Chad Harbach: The Strategies of Baseball, Friendship, and Love
Author: Frederick McKindra
February 6, 2012
“…these guys, whether or not they would ever admit it, I know they spend a lot of time looking at one another’s bodies, comparing bodies to one another, in very close contact. So you know, whether or not it’s ever conceived of as explicitly sexual, there’s a lot of sensual material there.”
The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown and Company), Chad Harbach’s bestselling debut literary jock novel—named one of the NY Times’ “10 Best in 2011”—opens with a gesture toward “bromance.” Young Henry Skrimshander’s aspirations don’t stretch much further than working up his next good sweat fielding grounders, until he meets Mike Schwartz—the baseball captain of the fictional Westish College. This intense friendship rescues Henry from laboring alongside his father, and delivers him unto the Westish College campus. Under Mike’s watchful tutelage, Henry becomes a baseball player whose feats attract admiration from the sleepy campus and MLB scouts alike.
Then there’s Owen Dunne, Henry’s first college roommate at Westish—a gift to Residence Life Directors and authors alike. Biracial, handsome and GAY (in capital letters), Owen proves enough of a ballplayer to warrant a jersey number and roster spot for the baseball squad at Westish. Owen too finds love, though unlike the platonic ideal tossing between Henry and Mike, Owen seduces Guert Affenlight, the heretofore straight, middle-aged college President.
Henry’s fall from prodigy to pauper follows an accident that both injures and beautifies Owen. Harbach hinges his novel’s momentum on whether Henry can recover a love of the game without the support of Mike, or whether any of the other characters can mature beyond the feelings that propelled their initial relationships. .
Below, Lambda ambushes Harbach with questions on his novel’s tone, as ripe with homoeroticism as any locker room. And the author gamely replies.
As kid-gloves as I can be about it, just so that I don’t run into one of those Michael Chabon Mysteries of Pittsburgh moments, I just wanted to confirm that you are straight.
OK. So with that clear, Did you foresee inserting the sort of homoerotic overtones and gay content into this novel when you began writing, both in terms of Affenlight’s romantic relationship with Owen, but also with Henry and Mike’s intense friendship?
Yeah. Even though it took me a really long time to write the book, I think a lot of the basic elements of the plot and the characters were all things that were there pretty early on.
I started the book with Henry and Mike, and their relationship was really the first germ of the book. I knew that I didn’t want the book to be just about baseball. I wasn’t interested in writing a sports novel, per se. I knew that I wanted it to be a little broader and wider than that. I think one of the real kind of fortuitous moments in the writing of the book was when Affenlight showed up. I hadn’t really planned that out, it was just something where I was writing a scene at a baseball game and I didn’t want it to be narrated by a baseball player. I wanted a kind of outsider there, just seeing the action, and President Affenlight’s character just sprung up. And then his crush on Owen kind of also just sprung up. But when it happened, it felt right, and it felt really germane to everything that was going on in the book.
I think part of the reason it made sense was also part of the reason why it made sense for me very early on to have the Moby Dick and Melville stuff in the background of the book. Because the book is really in a lot of ways just about the ways that I think that men lean on one another. From a kind of antagonistic relationship, to the very close and in some ways, you know, kind of homosocial relationship that Henry and Mike have. And then including Guert and Owen’s homosexual relationship. I think that in a book that’s just so much about all the different ways that guys relate to one another, that [explicit homosexual] relationship made sense to me right away when it happened.
Was there ever any temptation to tilt Henry and Mike’s relationship? Where they would become aware of how enrapt they were with one another, and turn that physical?
Well, I think they are at some level kind of aware of it. But no, I was never tempted to do that. It really would have…boy, that would have become an entirely different book.
(Laughing) It would be. But one of the things I was really surprised by was your affinity for describing male bodies in a way that was really convincing, and I think fresh. So, you have scenes like Henry returning to campus, and he has this adolescent funk surrounding him, where he’s not aware of his need to wear deodorant. I just loved that.
I loved just how damp Mike was throughout the book, like this natural, athletic, like bearish body. I just wondered whether or not you yourself were aware of those tics, because it was very seductive for a gay reader.
(Laughing) Uhh, yeah. I mean, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it in quite that way…but I’m describing these athletes, and it’s a cliché to say so, right, but there’s a sport’s team, and a locker room, I mean that’s obviously a pretty charged…(laughing)…you know, and these guys, whether or not they would ever admit it, I know they spend a lot of time looking at one another’s bodies, comparing bodies to one another, in very close contact. So you know, whether or not it’s ever conceived of as explicitly sexual, there’s a lot of sensual material there.
And you as a writer felt capable of accessing that kind of sensual material?
But it didn’t feel like something you were reaching toward in the actual process, but it came sort of naturally and fluidly within the process of making the book?
