TOUCHING HOME BASE 

The first woman to play NCAA baseball hits one out of the park with a new short-story collection

First of all, maybe it's best to get the baseball business out of the way.

"The baseball business" has been getting a lot of play in the coverage of St. Louis native Susan Perabo's debut book, Who I Was Supposed to Be, a collection of short stories that has earned considerable attention in the U.S. and even Great Britain (where it was released as Explaining Death to the Dog). It seems that Perabo, 30, is the answer to a trivia question:

Who was the first woman ever to play NCAA baseball?

That fact has earned her recognition in the Baseball Hall of Fame, where she's represented in an exhibit celebrating women in baseball — but it also makes for good copy in the battle for attention in the difficult world of selling serious fiction at a time when old-fashioned good writing is becoming less important in the marketplace.

The truth is — despite the fact that "the baseball business" shows up in the bio on her book jacket, and a discussion of it occupies maybe 20 percent of the copy in her publisher's press materials, and it gets mentioned in every review and article about her book (OK, even this one) — the truth is, "the baseball business" is not all that important to Perabo; it was, in many ways, an accident.

Back in the late 1980s, when she was a literature and language major at Webster University, Perabo decided to join the school's baseball team.

"I didn't have any idea that no woman had ever done that before," she says. "I had just always been athletic when I was younger, and I loved playing baseball and softball. Webster didn't have a women's softball team then, and I saw a sign inviting students who were interested in playing baseball to come to a meeting, and so I did. I thought if anyone had any problem with me playing (what was then exclusively a male sport), I wouldn't do it, but the guys on the team didn't mind at all. I didn't start for the team, and I didn't get into many games. I had no notions of being heralded as breaking ground for women. I just loved playing; I really just wanted to go out and throw the ball around in the afternoon. That was enough for me."

Although "the baseball thing" is not all that important to Perabo — who returns home this week for two readings — what is important, she says, is her work.

Perabo started writing seriously when she was at Webster. Originally a film major, she switched to creative writing after she decided that she didn't like the collaborative nature of filmmaking.

"I always liked to write as a kid," she says. "But I was never one of those people who had only one goal, to be a writer, and so I was interested in film, but the more I got into it, the more I kept hearing how it was a collaborative process — that even though a story might start out as your own, by the time you finish, it was no longer yours. That didn't appeal to me. Frankly, I was more interested in working alone."

When she moved into creative writing, she encountered Webster University professor David Clewell, a poet, who was head of the writing program and who Perabo says is still the best writing teacher she ever encountered, both as an undergraduate and, later, as an M.F.A. student at the University of Arkansas. Clewell helped introduce her to some of the more important contemporary fiction writers, including Raymond Carver, the person she calls her first "literary boyfriend."

"When I was a young writer, I almost exclusively read Carver's work," she says. "It was the late 1980s, and everyone was reading Carver and writing like Carver — even me. I think his minimalism appealed to me as a young writer; there was something about it that seemed easy — simple characters, simple language. I thought, "Hey, I can do this.' Obviously, the more you write, the more you realize that sense of it being easy is deceptive, but I still find attractive the notion that small moments can mean big things and that so-called ordinary people can be interesting, that people who you pass on the street and might never notice have powerful and amazing things going on in their lives — that whole "there are a million stories in the naked city' kind of thing.

"I'm always struck when my students complain they don't have anything to write about. I tell them, "You're crazy. Go over and look out the window.'"

Although there are stories in her collection that do not center on so-called ordinary people — for example, one takes as its protagonist Batman's butler, Alfred; another an Oscar-nominated film actor — most do.

In one, a divorced woman comes home to her small town to live with her mother, who's expressing grief over the death of a husband by spending $35,000 on lottery tickets; in another, a down-on-their-luck couple inherits $28,000, which they spend to buy a gown that once belonged to Princess Di; and in still another, a boy struggling to figure out what it means to be male witnesses four men brutally beat up his father.

Perabo, who is now assistant professor and writer-in-residence at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, has been getting remarkable notice for her book nationally, especially given that it's a collection of short stories by a new writer, the sort of book that doesn't automatically get much attention. The premiere issue of Tina Brown's magazine Talk made Perabo's book one of its "Talk10," a monthly list the magazine compiles of what its editors see as the hottest recent releases in the publishing world. New York magazine also included her book among its recommended-reading list in its fall preview issue. In addition, Who I Was Supposed to Be has been reviewed in nearly every place that's a capital "A" Anyplace in the book-review universe — The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, the LA Times.

The attention — and the fact that her book is selling well (and that one of her stories, about a man who fakes amnesia to win his way back into his estranged wife's life, has been optioned for the movies) — is fine with Perabo, but she says it's not her focus. Just as she went out to play baseball more than a decade ago for the mere sake of being able to play catch and bat around on splendid spring days, rather than for any notoriety for breaking gender barriers, she writes because she loves to write, pure and simple.

"I really try not to worry about the marketplace," she says. "I tell my students that you have to love writing to keep writing; you have to get immense satisfaction from the process alone. I have a passion for sitting at the computer and making up stories. I still get amazed that anyone besides my mother reads my work, but even if no one read it, I can say now, I would still do the work."

Susan Perabo reads from Who I Was Supposed to Be at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 30, at Pearson House, Webster University, 8270 Big Bend, 968-7170; and 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 1, at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid, 367-6731.

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