The title of Steve Weddle’s debut novel, COUNTRY HARDBALL, comes from a baseball term that refers to a player’s willingness to play the game at an elemental level, to inflict and absorb punishment when necessary. Weddle’s series of linked stories recounts the lives of residents of an Arkansas town who, because of the devastating economic downturn, must play “good old country hardball” to survive.
After a family tragedy and years in prison, Roy Alison returns to his rural hometown, determined to become a better person, a different person. But the town’s grim economic circumstances, along with events from Roy’s dark past, conspire to force him back into his old ways. As he chronicle’s Roy’s quest for redemption, Weddle tells the story of a single father struggling to raise a sensitive, frightened son; of parents who hope that sports will save their child from a life of poverty; of a shy teenager who misses the chance to express his love to the girl he adores, with dire consequences; and of families devastated by drugs, financial hardship, and war.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I have an MFA in poetry, taught college for a while, then settled into newspapers. My family and I live in Virginia.
Give us an elevator pitch for COUNTRY HARDBALL.
A young man tries to leave behind the jails and halfway houses by moving in with his grandmother, back to his Arkansas hometown, but he’s caught up in a devastated economy and a past that won’t let go. Working with a family friend, he finds his chance to make a positive difference, a redemption of sorts. The question is whether he’ll make the right choice—or whether it’s already too late.
How would you describe COUNTRY HARDBALL’s genre? “Rural noir” comes to mind.
That’s the label many people have been using, which is fair enough if you’re trying to shelve a book. I think “noir” tends to discount some of the more hopeful aspects of the book. While the book has its dark moments, I think most of the “noir” aspects are the geography of the story, the canvas that the action is painted on. There are dark, hard times when people who work for minimum wage at the grocery stores are getting furloughed by their corporate boards, when a mother loses her son to a hunting accident one year and is hit with cancer the next.
I’ve also heard it called “Grit Lit,” which also covers its setting and its roughness, I think.
COUNTRY HARDBALL unfolds in a series of linked stories. Why did you decide to use that structure?
I had written two or three of the Roy Alison stories and started thinking of the place that these stories were taking place, the faces and world around him. I did my master’s thesis on Tom Stoppard’s plays and many of them—notably, but not only, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—develop layers of characters coming in and out, bringing connections and threads throughout the story, creating a level you just don’t get most of the time. I wanted to see how these various levels come together to tell the story of these people and their shared community.
Baseball plays a major role in the novel. Why is the sport such a powerful metaphor for what occurs in your stories?
There’s a poem by Kenneth Koch called “Fresh Air” with these lines:
In the football stadium I also see him,
He leaps through the frosty air at the maker of comparisons
Between football and life and silently, silently strangles him!
With that in mind, I tell you that sports offers hope to the individual, as well as to the community. I played ball growing up and watched many of my friends get to college on scholarships. Some of them graduated and went on to jobs selling cars or working in hospitals. A couple died in drunk driving accidents, shootings.
For the community, you get to watch these kids grow up, gain skills and become better people. As a parent, I’ve watched these kids—mine and others’—work so hard at practice, at baseball games and soccer matches. I’ve watched them come back from three-goal deficits and leg doubles into triples. I’ve also watched my neighbor’s goofy kid misplay a grounder so badly that his father left and the kid had to get a ride home with the coach.
You can look at winners and losers, hope and despair. You can say that robbing a payday loan shop is a suicide squeeze.
For me, baseball holds so much because so many people in the community put so much into it. Church is the same way. It’s where the community is.
Your stories focus on different characters. Is there one character whom you consider your book’s protagonist?
I think this as Roy Alison’s book, though quite a few people take center stage here and there.
Do you have future plans for any of the characters in your novel?
I’ve been writing the next book, which opens with Roy Alison’s grandfather in 1933, a remarkable time of gangsters throughout the Arkansas-Louisiana area in COUNTRY HARDBALL. In fact, Bonnie and Clyde made quite an impression on the Arkansas community of Waldo during that year. Some amazing history there I’ve been able to work with.
Much of your novel depicts economic hardship, crime, and desperation. How much of the novel is based on real-life events?
Many of us have had to choose which bills to pay late. Or we’ve gotten that unexpected bill that’s sent us down to the linoleum, back against the sheetrock, just staring at the notice, not knowing what we’re going to do. Or we’ve looked at the calendar, trying to make the weeks move, trying to make that paycheck come this Friday instead of next Friday. I’ve donated plasma for money. I’ve gotten broken electric blankets discounted at the Salvation Army so that I could nail them up on the wall and keep the Kansas winter out of the house.
