"More than Just Sports Novels":
An Interview with John H. Ritter
by Chris Crowe, Professor of English, Brigham Young University
(The ALAN Review, Spring/Summer 2000)
With his baseball novel Choosing Up Sides (Philomel 1998), rookie YA author John H. Ritter landed a spot on the All Star team. Awards for his first YA novel included the 1999 International Reading Association's Children's Book Award, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults notation, and a 1999 Blue Ribbon Book citation from The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books.
Ritter's second at bat, Over the Wall (Philomel 2000), will secure him a regular spot in the line up of notable authors writing about sports for young adults. Ritter's baseball books are more than just sports novels. They have plenty of lively and realistic baseball action, but the play-by-play is only a small part of the stories.
Instead of focusing on on-the-field action, Ritter's books are coming-of-age stories of young men who happen to be athletes. With his novels, Ritter joins popular YA authors like Chris Crutcher, Will Weaver, Carl Deuker, Rich Wallace, and a handful of others who write what I call sportlerroman (after the German term kunstlerroman, a coming of age story of an artist). These books pack the appeal of a sports story with the added depth of the emotional or personal development of a central character. Both of Ritter's novels fit nicely into this classification of YA sports literature.
Set in 1921, Choosing Up Sides is the story of thirteen-year-old Luke Bledsoe, the left-handed son of an itinerant preacher who constantly reminds Luke, "The left side has always been the side of Satan, contrary to God. ...And baseball itself is nothing but the Devil's playground." As a diligent son, Luke works hard to overcome his left-handedness, but when he discovers he possesses prodigious ability to pitch a baseball—left-handed—the temptation is too much to resist. His desire to use his talent and to fit in with the town kids who play baseball set him against his overbearing and stubborn father.
In Over the Wall, Tyler Waltern is a talented but temperamental thirteen-year-old shortstop. While spending the summer with cousins in New York City, he hopes to land a position on the local All Star team. Unfortunately, his hot temper alienates him from the coaches who will ultimately make the All Star choices. Tyler eventually faces up to his temper and its root causes: his unhappiness over his father's inability to deal with the accidental death of Tyler's sister compounded by a vow his father made when his own father was killed in the Vietnam War.
Though Tyler doesn't realize all his baseball dreams, he comes away with something more valuable: a new perspective on the "other guy," which manifests itself in a symbolic demonstration at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that helps him deal with his own anger and confused emotions.
I recently had a chance to sit down and talk with John H. Ritter about his life, his books, his views on sports literature, and a variety of other subjects. Here are excerpts of our conversation that might interest the readers of The ALAN Review:
Chris Crowe: John, tell us a little about your life. You've written a book set in rural Ohio and one set in New York City. Where did you grow up?
Ritter: Neither of those places, actually. My parents were natives of Ashtabula, Ohio, up around Cleveland. But before I was born, my dad landed a job out west as a sports writer, so I grew up in the rural hills of San Diego County. In the 1920s, the time frame of Choosing Up Sides, my family was scattered all through the Ohio and West Virginia region. So that setting was a natural. And Over the Wall is about a modern day California boy going to New York, which was loosely based on personal experience.
Crowe: What kinds of writing did you do in school? Did you have any influential teachers? What kind of student were you?
Ritter: A wild student, I'll say that first. A rabble rouser and a contrarian. I was constantly searching for the exception to every rule. But I was always a high achiever. The problem was, I had this dual personality. I could be extremely focused and responsible one day, then get tossed out of class the next. As proof, in high school I was voted both the Senior Class President and the Senior Class Clown.
Crowe: So when did you work on your writing? In college?
Ritter: Well, yes and no. In high school I wrote plays and wrote for the school paper. By the time I got to UC San Diego, I was writing tons of songs, hoping to be the next Bob Dylan or something. I carried around a little notebook, constantly jotting down riffs and phrases. But by my second year in college, I was anxious to get on with my life. And for the vision I had in mind, college didn't have much to offer me. I knew I had to walk the streets, touch life, embrace life, gain experience. I didn't trust professors to guide my career. I wanted to discover books and writers on my own, not be told what to read and certainly not what to write. I wanted to hit the road like Kerouac, Dylan, and Twain. To have something real to write about.
Crowe: What happened?
Ritter: One fine spring day, I walked right past my sociology class, straight into the dean's office, filled out a withdrawal card, and kept on walking. I got a job as a painter's apprentice with a commercial contractor I'd worked for in the summer. This was the early seventies, and we all lived so cheaply I could earn enough in three or four months to write and travel the rest of the year. I did that for several years until I got married, had a baby, and bought a house. Then I had to work for nine months a year! Bummer.
Crowe: So when did you learn your craft? Did you ever study with a writing teacher?
