About The Author
Chad Harbach grew up in Wisconsin, and graduated from Harvard in 1997. He was a Henry Hoyns Fellow at the University of Virginia, where he received an MFA in Fiction in 2004. He is currently the Executive Editor of n+1, which he co-founded, and lives in Brooklyn.
His debut novel is The Art of Fielding, already a huge hit in America. The book took 11 years to write and has seen Harbach compared to David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen. Advance interest in the book was so intense that fellow author Keith Gessen wrote an ebook, published before Harbach's novel, called How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding.
The book is largely set in a fictional college on the shores of Lake Michigan, where Henry Skrimshander, despite a lack of natural athleticism, is the most instinctively talented college baseball player of his generation.
He owes his success to the mentoring of Mike Schwartz, the driven team captain whose local stardom masks a bleak future beyond graduation. Now known to all as Skrimmer and setting records that attract Major League scouts, Henry can no longer pursue perfection in isolation but must now play burdened by local hopes for a first ever national championship and the tantalising opportunities of a professional career.
With potent sideplots involving the college president, his seductively improper affair and his wilful daughter, The Art of Fielding offers an elegant and eloquent counterpoint to Bernard Malamud's The Natural, perhaps the finest example of baseball as a metaphor for American identity.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Chad talks about the pursuit of perfection, his love for Moby-Dick and the aspects of baseball that make it such an alluring topic for writers.
Questions & Answers
Henry Skrimshander's aim is play at shortstop faultlessly. Is that a trait that he would have carried into any activity or is there something about baseball that brings out his perfectionist streak?
That's something Henry wonders himself, at a certain point in the book: Do I love baseball, or do I just love chasing perfection? Could I chase perfection through some other pursuit and still be happy? Perhaps; but then again baseball is his art, he's devoted himself to it for years and years, and it's awfully hard to start from scratch. I think he's stuck with baseball.
Is Henry's 'bible', The Art of Fielding, based on a real book?
It's unlike anything I've ever come across. There are baseball manuals with similar titles - The Art of Pitching, The Science of Hitting - but those are straightforward instructional books. The Art of Fielding is deeper, more mystical, and slightly goofy. I was thinking of Eastern works like The Art of War; the Stoics, who crop up elsewhere in the novel; and of contemporary self-help.
Why did you decide to thread references to Moby-Dick through the novel?
For one, because I love Moby-Dick - it's my favorite American novel, and so much bolder and funnier and more musical than people often give it credit for. But also for more particular reasons. The Art of Fielding is in large part a novel about male relationships - from the antagonistic to the cool to the deeply affectionate to the frankly sexual; Moby-Dick, of course, is very much the same.
Is Guert Affenlight, Westish College's debonair President, a classic fatally flawed heroic character?
Mmm, it's an interesting question. The book is essentially a comedy, but I suppose you could ascribe to Affenlight a tragic arc, in the sense that what ultimately gets him into trouble - his ceaseless curiosity, his romanticism - is a deep and crucial part of his personality.
The arrival of his daughter, Pella, acts as quite a catalyst for changes in a number of characters' lives. Which of them do you think benefits most from her appearance?
Mike Schwartz, certainly. He's for the first time met a woman he can't outsmart or intimidate or overwhelm. I think they're quite good for each other (despite their protestations to the contrary).
Mike Schwartz, the team captain and Henry's mentor, has a bleak-looking future and a body damaged by the intensity of his training. Is he a typical casualty of America's system of college sports scholarships?
Well, he doesn't even have a scholarship, poor guy. So he's more a casualty of the student-loan bubble: hugely indebted and with few immediate prospects. As far as his damaged body goes, in Mike's case it's mostly a function of his personality: he drives himself far harder than any coach ever could. In my life, though, I've certainly known athletes whose bodies were wrecked by the rigors of scholarship sports and absurdly demanding coaches.
Sport is notoriously difficult to portray in art of all sorts, but there does seem to be a tradition of great novels featuring baseball. What is it about this sport that lends itself to fiction?
I like writing about baseball because it's such an interesting combination of a team sport and an individual one; the players work together and support one another, but at the most crucial moments each feels profoundly alone. There's a tension there, between the individual and the social, and a solitude amid the group, that may be peculiarly American but is in any case fascinating. Also, of course, it's a slow and pastoral sort of game, with lots of time for philosophizing and noticing. Writers like that.
How have you found it dealing with all the attention your first novel has received in the States?
It's been immensely gratifying to get to travel around and talk to people who've enjoyed the book. I'm just very grateful.
Can you tell us anything about what you are working on at the moment?
Not a word! But thank you.
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