Why? Why on earth has Mike Greenberg, the popular co-host of ESPN’s “Mike and Mike in the Morning,” written a chick lit novel?
The answer lies, in part, here in Aspen, and with the memory of a dear friend he lost to cancer. And the book, “All You Could Ask For,” which comes out Tuesday, offers another answer: because he could.
It’s a surprisingly perceptive, well-crafted piece of women’s fiction — at turns funny, poignant and shocking. Not bad for a guy who not only is not a woman, but is a man with a man’s-man career as a sports talk show host, best known for his preternatural skill at riffing on guy stuff with a retired NFL lineman.
“It surprised me, too, to be honest with you,” Greenberg, 45, said during an interview in his timeshare condo at the Hyatt Grand Aspen, where he and his family spent the week before the NCAA tournament began. “I never would have imagined this would have been what my first novel would be. But the circumstances just came together this way.”
The book follows three women – Brooke, Samantha and Katherine – as they’re brought together through cancer. Greenberg writes from all three of their perspectives in the first person, deftly weaving their stories together. One of them spends much of the book in Aspen, searching for what makes life worth living.
“All You Could Ask For” is Greenberg’s first published novel, but the New York native had written two before. They’re now sitting in the proverbial drawer, and unlikely to see the light of day. The inspiration for this one came at the memorial service for his friend, Heidi Armitage, who died quickly after a Stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis. At her memorial, in Connecticut in September 2009, her husband read letters honoring Armitage from women Greenberg didn’t know.
“They sounded like they were her sisters,” Greenberg recalls. “It seemed impossible to me that she would have these close friends that I didn’t know.”
It turned out that she’d met the women online on a cancer support forum. In that moment came the spark for this novel, and a way to raise money to fight cancer: “I looked right at my wife and said, ‘Stace, I’m gonna write a book about three women who meet on one of these and I’m gonna donate all the money to breast cancer.”
Thus “All You Could Ask For” was born. Greenberg began writing it in July of 2010 on a flight to Los Angeles for the ESPY Awards and finished in January of last year. All of the author’s proceeds from the book will go to the V Foundation — the cancer charity founded by the late North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano.
‘A love letter to Aspen’
Greenberg and his wife started visiting here annually 15 years ago. Now they come for about 10 days each winter and each summer with their two kids, and hope to move here full-time eventually.
His sweet spot for Aspen, where they came often with the Armitages, shines through in “All You Could Ask For.” One of its three narrators, Katherine, a wealthy Wall Street workaholic, comes here to escape Manhattan after a disastrous birthday celebration.
“I’m going to climb a few mountains, ride a few horses,” she declares before taking her corporate Gulfstream to Aspen.
She finds an unexpected serenity and fulfillment here. She indeed rides horses on Buttermilk, hits the best hikes around town, picks up a guy on Smuggler, discovers the John Denver Sanctuary, gets converted to loving the "Rocky Mountain High" singer’s music, unwinds at Jimmy’s and Peach’s, and is soon smitten by our mountain town.
“The book first and foremost is for Heidi,” Greenberg explains. “Second, it is a love letter to Aspen, which is my favorite place in the world.”
The local sections of the book evocatively capture the sense of awe and wonder that has brought vacationing pilgrims here for decades, and led so many — Greenberg among them — to fall in love with Aspen.
“When I decided to have one of the characters have a Zen kind of feel to her, it became very natural to put her here,” he explains, “because, for me, this is the most Zen place.”
On vacation here himself, Greenberg cuts the profile of a tightly wound New Yorker attempting to relax. He grows out some stubble, skis Ajax daily with the fam, and makes the rounds in town for meals and massages.
When they came here with Armitage, he’d try to keep up with her on the mountain. These days he’s working on his intermediate-ish downhill skills in the hopes of one day hiking and skiing the local Mecca of Highland Bowl.
“My goal is to ski Highland Bowl,” he told his ski instructor on a recent chair lift ride.
“My goal,” his young son deadpanned from beside him, “is to play in the NBA.”
His book showcases Aspen in summertime, and many of Greenberg’s favored trails and haunts.
A pivotal scene in “All You Could Ask For” takes place on the observation deck on top of Smuggler Mountain. To write it, Greenberg packed his laptop with him on one of his hikes up it last summer, and tapped out his first draft of the scene seated there, soaking in the vista with all five senses.
Much of the book was also written on the porch outside of his Hyatt condo. The routine of writing fiction, mixed with the outdoorsy Aspen lifestyle, helped convince Greenberg he wants to do it full-time.
“My goal in life is to move to Aspen and write novels,” he says.
He and Stacy are “tacitly looking” looking for a home here, with an eye on making the move a decade or so down the line. For now he’s committed to ESPN’s Connecticut base.
“I view how well my life is going based on how much time I’m spending in Aspen,” he says, “and I’m hoping in the future it will be a lot more.”
‘Whose ass is this?’
The book opens with a provocative hook: “Whose ass is this?”
It’s spoken by Brooke, a happily married mother of two, as she inspects her drooping postpartum derriere in the mirror. Along with grabbing the reader, this functions as a gambit announcing Greenberg will be writing from women's perspectives without pulling his punches for the next 250-odd pages.
The quotable line actually came from his wife, he says, years ago. It’s one of countless pieces of conversation he’s filed away for future use in his fiction.
“When I heard that I thought, ‘Oh, I love that line,’ and I made note of it, having no idea I’d someday be writing this book. … I thought it was the most quintessentially female thing. I’ve never heard a man say, ‘Whose ass is this?’”
The book shows Greenberg confidently inhabiting his three female narrator’s voices, but he had some help getting there. A few weeks into writing, he recalls, he had doubts that almost led him to scrap the project: “I woke up in a cold sweat and I was like, ‘What the hell are you doing? Who do you think you are? You're going to make a fool of yourself. Who is going to take this seriously?’”
So he sent the manuscript to his agent, who said it was good so far, and then he enlisted a panel of “test readers” who had two X chromosomes: his wife, his agent’s wife, and his yoga instructor.
He gave the trio an early draft, and used their feedback to hone the feminine voices in the book.
“No 28-year-old woman would ever use the word ‘blouse,”' Sarah, his yoga instructor, warned. So he took out “blouse.”
Greenberg did similar research for the medical aspects of the book, interviewing Armitage’s doctor on cancer symptoms, diagnoses and such, and having him review the manuscript.
Given the work he put into this and the risks he’s taking with it, it’s safe to say Greenberg is serious about writing fiction and “All You Could Ask For” is no vanity project.
He could have written something sports-related that’d appeal to his existing fans, but instead he followed a women’s story that chose him, and wrote a novel in the Jane Green/Emily Giffin mode.
“I want to be a writer,” he says. “I would love for people to think of me that way. I understand I’ve had the [‘Mike and Mike’] show for 14 years, and that’s why people know me, and I’m very grateful for that, but I would love to get to the point where I’m not a broadcaster who’s writing a book. I’d love to be taken seriously as a writer and hopefully this is the first step toward that.”
He’s already at work on his next novel (with a male first-person narrator). With his early morning show, he explains, he’s out of the studio by 11 a.m. and spends much of his day writing fiction and trying to follow the lead of his literary polestar, John Irving. He recalls reading Irving’s “The World According to Garp” at age 25, on a plane ride from Providence to Phoenix, and emerging a changed man:
“I said, ‘I’m going to be a writer or I’m going to die trying.’ It changed my whole life.”