NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Read "The Art of Fielding" and you will want to head to the library for two other books: "Moby Dick" and "The Art of Fielding" by the great shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez. You're not going to find that second one, of course. It's a fictional guide star of the novel's protagonist, Henry Skrimshander. Chad Harbach's debut novel follows the baseball team at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin, with side trips to the big leagues of American literature.

If you've read "The Art of Fielding" and would like to talk with the author, give us a call. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Chad Harbach joins us from a studio on the campus at the University of Virginia. His first novel, "The Art of Fielding." He's co-founder and co-editor of the journal n+1, and nice to have you with us today.

CHAD HARBACH: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And congratulations for finding yourself on so many best novel of the year lists.

HARBACH: Yeah. Thanks a lot. It's been great.

CONAN: The dust jacket bio says you attended Harvard, so I figure we know where you studied Herman Melville. Where did you pick up your baseball?

HARBACH: Well, I picked up my baseball in Wisconsin long before that. You know, I grew up in Racine, Wisconsin. My dad was a baseball player and a fast pitch softball player, which was a game that more men used to play back in his youth.

So you know, so he taught me the game when I was - you know, I recall him kind of propping me up against the couch and, you know, pitching NERF balls at me before I could really stand under my own power. And I played throughout my youth in high school and summer ball and then had to retire when I went off to college. I wasn't good enough to continue past that point.

CONAN: You didn't have the fielding genius of young Mr. Skrimshander.

HARBACH: No. I was equally, you know, small and scrawny and quick, but I didn't have the genius part.

CONAN: Very few of us did. I had to quit when they started throwing curveballs. But the setting then in Wisconsin is familiar to you. It's where you grew up.

HARBACH: Yeah, yeah. I grew up in the more Southern industrial part of the state, but also on Lake Michigan, and you know, the campus in the book is set in a slightly more idyllic part of Wisconsin, right up on Lake Michigan, up near Green Bay.

CONAN: The novel or the book, rather, "The Art of Fielding" by Aparicio Rodriguez - of course everybody will remember Luis Aparicio, the former Chicago White Sox longtime shortstop - but some of this quotes from some of this fictional book: The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates responded. It makes it sound like Aparicio Rodriguez played for some baseball team perhaps in Tibet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HARBACH: Yeah. That's kind of what it's like. I mean, I had a lot of fun, you know, writing that book within the book. And, you know, it's - I think I was motivated to do it partly because, you know, a lot of the characters in the book have these touchstones of reading.

You know, one of the other major characters is the president of the college and a former English professor, you know, who's steeped in Melville and Whitman and Emerson and 19th century American literature. And, you know, all the characters have these sort of touchstones.

But so Henry, the shortstop, he's not a very literary guy at all, but I like the idea that he too had this book that he clung to and that he tried to sort of live his life in accordance with.

CONAN: We're talking with Chad Harbach, the author of "The Art of Fielding," the eponymous fictional one and the one that's on the best-seller list. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Barbara, and Barbara is calling us from Visalia in California.

BARBARA: Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

BARBARA: Well, I just want to say thank you for this book. I just - I'm a girl and I don't read any sports books, but it's opened up a whole new world of fiction to me. It's just a fun book to read. I'm only done with chapter seven - I mean, five, I'm sorry, and I'm just so - I can't put it down. I'm finding spare moments to read it every moment of the day, if I can.

HARBACH: Well, thanks so much. I hope it - I hope the rest of it lives up.

BARBARA: Me, too. I can't wait to recommend it to my book club. I'm always looking for a new and different fiction for us to read, and I think the girls are really going to like this.

CONAN: What attracts you? It is, particularly those early chapters - boy, there's a whole lot of baseball in there.

BARBARA: It's fun. I love going to my early games here in our local team in Fresno and it's just kind of fun to go to. And I don't know anything about the sport - to play it really, but the little quotes from the Aparicio books - the book within book, they're just - it's kind of Zen like. It just grabs you. And if your style is very smooth and fluid, I really is - I'm enjoying it.

HARBACH: Well, I don't know what to say besides thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARBARA: You're welcome. I now just want to say thank you to NPR, because I would not have (unintelligible) my roommate is a librarian to bring it home if I hadn't heard about this book on someone's recommended lists. So this has been fun for me. Thank you.

CONAN: How well - I think that was on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. But, yeah, that's great. Thanks.

BARBARA: Yeah. And...

CONAN: Oops, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hang up on you, Barbara. She had something else to say. I apologize. And if she wants to call back, it's all right. Then, getting onto the literary side of this, you mentioned another of the major characters is fixated on what he and his daughter call the book, "Moby Dick," and in fact discovered notes from Herman Melville's one visit to Westish College, the fictional college where this is set, back buried in the library.

