Ten writers for children. All with something to say.

2/18/10

Virgina Euwer Wolff's BAT 6

Where and how I got the idea: Usually, I try to walk away from this question. But in the case of this book it’s really quite interesting. (I think.)

Sometime in 1993, Donald R. Gallo (a champion of teen lit and compiler of several anthologies for teens) sent me a postcard inviting me to submit a sports story for a new anthology. I went upstairs in my brain and asked, “What do I know about sports?”

In my mind I suddenly saw a big crowd of people (maybe about 20) of all ages, shouting loudly all in a bunch, and, just to my right of them, spring sunshine came gleaming through maple trees. I knew that down on the ground, underneath the yelling crowd, was first base on the playground of my childhood elementary school. I’d never seen such a crowd scene there, and I began to ask it questions. Because a huge answer would be overwhelming and I wouldn’t be able to cope with it, I made the questions small ones. And I asked them very quickly, so the answers would come fast, without pondering time. (I’d never done this kind of thing before.) I asked:

Happy or unhappy yelling?
Answer: Unhappy.

Why unhappy? I guessed the obvious: Someone has been hurt at first base.

By accident or on purpose?
Answer: On purpose.

And at this point I left the scene. I would have nothing to do with a vicious, cruel incident on the sanctified ground of my childhood first base. But within days (maybe within hours?) I came back. What kind of crazy person would hurt somebody at first base?

Not getting any answer to that, I began to ask: Who saw it happen? Answer: The pitcher, the catcher, second baseman, probably the shortstop, the left fielder.... Lots of people saw it. Just as in a car accident, everyone sees it from his/her unique vantage point and may report it slightly differently from everyone else.

One thing that did flash across the screen of my memory was the return of the Japanese kids from the Internment Camps when I was little, and the vagueness of all that, the silences, the mystery, the grownups hushing us up.... There had been some hatred, but the kindly parents in our community wouldn’t talk about it in front of us kids; adults stopped their whispered conversations when we asked what they were talking about; mothers cried; fathers went about with that tight-lipped thing men do when they’re concealing something.

So I started with only the Where, and I had some good clues about the When. I had only the faintest idea of the Who. The Why was foggy but real, and the What was my task to invent. What had actually happened? (In A Separate Peace, what does actually happen up there on that tree limb? Can anybody say for absolute sure?)

I began by letting some of the nearby softball players tell what they’d seen. As they talked, I began to get a general image of the victim, and a much more filmy, indefinite outline of the perpetrator. I was also finding out that that one moment on a ball field was radiating outward, reaching way far into places I hadn’t expected.

The pieces came together slowly (I’m always slow), but with enough tension so that I felt it was worth continuing with.

Until that first morning, looking at Don Gallo’s postcard and lifting the lid on my brain, I’d had no idea that upstairs in my brain is a constant cineplex, movies always running. I had simply checked into the sports theatre that morning. (I’m not an athlete, so the sports films up there are limited.) Now, after all that, when I ask students about the movie theatre in their minds, many of them know exactly what I’m talking about. Some do not. I’ve learned to trust that cineplex up there, but I also know not to try to exploit it beyond reason. It’s there, but I must not loot it rashly.

For Don Gallo’s sports anthology I ended up writing a mediocre story about Scuba diving (one of the very few sports I’ve ever taken part in).

What I didn’t know until a few years after the book had been published: My granddaughter I were watching the lovely old movie National Velvet (Elizabeth Taylor, 1944). Just watching. Suddenly, someone fell off a horse in the bright sunshine and a huge crowd gathered round, a hubbub began.... Oh, good heavens: That was the source of my original scene of a crowd shouting in the sunshine, in reaction to something in a sporting event. I had loved that movie as a kid, and apparently that scene had stayed upstairs in my brain all these years. But that was a small discovery, compared to one I made about three years later:

The bigger discovery: Bat 6 had been out for about a decade when I was invited to see a group of 5th graders at an alternative school perform Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1914). I was glad to be asked, remembering vaguely that I had read the book years before with genuine literary pleasure. The shock that afternoon: In watching the kids in their noisy, sweaty auditorium, I realized that I had borrowed the entire form of Bat 6 from this very book. As you’ll recall, the Spoon River residents all speak from the graveyard, recalling their lives and their deaths. I had simply lifted the plan of having an entire community speak, as in readers’ theatre (one of my favorite forms). And I’d done it all unconsciously. During the 4 years that I’d worked on Bat 6, Spoon River Anthology had stood silently in its alphabetical position in the very room where I was working. Not once had I glanced at it on the shelf, not once had I had the decency to notice what I was lifting by whole cloth. Imagine my surprise, the humiliation.... At the very least, I should have mentioned Edgar Lee Masters in the Acknowledgments. By then it was too late.
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Worst parts (hardest parts) of writing it?

