Features / Fiction / Interviews

Q&A with Joe Schuster

Bloom: When you sat down to write a novel, did you know from the start that it would be a baseball novel? What personal relationship did you have to the sport, if any? Did the inherent drama of sports help or hinder the writing process?

Joe Schuster: The answer to this is not a simple one. When I wrote the first lines of what eventually became the novel, I was thinking about a baseball player. I had a sentence occur to me—“The best summer of his life, he was twenty-four”—and I thought, okay, what kind of person might have their best year when they are only twenty-four? An athlete, I thought, and the only sport I know with any depth is baseball, since I’ve written magazine articles about the sport for more than 25 years. So in the next sentence, he became a ball player.

I wrote a number of paragraphs about that summer and the paragraphs eventually became a chapter very close to the one that is in the book. But in my first draft, that chapter was a prologue, and what I called “chapter one” took place 30 years later, when Edward Everett was doing something else entirely and baseball was only something he’d lost. Initially, his life in baseball came in flashbacks. But I could never figure out where the novel was going; there was no narrative momentum. For years, I have exchanged work with my friend K. L. Cook and so I sent him a few chapters of this mishmash (I already had several hundred pages of the mishmash) and after he read the pages, he said, “Trust baseball.” It was when I said, Okay, I’ll make this a “baseball” novel that I was finally able to push something into a semblance of a coherent first draft.

As for how the inherent drama of the sport affected the writing process: writing the chapters that take place on the field was, for the most part, easier, and I think that’s partly because there is so much drama in sports. You’ve got someone with a goal and someone who opposes that goal, so you don’t have to look very hard for ways to give your scenes and chapters momentum.

Bloom: How much research did it take to write The Might Have Been? (It seems like it would be pretty intense—the history of the sport, the workings of the minor leagues, the experiences of its players.)

JS: I wasn’t aware of doing conscious research for the novel until after I finished the first draft. As I said, I’ve written about baseball for more than 25 years for a number of magazines. I’ve also reviewed a lot of books about baseball, almost all of them non-fiction, so I already had a lot of this rambling around in my brain. I did do a lot of period research to read about what was going on in the middle 1970s, when the first two parts of the novel are set, but it wasn’t until after I finished the first draft and went to Cooperstown, New York to spend a few days in the marvelous library and archives at the Baseball Hall of Fame, reading their clip files about around a dozen players who were like my main character, that I did any actual research intended for the baseball portions of the book. I didn’t actually base any of my characters on the players I researched—I was researching to bring nuance to the characters I’d already created.

Bloom: You’ve worked many years as a journalist. How do your journalist brain and your novelist brain work together? Or not?

JS: There is a clear connection; my work as a journalist influences the way I work as a fiction writer, no doubt. The most obvious way is that I do bring research to my work as a fiction writer. Right now I am hacking my way through the first draft of another novel, and I am spending a lot of time reading books and articles that are directly connected to what I think may go on in my novel, as well as looking at things that may be connected tangentially. I think research does help me see my characters and their world as having dimension.

On the other hand, because almost all of my journalism is one draft, quick polish, and out the door, against tight deadlines, when I write fiction I tend to be a pretty slow writer; I take my time and revise through multiple drafts. When I was working on The Might Have Been, I sent a couple of full drafts to my friend Margot Livesey, who has been my other faithful reader over the years. When she saw the eighth draft, she said, “Okay, this is ready, now; you need to send this out.” I did one more polish-draft and sent it out to the person who ended up as my agent for the book, the amazing Amanda Urban; but it’s entirely possible that if Margot had not said, “Okay, you need to stop revising this and send it out,” I might still be working on it. I love revising. It’s far, far more pleasurable to me than getting out a first draft.

Bloom: The Might Have Been seems like it would have been particularly difficult to plot, given that it’s a retrospective, nonlinear narrative that spans decades. How did you figure out the book’s structure, pacing, and chronology?

