Chad Harbach spent ten years working on his debut novel, The Art of Fielding, published this fall. In Keith Gessen’s Vanity Fair article, “How a Book is Born,” Harbach’s co-editor of the literary magazine, n+1, says the book created such a literary stir that there was a bidding war. Harbach supposedly received a $650,000 advance for his “baseball” novel set in a fictional liberal arts college, about five characters, including a Herman Melville loving academic, a gay baseball player and a remarkably talented shortstop who comes down with a very serious psychological block. As I wrote in my review of the book, "It’s the kind of loveable, readable novel that could well loiter upon many a Staff Pick’s table for years to come."
The Indigo Blog sat down with Mr. Harbach to share some dim sum and learn a little something about The Art of Fielding and the Harvard alumnus behind the book.
Indigo Blog: With all the success you’ve had, the Vanity Fair article,so many positive reviews, I have to ask, how does it feel?
Chad Harbach: Everything that’s happened in the last few months has been so overwhelmingly good, I’m almost ashamed.
IB: Looking back, the article talks of how so many of the people around you were having success, publishing or getting good jobs, while you were still years away from even publishing your first book. How do you persevere through ten years?
CH: Earlier on when I started the book I was in my mid-twenties, I was constantly thinking am I really cut out to be a writer? Wasn’t I actually better at math in school. On the one hand I always felt that I had a really good idea for a novel. If I could ever pull it off it was going to be good. I think when I started writing I started with the baseball thing.
IB: One of the ball players in the novel suffers from this unusual syndrome specific to baseball known as the Yips or Steve Blass Syndrome [ in which a player loses the routine ability to throw the ball accurately]. Why make this a central plot point to your story?
CH: Because on the one hand it’s this intensely private, psychological, existential kind of thing, a description of inferiority that the novel could be really good at. On the other hand, because he’s an athlete – you could dscribe the same sort of thing for a writer who has writer’s block, but because he’s an athlete it takes on this kind of really dramatic and public, sort of spectacular psychological interiority on the one hand, and drama on the other. Also no one had ever done it. The only thing was this essay by Roger Angell from the New Yorker from the 70s, which is a very famous and very good essay. But Angell kind of throws up his hands but doesn’t try to figure it [the syndrome] out. A good piece, but he fails to get inside of it. I didn’t want to write a book just about baseball.
IB: How do you muster the confidence to believe you’ll find a fiction readership out there interested enough in baseball, but then also interested in the history of Herman Melville, and a gay love story thrown in?
CH: To be honest I thought this would be a huge problem when it came time to try and sell the book, baseball on the one hand, gay on the other hand, academic on the other hand. You’ve pretty much excluded everyone who might be interested in this book. So it was not clear to me that I was writing something that was going to be commercially viable because I thought these things would really cancel each other out. The people who read a sports book don’t want a gay relationship in their sports book and vice versa. I was like, well I want to read about all these guys – that’s why I didn’t go to the process of selling the book with a whole lot of confidence. I thought the book was pretty good but I didn’t know anyone would want to sell or buy it.
IB: Speaking of academic and gay, Owen Dunne is a particularly interesting character. He’s gay, erudite and a baseball player. On top of that he has all sorts of great quirks, like how neat and tidy he keeps his dorm room. Can you tell me about the genesis of that character?
CH: Owen is, in very sort of limited and kind of funny ways, based on one of my college roommates, but only in a way that nobody would recognize, except one or two of my other friends from college. He’s not black, he’s not gay. He played volleyball and not baseball. All along I was imagining Owen as – in a kind of oblique way that probably makes no sense to anyone but me – imagining him as the kind author of the book, or the presiding consciousness of the book. I could imagine the book being written by Owen 20 years later.
IB: There’s the wonderful detail of Owen having guest towers in his dorm room closet. Was that based on something your college roommate did?
CH: Yeah, he was a sort of computer genius and a very sort of gentle and fastidious guy. So there are a few elements of Owen’s temperament. No one in this book has to do with any actual person. That’s not how I think when writing fiction.IB: In one way or another each of the five central characters in The Art of Fielding is confronting some sort of failure. What interests you about this?
CH: You have these characters who have these goals that are being thwarted. Henry wants to go to the pros, Shwartz wants to go to law school, Affenlight has a more romantic goal and then Pella is the character whose failure is behind her. So she actually doesn’t know what the goal is. Just fumbling forward to figure out if she even wants to have a goal. In some ways it’s easy to have a character who has a goal. If you just have a book with grand desires that get thwarted, it’s repetitive but also kind of just cheesy.
IB: And yet despite so much “failure” the novel never feels bogged down in darkness or cynicism. Were you consciously trying to make the book light?
CH: There’s a basic tension in my personality which is mostly pretty sanguine and then my kind of fears about politics and the world, which are profound. This book probably stays toward the cheerful end of the spectrum. But I didn’t intend it that way. I didn’t necessarily think of the book as light. I don’t think that was part of my own conception of it.
IB : The Art of Fielding is set at the fictional liberal arts college Westish. Does this connect with your experience of university?
CH: The college is based on my experience, though I didn’t go to school in the mid-west. Also, I didn’t necessarily like it all that much. The difficulty of Henry’s transition to Westish from this little town in South Dakota - that definitely mirrors but also deeply understates the difficult of my transition growing up in Wisconsin, going to Harvard. I felt totally at sea for a couple of years.
IB: Who are some of the fiction writers you admire?
CH: Contemporarily, Philip Roth, Wallace and DeLillo, Jon Franzen, Norman Rush, Deborah Eisenberg, one of my favourite writers. She only writes short stories. All equally beautiful and wonderful. A gorgeous prose writer. Twilight of the Superheroes [for example].
IB: Finally, do you have any sports novels you love?
CH: There aren’t that many sports novel I like that much. My two favourites are Infinite Jest, which is only like one third about sports, but the sport [tennis] is pretty fantastic, and one of Don Delillo’s lesser known novels about a college football team called End Zone, which I really recommend. It’s his funniest book.
Thank you so much to Chad Harbach for taking the time (and sharing the short ribs).