A Conversation with Howard Frank Mosher
How did the idea for Waiting for Teddy Williams originate?
I've loved baseball for as long as I can remember. When I was four or five, my father and my uncle used to drive me to a nearby mountaintop where we could sometimes pick up Red SoxYankees games over the car radio. My dad was a Yankees fan and my uncle was a Red Sox fan. That made for some interesting times. Since moving to Vermont in 1964, I've been a proud, card-carrying member of the Red Sox Nation.
A few years ago, returning from a book tour out west, I was driving along a dull stretch of the New York State Thruway between Buffalo and Rochester. I must have been daydreaming, on automatic pilot. Suddenly, I saw in my mind the most vivid image of a little boy standing at the window of a Vermont farmhouse at night. He was looking at a tall man, somewhat resembling the great Sox hitter Ted Williams, leaning against the barn door and smoking a cigarette in the moonlight. In the next five or ten minutes, the entire story and the main characters of Waiting for Teddy Williams came to me right out of the blue.
Has anything like this ever happened to you before? Do your stories usually come to you as "visions"?
No. But I agonized for years to write what turned out to be my first published story, about a country singer named Alabama Jones. Then one fall day, looking at a bright red maple tree, I imagined a pretty girl in a red dress standing beside it. There was my story. I wish that kind of thing happened more often.
Your colorful characters date all the way back to Quebec Bill Bonhomme, the French-Canadian whiskey runner in your first novel, Disappearances. Waiting for Teddy Williams has its share of colorful characters, including a talking statue.
That's right. The statue of Ethan's ancestor, whom he is named after, on the village green, gives him advice regularly. Then there's The Legendary Spence, the Boston Red Sox manager "the winningest active manager never to have won a World Series." Spence has a talking macaw called The Curse of the Bambino, whose favorite remark is "New York Yankees, Number One."
There's a carnival baseball-throw pitcher named Cajun Stan the Baseball Man, and Stan's beautiful daughter, Louisianne. Charlie Kinneson, the young lawyer-hero of my novel A Stranger in the Kingdom, reappears in Waiting for Teddy Williams as the local judge. He hasn't changed a bit in fifty years.
You mentioned the macaw named The Curse of the Bambino. Where did you come up with that name?
In 1920, Boston's owner traded Babe Ruth, known as the Bambino, to the Yankees. Many members of Red Sox Nation think that this ill-advised trade resulted in "the Curse of the Bambino" the Sox's failure to ever win another Series.
Do you believe in the Curse?
After the disastrous final game of the American League Championship Series last fall, between the Sox and the Yankees, it's hard not to. But no, I really don't, despite all of the bad things the Sox have done to us fans over the years in '67, '75, '78, '86. My own theory is that at least until this year, they've always been a key player or two short of having the best team in the majors. Often that missing key player has been a pitcher.
So you think things might be different this year?
Yes, but that's part of being a Red Sox fan. We always think "things might be different this year." I believe that what defines "those complicated New Englanders who call themselves Red Sox fans" is great faith in spite of the odds. Faith that really flies in the face of all logic.
Did you grow up playing baseball?
Yes. Like E.A., I grew up in a small town and lived, breathed, ate, and slept baseball. I played in high school. Then for years afterward I played town-team baseball. Also, I've coached baseball most of my adult life.
In the 1960s, every town in Vermont seemed to have a baseball team like the Kingdom Common Outlaws, the local team E.A. plays for. Town-team ball is almost a thing of the past now, like the small family farm and the incredibly independent-minded New Englanders I've spent my life writing about.
You mentioned your novel A Stranger in the Kingdom, which won the 1991 New England Book Award, and your first novel, Disappearances. Do you have a favorite?
Until now, my favorite was Northern Borders, which is the story of a boy growing up in Vermont with his exceedingly unusual grandparents. But Waiting for Teddy Williams is very near to my heart. Besides loads of baseball scenes, all the way from the cow-pasture diamonds of Vermont to Fenway Park, it deals with fathers and sons, mothers and sons, and coming of age. Gypsy Lee, E.A.'s mom, is a country singer and songwriter, like my daughter, Annie, who lives in Nashville, where the novel ends. I "borrowed" some of Gypsy's songs from Annie's CDs. Some of E.A.'s baseball experiences are based on my son Jake's; Jake pitched for his college team and had a professional tryout.
Like all my books, this novel is about family and place. To me, Waiting for Teddy Williams is about baseball, but it's about baseball the way A River Runs Through It is about fly fishing.
Your novel has been compared to Huckleberry Finn. Has Mark Twain been an influence on you?
Yes. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is my all-time favorite novel.
Also, as readers might suspect from a novelist who writes about talking statues, I'm a huge fan of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the South American magical realist Gabriel García Márquez and, of course, Charles Dickens. I love his characters.
Why do you think that baseball is still regarded by so many people as the premier "American" pastime?
I mentioned the magical realism of Márquez. To me, there's something magical about baseball. I'm intensely aware of it the moment I walk into a stadium and see the colors, the symmetry of the diamond, the fans.
I don't think anyone really knows who "invented" the game. But its history goes back at least as far as the Civil War. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Cy Young were bona fide American heroes. Up on that mountaintop, trying to pick up the Yankees-Sox games on the car radio, my dad and my uncle had long, heated arguments about whether Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio was the greater player. "Ted" and "Joe" were American heroes to us and to millions of other fans.
Do your "Teddy" Williams and the actual Ted Williams have something in common besides being standout ball players?
Definitely. When it comes to baseball, and to winning, my "Teddy" is as ruthless as the great Teddy Ballgame. In the novel, though, "Teddy" remains somewhat mysterious. He has one objective, to teach E.A. the game.
For your nationwide and New England book tour for Waiting for Teddy Williams, you're doing a reading from the novel and a slide show presentation called "Baseball and the Writing Life." What are the similarities between baseball and the writing life?
As I see it, both baseball and writing are low-investment but high-risk careers. To play baseball, you need a glove, a bat, a ball, and a vacant lot. To write, you need a pencil or a pen and a tablet. That's the low investment.
Then, in both cases, you have to dedicate your entire life to the venture and hope you have the ability to pull it off. That's the high risk.
As Teddy and E.A. discover, baseball, like writing novels, can be taught only up to a point. After that, ball players and writers have to teach themselves. In a way, I have to teach myself how to write fiction all over again each time I start a new novel.
In the slide show, I talk about how I wrote Waiting for Teddy Williams and how I approach fiction writing in general. And I talk about my ups and downs as a long-suffering but loyal member of the Red Sox Nation and what it means to be a Sox fan.