Art of writing: Harbach knocks it out of the park
Literary phenom Chad Harbach credits the Hook for his runaway success with The Art of Fielding, the book that was on everyone's top 10 list for 2011.
Okay, that's not remotely true. What is true is that Harbach was a runner-up in the Hook's 2003 fiction contest with a story called "Kayley's Constellations."
"It was the first thing I ever had published," says Harbach, a UVA creative writing MFA. "One of the judges loved it. One thought it should be disqualified because it was so profane. Second place was a compromise. I got $50."
Since then, Harbach went on to co-found n+1, a well-regarded New York-based literary magazine that's now on a sound enough footing to have three employees, he says. But his major claim to fame these days is as a literary rarity: a first-time author who inspires a major bidding war.
All for a book ostensibly about baseball. The story of the making of The Art of Fielding was documented in Vanity Fair last fall by Harbach's friend and n+1 co-founder, Keith Gessen. It details the nine years it took for Harbach to write the book, the state of publishing, the rejections, and the ultimate race for the rights of a first-time novelist that didn't end until the price hit an unheard-of $665K.
And the first thing Harbach did with the cash? "By the time I got any money, I'd been without a job for a year," says Harbach. "I owed a lot of people money. Keith had been paying my rent."
Harbach, 36, was raised in Racine, Wisconsin, and like his Fielding character, Henry Skrimshander, Harbach was a shortstop when he played baseball in high school for St. Catherine's Angels.
A few years after graduation from Harvard, he came to Charlottesville for UVA's writing program. And while writing classes seem commonplace now, Harbach says his first-term class with Deborah Eisenberg was the first he'd ever taken.
Eisenberg— an esteemed MacArthur grant short-story writer who's been wooed away from UVA by Columbia University— remains an influence. He even lives in her old apartment in a classic downtown Charlottesville building.
Harbach had begun The Art of Fielding before coming to UVA. "I don't think I got anything done on it while I was here," he says. After graduating in 2004, he moved to New York— and continued to work on Fielding.
"I went to work all day, and all my friends would go out, and I'm stuck here at a desk," he remembers.
And over the course of nine years, the story of Skrimshander, Westish College in northern Wisconsin, its loser baseball team, the Harpooners, its determined-to-win catcher, Mike Schwartz, its president, Guert Affenlight, and the influence of Herman Melville all changed...very little.
"In a lot of ways, it's very close to what I envisioned," says Harbach. "I didn't know everything that was going to happen. It slowly changed, and got better— I hope— over time."
Throughout the long writing years, his family remained supportive. "Where I'm from, no one goes to a school like Harvard," he says. "Then to reap no tangible benefits for six, eight, nine years— they were a little worried about me, and relieved when it sold."
And boy did it sell. The Art of Fielding is coming out in 20-some languages, says Harbach, who just got back from promoting it in Amsterdam. He spent the past six months traveling constantly, doing publicity. "It's a full-time job," says Harbach, "a very pleasant full-time job."
He adds, "Very different from sitting in a room for nine years writing."
Why here? I went to grad school at UVA years ago, and moved back in 2010 as a sort of respite from New York.
What's worst about living here? Just how damn easy it is.
Favorite hangout? Mudhouse
Most overrated virtue? My own? Equanimity
People would be surprised to know: That I was the runner-up in the Hook fiction contest in, like, 2003. [Editor's note: Er, no, we've already totally blabbed that.]
What would you change about yourself? I would've won that contest.
Proudest accomplishment? Having cofounded n+1, my favorite magazine.
Whom do you admire? Keith Gessen
Favorite book? Moby Dick
Subject that causes you to rant? Global warming
Biggest 21st-century thrill? Getting email. Probably more a spiraling addiction than a thrill, but whatever.
Biggest 21st-century creep out? Global warming
What do you drive? Volkswagen Jetta TDI
In your car CD player right now: Bill Frisell & Frank Ocean
Next journey? Australian book tour
Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Like, legal trouble?
Regret: I wish I'd learned five languages when I was young, and my brain could do anything. Now it's hard enough to remember everybody's name.
Favorite comfort food: Curry chicken salad from Rev Soup
Always in your refrigerator: Homemade sauerkraut. In case anybody wants to stop by.
Must-see TV: March Madness
Walter Mitty fantasy: To be a great shortstop— I wrote a book about it.
Who'd play you in the movie? Maybe that one dude? From the thing? I don't see a lot of movies.
Best advice you ever got? Write every day.
Favorite bumper sticker? Bumper stickers make me nervous. Imagine, the same joke over and over and over again.
Harbach appears at two Virginia Festival of the Book events:
• "Fiction: Harbach, Henderson, Preston—Highly Recommended!" 8pm Thursday, March 22, UVA Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections Library
• "UVA MFA Alumni Reading," noon Friday, March 23, UVA BookstoreRead more on: chad harbach