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Interview Thu Feb 28 2013

An Interview with Kevin Guilfoile

A Drive into the Gap is a book that only Kevin Guilfoile could write. Provoked by a tip, Guilfoile goes on a quest to discover if a bat gifted to him by his father was the same one Roberto Clemente used for his 3,000th major league hit. Many of this thin little book's best moments come from that quest and the baseball anecdotes that accompany it, but Guilfoile's telling of his father's Alzheimer's-inhibited memory and their relationship is engrossing.

Guilfoile generously took a few minutes to chat with Gapers Block about the book:

What would you say your motivation was for writing this book? You've got an amazing story of discovery with Clemente's bat, all of that quest's twists and turns, and you've got a very personal, very heart-wrenching story of illness with your father. For the reader, it's a compelling shuffle. Was it difficult to wrestle with a truly special baseball story and a familial issue on the page?

Well, the project started as a request. Jim Coudal (of Coudal Partners) approached me with an idea. They were coming out with a baseball-themed edition of their popular Field Notes notebooks, and he wanted to include a little booklet of baseball stories to go along with them. I had been a creative director at Coudal for 11 years before I became a novelist, so Jim knew I had all these stories about my dad and about my own days in baseball. The original idea was for a much shorter, more lighthearted piece made up of these clubhouse tales.

A Drive into the Gap, Kevin GuilfoileBut Jim kept asking if I was going to tell the story about Clemente's bat. And I wasn't sure because, at that point, I didn't know how it ended. All I knew was that there was this piece of paper that suggested a Roberto Clemente bat that had hung in my bedroom as a kid might actually be the bat Roberto got his 3,000th hit with. I didn't know if it was true, and I didn't know how to find the truth. My father, who has Alzheimer's-related dementia, could no longer fill in the blanks. So with Jim's encouragement, I decided to try to solve this 40-year-old mystery. And of course the stakes were very high. If it turned out to be the real bat, it might be worth a half-million dollars or more. On the other hand (for reasons explained in the book, that I won't get into here) it would also cast a certain amount of suspicion on my father and his reputation.

This investigation, however, moved the book into the present. And once I was writing about myself, and my dad, in the present tense, I couldn't not write about his current condition. And as I wrote I found more and more parallels between the nature of memory as it exists in stories, but also as it relates to 40-year-old truths, and my father's illness. Suddenly this little essay on baseball turned into a book, and I give Jim Coudal all the credit in the world for letting the project evolve into something greater.

So to answer your question there wasn't a lot of forethought that went into it. Writing is mostly instinct, and most of the time structure reveals itself.

As you told this amazing story about Clemente -- and discovered more and more in your research -- did you feel some added pressure? Like: Don't screw this up! Tell the story well!

Certainly, on a couple of levels. First there were the public figures in the story. Roberto, of course, but also Dick Stockton, Larry Bowa, Wille Stargell, Frank Sinatra and others. There is new information in this book about all of these people and so it changes, perhaps modestly, our historical knowledge of them. And with regard to Clemente, one of the most revered figures in baseball history, there is a lot of new insight about what he was doing and thinking on one of the most important days of his life. I wanted to make sure I could get it as right as I could.

And then there's the stuff about my dad, who is not a public figure, so I am introducing readers to him. As best as I could in so few pages, I wanted people to see him as I have seen him. My own kids are very young and don't remember him when he was healthy. I was very aware that much of what my father's grandchildren -- and one day his great-grandchilden -- would know about him would come from this book. That was a responsibility I took seriously.

How, if at all, did your process differ with A Drive into the Gap compared to your previous two acclaimed novels?

Obviously with a piece of non-fiction you have to respect the truth, and especially the real people who populate your story. My desire as a novelist to explore things like the motivation of characters -- the why of it all -- had to be constantly resisted. It became clear to me, though, that if fiction is, say, 30% truth, non-fiction, at best, can only be about 80% truth. That's about as good as anyone's memory can ever be. I found myself questioning even my own memory of events, and at times had to rewrite my own, closely held personal history when I found evidence that contradicted it. I think this is why memoirists are so prone to fabrication. Once you realize that it's impossible to get to absolute truth, it's easy to say, "Well I can only be 80% accurate, what's wrong with 70%? Or 60%?" Pretty soon you've got a novel. But if you label something as non-fiction, or even memoir, I think you have an obligation to get it right to the best of your ability. Everything in there is accurate, as far as I know. And if I'm not sure, I tried to say so.

Would you want to work in baseball now? Your father worked in a different era altogether. The contrast between Clemente and Bonds in the book drives that home; the reader obviously thinks of performance-enhancing drugs, but this is also pre-free agency, pre-teams ripping off municipal governments for stadium money, etc. Is baseball still baseball?

I loved working for a baseball team. It's an absolute joy to walk into a ballpark every morning. The work is fun. And the people in the sport are generally terrific to be around -- smart and hilarious and in the business for all the right reasons. But it's also tough. Most of the jobs don't pay very well. The hours are ridiculous. There's often a lot of travel. And there are so few jobs across the country, especially if you're talking at the big league level, you have to be willing to relocate. As I got older those aspects of it made it impractical for me as a career. But I don't regret a second of my time spent on that job.

Has the job changed? Maybe. Certainly the amount of money the players make puts a greater distance between them and the front office folks when compared to my father's time. I don't know that all the stuff you describe has changed the day-to-day work in the front office directly, but I think it has created a cynicism among fans (and an antagonism in the media) that might make it less fun than it once was. Some of my dad's very best friends were the sportswriters and columnists who reported on the teams. Even I had many great friends in the media, friends I still have twenty years on. I think there is a distrust there now that might make that kind of camaraderie difficult. It's hard from me to say from the outside.

We have such nostalgia for some golden era of the past, but I keep thinking of this one fact from the book about the day Clemente got his 3,000th hit. Perhaps the biggest star in 100 years of the Pittsburgh franchise was about to become only the 11th player in the history of the game to get 3,000 hits. The Pirates were the defending World Champions, and were headed for the playoffs in just a few days. It was a Saturday afternoon with decent September weather.

And there were barely 13,000 people in the stands. Today, if that happened in any ballpark in the country, they'd be scalping upper-deck tickets for hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

Baseball will survive.

What's next for you? Another novel?

I am back at work on my next novel, and I am also starting some preliminary research on a potential non-fiction project, but I expect the writing of that book is still a ways in my future.

 

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