The Chad Harbach Interview

July 27, 2012

The Art of Fielding was one of the most heavily-hyped novels to come along in a while, but I didn’t get around to reading it until my dad mailed me my own brand-new copy. Dad knew what he was talking about: a baseball story about much more than baseball, Chad Harbach’s long-time-in-the-making novel weaves together love stories, academic life and vivid characters to create a book that’s lovely and readable for anyone who just loves good fiction. 

The Art of Fielding is currently being made into a series for HBO. Now Harbach is working on his follow-up while he continues to edit the magazine N+1. Later this year the magazine will publish a book of essays called MFA vs. NYC, which will cover the way writers make money since the expansion of MFA programs.

What were some universities you had in mind when creating Westish, the university in Fielding?
I’m from Wisconsin and when I’m home, talking about the book, people always ask, “Is it this school? Is it that school?” Everyone thinks they know. I went to Harvard; I didn’t go to a little school in the Midwest, so I’m kind of drawing on my own college experience. I think Westish ends up being a hybrid of a schools I went to and places where I grew up.

The book took nine years to come to fruition: Did you work on other books while working on Art of Fielding? 
No, I did not. Some friends and I started the magazine N+1 in New York in 2004 so I spent an awful lot of time working on that. But I started working on the book in 2000 and more than 11 years passed between the time I conceived of it and the time it was published. That was my main focus.

Do you feel pressure to make the next one go faster, or does a book just take the time it takes to create?
Well, on the one hand, it does take the time that it takes. I know I’m not the fastest writer in the world and it will take a certain amount of time, but I also think there were certain practical reasons why it took so long; one of them was that I had a full-time job. The magazine became a second full-time job, so basically, when I was trying to write this book, I was working two full-time jobs. In some ways I’m in a much better position now to work on my second book. I am very eager to not take ten years, but at the same time you can’t force it and you can’t predict it.

What kind of research did you do to get in the head of a player who has the yips? 
Basically none! I played a fair amount of baseball growing up and I’m a fan of the game. I watched as this thing was happening to pretty good players, but I didn’t make any special effort to research it. When I first had the idea of Henry getting the yips, that was the very first germ of the book. I thought it would be fascinating to get inside the head of the person to whom that was happening. I also felt liberated by the fact that there seemed to be very little written on the subject. I was like, “Oh great, I don’t have to do any research since there’s not much research to be done.” I was basically drawing on my own experiences or making it up.

Do you think people in other fields get the yips, or is it just more interesting when someone performing in front of a big audience gets them?
I think it translates into a lot of professions  —  any profession where there’s some kind of effort and standard of success. People run into these problems. It certainly translates for writers. But it’s much more interesting when, for Henry, he has to do it for whoever wants to come and watch. When you start to break down in public, it’s very different and much more compelling than me struggling with my book, having a nervous breakdown in my bedroom by myself.

Starblind, Affenlight, Quisp, Skrimshander  your characters have such colorful names. How did you come up with them? 
A couple of the names are obviously Melville and Moby Dick stuff: Skrimshander, for instance, comes from, scrimshaw, the art of whalebone carving, and I think of Henry as a kind of artist. A lot of the names, even if they aren’t explicitly references, I was trying to imitate the rhythms of the names and the music of the language of Moby Dick.

Was it on purpose that Mike Schwartz and Owen Dunne had such basic names? 
Not everyone can have a five-syllable name.

Speaking of Schwartz, who are some of your favorite coaches, famous or otherwise?
Ah! That’s an interesting question. When I was a sophomore in high school I had a great basketball coach who was from Chicago, who was sort of like Mike Schwartz, who was really charismatic and able to bring this thing out of people. It’s a funny thing because when you’re a person who affects other people in that way, you don’t often know it yourself. You’re really helping and affecting people but it’s hard to sort of understand that from your own point of view.

How much say did you have over the cover of the book? What did other covers look like? 
The people at Little, Brown were gracious to give me a fair amount of input on it. It was actually kind of a long process. There was a long article about the book in Vanity Fair last fall that had a graphic of a lot of the rejected covers, some of which I had seen, some of which I hadn’t. My publisher was adamant about not making the cover explicitly about baseball because it’s common wisdom that nobody buys books about baseball. So they didn't want the book to be ghettoized in that way. The designer had a tough task from the outset to make a cover for a book about baseball that wasn’t actually about baseball. Early on there were covers I didn’t like that were kind of bland, like a guy standing in the middle distance looking at the sky above him, where you’re like “Gee, that’s like every other book out there that’s not very good.” Then we came around to the idea of this all-text cover and we got this very beautiful cover very quickly.

It’s interesting because while the book is about baseball, it’s also not. My dad was the one who got me to read it, but when I tell my friends that, they’re very impressed by him for being so open-minded about championing a book that also has this gay love story in it. 
That’s one reason why before the book came out, I was pretty well convinced that nobody was going to buy it because you have these two potential audiences that could cancel each other out. The people who want the baseball book won’t want to read this gay romance and vice versa. The whole time I was writing it, I was like, “This is a bad strategy.” I’ve heard from a lot of people who were drawn into it despite themselves and wouldn’t have picked something up that had that storyline. I’ve also seen the opposite where people were like, “I thought this was a baseball book but instead it’s a horrible sinful piece of trash.”

What’s the news on the HBO series?
There’s not a whole lot of an update. It’s kind of moving along very slowly and we’re at the stage of putting together a script so we’ll see what happens. I’m kind of involved in it and kind of excited about it.

What are the best ways for people to get started with N+1? What are its best representative pieces?
There are some great pieces in our new summer issue, #14, that we've also posted on the Interweb (we do that with a few pieces from each issue) — for instance, a really good essay about River Phoenix and madness. Beyond, that, well, there's so much good stuff, and it depends what you're into! People should click around.

Do you follow the Hall of Fame? Do you players who were revealed to have taken steroids be allowed in?
The whole thing is really a vexed and crazy issue. It’s really complicated. It depends on your basic policy. Like Barry Bonds: he probably had an entire Hall of Fame career before he started doing steroids. Some of these guys, you sort of can’t make the argument that they were only good enough to get into the Hall because of steroids. Same thing with Roger Clemens. A lot of these guys were already tremendous and then started doing steroids. It becomes this ethical question about whether these guys should be banned for having done what they did. Also, everybody was doing it: it was so deeply embedded in an entire culture. You’re basically passing judgment on an entire era of the game. 

What was the last baseball game you attended?
The last professional game I attended, sadly, because I’m a Brewers fan, was Game 6 of the playoffs when they lost to the Cardinals. I was so excited because it was only the third time they’ve ever made the playoffs and only the second time they’d ever won a series playoff and, yeah. I’d never been to a playoff game and last year was the year they had a legit chance and then to have them lose to our hated rivals the Cards was really heartbreaking. 

What’s a pro team you sincerely hate? |
The Cardinals.

Not the Bears?
Kind of the Bears, but the Bears are always bad. So my hatred of them has been lessened by their decade of terribleness.

How does it feel to be the 321st person interviewed for Zulkey.com/WBEZ?
3-2-1! That sounds like good luck.