Tag Archive for Six Innings Preller

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #269: Gerard in the Philippines!

postalletter-150x150

 

 

Dear Mr. James Preller,
Greetings!
I am Gerard _______, a Grade 11 student of Mapua University in the Philippines. I became fond of your book “Six Innings” because as a former student-athlete myself, I love sports and this book particularly caught my attention as one of my favorite sports is actually baseball. I got interested to playing baseball growing up as my father was once a baseball pitcher.
I would like to commend you for your amazing book and its success. Personally, every detail of the book was very well put together and I liked the fact that I can visualize every word of the book. You put a lot of thought into making this book, and that is a testament of how passionate you are about your career. I genuinely enjoyed reading every bit of your book.
paperback-cover-six-inningsApart from that, I know playing sports really does instill valuable lessons in life. As an author, where do you find the inspiration in writing “Six Innings?” I know every author has his or her inspiration. I would like to ask you this because I would try my luck in writing and telling my own stories, and garnering information from you would really help me.
You really did inspire me through your book. As I was reading your book, I keep getting flashbacks of my time as a former student-athlete, and looking back, I realized how much I have grown and I saw the things I was not able to before.
Keep inspiring your readers as we have, hopefully, inspired you as well. I would like to express my sincerest gratitude for inspiring me in all aspects of my life as a son, as a student, and as a person. I wish you all the best in your career. Thank you for taking the time reading my email. I will be looking forward to hearing from you.
Sincerely,
Gerard _______
Manila, Philippines

 

Inspired by Gerard’s inquisitiveness, I replied at length . . .

Dear Gerard,

Thanks for your letter all the way from the Philippines (that’s one “l” and two “p’s” for the spelling-challenged, I tell myself). While I have previously enjoyed receiving letters from far-flung places, it never ceases to amaze me.
 
Some dude named Gerard in the Philippines read my book!
 
We connected across all the distance.
 
Aren’t books amazing? Such a solitary process — the writing of a book, as well as the reading of a book — and yet here we are, connected, a lit fuse.
 
You asked about my inspiration for Six Innings. 
 
Since you are obviously a thoughtful reader, a little older and — maybe? — a writer yourself, I thought I’d try to answer that with a little more detail than usual.
 
Inspirations are slippery things, very hard to pin down. Once you think you’ve got it — ah-ha! that’s why I wrote the book! — it squirts away like a bar of soap. There is rarely, for me, one single inspiration. It’s more of an accumulation of events, perceptions, feelings. At a certain point you commit to a path, start hacking away in the jungle, and there’s no turning back.
 
But let’s begin with my mother. She was a huge baseball fan when I was growing up. My mother loved the Brooklyn Dodgers when she was a girl in Queens, NY, and later transferred her allegiance to the NY Mets. At a certain point, I came along, her seventh (and best) child, and shared her love of the game. I now believe that my love of baseball is also an expression of my love for my mother, the two are deeply connected in my mind and heart.
 
I have vivid memories of playing Little League baseball when I was a small boy — I can tell you exactly what happened on baseball diamonds nearly 50 years ago, which is crazy. That stuff stayed with me. Forever, it seems. And that awareness informed me that it was also true for other kids. These games were important to them. It mattered. It was where they lived. Later as a father, I had the opportunity to coach and manage many teams and hundreds of games at every level (even adult). So I began to see the game from that perspective, too.
 
I also enjoy reading baseball books, and I’ve read quite a number over the years. In fact, I have a pretty good collection of baseball classics on my bookshelves. It felt inevitable that one day, I would give it a try. I wanted one of my books on that shelf.
 
Then I had my “magic ball” idea (which I ultimately abandoned, but nevermind!). I was watching a film by John Sayles, I can’t recall which one, and it featured a long tracking shot. It occurs to me that I might be making this all up, something I imagined, but hang with me, Gerard. The camera follows a man as he enters a crowded party, people coming and going. A woman walks by and — whoosh! — the camera shifts and follows her. She bumps into someone else and — whoosh! — the camera swerves and now follows that person. It was all fluid and organic, not accomplished with editing, but via one long shot with a camera on wheels. The camera simply followed the next person to come along.
 
And I thought, Could I do that with a baseball?
IMG_2440
 
The pitcher holds the ball. I tell his story. The ball is thrown, the batter hits it, the center fielder races it down in the outfield. I tell his story. And so on. It could be that a foul ball goes into the stands — I can now tell that person’s story, the mother, the uncle, the friend. Just keep following the ball. My idea was to use the game to explore all these characters on the field. Through the initial writing process, and the editorial back-and-forth, we decided to hone tighter to the game itself. I had to cut more than 10,000 words of character sketches, background info.
 
It struck me that books move in two directions. Forward, or down. Forward means action, the plot moving along. Down is when we develop character, go deeper into things, stop time. When you write a book, that’s the tension — between forward or down. It’s very hard to do both at the same time (but possible in brief moments of revelatory action, where the action serves as a revelation of character). However, when a writer spends too much time exploring character, too much time digging, the plot stalls. There’s no forward motion! At the same time, if a book is only forward motion, a giant chase with nonstop action, then readers won’t connect with the characters.
 
