It was the final week of the baseball season when I started reading The Art of Fielding – Chad Harbach’s debut novel. Through and through a Red Sox fan, I had tickets to the last game of the season, in which they faced the Orioles in Baltimore. By the time of the game, the Sox had squandered their 11-game Wild Card lead with which they had entered September. The crowd at Camden Yards – filled with anxious Red Sox fans – erupted on the news that the Yankees hit a grand slam against the Rays (who were tied with the Sox for the Wild Card). It was probably the first – the only – time any of us had ever knowingly cheered for the Yankees. Then it started to rain, late in the game, with the Sox ahead. When the rain finally settled, we had news that the Rays had caught up and taken the game into extra innings. All we needed was for them to lose; and we’d at least have a one-game playoff, if not a direct path to the postseason. Instead, the Sox blew the lead in the ninth inning with two outs; our beloved Papelbon giving up the winning run at the exact moment that the Rays blasted a walk-off home run; sending the Sox packing for the winter.
I retreated home and found some refuge in The Art of Fielding. It was almost as if Henry Skrimshander was sharing my pain. I stayed up until nearly 2AM, unable to put the book down. When I woke up the next morning, I was sad; not because the Red Sox had gone back to their old ways of disappointment, but because there wasn’t any more of The Art of Fielding left to read.
This novel is about coping with expectations. Henry Skrimshander, an enormously talented young shortstop, loses his gift for fielding on the day he is expected to break the collegiate fielding record of his hero, Aparicio Rodriguez. Simultaneously, Henry’s mentor, Mike Schwartz, is receiving a string of rejection letters from law schools; the president of the college, Guert Affenlight, struggles with an elicit relationship with a student; and his daughter Pella dismantles her marriage to a well-respected architect.
For those of us who love baseball, and those who don’t, The Art of Fielding is a powerful book that makes us forget about our own world for a little while, and then deposits us back with new perspective. Truly a must-read. — Andrew K.
Cobalt: You spent a lot of time working on this book, reworking it, shopping it. Now you’re placing near or at the top of many “best of” lists. How has this shift taken place, and has it fully settled with you?
Chad Harbach: It’s settled pretty well with me. I’m thrilled that so many people are reading the book, and I’ve enjoyed being able to travel around and hear what they’re saying about it, and to let them buy me drinks, or vice versa. Beyond that, you just have to say good-bye and get back to work.
Cobalt: One of my favorite themes in this book concerns Herman Melville. The Wisconsin college town of Westish has adopted him as something of a mascot, named their sports teams “the Harpooners,” erected a statue of him, etc. And the narrative is laced with nautical terms, metaphors, and descriptions; even the main character’s name, “Skrimshander,” feels like the name of a whaling captain. How conscious of this were you as you wrote, and what devices did you employ to keep it from feeling gimmicky?
Harbach: Many basic features of the book, like the characters’ names, and the way the campus is steeped in Melville, have been around for ten or eleven years now. So I haven’t been conscious of them for a long time; they faded into the background long ago, and became given parts of this world I was trying to inhabit.
Cobalt: In the time since you began writing The Art of Fielding, how has the book changed? How has the book changed you?
Harbach: It’s hard to say. On the one hand, the book changed immensely over the years; on the other hand, it’s very much become the book I had in mind in the very earliest days.
One thing I find interesting about the book is that it was conceived and begun by a very young person; and then it was finished and revised by a not very young person. This gives it a hybrid quality that’s pretty apparent to me, a kind of half-youthfulness.
Cobalt: What led you to write about Steve Blass Disease/Steve Sax Syndrome?
Harbach: What fascinates me about baseball is that although it’s a team game, each player on the field is out there all alone. Pitcher, batter, fielder: each has a very specific and lonely job to do. Mistakes are magnified. That makes baseball a tremendously tense game, psychologically, and Henry’s condition—which has afflicted so many talented real-life ballplayers, from Blass to Chuck Knoblauch to Rick Ankiel—is the ultimate example. The mind interferes, and you have to fight against yourself to perform this task that you’ve been performing effortlessly since you were a kid: throw the ball.
That battle strikes me as analogous to what other types of artists go through, in fighting against writer’s block, or stage fright, or other, more diffuse kinds of self-doubt. For a baseball player, it plays out in a very public and dramatic way, which makes it fun to write about.
Cobalt: Your new hometown team, the Boston Red Sox, had a monumental crash at the end of this season; your original hometown team, the Milwaukee Brewers couldn’t follow through on a great season; and then Henry Skrimshander’s St. Louis Cardinals capped off an unlikely season with a meteoric rise to World Series Champions. Are you superstitious enough to credit The Art of Fielding with these events?
Harbach: No, no! I don’t credit the book with the Cards’ victory; if I did, I’d just be upset, and my friends from Wisconsin would disown me.
It’s funny, during the playoffs, I saw several people saying things on the internet along the lines of, “I just read The Art of Fielding, and now I’m rooting for the Cardinals!” Which was both flattering and maddening, because I’m a lifelong Brewers fan, and there’s nothing a Brewers fan likes less than a Cardinals win. There’s a long history there of distaste and, on the Milwaukee side, disappointment.
Cobalt: Are you planning a second book?
Cobalt: How did you come to write the aphorisms in Aparicio Rodriguez’ The Art of Fielding – the fictitious handbook that gives your novel its name? Will we be seeing this in our local bookstores anytime soon?
Harbach: I’d always considered the book-within-the-book as a fairly small part of the novel. But when I decided to call the whole shebang The Art of Fielding (which happened pretty late in the process), Aparicio’s book took on a new resonance, I think.
I had a lot of fun making up those aphorisms, but I’ve only written about a dozen, and there are two-hundred-some in Aparicio’s book, so it probably won’t be hitting stores anytime soon.
About Chad: Chad Harbach is a cofounder and coeditor of n+1. His first novel, The Art of Fielding, was a New York Times Top Ten Book for 2011.