Chad Harbach on ‘The Art of Fielding’


At Work

Chad Harbach. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan.

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach’s first novel, is a book about baseball in the way that Moby-Dick is a book about whaling—it is and it isn’t. The shortstop at the center of the novel is Henry Skrimshander, an idiot savant in the field, who is recruited to play for the Harpooners of Westish College, a small school on the shores of Lake Michigan. Harbach was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail from his home in Brooklyn.

What was your position?

Over the course of my twelve-year baseball career (which ended when I was seventeen), I played the middle infield—short and second both.

Did you have any hopes of playing in college?

Not really. I was Henry-like (though with hardly a shred of his talent) in the sense that I was a good athlete who was too small and slight. I blame my parents for starting me in school early and making me forever the youngest guy on the team. 

Was there a shortstop you particularly admired when you were a kid? (Off the record, the first World Series I remember is 1982—Milwaukee vs. St. Louis—which made me for many years a Robin Yount fan. Maybe because he was a great shortstop, maybe because we had the same name. Also, I was too young to appreciate the purity of Ozzie Smith.)

Can we put that on the record? Because those are the two shortstops who defined my own childhood baseball-watching. The 1982 Series is one of my earliest memories—and also a devastating one, as an incipient Brewers fan. Robin Yount was my hero and favorite player—so smooth and graceful in every facet of the game, and a great guy to boot—but Ozzie Smith was my favorite shortstop. I’m not sure that anyone ever has been or will be as brilliant in the field as he was.

Henry eventually bulks up and becomes a very good hitter, as nonfictional shortstops have also done. But your interest is in the guy with the glove. You sometimes write about fielding as if it were a dance.

I certainly think that watching a good infielder is one of the most beautiful things in sports. You have to be so graceful and economical to field well, and there’s something lovely about the patience and prevailing calm that’s required to wait, and wait, and wait, and then explode into action at just the right moment.

Your title reminds me of many books I read, to no avail, when I was a Little Leaguer: The Science of Hitting (Ted Williams), The Art of Hitting (Tony Gwynn), Art and Science of Hitting (Rod Carew). Do you read a lot of baseball books?

I’ve actually read none of those books, and somehow didn’t know they existed when I was a kid. Back then I read baseball fiction, from Matt Christie to W.P. Kinsella, and books of baseball history and statistics. The Bill James Abstract—I’d check that out from the library, take it back, check it out again.

The Art of Fielding is the title of a book-within-my-book—it’s a guide to playing shortstop that doubles, semi-inscrutably, as a guide to life. Henry Skrimshander, the book’s baseball star, has it mostly memorized. I was thinking of the titles of those books you mentioned but maybe more of The Art of War. Also, Henry’s best friend, Mike Schwartz, uses Marcus Aurelius’s work as a touchstone the way Henry uses The Art of Fielding, so there’s a parallel there.

Lots of us think of baseball as a semi-inscrutable guide to life, maybe because it is simpler (and more elegant) than actual life. That seems to be true of Henry.

For Henry the diamond is safety and refuge—he knows what will be demanded of him out there, and he knows that he can provide it. The game is complex, of course, but it holds out the hope of being perfectly knowable. Life is much scarier, its demands much more shifty and unknowable. I guess what happens to Henry is that he’s spent his entire career striving to make life as simple as baseball. It works for a while, but it’s a doomed project, and suddenly baseball becomes as complex as life.

Simplicity, the safety of rules: these are also temptations for the novelist. How hard did you have to work against writing a baseball book, rather than a novel that happens to be about baseball?

Well, not too hard, because I’ve only read a few baseball novels in the past twenty years, and those didn’t make much of an impression. I love Philip Roth, for instance, and have devoured fifteen or more of his books—but I couldn’t get through The Great American Novel.

So there was no tradition of the baseball novel that I felt myself working in. I think I wanted to avoid writing a “baseball book” in the same way that a novelist writing about sex wants to avoid writing pornography. If the sex is the point, then it’s porn. And if the outcome of a baseball game is the point, then it’s baseball porn.

Speaking of great American novels that are difficult to get through, your other large subject is Melville. Was there a moment you realized you could take up Moby-Dick and baseball in one book?

That was part of the original conception of the book. The Art of Fielding is in large part a book about the varieties of male friendship, from the antagonistic and the competitive to the deeply affectionate and the frankly sexual, and so Moby-Dick, taking place as it does in a very intense world of very intense men, seemed like the ideal analogue. A baseball team is a lot like a whaling ship: in each case, a group of men who might otherwise have little in common spend an inordinate amount of time in close and not-so-comfortable quarters, excluding the world, in pursuit of a common goal.

And if there’s one book whose musicality and vigor and humor I’d like to be able to measure up to, though of course I’m doomed to fail, it’s Moby-Dick.

Some of my favorite scenes in your novel happen in the dugout and the locker room. There is some antagonism, but more often there’s playfulness. The banter reminded me of some sideline dialogues in DeLillo’s End Zone—there’s a wonderful kind of aimlessness.

Well, I don’t think there’s a better book for banter than End Zone. I can open to any page in that book and start laughing. It’s the warm, tender, early DeLillo, as opposed to the later, chillier, more clinically poetic DeLillo, and so in some ways preferable to me, though of course they’re equally awe-inspiring.

Is there life after baseball? For Henry, for the rest of us?

I don’t want to give away the end! For Henry, I think the question is more: is there life outside of baseball? Until now, he’s been so “regular and orderly” in his life, as Flaubert recommended, and that dull regularity has made him a great athlete but has stunted him in other ways. There’s a tension between the demands of life and the demands of art; that’s what he’s trying to resolve. Can he do the strange, surprising, scary things required to become a real human being with a real inner life, and still devote himself to his craft?

For the rest of us, there’s always basketball season.