Jonathan Eig, who just won the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing for Ali: A Life, is already researching his next big project: a biography about Martin Luther King Jr.
“There’s a lot of new material to work with and a different understanding of King today. He means something different in 2018 than he did in 1980,” Eig said after returning from an overseas event to promote the bio about Muhammad Ali.
The Chicago author has signed with the prestigious Farrar, Straus and Giroux to publish King’s life story, the first complete biography of the civil-rights leader in 36 years.
Eig homed in on writing about King while researching Ali. “They (King and Ali) had met right before King’s Riverside Church speech,” Eig said, referring to the location of the pivotal anti-war speech made in April 1967. “I wanted to see what had been written about it and when I started looking for books I realized there hadn’t been a biography in a long time.”
Some may quibble with that fact, as there are books about King. But they only cover portions of his life, Eig told me. Taylor Branch’s trilogy of books, for example, focuses on King’s central role in the civil-rights movement. And David Garrow’s work chronicles King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “But it’s been a long time since anyone has attempted to tell King’s entire story in a single volume as I did with Ali,” Eig said.
With the King bio, Eig becomes the biographer of several of the most important African-American figures in 20th century American history.
He also wrote a book about Jackie Robinson, which focused primarily on the ball player’s first year in baseball and the impact he had on culture and politics.
“I’m just trying to find the biggest and most interesting stories I can,” Eig says. “Stories that matter the most and need more attention. And so it happens that half the books I’ve chosen have been about African-Americans. These stories have long fascinated me.”
Eig adds that he never set out to focus on writing about the African-American experience. “I’m just following my passions and interests and trying to learn and write as I go and tell stories that might make a difference.”
Along with the PEN/ESPN honors, Eig’s Ali: A Life is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in biography, the Plutarch Award for biography presented by Biographers International Organization, and the J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project.
Eig also has been traveling around Los Angeles with actor/director Morgan Freeman (Morgan Freeman!). They’re working to present portions of the Ali story in a TV series called Eight Fights: The Life of Muhammad Ali. Each episode would tell the story of a key moment in Ali’s life, centered around a fight but focusing also on the action outside the ring.
Eig is working on a documentary about Ali, too, with Ken Burns (Ken Burns!).
A Chicago journalist who studied at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern and who lives in Lincoln Park, Eig was born in Brooklyn and grew up in an all-white neighborhood in suburban Rockland County, New York. So how did a white kid from Brooklyn come to be an authority on the African-American experience?
“I’m Jewish and that also makes me feel like an outsider. Jewish people are often reminded that they share a history of oppression with African-Americans, which is one reason so many Jewish people were involved in the civil-rights movement,” he said. “For me, it’s mostly about story-telling. Slavery and its aftermath are central to our story as a nation.”