HARBACH: Yeah, and, you know, I've - it was, I mean, it comes - that part of the book comes, in part, just from my love of "Moby Dick," which, you know, has always been my favorite American novel and is so much, you know, is - such a funnier and bolder and more musical book than people often give it credit for. You know, so I wanted to try to at least, you know, capture or imitate a little bit of that music in this book in so far as I was capable of.

But I - but, you know, so, you know, like you said, there's a fictional lecture that, you know, Melville supposedly took a trip to the Great Lakes when he was an old, unknown writer and gave this lecture, which Westish College has discovered and has kind of a little bit comically made him the kind of icon of their school. And so the baseball team of the school is called the Harpooners. And do - so even though there - even though it's the Midwest, they have adopted this sort of Melvillian oceanic personality for themselves.

CONAN: I have to say I do want to re-read "Moby Dick" after this, and I would love to read "The Art of Fielding," "The Sperm-Squeezers," I'm not so sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HARBACH: That's more - it's an academic book. It's not for everybody.

CONAN: It's written by another character in the book who ends up as the president of Westish College and well, he'd - well, lots of things ensue. Anyway, let's see we get another caller on the line. Let's go to Diana. Diana with us from Palo Alto.

DIANA: Yes, I belong to a woman's book club. And we dissected your book, Chad, for about two hours the other night.

HARBACH: Oh, wow.

DIANA: And these women said it was all about character development, and they analyzed every character, and what he did, whatever. And I said, no, it's about baseball. And I said, I get tired of reading about baseball, but that's incidental. So I needed to know whether you wrote a book about baseball or whether you're whole theme was character development?

HARBACH: Well, it's interesting question. I mean, the - certainly the germ of the book was baseball, you know, because the very first idea that I began with was the crisis that befalls Henry, the shortstop in the book, where he's, you know, he's this great genius of a shortstop. He plays at this little college, but he's on the verge of becoming a great player. And, you know, and then he has this sort of psychological block which keeps him from throwing the ball. And that was really the starting the point. I was just - I was fascinated by the kind of - by the way that that problem was so psychological and internal, on the one hand, but plays out on the field in this very dramatic way. So it started with baseball. But I've never, you know, I've never been a huge fan of reading about baseball myself. So... What was your focus, on character development totally or...

Yeah, I mean, you know, there's a lot of baseball in the book, but I never wanted to write a baseball book. I never wanted to write a book that was for baseball fans. And I was really, I mean, I just - yeah, I mean, I cared about the interactions between these five people, you know, and how five people can, you know, have so much affection for one another and yet kind of, you know, hurt each other and interact with each other in this really sort of strange and complex ways over the course of time.

DIANA: So that we got them. Thank you so much.

HARBACH: Yeah, thanks to you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. The mental block that keeps him from throwing; baseball fans, which I would confess I am one, would recognize Chuck Knoblauch disease.

HARBACH: Yeah, Chuck Knoblauch, and there was around the time when I started writing the book, there was a pitcher for the Braves named Mark Wohlers. You know, there's a whole litany of these guys and no one has...

CONAN: A Mets catcher who couldn't throw the ball back to the mound.

HARBACH: Yeah, Mackey Sasser.

CONAN: Yeah.

HARBACH: It's often called Steve Blass disease because he was pitcher for the Pirates in the '70s who was the first person who it was really - maybe not the first person that it happened to, but the first person that it was kind of known to have happen to. And, yeah, I just find it such a fascinating phenomenon because they're - these guys are so - it's so easy for them until the moment at which they just - until it's not.

CONAN: Here's an email from John in Hayward, California: As a homosexual baseball fan, the juxtaposition between the two very different, yet comparable male relationships really spoke to me. I wanted to ask Mr. Harbach how he came to the decision to center his novel around the two relationships, the physical male love affair between Owen and Affenlight, and the emotional affair between Henry and Schwartz.

HARBACH: Yeah, that's a great way to put it. I mean, I think, you know, from - I was thinking about "Moby Dick" in the context of writing this book from very early on because I think there's a lot of - very easy analogue that you can make between a baseball team and a whaling ship. You know, in both cases, you have a group of men who sort of - who go on a quest together and so are, you know, are in very close quarters and spend all their time together, and so have all the sort of, you know, conflicts and also friendships that arise there, so I was always thinking about the book as about the kind of variety of male friendship. You know, like you say, all the way from, you know, from straight out conflict to close friendship to gay relationship. So I wanted to try to bring that whole spectrum into one book.

