High and Inside, Russell Rowland's third novel, and first on baseball, is new out this month from Bangtail Press. It's the story of Pete Hurley, a relief pitcher whose career comes to an abrupt halt after an errant fastball nearly kills an opposing hitter. Already inclined to drink, Hurley's alcohol problems escalate and his erratic behavior undercuts his relationships with those who love him. Desperate for a fresh start, he follows his older sister to Montana, where he finally confronts the issues that have forced his life off the tracks. It's an interesting and well-told story, by a veteran author and Montana native, who paints a vivid picture of life in Big Sky Country.
I caught up with Russell Rowland for a Q&A session, via e-mail. Here is our conversation:
JB: High and Inside was more than 20 years in the making. Can you tell me a little of the history there?
RR: This started as a short story that was based on a story a friend of mine told me. When she was a kid, she had a crush on one of her brother's friends, who was a big guy that drank a lot. One day he was at their house, and he was so drunk he started to pass out, and she ran over to try and catch him, even though he was huge and she was a skinny little twelve-year-old. I thought it was an amazing show of how much she loved this guy, so I wrote a story about it. I sent it to the Atlantic Monthly, where I had done an internship when I was in grad school, and Mike Curtis, the fiction editor, told me he thought it felt more like a novel than a short story. So I expanded it into a novel, and spent the next twenty years refining and changing it. Three different agents tried to sell it, but none of them could find a publisher that would take it on. I always thought that was pretty interesting, that three well-known agents thought it was good enough to get published, but no editors. It says a lot about how unpredictable this business is. Finally, I pitched it to Bangtail Press, which seemed like a perfect fit because they're located in Bozeman, where the novel takes place. Thankfully, Allen Jones liked it enough to publish it.
JB: This is quite a different novel from your first two, In Open Spaces and The Watershed Years. Why did you go in this direction with a single protagonist who happens to play your favorite sport?
RR: Yeah, it's a big departure from the first two, but the truth is, I wanted from the beginning to avoid being categorized. I actually wrote this novel before The Watershed Years. But the publisher of my first novel didn't want it. They asked for something similar to In Open Spaces, so I wrote the sequel, which was a good learning experience. I was not as happy with that book as I was with the first one, or as I am with this one.
JB: Pete Hurley's story could be that of a man from any profession. Why a baseball player?
RR: Well, aside from the fact that I love baseball, I also wanted to explore how strange it can be to be famous for reasons that aren't always positive. Pete starts out being famous for being a member of a World Series team, but he ends up becoming infamous. So the attention he gets turns on him, which contributes to his drinking. I wanted to bring an equal balance of outer and inner conflict into Pete's life.
JB: You've had your own personal experiences with alcohol abuse. How much of Pete's story was borrowed from yours?
RR: Well, factually, this story has no connection to mine at all. But emotionally, it's the most autobiographical novel I've written. It was one of my main goals with this story was to give people some insight into what it's like to be an alcoholic and have people wonder why you don't get help. It's so hard to watch people who are in that position, and when you're caught up in it, you just don't see it the same way everyone else does. So I wanted to try and capture that frame of mind in a way that might help people understand what the hell is going on in someone's head when they can't stop .
JB: Who do you pull for in baseball and when did you get hooked? What was it like growing up in Montana with no big league team nearby?
RR: I became a Red Sox fan when I was at BU for grad school. But I've always been a huge baseball fan. Growing up in Montana, we got to choose our own team. When I was a kid, the Mariners and the Rockies weren't even around yet, so the closest team would have been the Twins. But everyone chose their own team. I was a Dodger's fan during the Davey Lopes, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey era.
JB: Does Montana attract people running away from their problems?
RR: Absolutely. The West has a long history of providing people with the illusion of being able to recreate their identity. It's been true ever since the West was 'settled.' And it still is. There's a well-known mystery writer who showed up in Wyoming a few years ago claiming to be a former New York City police officer. After he became famous for his books, it came out that he was never a cop at all. He was a security guard in a museum. But nobody out here cares. He still sells like crazy.
JB: Some of the locals seem less than warm and inviting. Do Clint Weaver and Leslie Monday represent a common attitude in Montana that doesn't welcome outsiders?
RR: I think they represent a common attitude in small towns everywhere. People in small towns area always threatened by the unknown. We see it right now with the oil boom up in North Dakota. It's bringing huge money into the state, but there's a undercurrent of fear about the 'undesirable' element that this kind of money might attract. It's probably even more true in Montana because we have a long history of outsiders plundering our resources then taking off without putting their money into the state. Butte used to have the biggest copper mine in the world, and if you drive through that town now, there's no indication whatsoever that billions of dollars were pumped out of that hill.
JB: Pete has the best game of his life going when he hits Juan Estrada. Why would everyone assume he hit him on purpose?
RR: Because one of his teammates was hit earlier in the game by Andy Pettitte. It's the classic payback theory, that teammates are obligated to have each others' backs. One guy gets hit, the other team has to hit somebody.
JB: How successful do you think a Pete Hurley rule would be in baseball?
RR: They were just talking about this the other day on Pardon the Interruption. There are definitely people out there who think it should be implemented before someone gets seriously hurt. But I have a feeling it's a long ways from happening. If something like that were ever instituted, though, I think it would definitely put a damper on intentional beanballs.
JB: The PTI and Around the Horn quotes added a lot of color. How much time did you spend watching them bash fallen sports heroes to get the flavor just right?
RR: I love those shows. Every day at 3:00 I'm in front of the TV watching those shows.
JB: Would you advise someone with no construction experience to grab a copy of Your House, Your Self and start digging a foundation?
RR: That's a funny question. I know nothing mself about building a house, so the thought of it is incredibly daunting. I actually looked for books like My House, My Self to see if they're out there, and there are a bunch of them. It couldn't hurt!
JB: You teach online fiction workshops in addition to doing your own writing. What is that process like, and how does it influence your own work?
RR: I fell into that kind of accidentally, and I'm so glad I did. I love teaching, and I love working privately with people one-on-one even more. It actually goes back to my bout with drinking in a way, because it gives me an opportunity to give back for all the people who have been so generous with their time with me through the years. I had some wonderful mentors.