By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
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By Bill Conroy
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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.
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...."
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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.
College was, as he puts it, "my period of falling away from the Church," which was existentially apropos, given that he spent most of those years at Northwestern, a scant 45-minute train ride north of the shrine to hopelessness known as Wrigley Field. He briefly considered a career in broadcasting and then started writing. "I started with poetry," he says (cue self-deprecating groan). "I did free verse. Then I decided I wanted to write fiction."
Schuster's first wife was a St. Louisan, and they moved here in 1977, where he slowly fell back into the habit of following the Cardinals as he pursued a career in journalism. He spent several years in the mid- and late-1980s on the staff of St. Louis magazine and then Riverfront Times before switching over to teaching full-time and freelancing for other magazines, including the Cardinals' own Gameday and the late, lamented Sport. In total, he estimates, he has written 600 articles.
During his time at RFT, his editor assigned him a review of the most recent edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia, an enormous, ungainly compendium of a century's worth of major league teams, players and statistics. Paging through the data-drenched volume, wondering how one might properly "review" such a beast, he noticed something: There were a lot of entries for players who had spent very little time in the big leagues, logging only a handful of plate appearances or innings pitched — and in some cases no statistics at all.
Like Doug Clarey. "He played a handful of games for the Cardinals in 1976," Schuster says. "He had four at-bats and one hit." That hit, the Encyclopedia indicated, was a home run. Nowadays an Internet connection and a few clicks of a mouse can tell you pretty much everything you could possibly want to know about Doug Clarey's dinger. Twenty-five years ago, Joe Schuster had to do it the old-school way: He tracked down Doug Clarey. "It was a home run in the 16th inning to win a game," the writer recounts, adding that Clarey had long since left baseball and was making a living selling commercial real estate. (He now runs a pizza restaurant in LA.)
Doug Clarey and his extraordinary baseball career arc stuck with Schuster: What stories lay behind the scant stats of these "cup of coffee players," guys who accomplished the rare feat of reaching the big leagues, only to vanish from the box scores with barely a trace? Clarey, it turned out, was one of the wiser ones, who understood when his time was up and went willingly back out into what Edward Everett and the other players in The Might Have Been refer to as "the World." ("Sell straw," Edward Everett's Triple-A manager counsels him after the hobbled rookie receives his official release from the Cardinals.)
"He pitched a short time for the Cards in 1945 — seventeen games," says Schuster. "After that he hung on in the minor leagues, sinking further and further. By the time he left, he was managing in Class-C ball. The sad thing was, in the archives I came across a letter from his widow from after he died. A researcher had contacted her to confirm some facts about his life and get his death certificate. He'd become a bartender and died of cirrhosis. In the letter she'd written that if there were any funds for widows of ballplayers, she'd like to know about it, because she could use the money.
"It was such a sad story," Schuster continues. "It epitomized the notion that you get a taste and then you're not able to let the game go until the game gets rid of you."
Quietly, that germ of a story line put down roots in a cool dark corner at the back of Joe Schuster's mind. Then, finally, it emerged in the form of Edward Everett Yates, whose stint in the bigs begins and ends within the novel's first twenty pages and makes Clarey and Gardner seem like grizzled Hall of Famers by comparison: Fresh off the bus from Springfield, he makes his major league debut at Busch Stadium as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the 17th inning. He does what he's told and lays down a successful sacrifice bunt to move the game-winning run from second base to third, tallying for himself neither a hit nor an out nor even an official at-bat. Weeks pass before he gets his next chance, a spot in the starting lineup on a soggy afternoon in Montreal, where he proceeds to hit a single, double, triple and home run in the first four innings — a rare feat known as hitting for the cycle. But with two outs and rain pouring down in the Expos' half of the fifth, Edward Everett makes a futile leap for an inning-ending catch and one of his cleats gets stuck in the chain-link fence in Jarry Park's right field. By the time he's carried off the field, the umpires have halted play and sent everyone home.
As tragically as his knee and his major-league dream are shredded, the official rules of baseball see Edward Everett off with one final ignominy: In the event of a rainout that occurs before the losing squad completes five innings at the plate, "the umpire shall declare it No Game."
"No Game" means precisely that. All prior action, all prior statistics, cease to exist.
If there were a Baseball Encyclopedia of Fictional Characters, Edward Everett Yates' career line would be printed in invisible ink.
