Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Might Have Been: The Baseball Book That Will Probably Break Your Heart

Joe Schuster is one of the best teachers I've ever had. Top five, easily. At Webster University in St. Louis he teaches Communications and Journalism as well as a few film and script classes. For me and I think the majority of his students (certainly my husband who would list Joe in his top five as well) Joe was the kind of teacher you wanted to do well for, not just because he was generous and warm and fun in class, but because he was a writer. A real one, and you wanted him to think the same of you.

And you wanted to have a beer after class with him.

So, you can imagine my delight. My total thrill to find out that his debut novel THE MIGHT HAVE BEEN was bought by Ballantine and is being released in March.

It's been called "transcendent" and "damn fine." I asked Joe a few questions about Baseball movies, Die Hard, his process and finally, exactly who is his favorite student. One lucky commentor this week will win a copy of the book.

The premise of your book THE MIGHT HAVE BEEN is one that you've been fascinated by for a long time, please tell us about the book.

THE MIGHT HAVE BEEN centers on a character named Edward Everett Yates who spends a decade kicking around in baseball's minor leagues until he finally gets the call to major leagues, to the St. Louis Cardinals. Three weeks later, he tries to make an impossible play and suffers a serious injury in a game in Montreal, ending his season. Shortly after that, the Cardinals cut him from their team. He tries for a while to start a new life—he has a good job, he starts a relationship with a woman he knew in high school, they decide to marry—but he can't let baseball go and so he tries to catch on with another team and does but then, suddenly, it's 30 years later, he' still in the minor leagues (as a manager for a broken down team in a small fictional town in Iowa) and he's confronted with the implications of his decision three decades earlier, confronted with regret about "what might have been," the life he gave up, the decision he made in that game in Montreal that caused his injury.

My interest in the story comes from a couple of impulses.

One, I have been fascinated for a long time with players who are good enough to get to the major leagues but not able to stick beyond a single game, a couple of weeks, a few months. Even getting that far is a kind of miracle. I have read in a couple of places that the chances for someone who plays high school baseball will make a professional team at all are something just less than one in a hundred and the chances for someone who signs a professional contract and plays in the minor leagues to get to the major leagues is one in ten. This means that someone who is good enough to make his high school team—and we're talking someone who is probably one of the best athletes in his town or at least in his area—has a one in a thousand shot at making the major leagues.

That someone is that good but then falls short in some way or has something happen that ends his career abruptly just seems sad to me, or even a bit tragic.
The other, larger issue, that interests me is how we make decisions about what we want to do with our lives and then what those decisions mean after years or decades. My book makes a large jump in time at one point—the end of part two is in 1977 and the start of part three is 2009—because I am interested in how our lives can get away from us if we don't pay attention. One day we make a decision and then, voila, we're X years older and this is the life we have that grew out of a single decision we made, a decision we made without really understanding what it would mean to us.

Some people—too many people, I feel—come to regret the lives they have, although they made the decisions that gave them that life. To regret the life you gave yourself seems like another sad fact.

One of my favorite sayings is, "The rich man is he who wants what he has." Being grateful for what you have instead of being angry, sad, regretful about what you don't have, seems a better way to live. And so, in a pig picture kind of way, that is one of the things I was trying to look at in this book.

You are a busy guy, teacher, department chair, parent, rabid baseball fan: What is your writing schedule like? Has it changed since being published? How do you find working with an editor?

Because of everything I have to do at school, it's difficult to carve out time to write and so I end up doing most of my fiction writing in the summers, over winter break, when I am on sabbatical. That's one of the reasons it took me so long to write and revise THE MIGHT HAVE BEEN to the point that I thought it was good enough to send out. I have started another novel but I haven't touched it since the academic year started in late August. I am looking forward to the start of summer, when I can get back to it. There is an icon on my computer desktop for the file for the novel and I think it is beginning to glower at me when I boot up my Mac Hey, you? Did you forget about me? Pay attention to me.

When I do have days to write, I usually work in the mornings. I think it's because I see the time I do have to write as valuable so I don't want the days when I can write to get swallowed up by all of the other parts of living a (somewhat) responsible adult life. And so I make writing the first thing on my list on those days.
As for working an editor. I have to sing my editor's praises. Her name is Jennifer Smith and she is a wonderful writer, herself. Her YA romance, THE STATISTICAL PROBABILITY OF LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT, is getting tremendous reviews and lots of attention, as it should, both because it is a terrific book but also because Jen is just such a wonderful human being and so deserves all good things.