JS: The somewhat non-linear structure of the novel arose out of necessity. One of the first decisions I made when I was writing it—going back to even the horrible first draft—was that I wanted a sudden leap forward in time. Initially, that happened between what was then the prologue and what was then the first chapter. But even when I decided to commit to making it a novel centered on baseball, I wanted to keep that element; and so, after the second of its three parts, the narrative jumps from 1977 to 2009. I wanted to do that because I wanted to capture something of the sense that people often have of their lives getting away from them. You make a decision and then, bang, years pass, and although you didn’t intend the decision to shape your life in a significant way, 20 or 30 years have passed much more quickly than you think they ought to have, and you have the life you do almost without realizing that your life was passing.

But since I made that leap of almost a third of a century, it meant that I had to fill in the significant events of the intervening years. Some I did with short digressions of a few paragraphs or pages. But there were two significant aspects of my character’s life that were important for readers to understand if they were going to know what his life meant, and they needed their own chapters so that their weight would be clear.

Bloom: You had a 1,000-page first draft and worked on the novel over the course of nearly 10 years. Tell us about your practical approach to revision. Also, were there moments of doubt? How did you get through them?

JS: Oh, Lord. Doubts. I sent a text message to a friend of mine yesterday that said, “Feeling ecstatic, feeling despair. I must be working on something that may turn out to be a novel. How are you?” She responded, “Much the same.” So, the hardest part of getting the novel out was that struggle against my own sense of doubt but I think because of how old I was when I was writing it, I had a sense of the ticking clock. I’ve seen too many people, mostly men, who come to a certain age and are filled with regret and maybe rage because their lives haven’t turned out the way they wanted it to, and I didn’t want to become one of those men. The only way to avoid that was to keep working at what I wanted to accomplish, which was that novel, and now this new one that’s a huge mess—but I can’t quit on it.

You ask about revision. The biggest leap was between the first and second drafts because the last few hundred pages of the first draft were just awful—because by that time I just wanted to finish the draft and so as I was writing I knew they were just awful, horrible, no good. I never showed those pages to anyone.

But when I was finished with the first draft, I put it aside for a few months and then went back and read it all, making notes on what worked and what didn’t—and mostly making notes about the things I realized I had avoided in the first draft because I was afraid I was not writer enough to do them. In my re-reading of the draft, too, I came to see that one of the characters was far more important than I had initially thought—a character named Ross Nelson, who is a player that Edward Everett manages in the last section of the book and has to cut from the team. In the first draft, he eventually just goes away; but, I wondered, what if he didn’t go away? I am enormously influenced by a lecture that I heard Charles Baxter give at Warren Wilson, on “counterpointed character.” (There’s a version of it in his Burning Down the House.) At the risk of over-simplifying what he says, one of the functions of counterpointed characters is that they can manifest some aspect of the protagonist that the protagonist has perhaps hidden even from himself or herself, so that some truth about the protagonist emerges for the reader.

Edward Everett hung on in baseball and so does Ross Nelson, but the way that Nelson hangs on in baseball (I hope) shows a shadow side of Edward Everett’s decision; it’s a darker manifestation of his own refusal to let go.

Bloom: Was your exploration of Edward Everett’s struggles in the world of baseball at all inspired by or reflective of your own story as a writer?

JS: I suppose any novel reflects something about the writer at the point in his or her life when he or she is working on it, but, honestly, I perhaps don’t have the necessary distance to be able to say how this is the case for me.

I will say that I was very aware when I was writing the book that, although it centers on baseball, I intended it more as a novel about people reaching a certain age and realizing that the choices they made had shaped their lives in ways they had no way of knowing when they made those choices. I also was aware of writing a novel about dreams, and what happens when someone discovers that they can’t have the dreams they wanted—and then facing the question, “Now what do I do?” This particular character’s dreams just happened to center on baseball, but one would ask the same question about dreams of any sort.

Bloom: On your website, you list 50 works of fiction that changed your life as a reader and writer. Tell us about one of them and what it’s meant to you.

