In Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding, morning sprints and protein shakes are the stuff that dreams are made of. The book follows shortstop Henry Skrimshander, the rising star of Wisconson’s Westish College Harpooners, as one wayward throw knocks his meteoric rise off course and forever alters the lives of his teammates. Excerpted in Vanity Fair and reviewed almost everywhere, The Art of Fielding has been recieved with the critical hoopla usually reserved for literary hall-of-famers like Jonathan Franzen or Don DeLillo.
Harbach’s novel is the third to come from a founder of the literary journal n+1. It sold to Little, Brown after a bidding war involving seven bidders, eight imprints and a final price in the mid-to-upper six-figures. (The Bloomberg News headline read, “Unemployed Harvard Man Auctions Baseball Novel for $650,000.”)
True to his hometown of Racine, Wisconsin, Harbach’s a fan of the Packers, Bucks and Brewers, although his literary production has Virginia roots. Harbach used one of the early chapters of The Art of Fielding to gain admission to UVA’s MFA program, and an early version of the book as his program thesis. Last fall, Harbach moved back to Charlottesville, and did much of the late-stage revisions to his debut novel in a certain Downtown Mall coffee shop.
Over the phone yesterday, Harbach talked Melville, the writing process and the career-ruining yips.
The Art of Fielding revolves around a young baseball star’s sudden inability to field the ball, which in baseball jargon is called Steve Blass Disease or simply “the yips.” Did writing about the athletic version of writer’s block ever make you anxious about your own productivity?
I think it was the opposite, in a way. I think I was writing about writer’s block from the start, if not really intense, direct writer’s block than just how difficult the process can be. When I’m writing about the struggles that Henry goes through, certainly I’m thinking about baseball and what I know about it, but I’m also thinking a lot about my own process, and my troubles as a writer over the years.
Have you ever watched a baseball player try to play with the yips?
I did, actually, right around the time I was getting started on the book, and it made a deep impression on me. There was a pitcher for the Braves named Mark Wohlers, who had been an all-star closer until this started happening to him. It was amazing to watch. It was a road game for the Braves so there are 30-some thousand opposing fans there, and you would think that they would be cheering wildly about this guy on the other team throwing wildly and screwing up, but everyone was hushed. This guy’s pain was so apparent, and everyone was taking pity on him, but also kind of mortified. Those are emotions you usually don’t get from sporting events. Athletes do everything they can to avoid them.
The Art of Fielding always seems to return to the importance of choosing your cage, so to speak—suffering with a purpose, toward a goal of your own choosing. Is athleticism the most compelling example of that kind of behavior for you?
I think sometimes we underestimate how important sports are to American culture. I think they’ve come to fulfill a place in public life that probably used to be fulfilled by other arts. We really like our athletes, and it’s amazing the kind of devotion and dedication that professional athletes have. Even at the college or high school level, if people were out there writing with the same kind of intensity and the same structural help that our athletes have, we’d be churning out Tolstoys left and right.
Herman Melville also plays a role in your novel—a few of your characters refer to Moby-Dick simply as “The Book.” Did Ahab and the White Whale come to mind when you were dramatizing this kind of self-inflicted, goal-oriented suffering?
Absolutely. In Moby-Dick they call it monomania. Singleminded pursuit is something that relates to a couple different characters in the book. Mike Schwartz, of course, when he takes his team to the tournament because he feels like its the only thing he has left in life. That’s a case for when monomania takes over.
When did you first read Moby-Dick?
I was a sophomore in college and I took a seminar with only a few other students in it, and we just read Herman Melville the whole semester. It was one of the classes, maybe the class that made the deepest impression on me. Up to that point I had been a bit daunted by the prospect of reading Moby-Dick—people were always talking about it in these frightened and reverential tones—but then I realized what a comical and musical and brash and bold book it was. It made a deep impression on me at a moment when I was probably pretty impressionable.
All of your readers have probably seen their share of sports movies. When you were writing The Art of Fielding, did you find yourself having to avoid sports movie clichés, or was it exciting to take on the pre-game speech, the “bottom of the ninth, bases loaded” moments?
I haven’t seen that many sports movies myself, or read very many sports novels. It’s not something I’m so well versed in. Of course, you want to stay away from anything too straightforward or cheesy, but I think I found the obvious arc of the team progressing through a baseball season mostly liberating. You have this very direct line that you can riff off of and play around with. You can do all sorts of things without ever feeling that you’re just getting way off track.
So how ‘bout them Cavaliers?
Well, I did see the game that got them into the World Series last spring.
In 2004 you started the magazine n+1 with some friends, which has since become known for lively cultural critique and engaging narrative pieces. Has the operation expanded much in seven years?
We’ve been expanding but very, very slowly. I think now after seven years we’re at the point where we have two full-time employees, and are even thinking about hiring a third, whereas for the first several years we were really just scraping by. All of us founding editors were working 30, 40 hours a week, and we’ve never gotten paid, so for a while we were just trying to find the time to get the next issue out. Now we’re on a very regular schedule, and we’re also trying to get more books out.
Part of n+1’s publicity comes from the fact that many of its writers have found success outside the magazine. Do you have any favorite pieces from unknown writers that have pitched you blind?
Definitely. Issue 12, the one that’s currently in bookstores contains this long essay which I think is one of the half-dozen best things we’ve ever done. It’s about the "Gathering of the Juggalos," the yearly gathering of Insane Clown Posse fans. I mean it’s just an amazing essay, written by a guy named Kent Russell, who’s very young. This is actually his second piece for us; his first was about his experience growing up with a friend who later did several tours in Afghanistan. We just find it hard to believe that he’s only 24 or something. One of the more recent people who just appeared in the slush pile, and we knew something great was going to come out of it.