GQ Interview with Art of Fielding author: Chad Harbach

Below is an excerpt from a September GQ interview with Chad Harbach. He has an interesting story. For the full interview click here.

In Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding, the tribulations of a star shortstop at a small liberal arts college take on a Herculean feel. A victim of a sudden and inexplicably wayward aim, Henry Skrimshander must contend with the disappointment of failure even as his team rises to new heights.

Harbach’s novel, 10 years in the making, has been receiving advanced praise as one of the best debut novels in years, and gets the kind of huzzahs from publishers and industry insiders normally reserved for work by those heaviest hitters of contemporary fiction, guys like Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace.

Seated at a table in a DUMBO breakfast nook, all glass and stainless steel, Harbach and I ordered a couple of burgers and Five Points and talked about the way things were, the way they’re going to be, and how he got to the precipice of fiction fame.

One of the founders and an editor of the literary magazine N+1, Harbach is—like the Westish College Harpooners, the baseball team for the fictitious land grant in The Art of Fielding—an athletic guy, barrel-chested and uncommonly fit, especially given most writers’ penchant for bourbon-drinking marathons over actual running ones. Originally from Racine, Wisconsin, about 20 miles from Milwaukee, Harbach’s sporting passions have long centered on the Cheesehead triumvirate of Packers, Brewers and Bucks. It was growing up in Racine where Harbach fell in love with baseball.

GQ: Which is your sporting passion?

Chad Harbach: It would have to be the Brewers. When I was five and six years old, in 1981-82, the Brewers made the playoffs. Harvey’s Wallbangers. In 1982, they really, really should have won the World Series and had pretty clearly the best team in the league and were up 3 games to 2 in the World Series and lost to the Cardinals. Obviously, I remember all of this quite well. I was six, but …

GQ: Do you think things have irrevocably changed since those days?

Chad Harbach: I don’t think that the guys have changed. In the early 1980s, you have to remember, too, that was a time before big contracts. I remember guys like Ryne Sandberg started getting contracts for like $6 million a year and this was huge news.

I think some of those players from an earlier generation are revered for being more of the “common man,” but you are more of a common man if you’re making $750,000 a year than you are if you’re making, say, $18 million…plus endorsements or whatever else.

GQ: Kind of ends the ‘common man’ thing, I suppose.

Chad Harbach: You don’t have to even see the common man anymore if you don’t want to! Only through the telescope on your yacht.

GQ: I often feel there’s a temptation for fans to get cynical about the state of things, especially in professional sports. Did you feel any of that cynicism in writing the book?

Chad Harbach: I think that’s a whole set of things which I, to a large extent, didn’t have to deal with in the book because these are college guys who didn’t even have scholarships. So they really are in the category of guys who are just playing for the love of the game.

I wouldn’t say that “cynical” is the right word. Because “cynical” seems sort of negative. In fact, there’s a lot to legitimately hate about pro sports and the way they are conducted. As opposed to “cynical” I think it’s sort of spot-on to notice that stuff and point it out.

I think it’s very hard right now to be a pro sports fan. The economics of this stuff is abysmal. I’ve read some articles recently that were very smart. In the NBA, for instance, why do you even need owners of NBA teams? The municipalities pay for the stadiums, and the players play the games, why do you need these rich guys who just complain and then make a 500% return on their investment when they decide to sell the team. What do they even bring to the table?

With my Green Bay Packers, they’re municipally owned. And since then, the NFL has put it explicitly in their rules that no other team can be owned like that because it works too well.

GQ: What was the genesis of the book, the first kernel that got you started? Was it baseball?

Chad Harbach: Well, there are lots of things in the book besides baseball, but the baseball aspect was the first thing that occurred to me. At the center of the book is a shortstop who attends this kind of dilapidated liberal arts school that doesn’t have a very strong athletic program, but over the course of his time there he’s become this incredibly good shortstop and player. As the book opens, he’s on the verge of getting drafted and making a bunch of money. He’s on the verge of really realizing his dreams. But just as all this good stuff is about to happen to him he develops what baseball folks have come to know as ‘Steve Blass Disease.’

GQ: The ‘yips’. Like Chuck Knoblauch.

