"Baseball's Life Lessons"
An Interview with John H. Ritter
by Holly Atkins (The St. Petersburg Times, November 2003)
Books spill from their mountainous stack on my nightstand onto the floor next to my bed. "So many books, so little time" isn't just a T-shirt slogan—it's a statement about my life.
Lately, one author's work can be found on my nightstand, in my school tote bag and in my car CD player: John H. Ritter. So much more than a baseball writer, Ritter's work resonates with themes that touch us all: the power of the human spirit, the ugliness of discrimination, the struggle to come to know and believe in who you are.
Recently I corresponded with him by e-mail to chat about books, baseball and why young adult novels are not for teens only.
Atkins: You describe your novels as "pyramids." What do you mean?
Ritter: By that I mean you can take my stories at face value, like viewing a pyramid from afar, or if you're so inclined, you can go deeper into the text, searching for hidden treasures, double or triple metaphors, say, or hidden passages linking one section of the story to a seemingly unconnected part. For example, in Choosing Up Sides, I linked the apple that Eve gave to Adam with the mayapples that Luke throws at the tree to the old sports term "apple" which refers to a baseball to the Appleton Eagle newspaper which let the world know that Luke had given in to temptation.
Atkins: Why baseball? You even describe yourself as a "baseball writer" on your web site.
Ritter: 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. Ballplayers 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 writers, actually.
Atkins: In "A Note from the Author" at the end of Choosing Up Sides you write about where the idea for this novel originated. So although on one level this is a novel about a left-handed future baseball star, it's really about the larger issue of discrimination?
Ritter: Yes—and religious-based discrimination, to be specific. That's the hardest prejudice to defeat, since it is delivered bearing a religious righteousness. I remember, as a boy, hearing segregation and racism being justified from the pulpit and I could not comprehend this glaring hypocrisy, totally contrary to what Jesus taught. Only later did I realize that the Bible often gets interpreted and reinterpreted in such a way as to reinforce one's own bigotry and social bias. I think it's important for children to recognize this practice as soon as possible and apply their critical thinking skills to it, since it certainly continues today.
Atkins: Last year the Children's Book Council included Choosing Up Sides on its adult crossover list "Not Just For Children Anymore." Good writers always keep in mind their audience, right? So who exactly is your audience?
Ritter: My audience has always been the whole family, not just children. I remember my dad at bedtime reading us Robinson Crusoe, lying on his back with the book in the air. That's the scene I imagine as I wrap up my novels. Young and old readers sharing the book. The best animation, the best stories of Twain or Bradbury or Lois Lowry, operate on multiple levels for a wide audience—some parts aimed at children, some crafted especially for adults, but always driven by a strongly entertaining story that will stand on its own with both audiences.
Atkins: Over the Wall begins with this quote by Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates: "If you have an opportunity to make things better, and you don't do that, you are wasting your time on this earth." How does your job as a writer tie into this philosophy?
Ritter: It's the same. In Over the Wall, which is essentially a modern day retelling of the Good Samaritan story, the Dog-Man at the National Mall reminds the crowd that when you see a fallen man, "You don't walk by," he says. "You stop and help." Well, like Tyler in the book, as a teen right out of church confirmation class, I saw plenty of pain and suffering in this world, much of it caused by me or by my own countrymen, and now, as a writer, I do have the opportunity to make things better, instead of wasting my time on earth. So I aim for that.
Atkins: Even though it takes place in the late 1990's, Over the Wall, like Choosing Up Sides is very historical in many ways. Near the end of the book, Coach says, "Underneath the scab and scar of what we think Vietnam was or wasn't, something in there is still festering. In a lot of us." Would you comment on this?
Ritter: Most wars never end. Tyler comes to see this when he reads the plaque on the Civil War monument in New York City dedicated only to soldiers and sailors of the North—not those on the other side for which his ancestors fought. Then, with a bit of critical thinking, he connects that to the one-sided Vietnam War Memorial wall in D.C. and his artistic brain makes a quantum leap. He sees what Coach Trioli calls "the big picture." Vietnam was a murky war fought for murky reasons, causing a lot of 18, 19, and 20-year-old kids to do things they will never talk about with family and friends. These memories then become wounds that never heal. In fact, they fester, even today.
Atkins: In your novels, the "helpers" each main character meets dispense such sage advice. One of my favorite lines comes from Rachel in The Boy Who Saved Baseball: "I just believe that when good people do things with good intentions, good things happen. But when we do stuff out of fear, bad things happen." Learning to not "do stuff out of fear" is a lesson many adults and children must come to know. Why have you included this theme in your stories?
Ritter: Because fearfulness leads to all the wrongdoing in this world. It was Pa's fear of Luke's left-handedness that caused him to treat his son so harshly. It was Tyler's fear of being shown up and losing face that caused him to go to such violent lengths to avoid embarrassment. And it was the Dillontown team's fear of losing, the fear of development's effect on their town, that drove their thinking—until Rachel spoke up. She got to the core of the matter. The only antidote for fear is love. It's not more pride, more boasting, or fear-based thinking. The characters here learn that it's not so much what they do that counts, but the motivation behind what they do. Is it of love? Or of fear? I say if the current administration is brought down over Iraq, for example, it will not be because of the war, but rather the motivation—or agenda—behind the war. It's not appearing to have been an act of love.
Atkins: Nature is such a powerful presence in your books. In The Boy Who Saved Baseball, Tom wonders: "Could thought, then, be the wind of the mind? Could wind, therefore, be the thought of the earth?" In what way does this reflect your own personal philosophy?
Ritter: I have a strong personal belief that the farther removed we are from the earth, the less loving, caring, and nurturing we are toward each other. When we view the land and its resources as products, as a way to boost our personal wealth, we cut ourselves off from nature, God, and humanity. That trend is increasing and it's sad, because it's so unnecessary. This earth certainly provides enough to go around, but sharing has always lagged behind accumulation, which is driven by fear, not necessity.
Atkins: Walls also appear as important metaphors in your books. The Vietnam War Memorial, Del Gato's wall, the baseball field wall. Why?
Ritter: The fact that the Vietnam War Memorial is referred to as The Wall is very revealing of our national consciousness. I've always hated that reference. Walls separate people and they're such symbols of fear. In my lifetime I've seen the Berlin Wall go up and down—and which was better? I've seen the international border wall at the San Diego/Tijuana crossing become fortified—leading to thousands of deaths in the California/Arizona deserts, but no difference in the number of border crossers. So, who benefits? In the National Mall, there are no Vietnamese names on that wall, even though over three million died. It's as if their lives didn't matter, though many of them fought right alongside the Americans, died for the Americans, and were killed by the Americans. The monument seems to say, "We only want you to remember us." We ignore the fact that every wall, like every war, has two sides, and standing on either obstructs one's view of the other. As Tyler learns, we only get "the big picture" when we stand back and rise above.
Holly Atkins teaches seventh-grade language arts at Southside Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg, Florida.