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April 1, 2010 | BASEBALL, Fiction

An Interview with Billy Lombardo

Seth Pollins

An Interview with Billy Lombardo photo

I met Billy Lombardo in the summer of 2007 on a sun drenched patch of grass under the Blue Ridge Mountains in Asheville, N.C. We had both just survived our first "Meet and Greet" at Warren Wilson College's MFA Program, and now, over plastic cups of red wine, we were discussing pasta fagioli, Dostoyevsky, and baseball. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Billy sent me supportive texts during the Phillies magical 2008 World Series run. Me and my wife, Karen, read Billy's books, The Logic of a Roseand How to Hold a Woman. We're now so deeply entrenched in each other's lives my wife calls Billy her “boyfriend.” We graduated the program together in 2009, and we both recently jumped at the opportunity to talk (over a series of facebook messages) about baseball and Billy's new book The Man With Two Arms for Hobart.

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Billy, your new novel, The Man With Two Arms, is a narrative of the early life of Danny Granville, the switch-pitching ballplayer of the title. Even before I cracked the book open, I was excited by this simple, yet profound idea: a switch pitcher. Considering the fact that your novel is an exploration of so much more than baseball (of human potential, for example, of love and obsession and art) what was your point of departure? Was it this singular image of a man with two arms?

Yeah. I couldn't believe it wasn't something I had grown up talking about. I couldn't believe there weren't already a bunch of major league pitchers who were already doing it, either. But that's how it started. I was having a catch with my son, who was eight at the time. We were on a beach in St. Pete, and he was throwing lefty like it was his dominant arm.

So, I thought the novel was just going to be a short story about Danny, but once I started writing it, I got stuck on Danny's old man, Henry. Danny wasn't even born yet.

Then I got to thinking about the right brain/left brain business. I wondered if there might be something to the idea that a person might become something more if he attended to his body symmetrically. Once I had Henry, and then Lori, I had love and marriage and I had obsession and lives and art and all the rest.

 

Henry is responsible for instituting Danny's campaign of "bimodal balance" at an early age. Henry's obsession with this campaign is overwhelming. You write:

'It made sense to Henry, as he attempted to develop Danny into a perfectly ambidextrous person, that he should also implement the same bimodal balance into his own life. He began brushing his teeth, using his fork and spoon, and opening doors with his left hand. He dialed phone numbers, tightened screws, and replaced light bulbs; he combed his hair, clipped his toenails, and held his coffee cup with his weaker hand...'

As you were writing this novel did you attempt a similar campaign in your own life?

I thought about it a lot. In fact, I thought about it every day for years, but mostly it was too hard to do. It's impossible for me to brush my teeth lefty. I'd been walking around this earth for like 40 years trying to be cool as hell and I couldn't square that with taking on new behavior that made me feel like a dork. I thought about it at the gym, a lot, too. But there it's easy to do. It's unnatural not to do it there.

You have any idea how hard it is to button up a chick's shirt when it's on? Oh, yeah. Never mind.

Anyway. I thought about Danny and Henry doing it every day. It was easy to have Danny do it from day one.

Elsewhere in the novel, writing about painting was interesting as hell. I love the idea of moving without thinking about it. I once had a teacher who wrote with her right hand, but on the board she wrote lefty. I don't know why that still amazes me.

 

Actually, feeling inspired, I jumped up from the book to brush my teeth lefty. My 'bimodal campaign' lasted about three seconds. You're right, it's impossible to brush teeth lefty.

You mention art. In your novel, art seems to serve as a calming antidote to the pressures of life. Lori finds tremendous release in her bouts of painting. And, as Danny's baseball career catapults him into stardom, he retreats into his own world of painting.

Yeah. Part of that art business came about because I wanted to make sure Lori had a life with Danny too, that no matter how obsessed Henry grew with the bimodal campaign, Danny would be shaped by a larger world. I wanted to make sure Lori was layered as well. I didn't want her sadness to be all that defined her. The other thing is this: I'm so much happier that I have art (writing) in my life that it makes me wonder if people can be happy without some medium like that in their own lives.

 

Danny turns out to be a talented painter. What connections do you see between talent in art and baseball?

I still think it's rare when someone comes along who is gifted on more than one level. When I learned that Bernie Williams (former Yankee) was a jazz guitarist, his stock went up bigly for me.

In the novel I wanted there to be this question with readers, too: is Danny's art talent attributable to the bimodality? Or is it because his mother (and, later, his girlfriend) gave him art, as well?

I think as much about the layered giftedness of the rest of us as I do about doubly-gifted celebrities. When I learn that gifted writer friends are also amazing photographers or singers or quilt makers, it's infinitely interesting.

 

I'm always awed when I learn that a gifted writer friend is also an amazing photographer or singer or hair stylist. To have something like writing in your life — it seems like a genuine gift. But to also have this other thing, be it photography or baseball — well, it seems to imply an almost freaky giftedness.

Danny eventually runs into trouble when his giftedness is seen as freaky. In this, you seem to be making a comment about the perils of fame.

