Thursday, April 10, 2008
From my "Author to Author" column appearing this week in the Greenville Journal:
The Author: Gene Fehler
The Book: Beanball (Clarion Books)
The Events: Gene Fehler will sign copies of his new young adult book, Beanball, on April 12, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Fiction Addiction, 3795 E. North St, Ste 9 and on April 19, at noon, at the Open Book, 110 S. Pleasantburg.
Gene Fehler has been in the writing game for years. The South Carolina poet has been published in more than 300 magazines, including The Nebraska Review and Saturday Evening Post. His work has appeared in children's publications such as Highlights, Guideposts for Kids, and Sports Illustrated for Kids. His poems have been read aloud on National Public Radio and HBO.
Now he’s hit one out of the park. The Seneca resident’s first young adult novel, Beanball, is drawing fans. “I don't know if it's because it's for a young adult audience or because it's been released by a major publisher (Clarion Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin), but I've already gotten much more response since its February release date than any of my other seven published books,” he said.
Although it is marketed to middle-school audiences and older, many reviewers have noted that a reader doesn't have to be a fan of either baseball or poetry—or a young adult—to enjoy Beanball. The novel’s unusual structure—free-verse monologues by 28 different voices—helps make it a thought-provoking and suspenseful read. The idea for the pivotal event in the novel, Fehler said, came from his own high school days. “One of my best high school friends had a promising baseball career as a pitcher that ended in college with an arm injury. I thought that would be a good conflict to base a novel on: how can a boy cope with the loss of his major league dreams? I decided to make the loss even more dramatic and sudden by having a high school center fielder (Luke ‘Wizard’ Wallace) struck in the face with a pitched ball and blinded in one eye.”
The wild pitch, or “beanball,” that shatters Luke’s skull changes his life. The injury also affects the lives of the 28 narrators—including Luke’s best friend, his girlfriend, family, teachers, teammates, and doctors. “I chose multiple narrators because I've always been fascinated by how in fiction the story changes depending on what character is telling it,” Fehler said. “I found the process really interesting, because I had become each of the narrators, to put myself into their mindset. I tried not to speak for them, but to let them talk and record what they were thinking and saying.”
Take, for example, the umpire:
It’s the worst sound I’ve ever heard
in all my years of umping.
Oh, I’ve heard plenty of pitches hit a helmet.
But this . . . this fastball, up and in
This one hit bone, right in the face.
Not even a scream or grunt from the kid.
He went down like he was shot.
The free verse format with multiple narrators, “let me introduce a number of sub-plots-- a teammate's feeling of guilt, an umpire's shock, a father's anger, a mother's questioning of her faith, a girlfriend's shallowness, a coach's bitterness, an opposing player's jealousy, a friend's loyalty,” Fehler said. A more conventional approach wouldn’t have made that possible, he said.
Critics have been kind. Kirkus, in just one of many glowing reviews praising Beanball, says of the novel: "Each voice maintains its individuality with all the voices combining seamlessly to tell a powerful story. In Fehler's debut novel, he succeeds at every level." On June 7, Fehler will be heading to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, courtesy of his publisher, where the American Art Museum will be is hosting an event in which the Washington National major league baseball team will be reading to children and young adults. Fehler will be on hand to sign copies of Beanball.
But the business of promotion hasn’t distracted Fehler from working on more books for children and young adults, “some in verse, some in free verse and some in traditional prose fiction.” While his previous six books were published by four different publishing houses without the help of an agent, after Simon & Schuster published Goblin Giggles (2005), Fehler said he found an agent. She sold Beanball within a few months. The same publisher also bought Change-Up, an illustrated book of baseball poems for kids, illustrated by Donald Wu, forthcoming in 2008 or early 2009. “As a writer, one can't spend time waiting for publishers to respond,” he said. “The only thing to do is keep writing and try to make each book better than the one before.”
And enjoy a well-earned winning season.
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