An Interview with John H. Ritter
With his baseball novel Choosing Up Sides (Philomel 1998), rookie YA author John H. Ritter landed a spot on the All Star team. Awards for his first YA novel included the 1999 International Reading Association's Children's Book Award, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults notation, and a 1999 Blue Ribbon Book citation from The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Ritter's second at bat, Over the Wall (Philomel 2000), will secure him a regular spot in the line up of notable authors writing about sports for young adults.
Ritter's baseball books are more than just sports novels. They have plenty of lively and realistic baseball action, but the play-by-play is only a small part of the stories. Instead of focusing on on-the-field action, Ritter's books are coming-of-age stories of young men who happen to be athletes. With his novels, Ritter joins popular YA authors like Chris Crutcher, Will Weaver, Carl Deuker, Rich Wallace, and a handful of others who write what I call sportlerroman (after the German term kunstlerroman, a coming-of-age story of an artist). These books pack the appeal of a sports story with the added depth of the emotional or personal development of a central character. Both of Ritter's novels fit nicely into this classification of YA sports literature.
Set in 1921, Choosing Up Sides is the story of thirteen year old Luke Bledsoe, the left-handed son of an itinerant preacher who constantly reminds Luke, "The left side has always been the side of Satan, contrary to God And baseball itself is nothing but the Devil's playground." As a diligent son, Luke works hard to overcome his left handedness, but when he discovers he possesses prodigious ability to pitch a baseball--left handed--the temptation is too much to resist. His desires to use his talent and to fit in with the town kids who play baseball set him against his overbearing and stubborn father.
I grew up with my left hand tied behind my back. Well, actually, it was only tied up till I was six or seven.
I figured it was all on account of my Uncle Micah, Ma's only brother. He worked as a newspaperman up near Cleveland. He smoked tobacco and had a certain tendency to get drunk. He also had a tendency to go out dancing all night. But worst of all, he tended to smoke his cigars or drink his drinks or write down notes using his left hand. The hand of the Devil, Pa called it. "Pure backwards of what right and good."
"Leave a boy go left-handed," he once told my ma, "and he'll turn out wild as a witch-dog. Same as your fool brother, Micah." Then Pa hitched up close and whispered down at the both of us. "And I ain't about to let that happen." See I had that tendency toward being left-handed, too. Couldn't help it. That's just the way I's born.(opening of Choosing Up Sides)
Tyler Waltern is a talented but temperamental thirteen-year-old shortstop in Over the Wall. While spending the summer with cousins in New York City, he hopes to land a position on the local all star team. Unfortunately, his hot temper alienates him from the coaches who will ultimately make the all star choices. Tyler eventually faces up to his temper and its root causes: his unhappiness over his father's inability to deal with the accidental death of Tyler's sister compounded by a vow his father made when his own father was killed in the Vietnam war.
Though Tyler doesn't realize all his baseball dreams, he comes away with something more valuable: a new perspective on "the other guy," which manifests itself in a symbolic demonstration at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that helps him deal with his own anger and confused emotions.
I recently had a chance to sit down and talk with John H. Ritter about his life, his books, his views on sports literature, and a variety of other subjects. Here are excerpts of our conversation that might interest the readers of The ALAN Review:
Chris Crowe: John, tell us a little about your life. You've written a book set in rural Ohio and one set in New York City. Where did you grow up?
John H. Ritter: Neither of those places, actually. My parents were natives of Ashtabula, Ohio, up around Cleveland. But before I was born, my dad landed a job out west as a sports writer, so I grew up in the rural hills of San Diego County. In the 1920s, the time frame of Choosing Up Sides, my family was scattered all through the Ohio and West Virginia region. So that setting was a natural. And Over the Wall is about a modern day California boy going to New York, which was loosely based on personal experience.
What kinds of writing did you do in school? Did you have any influential teachers? What kind of student were you?
A wild student, I'll say that first. A rabble-rouser and a contrarian. I was constantly searching for the exception to every rule. But I was always a high achiever. The problem was, I had a dual personality. I could be extremely focused and responsible one day, then get tossed out of class the next. As proof, in high school I was voted both the Senior Class President and the Senior Class Clown.
But I had some great teachers along the way who really encouraged me. From about the third grade on, teachers would take my work and read it out loud to the class. Which was good and bad. First, it made me realize I had some talent for writing. But then I figured it also meant I didn't have to work at it since they seemed to like anything I wrote. I've seen the same thing happen to athletes, which is one reason why I combine athletics with the creative arts in my talks to kids. In both cases, praise can build your confidence, but it can also cause you to slack off and rest on your natural abilities instead of working to improve.
