Writing with Rhythm and Style:
A Revealing Interview with John H. Ritter
(Baker and Taylor's Librarian's Newsletter, October 2006)
B&T: You write with a unique rhythm and style that are quite commendable. What would you attribute this to, i.e., writing classes, reading specific authors, listening to jazz while writing, etc?
John: It's funny, but no jazz, no rock when I work. Probably because I grew up on Kumeyaay land and I'm part Blackfoot, but I listen to Carlos Nakai's Native American flute music exclusively when I write. In The Boy Who Saved Baseball, I even had Cruz de la Cruz ride in "on the lonesome trill of an elderberry flute." Of course, as with any artist, my influences are huge and widespread. My literary heroes have always been Dylan, Twain, Steinbeck, and Kerouac, pretty much in that order. Today I would add Cormac McCarthy and most recently, Leif Enger.
In the case of Baseball Moon and the jazzy voice I use, it first came to me as I walked the streets of New Orleans in the spring of '03 and sketched out the original story. But it probably originated way back in my younger years. When I was 15, the same age as Andy and Glory, the Bob Dylan Songbook fell into my hands and changed my life forever. I found it to be an amazing book—full of crazy characters, of sadness and love, of desperation and revolution, of insight, and morality, and even humor.
I stood in my garage and tore the baffle off my electric organ, cranked up the tiny Sears and Roebuck mail order amp, and sang that book from cover to cover, memorizing beat street lyrics, adopting the wail of a moaning man of constant sorrow, a tambourine man, a weather man, only a pawn, only a hobo, but one more is gone, and on and on. I began carrying around a spiral notebook in my back pocket, cover torn, metal rings flattened from school desk seats, pages bent, half-ripped, but all filled with blue pen lines scribbled out, fast paced, double-spaced, full of civil rightist, war protest love songs. And that experience gave me my emotional material for Over the Wall and a prose rhythm I still dip into, as you can see. Under the Baseball Moon simply became the right vehicle—with the right characters—to tap into that songwriting background.
B&T: Glory Martinez, she is a handful. It seems like she stepped out of a Joyce Carol Oates novel. Can you elaborate on why she had such a tough upbringing and still comes across with charm and drive? She is one of the more intriguing characters I've come across in recent YA literature.
John: LOL. I don't know what Joyce would say, but I love Glory. It's amazing how many girls write and tell me the same thing. As for her charm, I see it as being hard-won through a conscious decision she made a few years before the book begins. As a small child, her wild costumes and the creation of her "woman on a flying horse" fantasy, which she tells Andy about, pulled her through scary situations, but the effect didn't last. So I see her development into a loving and charming teen as being part of that same survival mechanism, step two. I know from personal experience how hard it is to grow up happy and somewhat normal in a single parent home when that parent is an alcoholic. As you get older, though, you have a choice, and it can go one of two ways. Either you become your antagonistic, anti-social parent and repeat his mistakes or, by watching and suffering through his failures, you become the opposite. Of those two choices, Glory made the healthy one, which, as you say, is quite unusual in YA literature. But kids in Glory's situation do occasionally develop a desire to dream big coupled with the drive to succeed, and I find this rare character far more fun and interesting to write about than the typical.
B&T: Are the main characters in your books based on real people or situations, or is the majority of your writing purely fiction based on your imagination?
John: The situation comes first, and it's always imaginary. But as for the characters who people my stories, I do sometimes pull from real life. Dante Del Gato, for example, the hard scrabble reclusive former Major League MVP in The Boy Who Saved Baseball, was partially based on the real life tragic hero, Ken Caminiti, who was a big league MVP and batting champ in the '90s, but struggled with addictions, leaving the game under a cloud, and was dead by age 41. In Baseball Moon, I used San Diego's "magical, organical beachtown" of Ocean Beach because it's so full of colorful, eccentric people and places which I wanted to capture before they disappeared. I based the Holy Jokester, for instance, on the late, strange-but-lovable OB Spaceman, who wandered the streets of town selling seats on a rocket ship to another planet.
B&T: What characters in Under the Baseball Moon do you most identify with? And are there any in your other books?
John: Andy, the main character in Baseball Moon, is fairly autobiographical. I wrote tons of songs and dreamed of making it big in the rock world from age 15 to 22. His father, though, is closer to who I am today in his approach to life and his view of the entertainment industry's customary habit of reining in and "branding the maverick" of talented rising stars whom they deem as being too far out creatively. Tyler, in Over the Wall, is really me, a 13-year-old kid who argued with his minister over whether a true Christian could ever go to war.
B&T: What inspired you to be a YA author?
John: The Complete Bob Dylan Songbook. Dylan's work fits my description of good writing perfectly. That is, every word is well chosen and every line is surprising in its direction and imagery, making the piece constantly forward-moving and entertaining. And the truth is, his songs are real close to hip-hop and rap. He also started out writing to the same audience I write to—adults and young people who ask questions and think for themselves. Beyond that, Kerouac's On the Road was in my hip pocket in the 70s as I hitch-hiked up and down the California coast more times than I can remember—so that book has to be included for the same reasons.
B&T: Under the Baseball Moon, and previous books you've written, include a love of baseball. How does this play into your life? Do you love baseball as your characters do?
John: Baseball is a thinking person's game, and I love to think. It's also the most literary-friendly of all sports, lending itself to drama and metaphor, such as the angst and heroics of a bottom-of-the-ninth comeback attempt. And since a pro athlete's career can last much longer in baseball than in any other team sport, thinking—or brainpower—becomes a genuine asset. Baseball players are rewarded for their accumulated knowledge and wiles, not simply for height, weight, or brute strength. In fact, there is so much to learn in baseball that most great pitchers and hitters don't reach their prime until they're into their thirties and they can excel well past age forty. Kind of like great novelists, actually.
B&T: What are you working on now for children or teens?
John: I'm writing a prequel to The Boy Who Saved Baseball, going back over a hundred years to the early days of Dillontown. We meet the crusty old ballplayers and characters only mentioned in The Boy, such as Blackjack Buck and Long John Dillon, as well as Cruz de la Cruz (in some form) and Billy the Kid. It's going to be a wild story, but with a twist, as I love to do. To quote from the opening, these people are "fist-fighting misfits and cattle rustlers, gold-digging drunkards and cardshark hustlers. And that's just the women. The men are all that, plus they smell bad."