The Books Interview — Chad Harbach

The critic and <em>n+1</em> editor talks about his first novel, <em>The Art of Fielding</em>, baseba

Your novel, The Art of Fielding - which is your first - was ten years in gestation. What took you so long?
From very early on, I was enamoured of the idea for this novel, but I also knew then that I was nowhere near good enough a writer to pull it off. It was clear from the outset that it was going to have these different viewpoints and was going to be a complex book. In some respects I often curse myself for not starting with a simpler project and writing a more univocal book the first time around.

The novel is about a college baseball team. Henry, one of the central characters, is a shortstop. Is there something significant about that position on the field?
It's a very crucial position in defence. Catcher and shortstop are the two critical positions in the defence and it's a position I played when I was younger. It's always been the position I've loved to watch: it's difficult and it attracts really gorgeous athletes to play. The most beautiful part of the game is watching a good shortstop do his thing.

Are you a devotee of baseball literature?
Not really. I've read some of it and I like some of it but I've realised, as I go around and talk about the book, how many people know so much more about it than I do.

I'm more interested in writers like David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo. It's interesting that they are two of the only novelists who have really thought about the relation of sport to larger society.

Was Wallace's novel Infinite Jest, which is set partly in a tennis academy, an influence?
Absolutely. It's funny, because in an essay [I wrote about] Wallace, I talk about how it was very clear that DeLillo's End Zone, which is a short campus football novel, seems very explicitly a model for the Enfield Tennis Academy in Infinite Jest.

I think both of those books are models for me. These are writers who really know what they're talking about in regard to the sport.

Some reviewers have suggested The Art of Fielding is a homage to Jonathan Franzen.
A lot of the people who have made direct Franzen comparisons forget that when his novel Freedom came out in 2010, my book was already virtually finished.

And then there's Herman Melville. The baseball team in The Art of Fielding is named the Harpooners, an allusion to Moby-Dick.
Moby-Dick is a book that I read in college and was astounded by. I think it's the most musical novel in the English language - the rhythms and the prose are incredible. It surpasses anything that anyone has ever done.

It's also a very funny book, which no one ever gives it credit for. Before I read it, I'd always heard it spoken of in these stern and forbidding tones, as if you were being scared away from reading it. But then you read it and you find it's both bold and musical.

Melville was the first writer to achieve a distinctive kind of American music in his prose, wasn't he?
In the novel, probably. But then you have the first edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass published a couple of years after Moby-Dick, and Thoreau's Walden had been written a little bit before. Then there were Emerson's essays. So there were writers who were achieving that music in slightly different forms around the same time.

You're a critic and editor [at n+1], as well as a novelist. How do you see the relationship between your fiction and your other writing?
For me, they're very different; they're separate, distinct ways of working. I think they are ways of indulging different parts of one's brains and different parts of one's personality.

The novel has always been the form that incorporates other forms. For me, it has always been the ultimate medium. Somehow, you can achieve a directness in the novel that you can't get anywhere else.

Three of the founding editors of n+1 have now published novels. Can we expect fiction from the other two?
I don't know, but Marco Roth has a book that's being published next fall which is a sort of memoir of his relationship with his father. It's incredibly good.

Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding" is published by Fourth Estate (£16.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain