Hay 2012: Chad Harbach and Grace McCleen

Chad Harbach and Grace McCleen were both picked in last year’s Waterstones Eleven – a clever marketing ploy highlighting exciting new literary talent.  Harbach’s US campus/baseball novel The Art of Fielding and McCleen’s The Land of Decoration, a Wales-set story about imagination narrated by a young girl, have little in common. And, following this talk, it would seem likely that the two authors have little in common too. But, having been thrown together as an odd couple to promote the bookseller’s venture, the two gave an interesting talk about the process of writing debut novels and where they plan to go from here.

Harbach, Founding Editor of hip US literary magazine N+1, appears at home holding court about both his own book and the state of literature in general. He gives a beautiful reading of his ambitious and technically-accomplished  – if not fully-realised and entirely unbelievable – novel, picking up on every nuance of the book’s language.

The book has received a lot of press coverage describing it as an attempt to write The Great American Novel, with the university’s goings-on being seen as a metaphor for the state of the US itself. Harbach, not entirely believably, warns us off such an interpretation, and says that when he was writing about baseball he was writing about baseball and nothing else. It is only us Brits obsessed with the idea of The Great American Novel, we’re told. The interviewer gently pushes back against this, and it would be difficult to disagree with the idea that Harbach wrote the book hoping for it to be some kind of nation-defining, zeitgeisty tome. For one thing, The Art of Fielding’s constant references to Moby Dick appear to self-consciously nudge readers into placing the book within the grand tradition of Melville’s epic. Harbach, however, self-deprecatingly downplays the suggestion, and says he was very much aware of the tricky issue of textual references constantly reminding the reader of a much better book.

When asked about his role within the US literary scene, Harbach gives us a nice bit of literary gossip, telling the tale of Dave Eggers kicking an intern out of the McSweeney’s office for reading The Art of Fielding. Jealously and spite are doing well in the US hipster fiction world, it would seem.

McCleen is a more nervous character, much less comfortable talking about her book – actually, she is most confident and animated when talking about Harbach’s effort.

She tells us that she already has two other novels almost finished and due for publication in the coming years. Sadly, she tells us, once they have been published her literary career will be over. McCleen says the only reason she began writing was because she was ill, and writing was one of the few things she was able to do. Writing itself now makes McCleen ill, and, for health reasons, she will soon be putting the pen away for good. While a great shame for her readers, McCleen tells us she herself won’t miss writing at all.

And the reason for this is the most interesting part of the talk: the two speak in heartfelt fashion about the difficulty, the gruel, the constant failure of being a writer, particularly an unpublished writer working on a first novel. No-one knows, no-one cares that you’re tucked away writing, Harbach says.

Harbach says his idea for The Art of Fielding came in 2000, but admits he was a bad writer then (please resist the unkind urge to say he still is), and so he had to learn how to write as he wrote his novel. Both agree that the gap between the idea for a story and the execution of a novel is an entirely frustrating one.  It took Harbach over 10 years to write his book, finding time between his other commitments. It appears to have come quicker for McCleen, but seems to have been no less tortured. McCleen tells Hay that the idea of being a writer was so golden to her that she wouldn’t have even tried to write if she’d been able to do anything else – the fear of failure, the pressure of it all would have been too great.

The rare moments of total gratification are what kept the two writers going during the years of working on their novels. Words of encouragement there for unpublished writers everywhere.

This was an interesting talk, and one that highlighted the role that the Waterstones Eleven project is playing in showcasing new talent.  Sad to think that McCleen’s literary career is coming to an end (she’ll be returning to her love of music). For some, it may be sad that the massively-hyped Harbach’s career is just getting going, with, presumably, many more books to follow. But, let’s be generous: The Art of Fielding is a perfectly-decent debut, and Harbach’s Hay talk demonstrates that he’s a nice guy and that he has the literary knowledge and desire to write more-impressive efforts.

New authors are often the most interesting ones to watch.


Banner illustration by Dean Lewis