I didn’t want to reach for effects. I wanted to stick with what I could really, solidly, do.
So there are several fictional novels described in the book. I’ve heard critics talk about wanting to actually read one of them—The Art of Fielding—but the book that I’m more interested in, actually, is The Spermsqueezers.
So I just wondered how does that book read in your imagination. Is it like Leslie Fielder’s Love and Death in the American Novel or something? Like that was what immediately came to mind, but I was just wondering how you imagined that book.
Well, first off, the title “Spermsqueezers” is based off of a chapter in Moby Dick. I think that comes from, when I was in college; I studied English, I took a seminar that was entirely devoted to Melville. I’ve studied a lot of 19th century American literature. When I was in college, in the mid-90s, gay studies had really taken off at that time. It was a very prominent part of the humanities curriculum at a lot of places. So I was just kind of speaking of Affenlight as being a kind of early star of that scholarship.
So Affenlight as a gay character was already in your mind when you came up with “Spermsqueezers” the title. Is that true?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Did the presence of Melville enter before Affenlight entered as a gay character, because I feel like it just seemed so logical to make Melville the patron saint of the novel, knowing how much material you would have there to mine?
Yeah. I think both those things happened really early, and it was like so long ago that it’s really hard to [revisit] the actual process, but I always felt that this whole, that the baseball team, these guys who spend so much time together, and go out, in pursuit of this “obviously” like common goal, that that whole process of a team going through a season was in a lot of ways analogous to the whaling ship and the quest in Moby Dick. That analogy seemed really strong early on. And then of course, a whole lot of kind of homosexual and homoerotic stuff in Moby Dick which all kind of extended to the book, too.
I’ve noticed that here later, not in the initial reviews, but later, a lot of critics themselves were wondering whether there was enough done to establish these latent homoerotic tendencies in Affenlight. Did you think of that yourself, whether or not you were convinced that this sort of late-homosexuality was really plausible, or if it felt like more of an effect?
Well, I’m not really sure what you…
What that question means? Let me try and rephrase. One critic in particular compared the book to Death in Venice, and the recent book by Michal Cunningham, By Nightfall. All of which have characters who are straight, until later in life and then come into a sort of homosexual desire. Like an unexpected homosexual desire. And so, I was just wondering whether or not it felt, Affenlight and his…and maybe that’s a part of it. Maybe it felt so natural that you didn’t feel the need to layer in all of these sort of latent things that would’ve alerted Affenlight if he’d only been aware of them like somewhere in his history. Like, I think people were wondering where those gestures were?
Well I haven’t read that piece, so maybe it’s a totally valid critique. And I think if I didn’t do enough of that, I think it’s probably, a function of, for one thing, having multiple story lines going on.
If I had written a novel that was more closely and exclusively focused on Affenlight and Owen’s relationship, that probably would have, I assume that would’ve been richer. On the other hand, it feels natural to me, and I’m very satisfied with the way it’s portrayed. I mean, Affenlight’s certainly not based on any one in particular, but since I’ve started writing the book, and since I’ve started writing that story line, I’ve met quite a few men to whom this has happened.
I think the circumstances are always different, and of course these aren’t always people who I’ve known a long time, who I can judge the clues and the mystery of all of it. I think it’s something that happens, and often seems very surprising to whom it’s happening.
One reviewer said that they considered you courageous for including that kind of relationship, the Owen-Affenlight relationship, based off of, and this is me quoting, “the general reluctance of writers and publishers to tackle the subject.” So I just wondered whether or not you felt courageous in writing it, or whether or not you would receive that, how you would receive that praise?
I don’t know if it’s courageous. I don’t want to claim “courageous.” But I think it is something that is a risk for writers. For any writer who writes about gay relationships, because a lot of people aren’t going to want to buy your book. For me, it’s just the way that I originally conceived of the story, and the way that I originally conceived of the men, and I never kind of considered doing it any other way.
I was talking to a friend of mine who said his gripe with the book was Owen, actually, the character who is closest to his perspective. I was just curious how you would respond to a gay man rankling at Owen, who gets access to the jockdom of Westish, but also always is at this remove, and in some ways a feminine remove. If I were to pull every quote, there was – “Owen kisses Affenlight on the tip of the penis in a womanly way” and then it’s, after they go to a hotel to make love, “Affenlight lays on his side in a quintessentially feminine posture, as with his free hand he caressed Owen’s belly which itself felt almost feminine, not muscled, but soft?” I was just wondering whether or not you were aware of those tics?
