Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Green grass and cool uniforms: The Mark Stevens Interview

The Fireballer is not just a great baseball yarn that any fan of the game will enjoy—it is also a richly-layered exploration of character, regret, and redemption.” 

—Lou Berney, author of November Road and The Long and Faraway Gone

By Steve Weddle

As I write this, Mark Stevens has the #1 spot on Amazon's new release list for contemporary fiction. Not a bad way to start the year, and so well deserved.

A poignant story about hopes, dreams, and how far one man’s talent takes him before he realizes it’s about what you do—and how you do it.

Frank Ryder is unstoppable on the baseball field—his pitches arrive faster than a batter can swing, giving his opponents no chance. He’s being heralded as a game-changing pitcher.

But within the maelstrom of press, adulation, and wild speculation, Frank is a man alone. Haunted by a tragic incident from years past, he yearns to be the best but cannot reconcile the guilt he carries with the man everyone believes him to be. Frank’s path to redemption leads him on a journey back to where his life changed forever, to visit his family, his high school coach, and his brother. Through reconnection and reconciliation with those also deeply affected by the devastating event of Frank’s youth, he finds peace and his place in the world both in and outside the game.

The Fireballer is a lyrical, moving story of undeniable talent and the life-changing power of forgiveness and a subtly romantic ode to America’s favorite pastime.

This was a book I thoroughly enjoyed. The Fireballer is warm, charming, and powerful, and Frank Ryder is such a fully imagined character.

Keir Graff has called this an "emotional thriller," and that sounds just about right. This is a book that grabs you and won't let go.

DSD's own Claire Booth said this novel is a "true triumph."

Mark and I had a recent email chat concerning the book, and I was glad we agree on the horror of ghost runners. 


Steve Weddle: What kind of a baseball nerd were you before you got to this book?

Mark Stevens: Nerd? Not much. I know people who can recite batting orders and lineups from decades ago for their favorite teams. Batting averages, pitching records, everything. These people inhale the game and never forget an inning. Me? I’m just a huge fan. Since I was nine years old. I remember vividly walking into Fenway Park for the first time and seeing all that green grass and those cool uniforms. Back then, I’d only seen a game on black and white television so the real-life experience was galvanizing. And life-changing.


SW: Why is this a baseball book rather than a redemption story about a corporate lawyer overcoming a bad case from 10 years ago or a police officer trying to make up for accidentally killing a child? What is it about baseball itself that so matches up to the story and the character you're working with here?


MS: Second question first: Because the very thing that makes Frank Ryder the subject of national conversation (his ability to throw a baseball) is the very thing that took a life and has haunted him, for good reason, ever since. Plus, Ryder is playing a game. A game. But it’s a game that can be dangerous and also allow an athlete to be rich. And famous.


First question second: Well, there are plenty of novels about redemption for police officers and lawyers, but I think baseball immediately connects to the nation’s psyche. Its soul. And, frequently, the pitcher is at the center of the story. Because the pitcher, in theory, controls all. That instantly means pressure. It’s the only major sport that starts with the defense putting the ball in play. And, in a pitcher’s perfect world, the other eight players on the field aren’t even necessary. A pitcher is isolated. Alone. And yet in charge of the story unfolding in front of him. Every batter presents a new problem. Every inning holds potential for disaster. It’s high-stakes. And, in the big leagues, you have to do it all


SW: You've done quite a bit of writing, including five or six Allison Coil mystery novels. How would this book have been different had you written at the beginning of your career?


MS: There is no way. Not even close. After I finished book five in the mystery series (The Melancholy Howl) I went back and rewrote book one (Antler Dust) based on all I had learned about writing. And what had I learned? I don’t know. It’s an accumulation of little things that come down to style. I think every aspect of my storytelling abilities got marginally better—enough that I needed to go back and spruce up that first book.  The story didn’t change, but my storytelling style did.


SW: How can we get rid of the DH in the National League? It's almost as bad as starting a runner on second in extra innings. 

MS: How about if we round up all the baseball fans in the United States and we all agree to not buy one beer at a ballpark until they reinstate the DH in both leagues? That’ll hit them where it hurts! And I’m sure everyone will be willing to forgo a few ballpark beers to restore baseball to its rightful strategic order, which requires that managers have to decide whether to pull the starting pitcher in hopes of one more beneficial at-bat. Plus, installing the DH in the National League had no impact in 2022! National League teams averaged 4.34 runs per game in 2022—down slightly from 2021. Pitchers are dominating the game, no matter who is at the plate.


