Chad Harbach’s first novel, The Art of Fielding, was the center of a much-hyped bidding war between the so-called Big Six publishing houses in New York, an experience Keith Gessen profiled in last month’s Vanity Fair (if you like watching your money disappear, the profile’s also available in an extended edition as an e-book). Unsurprisingly, the hype surrounding the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes threatens to obscure something that’s seemingly simple, but ultimately more phenomenal: that The Art of Fielding, at once epic and intimate, is a very good book.
Harbach’s novel follows Henry Skrimshander, a shortstop playing for a small, fictional liberal arts college, as he struggles with a sudden and devastating series of failures on the field. In a review that very closely captures my own experience with the novel, Full Stop‘s Eric Jett notes, “For the first time in his life, Henry begins to ask himself why, and in the process, he becomes a symbol of writer’s block, mechanical malfunction, crisis of identity, eagerness to leave, fear of leaving, mainstream postmodernism, and more as the other characters take turns projecting their own problems onto Henry, wrestling the entropy that threatens to dispel their illusions of perfection.”
I spoke to Harbach over lunch about the novel’s structure, his writing process, and how a baseball team is like a whaling crew.
In a recent article in Vanity Fair, your friend Keith Gessen uses your story as a metaphor for the state of publishing over the past few years, which seems like a pretty common reaction. This is a bit of a stretch, but that doesn’t seem that far off from Henry’s experience — everyone around him projects their hopes and fears about the future onto him. What was the experience of selling the book like for you? Do you think it’s similar to Henry’s experience?
When the book went out on submission and I was meeting with people, I think that you could really feel, right away, that people in the industry were kind of latching on in some ways to the book, but also to the book as a sign.
When I was sending the book to agents it was the fall of 2009. At the time, I was really upset at myself for not having finished the book sooner. Obviously, the recession was in full splendor everywhere and the publishing industry seemed really depressed. People were like, “Ahhh, why do we even do this anymore!?” The whole situation seemed really grim. People would say things to me like, “If you sell your book, you’ll certainly get half the money you would have gotten 3 years ago, because that’s where the industry is at.”
And then I got a really unresounding response from agents when I sent the book out. Obviously, they weren’t that into the book, but there was also a general sense of, “Why bother trying to sell a novel into this environment?”
[Later,] I could see that people were excited about my book, but they were also excited about the excitement. Everybody kind of felt like the industry may be collectively turning the corner, and this was a sign of it.
I haven’t thought of that in connection with the book. There may be some truth to it. Of course, Henry’s plight has certain parallels to my own life, in the sense that I really think of these athletes as artists. In a way, I write about sports so I can write about writers without, well, writing about writers which is, in most instances, pretty boring.
You spent close to a decade working on the novel. Ironically, a lot of times when a writer spends that much time working on a book, the final product is pretty messy, but the structure of The Art of Fielding is remarkably regimented. How did the structure evolve over that time?
I proceeded forward very slowly – especially in the early stages too slowly.
What do you mean?
There are many reasons it took me so long to write the book, but a main one was that, when I started writing it, I had no idea how to write a novel. On the one hand, I was pretty unconfident about it, but on the other hand, I knew that I wanted to do this complex and ambitious thing. It wasn’t going to be a book that was in the 1st person, or only one point-of-view. I was ambitious, but also at a loss and under-confident about the whole thing.
For the first several years I was working on the book, I was far too willing to take whatever I was doing and [trash it.] You wake up one day and you’re in a bad mood and you just throw it aside. In fact, a lot of that stuff was salvageable or even good, but I was just in such a bad mood when I read it that I dumped it. I finally learned how not to do that.
When I started sending the book around to agents it was because I had finally gotten to the end. It wasn’t like I had written a whole draft six years prior and then torn it apart several times. I had just moved forward very slowly — I write longhand, so in my notebooks and in my computer there are millions of words, but they weren’t complete drafts.
Some parts of the shape of the book were there early on. Certainly one moment I knew I was working towards from the outset is the moment where Henry walks off the field. That’s kind of the climactic moment, in certain ways. That was the key moment. I didn’t know how exactly to get there or what exactly was going to come after it, but I certainly had that in mind.
