Yesterday we published Part 1 of my interview with Chad Harbach, author of the acclaimed novel "The Art of Fielding". Today in Part 2, we discuss the book within the book, Chad's protagonist's magically real fielding ability, and whether Bud Selig's legacy makes it less fun to be a Brewers fan. Plus, a bonus question: Favre or Rodgers?
I am a big fan of the fictional book referenced in your novel that shares its name, which I've seen described as The Art of War for baseball. I'm going to guess that the baseball aphorisms you wrote for that were either really fun to write or really painful.
They were really fun to write. There are things you do when you're writing that are so fun to do it's almost like they're private jokes that are amusing to you but no one else is going to enjoy them nearly as much and you worry you're going to have to take them out in the end. It was a happy moment for me in the composition of the book when I showed people chunks of the manuscript which had those aphorisms in it and people said, "Those are great, can there be more of those?" I realized then that it wasn't just me who was having fun with those, and that I could do more with them, and make them a more integral part of the book. The Art of Fielding, the book within the book, became more prominent as I went along. I hadn't planned it that way. And I didn't plan at the outset that the novel was going to be called The Art of Fielding, which of course brings the book within the book front and center in a way that it wouldn't be otherwise.
How would you describe the overall importance of the book within the book?
All the characters in the book have their own favorite books. And favorite books tend to be these things that help you decide how you're going to live your life. And there are characters in the book, like Professor Affenlight and Mike Schwartz, who are much more intellectual and literary than Henry is. For Mike, it's the stoic philosophers that he's writing his college thesis about. For Affenlight, it's Melville and Emerson and these great 19th Century American writers. And for Henry, it's this strange little book of aphorisms by his favorite shortstop. He takes that book and squeezes a way of living out of it in the same way that the other characters do with their favorite books.
What's your favorite book that uses baseball to help tell a larger story, as you do in The Art of Fielding?
The book that springs to mind in Underworld by Don Delillo, which of course has that amazing first section which roams all over the ballpark on the day of The Shot Heard Around the World, and then from that opening section expands out to be about absolutely everything including trash collection and chess and everything else. That's the book I think about first when I think about baseball novels, even though it's only about baseball in a very limited sort of way.
The baseball detail in the book is very realistic with a couple of exceptions that I want to ask you about - not to criticize the book at all but just to understand it better. Henry's fielding ability as presented in the book is completely other-worldly - he's never made an error. Is that by design?
I wanted the baseball in the book to be grounded in the possible. And Henry has this errorless streak, which is extraordinary, but it's imaginable. People have said that the entire book has a sort of mythic quality to it in some way and I think that's right. It's set in the present day and it involves a lot of what I hope are recognizably realistic descriptions of the world we live in, but there is a sort of mythic quality to the school, and especially to the way that Henry plays the game. I think it has a lot to do with the way that the people who watch Henry play sense his genius, this magical quality to the way he plays the game. And I think in some of the description I'm trying to represent the way that the other characters see this magic in Henry.
The other thing I wanted to ask you about was your decision to have a player reading books in the dugout during games. This fell within the suspension-of-disbelief umbrella for me but I wanted to ask: Did you struggle with that decision?
I didn't struggle with it at all. To me, it made sense in terms of the personality of the characters involved. And I think in other parts of the book I describe the relationship between the coach of the team and Owen, the player who is reading on the bench. To me, what justifies it is that Owen has this sort of personality that he is going to go out there and do exactly his job, which is to get a lot of pinch hits, and that otherwise he is content to sit on the bench. He doesn't want anything from the coach and there's very little that the coach has to gain by yelling at him or banishing him or taking away his book. It seemed plausible to me on that psychological basis. And also, I think that a character like Owen is possible to imagine on a baseball team in a way that wouldn't be possible in a lot of other sports. Part of what makes baseball Owen's game is that it is very lazy game, where you have pockets in your uniform, and you spend a lot of time sitting around. Did Greg Maddux ever read a book sitting on the bench or in the bullpen? I think I've seen that more than once.
Wisconsin over the last decades has seen two diametrically opposed ownership situations, with the inherent conflict of interest of the Selig as owner/commissioner of the Brewers versus the municipally owned Packers. Does that alter your fandom in any way?
In the end, it doesn't much effect how you feel about a particular team. I feel just as warmly about the Brewers as I do about the Packers. But I feel strongly that the Packers are really a kind of perfect and possibly the only sensible model for sports team ownership. So much of what any pro sports team subsists on is public money in any case that the owners just seem like a bizarre, overpaid level of middle management. I wish they could just be gotten rid of and that teams would be given back to the fans in every sport and every case.
OK, I have to ask: Favre or Rodgers?
(Pained pause) This is not an answer to your question exactly because I love them both, but I will say that I never lost my love of Favre the way that I know a lot of Packers fans did. He made my experience as a Packer fan for close to twenty years and some of the crazy stuff that happened at the very end doesn't diminish that for me.
For the bonus tracks from this interview, click over to my blog.