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Take Five: Local writer throws a gem with debut novel

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 13, 2012 - St. Louisan Joe Schuster has stepped into the literary batter’s box and swung for the fences with his excitingly fresh debut, “The Might Have Been,” a novel that circles the bases of life in professional baseball.

Schuster, chair of the department of communications and journalism at Webster University, has written for The Riverfront Times and worked as an associate editor at St. Louis Magazine. He regularly contributes to Gameday, the St. Louis Cardinals magazine.

“The Might Have Been,” his first novel, tackles the universal themes of regret, success, disappointment, fame and achievement both on and off the baseball diamond. This absorbing page-turner has brought Schuster critical acclaim, establishing him as an emerging prospect in contemporary fiction.

“The Might Have Been” is everything a great novel is but with baseball thrown in as well. It’s the story of Edward Everett Yates, a career minor leaguer who is relentless in pursuing his dream of playing big-league ball. Although Yates has spent his youth and most of his adult life chasing his dream, the pursuit has come with a price.

After sustaining a career ending knee injury, Yates must confront the missed jobs, lost women and bright athletic future that will never be. After the injury, he realizes the magnitude of everything he gave up. Haunted by personal demons, he turns to coaching.

As Schuster skillfully develops his novel, it becomes obvious that life in the minor leagues is not glamorous or pleasant. You have to live, eat and drink baseball with an insatiable passion to do it day after day.

Nevertheless, Yates still has the fire for the game that clashes as he comes to grips with unfulfilled dreams of being a great player. His luck changes, however, when he meets two extraordinary ballplayers while managing a minor league team in Iowa. These two players help him find a satisfying life in the game in the most unexpected way.

Writing “The Might Have Been” was a nine-year odyssey for Schuster. “I spent most of those years on the first draft, which was very messy. I wrote about a thousand pages before I found the story I was trying to tell and then kept revising it. In all, including the drafts it went through under the guidance of my editor, I did 11 drafts of the novel and then tweaked it even more in the line-edit, copy-edit and galley stages.”

Schuster is already at work on his second book, having completed “200 very, very, very messy pages.” He is still fleshing out the story but remains optimistic that his follow up will not take nine years to finish.

We talked with Schuster recently about his debut novel. The exchange has been edited for length and clarity.

Beacon: What made you decide to take the leap from being a writer to a novelist?

Schuster: It wasn't so much a conscious decision, as if I sat down one morning and said, "OK, now you're going to be a novelist." In fact, I had tried to write but failed to finish a handful of other novels over the years. A little more than 10 years ago, when I started what turned out to be this book, I had no idea I was starting a novel. A sentence occurred to me one day; and I sat down and wrote it and then followed that with another sentence and they kept accumulating to the point at which I eventually thought, a long time later, "You know, maybe there is a character and a story here that I could sustain long enough for this to be a novel." So I kept chasing sentences until eventually I had a finished draft and then revised it through eight more drafts.

Are any real pro baseball players the inspiration for the book?

Schuster: I can't point to this player or that player and say, "Yes, he is the inspiration for a character in my novel." Over the years, I have interviewed and written a lot of articles about baseball and baseball players. The particular class of player that interests me most is the so-called "cup of coffee" player. The term comes from the notion that someone got to the major leagues but stuck only long enough to have a metaphorical cup of coffee.

I've written about several dozen players like that for various newspapers and magazines and I mention a handful by name in my acknowledgements -- not because any of my characters are modeled on any of them directly but because those players were particularly generous with their time when we talked or because they said something that became a kernel of some of the ideas for the book.

Anyone who loves baseball will understand the events in the book. How much research did you have to do? 

Schuster: It wasn't as if I did a lot of research about baseball directly for the book, but I was able to draw on a lot of research and interviews I've done over the years for articles. However, after I finished the first draft in 2008, I took a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., where I spent a few days doing research in the amazing library and archives they have, reading about the lives and careers of I don't remember how many players who got to the major leagues but lasted only a few weeks.

Beyond that, one of the key chapters in the book takes place in Montreal in the middle 1970s, in Jarry Park, the first home of the Expos (now the Washington Nationals) and some years ago I came across someone who has a big collection of videotapes of baseball games, and he had one that was played in Jarry Park at around the time I set that chapter, so I was able to watch the game and at least develop a feel for the place.

Maybe it's because I have worked as a journalist for so long, but I am a bit compulsive about research, so, especially when I was in the latter drafts of the book, I spent a lot of time doing online searches for details like, what color, exactly, were the Cardinals' road jerseys in 1976, what movie might a teenage couple have gone to on a first date in 1967? That sort of thing.

How did you handle the delicate issue of writing a novel for baseball fans but one that non-baseball fans could connect with as well?

Schuster: While my novel is set in baseball, I don't so much think about it as strictly a "baseball novel" but a novel about ambition, the decisions we make, the consequences of those decisions and then what those decisions and consequences mean when we get to a certain age, when we may be tempted to fall into regret and even bitterness about the way our life has turned out. All of that just happens to be centered on a guy who pursued baseball.

I hope those larger notions can emerge, even for people who don't consider themselves baseball fans.

At the same time, for people to understand fully two of the key events in the book, they do need to understand a couple of the rules of the game. So, you may be able to detect two sentences that are slight shifts in point of view, from the very close third-person narrator I use throughout to a narrator who, essentially (but I hope artfully and not intrusively) says, "OK, I understand that not all of you may know the rules of baseball, so here's what you need to know to understand what's happening here." I worked very hard on those sentences so they would appear seamless but I knew I needed them so people who may not like baseball as much as I do can understand what happens to my character.

There are a lot of complex relationships in this book. How did you handle that? 

Schuster: Thank you. I will take that as a compliment. If the relationships seem complex, maybe I have succeeded, at least a tiny bit, in creating characters that seem like flesh-and-blood human beings, which was something I wanted -- something most writers want. Human beings, lives, are messy. We may think we are X -- where "X" can stand for any one of the qualities a person can have -- but we're really only "X" some of the time and some of the time we're not-X (or in keeping with my algebraic analogy, sometimes we're X and sometimes we're minus-X).

Sometimes we're altruistic, and sometimes we're selfish. Sometimes we're kind, and sometimes we're cranky. Sometimes we do what we're supposed to do and sometimes we do things we absolutely shouldn't do. I wanted my characters, particularly my main character, to make mistakes. I think sometimes writers fall so in love with their characters that they want only good things to happen for them, they only want them to behave nobly or at least in their own best interests, and I very much wanted to write characters who made mistakes, who had blind spots they didn't even know were blind spots.

Also, I have to give a lot of credit to two friends who read drafts of the novel, Margot Livesey and Ken Cook, who are both wonderful writers and who made suggestions along the way, and also to my terrific editor, Jennifer Smith, who particularly helped me work on making the character of my main character's estranged wife more complex than she was in the first version of the book.

Rob Levy is a freelance writer.

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