The part about fame was tough for me to write. I so didn't want Danny to fail on the field. There's that scene in The Natural when Roy Hobbs grimaces in pain at the plate, a spot of blood spreading through the wool of his uni. Oh, I hate that scene.

I've always hated hearing people in the stands boo other players. I can't remember what year it was, but the first time I heard fans at a White Sox game saying, "Gooch, Gooch" when Tadahito Iguchi came up to bat, I thought they were booing him, and I looked at my son, and he looked at me like, what the fuck is going on?

Still, I wanted Danny to be sensitive to a kid calling him a freak. I wanted him to have grown up sensitive. I didn't want him to be able to steel himself against the things people said.

I know there'll be readers who'll read Danny's sensitivity and say, "Really, Danny? Is that all it took to send you off crying?" I just think a baseball player should be able to play ball without being called a freak.

I guarantee you there's no father out there who's got a kid playing major league ball who sits in the stands and boo another kid on that field. If there is such a man he's been living with some other great darkness. Or his eyes have been closed.

This is fun. I'm eating pasta fagioli.

 

I know. It's like a party.

Let's talk about sex. There are a lot of intimate descriptions of lovemaking in your novel. You write, for example:

"They made love. Sweetly, as they always did, and slowly as they sometimes did, and the sounds Lori made as she breathed through her mouth were so like the sounds that emerged between tears that Henry opened his eyes several times to assure himself that she was not crying, or if she was, that it was for something other than sadness."

I think to write this takes courage: you have to skirt the edge of the sentimental without falling over. I think you pull it off. You convey tender sexual experiences without lapsing into the easy clichés of romance. Can you talk a bit about the challenge of writing sex scenes?

What helps me, I think, is having read, over the years, the fiction of adolescents who send in sex scenes for publication consideration to my magazine (polyphony h.s.). We don't get them so much, anymore because the word seems to be getting out that we don't want them.

But sex is very hard to write about. It's like sports, actually. Very few people can write WELL about sports. I think the weakest parts of my novel are the parts about sports. It's a gigantic challenge for me.

Beauty is hard to write about, too. I sat down once and gave myself the challenge of writing about the beauty of a girl, because I wanted to learn how to do it.

Were you at the residency at Warren Wilson when T.M. McNally read that piece from, I think, The Goat Bridge? [I believe the piece discussed here is from McNally's story, "The Gateway," from his fantastic collection of the same name.—Ed.] His narrator was writing about his wife and he said something like, 'That was the thing about his wife, she knew how to wear a dress.' Jesus. I thought, That's what you have to do, you have to find some other way to talk about beauty, you have to go at it from the side. Sucker punch them with beauty.

Barry Hannah said something in Midnight, and I'm not Famous Yet about how the girlfriend of a pro golfer was his boyhood understanding of what a woman should be.

I don't know if it's courage, Seth. I think for some readers my work does skate over the edge of sentiment, but I don't really care. I figure if I work for it, sometimes I earn it, sometimes I don't. I hope the reader sees the work, though.

 

You actually begin with a love scene between Danny's parents, Henry and pregnant Lori. In the midst of the act, Lori discovers she is ready to give birth.

As Henry drives Lori to the hospital he wonders 'if any man in the history of the world had ever made love to his wife so close in time to the birth of their child.'

I wanted it be clear that Danny was born of love. That's what I wanted with that scene. I wanted there to be no doubt about that. I loved coming upon that wondering of Henry, too, though.  Henry wanted his son to be the greatest athlete in the world. But he also

wanted to beat a record with that lovemaking. More than anything he wanted his son birth to be born of love. That's what made that lovemaking scene so important to me.

 

Reading the book, I felt that giddy, boyish excitement that baseball has always inspired within me. I especially geeked out on Danny's major league statistics. Of Danny's statistical feats which stat did you enjoy writing the most?

I loved the fact that, pitching with two arms, he could start so many games in a season. I also just loved writing about the idea of perfection. When I had the idea of the "perfect" three innings he played in the all-star game, I actually peed a little bit in my pants I was so excited.

 

The 'perfect' All Star performance was my favorite stat, too. For three innings, Danny retires the American League All Stars in a precise fashion: he induces each batter, from one to nine, to hit out to the corresponding fielder's number. The first batter, for example, hits out to fielder #1 on the scorecard, the pitcher. The next batter hits out to fielder #2 on the scorecard, the catcher. And so on.

I tell you, I wish the Phillies had Danny Granville. For now, Roy Halladay will have to do. I'm feeling this is the Phillies year. I say Phillies — Yankees repeat. Phillies in seven.

 

Oh, I'm feeling really good about the White Sox pitching staff this year. But I gotta say, I feel like the Phillies have that same blue-collar hero sort of thing going for them.

 

I like the sound of it. Alright man, thanks for talking with me.

Thanks, Seth. That was fun. I'm off to my son's game now. 40 degrees. Windy. Beautiful day for baseball.

image: The Man With Two Arms Cover Design


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