Jason Kirk's "Hell Is A World Without You" book. Jason Kirk’s “Hell Is A World Without You” book.

Many people in the sports media world have experimented with outside projects. One of the most notable recent ones there is the Hell Is A World Without You novel from Jason Kirk. Kirk is currently a newsletter editor for The Athletic, but he’s also known for his ongoing work on the Shutdown Fullcast college football podcast, his past college football writing and editing work for SB Nation, and his Vacation Bible School podcast on religion with his wife Emily Kirk.

As for Hell Is A World Without You, that fictional novel is set to be released Saturday. Here’s the Amazon description of it:

Rarely has an Evangelical upbringing been depicted with the relentless honesty, wide-ranging empathy, and Superbad-meets-Siddhartha playfulness of HELL IS A WORLD WITHOUT YOU. During the time of Pizza Hut buffets, 9/11, and all-night Mario Kart parties, a grieving teenager faces a mortal crossroads: fire-and-brimstone certainty vs. forbidden love. And whether or not you’ve ever begged God to delay the Rapture (so you could have time to lose your virginity), that kid’s story is about you.

Recently, Kirk spoke to AA on this project. A release on this book said he’d been working on this for decades, and he said he started working on this even before the recent years of sports media drama, including at SB Nation during his work there. But he said the nod to even earlier was about his upbringing. He said the circa-2020 sports media disruption helped him commit more to this project, and work to incorporate experiences from others more:

“I started noodling with writing on this story probably mid-to-late 2019. And then 2020, during sports media turmoil, I found myself with a whole lot of time, like late-2020, all of 2021, to really dump a lot of time into it.

“But the decades part of that statement would refer to how much of the book is drawn from my own memories, people I know, things I’ve heard from people who grew up in similar environments that I’m sort of trying to tie together. So it’s a little bit of a nod to the fact that both a lot of time went into writing it and that writing time was referring to a lot of time spent living it.”

Kirk said this particular fiction project focused on people growing up in evangelical Christian culture was an interesting experience for him. He said it was something he lived, but something he also felt the need to check in with others on.

“It involves a lot of digging back into memories and reorienting them and challenging them and sometimes thinking about them for the first time in a long time and pairing them to the experiences of others and tying in things people have learned since then and things you’ve researched about the time period. It’s funny to have a story that is set in an environment very similar to one that you know very well, but also, like, I need to research ‘What exactly were we wearing at that time? What song was on the radio at that time?’

“It’s finding a way to take memories of not just me but also others, and to translate them in a way where they feel universal to people who were in similar environments and to people in environments that were completely different.

“The really good feeling is when someone who was in Michigan or Colorado or Orange County, or Pennsylvania, where the book is set, or Georgia, where I grew up, says ‘I felt seen by this story.’ That feels great. What also feels great is when someone in any part of the world says ‘I didn’t grow up like this at all, but now I get why you guys are like that.’ Both those things feel really, really good.”

This is one of many interesting things Kirk has been involved with over the years. He’s long been a part of the Shutdown Fullcast podcast, in addition to his previous work at SB Nation’s college football coverage and his current work with The Athletic. And that previous SBN work deserves some discussion, especially around the 2020 ebook The Sinful Seven: Sci-fi Western Legends of the NCAA.

That book, with text from Kirk, Spencer Hall, Richard Johnson, and Alex Kirshner, and illustrations from Tyson Whiting, was a remarkable pushback at Vox management claiming there was no appetite for sports coverage at that point. And Kirk said the experience of working on that was very helpful here.

“Absolutely. Looking back, that was kind of a transitional project, right? Because half of it was non-fiction and half of it was translating essentially a NCAA court case into a Wild West gang of bandits, kind of this Red Dead Redemption spinoff we did, illustrated by Tyson Whiting. That did sort of bridge between years covering sports as a journalist to doing an entire fiction project.”

He said the work there also helped reinforce the crossovers between sportswriting and fiction writing, especially in explaining needed background information.

“There were a lot of things I have learned from covering sports that translated to fiction. Like explaining how the average evangelical kid’s weekly schedule works, explaining how they’re expected to go to church five, six, seven days a week, and explaining how this denomination works, how that denomination works, things like that, all that stuff felt the same as explaining like college football conferences or why this bowl game is weirder than that bowl game or how college football worked in the 1860s versus the 1960s.

“It was all the same muscles, you know? It really was. I guess part of a project like this deals with ‘I need to get everybody into the same boat as quickly as possible.’ Two radically different perspectives, and I need everybody on the same page as quickly as possible. And I think, honestly, sports journalism trained me in a lot of probably surprising ways for how to do that.”

And Kirk said he loves seeing what his former SB Nation colleagues are up to now.

“It feels awesome. It feels great. That time for me was more of a college experience in a lot of ways than my actual college experience was. That was a lot of learning in real time how the internet works, how covering sports works, how journalism works.