Jen is amazingly insightful about every aspect of crafting a narrative. The first draft that she saw was massive – more than 500 pages long – and the first thing she said was, "this needs to be a hundred pages shorter," and then she sent me a detailed letter, outlining where I might cut the manuscript without wounding the story. Then we did a second pass, in which we cut another 30 pages, as well as addressed some other aspects of the novel that she thought needed work, and finally did a line-by-line edit that tightened it even more. I can say that the book is much better now because of her work on it and, the entire time, I had no question that her only aim was to make the book the best that it could be.

How long were you working on THE MIGHT HAVE BEEN? Tell us a little about getting the call that a publisher wanted it?

I am a very messy fiction writer, at least when I am working on the first draft. I often have no idea where I am going and so I end up writing a lot of pages, a lot of chapters, a lot of characters and scenes that end up cut. I think to get to the final 500 pages that was the finished first draft, I threw out another 500 pages that didn't belong.

Because of the way I write and that, at least until I hack my way to a finished first draft I am totally lost, it took me a long time to find the story, and so it took me almost seven years to finish the first draft and another two to revise it. By the time I sent it off to the agent who took it on, I did nine drafts.
Once I sent it off, it sold amazingly quickly. I sent off the 500-page ninth draft in mid-August of 2010. A month later, the agent emailed me to let me know she had gone ahead and sent it on to Jen and they both agreed that it needed the cutting I mentioned a minute ago. They wanted me to trim it and send it back for their consideration. Even though we didn't have a contract, Jen still sent me that detailed letter I mentioned, and so I spent an exhausting month going through it, cutting it, and then sent it back. I did it quickly because I am a bit of a pessimist and I thought if I took too long to send it back, they'd get it and say, "Joe Who?"

Almost immediately – I think around a week later—my agent let me know that Jen wanted the book but it had to go through all of the other people who had to give it their blessing. Less than three weeks after that, my agent called. I was actually in class; I never answer my phone in class but this time I excused myself, went out into the hall, and my agent told me that she had an offer. I went back into my class, explained to my students that I never, never did that, but here was why. I would rather have told my wife and kids first but I thought I owed them an explanation because I had interrupted class. Then we took a short break, I called my wife and texted my kids.

You have stepped very easily into the world of Facebook and Twitter. Do you like that aspect of promotion?

To be honest, I have to make myself do that kind of promotion. Maybe it's my Catholic upbringing, but I always feel it's sort of impolite to call attention to yourself – but I do it because writers today have to do it. I will tell you my favorite part of this aspect of marketing: even more than posting updates or tweets about me and my work, I enjoy the people I have "met" through facebook and twitter and the fact that you really can learn a lot by participating in this great virtual conversations that sites like that allow. The best way to "promote yourself" in these arenas is to give your followers and facebook friends something of value – you post a link to an interesting essay or article you come across, you post a notice about a good book you have just read – and I have learned a tremendous amount from what the people I follow have talked about.

Top three baseball movies? Novels?

Top three baseball movies:
The Natural, The Sandlot, The Rookie (with Dennis Quaid)
Top three baseball novels:
This one is harder to answer because there are so many good ones, and so I will mention a bit more than three: The Natural by Bernard Malamud (very, very different from the movie, but each is perfect for its specific medium), The Southpaw by Mark Harris (Bang the Drum Slowly is a more famous novel by Harris and centers on the same set of characters from The Southpaw but maybe because I read The Southpaw first, it has a special place in my heart), Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock (it is sort of like Jack Finney's Time and Again, but about a guy who finds himself back in the middle 1800s, connected to the Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball's first professional team). I also read Chad Harbach's Art of Fielding last year and admire a great amount about it.

One of my favorite classes with you was film analysis and I remember very clearly you saying something like "Die Hard is a perfect movie." You convinced me, but I was young. Does Die Hard still hold up?

Die Hard definitely holds up. In fact, one of the Christmas traditions I have with my five kids is that, if we're able to be together on Christmas eve, we always watch Die Hard. It's our "It's a Wonderful Life" or "A Christmas Story." A few years ago, I even published an essay, arguing that Die Hard is just about a perfect Christmas movie:!/content/13871/we_wish_you_a_die_hard_christmas

And finally, because it's time to settle the debate in my house - favorite student: Adam or Molly?

How's this for diplomacy:
Of all the students I actually had in a class and who now live in Canada, Molly is my favorite female student and Adam my favorite male. My momma didn't raise no fools.


Kristina Mathews said...

