Mike Stange, Fiction Editor, Rappahannock Review: Although the characters in “To the Wall” are in different stages of life, they are all experiencing some sort of crucial development–from Jacob’s traditional coming of age moment to Sandy’s challenges as a parent and Derek’s attempts to mature into his professional identity. What factors influenced this connection between the story’s three primary characters?
Holly M. Wendt: To be perfectly honest, that connection was never anything I overtly intended or shaped. The story began with Sandy, which really meant it began with Jacob and his addiction—the first scene I wrote was the first scene of the story, with Sandy in her car—and once I decided that the story would be set in Casper, Derek’s transitional position as a minor league ballplayer was fixed, simply because that’s the kind of baseball we have here. One early story connection that particularly interested me and that perhaps helped pull the story’s various threads together is Sandy’s grappling with her son’s growing up, an issue also explored in how she thinks about Derek.
The minor league baseball player—particularly in the lower tiers—has to be a person of significant resilience and adaptability if he’s going to make it, and I think it’s shocking to other people to see just how much they have to do at a relatively young age. So many minor leaguers do come a very long way to play their sport with very few resources. Sandy’s difficulty in processing Derek’s relative ease—to be so young, in her mind, and to be so far from home—echoes what I know I’ve thought: it’s one thing to come up through the minors in more populated, baseball-like climates, like the Arizona fall league, but to come from Australia, the Dominican Republic, or Venezuela to the absolute middle-of-nowhere Wyoming? What a shock. And yet—to be a professional athlete is to accept change (in location, in uniform, and even in positions played and coaching methodology), something I think must be made easier by the regularity of the sport itself. The rules remain the same in baseball; the distance between bases is fixed. The sport is a constant where little else is. While Sandy certainly doesn’t think about baseball in that way, the other characters do, and they take comfort in that.
MS: What is it that inspired you to use baseball as such a key aspect of the story? What importance does baseball have in your life, particularly the minor leagues? Also, who’s your team?
HMW: I love this question. Baseball’s a key aspect because I have trouble not writing about baseball—or sports, more generally—in one way or another, and baseball (and softball) have been such an integral part of my life. My dad played baseball in high school, and then he played in a highly competitive slow-pitch softball league, so our summers were spent at those softball diamonds. At home, we listened to Harry Calas’s staticky radio call of the Phillies, and we played catch and four-person family games of whiffleball in our sloping front yard all the time. My dad played his game until he was thirty-six, essentially until my older brother and I were hip-deep in baseball and softball ourselves, and then our family summers became practice and local games all week and further-away tournaments all weekend. Later, the sport became year-round: my brother was a pitcher and I was a catcher, and pitchers and catchers report early. That’s true in high school, too. Neither of us played in college, but I kept playing on a traveling team until I was twenty. Now, I’m strictly a spectator, but I do that wholeheartedly. Thanks to the marvels of technology, I can watch nearly every MLB game played each season, and I revisit games through the long, cold winter. There’s something about baseball that has always signaled rightness to me, comfort and ease; maybe that’s the pull toward the sport in “To the Wall”—those characters are trying to find their equilibrium again.
The minor league part of the question is a little more direct: when I moved to Casper, Wyoming, in 2009, from central Pennsylvania, Casper was the home of the Casper Ghosts, the Rockies’ Rookie ball team. The Ghosts have since moved to Grand Junction, Colorado, but I’m still following some of those players as they work their way through the Rockies’ farm system. I also pay close attention to the Phillies’ minor league affiliates. There’s something wonderful in the hopeful kitsch of minor league baseball.
Coming from Pennsylvania, I grew up a Phillies fan, which I still am (though Ruben Amaro, Jr. is making it difficult lately), and I’m also probably guilty of the worst kind of fan treason, but I confess to having become a Pirates fan in the last two years, too. Is it bandwagonish? Certainly. Do I feel bad about it? It’s too much fun to feel really bad about it. How can anyone feel bad about cheering for Andrew McCutchen and A. J. Burnett and the rest of the marvelously affable Pirates? Also, the Pirates have Clint Barmes, who I discovered as a member of the Rockies. I have a real soft spot for players who are defensively gifted and offensively challenged—see also Freddy Galvis.
MS: One thing that really engaged us with this story is how it takes a relatively common literary subject—the adolescent’s descent into addiction—and approached it from a different perspective. What factors caused you to position Sandy as the central character of the story?
HMW: When I write fiction, it’s always because a character shows up with a story to tell, so I didn’t so much choose Sandy as Sandy chose to speak. But Sandy likely spoke as the central character because Sandy’s the only one in the story who knows enough to create the necessary dramatic tension to drive the plot: Jacob is so isolated in the treatment center that he has no real access to Derek’s story, and Derek is mostly clueless about Jacob—though probably not as much as Sandy thinks—and so those two characters, while they do have stories, clearly have different stories, and probably ones that are too familiar, as you say: the addiction story and the underdog athlete’s story. In some ways, Sandy’s position as the point of view character is fortuitous happenstance, but it’s also a matter of trusting the story as it came to me. Given the choice, I’d probably have tried to write this from Derek’s point of view, but I learned a long time ago that my writing process is a lot less about dictating and a lot more about listening.
MS: This is something I’m always curious about with writers: what are you currently reading, or listening to, or watching, or looking at?
HMW: It’s winter, and so I’m watching hockey pretty incessantly. (I’m a Penguins fan, and my husband is a Flyers fan. The struggle is real.) I don’t watch much, TV-wise, outside of sports, but I am definitely excited for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I’m reading Nina McConigley’s great new short story collection, Cowboys and East Indians, and I’m reading Middlemarch because I like to be reading something old and something new at the same time. I’m always listening to The Dreadnoughts, a Celt-punk group out of Vancouver, and research for my most recent novel manuscript has lead me into a lot of Russian pop and European electronica that I keep listening to, even if I can’t say I like it. I’ll listen to anything that takes my brain to an interesting narrative place. I can’t listen to music while I write, but listening to music while I drive or work out or putter around the house gives me another opportunity to turn my writing around in my head. I unravel most of my big writing problems like that, by surprise, because of the interaction of something I heard with something I’m actually doing, which inevitably leads to me trying to write something on my hand while I’m still on the treadmill. I haven’t fallen yet, but I don’t recommend the methodology. I keep a handheld tape recorder in my car for those moments, too.
MS: What else are you working on?
HMW: I’m currently seeking representation for another sports-centric manuscript, a contemporary novel about a closeted Russian hockey player that is informed, in some ways, by the 2011 Lokomotiv Yaroslavl air disaster. While I’m sending out queries for that project, I’m finishing up some stories and essays and doing research for the next novel, which will be historical fiction. This is probably too many things at once, but I’m better when I’m busy.
Holly M. Wendt teaches writing and literature at Casper College and is the director of the Equality State Book Festival. Her prose has previously appeared in or is forthcoming from Memorious, The Rumpus, The Classical, Hobart, and others. She serves as the assistant fiction editor for Drunken Boat. She thinks that the months without baseball are the saddest months.
Holly M. Wendt’s work in Issue 1.1: