An Interview with The Art of Fielding's Chad Harbach
Chad Harbach spent ten years working on his debut novel, The Art of Fielding, published this fall. In Keith Gessen’s Vanity Fair article, “How a Book is Born,” Harbach’s co-editor of the literary magazine, n+1, says the book created such a literary stir that there was a bidding war. Harbach supposedly received a $650,000 advance for his “baseball” novel set in a fictional liberal arts college, about five characters, including a Herman Melville loving academic, a gay baseball player and a remarkably talented shortstop who comes down with a very serious psychological block. As I wrote in my review of the book, "It’s the kind of loveable, readable novel that could well loiter upon many a Staff Pick’s table for years to come."
The Indigo Blog sat down with Mr. Harbach to share some dim sum and learn a little something about The Art of Fielding and the Harvard alumnus behind the book.
Indigo Blog: With all the success you’ve had, the Vanity Fair article and so many positive reviews since, I have to ask, how does it feel?
CH: Everything that’s happened in the last few months has been so overwhelmingly good, I’m almost ashamed.
Indigo Blog: Looking back, the article talks of how so many of the people around you were having success, publishing or getting good jobs, while you were still years away from even publishing your first book. How do you persevere through ten years?
CH: Earlier on when I started the book I was in my mid-twenties, I was constantly thinking am I really cut out to be a writer? Wasn’t I actually better at math in school. On the one hand I always felt that I had a really good idea for a novel. If I could ever pull it off it was going to be good. I think when I started writing I started with the baseball thing.
Indigo Blog: One of the ball players in the novel suffers from this unusual syndrome specific to baseball known as the Yips or Steve Blass Syndrome [ in which a player loses the routine ability to throw the ball accurately]. Why make this a central plot point to your story?
CH: Because on the one hand it’s this intensely private, psychological, existential kind of thing, a description of inferiority that the novel could be really good at. On the other hand, because he’s an athlete – you could dscribe the same sort of thing for a writer who has writer’s block, but because he’s an athlete it takes on this kind of really dramatic and public, sort of spectacular psychological interiority on the one hand, and drama on the other. Also no one had ever done it. The only thing was this essay by Roger Angell from the New Yorker from the 70s, which is a very famous and very good essay. But Angell kind of throws up his hands but doesn’t try to figure it [the syndrome] out. A good piece, but he fails to get inside of it. I didn’t want to write a book just about baseball.
Indigo Blog: How do you muster the confidence to believe you’ll find a fiction readership out there interested enough in baseball, but then also interested in the history of Herman Melville, and a gay love story thrown in?
CH: To be honest I thought this would be a huge problem when it came time to try and sell the book, baseball on the one hand, gay on the other hand, academic on the other hand. You’ve pretty much excluded everyone who might be interested in this book. So it was not clear to me that I was writing something that was going to be commercially viable because I thought these things would really cancel each other out. The people who read a sports book don’t want a gay relationship in their sports book and vice versa. I was like, well I want to read about all these guys – that’s why I didn’t go to the process of selling the book with a whole lot of confidence. I thought the book was pretty good but I didn’t know anyone would want to sell or buy it.