"What he could do was field. He’d spent his life studying the way the ball came off the bat, the angles and the spin, so that he knew in advance whether he should break right or left, whether the ball that came at him would bound up high or skid low to the dirt. He caught the ball cleanly, always, and made, always, a perfect throw."
— Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
Rarely does an unknown, broke aspiring writer debut with a book that is not only a decade in the making but also hailed by countless literary critics as one of the finest novels of the year. Chad Harbach, a once-struggling writer, and founding editor of the literary journal n + 1, made publishing industry history by garnering one of the highest bidding prices, at $650,000, for an unpublished manuscript. His novel, The Art of Fielding, a story of struggle, love, and self-discovery, is constructed around the all-American game of baseball. There have been many stories written that focus on America’s favorite pastime, yet Harbach’s book possesses a richness and vitality that surpasses a typical sports novel. It’s an old-fashioned tale in the best sense of the term, an epic story with characters who are just as skilled at or connected to baseball as they are psychologically complicated. Throughout the course of the novel, the reader picks up on snippets of subtle influence from the great American classic Moby-Dick, as well as from the literary legacies of David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen. And while The Art of Fielding is a coming-of-age saga that deepens with the unfolding of each character’s strengths and weaknesses, the process of writing what critics call "the best novel of the millennium" allowed Harbach to realize his own levels of maturation throughout the metamorphosis of his novel’s key players.
RL: Many authors have used baseball as the core of the story line, but you incorporated the game in a much different way. What was it about the sport that you were most drawn to?
CH: Well, as a fan, I’ve seen many professional baseball players encounter this mental problem where they are unable to throw the ball. I find this really fascinating because it demonstrates how psychologically fragile these guys can be. I think baseball is uniquely set up to show that while it is a team sport, it can also be a very lonely and isolating game where every player is sort of out there on his own. If they mess up, you know exactly who is to blame.
Where did the idea come from? Was there something that originally triggered it?
To be honest, I didn’t really want to write a book about baseball—but baseball ended up as the pulse of the novel. Being a huge fan and seeing a couple of really good Major League players go through this psychological crisis intrigued me. I remember thinking that nobody had written any fiction or nonfiction about the topic, so it seemed like a very rich idea to me.
The novel took you ten years to write. Throughout the process, what did you learn about yourself?
I certainly changed a lot. It’s awfully hard to put into words exactly the ways, but when I started the book, I was a very young person. I was pretty naive in a lot of ways and had never attempted to write anything really long. Looking back on it, I can easily tell that I was a very young writer.
"I think the novel has a certain youthful energy that comes from the place I was at when I started it"
— Chad Harbach
You literally grew up with the book.…
I definitely did, and there are certainly stages along the way. I think the novel has a certain youthful energy that comes from the place I was at when I started it. But, as I worked my way through the manuscript, I found traces of my younger self…and skill set.
Did you ever feel like you were procrastinating?
On an almost daily basis. There are a lot of reasons why it took me a long time to write the book, but I always had plenty else to do. Like all writers, I think I was constantly beating myself up about how slow and inefficient I was at getting it done.
How has your life changed since the publication of The Art of Fielding?
My life has changed in a few ways, but I’m not riding yachts in St. Bart’s. But, I can take sixty bucks out of the ATM without crossing my fingers it goes through.
What does your family have to say about everything that’s going on?
At first I think they were relieved once I sold the book, but since it came out, they are enjoying the whole process. I’ve lived in New York City for seven years and my parents had never visited before, but they flew out for the book launch in September. They were like celebrities at the party.
When you received the money for the book, what was the first thing you did?
I paid a few people back, for sure. My roommate was helping me out and he was the person who got the first check. I paid some debts and bought a car. I guess that was my big extravagance.
What’s next for you?
Well, the novel has been optioned by HBO, so it’s in development for a TV series.
Did you ever think you’d utter those words?
Yale Breslin is a freelance writer who has contributed to Wonderland, Man About Town, StyleCaster, Geil, The Last Magazine, Racked, Dazed Digital, and The Coveteur. He is also the founder and creative director of The Malcolm, a website aimed at promoting emerging talent in the realms of fashion, photography, travel, and architecture.
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