“And there was so much talent in that space that I look back on all of it with fondness and pride. I have some colleagues from there at The Athletic, some on TV at ESPN. We’re everywhere, and it feels great. It feels like, in a lot of ways, and I’m not the only one who feels this, in a lot of ways, we’re very much rooting for each other. It really does feel like an alumni network.”

This particular project has a strong focus on religion, something Kirk has explored more in his Vacation Bible School podcast and personal newsletter than in his sportswriting endeavors. He said the work there did have some impact on the novel, though.

“A lot of it translated. It’s a lot of, I’m going to stress, very amateur scholarship; when I learn stuff about religion, it’s almost entirely just for fun, or for the podcast I do with my wife. Ultimately, it’s a fun experience. But all that stuff translates into writing fiction.

“I think part of what people want from this is they want an accurate depiction of a world and what it’s like to live in it. So learning about the differences in different denominations, or the music trends that are going on within that world and how those things reflect theology and reflect politics and the influence of all these cultural forces, and the history of the religion…ultimately, there’s so much information that I had to find a way to fit into the fiction.”

Kirk said this was especially interesting in trying to write a story about adolescent characters.

“I guess part of the beauty of that is when you’re writing young people, young people are naturally curious. But worlds like this are designed in some ways to stifle that curiousity, which makes them even more curious. That’s at least how I remember being a young person. So I had characters who find their way to the library to read things they’re not supposed to read, or they’re supposed to be at this church, but they sneak off to this other church and then they hear some other ideas, and now they’re squaring these contradictions.

“So I think finding ways to take the knowledge I’m drawing on by reading people who are actually smart about religion and incorporating that into the story, I guess it just makes the whole thing feel more thorough. Instead of just ‘Here’s some young people doing fun stuff,’ it’s also like ‘Well, anyone is going to learn something about religion and about America from reading this story.'”

He said the work on this novel was a nice break for him from the editing work he does at The Athletic.

“The beauty of my day job right now is it gives me focus. I work at The Athletic, I’m able to edit really great sports newsletters, and it’s like the whole editor side of my brain is devoted to that. And then the writery side, that’s like my night job. It’s a healthy split for me. It’s different from how it was earlier in my career. I would say going forward writing-wise, I do want to keep fiction going on some level.

Kirk said he would like to explore this universe more, but he does have other non-fiction projects on the go too.

“And I think this little universe I have, this little group of characters, I want to keep them going in some way. I’m probably going to jump from genre to genre, probably pretty surprisingly, and I’m not going to be in any big hurry to do that. But I have been tinkering with a follow-up. Meanwhile, I am signed with Eric Hane, my non-fiction literary agent, and if we’re able to come up with a non-fiction book project that people are into, that will probably take precedence over my fictional world until it’s completed.”

Kirk already pledged to donate 100 percent of pre-sale (pre-2/17) proceeds to The Trevor Project. That led to a $39,000 contribution last month and more to come. [Update: The eventual donation here was $56,100.]

Kirk said the Trevor Project fundraising was an important goal for him. He said his work on this was about looking at his past growing up in an evangelical world, not trying to profit from it.

“We’ve already sent them $39,000 and we’ll see after expenses and accounting how high the final number gets based on book sales. But for me, doing this project was one of the best mental health reparation jobs I’ve ever done. It was massively gratifying for me just to put this thing together, to unearth everything that was wrong with the middle of my brain and to reassess it.”

Kirk said he felt The Trevor Project was a great choice considering their work for LGBTQ people.

“I didn’t need the money from this project to also benefit me, partly because I’m very lucky to have a great career. I want that money to do something for someone else. And the Trevor Project, for me, was always the obvious choice, because so many people who grew up like me have mistreated LGBTQ people, many of whom also grew up like me.

“So to me, seeing the way some of the ways my friends within that world were treated, I ultimately decided to do something that’s referred to in the Book of Genesis, which is trying to take something that’s bad and turn it into something good.”

Kirk said he was thrilled to see how much support has come in so far. He said that fits with past support for Shutdown Fullcast charity drive efforts, but it’s still notable to see that group contribute even more.

“I’m very happy about the number. I really had no idea what to expect. You know, the Shutdown Fullcast universe, every year, it raises high six figures for refugee resettlement, largely thanks to the work of Holly and Spencer. So I knew that our listeners would be on board with supporting the project, if for no other reason than to raise money for a good charity. I don’t think I had an expected number, especially because look, I’m asking them to add that on to what they’re already going to do for refugees in just a couple months.

“But I think the way they have also responded to the story itself has been amazing. And I think how it’s starting to travel beyond just our core listeners, I’m starting to hear from ex-evangelicals and people who aren’t sports fans at all, so the response has been great. I just got a recommendation review from Kirkus Reviews, which is one of my highest goals, so that’s pretty awesome. So the response has been awesome so far.”

Hell Is A World Without You can be ordered through Amazon, Bookshop, or other sources.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.