A Conversation With Chad Harbach, Author Of “The Art Of Fielding”
by Corban Goble
It seems like Chad Harbach is everywhere right now. His debut novel, The Art of Fielding (the advance for which you probably heard about) is getting great reviews — as well it should. The book, about a college baseball phenom and his season, is a singular, smart, endlessly charming read. I talked with the author and N+1 editor earlier this week; Harbach being a Wisconsin native, we met up at the famously Packers/Brewers/Badgers-centric bar Kettle of Fish in the West Village.
Corban Goble: You got $650,000 for the book. What was the first thing you did?
Chad Harbach: I paid back a lot of the people to whom I owed a lot of money. By the time I actually got paid it had been a full year since I had had a job.
Who’s the first person you paid back?
Over the course of writing the book, what was the oddest thing you had to research?
Well, I didn’t do that much research. I had a fairly strange job when I was in grad school. Just as I was finishing grad school I got a job tutoring for this billionaire family that lives in Virginia, where I was living. They go down to Florida for the Winter Equestrian Festival and their youngest daughter, who was in high school, was a very serious equestrienne. So she was leaving school for three months. So I went down to Florida and hung out for three months in this very strange community. It’s people from around the world: all of the equestrian people and all of the polo people all go hang out together for three months. All of the locals clear out and rent out their houses. I was there when these northern, small-college baseball teams go down to Florida for their spring training. They go play a dozen games. So I drove around and watched some of those games. That was really the only thing that I did, as a direct piece of research.
Did you have to cut anything from the book you loved?
Nobody made me cut anything out of the book. I wrote, all told, thousands upon thousands of pages. And I’m sure some of what I cut was the wrong stuff. My editor wasn’t like, “This has to go.”
Where in Wisconsin are you from?
Do you have a favorite Packers player?
Donald Driver is my favorite Packer because he’s both the coolest guy and a link to the olden days.
I refuse to ever fall out of love with Brett Favre. A lot of Wisconsinites have turned on him at one point or the other. But when he had that great season for the Vikings, I was pretty pumped about that actually. I think of rooting for the Packers for the last 20 years, and he just made that experience for so many people. So much of the crazy shit he did at the end doesn’t diminish the amazing stuff that he did.
Worked out for the Packers, though.
They look like geniuses now.
What’s the most Wisconsin-y thing you did growing up? Did you play hockey?
There was really no hockey where I was growing up. It’s really almost all basketball.
Isn’t Nick Van Exel from Racine?
Nick Van Exel is from Kenosha. I went to Catholic high school and Nick Van Exel went to the Catholic high school in Kenosha. I think he was senior in high school when I was in eighth grade, so he was a little before my time. Having my entire adolescence consumed by sports, that was the primary Wisconsin thing.
Were you good at sports?
I was a good high-school athlete. I was the youngest person in my class, small and scrawny, so I wasn’t cut out to go past that. But I did pretty well.
What did you play?
Baseball, basketball and golf.
What’s your relationship with Herman Melville? There are tons of Melville allusions and references in The Art of Fielding.
I’m not constantly obsessed with Melville. But certainly when I was in college I took a seminar entirely devoted to Melville and that’s when I read Moby-Dick as well as almost everything else he ever wrote. That was a really formative literary experience for me. Because this book that I had heard talked about for so long in this very reverential and kind of scary way turned out to be this brash, beautiful, musical book that was very funny and very engaging. It’s not like I sit around and read a Melville book once a week or anything.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Siddhartha Deb’s book The Beautiful and the Damned. It’s about contemporary India and the influx of capital in India and the way that India’s changed in the last couple of years. One chapter of the book was published in n+1 and I edited that essay. So now I’m reading Sid’s book, which I’m enjoying. I haven’t read a whole helluva lot of books though, unfortunately.
What do you read on the Internet?
I need someone to tell me where to go on the Internet. Most of the things that I read on the Internet come from… I go to the place where n+1 tracks its stats and its viewers and I follow those links and they lead me around. Statcounter is my go-to.
What do you like about New York?
I like New York because you’re always so confident that there’s a ton of shit going on and you can stay at home and work and not feel anxious about it. I think when I’m in other places, I’m like, why am I here by myself?
What NYC neighborhoods do you like?
I lived in Prospect Heights the whole time I was here. Which I liked an awful lot, and it changed an awful lot, even just during the course of the time that I lived there. I went to a party in Williamsburg the other weekend and it just blew my fucking mind. I was just like, man, it’s like high school and then stage two, post-high school and then stage three, post-post-high school — and then there are some 50-year-old dudes hanging around.