CONAN: We're talking with Chad Harbach about his latest novel, "The Art of Fielding," part of series on some of the best books of 2011. Next week, "Midnight Rising" author Tony Horwitz will join us and Erik Larson on his latest, "In the Garden of Beasts." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Mitch, and Mitch calling from Chicago.

MITCH: Hi. Me - both myself and my baseball-loving children all love the book. We put it right up there with "The Brothers K," which was our previously favorite baseball/serious novel. But did have a question, and it kind of relates to the previous email. I felt the college president, not so much the homosexuality topic but just the college president didn't fit for some reason with the rest of the novel. It just seemed to be another story almost. And, you know, I loved the beginning and I love the end and the team relationship, but that, I don't know. It just stuck out for me that that seemed almost being another novel.

HARBACH: Well, maybe - I don't know. Maybe I should've made it two novels.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HARBACH: Was it - yeah. Well, he's...

CONAN: Double the advance, I'm sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HARBACH: Well, or they - or cut it in half. Twice the work, twice the work.

MITCH: I don't know. Have you read "The Brothers K?"

HARBACH: I have read - it's - yeah. It's a great book. It's...

MITCH: Yeah. Well, no, it's a great book. Thanks very much.

HARBACH: Yeah, thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Mitch. Let's see if we go next to - this is Michael. Michael with us from Nashville.

MICHAEL: Oh, yes. I have not read the book, but as a result of this conversation, I'm running out tomorrow and picking up a copy. I went to school at Carthage College in Kenosha.

HARBACH: Oh, wow.

MICHAEL: I played baseball. I was an English major, and this is hitting so much - it's just hitting a homerun, pun intended. That is - it's fascinating; the fact that, you know, English major and your references to Melville. And earlier somewhere in the conversation, you used the word, you know, something that would imply this is type of a Zen experience, not to be confused with "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," Pirsig's great analysis. And that's my comment. I just - this is fascinating.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL: I got to grab the book tomorrow.

CONAN: And did you get drafted by the Cardinals?

MICHAEL: No, I did not get drafted by the Cardinals. After three years of college ball, I twisted a knee. I was a pitcher, and that pretty much ended my serious ball playing. I played all the way through the service. This is back in the early '60s and actually the first year that the little college moved to Kenosha. And as a matter of fact, I think you should've set it at Carthage because that's a beautiful campus right on the lake, as you know.

CONAN: Well, so was Westish.

HARBACH: They're both - yeah. Carthage is, well, you know, I know it well. It's just a few miles away from where I grew up. I played - when I was in high school, I played some games on their field there. So, yeah, you know, I wrote it for you. Go...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL: Well, that's wonderful, and I am going to read it, and I thank you for this program, Neal, and...

CONAN: And thank - we're sorry about the knee injury though, or else you would've been, I'm sure, calling from Cooperstown.

MICHAEL: Oh, absolutely. No doubt in my mind. No doubt.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL: Thank you, fellas. I appreciate it.

HARBACH: Thank you.

CONAN: Chad Harbach, I have to ask you. The reviewer in The New York Times - many complimentary things to say about it, but one of the things he suggested, the title itself might be a literary reference to, of course, Henry Fielding.

HARBACH: Yeah. Well, you know, part of this whole process of publishing the book has been having people come up to me and talk about other books assuming that I have read them in which - but - and then I have to, you know, shamefacedly admit that I haven't. And, you know, and so - and "Tom Jones," Henry Fieldings' great book, is another one of those that I have yet to read.

CONAN: Now, and so see the move as well. It's also good. What are you working on now?

HARBACH: Well, I've, you know, I've - I'm just getting back to writing fiction. You know, I finished this book at the beginning of the summer, and then I spent the summer working on n+1, the magazine based in Brooklyn that I edit and have edited with several other people for several years. So I spent the summer working on n+1, and then, of course, this fall, I was traveling around, doing a lot of readings for the books. So I'm just now in a place to get back and fumble around with what might be the beginnings of my next book.

CONAN: About hockey?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HARBACH: I'm just going to run through them all. There's the hockey book and then the golf book and the ping pong book.

CONAN: One after another. Just ring the chimes. Chad Harbach, thanks very much and, again, congratulations on the success of your book.

HARBACH: Thanks, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Chad Harbach, co-founder and editor of the journal n+1. His book is "The Art of Fielding." You can scout scrawny shortstop Henry Skrimshander in an excerpt at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from a studio on the campus of the University of Virginia. Tomorrow, we'll talk about parents navigating the ins and outs of their kids' autism diagnosis. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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