The Professional Observer, an interview with Theo Schell-Lambert, author of The Heart of the Order

Theo Schell-Lambert’s debut novel, The Heart of the Order, is out next week from Little A. In it, we find the journal entries of Blake “Xandy” Alexander, a major league ballplayer with a blown-out knee, a summer of rehab work ahead of him, and an observant mind in desperate need of some stimulation. It’s a thoroughly imagined world. Each paragraph is packed with insight and personality. Reading it, I was, for a while, under the Sidd Finch style misimpression that the book was written by a genuine athlete-savant. After figuring out that I’d been fooled (that I’d fooled myself, that is), I thought I should talk with Schell-Lambert. We spoke a few weeks ago by Skype. He was at home in New Orleans, where he recently moved. We talked for an hour or so about stymied athletes, manic observation, Nabokov’s suburbia, and the enduring, overwhelming weirdness of the national pastime.

Dwyer Murphy: The diary conceit — we’re getting a series of journal entries written by a major league baseball player in the middle of his rehab — was one of the first things that struck me about The Heart of the Order. Was that always the way you intended to tell the story? Was it born out of some other attempt?

Theo Schell-Lambert: That wasn’t the plan on day one, but it became the plan very early. There are limitations to that kind of storytelling structure, but I think the limitations helped emphasize the loneliness and the isolation of this character, which was critical for the book. You have this guy who’s vibrant and infinitely engaged in everything around him, and he needed something that would force him to be an articulate observer and would also play up the sense of frustration he felt personally and emotionally. He’s this caged athlete, and I think the cage of the form played into that. It felt right. It ended up being a really productive constraint. I looked for other constraints, too. The timeline is another one. I knew the timeline of the story before I knew it would be restricted to journal entries. Obviously Xandy is out for the season, which is a defined period. But I also loved this idea of the arc of a baseball season, and I knew that could serve as the arc of a novel, too. There would naturally be a beginning, a middle and an end to the experience.

DM: The book is also relatively plotless. There are temporal benchmarks, as you said — the months, the rehab, the season — but not a lot of action driving the story forward. Yet it has momentum. Did you ever worry about that lack of plot? Were you up at night wondering if people would turn the page?

TSL: I had moments of concern. I’d made some failed attempts at short stories earlier in my twenties, but really I’d never even finished a short story, never mind a novel. I hadn’t trained in fiction. And I think what happened was, I both didn’t know what rules to play by (although you could argue that would make me more inclined to play by the traditional rules), and I was always looking for a guide, some work that was going to liberate me. The winter before I started working on this, I read the Nicholson Baker books. And reading him just really freed me up and showed me what I was allowed to pay attention to. He let me follow the threads I actually cared about. So I was coming fresh off The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, and I felt like I was allowed to do whatever I wanted in terms of plot. Now, Baker has plot and he’s extremely good at subtly bringing you back to it. He uses these little moments to anchor you. For me, the anchor was the setting, and having the narrator, Xandy, be very aware of the properties of his surroundings. I didn’t think I needed to plot it heavily, in a sense, as long as there was this concrete reality to the physical setting — he has a lagoon and a chair and a house, and they become his world. I felt like that invested the story with a lot of reality and authorized it to be about anything that happened in that setting.

DM: Why set it around Palm Beach? I know it’s a popular rehab area, but was there more?

TSL: No, other than that I wanted it to be set in a subdivision. I was always drawn to the suburban setting of Pale Fire: you’re behind a house in upstate NY and you have the most interesting things happening in this dead space of mid-day 1950’s home life. I just wanted a physical setting for the story that wasn’t a New York or San Francisco, something Xandy could project a little bit on. So it was really about a suburban environment. And I think this made-up East Palm Beach place seemed like a nice canvas for him. Also, it’s a small joke that plays up the fictionality, as does the conjoined “downtown Raleigh–Durham,” where Xandy’s team, the Carolina Birds, plays. What could be east of Palm Beach?

DM: While we’re talking about some of the books that influenced you, I was wondering which sports writing, in particular, you looked to?

TSL: I avoided reading baseball books, actually, until after I was done writing and editing the manuscript. I just recently read Bang The Drum Slowly, which was great. The book that played into it most was probably A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley, which I would recommend to anyone, and some of the early John McPhee sports writing, A Sense of Where You Are, about Bill Bradley. But I wouldn’t say stylistically this book is similar to those, or to what we think of as stereotypical sports writing.