What’s your favorite brand of jeans?
When I was poor, very poor, I discovered Penguin jeans. Which is maybe a non-intuitive brand of jean. But they fit a human being perfectly. I’m wearing them right now.
People have compared to book to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as well as to Franzen’s work overall. What do you think about that?
There’s a quote from Franzen on the cover of the book, which gives people a real way in to saying things like that. I don’t know. I’ve read all of his work and I admire it greatly. If there was a book that would have influenced me it would have been The Corrections, because I liked The Corrections more than I liked his first two books. I’ve read some reviews that compare a certain scene in my book to a certain scene in Freedom, but of course I wrote that scene four years before I read Freedom. He’s certainly a guy from the Midwest who found a very immediate-feeling way of writing about that experience.
What don’t you like that he’s written?
My least favorite of his books is Strong Motion. You can probably point to some parts of Strong Motion that I don’t like, but Freedom and The Corrections are two of my favorite books in recent history.
I really want to read The Art of Fielding by Aparicio Rodriguez — the small volume of aphorisms to which your protag Henry is always referring.
That whole Aparicio Rodriguez thing wasn’t really a part of my very first conception of the book, it kind of sprang up along the way. I wrote the first couple of those mantras and I had so much fun writing them that I almost felt like it was off-limits, that I shouldn’t be having quite so much fun. But then, eventually, a few people started to read the book and they were like, “I really love those.” So I was like, yeah, I can do a few more. But I hadn’t written all 233 of them.
Did you have anyone in mind for the character? Because Aparicio Rodriguez played for the Cardinals, I can’t help but think Ozzie Smith.
Certainly, in an on-the-field way. I don’t know the first thing about Ozzie Smith’s personality, so it has nothing to do with that. When I was a little kid, the greatest defensive baseball player was Ozzie Smith. He would do things that were absolutely insane on the baseball field and make it look poetic. He’s the most direct model.
What do your parents think?
My family… It’s complex. First of all, my parents were baffled about the fact that I went to Harvard and accomplished nothing and earned no money for, like, 13 years thereafter. I think they were utterly perplexed by what I was up to. So I think their primary emotion just might be relief. I think they’re into it. I’m having a book party coming up here, and it’s induced my parents to make their first-ever trip to New York. So that’s going to be serious.
What’s your favorite tool of procrastination?
I blocked all chess sites from my computer. I find that my addictive tendencies tend toward games. The Internet is so dangerous. If I ever allowed myself to start playing chess or poker on the Internet I would just never emerge again.
Do you play video games?
I don’t play video-video games. When I was in college, there was a really gripping computer game called Maelstrom, which was basically an early PC version of Asteroids. Me and my friends in college, we would play Maelstrom. But I became so intensely addicted to it that I… For one thing the game started taking two hours. And then I posted a Maelstrom score that… I might have been the best Maelstrom player in the country. Luckily, I’ve never gotten into the actual video games at all. I tend to go for a really simple sort of game, and I think the sheer realness of those games put me off.
I can see chess getting addictive.
But it’s weirdly two-dimensional and depressing. Which is what I like about it.
What are you doing this weekend?
I’m going to a wedding.
Where is it?
It’s on a farm in the Hudson Valley. That’s what I have going on.
Have you been following the Brewers at all?
Sure. They were on the cover of Sports Illustrated a couple of weeks ago.
That’s the same issue that they published an excerpt of your book in! That’s pretty weird.
Yeah, that was the issue. I would have bought that issue anyway because the Brewers were on the cover. I don’t read SI very regularly but I subscribed to it as a kid. Obviously, Bill Simmons has been one of the transformative figures of the Internet.
What do you think of Bill Simmons?
I think he’s a super-genius. I think he’s one of those supergenii who has an immense number of imitators who are all awful.
Do you read Grantland?
Grantland is kind of finding its way, but it’s done some good stuff. Grantland is bad when it involves Bill Simmons imitations.
What do you think about the prospects of The Classical?
I hope The Classical does awesome. What’s not being done is really serious, and really rigorous approach to sports. What Grantland is not doing is thinking about the role that sports plays in American society and culture. At n+1 we try to do that every once in a while, but we don’t do sports that often so it’s a little erratic. So I hope the Classical does some of that. Just deep thinking about the way that sports fit in. Because I think Grantland is a level more superficial than that.
Corban Goble is from Kansas but lives in New York now.