Batter Up! Interview with Alan Gratz

Alan GratzAlan Gratz is the author of two YA mysteries, Something Rotten and Something Wicked, as well as a coming-of-age historical novel set in Japan, Samurai Shortstop; and has recently been signed to contribute to a new YA series based on the Star Trek franchise (pause for a fan-girl moment). But we’re here today to talk about his two latest books, both middle-grade novels: The Brooklyn Nine (2009), and the newly-released Fantasy Baseball.

So, Alan, I detect a theme! Though perhaps not the obvious one. Baseball is certainly central to both these books: The Brooklyn Nine traces one family’s extraordinary devotion to the sport through several generations; Fantasy Baseball takes the popular obsession with assembling a virtual dream team to its literal extreme—and then there’s Samurai Shortstop, which managed, amazingly, to draw parallels between the quintessential American sport and the warrior tradition in Japan. But running throughout is the larger theme of memory and connectedness, and of preserving the threads of culture. How did you hit upon baseball as a vehicle for exploring those concepts—or was it a conscious decision?

Baseball was definitely a conscious decision with Samurai Shortstop, and that decision has continued to inform all my baseball-themed books. I think baseball lends itself to stories about family and memory and history so well because baseball itself is rife with all those things. Baseball has been with us in America so long that we have a team that last won the World Series 102 years ago. We have families with three generations of pro baseball players. We hold up the statistics of contemporary players to players who played more than two hundred years ago. For such a young nation, the United States has a long history with baseball. It seems to be almost as old as the nation is, although it’s not. Almost, but not quite.

Baseball has history, and true baseball fans revel in that history. It is a sport that builds upon itself, year after year, generation after generation, like a family. But I also think the design of the game has something of the theme you’re talking about. If you think about the basic goal of baseball, it’s to head out from home, take a journey, and return home again. That, arguably, is the core proto-story of human existence: someone leaves home and then comes back. There and back again. Unlike other sports where territory is gained and lost or goals are attacked, baseball has this journey-like feel to it, out and back again, which I think makes it a natural fit for storytelling. T.S. Eliot once said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” That’s historical fiction in a nutshell, I think: we take a trip into the past, only to discover that in many ways it’s just like the present. Only the names and dates and details are different.

Theme aside, these books are, first of all, highly engaging stories, filled with fast-paced play-by-play action. I have to ask—were you a sports announcer in another life?

It’s funny—in high school a friend and I became the announcers for the basketball and football teams. (There wasn’t a PA announcer for baseball or soccer.) We had a lot of fun doing it too. We made up nicknames for the players, and had catchphrases. We used to get complaints from the opposing team fans, because we always announced their team’s accomplishments completely deadpan, then jazzed up our team’s accomplishments. We called it home field advantage.

I’ve never been a good athlete, so my connection to sports has always come in writing or talking about it in some way. Sports books, I suppose, are a natural extension of what I was doing as a sports announcer in school. If I weren’t writing books, I know one thing I would love to do is be a sports journalist—but I would want to write in the purple prose of the classic sports journalists, not the dry impartiality of a lot of sports writing today. So I don’t know if it would be a good fit after all.

Fantasy Baseball is a feast of allusions to classic children’s books. You could structure a whole semester’s worth of reading based on the characters mentioned. I guess it’s too early for much reader feedback, but are you hearingFantasy Baseball from grateful teachers and librarians?

It is a bit early, but those who’ve heard the pitch love the idea of highlighting characters from classic children’s books. When I’ve talked about the book so far with student groups, I often ask for a show of hands—how many of you have read The Wind in the Willows? I get maybe one, two hands from the kids. Hardly anyone reads that book anymore. Yes, it’s a slow starter, but it’s a magnificent book on so many levels. It’s a shame it’s not getting read anymore! I hope that by making Toad a major character in Fantasy Baseball I get a few students to return to Wind in the Willows. Same with all the other great characters I was able to use in the book.

Which of the storybook characters did you enjoy working with most—and which do you think had the best time “suiting up” for his/her/its team?

Toad, clearly, was a favorite. I liked making Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz more three dimensional as well. I found that Pippi Longstocking was easy to suit up as a baseball player too. You can totally hear her saying, “Let’s play two!” And with that weird super-strength she shows off every now and then in her books, she’s a great clean-up hitter. One of my other favorite things was thinking about how a team of giants would play baseball—and how you beat them. That’s one of my favorite storybook/baseball mash-ups in the whole book.

Seriously, how much fun was the research for this book?

It was great. Just like a lot of students, there were classics I hadn’t read either. Anne of Green Gables? Never read it. Not until I wanted to put Anne Shirley on a team of spunky girls. I knew her character, but I’d never read any of L.M. Montgomery’s books. Anne of Green Gables is fantastic. Loved it. And I’m sure, given the towering stack of contemporary children’s books I have by my bedside waiting to be read, I would never otherwise have moved it to the top of my pile. It was a real joy to discover classics I had never read and to rediscover books I hadn’t read since I was a boy. Like A Wrinkle in Time! Or The Phantom Tollbooth. I hope readers of Fantasy Baseball will have as much fun running into all these great characters as I did writing them in.

The Brooklyn NineSpeaking of research, The Brooklyn Nine contains a ton of authentic baseball trivia. That seems to be another common theme: your stories are so thoroughly grounded in a historical context, real or imagined—can you estimate the time you spent gathering data for each of your two latest books?