JS: I think I’ve been influenced by pretty much everything I’ve ever read, but if I were going to talk about one book that affected me most, it would be Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. When I was in the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College, we had to do what we called an “essay semester,” in which the focus was less on our own work and more on studying a piece of literature or several pieces of literature to produce a long, critical essay focused on an issue of craft. I wrote mine on the structure of Madame Bovary. That meant I lived with the book for something around six months, reading it and re-reading it so I could look at the moments in the novel when the narrative takes a significant step toward its inevitable resolution. I learned so much about structure that semester—it turned me into something of a structure geek, so that it’s impossible for me to read a novel without being aware of how it’s built, and the decisions the writer makes to get us from page one to the last page in a way that makes the journey seem believable and satisfying.

Bloom: Ben Fountain, whose novel Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk is on your “Fifty Works of Fiction” list, was once asked what he felt his greatest responsibility was, as a fiction writer. What is your answer to the same question?

JS: I am only speaking for myself and don’t pretend to have done enough as a fiction writer to say anything about what fiction writers as a class should have as their greatest responsibility. For me, I think there are several aspects to that responsibility. One, to write the best work I can at any particular time in my life, to push myself to make the work as good as it can be—to make that the primary goal. That was why I went through so many drafts of The Might Have Been before I sent it out and something I said to my agent and my editor whenever they offered a suggestion—that my only concern was making the novel as good as I could make it.

As part of that, I have a responsibility to push myself as a writer—to try to do things I may not be able to do, to push myself to do the things I am conscious of avoiding in the writing.

There are, sure, tougher things to do in the world—but writing a novel is tough, so it doesn’t make sense to me not to push yourself to make it as good as you can possibly make it.

Bloom: In your interview with the Riverfront Times, you mentioned that you would never self-publish. Do you still feel that way? How do you feel about the state of the publishing industry—particularly the growth of DIY publishing—as well as where we’re headed as a society of readers and writers?

JS: My answer to this question connects to my answer to the previous question. On the one hand, the publishing industry is at, let’s say, an interesting time; who knows what it will look like in ten years or even five years. Perhaps there may come a time when the only way to publish a book that has little to no chance of being a mega-hit will be to self-publish. I still doubt I would look to self-publishing, because the truth is, the world does not need anything that is “just another novel.” I think the world is a better place when great work is out in it—but the tendency by so many people who self-publish is to focus on the publish rather than on the writing of the work. If this novel I am working on now can’t find a publisher, then most likely the world doesn’t need it. I won’t like that—we all like to be loved—but if no press wants to publish it, then, okay, I just have to move on.

Bloom: What are you working on now? In what ways is your next project a new challenge, in what ways similar to The Might Have Been?

JS: As I said, I am superstitious about talking about work until it’s found its shape—most likely when I have a complete draft. I do share work in progress with writers I trust but I think it’s too easy to talk out a work, which relieves the pressure to actually write it.

I will say that I’m finding that as I write this novel, I feel very much like I have never written a novel before. Of course I learned things about how to build a novel—many of them from my work on The Might Have Been but also from the keenly perceptive suggestions I got from Kenny Cook and Margot Livesey and Binky Urban and my editor, the enormously patient and smart Jennifer Smith.

But all I learned about writing a novel by doing the first one is the technical aspect of it. Finding the story is another matter and here I am as lost as I was when I was writing the first draft of The Might Have Been.

I remember once, a long time ago, I went on a hike with some friends and I got separated from them and also lost the trail. We were on a steep, wooded hillside, with a thick undergrowth that meant I couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead. To make progress, I had to push and, sometimes, because the hill was so steep, pull myself through the dense growth. It wasn’t easy—besides the foliage, I kept sliding back every once in a while because of loose soil. But I knew if I kept climbing the hill, eventually I’d get to the top and once I got there, it would be easy to find the trail again, so I just kept bulling my way up the hill, until I did get to the top and wasn’t lost any more. I suppose one thing I learned from working on The Might Have Been is that if I keep pushing through, even if I have no idea where I am, or if I have days when I don’t make any progress at all, I’ll eventually find the story. I only hope it doesn’t take me 1,000 pages this time.

Bloom Post End

Click here to read Tricia Khleif’s feature piece on Joe Schuster’s debut novel The Might Have Been.

Homepage photo credit: Sarah Carmody Photography, St. Louis MO

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