I actually had a lot of the plot strands in mind pretty early. You used the word regimented – that doesn’t sound like a very exciting book at all!
The book just seems very carefully plotted.
I wanted the plot to be tightly structured. It was tricky because all of the pieces of the plot impinge on each other in different ways. It was a humongous math problem to do it in a way that would feel right.
What’s the advantage of writing in longhand?
I totally swear by it. I’ve turned a couple of friends of mine who have been struggling to finish novels on to longhand, and I think that it’s really been useful to them. I think the computer screen can be imposing. When I started the book, I found that what was doing felt like a sort of performance art. You have this screen, and you can see what’s on it. Then you put something pretty on it and then you get rid of part of it, then you go back and put something else that’s pretty on it.
When I write on the computer, I’m so willing to go back over what I’ve done and change it and revise it and rethink it. I just never get anywhere with it. Whereas, when I’m writing longhand, I feel like you go at the right pace. And my handwriting is just messy enough that I can’t really tell what I’ve written – I’m not really tempted to go back and try to decipher what I’ve done. It’s just easier to accumulate this pile of stuff that you can then type into your computer at some later date.
[Also,] when I’m writing longhand, I’ll find more things that are a little bit unexpected or surprising to me then when I’m working on the computer.
You write from the perspective of 4 of the 5 central characters — Schwartz, Henry, Affenlight, and Pella — but not Owen. Why not? Did you ever attempt to write from his perspective?
It’s funny, for a lot of the time I was working on the book — and this may not make any sense to anyone but me — Owen felt like the author of the book, or the presiding consciousness. In a sort of back-of-my-mind, vague way, I was thinking that, this is Owen, writing this book, putting himself in everyone else’s mind.
There were times when I wrote things from Owen’s point-of-view and I would wind up writing them in the 1st person and then think, “this is not going to work.” That would have been a different, crazier book. Looking at the book now, I certainly could of done Owen like I did the others — that would have added another layer of length and complexity. It would have been interesting. But the reason why I wasn’t doing that because he felt like this master character.
Only two characters seem to be immune from self-conscious speculation — Owen and Aparicio Rodriguez. The excerpts from Aparicio’s book, which shares its name with your novel, are some of my favorite parts of The Art of Fielding. How did Aparicio’s role in the novel evolve?
When I was in the very early stages of writing the novel, Henry had that book – he showed up at Westish with The Art of Fielding. It certainly took on a lot more importance as I went on – it wasn’t until pretty late in the game that I decided to call my novel The Art of Fielding, which brings it up out of the book. It was definitely not something that was important in my initial conception. It was just this tossed-off thing that I found really fun. I like writing those kind of things – it feels smuggled.
At first, it almost felt like one of those private jokes that you make with yourself that you make when you’re writing, just to entertain yourself. Often, those private jokes are the things that you have to cut. But in fact, when I started showing the book to friends of mine, they said, “That stuff is great! I want to read more of that!” So there was a moment where I realized I could indulge it and go with it.
And then maybe I had a moment of panic because I realized that the plot of the book was moving in such a way that [Aparicio] was actually going to have to show up. I struggled with how to do him justice, without making too big of a production of it.
A lot of the characters in The Art of Fielding are presented with a corresponding text — Henry has The Art of Fielding, Schwartz has Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.
Not only those two, but also Affenlight with his Melville and his Whitman and Thoreau. A lot of what the book is about is how people are formed by their touchstones which, for a lot of these characters are book. Even Henry – he’s not a literary guy, but [he’s obsessed with the only book he’s ever read, The Art of Fielding.]
Like Schwartz and like Affenlight, he’s been formed by his reading. There are all these philosophical books, these American Renaissance books that Affenlight loves also function as a guide to life in the same way that the Meditations or The Art of Fielding do [for Schwartz and Henry, respectively.] All of these characters are deeply formed by those things, but they also all reach a point within the book when those things are not helping them anymore.
