The summer issue of Image includes a novel excerpt from Valerie Sayers. She answered our questions about baseball, the novel, and the allure of characters who are so bad they’re good.
Image: You seem to be quite a baseball fan, like a number of American writers past and present. Do you think there’s a connection between baseball and fiction? Any more than there is with other sports and other genres?
Valerie Sayers: Yes, indeed. A baseball game has a complex plot line, great pacing (I know, I know, the usual groan arises about how slow baseball is), tremendous tension, moral crisis, revelation. I’m afraid I still watch baseball like the ten-year-old girl who fell in love with players and pored over the yearbooks–I’m often more interested in the inner challenge, especially when a ballplayer is struggling, than I am in the stats. I have trouble remembering the infield fly rule. Like fiction, baseball’s as much about form and style as it is about content, and unlike many other team sports, the baseball player has to stand alone for long intense periods, up at the plate or on the mound, revealing himself to the world. I cannot watch a player I love at bat without writing his interior monologue. Baseball’s theater, too, and it’s filled with poetry, but I read it as story.
Image: In your short story in the current issue of Image, you show us almost immediately that the main character, Babe O’Leary, is a snob and a racist, and a horror of a mother-in-law, but nevertheless she’s tremendously magnetic. Were you worried we wouldn’t like her? Were there things you did consciously to make her more appealing? Was it something you strategized about, or did she just come out that way?
VS: I especially enjoy fictional characters who are morally ambiguous or downright bad. Some of my favorite writers (Muriel Spark, Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith) make appalling characters fascinating–an appalling person is much more useful for satire than a decent person (far easier to see a moral dilemma when it is exaggerated, as O’Connor was always pointing out). Babe is appalling, absolutely, but she has a few admirable qualities, and the reader must decide whether they could one day redeem her. Every time I read a review of fiction that complains about characters who are not likable, I throw the page across the room. It’s the wrong concern entirely. Now a boring unlikable character, one who pulls no narrative or philosophical weight, one who explores no pressing question–that would be a concern.
Image: “Interference” is a chapter from a novel, The Powers, that will come out this year from Northwestern University Press. Do we stay in Babe’s point of view all the way through? What made you want to write that novel?
VS: The Powers is told from four rotating points of view: Joe DiMaggio’s (really), the young baseball fan Joe D’Ambrosio’s (in “Interference,” he meets Babe at Yankee Stadium; by wild fictional coincidence, he will have an affair with her granddaughter); Babe’s; and the granddaughter, Agnes’s. Agnes is bored to tears by baseball but consumed with the question of whether war is the right way to save the Jewish refugees of Europe, and her young lover Joe is a Catholic Worker and a pacifist (Dorothy Day makes a cameo appearance). The novel’s as much concerned with pacifism and photography and American anti-Semitism as it is with baseball, but DiMaggio’s famous hitting streak of 1941 is the form around which the story is fitted. I decided to write about pacifism one night just before we went to war in Iraq, when my visiting sons sat at the dining table considering all the moral quandaries surrounding that and all wars. World War II is probably the easiest war for most Americans to defend, hence the hardest for a pacifist. Once I decided to go with that war, and settled on the year the U.S. debated entering it, DiMaggio asked to be included, and he fits the bill perfectly, as the internally bumbling hero who can barely deal with his own struggles, much less a country’s.
Image: Babe is a denizen of a particular place—she’s a Yankees fan from the Bronx—and she’s so firmly tied to that place that, when she’s transplanted to Brooklyn, she feels like a fish out of water. What did you do to enter imaginatively into that world? You’re not from the Bronx yourself, or are you?
VS: I was born and raised in coastal South Carolina, but my parents were Yankee transplants, and every few years we’d all drive up to New York, where they had spent their youth and early marriage. One of the most important decisions I made on one of those trips was whether to go to Radio City with my mother and sisters or Yankee Stadium with my dad and brother. We were late, and found our seats just as Elston Howard hit a grand-slam homer. I was hooked for life. I found the streets of Inwood and Marble Hill, neighborhoods bordering the Bronx where my folks had lived, fascinating and terrifying: they were not in the same universe as the lush lowcountry I inhabited. Later, I became Babe-in-reverse: I spent many years in a low brownstone Brooklyn neighborhood that is as much a small town as it is a part of New York City, so I always felt myself a foreigner when I visited the Bronx. Since the novel is very much about being able to imagine a world different from one’s own, Babe’s sense of herself as a foreigner in Brooklyn is an integral part of the design.
Image: How does religion work within that world? It seems like something people take very much for granted in that older American world, like breathing, but it also seems like the opportunity for a lot of hypocrisy and comedy. Was that part of the appeal of that setting for you?
VS: Yes, it is the opportunity to comically explore hypocrisy and (maybe not so comically) guilt, especially in young Joe the pacifist’s case. Unlike the other characters who have thrown off religion, he is unwavering in his belief–till the very end of the novel. Babe, as you have astutely guessed, is the main illustration of hypocrisy; Agnes is a doubter; Joe DiMag has left religion behind. For Babe and Joe D, religion is a social and ethnic reality more than an internal presence in their lives. For Agnes and her Joe, to believe or not to believe is the crucial question.
Image: You teach literature as well as creative writing. Who are the novelists and story writers who’ve influenced the way you tell a story? I’m especially curious to know which nineteenth-century novelists are your favorites — maybe because the way you write about social anxiety and social class reminds me of some of the grand old novels.
VS: Ah, you are absolutely right that I have been marked by the nineteenth century, especially by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Eliot, Dickens, Twain (and I also like that turn-of-the century gang Wharton, James, and Chopin). Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty, Toomer, Percy, and Ellison nourished my southern side, Kafka, Böll, Camus, Murdoch and Solzenhitzen my angst. My current crushes form a long, long list, but I think it fair to say I admire writers who are strange and brave and equally interested in contemporary form, the endlessly comic world we live in, and spiritual muddling: I’ve already mentioned Spark and Mantel. J. M. Coetzee, Toni Morrison, George Saunders, Junot Díaz, Jonathan Lethem, Maxine Hong Kingston, Louise Erdrich, Melanie Rae Thon, Sherman Alexie, Gina Ochsner, Colson Whitehead. I am just getting started.