For nine years Schuster's vacation and sabbatical routine went like this: He'd get up in the morning and go to the coffee shop. He'd get coffee while the laptop booted up, then he'd plug in his headphones, turn on some music and start working toward his daily quota of 1,500 words. Sometimes it would take an hour or two. Sometimes it would take all day. The song was always the same: Aretha Franklin's rendition of "I Say a Little Prayer" on endless repeat. Schuster estimates he has listened to that song 5,000 times. He's still not sick of it. If he hears it now, it takes him right back into the world of the novel.
Schuster describes the first draft of The Might Have Been as "really bad." It came in at 1,000 pages and included lots of tangents that Schuster has since banished to a separate file on his computer (not out of love but because he can't bear to throw anything away). In this first telling, Edward Everett had ended up an adjunct professor at a for-profit university in a shopping mall.
"Joe's notable for his over-preparation, his willingness to do more than is required to find the heart of the story," says his friend Kenny Cook, a former workshop mate and novelist now teaching at Prescott College in Arizona. "I do it too. We joke that we go overboard: To get a 15- to 20-page story, we write 60 to 80 pages."
It was Cook who persuaded Schuster to nix the Mall U plotline and commit to a Glenn Gardner-type professional trajectory for Edward Everett. "He said, 'Trust baseball. Baseball is compelling,'" Schuster remembers.
That was in 2007, six years after Edward Everett first appeared to Schuster at the writing conference. After that, Schuster says, the story came much more quickly, and by the following summer he had something recognizable as a novel. (The ending came to him one day while he was mowing the lawn.)
He had no deadline, no contract to fulfill. There was no indication that the novel, which he was starting to call All He Might Have Been, would ever get published or that he would ever earn any money from the years of work. Self-publishing was not an option. "If no one was interested in publishing my book, I wasn't interested in it coming out," he says. "The world doesn't need another book."
"If you spend that much time on a novel, it's not for the money anymore," Cook offers. "You want it to be the best possible book it can be."
It's a different sort of ambition, Schuster admits, from the sort usually associated with writers — or working journalists — who need to publish in order to earn their living. (One thinks of Charles Dickens, the model for the modern writer, churning out book after book to support his large family and allay his lifelong fear of following his father to debtors' prison.) He received his indoctrination at the MFA program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.
The Warren Wilson program is low-residency: The students, most of whom have full-time jobs, attend intensive ten-day sessions twice a year then correspond with their professors the rest of the time. Schuster was lured to Warren Wilson by Richard Russo, whom he'd met in 1988 when the author had come to read from his work at Washington University. The reading was so underpopulated — five attendees, including Russo and the professor who was introducing him — that Russo suggested everyone adjourn for a beer instead. (Fourteen years later Russo would win the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Empire Falls.)
At Warren Wilson, Schuster formed several important and lasting friendships, most notably with Cook, a fellow student; Russo, his thesis adviser; and Margot Livesey, a professor and a novelist who would later be instrumental in transforming The Might Have Been from a labor of love into a published novel.
There are two long and honorable traditions in baseball fiction. The first is the redemption story: a team of lovable losers who come from behind to win the Big Game. The second is the twisted baseball version of magic realism, replete with charmed bats and mysterious voices urging farmers to transform their cornfields into ball fields that permit the ghosts of disgraced players to be redeemed, estranged fathers and sons to be reconciled and The Game to be restored to its rightful place at the tippity-top of American mythology.
The Might Have Been, Schuster is quick to insist, is neither. Left behind by the team after his injury, Edward Everett recuperates in a swank Montreal hotel room, where he and a casual girlfriend conceive a child (or so the woman tells him; the mystery will haunt him for the rest of his life), then returns to "the World." After a brief and prosperous stint as a wholesale flour salesman, he succumbs once more to the lure of baseball. Flash forward 30 years and Edward Everett, now pushing 60, finds himself living alone in a dying Iowa town, managing a moribund team in the lower minor leagues and wondering if it was all worth it.
"Failure is more interesting, dramatically, than success," Schuster says. (You can almost hear him imparting that pearl of wisdom to his students at Webster.) "Who needs another down-and-out, hard-luck team that fights its way back? Success has been done and done and done." As for the magical formula, even in the low-key manner of last fall's bestseller The Art of Fielding, in which the young ballplayers have a cultlike devotion to a collection of Zen-like koans (also called The Art of Fielding)? "I never even thought of that. I never even thought about it and rejected it. I tend to write realism."
