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Joe Schuster didn't intend to start writing a novel that summer day in 2001, especially not one that would end up occupying significant portions of his life for the next nine years. All he wanted was an excuse to miss the afternoon session of the writing conference he was attending. The past few days had been filled with too many writers, too much talk about writing. It felt like overload.
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So he retreated to his room and, sitting there in the quiet, a sentence occurred to him: "The summer everything came together for him, he was 24."
"I had no idea what it would mean," Schuster recalls now. But the premise was interesting enough to him that he wrote it down. Immediately, the beginning of a second sentence came: "He was lean and fast then...."
Who was this "he," who felt his best year had been when he was 24? Schuster decided it would have to be some sort of athlete, a baseball player since baseball was the sport he knew and loved best. And since he had enough perspective to know that he'd peaked when he was 24, he would have to be looking back from some more-advanced age.
The baseball player turned out to be called Edward Everett Yates, named for Edward Everett Horton, Fred Astaire's sidekick in several movie musicals from the 1930s. (He also turned out to be 27, a little closer to baseball's definition of old age.) It was an appropriate name for a man who managed to reach the major leagues for three weeks in the summer of 1976, only to mangle his knee in a freak outfield mishap that ended his career, dooming him to spend the rest of his life, as Schuster puts it, "on the fringes of being successful," unable to accept that, as much as he loved baseball, baseball might not love him back.
Only 600 men get to play major-league baseball each season. The odds for aspiring novelists are just as steep: About 600 or so new books are released by major publishing houses each year.
And yet, next Tuesday, March 20, just a few days after Schuster's 59th birthday, The Might Have Been, the novel he unwittingly began writing that afternoon at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, will become one of the chosen 600. And if it were a rookie ballplayer and not a book, it would be considered a top prospect. Represented by Amanda "Binky" Urban — the Scott Boras of literary agents, who counts among her clients Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy and Haruki Murakami — it's being published by a division of Random House, an organization that, in its own world, has the power and name recognition of the New York Yankees. Advance reviews from book-world tastemakers Kirkus and Publishers Weekly have been encouraging, as was a recommendation from Reader's Digest, one of the world's most widely read publications. The back cover will be emblazoned with praise from novelists Margot Livesey and Richard Russo, two of Schuster's former teachers and most ardent cheerleaders.
Click here to read an exclusive excerpt from Joseph M. Schuster's The Might Have Been
Amid the hoopla, Schuster remains what he was before Edward Everett entered his life: a professor and chair of the communications department at Webster University, where he has taught for the past 27 years. He lives in House Springs with his wife, Kathy; their five children (to whom the book is dedicated) are all grown. He's not feverishly at work on a follow-up: Webster keeps him busy during the school year, and he has to save his writing for vacations and sabbaticals. The Might Have Been is the product of determination and faith that Edward Everett's story needed to be finished. Publishing, Schuster observes, has very little to do with actual writing. Though he's pleased and honored, he finds it a little difficult to take seriously, compared to all the work that came before.
"I was relieved to find out that the Mayan calendar doesn't predict our destruction until December," he says. "It reminds me of a pop-art poster. It's Lichtenstein-style, and it shows a perfectly coiffed woman saying, 'Nuclear war?!...There goes my career!'"
Joe Schuster's baseball career began and ended his freshman year at St. Xavier, a Jesuit boys' high school in Cincinnati, when he was the first player cut from the team during tryouts.
"I was not athletic," he says now, with wry understatement. "When you're fifteen you think you can do something because you want to. But I was awful — terrible. The coach was wise to make me the first cut. It saved both of us from wasting our time."
And so he was destined to be a fan. He'd been born in St. Louis while his father was finishing a cardiology residency at the now-defunct City Hospital, and the Cardinals remained his team even after the family moved to Reds country, and then, in Schuster's junior year of high school, to Barnesville, Ohio, a rural town solidly in Pittsburgh Pirates territory. His dad was too busy with his medical practice to take him to many games, but he has vivid memories of lying in bed late at night with his transistor radio, listening to Harry Caray and Jack Buck call the 1964 World Series. "I was living and dying the Cards that September," he remembers.
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