What happens if you have an intense focus on all the little details of your life, but you’re also a jock?

We’re so used to reading about sports on ESPN, and I enjoy that as a fan of sports, but I really enjoy writing about sports from a different angle. Anything is interesting if you approach it from an atypical angle. So if you have a guy who is a pro athlete, who has, essentially, a Brooklyn way of thinking, immediately you have tension. What happens if you have an intense focus on all the little details of your life, but you’re also a jock? What happens to that combination? You end up writing about things that aren’t normally written about with neuroses or manic attention. But the conceit of it, I think, still connects. He’s an outfielder. He’s a professional observer.

DM: You mentioned McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are. McPhee had Bradley, this elite, cerebral athlete who could guide him through the athletic experience, a world that most people don’t have access to. How did you get access? Were you an athlete yourself? Did you find somebody to guide you?

I had to take a leap of faith that I was allowed to try to figure it out, that I had access to those feelings and those sensations and could have a sense of what it would be like in that body.

TSL: I never played baseball seriously. I played and loved it until I was a freshman in high school, then switched to running. I think probably, this being a first novel, I was excited by the freedom to become whoever I wanted. That’s a very old fashioned mode of what fiction does for its author, I know — it allows you to dream. This wasn’t some failed baseball dream of mine, but it was very satisfying to say, “I was in a game and I did this or that.” It was simply very pleasurable. But I had to really construct that sensibility from thinking it through deeply, and thinking through what it would feel like to go through rehab or hit a ball in a game a certain way or travel with a major league baseball team. And I’m sure what I describe is completely inaccurate to the experience of a lot of baseball players, but I had to take a leap of faith that I was allowed to try to figure it out, that I had access to those feelings and those sensations and could have a sense of what it would be like in that body.

DM: To me, a lot of the small details rang true. Now I’m wondering if that’s just because I’m coming at it from the perspective of a failed, wannabe athlete in Brooklyn. The scales are falling from my eyes.

TSL: I don’t know if those details are true, either. I’m curious what someone who’s been through the major league experience would think of the book, especially someone who’s had to rehab for a season and knows about the weird things that brings out and has maybe gone through a quarter life crisis, like one that anyone at that age might go through. In a lot of ways, that’s what this book is about — the experiences of that age and the crises that come along during that period of life.

I’m curious what an athlete would think. They’d probably say that’s not what it’s like at all, but I think I would answer that I’m allowed to make this character not like you. There’s a pitcher on the Dodgers, Brandon McCarthy, he’s actually out for the season now, right around the same point that Xandy goes out, and he’s this very witty guy, a really clever tweeter. If anyone, maybe he’s the test. There’s also a pitcher named Burke Badenhop, a Reds reliever who wrote something great recently for Grantland, comparing the different MLB bullpens, that made me think that, at least for some players, I was closer than I thought.

DM: The idea of not just an athlete, but a rehabbing athlete, is central to the book. Why that state, in particular? The broken-down athlete, rather than the active one?

TSL: That’s just the way I started writing the book one day, before I had anything planned. I think it’s about the form. An injured athlete is a very stymied person, and someone who’s in a mode of frustration probably needs an outlet. An athlete who isn’t injured has his outlet on the field. A hurt athlete needs to transfer that energy to somewhere else, in this case, to a writing energy. It was a useful transferal. It invigorated the act of writing, I think. This guy needs to kind of put his heart and soul on the page. He needs to do it because it’s the time of day when he usually plays baseball. That seemed very important to me — that he be writing at the time of day he would normally be playing. He’s not just a guy reflecting. He’s transferring the experience of playing baseball into the experience of writing.

DM: Time is another central theme. Xandy pretty regularly meditates on the nature and the passage of time. Baseball, as a sport, seems to be particularly conducive to that kind of thinking.

TSL: There are a lot of strange things about being a baseball player that relate directly to time. You don’t get days off, so the way in which the game takes over your life must be very interesting. The football schedule is so much closer to our understanding, this idea that there is an event, and you prepare for that event. It’s something we can recognize about how big events work. Baseball players don’t even really practice once the season starts. They warm up. So the game becomes your life and sews itself into your existence in an amazing way. These guys are playing 13 out of 14 days. Essentially, the game and your life start to become inseparable. You’ve also got the archetype of a baseball season. You have Mr. October, Mr. September. I thought it would be fun to have a Mr. July, this guy who excels right at the middle of the season.

