Tim Crothers, a former Sports Illustrated senior writer who also occasionally writes for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer, is the author of the recently released The Queen of Katwe. The story, which Crothers first wrote about for ESPN The Magazine, tells of an illiterate teenager from the slums of Uganda who became an chess champion. It was a National Magazine Award finalist and has been optioned by Disney films. Crothers answered questions supplied by Senior Sports Editor Gary Schwab.
Q. The Queen of Katwe developed out of an article you wrote for ESPN The Magazine. Where did the original idea come from?
After a speaking engagement in March of 2010, a man in the audience approached me and said he had a good story idea for me. As a journalist, its my job to hear him out. I know that 999 times out of 1,000 that situation leads to a story about his Uncle Ned catching a big fish. But the other time it becomes a book.
Q. What intrigued you about the story of Phiona Mutesi?
What writer doesnt enjoy writing about the underdog? Phiona is the ultimate underdog. An illiterate Ugandan girl from the slums who dreams of becoming a chess grandmaster. You cant make that up. You dont have to have a natural passion for Africa or chess to be inspired by what this courageous young girl is accomplishing.
Q. Give us a brief description of the world in which Phiona lives.
The Katwe slum where Phiona lives is one of the most impoverished and dangerous places on earth. She is surrounded by crime, famine and disease. Her home is a decrepit one-room shack. There is no electricity or sewer system. She scrounges to eat one meal a day, which usually consists of rice or porridge. Frankly, her biggest challenge each day in Katwe is just trying to survive to live the next one.
Q. What brought her to chess?
When Phiona was 9 years old, she met a man named Robert Katende, another product of the Ugandan slums, who taught her the game as part of a small chess program that he runs in Katwe. Phiona had never heard of chess, but when she saw other children playing the game and how it made them happy, she desperately wanted a chance to be that happy.
Q. Youve done books on coaches before Anson Dorrance (North Carolina womens soccer) and Roy Williams (North Carolina basketball). How does Katendes approach to teaching and motivating compare?
All three coaches like to use their unique life stories as inspiration to their players and all are wonderful storytellers. While Dorrance and Williams have used the power of their personalities to motivate, Katende is more of a nurturer. The children he mentors would not react well to a show of temper because many of them have been abused by their families. All three coaches have been father figures at times as well.
Q. You have written about world-class athletes for many years. What did you see in Phiona that was similar to others, and what was unique?
Like every elite athlete Ive ever interviewed, Phiona is a powerfully driven individual. She routinely walks 10 kilometers a day to play chess and will often practice for six hours or more. She is different from many American athletes in that she has no ego. No swagger. A Ugandan girl wouldnt understand the concept of psyching out an opponent.
Q. How has chess changed Phiona?
Before she found chess, Phiona had never left the Katwe slum. She didnt know anything about the outside world, but she assumed that everybody else in it lived exactly as she did. Then in 2009, she earned the opportunity to play in a tournament in Sudan and boarded a plane for the first time. She has since traveled to Russia and Turkey for chess events and has learned that other people live a more comfortable life than she does. I think that has motivated her to continue to improve her game so that she might have a chance to live a better life as well.
Q. What are Phionas biggest accomplishments in chess?
After being introduced to the game at age 9, it took Phiona just two years to become her countrys female junior national champion. Then in 2009 at age 13, she teamed with two male players from the Katwe chess project to win the International Childrens Chess Tournament in Sudan. As a 16-year-old, she traveled to Istanbul in September and competed in the Chess Olympiad, the most prestigious team chess tournament in the world. Phiona won three games there to earn the title Woman Candidate Master, thus becoming the first titled female player in her nations history.
Q. What does she think about a book being done on her life?
She has no concept of it. I am told that Uganda is not a reading culture, so the book will have a bigger impact in America than it will in her country. Phiona has seen the book, but her English is not advanced enough for her to read it and I truly believe that she doesnt understand why anybody would be interested in reading her story, because she simply cant grasp why it is so extraordinary.
Q. What is the moment in your reporting that you will never forget?
Early on, hearing the story of the night Phiona returned from Sudan as an international chess champion. When she was asked about the first thing she would say to her mother, Phiona said, I need to ask her, Do we have enough food for breakfast? That was a healthy dose of perspective that I carried with me throughout the two years I worked on this remarkable book.
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