I would say, you’re seeing those scenes through Affenlight’s perspective. So what you have there, is Affenlight at this very confusing juncture in his life, he’s doing this very confusing stuff, and he’s trying to relate it back to his own experience, which has always ever been with women. So like, when he’s having the exploratory sexual relationship with Owen, he’s always like, “Is this the same as being with a woman? Is it in some ways? How is it different?” So he’s always trying to view it, he can only view it, through the prism of his own experience. Which means he’s not going to have a totally objective or perfect view of it. It’s always going to be a very strange and idiosyncratic view.
Affenlight is this tall, upright, handsome man, very accomplished, President of the school, in this position of power, a real kind of alpha male, but in his courtship with Owen, he’s really in the sterotypically feminine role. Owen is really in charge of that whole situation. Affenlight is totally not in control. He’s kind of totally at the mercy of Owen because their pursuing this kind of courtship that Owen knows about, and Affenlight knows nothing about. So [Affenlight] is really the kind of deferential, “feminine” one.
Creatively, is that the way that a straight guy would be able to access this sexuality, by always referring it back to their experience with women? Fictionally?
I think it’s anxiety on the one hand. It’s like “What am I doing?” you know.
If you could, what were the conversations like with your publisher, once they’d gotten a chance to look at the book. I mean, not to assume that there was any reticence for doing that material, but was it acknowledged, did you anticipate there being any sort of questions about it, were there any questions about it, how did people just feel about that part of the story?
My editor, Michael Pietsch, and everybody at Little Brown, didn’t want me to kind of make any major changes to the book. Michael was a great editor, and I certainly did a lot of work between the time that I sold the book and the time that it was published. But there was no discussion of doing any kind of major renovation on that or any other topic
I don’t know if the gay aspect of the book was ever talked about that much, but there was a sort of running joke that Michael had, that this book, which they had bought, was a combination of three [novels]: it was a “baseball novel,” it was a “campus novel,” and it was a “gay novel” (laughter). Three things that an ambitious publisher should steer clear of, all wrapped up in one.
I’m more curious to know whether people out on tour have been approaching the book as a “baseball novel” and sort of happening upon the Afflenlight-Owen stuff, and then by extension the “sort of” homo-social stuff, or if you’ve noticed people are coming in with those expectations and knowing that it’s there?
There have been a lot of different responses. The gay element–I kind of snuck it in. Snuck it past, you know what I mean. I think [some] of the readership, if they had really known about it up front, they might not have picked up the book; but they did pick up the book, and they got into the book, and they were really liking it, so they just kind of accepted it.
I’ve had all different sorts of readers, with all different reactions, but I’ve definitely noticed that being a kind of theme. People who if you’d asked them beforehand if they wanted to read a book with a kind of gay theme in it they might’ve said no, but once they got into the book they warmed up to it.
Did you feel like some of the initial press around the book sort of elided that area of the book. I felt like there was a lot, a lot of the stuff that I saw earlier, around the time that the book came out – so much so that when I was initially coming toward the book, I’m also a huge sports fan – I was interested in it because I saw that it was a literary sports book. Had no IDEA that there was this “gay” element coming in, so when I finally came across that tidbit of information, I was like “Oh, hell yeah I’m reading this.” But it was curious to me, and I wondered whether or not you’d recognized that too, that somehow that seemed to miss a lot of the initial talk around the book.
I think most all the reviews talked about it, but in a pretty secondary way. Kind of the dominant question was whether, you know, is it a “baseball book” or not a “baseball book.” And the gay element was definitely in paragraph eight (laughter).
I forget you’re a magazine man, so you understand the hierarchy of those paragraphs.
Yeah. It’s not the lead. It’s not the lead.
Right. Could it be? Could people attach language like “bromance” to this comfortably, or at least in a way that you would be comfortable with?
It’s a book about, largely, about relationships, and largely about “bromantic” relationships, homosexual and heterosexual. I think that is how the book has been described. Which is cool by me.
Well, what do you want to communicate about the way that men relate to one another? Or what’s interesting about that at least?
I think what’s interesting about it is just how much more complicated and interesting male friendships and relationships are than they’re portrayed a lot of the time. There’s a point late in the book when Henry and Mike are not speaking to one another…
Ohh…yes, that was when it got thick for me… (laughter)
…and Henry’s thinking about this, and he’s starting to realize how much he needs Mike and how kind of profound their relationship is, and also how there aren’t really, there’s not really a vocabulary for this and there’s not really a way of thinking about it because I think as a culture we have, we—in a way, the gay community has developed a kind of vocabulary for some of this stuff. But then, outside of that, there’s a really kind of reductive description of the way that men interact. There’s a moment when Henry kind of realizes that, and he realizes how much he needs Mike, and how little the society at large is able to understand how much he needs Mike.
I don’t want to try and boil down the book, but I just think there’s a whole kind of crazy spectrum of the way that men feel about each other and interact with each other that doesn’t often get described