Ritter: Yeah, eventually. Like I say, I preach this to kids all the time now. That raw talent—whether it's on the ball field or in music or on stage—will only get you so far. At some point you have to admit you really know nothing at all about the fine points. That you need a coach, a mentor, someone who'll teach you discipline and point the way.
Crowe: When did that come for you?
Ritter: It started about twelve years ago. I began going to a fiction writing group twice a month. It was comprised of about eight unpublished writers led by a YA novelist named Joan Oppenheimer. We'd bring in our stories or chapters and read them out loud and sit trembling while everybody else responded. But Joan was great. She said, "You're the author. Just listen to the feedback and take consensus. Then if you think the comments have merit, consider making the changes."
But even so, it took me ten years to sell my first book. I left that group, took some extension classes, formed a new writers group, and kept writing story after story, each one a little bit better than the last.
Crowe: Baseball plays a role in both Choosing Up Sides and Over the Wall. Why?
Ritter: Well, let me start by saying I was the middle son in a pretty close family of three boys and an older sister living way out in the sticks. We were pulled even closer when our mom died of breast cancer. I was only four, and my dad had a real rough road raising four small children on a journalist's salary. But we were also a sports family, and Dad always impressed upon us the idea of teamwork and pulling together. In fact, when he remarried six years later, two more sisters came along, and, to me, that just made the team that much stronger.
We ended up playing a lot of baseball growing up, boys and girls, and I went on to coach my daughter's softball team as my dad had coached for us. And even though my dad was a newspaper columnist, and I loved to write, as a kid my greatest hopes and dreams were attached to baseball. In fact, in my mid-teens, some people thought I had a shot at playing pro ball one day. But remember the times. The sixties. And I was a kid who believed in teamwork, in doing what I could to help other people.
Then the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War came along and threw all my dreams off track. That's why even going to college lost its worth to me. What happened was, real life and the cruelties I saw being practiced in or by my own country took precedence over my dreams. Now in later years, when it became time to pick subject matter for my coming-of-age stories, baseball leapt at me. Aside from my love for the game, it also lends itself so easily to literary metaphor. Our whole lexicon is filled with examples. "Three strikes and you're out." "Life threw me a curve." "You sure hit a homer with that idea." "He really went to bat for us," and so on.
Crowe: You mention coming-of-age stories, sometimes referred to as "bildungsroman." And from that we get spin-off genres, such as "kunstlerroman," the coming-of-age of an artist. Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a common example. Both of your novels could be what I call "sportlerroman," a coming-of-age story of an athlete. Were you ever tempted to make them simple sports novels, stories that focused just on the game?
Ritter: I never intended them to be play-by-play sports novels, which I find boring. I'm more interested in using baseball scenes as metaphor, or for challenges to character, or to advance the story. I could as easily set the stories in the world of ballet, were I as knowledgeable in that arena. But the thrust would be the same. Kids dealing with hard choices. To me, that's the definition of YA lit. They're stories about that first time in life when one has to stand on one's own two feet, make a life-altering decision, then live with the consequences of that choice. If it happens on the ball field, fine. But usually it doesn't. It's just that events on the ball field may lead up to that moment and help shape the kid so that one day he can take his stand.
Crowe: In both your novels, the narrators are alienated from their fathers. Where does that come from? From your experience as a son? As a father? Or is it a plot device you like?
Ritter: It's pure plot device. My dad never struck me, was not particularly religious, and was actually quite involved in my life--that is, considering he was the father of six kids. But beyond that, I wanted to explore a specific father/son dynamic. So in both novels I asked, what if this "problem" father is loving and well-meaning? What if he only wants the best for his son? Then how does the boy view the father's harsh treatment? In the end, both books are about a boy trying to save his father. Why would an alienated kid do that? The answer, I think, is what Tyler finds out in Over the Wall. It comes down to discovering what he really believes, then having the courage to act on it.
Crowe: You mentioned once that writing was in some ways like anthropological research. How so?
Ritter: I was referring to all of the cultural research that goes into a novel. For Choosing Up Sides, set in Southern Ohio in the 1920s, I did tons of research on religious movements, on characteristics of left-handers, and the Appalachian dialect. But I also had to visit the region and interview people who lived there to get an idea of their culture and customs. Luckily I still had living relatives who could help.
But the same method applied to my modern-day story, Over the Wall, which is set in New York City. I became an anthropologist. I interviewed the shopkeepers, the residents, the ballplayers. Do I need to say that I found cultures there that were vastly different from my own? And I'm not satisfied with noting obvious differences. What I look for is nuance. Like the social code of the elevator attendants. Or the constant search for one's own quiet spot.
Crowe: How do you write? Explain your process, such as where do you get your ideas. How do you revise? Do you have an audience in mind?
Ritter: The driving force behind all my stories comes primarily from finding something that really bugs me. And so far, it tends to be some sort of injustice.
