coaches and comparing notes. That’s how I treat those ‘Shop Talk’ columns. I’m always trying to learn. Rachell Howzell Hall taught me to google the hell out of an idea before committing to it. See if there were any real-world examples of how it played out. She said it was like tracing. I loved that. Michael Koryta prints his pages off at the end of every day and reads over them first thing before he gets going. He also has a bell he rings over his office door if he hits his daily quota. I’m looking for a bell right now.”
Cranor’s own process “changes for every book. My good pal, Ace Atkins, said something like, ‘I do whatever works for the book I’m currently writing.’ And that’s really where I am now. Some ideas need an outline. Others just need room to run. Some books I’ll write longhand. Others I have to type as fast as I can. I do try to write every day when I’m drafting. I generally aim for anything over a thousand words. I listen to Miles Davis’s album, Kind of Blue, on repeat while I’m writing. Been listening to that same record for going on six years now. I don’t have one particular writing place or time. I can’t, really. I’m a dad to two kids under the age of five, and I’m a full-time public school teacher. Like Jerry Spinelli once said, ‘I write in the cracks.’”
Those cracks provided three other novels “that will hopefully never see the light of day. DON’T KNOW TOUGH was the fourth manuscript I’d written. I finished the first draft and had it clean enough to start submitting in 2017. I queried for a few months and landed an agent by Christmas. That agent really helped shape the book, but never got around to sending it out. I left him after a year, polished the book some more, and then started querying again. By the start of 2020, I had 28 full manuscript requests. Over those three years, I’d collected more than 200 rejections. I really thought this was going to be it. Somebody would take it! And then, well, you know what happened by March of 2020. The pandemic blew up, and New York City shut down. I’m not sure if that’s why all those agents bailed, but it sure felt like it.
“I was about to give up on the book, but a good pal and fellow author by the name of William Boyle read it and pointed me in the direction of Soho Press’s Peter Lovesey First Crime Novel contest. So, yeah, I submitted the manuscript. Totally forgot about it. Wrote a kids’ zombie book. I self-published Books Make Brainz Taste Bad in the heart of the pandemic. It was just this crazy idea about zombie teachers using screens to fry kids’ brains. Like, ‘deep fry,’ so they could eat them, of course. It was a lot of fun to write, and even more fun to share with kids. It’s all a thinly-veiled message about the danger of screens. I have two kids. I’m a teacher. I watch kids turn into zombies every day. In Brainz, the only way the kids can save themselves is by reading real books, because, well, books make brainz taste bad! And I believe that, with my whole heart. Real books can save us.
“Anyway, I was making the rounds to all the elementary schools, doing presentations on Brainz when Juliet Grames at Soho called to say Peter had chosen DON’T KNOW TOUGH. I was in shock for at least a week. I think I still am.”
Next up for the author: “Because of that nice long odyssey and my strict adherence to Bradbury’s million-word rule, I have a couple of books already finished up and ready to go. One is loosely based on a junkyard murder in my hometown. The other is (hopefully) the start of a mystery series I’m pitching as Knives Out meets The Blind Side.”
Which one will win out? Keep an eye on the scoreboard.
Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the executive VP, associate publisher, and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. He is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among his authors of crime and suspense were Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, C. J. Box, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Jack Higgins, W. E. B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Randy Wayne White, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and Carol O’Connell. He also worked with such writers as Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, Martha Grimes, Ed McBain, Carl Hiaasen, and Jonathan Kellerman.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet.