Shea Serrano Has a Lot of Things on His Mind

We talked to the best-selling author about movies, sports, and Selena.

Shea Serrano is a sports writer who has never stuck to sports. In fact, it’s his writing about the other things (from rap music to race to “why the raptors from Jurassic Park were misunderstood”) that has helped earn him the loyalty of hundreds of thousands of Twitter’s most enthusiastic followers. It’s those followers who have helped make his books, including Basketball (And Other Things) and The Rap Year Book, best-sellers. His latest is Movies (And Other Things), illustrated by longtime collaborator Arturo Torres. In his conversational and considered style, Serrano uses the book to, among other things, make the case for romantic comedies and weigh what the movie Selena meant to a Hispanic boy growing up in Texas. We called Serrano, a staff writer for The Ringer who lives in San Antonio with his wife and children, to talk about it.

Thanks for taking the time today. How many interviews have you done to promote this book so far?

I’ve done one or two. Not a lot.

You used to be a middle school teacher. How did that prepare you for what you do now?

You learn a lot of little, interesting truths when you’re teaching kids. You figure out that people can sense when you’re excited about something and when you’re not excited. That’s the reason my writing is always a celebration of things I enjoy. If you talk to a person about something they enjoy, it becomes contagious—you can sense that they’re excited about it. It makes you feel a little better. And in every chapter of every book or every article I write, there’s a point I’m trying to make at the end of it. By the time you get done reading it, you should know the thing that I want you to know. It’s the same when you’re teaching: By the end of this class, I need for you to know what the eight phases of the moon are. By the end of this essay, I need for you to know why the raptors from Jurassic Park were misunderstood.

A lot of writers talk about the importance of voice, but you’re someone who really has one. People can read something you’ve written without looking at the byline, and they’ll know immediately who it is. Did that come naturally to you? How did you develop your style?

I think most people have to practice. I certainly had to. I imagine there are some innately born-to-be-writers-type people who just arrived there, but for me, this wasn’t a job I thought I was going to do. This wasn’t a thing that I even knew was an actual job. Especially in the beginning, you’re just straight up ripping off other people’s style. It’s like a kid trying their parents’ clothes on, and they’re like, “This doesn’t fit right. I need to find my own thing.” It’s something that I had to actively work at, and I’m still working at it.

When you were a kid, what did you think you would do for a living when you grew up?

I thought I was going to play point guard for the Spurs. I grew up on the South Side of San Antonio. I’m playing basketball for my school and with my friends. I just thought I was incredible. I thought I was the best basketball player on the planet, because I was the best in my little idiot group of friends. And then I got to college and played with actual college basketball players, and I very quickly realized I wasn’t. They were all so much bigger and faster and stronger and smarter than anybody I had ever played with before. I should have figured it out a little earlier when I stopped growing at 5-foot-7. Confidence will get you as far as it will allow you to go.

You’re obviously very funny, but whatever you’re writing about, whether it’s movies or the NBA or rap music, you take it seriously. You put in a lot of work. Why is it important for you to take these things that other people might think are silly and treat them like life-and-death issues?

If I’m dedicating my professional life to writing about this stuff, it’s because it means a great deal to me. If something means a great deal to me, then I want to treat it with the care and respect that it deserves. It doesn’t matter if it’s a karate movie or a rap song or a music video or a basketball highlight. People put in the work to make these things, and if I’m going to talk about them, then I want to try to honor that.

You write about the movie Selena [the 1997 biopic about the Mexican American singer Selena Quintanilla, starring Jennifer Lopez] in your new book. Why did that movie resonate with you so much?

When you’re younger, a few movies become a part of your life without you even intending for them to. I remember watching the buzz for the movie Selena build up, and people were just so excited about it. I was like, “Oh, whatever. This is a movie about that one girl that we saw at a concert one time.” I didn’t understand the social implications of it until later on. I was riding past the movie theater and seeing people lined up the day before it even came out. And then, you get outside of San Antonio, or even outside of Texas, and nobody has even heard of Selena. How can this be? It’s one way in my one little part of the world, and then everywhere else it’s not that way.

I also grew up and live in Texas. She’s just a legend here. And you’re right. The farther you go outside of Texas, the fewer people who know about her. But it seems like she’s getting more popular outside of Texas, more than 20 years after her death.