Any resemblance to another famous baseball novel, also set in Iowa, also partially involving a complicated relationship between a father and son, is entirely coincidental. "If I'd been consciously thinking of Field of Dreams," he says, "I would not have set it in Iowa. It's hard to write a novel about baseball with a male protagonist and not make it about fathers and sons. I'm not sure why." (For the record, Schuster hates the movie Field of Dreams, though he loves Shoeless Joe, the W.P. Kinsella novel it was based on. He does, however, have a bottle of dirt from the real-life "field of dreams" in Iowa, collected during a family vacation.)
Even so, a strain of spirituality runs through The Might Have Been — one that's older (and stranger) than baseball: Catholicism. Edward Everett thinks constantly in terms of sin and consequences and worries about the growing distance between himself and the Church, which he traces back to his first Sunday as a professional ballplayer, when he chose a few more hours of sleep over Mass.
"Is this the first Catholic baseball novel?" Schuster wonders aloud on a winter's day in his office at Webster. The modest-size room is crammed with books, screenplays and photos of his wife and their children. A clock on the windowsill says: "Play ball!" and a cluster of aluminum bats is propped in the corner. "There's probably one Catholic baseball novel out there." He turns in his desk chair and Googles; up pops Catholic fiction aplenty — Brideshead Revisited, The Third Man, A Canticle for Leibowitz — all of them novels Schuster has read and loved, though none has anything to do with baseball.
At any rate, Schuster says The Might Have Been's Catholic leitmotif is more practical than profound. Consider the familiar bromide write what you know and note that Edward Everett plays baseball because baseball happens to be the sport Schuster knows best.
"It became a Catholic novel in the hospital scene [in Montreal, following the injury that will put an end to Edward Everett's days in the major leagues]," Schuster explains. "The priest showed up because someone had to. I'm not a good enough writer to do an entire chapter of a guy lying in bed by himself. Who would show up to see a guy who knows nobody? No rabbi, because I don't know the nuances of Judaism. Though they could compare guilt...."
Schuster's thesis adviser, Richard Russo, has a more nuanced take. "Maybe it's something Joe and I have in common," he says via phone from his home on the coast of Maine. "I'm a recovering Catholic. At times I still speak in the language of the Church. I've never been able to find language to speak of important matters except in the language of the Church."
When you think about it, what else but the language of the Church would be a suitable match for a subject as profound as baseball? In one of the great twentieth-century American Catholic novels, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer (which also happens to be one of Schuster's favorites; he once made a pilgrimage to Percy's hometown of Covington, Louisiana), protagonist Binx Bolling can't separate his Catholic upbringing from his devotion to the movies.
(In the Schuster household, the Cardinals have always been the One True Religion. The family, scattered now that the younger Schusters have grown up and gone, observed the holiest occasion of 2011, the sixth game of the World Series, together, watching in separate locations and sharing thoughts and observations via cell phone. Between the ninth and eleventh innings, Schuster estimates, they exchanged 100 texts.)
Unlike a lot of first novels, The Might Have Been is largely devoid of autobiography — save for an epileptic Pomeranian named Grizzly who bears an uncanny resemblance to one of Schuster's dogs and a minor character who tries to sing "I Say a Little Prayer" but forgets the lyrics. Debra Carpenter, Schuster's dean at Webster, attributes this to the writer's maturity. Schuster himself claims it's because he's not sufficiently interesting.
Kenny Cook views it a little differently: "In terms of an autobiographical thread — and I don't think Joe would see this — it's coming to terms with a late-life commitment to a vocation you love without the promise of success."
Cook is right. "Kenny's more reflective about it than I am," Schuster laughs. Given time to reflect himself, however, he has a different answer:
"I've known people who get to a certain age and are consumed with regret and bitterness about the way their lives have turned out; it sometimes becomes the main fact of their lives at that point," he notes. "When I thought about what I wanted to do in my own life and hadn't to that point — I wanted to write novels. I had no idea whether what I wrote would get published, but I knew that if I didn't at least work as hard as I could to write the best novel I could, I might turn out to be one of those people who were filled with regret. I didn't want to do that, and so the only way I knew I could avoid it was to keep working at the novel. It might not end up published, I thought, but at least if I finished it, I wouldn't wake up one day years down the road and think about how I hadn't even tried to do what I wanted to do."
