Monday, August 10, 2009

A Conversation with Richard Doster

1. What was the inspiration for
Safe At Home?

It was an accumulation of three things, really. First of all, a few years ago, Major League Baseball celebrated an anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s life. I don’t remember if it was his birth or death or signing with the Dodgers, but it piqued my interest and motivated me to explore what he’d gone through.
Second, every summer my wife, Sally, and I take a minor league baseball trip. We usually catch three or four games in Greenville, South Carolina; Asheville, North Carolina; Columbus, Georgia; or Lexington, Kentucky. We love the Atlanta Braves, but there’s something especially charming about minor league baseball. You’re close to the players, the people, the promotions, sometimes even the food is homier than you find in the big leagues. It’s a much more intimate experience—the kind baseball fans truly savor.
The third piece of the puzzle fell into place during one of these swings. About five or six years ago we were at an arts festival in Asheville, North Carolina. At one of the vender stations, a young African American couple there was selling items commemorating the Negro leagues—photographs, plaques, T-shirts, and more. Some of the items displayed the logos for the Detroit Stars, the Homestead Grays, Indianapolis Clowns, Kansas City Monarchs … and it all was signed with the vendor’s tagline: “For the brothers who played, but didn’t get paid.” If I recall, a portion of the profits went to a group who provided for Negro league players and their families.
Those things came together and got me thinking about black players breaking the color line, and about what that might have been like in the more intimate venues of minor league baseball. And then, once I came across a few good source materials, I became fascinated with writing a story about this volatile time in history.

2. Tell us about your relationship with baseball when you were growing up. Are there any similarities between you and the characters in Safe At Home?

Actually, I didn’t become a baseball fan until I was an adult.When Sally and I moved to Atlanta in 1989, neither of us was a knowledgeable fan. But being in a major-league city for the first time (the Braves barely qualified then; they were 63-97 that year and finished last in the division), we thought we ought to have the experience. We went to a few games and started listening to the Braves broadcasters: Don Sutton, Pete Van Wieren, Skip Caray, and then, a season later, Joe Simpson. The chemistry between these guys was infectious. They were likeable, and play by play, situation by situation they taught us all about the game.

Then, in 1991, the Braves made their improbable charge from worst to first. They were one game behind the Dodgers (the Braves were in the West Division back then) going into the last week of the season, and hysteria gripped the city.We were glued to the TV every night. The iconic tomahawks could be found everywhere—on mailboxes, attached to skyscrapers, dangling from car antennas. The whole city stayed up late waiting for scores from L.A.
Sally and I went to the next-to-last game of the season. It was October 5. David Justice, our right fielder, caught the final out in a 5-2 win over Houston. Nobody in Atlanta will ever forget Greg Olson, our catcher, leaping into John Smoltz’s arms. The Braves had clinched a tie for the N.L. West. But then the strangest thing happened: The players stayed on the field. The fans stayed in their seats. The coaches, the vendors, the announcers—everybody stayed. Together we watched the end of the Dodgers/Giants game on the JumboTron (or whatever it was called then) in center field. When the Giants beat the Dodgers, there was jubilation at the old Fulton County Stadium.
We’ve been serious fans since that day, but our affection for baseball is a direct result of the Braves announcers. Pete Van Wieren, the professor; Skip Caray, the crusty curmudgeon; Don Sutton, the patient teacher who has something nice to say about everybody; Joe Simpson, the average player who relates to every man. They were always welcome guests in our home. Before the 2007 season the television networks busted up this team. We’re still grieving.

3. What surprised you most as you did research for this book?

Here’s the first and least surprising answer: Anybody, from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, is shocked by the fervency of segregationist attitudes. Looking back to this time, you have to be astonished by the fear of white southerners, by the apprehension and paranoia following the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The language, attitudes, and anger—is beyond our imagination today.
The other thing that surprised me was the patience and good nature of the black players of the era. Many of them consciously and deliberately modeled Jackie Robinson. I believe they had some vague notion that they were engaged in something bigger, something that transcended baseball. They persevered for unselfish reasons. They persisted, not only for their love of the game, but for the greater good of society.
A third thing that surprises me is how far we’ve come. The segregationist attitudes that existed just fifty-plus years ago were so extreme, so rabid, that it’s hard to look at that time and compare it to now. Today I walk my dog through our Atlanta neighborhood and pass and wave to black neighbors and think nothing of it. But not so, fifty years ago. Some of those who read early versions of the manuscript commented on how hard the story was to read. They had forgotten (or had never known) what things were like in that era. We’ve got a long way to go in race relations; it is still, perhaps, the defining issue of our country, and we remain, largely, a segregated society. But we’ve come a very long way, and I think that gives us reason to hope for the future.