I’ve had rough times, but certainly fewer than most people.
Two years ago, my next door neighbor and his family moved out at midnight one Tuesday, just ahead of the cops and bill collectors. That week, the front door and windows were taped over with legal notices. The year before that, a couple up the road lost their jobs and ended up squatting in their own home until they couldn’t make the mortgage the next month. They had been walking down the road to a house that had been foreclosed on, but still had water, and were filling gallon jugs and walking back up the hill to their dark house.
For me, there was never really any life-or-death moments. I have never, thank God, had to send one of our kids to bed hungry. I had to get by for a week at a time on a bag of egg noodles and a can of cream of mushroom soup, but that was in graduate school, not real life. I could have come, hipster hat in hand, and moved back in with my parents, I guess. Many people don’t have that option. Many people live for decades with their backs against the sheetrock. I’ve been fortunate.
You get hungry enough, or you see your kids go hungry, things aren’t so black and white anymore.
And there’s always that one bill out there, just waiting. Busted transmission. The foundation of your house. A lingering illness that keeps you from working your hours.
And when that happens and somebody says they have $500 for you if you’ll just do this one little thing, then you’ve got new trouble.
Do you identify most with a particular character in COUNTRY HARDBALL?
I identify a little with every one of them. Rusty looking at the stars in the field and trying to impress a pretty girl. Cassie and her graduate school work in rural America. Roy Alison, wanting to do better, but always screwing it up. Clint Womack, fed up with the furlough economy. Averdale Tatum, knowing she could have done more to help her family when needed. Champion, realizing his son’s faith in him is woefully misplaced, that maybe he doesn’t deserve the love. I identify with all of them.
Since you’re a first-time author, what’s been the most surprising part of this experience so far? The most satisfying?
I’m surprised at how helpful everyone has been, how nice. Most folks seem to want you to succeed. The most satisfying is being able to connect with so many nice people, being able to talk to them about what they’re working on. I’ve learned so much.
Which writers have influenced you most? What are you currently reading?
Big influences have been Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Tom Franklin, and more. I still think Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is the story that has dug itself deeply into my head. And Beattie’s “Burning House.” Good grief, what stories.
I recently finished the last book of Chris F. Holm’s Collector trilogy, which started with DEAD HARVEST. A truly remarkable story there that hits thriller and mystery and urban fantasy notes in such a beautiful, seamless way. I’m sure most people already know Holm, but if not, think Charlie Huston meets Jim Butcher.
I’ve just started BIG STUPID, by Victor Gischler, which looks to be a nice piece of pulpy goodness.
The clichéd piece of advice for aspiring writers is “write what you know.” Do you agree? More generally, could you describe your writing process?
I never saw the point of writing what you know. For me, writing is a discovery process. I’m not giving any answers, you know? I’m just wondering which questions are worth asking. I research if that’s what is called for or jot down notes and conversations, if that’s what’s needed. When I was working on COUNTRY HARDBALL, I’d get up at four or five in the morning and write for a couple hours before I had to go to work. I’d scratch out scenes in a notebook after work, then let that percolate while I slept, so I could get up the next morning and get back to it.
I don’t write every single day, but when the momentum is going, I’ll get quite a bit done over a week or two. But it’s like exercise. That one day you skip the treadmill just makes it harder to get going the next day.
What’s next for you?
The story about Roy’s grandfather and how he was killed in the 1950s is taking up my writing time. Some of the story takes place in the present day, with the man who supposedly killed him. And some of the story takes place in 1933. It might be more than I can handle, but I’m giving it a shot.
“Ex-con Roy Alison would like to go straight, but he can’t seem to make up for past mistakes…. Weddle’s debut novel is a suspenseful series of interrelated stories…of people facing nothing but bad options, though Roy eventually manages to make something good come from his situation.”—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
“These skillfully wrought interconnected stories form a debut novel that is relentless in describing the lives of people who are captives not only of their environment but also of their own histories.”—BOOKLIST
“Steve Weddle is a powerful, empathetic writer and COUNTRY HARDBALL is a stunning debut. Do not miss it.”—Sean Chercover, WALL STREET JOURNAL bestselling author of THE TRINITY GAME
To learn more about Steve, please visit his website.