Dennis Haritou: Kyle, thanks very much for considering my questions. I took up the galley of your debut novel, The Slide, one more time when I began writing them up. The first thing I noticed is that I had circled the first sentence. It read: “What was good about the road was that the road’s decisions had already been made”. This reminded me of an encounter I had with a friend once who was about the same age as your hero, Potter. My friend turned to me and said out of the blue: “I wish someone would tell me what to do.” I didn’t have an answer. The question…where do I go from here? Why isn’t this a simple question for Potter?
KB: In general terms, there would seem two scenarios in which this question is simple to answer. The first involves having limited options. The second requires confidence of both where you want to go and the best route to get there. Potter qualifies for neither. Regarding options, the specifics of Potter’s life are such that he faces a relative abundance. He is thus officially “privileged”. As for confidence, I think it becomes clear rather quickly that Potter has trouble with desire, primarily because he’s unable to believe in its purity. Potter desires to be a loving boyfriend and someday a successful spouse, but also realizes that one factor driving this desire is a fear of being alone. He sees the system of influence behind desire, the network of codes and expectations that contribute to the way we define our goals. The result is that, like a lot of young people, Potter is far more certain about what he doesn’t want. If we translate this back to our trusty journey metaphor, we can say it’s absurd to read a map based on the many locations you’d hope to avoid.
DH: I wonder if we could try an experiment on my second question. In this experiment, we would pretend that I am from Mars and know nothing about baseball…I mean especially why baseball is so important. Baseball is woven into the lives of your characters. Even when Potter encounters the little waif kid, Ian, who he tries to help, they play catch. Towards the end of your novel there is a decisive batting practice scene and there are other scenes of games throughout the book. I have to confess to you that I am like that minor character in your novel at Stuart’s pool party who doesn’t get it about baseball…who doesn’t understand the magic. But by the time I had gotten two thirds of the way through your novel, I had joined a Cardinals Facebook group…I just felt I had to be supportive somehow…I was swept up in it. So can you tell me what you love about baseball?
KB: I hesitate on this one, because much better writers than I have been answering this question for years. But if I’m to try, I’ll start here: take a minute to track down footage of Ozzie Smith fielding a ground ball. Not one of his miracle plays at short stop, not even the backflip as he took the field. Talking about a simple, routine ground ball. It is an act of poetry and beauty, as natural a set of movements as ever there were. And the best part is that we’re talking about his defense. He is a .262 career hitter who hit a grand whopping total of 28 homeruns in over 9,000 at bats. And yet he is an obvious Hall of Famer, no debate whatsoever, and in 1985 he hit a miracle home run against the Dodgers that I bet three of five people you stop on the street in St. Louis can recite verbatim from Jack Buck’s historic radio call. So a lot of my love for the sport comes from growing up in St. Louis, where Cardinals baseball approaches the religious.
But more generally, I think the ineffable “something” of baseball has do with the balance between isolation and teamwork, and the division of labor. Stand roughly here in the grass or dirt and be ready because the ball might come to you. Chew what you like. Spit. When the ball comes, run after it and throw it to the right place. And now step to the plate and take your cuts. Reach base and run fast and score the run, celebrate, and take the field all over again to protect that run. Offense and defense. Hit, run, catch, throw — everyone (the designated hitter is an insult to the game). Baseball is physical poetry amidst an ongoing war between numbers and intangibles, the novelistic pace of a 162-game season dense with intertwined narratives, rookies and veterans, middle-relief specialists and franchise superstars, all playing beneath the strategic aegis of the old, grizzled manager who, god bless him, is wearing the same uniform.
DH: Potter is described at one point in the novel as a person who notices everything. You had a character describe him as having teeth for eyes…or eyes with teeth. I loved that expression…it seems like a paradigm of the writer’s state of consciousness and I assumed it was a paradigm that applied to you. But I’m conflating it with another passage in your novel where there is talk about the difference between sympathy and empathy…a very important distinction in this story. Do you think writers “have eyes with teeth”….that they are omnivorous when paying attention. And should writers have sympathy…or empathy for their characters?
KB: One of the working titles I had for this book was “The Opposite of Blind”, which I liked for the implication of seeing too much and the paralyzing effect that comes of looking too hard at the world. In his sixteen years of schooling, Potter has been taught to be not only aware of the world, but critical of it; to analyze it and pick it into constituent parts. This becomes a problem when he tries to break apart something that is essentially un-break-apartable: human love. Meaning he tries to apply his skills of reason to the unreasonable, and fails resoundingly.
Regarding writers, I always think back to David Foster Wallace’s famous description of writers as “oglers”, the subway riders staring creepily from our seats, jotting mental notes, basically stealing raw material from the world to appropriate how we see fit. So in a sense there’s a hint of exploitation, always, for a writer as she moves through the world. This also makes me think of what Keith Gessen has said about how literature’s responsibility is to hold up a mirror to society. Because it’s in this reflection, I think, that sympathy and empathy become important. This might be a little crude or simplified, but let’s say a writer without either of these can offer, at best, a flat reflection of whatever situation she’s addressing. Shapes and colors. A sympathetic writer, on the other hand, can offer something fuller, rounder, and more textured. But if writing is to feel real, if it’s to touch on something true (which ideally it should), the writer has to go beyond mere collection and exploitation of details to the wholesale projection of herself into a situation; to root around inside of it, imagining how it smells and looks and most importantly feels to be there. So, it’s empathy absolutely. Whether this would qualify as forced empathy, or artificial empathy, and whether this distinction matters, I’m less sure…
DH: I wanted to talk about the loutish character Edsel who is referred to at one point as “the ogre”. It can be very hard to express what we believe in…to talk about deep-seated values. It’s more that we have to show them. But it seems to me that one way to
present values in a novel is to create a character like Edsel…a horror show really, totally brutal, to show the contrast. Edsel is the anti-Potter, although there seems to be a little of “Edsel” in Potter. Isn’t there?
KB: With Edsel Denk, I tried to capture the competitive drive that we associate with American capitalism. He has a clear idea what he wants, and he is almost constantly working toward achieving his goals. These are the principles capitalism historically promotes: hard work, noses and grindstones, integrity, and standing squarely behind your good or your service. However, in the early twenty-first century these principles can be said to have either evolved or devolved into lying, cheating, manipulating, and other forms of brutality. To varying degrees, of course. In that sense I wanted Edsel, the ogre, to embody the underbelly of the self-made man. That he affects Potter so deeply I think comes down to types of fear. There’s the routine horror of the modern world, then there’s the deeper horror of finding ourselves implicated in that which is horrible. Potter is scared of what Edsel says about himself, the reluctant acceptance that they have things in common, that they’re both products of the same US culture.
to be continued… Come back tomorrow for Part 2