4. How would you describe the intersection of faith and life in this story?

In the course of the story, Jack reflects on his situation and surmises, “It’s hard to have faith in chance.” He’s acknowledging the fact that there’s always more to a situation than meets the eye. Throughout this story Jack and the other characters are wrestling with the truth that all things, even those we don’t understand, those that have no hint of redemptive purpose, must ultimately work for good. And the working out of that good takes place in and through the lives of ordinary men and women.
Another thing we see in the story is the corruption, not just of people, but of the “powers and authorities” of the world. Jack and Rose Marie and Bud and Burt—all the characters in the story, and all the people who grew up in that time—none of them knew a society that wasn’t segregated, that wasn’t, fundamentally and essentially, unjust. The culture and society were flawed, and the people were a product of that impersonal, cold, inflexible system.
As we’re doing this interview, I’m working on a sequel to the story. In the next book Jack befriends Martin Luther King Jr. During the Montgomery bus boycott, Jack asks King about timing. He wants to know “why now?” Why, when the buses have always been segregated, is this the time to take action? King explains (and the dialogue is based on his actual words) that when the system itself is flawed, when institutions have veered from the path of righteousness, we’re compelled to act. He tells Jack that Christians, when they see powers and authorities behaving in ways God didn’t intend, have a duty to respond.
That’s what’s going on in Safe at Home—ordinary men and women are coming to grips for the first time with a crooked system, and slowly, through the actions of their ordinary lives, transforming it, realigning it, making things as they ought to be. In this story we get a glimpse, I hope, that it is our relationships, our mundane interactions, our conduct—with teachers, repairmen, checkout cashiers—that are the means by which the world is transformed, renewed, and redeemed. In this make-believe story we also discover the truth that no-name players in anonymous cities have been an intricate part of God’s plan to redeem the world.
And by the way, I love the fact that this is still occurring in baseball. Look at the starting lineup of most teams today. You’ll find white guys, black guys, Asians, and Latinos playing side by side. In a spot here and there, you’ll also find Australians and Canadians. Baseball, at least this facet of it, is a great example of healthy, productive diversity—of one (team) from many (ethnicities and nationalities).

5. What do you hope readers will take away from reading Safe At Home?

Most importantly I hope that when they come to the final page, they’ll be able to honestly say, “Now that was a good story.” I want readers to care about Jack and Rose Marie and Chris. I want them to pull for Percy and empathize with Walter and Roberta. I hope, in some vicarious way, readers struggle alongside Burt and Joe. And I even hope they understand what’s going on in Bud’s mind.
It would thrill me to know that readers were anxious to pick up the book and continue from the last turned-down corner, eager to see what happens next, and then, when they came to the end, to be disappointed that it was over.
Beyond that I hope they come away with some appreciation for what anonymous people living regular lives accomplished through the sport of baseball … one small town at a time.

6. What has been the most rewarding aspect of writing? The most challenging?
The most challenging part is, to the extent of my limited ability, to make full and beautiful use of the English language; to take the twenty-six letters of the alphabet and sculpt them, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, into a narrative that’s delightful to read, that might, if I’m extraordinarily lucky, cause someone to read a sentence twice just because it’s so darn pretty. You can’t have a good story without strong characters. You can’t have a compelling narrative without an engaging plot. But what I love most is our language, the sound of the words rolling off the tongue, a rhythm and cadence that ensnares the reader; that’s enchanting and addictive.
And the most rewarding thing? To go back and read a paragraph for the fiftieth time and still think to myself, Not bad … not bad at all.

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