It seems fitting that Nick Chiles (MFA ’22), a Distinguished Writer in Residence, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and teacher of feature writing courses, spends a lot of time outside of the classroom writing.
Chiles has spent more time writing in recent years than teaching as evident by the fact that his 21st book was just published, 13 of them co-authored with celebrities. Like many of his other books his latest, “In the Blink of an Eye: An Autobiography of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf,” is an intimate perspective into a person’s life, and this book about Abdul-Rauf hit a special chord with Chiles.
“At this point in my career, I turn a lot of stuff down,” Chiles explains. “I am teaching full time and there only so many hours in the day. But this project resonated with me and I felt it was an important story to tell.”
Chiles was very familiar with Abdul-Rauf before he took the call to co-author the book. Chiles grew up a sports fan of New York teams like the Yankees and the New York Knicks, and followed NBA teams including those that Abdul-Rauf played for—the Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings and Vancouver Grizzlies. In addition to his time as an All-American point guard, Abdul-Rauf is probably most known for his social justice stance taken in 1996 when he refused to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” before his games because he felt the American flag was a symbol of tyranny.
“In the Blink of an Eye” is one of the first books published by Kaepernick Publishing, Colin Kaepernick’s new venture, and it draws parallels with his own experience confronting controversy over his refusal to stand during the national anthem before football games.
Chiles personally related to Abdul-Rauf the same way he related to Kaepernick.
Chiles explains: “The hypocrisy of it all…that you are not allowed to take a religious stance or political stance about this national anthem in a country where citizens are so zealously clutching their chest and saying you have to honor them when you salute the flag…they were fighting for our right to be able to have freedom of speech.”
Chiles has worked as a reporter for The Dallas Morning News, the Star-Ledger of Newark and New York Newsday, where he was on a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for a package of stories about a fatal subway crash. Through the years, Chiles has co-authored books with Jamie Foxx and Bobby Brown among others, and he spends several months shadowing and interviewing his subjects in person and over Zoom.
“I try to spend time around them to get a sense of their voice and their world view,” said Chiles of the process. “I call it ‘literary ventriloquism.’ My goal is that if you were to ask me a question about what one of my subjects thinks about global warming for example or the male/female pay gap, I would be able to answer in their voice because I knew them well enough.”
He said many of the people he co-authors books with are taken aback by how many questions are asked and how detailed he gets.
“I’m asking a million questions during the interviews. It’s usually pretty emotional for people because we are probing many topics. It’s pretty much like therapy.”
The parallel to therapy is one that Chiles appreciates since he majored in psychology as an undergraduate at Yale University. He was recruited to play baseball and was bitten by the writing bug when he wandered into the campus newspaper office. From there, he rose to the job of sports editor.
Since then, Chiles has earned an MFA in Narrative Nonfiction at UGA with the goal of teaching.
“I didn’t know what to expect of the program, but it had tremendous impact on me,” Chiles admits. “I did a lot of reading in the program, which was extremely helpful and beneficial. It really forced me to study how other people do what I do and I learned a lot.”
Although he has aspirations of working with other celebrities—Stevie Wonder, Jay-Z and Denzel Washington are on his wish list—he hopes people will be inspired by the valor and courage he writes about Abdul-Rauf in the book.
Chiles concludes: “This man had this belief and he could have just as easily bent to the NBA’s will and started standing for the national anthem, but he thought that was dishonoring who he was and he stuck to his principles. I think there is something to be said for that. Convictions and strength of character are noteworthy and you have to stop and pause and learn those lessons.”
To learn more about “In the Blink of an Eye: An Autobiography of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf,” please visit local independent book retailer Avid Bookshop, or Amazon.