That’s absolutely true. There was just the first teaser trailer for a Netflix series about Selena. She’s having a moment right now, again, because those sorts of stories and those sorts of voices are starting to be more recognized and celebrated. And we’re finally getting some people into these positions of power that can allow for these stories to be told. As soon as I saw the 214 area code on your phone call, I knew that, when you inevitably brought up the Selena chapter, we were going to have a much different conversation about it than when I see a Philadelphia area code.

This sort of ties into something else you’ve written about in the new book: representation in movies. You point out that, for example, there’s not a “Mexican Avenger.” This seems like something that’s starting to change, as you’re seeing more Mexican American stars in big movies and on television. Why is it important for people to see people who look like them in the movies?

Everybody should be able to see a movie poster and see a face on there that reminds them of themselves. I saw the trailer for the new Terminator [2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate] and saw Gabriel Luna. You’re like, “The new Terminator is a Mexican American!” I went and watched the movie and was so excited to see him just tearing it up. You watch a movie like that and you’re like, “Oh, man, this is crazy! White people have gotten to feel like this since movies were a thing.” Every movie character that you think of for 50 straight years was a white man or a white woman.

Are there any movies that you love that you’ve made your kids watch? Anything where you’ve said, “Y’all have to sit down and watch this. It’s important”?

The first one that we did that with was Bloodsport [the 1988 film starring Jean-Claude Van Damme]. The twins had to be 6, maybe 7. And I was like, “Oh, you guys like to wrestle each other. Let me show you this movie.” We watched it, and then we all pretended to be [martial artists] Frank Dux and Chong Li. It was a whole thing.

You’re from San Antonio. You’ve lived in Houston, and you’re back in San Antonio now. So, here’s a two-part question: What’s the best city in Texas, and why have you stayed in Texas?

The best city in Texas is San Antonio because that’s where I live and where I grew up. Everything that I know and love is here. We’ve had the opportunity to go to other cities and maybe chase down some other things, but I don’t know, man. You grow up in Texas and it becomes a part of you in a romantic, Tim Riggins-y, “Texas forever” kind of way.

What current NBA player would make the best lead in a romantic comedy?

This is going to be a silly answer, but it’s going to be the Joker out in Denver. [Nuggets center Nikola] Jokić. I think it would just be funny to watch him be in love, because he seems perpetually annoyed by everything, and I think that’s super funny.

Do you have a favorite book? Or any favorite writers?

I have a list of writers I admire and try to emulate. Bill [Simmons] is one of them. He was a guy who I read when I just got out of college and I was working a construction job. Chuck Klosterman. There are some younger writers. Jia Tolentino, she just had a book come out called Trick Mirror, which is incredible. Doreen St. Félix, she’s also at The New Yorker. Wesley Morris, Sean Fennessey. I’ve got a list of 10 writers in my head, automatically, who I know are 100 percent better than me. I’m just trying to chase them down.

As far as my favorite book, that’s a little harder to answer. I’ll give you one. Dream Team by Jack McCallum was so much fun to read. Jackie MacMullan has one called When the Game Was Ours. It’s about Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird. Ben Mezrich, who did The Accidental Billionaires. Oh, you know what I just thought of, because I’m looking at it right now? It’s by this guy named Hanif Abdurraqib. It’s a book about A Tribe Called Quest [Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest].

Oh, yeah, I read his collection of essays but haven’t read that one yet. Is it good?

It’s really, really good. This is what we were talking about earlier. This is a book where he just decided, “I’m going to write about this rap group that I love.” He does it in this very smart, sort of tender way that makes you realize he’s not really just writing about rap. He’s writing about a bunch of other things.

You point out that when you’re writing about movies, or you’re writing about rap, or you’re writing about sports, you’re never just writing about those things. What do you make of this idea that sports writers should “stick to sports”? Why is it kind of foolish to tell writers to do that?

Because of exactly what you’re saying. Those things don’t live separate of one another. The person who’s playing the game that you’re watching has some sort of political beliefs. The game itself—any game—usually has some sort of politics baked into it. To pretend like it doesn’t is foolish. I think it’s silly. No, you should not stick to sports. You should stick to all of the things you want to talk about.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.


Alex Macon is an editor of this magazine. Email him at alex.macon@paceco.com.

Originally Published January 2020