So I thought, you have this game that plays into narrative in such a direct way: you’re playing every day, and the months take on these meanings invested with history and tradition, and all those things conflate with what it means to be a young man about to turn thirty. I don’t want to give away the final pages of the book, but they relate to that crisis. You’re in your late 20s and you’re becoming an adult for sure. There’s no more arguing it. And I wondered how that must feel when, on paper, you’re extremely successful and you have money and fame, but you’re still that same person, at that same age. How does being a success square with being a regular person? Also, you’re playing a sport where you’re at your peak in your mid-20s, which adds a different wrinkle to the quarter-life crisis. You’re on the back-end of your career. There are youngsters coming to supplant you.

DM: The big debate in baseball now is about the pace of the game. Are you in favor of speeding it up? I’m a longtime fan and I’ll be honest, I find myself less and less capable of actually sitting through nine innings.

I think it’s basically misguided to erase weirdness in baseball wherever it happens.

TSL: I would say it’s ridiculous to mess with the pace of baseball. I enjoy the elegance of those pauses. I think it’s basically misguided to erase weirdness in baseball wherever it happens. I certainly think it’s misguided to make baseball exciting. It’s not. It’s glancingly exciting, which makes that excitement really fun. The natural, rhythmic boredom is what makes baseball interesting. I could have coaches visiting the mound again and again, because it’s just so weird. You’re watching this older guy walk out there, and technically they’re supposed to jog, and they hate jogging, so you’re also watching them be upset about jogging. I love the tie game in the 9th, but that’s not what makes baseball a good sport. It’s the weirdness that does it for me.

DM: The book also gets into the idea of fame. Baseball players have a strange experience of fame. They’re rich and on television all the time, but off-the-field, out-of-town, they’re not usually recognized.

TSL: That’s right, and to some extent, this probably isn’t the kind of fame Xandy would have chosen. Especially later in the book, as his position becomes more threatened, he thinks about whether this is really what he wanted. It’s such a difficult and enviable position to be in, playing professional baseball, but it also takes a lot from him. You could wonder the same about a piano prodigy. What does it feel like to be good at something young, something you might not necessarily want to do when you’re a little older? What does it feel like to have so much success in something that’s so physical? And what if it’s something you didn’t necessarily work for, something that you happened into, this physical gift?

DM: Let’s talk about sports equipment for a minute. Some of my favorite passages came when Xandy was writing about the gear — the bats, gloves, balls. That’s not really a question, is it? I just really want to talk sports gear, I guess.

TSL: It’s something we all get to experience when we’re younger. We all know how good a broken-in baseball glove feels. And I wondered if that romance exists for professional athletes, too. Is the nostalgia still there for a multimillionaire who’s used to all this? So I wrote this stuff about how even pro ballplayers were taught by their parents how to take care of their gloves. And I wondered, in this era of handing over your gear to an equipment manager, are these guys still going by the oil method they learned when they were ten? That was another spot where I deliberately didn’t over-research things. I don’t know how long a pro ballplayer keeps his glove. I just decided to take some license. And I certainly don’t know how players order their bats, even though I wrote an extensive section about ordering bats. I can guarantee you the process isn’t what I wrote.

Clearly this book is about difference, about noticing differences and caring about them, and baseball is a conceit that allows you to distinguish and to pay attention to anything. So the bat section was kind of a high mark of no two things ever being the same. There is always a way to care about something, to express a preference that says something about you.

DM: Do you worry about this being pigeonholed a sports book?

TSL: I’m sure it will be. I’m aware of that. And when I say that this book is not really about baseball, my version of not being about baseball is kind of a blown-out, over the top observation of baseball. It’s essentially so much about baseball that the book is really about mania, and we realize that baseball is kind of an addiction or a problem for this guy, and maybe writing as obsessively as he does about baseball bats is a way of avoiding and deflecting writing about a love interest, or who he is and what he wants in life. He can just wield his powers of observation and that ends up being the cop-out for him. It’s a story about that extreme observational mode, in a way, the pleasures and the failings of that mode.

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