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Powell’s Q&A: Chad Harbach

Describe your latest book.
My (latest, first) book is a novel called The Art of Fielding. It's set at an idyllic but dilapidated Wisconsin college called Westish, and it follows a cast of five characters whose lives become increasingly tangled up — three members of the Westish baseball team, the president of the college, and the president's daughter, who's just abandoned a bad, impulsive marriage (she was 18 when she eloped) and returned home to live with her father. It's a story about baseball, and about the way that athletes navigate between the demands of artistry and brute efficiency. It's also about dealing with profound self-doubt, on the field and off; about male friendship, competition, and love, and how trying (not to say annoying) it can be for a woman to have to deal with these; about college, and how college creates a very compelling world-outside-the-world that can be terribly difficult to leave; and about the profound effects that our favorite books have on us, and the limitations of those effects. (I think there are a few good jokes, too.)

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I hope everyone's read her already, but my favorite contemporary short story writer is Deborah Eisenberg. Her stories are for lovers of novels, I think — the way they keep unfolding and unfolding until they contain much more than you thought a story could. And with such precise and alien pleasures in every line! As far as which book to begin with, well, there's now a paperback collected stories, which is hard to beat, price-wise, but if you'd like to read the stories in their original settings (which I think improves the pleasure somehow), then I'd start with All Around Atlantis, whose first story, "The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor," is a great introduction to her work.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Thoreau's Walden has always been a touchstone for me. Even when I was a high school kid consumed by playing sports and trying to fit in, reading very little, I for some reason felt deeply attached to that (beautiful, stern, scathing, generous) book. So when I went to college, I would on occasion take whatever trains and buses would convey me from Cambridge out to Concord, and wander around through the trees and try to think deep thoughts. Every once in a while it sort of worked.

What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
Age, mostly.

What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
Macadamia nuts. So delicious! But who could ever afford them?!

Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
Magazine editors put both to shame. If you ever hear tell of a journal of literature, culture, and politics coming to your town, board the windows and lie low.If you ever hear tell of a journal of literature, culture, and politics coming to your town, board the windows and lie low.

On a clear and cold day, do you typically get outside into the sunshine or stay inside where it's warm?
I grew up in Wisconsin, so it's hard for the cold to keep me inside — especially the wimpy New York cold. I like to get out and walk around. And because I spend a lot of time fretting, or despairing, over global warming, I find that cold clear days have a soothing capacity — my anxieties ease a little. Which makes no rational sense — the weather on a given day has little to do with what's happening climate-wise — but you take what you can get.

If you could have been someone else, who would that be and why?
Steve Nash. Knows how to pass, knows how to shoot, knows how to live. Sometimes seen skateboarding around Manhattan. Great hair, too.

Five Great Books by n+1 writers

1. Sam Lipsyte — The Ask
Sam's last novel is one of my favorite books of the past few years: just as hilarious as Homeland, just as crassly lyrical, but even wiser about families and relationships and the cruel, cruel ways that money and power work on us commoners.

2. Elif Batuman — The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Elif's book is ostensibly about classic 19th-century Russian literature, but really it is classic 19th-century Russian literature: a peregrinating, engrossing tale of characters absurd and warm.

3. Phil Connors — Fire Season
Phil spends his summers as a fire lookout in the Gila Forest in New Mexico — five months with almost no contact with society and technology. His memoir is everything nature writing should be — deeply conscientious and deeply poetic, without any sentimental malarkey. And his essay "My Life and Times in American Publishing," from n+1 Issue 4, is one of the best things I've ever read.

4. Siddhartha Deb — The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India
This just came out, and I'm reading it now — a fascinating exploration of, as the subtitle says, "the New India": a country being transformed (at least superficially) by a gigantic influx of investment and the rise of a small but very visible wealthy class. Hugely informative, and written with a novelist's eye — because that's what Sidd is, a novelist. We published one long, wonderful chapter in n+1 — the tale of a self-made business guru with a goofy smile, a million-pound Bentley, and a string of private business schools that may or may not amount to a pyramid scheme.

5. Sheila HetiHow Should a Person Be?
This novel came out in Canada last year (Sheila lives in Toronto), and won't be published in the U.S. until next summer. It's innovative and original and shocking, and has a title of which I'm so envious I can barely stand it. Every novel — every good book of every sort — should be called How Should a Person Be? That's what they're all about.

÷ ÷ ÷

Chad Harbach grew up in Wisconsin and was educated at Harvard and the University of Virginia. He is a cofounder and coeditor of n+1 magazine. The Art of Fielding is his first novel.


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