Thursday, April 16, 2009

Author Interviews part I: Alan Gratz

Today I've got two great interviews with authors. The first post is an interview with Alan Gratz, author of The Brooklyn Nine, Samurai Shortstop, and his great mystery series starring the hard-boiled, ever-hopeful teen detective Horatio Wilkes, which includes the books Something Rotten and Something Wicked.

The second is with first time author and good friend Tara McVoy, whose new YA novel, Pure just came out in hardback. So, without further ado, Alan Gratz after the jump!

Last month, I reviewed Alan's newest book, a baseball epic titled The Brooklyn Nine. A friend asked me what it was about, and, after I described it, he said, "So is it like James Michener?" I wanted to say no, but the more I thought about it, the book is structured like a Michener novel--only not nearly so sprawling because of his tight, baseball-inspired format: Nine generations of kids in Brooklyn, 150 years of Brooklyn baseball. As I mentioned last month, I think this book is awesome. Anyways, despite our hectic schedules (I think Alan was on a book tour at the time) we found time to exchange some questions and answers:

Justin:What was your inspiration for Brooklyn Nine? This is probably the most cliched question ever, but I ask it here because the book is so distinct-- Nine generations, nine distinct stories, yet still a novel. I guess I'm wondering what came first, the story, the structure, the characters...?

Alan: In this case, the structure of the novel came first. That's unusual for me, and The Brooklyn Nine turned out to be an unusual--and challenging!--project for me. The idea of nine generations as nine "innings" in a book seemed like a fun idea, and I knew I wanted to begin with modern baseball's beginnings in the 1840s. Beyond that, the only time period I really worked hard to hit was the 1940s, so I could get a girl in there playing baseball in the pro women's league that emerged during World War II. For the rest of the innings, I let the family's natural generations dictate the time and place of each story as much as I could. Some of the time periods I then had to learn more about--the 1890s, the early 1900s, the 1920s--ended up being some of my favorites, even though I had zero idea what I'd be writing about when I began my research. I looked at each era in terms of Brooklyn history, baseball history, and American history, and tried to find the most interesting--and untold--stories from those times. Sometimes that meant staying away from good stories that had already been told--in particular, Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and the Dodgers winning the 1955 World Series. Both of those events were hugely important to the nation and to Brooklyn itself, but I had other stories of race and victory I wanted to tell.

In some of the eras, I struggled to decide which story to tell. The other factor in all this was of course the history of Snider/Flint family, and I had to make sure that each story was always about them, not about baseball or America or Brooklyn. Those things had to provide the backdrop, but the stories had to belong to the kids. That was a difficult thing to remember sometimes. :-) I ended up rewriting one or two "innings" over and over again until I found the kids' stories.

I should also add that I looked to my own family's history for inspiration in this novel. The Gratz family history is certainly not as exciting as the Snider/Flint family history, but my family can trace our line back to Louis A. Gratz, who immigrated from Germany to America in the 1860s and worked his way up in the Union Army before settling down to start a family in Knoxville, Tennessee--where I'm from. Louis is partially the inspiration for the kids in the first and second innings, and the boy fighting in the Civil War is named after him. Later, I used my father's experiences growing up in the 50s to help me write "Duck and Cover," and I used my own childhood memories to write the 1981 inning. (Although I was most definitely not a good baseball player...)

Justin: This is your second baseball novel. Your first, Samurai Shortstop,
isn't exactly your average baseball book either. What's your connection to the sport, and why write about it? Is it a challenge to create a "new" baseball story?

Alan: I played youth baseball off and on as a kid, but I was never very good at it. I became a bigger baseball fan in high school, and I even worked out over a summer to try out for the varsity team my senior year--but of course by that time athletes at that level have been playing consistently since they were kids, and I didn't have much of a chance. I was also pretty heavily into fantasy baseball then--and this was back in the day before web-based games, when we used to send off our weekly moves to a stat service that would mail back hard copies with our team stats on them! But my fondest memories have to be getting home from school and plopping down on the couch to watch afternoon Cubs games on WGN, even though I was a Reds fan. Baseball was made to be played in the bright summer sun.

