Monday, February 06, 2006

Author Interview: Sue Corbett on Free Baseball

Free Baseball by Sue Corbett (Dutton, 2006). Felix loves baseball and longs for the day when his father, who's a baseball star in Cuba, will join him and his mother in Florida. When a team with a couple of players who might be Cuban comes to town, Felix takes advantage of being mistaken for the bat boy to stow away in the team bus. Exciting and heartfelt--a home run! Ages 8-up. See more of my thoughts on Free Baseball.

Sue Corbett on Sue Corbett: "I define myself, principally, in these ways: I am one of four children of two highly dysfunctional Irish immigrants. I am the mother of three hooligans, each of whom was born with an extra chromosome for personality. Someone who writes for children could not ask for material better than the stuff they are constantly providing me with, mostly unintentionally. This is doubly fortunate since I put writing in the same category of essentials as food, air, and water. I write every day. Sometimes all day, with breaks for snacks, reading, laundry, baseball games, reading, piano lessons, homework, and reading. And tennis. Tennis is my drug.

"Lastly, you probably need to know that my husband married me because, on our first date, I launched into a long, impassioned screed about how the Mets' front office was trading away young talent for quick fixes that weren't going to be enough to get us a pennant. This speech was all he needed to convince him that I was his bashert, EVEN THOUGH, he roots for the Twins."

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

I took my oldest son, Conor, to a Florida Marlins game a few years ago. It was "Jersey Night." Every kid under 12 got a teal blue team shirt upon entering. After the game, these same kids were invited to do the "Diamond Dash," which meant they were allowed to run around the bases once, pretending they had just hit home runs. I dropped Conor off on the first base side of the field and the usher instructed me to go to the third base side to pick him up. I scurried over there, but when I looked down at the infield to watch him run, I couldn't pick him out. Every kid was wearing the same teal blue shirt! I worried aloud about this to the woman standing next to me who was also trying to figure out which ambulatory munchkin belonged to her and she said, "Boy, if a kid wanted to run away, this would be a good time to do it."

And, I swear, it was like being struck by lightning. Felix Piloto (his first name was one of the very first things he told me) whispered in my ear at that very moment. He told me he was running away. He was beyond angry at his mother, who never had time for him anymore, and he needed to find somebody who would tell him more about his absent father - why, in particular, his father the star baseball player, was still stuck in Cuba, and when, specifically, he would finally be coming to America.

And when I did find Conor we did the Diamond Dash to the car where I always keep a reporter's notebook, and I quickly scribbled down everything Felix had told me.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

The first draft of this story came quickly -- it was only about 100 pages and I wrote it in a few months. But I revised it twice, with excruciatingly long periods of waiting in between each revision letter. We're talking years.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

My first book hewed so closely to my autobiography that the biggest challenge for me in this one was trying to write authentically from outside my culture without feeling like I was appropriating somebody else's story.

As it turned out, however, a lot of Felix's mother's concerns are my concerns, too, and a lot of the first-generation experience is similar no matter which country your parents hail from. This is generalizing, but I have met the children of immigrants from many different countries and there's almost always this refrain about the pressure to excel, to prove we belong here, and to make it economically - to take advantage of having been among the lucky who landed inside the American dream.

Tucked within Free Baseball is also this gushy valentine to my husband, Tom, because the ballpark and team that Felix runs away to is based on a real place and team. There was a team called The Miracle (they are now based in Fort Myers, FL) that, in the 1990s, had lost its major league affiliation and played in this crummy little stadium in Pompano Beach, Florida. This stadium is pretty much where our entire courtship took place, since we both loved baseball, and loved minor league baseball most of all.

Of course, the book is also dedicated to Mike Veeck, who owns the Miracle, and anybody who knows him knows that, like Vic Mench, the general manager of the Miracle in Free Baseball, Mike, too, had a very famous baseball dad. (However, Mike's wife is alive and well!) Homer is also based on a real dog. You can see a photo of that darling pooch on my website, www.suecorbett.com.

You're also the author of one of my other favorite books, 12 Again (Dutton, 2002)(teaching guide). Could you briefly tell readers a bit about that novel and how you transitioned from one project to another?

Cyn, did you know that 12 Again (Dutton, 2002) is in its seventh hardcover printing? This book is like The Little Engine That Could. I think it must be you, telling people how much you like it, who is fueling sales.

12 Again is a very different book, a very indulgent book, if you will, since I never thought it would be published and I wrote it as an exercise in sanity when I had three children, including a newborn, and had just moved to Virginia from Florida when Tom got transferred.

It was my way of thinking about the choices we make and whether we would choose differently if we got a "let," as they say in tennis (at least they say that a lot when I am serving.) It's hard for me to believe how many kids have told me they love this book since the professional criticism there was of it was that it had more appeal for grownups than middle readers. But maybe kids like walking in Bernadette's shoes as she realizes how much her sons mean to her and how empty her life would be without them. Maybe every kid knows -- or hopes -- that's the way their sometimes difficult mother feels about them.

Plus, there's the magical bunny.

Sometimes you wear another hat, that of children's book reviewer. How do your roles as author and reviewer inform one another?

As I tell school groups, you simply cannot be a writer if you are not a reader.

By this yardstick, I ought to be the world's best writer but . . . alas. So I keep reading, hoping that one day I will get it, the words, and the story, and the emotion will all click into place and something truly wonderful and powerful will emanate from my keyboard.

Meanwhile, I have read many worthy and great books, the privilege for which I am actually paid. Really, I have a magical job.

I also tell the school kids, "I lie on the couch and read and I am paid to do that," and I have to pinch myself sometimes to remind myself that is actually true. It is a fabulous gig.

Is there anything you would like to add?

No: I still don't have an agent. (People are always asking me that.)

At this point, I don't really have an editor, either, since the acquiring editor, Meredith The Divine Mundy Wasinger, left Hudson Street for the Park Avenue pastures of Sterling Publishing Co.

I do, however, have the world's most astute and competent assistant editor, Dutton's Margaret Woollatt, without whom Free Baseball would be in a cardboard box in an office somewhere, yellowing. Huzzahs to assistant editors everywhere who do all the work and get none of the credit! Long live the Margaret Wollatts of the publishing world!

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