Several worst parts. The structure, of course, but I worked on that by making charts & graphs, moving little pieces of cardboard around.... The very worst part was trying to get inside Shazam. I know what troubles her, but because I’ve never been a sociopath I always felt I was feeling the elephant the wrong way round. But Mark Twain had never been a runaway boy on a raft; Natalie Babbitt had never met a villainous man in a yellow suit.... It’s my job to find character, burrow inside, and stop complaining about the task. My editor was not satisfied that Aki could be so “phlegmatic” (my editor’s word); I had to explain and explain and explain to her the way the Japanese-American girls (Issei, Nisei, Sansei) were, until some years after that time, brought up never to make waves.... I don’t know how I could have forced Aki to behave in a way that she was, culturally, not equipped for. She could not retaliate, she could not.... So: My editor wasn’t catching on to what I was trying to tell (because the early draft she saw was nearly as chaotic as the end of the softball game is in the book), couldn’t understand what the book was about, couldn’t understand why Aki was the way she was, and could not see clearly into Shazam’s mind-- And she kept asking me questions I felt ill-equipped to answer. For instance: Was the book about war or was it about softball? As I struggled to make the story ever clearer, the answer emerged, slowly and beautifully in my editor’s eventual decision to have a partial book jacket showing softball, the hardcover underneath showing war, and endpapers that focused on the Home Front, all coming together to illustrate the complex nature of the story. These aren’t visible in the paperback edition. Against these awful problems, the miles and months of library research were easy. (I was not yet using the Internet, and I’m kind of glad I wasn’t. I think the process should not have been efficient; I think I had to follow tortuous paths, some of them wrong ones and all of them putting tiny pieces in the mosaic.)

How badly did I want to quit? And why I didn’t quit?

Quitting really did seem like an option, and on many, many days it looked like a good one. My editor found the manuscript nearly impossible, and she took an unconscionably long time to get back to me at every stage but the last. I felt she didn’t understand the book. (See above.) I felt enormously alone, out on my ice floe left to starve.... But I could always have applied for a job at McDonald’s; nobody was forcing me to do this work. My literary agent very wisely said, “If you don’t finish this book, you’ll always wonder.” So true, so true. I had several reasons for not quitting. One was to prove to my editor that I could make the story happen. Another was the ferocious loyalty I was developing toward the girls and their well-meaning communities. During the writing of that book, school violence across America was increasing, with students and teachers lying dead because some terribly troubled kid had a gun. I thought the book might possibly help, somehow, somewhere. (Of course I’ve never found out, and am not likely to.) And a third reason was that I had really no idea what was going to happen after the horrible scene at first base. Finding out how to end the book, finding one girl who could actually do something heroic that none of the other girls would dare to do: That was agonizing, but, in the end, thrilling, because I did find the right girl, and struggled with her to bring the story to resolution.

Addendum:

Another of the things that helped me not quit writing Bat 6 was a Faith Ringgold quilt I saw in the High Art Museum in Atlanta. You can see a poster of it online. It’s called Church Picnic. I remember standing in the museum, reading every bit of the small print story that goes around the quilt. On the top layer, the story is of a nice church picnic, everybody dressed up with pretty food and all the cozy stuff we like on picnics. The underneath layer tells a quite different story: of sadness, hurt, rivalry, meanness of spirit....

And I realized that that was exactly what I was trying to do with the novel: Small town, pretty on top, ugly underneath. It was so encouraging to see that quilt.

I don’t know if I ever mentioned it to my editor, but I’ve told about it in speeches, sometimes toting along with me the great big poster to show. Often, the questions from the audience don’t even begin to get there; I’ve carried the poster hundreds of miles in my car and sometimes not shown it at all.

7 comments:

Lauren said...

This is an amazing story with great detail of the creative process. Thank you for this. At first I was a little daunted by the length of the interview, but it was well worth it. I have not read the book, but I cannot wait to-- it will be great to have all of this back story in mind while reading it.

Stephanie said...

This really shows all the things that go into a story:)

David LaRochelle said...

Bat 6 was a fascinating book which I read several years ago. I'm glad to find out some of the back story of how it came to be.

Mark said...

So much useful and inspiring information in this interview, I really enjoyed it.

Laurie Skiba said...

I'm working my way through a novel revision and came to this blog today hoping for a little sustenance. As I often do with One Potato...Ten! posts, I got it! Thank you, Virginia, for sharing your struggle (and triumph!) in writing that seminal book. Thank you, Carmen, for posting this interview. I'm ready to go back to work now.

Edie said...

This has been especially interesting to me as I travel through Oregon for the first time this week. Virginia Euwer Wolff's MOZART SEASON was on my mind as I hiked in Washington Park the other day. I'll be looking for BAT 6 when I get home.

Christy said...

It was reassuring to hear how you discovered subconscious sources feeding your work. I recently realized that what I believed was a great new idea of mine, was actually a variation on a key plot in another book I had read and admired. I had to figure out how to distinguish my new work from the source.