How I Wrote It: Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
Chad Harbach spent ten years working on his first novel, The Art of Fielding, which was selected as Amazon's top Best Books of the Month pick this month. Amazon's Kevin Nguyen called it "one of the year's finest works of fiction" and the novel has received stellar reviews elsewhere. We spoke with Harbach by phone last week about some of the details of his writing process. Here's a gently edited version of that conversation. (A link to the full audio version is below).
Q: When and where did you write this book?
A: Geographically it was written in lots of different places because I lived in several different cities over the course of the composition. But my physical process is pretty much the same. I mostly write in cafes, and I write all the first drafts longhand. So there are cafes in Boston and in New York and in Charlottesville, Virginia, and in Wisconsin where I've camped out for many long hours, churning out the initial drafts of each chapter.
A: The computer has a way of being pretty paralyzing if you're trying to compose on it, because you have that single blank screen and you feel tempted to just go back and go back and change what you're doing as you're doing it. The other thing I like about writing longhand is that there's a natural revision process that comes just from typing it into my laptop. Because, I kind of think that I'm going to transcribe word for word, but you very naturally wind up omitting the parts that are boring you as you go along. So you have a natural step in which you're cutting stuff down. And of course if a better word or a better idea occurs to me as I'm doing that, of course I just make the change as it happens. I guess that's the first round of revision, just typing it into the computer.
Q: Do you have any routines that you stick with? Are you a coffee fiend? Are you plugged into headphones listening to music? What's your "workspace," as you've taken it from city to city?
A: Of course, I wrote the book over a period of a lot of years, and during that time I had jobs and I had different prospects going on… I kind of wrote the book in bursts of a few months at a time, because when I was working on it, I needed to be doing it every day, but I didn't always have the time to work on it every day … For each of those few-month spurts that I was working on it, I would develop a set of routines that would last me for the duration of those few months. And they would differ from time to time. Sometimes it would be every morning, sometimes it would be afternoon. But generally it just involved going to the same place at the same time every day and drinking a pot of tea and just going as far through as I could.
A: You know, I can, but I've largely stopped… Of course, if you're working in a café there's probably music being played for you. It's very rare that you go to any public place these days and there's not something playing in the background. But I don't like to put headphones on and then have to crank my headphones up over the cafe music.
Q: Speaking of distractions... If you work in these intense bursts, it sounds like you're disciplined enough to be focused on what you're doing and just get the job done. But are there things you've had to be careful of allowing you to be distracted from the task at hand?
A: It's hard. I think it's another argument for not composing on my computer. I'm not so disciplined from one moment to the next. I've got to try and remove the distraction before I get started ... Once I've been writing every day for a few weeks, then it's really hard to get distracted. When I'm just getting going and getting back into it, then I'm incredibly susceptible to being distracted. Because the work, when you've been away from it for awhile, and you're not in that deep rhythm, it's frustrating and you're willing to tool around the Internet just to ease the frustration. It kind of depends on what stage I'm at.
Q: What are you reading during these intense writing bursts? Are you reading other books? Is there anything you might turn to for inspiration or distraction?
A: I'm also an editor at n+1, so I always have a certain amount of reading that I'm doing for that. I'm usually reading and editing for n+1 at the same time, so I often go embarrassingly long stretches without getting to read much fiction. But every once in a while, when I feel like I wasn't quite hitting the right notes, there are certain writers who I turn to briefly to remind myself of what really beautiful prose was. Chekov is one of those writers for me. I'll sit and read a couple Chekov stories and say, 'Oh, that's how you do it.' Deborah Eisenberg is another one of those writers. I like to just turn to a story or two and let that kind of center me a little bit.
Q: Was there one scene or passage that was particularly memorable or difficult or enjoyable to write? And can you recall what was going on when you were working on that one particular spot?
A: Very early on, actually, there's the critical scene at the beginning of the book where President Affenlight is at the game and Owen gets hit in the face by the baseball, which now occurs a little bit into the book but was actually one of the first things that I wrote. And that was a moment that felt like a very fortuitous moment of writing. Because I wound up writing that scene in a way that I had not envisioned going into the scene, and it turned out to be a scene that kind of expanded and changed the scope of the book in a way. Because I knew that I wanted to write the scene where Henry makes his first bad throw. And the germ of the book was always the relationship between Henry and Mike, and then this crisis that Henry had. But I knew that I needed to see that scene through the eyes of an outside observer. So I was like, alright, there's someone in the stands who's watching this. And I started to write the scene from the point of view of that person in the stands, and over the course of writing it that person turned out to be President Affenlight. And then I was asking myself, well, why is he there? And then it turned out he was there because he had come to see Owen, who then gets hit in the face. So this was early on and I had been planning the novel a little bit, but I had not really planned President Affenlight. So that was the one moment when I was getting going on the novel that felt very fortuitous, and I was like, Aha, now I'm starting to see the bigger shape of this thing.
Q: And do you remember anything about where you were when that occurred? Anything else that was going on around you?
A: I do remember it. It was a really long time ago, when I was living in Boston, before I had even gone to begin my MFA. That chapter actually was my MFA program application. So I wrote that chapter sitting in my apartment in Cambridge.
Q: What's it been like to have worked on this for so long and suddenly be in a media storm and getting all kinds of attention? (Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, the New York Times...) How're things feeling?
A: Things feel great! I have to say I'm really tired today. It's the end of what's been a really long and just amazing week ... It's really sort of humbling and hard to describe. You almost wish… It kind of all happened at once and you wish you could stretch it out a little bit.
-To hear the full audio interview, click here: Chad Harbach interview
-Amazon.com editors' Best Books of the Month, September