Whew. Well, I can tell you that the research for The Brooklyn Nine took me the better part of a year. Nine different generations, nine different eras of American history? All right, I could at least cover the last two eras (the 1980s and the 2000s) on my own, but everything else was research. And I had to do almost as much research for each story as I would have had to do for an entire book set in that period! What was I thinking!? 🙂 Seriously, it took a lot of research—particularly as in most cases I let the research inspire the stories, rather than the other way around. I was reading to find stories, which takes a lot of time. It was well-worth it though. I learned a ton, and found great stories to tell.

Fantasy Baseball took time of course to reread a lot of books—particularly those where I knew I had to get the character voices just right. That’s one though where I knew a lot of the characters, and then was able to seek out the right books to read. Instead of reading them all at once, I read them as I worked on the outline and the book, incorporating the characters’ voices and personalities more fully with each draft. The Brooklyn Nine and Fantasy Baseball were definitely the two longest books I’ve written. Both of them took about two years from start to finish, I think.

Your books are the “boy books” everyone’s looking for—you can’t get much more guy-friendly than baseball—but I was struck by how accessible they are to non-sports fans and non-guys in general (such as your friendly interviewer). I happen to know you’re the proud father of a daughter—do you think that makes you more open to allowing the occasional female a spot on the roster?

I never set out to be a “boy book” writer. I was just trying to tell stories that were a lot of fun and maybe meant something if you were looking for it. But of course, you write about sports and make boys your main characters, and your books are quickly labeled “boy books.” I’m all right with that, but yes, I do try very hard to make sure they are accessible to a wide audience. It seemed like fully half of the reviews of Samurai Shortstop—most of which were written by women—began, “I generally hate baseball/sports books, but—” and then they would go on to say how the book wasn’t about baseball so much as family, or history, or friendship, or growing up. I didn’t mean for that book to have a huge “BOYS ONLY” label on the cover, but apparently some people see one there! So I’m not really writing to make sure my daughter Jo likes my books, no—I’m just writing a story I think will be fun to read, and my job is to make sure it’s fun for everyone to read. Or at least, as many people as possible.

Having written for both the YA and the middle-grade market, how do you define the differences between the two audiences? What makes Alex (the main character from Fantasy Baseball) such a typically contemporary sixth-grader?

I think the real difference between Middle-Grade and Young Adult fiction is a difference in perspective. Let’s say you have a story about a child in a family going through a divorce. The middle-grade child thinks things like, “Whose house am I going to live at? Where will I keep all my toys? At which house will I have my birthday party? Am I going to have to move?” The young adult kid thinks things like, “Will I ever find the right person to love who loves me back? Is there any such thing as true love?” The world of the middle grader is small. It’s the world of the family, of the school, of the neighborhood. The world of the teenager is much bigger. It’s the entire world. Teenagers are beginning to see the world doesn’t revolve around them (believe it or not); that there is a far greater picture here, one they have to find their place in.

Alex’s main concern in Fantasy Baseball is simply to get home. Just like Dorothy, another classic middle-grade character. He’s not interested in putting the Big Bad Wolf behind bars or saving Ever After. He only becomes interested in bigger picture things like finding meaning in life or coming to grips with mortality when he can’t avoid those things any longer. That’s what it is to be a middle schooler. You’re just beginning to awaken to the bigger world outside your sphere, but you’re still more interested in playing kickball than solving world hunger. We forget that, sometimes, as adults writing for kids. We’ve made the leap from childhood to adulthood. We understand there’s a bigger picture. We have to forget that, sometimes, when writing for kids, and remember that the small, insignificant things in life are sometimes the most important things in the world when you’re eight.

Other than the aforementioned detour into the Star Trek universe, what’s next for you? Is there another middle-grade novel in the works?

I’ve just finished an alternate-history American fantasy story set in a world where steam power is king and giant monsters sleep beneath the earth. A bit of a digression for me, I know. There’s not a baseball to be seen in the whole book! I had a blast writing it, and I hope it finds a home with a publisher. Fingers crossed! It’s middle-grade again though; I think I may have found my home in middle-grade. I love teenagers, and get along great with them, but I think, when I’m honest with myself, I’m still a seventh-grader at heart. 🙂

Thank you for taking the time from the flurry of launch activities to discuss your books with us, Alan. Now that baseball season is underway, which team are you backing for the pennant this year—any early favorites?

I suppose I like the Phillies in the National League. Not too much of a surprise there, except to say that I don’t think the Giants can repeat. I don’t follow the American League well enough to give you a prediction there! My favorite team of late has been the Los Angeles Dodgers—a fandom born out of two things. First, I did a ton of research into the Dodgers for The Brooklyn Nine, and liked what I read. Second, their games are usually on at 10 p.m. Eastern, which means they’re starting right when I have the TV all to myself! I don’t think they’ve got the write stuff this year, but it’s a long season yet…

Thanks for the interview!

Thank you, Alan! We’ll let you get back to sleeping giants (can’t wait for that one!) . . . and late night baseball.

In Alan’s latest book, eleven-year-old Alex finds himself playing baseball for the Cyclones, a team made up of storybook characters, with Dorothy from The Wondeful Wizard of Oz as pitcher. Who would be pitcher on your middle-grade fantasy team, and why? Leave a comment below, and we’ll pick one name at random to receive a copy of  Fantasy Baseball, by Alan Gratz. The winner will be announced Thursday afternoon (April 14).