Looks like a great read. I'm always looking for a good baseball book. And there aren't enough baseball movies in my opinion.

I also loved The Sandlot and The Rookie. Bull Durham, Field of Dreams (which is also very different than the book. I enjoyed both) I even liked the one with Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon because it combined my two favorite things--baseball and romance.

Mitchell Caldwell said...
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Anonymous said...

Ooooo, how interesting!

My grandfather was a pitcher in the minor leagues but my grandmother had 3 (of her eventual 6) little boys to take care and she couldn't tour with him and missed him too much. So she asked him to give up baseball. And he did. And on a DVD when she was in her 80s, she said she realized later that it had broken his heart and she shouldn't have asked that of him. Talk about "what might have been" - none of us will ever know if he could have made it to "the show."

Molly O'Keefe said...

Kathy! What an amazing story!!!

Molly O'Keefe said...

Oh and FYI - The Rookie makes my husband cry, everytime....

Remember the baseball movie with Kevin Costner - had a dumb name, but he was a pitcher about to pitch a no -hitter. Intereting idea that got so silly.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Love all things baseball. I would say The Natural and Bull Durham are my favorites.

Anytime the Phillies get into a hitting slump - I threaten to go to the game in an all white dress and stand up while everyone else is sitting.

Molly the one you're thinking of is "For the Love of the Game" - I liked that too but it was corny.

Maureen McGowan said...

Great interview. Joe's passion for the book and for writing shine through.

Eileen said...

Mmmm. Bull Durham. I could listen to Kevin Costner talk about long slow kisses all day long

I love the premise of the book, both the 'how did I get here' aspect and how all the little decisions you make can take you to places you never intended to go.

Anonymous said...

Eileen - I know what you mean about that Kevin Costner speech - I find myself doing knockoffs when an occasion presents itself - it just stuck with me. :)

Eileen said...

I love that opening Susan Sarandon monologue, too. The one about how once she realized that there were the same number of stitches on a baseball as beads in a rosary, she joined the church of baseball.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Kevin Costner must love baseball - he's been in a lot of good baseball movies. Field of Dreams is one of my favorite movies and a really good example of a movie taking a great book and - for me - making it better. Shoeless Joe was good, but Field of Dreams - for me - is perfect.

It's such a good metaphor for so many things and it's so nostalgic - so much more than baseball or basketball. I have no attatchment to baseball but when we're driving at night and Adam plays a game - listening to the play by play reminds me so much of my dad.

Molly O'Keefe said...

I meant more nostaligic than football or basketball...

Anonymous said...

Sounds like an amazing book. My fav Kevin Coster sports movie might be Tin Cup, I loved Bull Durham, but there is a sort of glee to Tin Cup that always makes me laugh.

Anonymous said...

Wow--sounds like a fascinating book! My dad loved baseball, but lived a too busy life spend much time listening to or watching games. But when it came to playoff/series time he was an avid follower. If Cleveland Indians were in the playoff/series he was even more rabid about it. Being a Daddy's girl I became a lover of the game. I have passed it on to my middle daughter in particular. There isn't a baseball movie out there she doesn't enjoy and she is already asking if we can watch baseball yet.

FYI: The movie combining baseball/romance is Fever Pitch. (And yes, that's another one we own because of my middle dd.)

Joe said...

Some great comments here. The story by Kathy Holmes is sort of a flip side to another story, that of a guy named Glenn Gardner, who pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals for two months in 1945 and then hung around in the minor leagues for some years after that, sinking deeper into the low minors until he left the game at 35. He died about a dozen years later, at 48, reportedly of cirrhosis of the liver. When I was at the library at baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown NY, where I was researching players who had lasted in the major leagues for one season or less, I came across a couple of notes from Gardner's widow. A researcher at the Hall of Fame had contacted her to ask her a couple of questions about her late husband, including his cause of death. In the two notes from Gardner's widow to the researcher, she asked about benefits for widows of former ballplayers, writing, in one, "I was wondering if I were entitled to any kind of benefit from Hall of Fame which I could certainly use." I always thought that was among the saddest notes I have ever read.

As for the baseball movies of Kevin Costner, I'd also add THE UPSIDE OF ANGER, in which he plays a retired one-time star who is smitten with his neighbor (played by Joan Allen). Love the movie, love Costner in it.

Maureen McGowan said...

Congrats on your book, Joe! And THE UPSIDE OF ANGER is one of my favorite movies.

Eileen said...

Kevin Costner was the best thing in that movie. Does anyone know why that one daughter was called Popeye? I never was able to figure that out . . .

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