Chad Harbach | “Doing literature at college, you tend to be drenched in the past; Nabokov seemed to me a modern author."

Chad Harbach is assuredly the only début author in literary history to have a book about his novel released before the novel itself. Two days before Harbach's much-hyped, rapturously received The Art of Fielding was published in the US early this month, Vanity Fair released an e-book by Keith Gessen called How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding.  

For Gessen—author of 2008's All the Sad Young Literary Men (Vintage) and a friend of Harbach since university—there was much to write about. Harbach is the hottest new thing in American letters—he has rightly been compared to both Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace—yet The Art of Fielding was 11 years in the making, and when it was finally finished most agents Harbach approached thought it unsaleable.

Fortunately, they were wrong; last year the book was the centre of a feverish auction, with North American rights going to Little, Brown US for $665,000. UK rights were later snapped up by Fourth Estate, who will publish in January 2012.

Harbach says: “It was a bit surreal . . . The whole [auction] process is longer than I'd imagined. So at one level it was fantastically exciting, at the other level it was three days not daring to leave my house, sitting by the computer and the phone, getting these updates. There's not an auctioneer calling out a number every five seconds."

Playing hardball

Perhaps slightly problematic for UK readers, The Art of Fielding centres around baseball. Main character Henry Skrimshander, a prodigiously talented shortstop [fielder], is recruited to play for the previously lacklustre baseball team at Westish College in Wisconsin by the team's star catcher Mike Schwartz.

Henry energises the team, which goes on a winning streak, and he attracts the attentions of Major League scouts as he nears the record for consecutive errorless games—set by his idol, the fictitious Aparicio Rodriguez, a former Gold Glove Award-winning St Louis Cardinal and author of Henry's bible, a book of baseball wisdom entitled The Art of Fielding. Yet, during a game, a wayward throw by the previously dependable Henry unleashes a disastrous set of circumstances which the main characters must struggle against.

If you do not know what a shortstop, Gold Glove Award or St Louis Cardinal is, fear not, says Harbach. “I could say the usual spiel about how the book is about much more than baseball. But for a lot of the baseball I did try to write from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about the game. A close friend of mine was one of the first people I showed the book after I finished it. I was pleased that she was really engrossed in it, and about two-thirds of the way through, she said: ‘What's a shortstop?'

Like Franzen and Wallace's work, Harbach's book is broad and multi-layered, managing to build compelling characters and tackle a number of difficult topics in a effortless, almost breezy manner. Central is Henry's psychological decline, as he confronts his fallability after his bad throw. Henry and Schwartz's friendship is tested, both by on-field travails and a love triangle with the beautiful Pella. There is a complex and touching May–December romance with Henry's gay, mixed-race, bookish roommate Owen and Guert Affenlight, the previously heterosexual president of Westish.   

Dark nights  

Harbach originally hails from Racine, Wisconsin, a smallish city set—like the fictional Westish College—on the shores of Lake Michigan. He moved east to study literature at Harvard University, which, for a relatively unsophisticated kid from the Midwest was “the largest and most disorienting transition, which took me years to recover from".

Wallace's Infinite Jest was an inspiration. “Doing literature at college, you tend to be drenched in the past; Nabokov seemed to me a modern author. When I read Infinite Jest, it had a lot of connections to the literary world, but also to the world I was living in. It was the book that made me say: ‘I can become a writer.' " Wallace's influence ran deep during the auction, with Harbach turning down a $750,000 offer from Scribner in order to work with Little, Brown's Michael Pietsch, Wallace's former editor.

After Harvard, Harbach moved around the country for the next four years, doing odd jobs and a creative writing course at the University of Virginia. He eventually settled in New York, where he and old friend Gessen helped found the influential literary magazine N+1. Between working on N+1 and as a copy editor—he has never taken a salary from the magazine—he was writing his book. It was not always easy, particularly as he saw friends like Gessen score book deals of their own. “When you've been working on something for six or seven years and you've been telling people about it and you know that the end is really not in sight . . . Well, I certainly had some dark moments in the composition.

“Yet, I always really loved it and enjoyed it. I never got sick of the book itself . . . You put so much into it, you never have the idea of abandoning it. There's nothing to do except soldier on."