As all baseball fanatics, we love to explore the sport’s culture beyond the ballparks. Today, we explore baseball literature with an interview of American novelist Pete Fromm, the author of a beautiful novel in which Baseball appears as a protagonist, How all this started.
Published in 2000 (Picador), Pete Fromm’s novel takes us to a desertic area of Texas in the steps of Abilene and her young brother, Austin, two talented young pitchers whose daily lives – which revolves around rigorous pitching training – will be torn apart by Abilene’s illness. Baseball is the main backdrop for this close and personal story, and it provide a perfect setting to relate the ordeals faced by that family, somewhere deep down in the Texan desert.
To discuss and decode this powerful novel, TSO decided to have a word with its author.
The Strike Out : To begin with, what is your relationship to baseball? I read that you played it as an amateur and this sport appears in one of the Chinook short stories and in The Name of the Stars, in addition to How all this started.
Pete Fromm : I played baseball in high school, and long before that in constant pick-up games throughout my childhood. Any afternoon after school, or any summer day, if you showed up at a park with a baseball field, you could usually find a game to play in. Maybe more than that though, I just constantly threw things, balls, rock, snowballs, anything. And threw them up into the air, bashed them with sticks. I played baseball in my head almost constantly, stood throwing games against a wall, fielding all the balls that bounced back toward me.
The Strike Out : Why did you choose baseball to talk about this family that faces bipolarity? One of the few references to MLB concerns Nolan Ryan. Why did you choose this legend over another? (originally the question about Nolan Ryan was separate)
Pete Fromm : Well, the answer to this question kind of blends in with the answer to the next. I’d written a short story called “How All This Started,” about a wild young woman, and her adoring younger brother. It was set in West Texas, where I’d worked one winter, and had to do with a kind of crazed shooting of swallows (something I’d been asked to do in my job there). There was no baseball, and no mention of any diagnosis, no bipolarity.
After the story was finished, published, that brother and sister, Abilene and Austin, just wouldn’t leave me alone. They were there hanging out in my office, day after day, week after week. I just wanted to know more about them, about how they got to the place in their lives when the short story took place. So, finally I decided to write more about their lives.
At the same time, though, our first son had been born, and we named him Nolan, which had nothing to do with Nolan Ryan, the baseball player. My wife’s of Irish descent, and Nolan is an Irish name, meaning noble. It was not a common name at all at the time, and really the only person anyone could come up with it was Nolan Ryan, who was still one of the most famous players in the country, so we were asked a lot if we named him for Nolan Ryan. We did not, but I decided to read up on Nolan Ryan, just to see what naming a son for him would be assuming. And I came upon a young adult sports fan book called NOLAN RYAN, FIREBALLER.
I already had these two kids growing up in the middle of nowhere, knew they’d be tightly bound together, turning against their parents, and I decided to make baseball their bond, Texas a wildly sports addicted place, and Nolan Ryan one of their own.
The Strike Out : The novel uses traditional baseball codes and values such as nostalgia, bucolic home sweet home, family and father-son ties through catch-ball. But you seem to make an incessant back and forth between accepting its values and deconstructing them (Abilene who monopolizes catch ball, children who oppose the nostalgia of parents and their home sweet home, the green field of baseball becomes a desert and a ruined military base …). Is it, as with Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud, wanted, voluntary to question the myths of the National Pastime and of America, or is it history that brought this naturally?
Pete Fromm : I tend to questions myths wherever I run into them. I spent seven months alone in the mountains one winter, drawn in by the myths of the mountain men, wanting to see how much of it was really accurate, how much mythologized. The myths of a home sweet home, the huge nostalgia steeping of baseball are not my targets so to speak, but I like to view these things accurately, stripped of myth. Even then, though, it’s all for the story, watching these lives unfold. The rest is just background, but background that won’t quite stay in the background.
The Strike Out : From your point of view as an American citizen, and while the NFL is the king sport and the NBA the favorite league of urban youth, does baseball remain relevant to tell the story of America today or is it rather the witness of a past, real or fantasized America?
Pete Fromm : I think any or all of them can still be relevant, it just depends on the story, and the storyteller.
The Strike Out : Sexism, guns, climate, social relegation… your book was written in 2000 but remains terribly relevant in 2020. Isn’t it depressing that it is still current or do you think America has progressed on some of these subjects?
Pete Fromm : It is sad that all these issues, and more, continue to haunt our country. And, since Trump, I think they’ve not only progressed, but become worse. Our country today is such a tragic mess, but we hope for better things to turn it around come November.
The Strike Out : Precisely, to finish, you like to tell intimate stories around death, the family, the difficulties of life, while connecting you to social issues that affect everyone. How do you view current events, where personal dramas are jostling with the old problems of American society?
Pete Fromm : You know, I never really take on social issues, per se. If you’re writing about family today, you’ve got to put them some place, into the real world, and, for me, that’s a world as I find it, not one mythologized or glossed over. So, the issues facing these people are those facing us all, social, environmental, it’s all part of the world they inhabit. And the current events in this country, since the huge dangerous mistake of Trump’s regime, are ever more daunting.
Thanks to Pete Fromm for answering our questions.