Which is to say: My notion for the book ultimately failed in the first draft, in part, because I lost track of the forward motion (which was, of course, the game). Once I revised and got tighter to the game, I found there was still room to explore character; I just had to strike the proper balance. Every reader, of course, has his or her own preferences. Some people like a lot of plot, the page-turner; others want the depth of character, the closely observed scenes.
 
Thanks for your letter, Gerard. Dream big & swing for the fences!
 
James Preller

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #263: It’s 2 Degrees Out, Let’s Talk Baseball (Obviously)!

postalletter-150x150

The mail always gets delivered — through rain, sleet, and mind-numbingly (toe-numbingly?) cold weather. This one’s from Kaprice in Iowa!

Scan

I replied:

Dear Kaprice,

I am always glad to receive a letter about Six Innings, but it’s especially true today in the midst of frozen winter. It is actually 2 degrees outside as I type this. Two skinny degrees! Fortunately the sky is clear, the color of a robin’s egg, and the sun brightly reflected on the snow. Not a good day for baseball, but not so bad for sipping tea and staring out the window.

Titles can be tricky! For some books, I know the title from the beginning: Bystander and Six Innings, for example. For my new book, Better Off Undead, oh dear, that one took forever. But that book took me six years to write (don’t ask!), so I had plenty of time to come up with a lot of bad ideas. My original title was Zombie Me, which I still think is pretty good.

paperback-cover-six-inningsLike you, I am a baseball fan and enjoy reading about the sport. Roger Angell once famously quipped that writers love baseball so much because it’s the only sport that’s slow enough for them to understand. For Six Innings, my idea was to use the game as a structure for writing about characters, people. I knew from the beginning that I wanted the heart of the book to take place over the course of one game, six innings at the Little League level. But again: the game was only a device for exploring character. Real people, what they think and feel.

My oldest son, Nick, 24, is a two-time cancer survivor. I was inspired by his experiences, in particular his friendship with a boy named Sam Lewis. I find that’s often how it works with writing: the details of our own life inevitably leak into our stories, even the ones that are “made up.”

Thank you & Happy New Year!

James Preller

Gavin, Baseball, Six Innings, Championship Games, etc.

RE-POST: This was originally posted back in August, 2010, and I’m sharing it again because winter is on the wane. My thoughts turn to baseball. Maybe yours do, too. I wanted to tell this little behind-the-scenes story to my baseball book, an ALA Notable, Six Innings. You might even want to buy a copy (who am I kidding?).

 

I don’t like to brag, but.

Look at this kid, will ya.

That’s Gavin, right around his 11th birthday, back in June/July. We endured a heartbreaking All-Star experience and I had to let time pass before revisiting it.

This year, along with my friend Andy, I coached a team of ten-year-olds in the District 13 All-Star Tournament. We played five games and found ourselves in the Championship Game — a scenario not much different than what I wrote about in the book, Six Innings (now in paperback).

As it turns out, that was the problem. Six innings. Would it were five.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Gavin really shined in this tournament, played the best baseball of his life. Pitched a shutout, fielded great, hit a ton. He was focused and he cared and somehow it all came together for him.

As a parent, you love ’em whether they strike out or hit a double. And let me tell you — it’s easier when they hit the double.

So there he was on the mound to start the Championship Game against our talented arch-rivals. It was a tense game, all the boys felt it, and nerves got the best of many of them. Both sides made errors. By the top of the 6th, we were on top, 10-6. Gavin had pitched with poise and determination, but after throwing five full innings and 75 pitches, the Little League maximum for boys his age, it was time to turn the ball over to someone else.

We had a four run lead. We needed three more outs.

paperback-cover-six-inningsNever happened. Our rivals exploded for 11 runs (!) in the 6th — it was the longest, most brutal inning of my coaching career — and we fell, 17-10, with an ignoble thud. Gavin was seriously bummed. For my part, I slept less than two hours that night. Just tossed and turned and replayed it all in my head, over and over. It was a week before I could walk without a limp.

When you write a book, you can get that last out, the boy can kiss the girl, you can pick any ending you want. Real life, that’s a tougher thing.

So let’s look at that scene from Six Innings one more time . . .

Max takes the sign, nods, understands. He wants me to climb the ladder.

One last time, Max Young is alone in his daydreams, throwing against an imaginary hitter in a game of his own invention. He is the author and the instrument, the pitcher and the ball, the beginning and the end.

Max rocks back into his windup, he drives forward, the ball leaves his fingertips, comes in high and hard and true.

Angel Tatis hits nothing but air. Swing and a miss.

That’s it. Game over.

Max drops to his knees, flings his glove high into the sky. All the boys rush the mound, shouting, screaming, piling on . . . .

Sigh.

Outpost Center Field: Reading & Writing About Baseball

Willie Mays, "the catch," from the 1954 World Series. Arguably the greatest play in the history of center field.

Willie Mays, “the catch,” from the 1954 World Series. Arguably the greatest play in the history of center field.

I was recently reading a book by Philip Roth and came across a similarity to something I had written back in 2008. His words struck me as eerily familiar.

