Interview with Jeff Burlingame, Author of George Varnell

27 Apr 2023

What’s the story behind the story? What inspired you to write George Varnell: The Life and Times of a Pioneering Sportsman?

Once I learned a few basic pieces of George Varnell’s life story from his family, I knew I had to write the book. I learned he was a character (and an important one) in the history of The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown’s excellent book that is now being made into a film by George Clooney. I learned he was Gonzaga University’s first basketball coach, and sports fans (and many others) know how successful that program has become. I learned he was a famous sports writer and a record-setting football referee at the highest level. I learned he was an Olympic athlete and a star college football player. It would not be possible today for one person to do all those things. Well, George Varnell did, and affected the course of history on many levels in the process.

What’s your favorite genre to read? Is it the same as your favorite genre to write?

Nonfiction. I love a well-researched, well-written, and in-depth take on something I may only have cursorily known about.

What books are on your TBR pile right now?

My book pile, as does my music list, almost always consists of authors I know or have met, or those who are telling stories of people and things with which I’m familiar. That’s a long-winded way of saying I like independent works. Lots of small-press or even self-published books.

What scene in your book was your favorite to write?

I enjoyed telling of George Varnell’s move from Kentucky—where he was a star football player and part of a national rules-related controversy—to Spokane, Washington, a then-young city that Varnell had such a profound impact upon. The scene features catastrophe, rebirth, and the laying of the groundwork for many legendary moments to follow.

Do you have any quirky writing habits? (lucky mugs, cats on laps, etc.)

I need almost complete silence. I am not one of those novelists who can take part in National Novel Writing Month and hammer out 50,000 words in thirty days. That’s partly because doing the research for the books I write involves trying to find needles in data-filled haystacks, and that takes some time. Then, when those needles (hopefully) are found, I still need to assemble them in a fashion that hopefully is enjoyable to the reader and doesn’t stall the narrative.

Do you have a motto, quote, or philosophy you live by?

It’s Marianne Williamson’s quote: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond all measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. …” It’s such a powerful way of looking at life. My not-so-poetic version: “Don’t be afraid to take risks. But always try to leave an open door behind you.”

If you could choose one thing for readers to remember after reading your book, what would it be?

My wish for readers is to always remember the impressive power of the humble human spirit. And George Varnell had spirit in spades.


Jeff Burlingame is the author of the new book George Varnell: The Life and Times of a Pioneering Sportsman

Connect with Jeff Burlingame

Author Site


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