Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Q&A with Douglas Bauer


Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz



Douglas Bauer is the author of the new historical novel The Beckoning World. His other books include What Happens Next?, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Esquire and Harper's. He teaches at Bennington College, and he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you to write The Beckoning World, and how did you create your character Earl Dunham?


A: Earl sort of came in through the back door of my imagination. My inspiration for the novel began after reading a New York Times article that mentioned an actual cross-country barnstorming train tour, from New York to Los Angeles, taken by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in October 1927. They stopped in several small towns to play exhibition games and one of the stops was Sioux City, Iowa.


I began to think about the extraordinary impact these two baseball legends, mythic figures really, would have when they arrived in a relatively small, rural Midwest town to play a game. Like gods descending. I originally assumed they’d be the main characters, their trip the main story.


But then, my next question to myself was, well, who would feel the impact of their sudden arrival most dramatically? And my answer was, someone who’d had aspirations to be a great major league baseball player himself, and who’d shown that he just might have the talent to be one, but whose life had taken a detour away from that dream. And that was Earl Dunham, who became the major character in the novel.


Q: As you mentioned, the novel includes various historical figures--what did you see as the right balance between history and fiction as you were writing the book?


A: I certainly aim to stay true to the history, but I try to make sure I don’t think of the invented moments and the historical events as being in separate categories.


After all, the characters don’t think of themselves as “historical” figures. They’re not thinking, “These lives we’re living took place a long time ago. Look at this quaint Model-T I’m driving. My, how different automobiles will be for the person who’s reading this.” Instead, the lives they’re living are enfolding in the moment. In real time, so to speak.


If I thought of them as people occupying a world in the past, it would put a lifeless distance between them and me. I’d be merely observing them from afar, not living inside them as I need to do as their creator.

Q: The writer Amy Bloom said of the book, “Bauer sees with telescope and microscope, inner and outer world shared with loving clarity and an open brilliant elegance.” What do you think of that description?


A: I can’t imagine a more complimentary description, nor one that better describes what I’m attempting to do in The Beckoning World.


As I read Amy Bloom’s words, she’s speaking of my effort to offer equally the internal and external worlds of my characters. And also, to look at both the important instant minutiae (the microscopic) in the story and also to have the story do a bit of forecasting (the telescopic) as to the consequences of the action and behavior of the characters.


There are maybe half a dozen moments when my novel jumps briefly into the future to tell readers what will happen three years, 10 years, 20 years from now, and then just as quickly returns to the place from where it leapt to resume the telling. Bloom, I should add, sometimes does the same thing and with great elegance in her fiction, especially in her magnificent novel Away. 


Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: Yes, I did quite a lot of research. I read biographies of both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. I researched the world of train travel in that period in our country, especially the layouts and luxury of the Pullman cars. And I read a lot about the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which plays a crucial role in The Beckoning World.


And all kinds of things surprised me, though nothing much about Babe Ruth’s life did. I have a friend, Leigh Montville, who wrote a fine biography of Ruth, and Leigh gave me this great advice: that I should keep in mind the fact that Babe Ruth was the most hyperbolic person who’s ever lived, so nothing I could imagine him doing would be over the top.


But as for Lou Gehrig, I learned that he was a painfully shy, socially awkward young man, and that he was fiercely devoted to his mother, Christina, who was, shall we say, a very strong-willed woman.


Another surprise was learning how quickly and lethally the Spanish flu struck. You could feel a tickle in your chest in the morning and be dead by day’s end.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve turned to nonfiction for the moment, writing and thinking about some literary and autobiographical essays. I tend to do that, alternating genres, moving back and forth from fiction to nonfiction.


One essay I’m taking notes toward writing is my unique continuing attachment to this book I’ve just written. By which I mean I’ve always separated myself easily and naturally from a book when I’ve finished, but with The Beckoning World, for reasons I’m exploring in the essay I mean to write, I find myself still wishing for its company, wishing to hang out with it, wishing to be still inside its world, the one I lived in for the six years it took me to write it. Its world keeps beckoning me, I guess you could say.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Nothing I can think of. Many thanks!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Douglas Bauer.

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