Chad Harbach: He gets the yips, yeah. So in a sense that was the original germ of the book was a shortstop who gets Steve Blass Disease, a psychosomatic inability to throw the baseball. I just find that incredibly fascinating. At the time there was a spate of guys going through that around the same time. Knoblauch was getting moved from second base to the outfield, Rick Ankiel from the Cards.

And the one I actually saw at a Brewers game that was really disturbing to watch was Mark Wohlers. The year before he had been the best closer in baseball, throwing 100 [miles per hour] and what have you. And this had happened to him and the Braves were trying to bring him back, putting him out there in these sort of innocuous situations to try and build up his confidence and he would come into the game and was just firing them to the screen. And the thing is, it’s really painful to watch.

GQ: It’s so public.

Chad Harbach: Very public. And here’s a guy trying to face down his innermost demons, but he has to do it in front of 40,000 people.

And this game against the Brewers, [Wohlers is] throwing wild pitches and guys are running around the bases and scoring runs and no one is cheering at all. Everyone is just kind of aghast because you can just see how bad it is for this guy. There are a lot of emotions in sports, but very rarely do you see that kind of emotion at that level.

GQ: Pity?

Chad Harbach: Pity, yeah, I think that’s a lot of what it is because pity is not supposed to be a part of sports, so it’s really got to be a kind of extreme situation for that to enter in.

And the guy is out there all by himself and he has to do this. It’s like watching a little kid freeze up in a school play or something. He’s just out there, alone, and he just cannot do it.

GQ: Who are your favorite, or most influential, writers? You may as well get used to this question.

Chad Harbach: I know. I’ve already gotten it a few times. One thing we haven’t touched on is that [The Art of Fielding] has a lot to do with Moby Dick in certain ways. Westish College’s sports teams are called the Harpooners. And the conceit is that Melville, in his 60s, came and gave a speech at Westish College and they kind of oddly and self-servingly adopted Melville as their school mascot even though it’s the Midwest and Melville had nothing to do with the Midwest.

GQ: Obviously Moby Dick had a huge influence on you, then.

Chad Harbach: Huge. It’s probably my favorite novel. Just the beauty and power of the language in that book. I think people have the wrong idea of Moby Dick as this somber, boring thing. But in fact it’s this very exuberant and funny and big-mouthed kind of book, which was important to me. Another older writer that had a huge influence on me is Chekhov. More contemporarily, it’s hard to say.

GQ: Why a novel about baseball?

Chad Harbach: I think that it is very interesting to write about a team because a team is a group of people who work in very close quarters and have very intense relationships so—in my days of playing sports, I was very rarely on a team that did not have it’s own peculiar dynamic, and you wind up having very intense feelings for good and for bad about these people with whom you spend many hours a day. And they might be people that otherwise you would have zero in common with. Instead you’re kind of physically touching them three hours a day, you know? So I think that’s really rich, and then I’m also just kind of really interested in athletes as artists of a pretty serious variety and people who devote themselves to what they do in a really incredible way.

GQ: Most baseball fans would probably admit to seeing a good double play as poetry, as possessing real grace, almost like a work of art.

Chad Harbach: Absolutely. And the dedication to produce that grace, which is really extraordinary. And like you say that there’s a certain poetry in a double play, I’d say taking the U.S., our baseball players work a lot harder than our poets…and our fiction writers, too, not to single out poets. We live in a society that devotes itself to sports in a way it doesn’t devote itself to some other arts.

They’re not appreciated in anything like the same sort of way. Every dude in your high school wasn’t striving to be the best poet because then he’d get all the girls, right? But you could imagine a society in which that were the case.

GQ: A beautiful, wonderful society. I would love to have been popular in high school for the ability to spell.

Chad Harbach: Yeah, man! It’s like, “That Josh, he can really spell! I should go make out with him behind the spelling arena!”

About zach

Staring out across the hazy mountain range on his latest summitting of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Zach saw with a clearness he had not yet seen. "People should tremble at the very sound of my name", he thought. And it was so. "I should master the manly arts of the world, such as barehanded hunting and blacksmithing". And it was so. "People should call me Z$". And it was so.

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