Once I have the basic idea, I begin to research the book's general domain extensively. It might be ancient religious beliefs or earthquakes or Roberto Clemente. I dig up all the facts I can find, the weirder and more obscure, the better.
Finally I start to write. Always in longhand. As Graham Greene said, "My fingers on a typewriter are never connected to my brain. My hand on a pen always is." It's like I'm painting the words—I don't know how else to describe it. But the part of my brain that I engage so heavily in dreaming up the first draft does not engage in the same way at the keyboard. The second draft, however, goes into the computer. But all line editing and new scenes are done by hand on notepaper or the printed hardcopy.
From that printout I hack out a third draft which I polish as much as I can. That one goes to my writing group. Out of their feedback comes the direction for a fourth draft. I hack that out, then polish it and that becomes the fifth draft, which is the first one my editor ever sees.
I'll repeat that process two more times essentially. I'll show my work to various readers—teachers and teenagers, for example—then get editorial feedback every fourth or fifth draft. So I usually end up with fifteen drafts or so. All depends. But if my editor didn't stop me, I'd revise forever. Nervous habit. So by the time I get the galleys, which I read aloud for rhythm and voice, I can usually say that every word I use, I use on purpose.
As for audience, the only one I think about is my editor, Michael Green, at Philomel. He's a big sports fan whose only flaw is that he roots for the Mets. But he's a perceptive guy and such a kid at heart that I figure if I write stuff I imagine him liking, then I'm confident the kids will like it, too.
Crowe: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Ritter: So much depends upon motivation. Just like in a good story. I'd say you have to join a writers group. Next, build your resume. Anywhere. Local newspapers, magazines, writing contests. It's so important. For example, one of my earliest novels won the Judy Blume Award for a work in progress offered by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. When I look back, that was probably my biggest break. The award opened doors for me, and the book caught my editor's eye which led to his buying my second novel.
But most importantly, learn the craft of storytelling. Learn how to grab a reader's interest, hold on to it, and keep it until the very last page.
Crowe: In both novels, religion plays an important role, though it's more obvious in Choosing Up Sides than in Over the Wall. What do you see as the role of religion—or religious faith—in your stories?
Ritter: I don't come from a religious family, but for some reason, I was a religious boy. In fact, I was an altar boy! I think it came from searching for answers to lots of existential questions that hounded my life, including the death of my mom.
Anyway, it was quite natural for me to write about a boy who prays, a conscientious boy who has high standards—or at least he shoots for high standards. But I also know that religious beliefs can be at the root of bigotry and prejudice. For example, throughout our history, slavery and war have been justified from the pulpit. I have a cousin who's a well-published biblical scholar, and my father-in-law is a minister. So I've had many late night discussions on what they call the "paradoxes" of religious beliefs. That is, how in one part of the Bible a certain action is justified, and in another part it's condemned. War, for instance. How can a man who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus go to war, pick up a rifle, and kill another man? Because to me, that's not a paradox, that's hypocrisy.
But I saw that terrain as being fairly untrodden, especially in children's lit. And I believe writers need to go into uncharted territory. Especially if they have existential questions—questions that involve the meaning of life.
Crowe: Both your novels deal with history. Why?
Ritter: I believe every novel is historical fiction, regardless of the time and place. Telling a story is like building a house. You don't start with the roof. First you build your foundation. And history, whether cultural or political, oral or written, is at the foundation of every story told, from science fiction to romance novels to the parables of Jesus. How can I write about the problems and prejudices of today if I ignore the historical perspective?
Crowe: Your stories can be enjoyed by readers as young as 10 or 11 at face value. But older readers with more life experience, including adults, will see multiple layers and deeper symbolism in your work. Your metaphors often do double and triple duty. What leads you to write this way?
Ritter: Just for fun. I mean, first and foremost, it's important for me to be sure I reach younger readers. But I have this mind that constantly scans for puns. Double and triple meanings come easy to me. And, when you think about it, that's all a metaphor is. A literary pun. So somewhere in the revision process this weird part of my brain kicks in. For example, the apple in Choosing Up Sides. The same fruit that got Adam and Eve into trouble also gets Luke in trouble. Then it lures the poor rabbit into the snare. Which also suggests Luke and the trap he's in. Then I realize that "apple" is old time slang for a baseball. It all connects, on and on. But it's so subconscious. I rarely plot out a metaphor. I discover most of them in the work, sometimes long after the book is done. In this case, the spark was a story my dad always told about a buddy of his tossing crab apples at a telephone pole by the hour and turning into a great pitcher. I just let that thought bounce around in my mind, and every apple I ever knew got worked into the story.
Chris Crowe, a regular contributor to The ALAN Review, is a member of the English Department faculty at Brigham Young University and a former BYU football player. He's also the author of Mississippi Trial, 1955.