Whether on the basketball court or on the page, Kobe Bryant was a storyteller, weaving tales of passion, sportsmanship, discipline and greatness.
Through his company, Granity Studios, the late NBA legend had previously told these tales through the lens of fantasy with fictional titles like The Wizenard Series, EPOCA: The Tree of Ecrof, and Legacy and the Queen. But, before his death in January, Bryant envisioned something different: a story for young adult readers that realistically addresses the role of mental health in sports. To make it happen, he tapped psychologist and young adult author Eva Green to help him write what would become Geese Are Never Swans, which was completed before Bryant’s untimely death.
The novel, Granity’s fifth, centers on Gus, a young swimmer determined to reach the Olympics. But the recent death of Gus’ family member hangs over him, driving him to rage, and threatening to derail his dreams. In turn, he must learn to process his grief before it swallows him.
But Geese Are Never Swans does more than tell a story about mental health. It also supports Why We Rise, “a national movement to transform the mental health care system,” according to its website, by featuring works (on the cover and in the book) by young artists who are part of the organization. Plus, a resource section in the back provides contact information for two mental health organizations within the athletic community, the Michael Phelps Foundation and The Hidden Opponent, so readers can reach out if they need help.
Shondaland sat down with Clark to discuss collaborating with Bryant, the nature of grief, the duality of drive, and the late basketball legend’s literary legacy.
CHELSEA GREENWOOD: Could you tell me about the timeline of this project. When and how the idea first arose, how it evolved, and when you became involved?
EVA CLARK: Kobe and I connected in early 2017. There really was, at that time, no set idea or plot. He wanted to develop a story around mental health and athletics that was for older readers than some of the other stories he’d been working on. But there wasn’t an actual plot. I was trying to understand what was the underlying resonance he was trying to express. Trying to define that and find the narrative to fit that.
CG: So what was that resonance, that message?
EC: It’s about this quality that an athlete must possess to pursue elite-level achievement in their sport. This commitment, this drive, this sacrifice. Whatever that quality is, when is it a strength, and when is it destructive? And what is that line? Can something be both at the same time?
CG: A press release for the book said that it’s about the “punishing and healing nature of sports.” What does the book convey about that duality?
EC: For me, the ultimate takeaway from the book was this idea that competitive drive can be destructive in certain ways. However, especially in the context of mental illness, asking for help and inviting other people in is not a weakness. That’s actually a strength.
CG: What was the working dynamic like with Kobe?
EC: In the beginning, it was very collaborative. He had an initial idea, and then we were discussing and going back and forth. It’s a fun part of collaboration that you end up with something that neither person would have developed on their own. So we worked together to develop the arc, the narrative, the general plot and the characters. Then he allowed me to go and write the narrative, and we went from there.
CG: Why did you and/or Kobe choose to center the story on swimming?
EC: That was his idea. We talked about different ways to express the story. For Kobe, it would come back to these images and metaphors around swimming and being underwater and that silence of the pool and whether someone is going underwater and stopping breathing. This metaphor for what the characters were going through in the book, he definitely came up with that, and that was something he was inspired by.
CG: Are there any anecdotes or characters that were drawn directly from Kobe’s life?
EC: I don’t think so. Kobe was very insistent about exploring a family dynamic and someone not feeling like they fit in with their family — that they were a disappointment — and how that burden of other people’s judgment influenced their approach to their sport as well as their approach to their relationships with other people. We talked about not having lots of characters, and the family would be the most important part. Because people are shaped by their family dynamic, whatever that may be. So, even though one person is narrating the story, all parts of that system are important, and everybody brings their own pain and wishes into that space.
CG: One of the primary themes of the book is grief, which is relevant given the loss of Kobe, his daughter Gianna and the other victims of the crash. What do you think the book has to say about the nature of grief?
EC: The character isn’t in touch with his grief. He doesn’t understand his own process and his own healing. He doesn’t want to be in touch with it, right? He’s angry and pushing it off and expressing it in other ways. But you really can’t heal and move on until there is some sort of honest process around it, whatever it is. And grief is hard. Leaning on other people and connecting with them around their experiences and asking for support — those things are, again, not weaknesses. They’re strengths. That’s part of what caring about other people is about.
CG: Do you think Kobe was a natural storyteller?
EC: Yes, absolutely. From what I could tell, he loved stories. He was an avid reader. He loved films, and we would talk about all these different narratives and stories that we enjoyed or thought were relevant. So, yes, I think he was a gifted and natural storyteller, and he also put in the work to do it.
CG: What does Geese Are Never Swans add to Kobe’s literary legacy?
EC: I hope that he’s able to reach an audience of readers that’s new, perhaps. And I think this book is different from the other books that Granity has put out. And so I think that his legacy — I wish he were here to see it — but to see a little bit more of his range of what he had to say, the things that he valued, the messages he wanted to support, the athletes he cared about. It’s sad because there were so many types of stories he wanted to tell. So there’s a lot of grief — the grief of that opportunity being gone.
Chelsea Greenwood is an award-winning lifestyle writer and editor whose work has been featured in InStyle, Teen Vogue, SELF, Racked, Vulture, Brit + Co, SheKnows and Vice. Follow her on Twitter @cpgreenwood.
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