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Author Nanci Kincaid bravely writes about sports, love, men, and Balls.

By Tracy Jones

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  Southerners don't do good silence," Nanci Kincaid says. "To us, silence is just a huge hole that must be filled up with something."

It's fitting, then, that for her highly awaited second novel, Balls (Algonquin, $21.95), this rising literary star cast her tale as a series of monologues. All the narrators, including the main character, Dixie Gibbs, are women, all have some connection to football, and although their ages, occupations, and social status vary, their conclusion is inescapably the same: it's a man's world, baby. In coming to that point, the book touches on marriage, children, the South's twin obsessions with football and race, and even works in a reference to those with "Elvis Presley syndrome"—men unable to have sex with the mothers of their children ("Does Bill Clinton suffer from it?" Kincaid is asked. "Absolutely.")

Kincaid is the author of one previous novel, Crossing Blood, and a collection of short stories, Pretending the Bed is a Raft. She is uniquely qualified to write about Dixie Gibbs, the pretty young wife of a college football coach. At 19, Kincaid married a man who would become head football coach at the University of Wyoming and at Arkansas State. When they divorced, she swore she would never date another football fan, much less someone who worked in the profession. Several years ago, she was reintroduced to Dick Tomey, head coach at the University of Arizona, who asked her to dinner.

Yep. She married him.

"We haven't been married long, so right now I have only wonderful things to say about him," Kincaid says. "But I thought, at the time, I cannot possibly do this, because it will be a signal that I'm totally insane."

The pressures on a coach's wife and family are legend, and there is no one in Knoxville, Birmingham, or a similar town who hasn't heard some of the stories Kincaid's characters tell: death threats left on the family's answering machine, For Sale signs stuck on the coach's lawn in the middle of the night.

"Wyoming was super-intense. It was almost like it is in some Southern states, where football is magnified to mean more than it really can mean."

More universal than the cult of college football, of course, is the stereotypical battle between the sexes—or, perhaps more importantly, how women battle those stereotypes in their own lives. Balls is set a couple of decades ago, but with the character Dixie Gibbs, Kincaid was trying to create a woman who is still, she says, "alive and well and living in the South."

Kincaid cites Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening, in which a woman wakes up to her authentic self, as a big influence on what she was trying to accomplish with this book.

"I wanted to write about a woman who almost makes a choice never to awaken, so that she can fill her role as prescribed by others, and be a good girl and then a good woman and then a good old lady and then dead." Kincaid envisioned Dixie as a woman "whose awakening was just insistent. At some point, even though you would rather not mess up your life by waking up, you do." In the meantime, though, that "Sleeping Beauty" persona "is a really good quality for a wife. I'm being a little bit cynical, but if your life is lost in someone else's, it seems like a safe hiding place."

Kincaid says her new husband broke down a lot of the cynicism she had been harboring about men and marriage. "But he had lived a lot and learned a lot, and he says now that if I'd met him 10 years ago, I wouldn't have liked him much. Twenty years ago, I would have hated him."

Balls reflects what Kincaid says is her own "wavering" about men's essential natures. Sometimes, she says, she is "fascinated by their closed-ness, by the depths behind that." Other times, she thinks men require no more than "some food and some television."

"I got through a spell of being—I don't know whether the word is sour, but just generally disappointed with men. Even men I liked really well as friends. Generally speaking, I hardly know a courageous man. And I know a zillion courageous women."

It occurs to her, though, that this may be because women have given men permission to be emotionally absent from their lives. "I thought, okay, this is why we have war, because men need somewhere to go where they can feel brave, because they definitely are not brave in their personal relationships. They're so frightened, always hiding up under somebody's skirt.

"I say this in the book: women have biological clocks, where they eventually stop producing eggs, but men have language clocks, where they eventually stop producing words. There is something about the middle-aged man, that he just goes silent. And I don't know if so much of his life has been given over to duty...or if he just stops knowing how happiness feels. You see a lot of men whose spirit just seems to dry up from exhaustion."

In contrast to that picture, Kincaid believes the middle age of her own life was the right time to come back to fiction. Her talent was always obvious: as a north Florida teenager at Virginia Tech, her writing was praised by her first fiction teacher, eminent novelist John Edgar Wideman.

"He was the one—bless his heart—who, without even meaning to, set me free to write about race."

The attention of Wideman and other professors was thrilling. "One of them asked me to give a reading—I had never even heard of such a thing—so he read my stuff, and I sat in the audience and listened. When you see people listening to language that is yours, there's just nothing like it, really."

But it scared her, too, because she didn't know how to integrate her fiction, with its "stamp of truth," with the good girl she wanted to be. She fled, dropping out of school and marrying.

"I thought, forget writing, I'll make casseroles. It's funny, because I think of myself as such an awakened woman, but I really see how I struggled between waking up and staying asleep."

Now, she says, she knows that "You need to write through the fear." But she doesn't begrudge herself the circuitous journey she took to arrive where she is.

"Here's the thing I'm so grateful for: writing will wait for you, if you are slow coming to it, as I was. Even when you're not writing, you're processing. Those years are not wasted—they're so much about getting ready. If you have a talent or gift in some direction, you almost can't decide not to use it."

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