I was talking to someone the other day who told me, “I thought that The Art of Fielding was what was going to save Henry, but then it didn’t and I was so sad!” There’s a point at which you have to transform your life in ways that are not predicted by this book has been so useful to you.
That would have made it a much tidier book, though almost certainly a less honest one. While the book is carefully plotted and controlled, it also feels open-ended. It gets at life’s messiness, without being structurally messy.
For one thing, I’m gratified to the extent that you or anyone else perceives it as being open-ended. I think it is in a lot of ways, but if I worried about anything at the end of the book it was that I was wrapping things up in a way that was too neat. Let me put it this way: I was writing the ending in a way that I felt was true to the book and what had gone before, but it was also very different from a lot of good novels of recent years, which tend to disintegrate a little more in the latter stages. In some ways, I think my ending might have been recognizable to a certain audience if I had just chopped it off at a certain point, but I wanted to let it run.
Sometimes that disintegration feels honest, but a lot of the time it comes across as being lazy, like a song that fades out instead of reaching any conclusion. I don’t come across a lot of novels that artfully disintegrate.
There’s a question of technique there. I don’t know anything about art, but say you look at a painting and you think, “Well, is this painting a mess because this person is such a great artist and has gotten to this point? Or are they just a terrible artist and they couldn’t possibly paint anything less messy.” The same can be true of a novel – it can disintegrate in ways that are just right or in ways that are just messy.
How is a baseball team like a whaling crew?
Because they’re both so gay. [laughs]
If you wanted to write a book about a baseball team, as I did, Moby-Dick is an obvious analog – there’s this large, exclusively male group. When you play competitive athletics you spend an awful lot of time – it feels like 24/7 even though it isn’t – in really close quarters with a bunch of dudes who are not necessarily your best friends. In some ways, I think it mimics the other experience pretty accurately.
The fact that you aren’t selecting the people you’re spending all that time with seems really crucial to me. You’re not brought together by shared backgrounds. From the outside it may look like a bunch of bros, but the people participating in collegiate athletics are usually pretty diverse. Baseball may be the only thing those 25 guys have in common.
I think a team of dudes is less homogenous than it might seem from the outside. If you are one of the two 3rd baseman on the team, the other 3rd baseman might be someone you might never talk to otherwise. Instead, you’re next to him all your life. And [The Art of Fielding and Moby-Dick] are, in a lot of ways, both books about how men relate to each other.
There is some tension between the locker room and the classroom in The Art of Fielding — Schwartz is both an intellectual who wants poetry on the bar juke box and a rugged leader of men. Did you struggle with the fact that your characters had to be fluent in both worlds?
Once I figured out what register the book was going to be in it wasn’t so difficult. Of course, the locker room talk in the book is not especially repulsive. …. You can find a locker room that’s a lot more eloquent than you might have thought, or one that’s [vulgar.]
The players in the locker room in the book, they get in some fights and they swear at each other, they throw some things at each other. You’re not getting the basest aspects of that experience.
You mentioned that The Art of Fielding is, in many ways, about how men relate to one another. How does Pella fit into that?
For a few reasons. One is that I hope that she provides a certain amount of perspective. The men in the book – Schwartz and Henry both – they’re young men, each very serious in their own ways. That serious is very admirable, but it’s also a little bit silly, from another point of view. I wanted to be able to include that silliness in the book a little bit, and to not just be entirely self-serious. Pella just gets airlifted down into this world of serious men who are always squabbling with each other. And she has a slightly wider perspective. Even her dad, who’s older and, in some regrards, more mature, has a very narrow focus for a lot of the book. Pella and Owen both are characters who can see a bit of the silliness that’s going on.
The other really interesting thing about Pella for me is that the other characters have these straight-forward, clear desires. In some ways that makes them good fictional characters – “I hope they achieve their goal!” – [though] I think everyone goes through that at some point in your life. At other points in your life, you just as frequently have no idea what you want to do and are just trying to grab on to something to try to begin to figure out what it is that you want to do. That’s where Pella is at. She’s really grasping around, trying to figure out what it’s like to even want to do something. I think the book would have felt a lot different to me without that experience.