Don’t get me started on those weird extra inning ghost runners! How sad for MLB to stoop so low. How can any self-respecting professional baseball player walk out to second base in the 10th inning knowing he’s done exactly nothing whatsoever to earn the spot? It’s a crime.


SW: Like me, do you twitch whenever an announcer says "ground-rule double" instead of "rulebook double"?


MS: How about “automatic double? It’s such a purely, weird baseball thing. It’s one of the quirky rules of the game, like the infield fly rule. I can’t say the phrase itself has bugged me, but it will now that you’ve pointed it out. Speaking of things announcers say, watch this 1-minute video of a ball going right through a seam in the fence. And the commentator has to say “He’ couldn’t do that again if he tried.”  No, really?  

SW: You open this book with a quote from Tommy Lasorda, who might be the most quotable manager in any sport ever. Of all the managers and all the players, who would you like to see play a game, if you were given a time machine for a summer afternoon?

MS: A diabolical question. I’d like to take the fifth. I have a feeling this answer will incriminate me among baseball fanatics because there are so many good choices, but I’d like to go back and watch Willie Mays in his prime. Nothing better than a good three-way player and he was among the best. 

SW: I've said that no one ever picked up a book because of theme. We read for character and plot and setting, for action and emotion. Yet, theme is an undeniable current underneath the best narratives. I see redemption and forgiveness in this book and wonder what made you write about those and why you find them so important.

MS: Do you have an hour? Or two?

I think, in a way, that all books are about loss. A stable world goes unstable. The “now” of our main character is threatened or our main character is living with a secret or burden that needs to be resolved. That “loss” can also be in the form of having a “want” and not being able to achieve it—that feeling of something missing in the character’s life. Shame and embarrassment are powerful drivers for story, too. The “loss” in that case is your public reputation, the public story you’ve been telling about your moral character is threatened. How far will we go to uphold the precious veneer we’ve created in our public image?  

If you don’t have a loss, you probably don’t have a novel. I can’t say I set out to want to write a novel that addressed these themes, but when the idea for it came to me it was practically screaming in my ear: write me. That’s a good feeling to have. 

SW: What was the toughest scene for you to write? Did it come fully formed or did you have to fight it?

MS: Easy answer. The scene between Frank and Gail Johnson in her house. I won’t identify Gail’s role in the story because that’s a bit of a spoiler. I think I rewrote the dialogue in that scene 30 to 40 times. Easy. 

SW: Finally, what are a few books you've read recently that you think people should check out.

MS: I loved Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell. Yes, long book but so much energy and so creative. Fantastic dialogue. Rock and roll in the late 1960’s in London. There’s music on practically every page, in more ways than one.

I can’t say enough about Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison. A very powerful first-person voice that covers so much ground about economic class, enterprise, and personal identity.  

And, finally, James Sallis’s Sarah Jane. The definition of concise, tight, and enthralling. It asks the reader to sit up and listen. There is so much deep in-between every word of exposition and dialogue. I read it and immediately started over because I knew I had missed so much.  

From the Publisher

The Fireballer is a book I’ll never forget. I truly can’t talk about this book except in a rush of emotion, crescendo-ing to uncontrollable tears while I spoil the ending, which, of course, I won’t do here in this letter.

Mark Stevens has written a remarkable novel—a book about humanity by way of baseball. If you, like me, are a fan of 
The NaturalField of Dreams, or Moneyball, read on. This one’s for you.

The Fireballer is captivating, emotional, tender, and hopeful. The story of one man’s extraordinary talent and stoicism. The story of mistakes and guilt and forgiveness and grace. Of unwritten rules and personal codes of honor. Of a nation joyfully caught up in collective fervor, rooting for an underdog rookie pitcher as he breaks records and exemplifies good sportsmanship. The story of how he almost loses everything and how, in order to find his way forward, he looks back.

Whether or not you’re a fan of the quintessential American pastime, the story within these pages will, I hope, spark in you the same feelings of connection, understanding, and reverie that I have when I read (and reread) it. It means the world to me to be able to share it now with you.

As Babe Ruth said, “The only real game, I think, in the world is baseball.”

—Alison Dasho, Editor

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