In the end, the story of The Might Have Been and the story of how Joe Schuster came to write it are very similar: They're both about faith.
Margot Livesey is a well-respected novelist — she's probably best known for The House on Fortune Street, and her latest, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, received a rave review in the New York Times — but her students value her just as much for her willingness to read and critique their work even after they're no longer enrolled in her class. It has been more than twenty years since Schuster earned his MFA from Warren Wilson, but when he sent Livesey the seventh draft of The Might Have Been, she didn't hesitate to read it or the next two drafts, or to offer advice and encouragement.
"I've always enjoyed reading his work," says Livesey via phone from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Even in the early stages, The Might Have Been was a fascinating and accomplished piece of work."
Even so, when Livesey decided, in August 2010, that the book was ready to seek a publisher, she committed one of the greatest acts of generosity an established writer can do for one just starting out: She introduced Schuster to her own agent. And her agent, Amanda "Binky" Urban, happens to be one of the most powerful in the business, regularly negotiating seven-figure deals for her clients, many of whom have won Pulitzers (and, in the case of Toni Morrison, a Nobel).
"I didn't get my hopes up," Schuster recalls. "Publishing a non-genre book is really hard. You get only one shot."
Urban declined to comment for this story (she believes agents should be seen and not heard), but let the record show that she was impressed enough to send the manuscript to a former protégé, Jennifer E. Smith, now an editor at Random House's Ballantine division. Despite the fact that Smith is a Cubs fan (her own first novel, The Comeback Season, concerns the particular psychology of rooting for a team that perennially breaks your heart), she was taken with the book from the get-go, so much so that she sent Schuster a three-page memo offering suggestions.
"I knew I wanted to acquire it," Smith explains in an e-mail. "But I could also see quite clearly what kind of work needed to be done, and in a tough acquisitions environment I wanted to give the book every chance to succeed."
Smith's letter was the last thing Schuster had been expecting. "It stunned me," he says. He spent the next month revising, ultimately cutting 103 pages from the manuscript's original 515. "I thought if I didn't do it quickly, they would forget," he says.
Three weeks after Schuster sent back the revised manuscript, Ballantine bought it. Schuster declines to disclose the sum except to say it's in "the mid-five figures." The cash is welcome, even paid out in fourths, but if you think of it as an hourly wage, Schuster would clear more working at McDonald's. Then again, when you spend nine years working on a novel you're not sure anyone will ever read, how can it possibly be about the money?
The publishing industry hasn't been immune to the effects of the recession. Schuster is what is known in the trade as a mid-list author — a writer whose books are listed in the catalog behind the seasonal blockbusters but ahead of the paperback reprints. Publishers, even behemoths like Random House, can't afford to send their authors on multi-city book tours or spring for print ads.
The Might Have Been also happens to be a mid-list novel, following Chad Harbach's rookie sensation The Art of Fielding, published to great acclaim last fall (buoyed by the oft-reported news that Harbach, an editor at the magazine n+1, had received a six-figure advance), and immediately preceding Calico Joe, the latest by John Grisham, popular fiction's equivalent of a perennial MVP. Especially when sandwiched between those two, The Might Have Been is a quiet presence, relying on neither verbal pyrotechnics nor star power, but rather precisely observed details and a sly sense of humor. Some of Schuster's supporters are concerned that readers could miss it, owing to baseball fatigue.
Still, says Russo, "I think it will have a good life. It's hard to predict anything in the literary marketplace these days. It's so bizarre. Borders has closed, brick-and-mortar stores are closing, then there's Amazon. There are fewer places to get books, fewer places reviewing books, fewer amounts spent on advertising. The best way is word of mouth. I hope the word of mouth is terrific. It may find its audience later — good books tend to hang around."
Schuster considers himself lucky just to have published a book at all. "The truth is," he says, "a lot of aspects about my life are pretty good. I have a job where I get to write and talk about writing. I have kids who have turned out to be interesting people. I have a wife I actually like — that's something that's rarer than it should be."
He's not as immune from the vagaries of the publishing business as he'd like to pretend, however. "I saw the advance reader copy for sale on eBay," he confides. "I bid on it and ended up paying $1.50. I was incensed, but it was so funny — the minimum bid was 98 cents!"
Even funnier: "The condition was listed as 'new, unread.'"