As to why I write about it--and why baseball seems to be written about in fiction more than any other sport--that's a more difficult question. In Samurai Shortstop, I saw baseball as a way to bridge the cultural gap between an Eastern culture and Western readers. Because so little of 1890s Japanese culture would make sense to my readers, it helped to have at least one area of common ground--and that common ground was the dirt of a baseball diamond. Even if nothing else about the Meiji Era makes sense to my Western readers, the baseball will--it's their gateway into that world.

In The Brooklyn Nine, baseball's long and storied past worked as a parallel to a family's history. I think that's what drew me to baseball in this case--that it's been around so long, and is filled with ups and downs, triumph and tragedy, joy and heartache, just like the generations in a family. I'm certainly not the first writer to see those aspects in it. But baseball, like most family histories, doesn't have an overall story. It doesn't have a beginning, a middle, and an end. (At least I hope it doesn't have an end.) It's a series of smaller stories, linked by a shared heritage. Everything that has come before has shaped the present, and the present will only shape what is to come after that, and after that. I don't want to get too mystical about it--it is, after all, a professional sport, with all the greed and cold-hearted business practices that go with it--but since its inception, baseball has captured the imaginations and loyalty of its players and fans, and that will always lend it an air of enchantment.

Justin: You wait a long time (multiple generations) before giving us full-on, play-by-play baseball. I thought this really amped up the tension and drama of the game. So what makes for good baseball fiction? Does baseball inherently make for good stories? Who's written the best baseball fiction, in your opinion?

Alan: Believe it or not, I hadn't originally planned to ever tell a story in The Brooklyn Nine that was just a baseball story--that is, a story that takes place entirely on the baseball field. But I came to realize the book needed that, and the eighth inning seemed the perfect place for it. I had avoided a purely baseball story because I wanted the novel to be about so much more than just baseball, and the way to do that, I felt, was to keep baseball in the background, ever-present, but never the story itself. But in the eighth inning, baseball is the story. Michael, the boy pitching the perfect game, realizes that in the end. It's not about him, or his friends, or the opposing team; this story is baseball's story, and he's just a part of it. After saying the opposite thing all along--that baseball was just a part of this family's story--it felt great to pull back and offer a counterpoint to that. That baseball is something bigger than all of us, something eternal, a perfection and purity we can only hope to taste. But there I go getting all mystical again.

What makes good baseball fiction? That's tough. Just how much drama can be drawn from a baseball diamond day after day? I suppose that's a question Major League Baseball tries to answer. As I point out in Samurai Shortstop, there's the one-on-one drama of pitcher versus batter in every out, and then the larger drama of the team living and dying together. It seems to be both an individual sport and a team sport at the same time, where single heroes can appear bigger than their teams, but cannot win without the help of their teammates. Perhaps all team sports are like that, but baseball seems to highlight it more than others. So there's lots of drama to be found on the diamond, but are there any new stories to tell there? Can we find anything novel in a sport that has been around for almost two hundred years? I suppose that's like asking if there are no new boy-meets-girl stories to tell. Boys and girls have been meeting and falling in love since the dawn of life, but it seems we can find endless permutations in the formula. Perhaps baseball is the same. Ultimately, I guess, it's not really about the baseball, just as a romance isn't really about the romance. It's about the characters--and the characters are always new.

Who's written the best baseball fiction? I really enjoyed John Ritter's The Boy Who Saved Baseball, and was surprised it didn't earn recognition by the Newbery committee the year it came out. Michael Chabon's Summerland was a lot of fun. I also loved James Sturm's The Golem's Mighty Swing, a graphic novel about a barnstorming Jewish baseball team called the Stars of David. For non-fiction, George Will's Men at Work, Robert Whiting's You Gotta Have Wa, and Robert Adair's The Physics of Baseball are all great explorations on a theme. And dare I mention Samurai Shortstop and The Brooklyn Nine? :-) There are lots more, of course, but those are some of my favorites.

Thanks Alan! Here's a link to his website, which has info about all his books, including some interesting extras and background material.

Coming next: my interview with author Terra McVoy...

1 comment :

tanita davis said...

The samurai book was really good; looking forward to this one!