The relevant section in my book, Six Innings, focuses on center fielder Scooter Wells. For this book, my original idea came from watching an elaborate tracking shot by film director John Sayles. I actually forget which movie, and I may have all the details wrong, but the essence stands: I admired how the camera followed a character into a crowded room, came across a new face and then trailed after that person until someone else came into view, and the camera again swiveled and changed direction to follow that character. I wondered if I could try a similar device by using a ball in a Little League game. Tell the story of each character as they naturally step into the game’s flow. If you catch the ball, it’s time for your story, and so on.

Anyway, in this moment, we’re out in center field with Scooter. An opposing slugger, Nick Clemente, has just struck a ball far and high. The pitcher, Dylan, immediately figures it’s gone . . .

2874077Out in center field, Scooter Wells knows better. He instantly realizes that the ball is going to stay within the yard. Most important, Scooter figures he’s got a chance to catch it. Somehow he does all that figuring — the mathematics of it, the cool calculus of force and trajectory, distance and wind patterns — by pure instinct. It’s a gift; he knows how to read a ball coming off a bat. To Scooter, center field is like a fire tower in the high peaks of the Adirondacks, an all-seeing observation post, the ideal vantage point to watch as the game unfolds.

< snip >

Now the ill-treated ball, so rudely bashed, travels in a soaring arc toward the right-center field gap. Scooter Wells, part physicist, part Labrador retriever, bolts toward the fence. “It’s mine! It’s mine!” he pointlessly yells, for the ball can be no one else’s. At full gallop, Scooter’s hat flies off his head. He extends his arm and snares Clemente’s bomb in the webbing of his glove.

Inning over.

0

An aside: I don’t think anybody ever noticed it, but that passage includes a small tribute to the great Willie Mays. The “Say Hey Kid” had a signature habit of losing his hat, or his helmet if he happened to be tearing around the basepaths, whenever he took off on a mad sprint. At least that’s the way I remember it.

Here’s the section from Roth’s book, Portnoy’s Complaint, that caused me to to reread what I had written. For the record, I never read Portnoy until this past week, so I don’t see how I could have borrowed those images even subconsciously:

220px-Portnoy_s_ComplaintDo you know baseball at all? Because center field is like some observation post, a kind of control tower, where you are able to see everything and everyone, to understand what’s happening the instant it happens, not only by the sound of the struck bat, but by the spark of movement that goes through the infielders in the first second that the ball comes flying at them; and once it gets beyond them, “It’s mine,” you call, “it’s mine,” and then after it you go. For in center field, if you can get to it, it is yours.

 

As a baseball-loving southpaw from Long Island, I never played second base, shortstop, third base, or catcher. Those positions were and still remain strictly in the domain of right-handed ballplayers. So I pitched a lot, played first base, and eventually moved out to the hinter lands, center field, a position — and vantage point — I instantly loved.

What a great view to enjoy the game.

On Writing: “Are You Jigsaw Jones?”

images-2

I love this illustration by Jamie Smith from one of the Jigsaw Jones books. I mean, the glove looks like it might have been drawn by an Englishman, which it was, but the spirit is right. I am very grateful that Jamie illustrated so many books in the series; he was, I think, exactly right.

And, yes, I’m glad to see my love of baseball creep into another book.

Scan 5

On school visits, readers often as if I am a particular character.

Am I Eric in Bystander? Jude in Before You Go? Am I the great detective Jigsaw Jones? Or the mouse in Wake Me In Spring?

(Okay, no one has ever asked that last question. And the answer is: no, I am not the mouse in Wake Me In Spring! Yes, we both have beady little eyes and whiskers, but beyond that the similarities are purely accidental.)

Back to the Jigsaw question. No, I’m not Jigsaw Jones. It’s rare for any character to fully stand in for the author. But, of course, there are elements of my life and personality — most definitely exhibited in Jigsaw’s sense of humor — in that character. And there are trappings of my childhood in his world.

Like me, Jigsaw is the youngest in the family. Like me at that age, Jigsaw’s grandmother lives with him. And like me, the boy loves baseball.

It was easier to write that way, more natural; I intimately knew those feelings.

But as I’ve grown as a writer, especially from my early days in college, I’ve learned how to distance myself from my characters. The writing, in my case, has become less autobiographical and more fully its own creation. The characters seem to stand and move around on their own two feet, acting according to their own (fictional) inner compasses. I don’t ask what I would do; I ask what they might do. At the same time, parts of my life, my world, leak into everything. How can it be any other way?

Art by Jeffrey Scherer.

Art by Jeffrey Scherer.

Anyway, I didn’t expect to write this muddled post today. I mostly wanted to share my excitement about the coming baseball season. I am coaching again this year, a really nice group of 15-year-old boys. We’ll play a travel season and enter some tournaments. My 10th-grade son, Gavin, will be playing JV baseball. It’s an impressive accomplishment; not so easy to make those teams in our town. And last but not least, my heart is filled with hope about my beloved New York Mets.

Dare I say it? I think they might actually be good this year.

I often sign copies of Six Innings the same way. “Dream big, and swing for the fences!”

Is there any other way to play?