So when did you work on your writing? In college?
Well, yes and no. In high school I wrote plays and wrote for the school paper, again running on raw talent, squeaking by with last minute stuff, but getting lots of praise. But the fundamentals of journalism are the fundamentals for storytelling in that you have to grab the reader and set the story all in that first line.
By the time I got to UCSD, I was writing tons of songs, hoping to be the next Bob Dylan or something. I carried around a little notebook, constantly jotting down riffs and phrases. But by my second year in college, I was anxious to get on with my life. And for the vision I had in mind, college didn't have much to offer me. I knew I had to walk the streets, touch life, embrace life, gain experience. I wanted to discover books and writers on my own, not be told what to read and certainly not what to write. Ha, little did I know! But still, I wanted to learn from life. To hit the road like Kerouac, Dylan, and Twain. To have something real to write about.
CC: What happened? JHR:
One fine spring day, I walked right past my silly sociology class, straight into the dean's office, filled out a withdrawal card, and kept on walking. I got a job as a painter's apprentice with a commercial contractor I'd worked for in the summer. This was the early seventies, and we all lived so cheaply I could earn enough in three or four months to write and travel the rest of the year. I did that for several years until I got married, had a baby, and bought a house. Then I had to work for nine months a year! Bummer.
So when did you learn your craft? Did you ever study with a writing teacher?
Yeah, eventually. Like I say, I preach this to kids all the time now. That raw talent--whether it's on the ball field or in music or on stage--will only get you so far. At some point you have to admit you really know nothing at all about the fine points. That you need a coach, a mentor, someone who'll teach you discipline and point the way.
When did that come for you?
It started about twelve years ago. I began going to a fiction writing group twice a month, about eight unpublished writers led by a YA novelist named Joan Oppenheimer. We'd bring in our stories or chapters and read them out loud and sit trembling while everybody else responded. But Joan was great. She said, "You're the author. Just listen to the feedback and take consensus. Then if you think the comments have merit, consider making the changes."
But even so, it took me ten years to sell my first book. I left that group, took some extension classes, formed a new group, joined SCBWI, and kept writing story after story, each one a little bit better than the last. In my group is a great writer named Beth Brust who wrote The Amazing Paper Cuttings of Hans Christian Andersen, and she's been an enormous help. She doesn't let me slide at all. I hate her! But, yeah, it's a long process, and I'm still learning.
Baseball plays a role in both Choosing Up Sides and Over the Wall. Why?
Well, let me start by saying I was the middle son in a pretty close family of three boys and an older sister living way out in the sticks. We were pulled even closer when our mom died of breast cancer. I was only four, and my dad had a real rough road raising four small kids on a journalist's salary. But we were also a sports family, and Dad always impressed upon us the idea of teamwork and pulling together. In fact, when he remarried six years later, two more sisters came along, and, to me, that just made the team that much stronger.
So we ended up playing a lot of baseball growing up, boys and girls, and I went on to coach my daughter's softball team as my dad had coached for us. Okay, that's the groundwork. So even though my dad was a newspaper columnist and I loved to write as a kid my greatest hopes and dreams were attached to baseball. In fact, in my mid-teens, some people thought I had a shot at playing pro ball one day. But remember the times. The sixties. And I was a kid who believed in teamwork, in doing what I could to help other people. So the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War came along and threw all my dreams off track. That's why even going to college lost its worth to me. What happened was, real life and the cruelties I saw being practiced in or by my own country took precedence over my dreams.
Now in later years, when it became time to pick subject matter for my coming-of-age stories, baseball leapt at me. Aside from my love for the game, it also lends itself so easily to literary metaphor. Our whole lexicon is filled with examples. "Three strikes and you're out." "Life threw me a curve." "You sure hit a homer with that idea." "He really went to bat for us," and so on.
You mention coming-of-age stories, sometimes referred to as "bildungsroman." And from that we get spin-off genres, such as "kunstlerroman," the coming-of-age of an artist. Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a common example. Both of your novels could be what I call "sportlerroman," a coming-of-age story of an athlete. Were you ever tempted to make them simple sports novels, stories that focused just on the game?
I never intended them to be play-by-play sports novels, which I find boring. I'm more interested in using baseball scenes as metaphor, or for challenges to character, or to advance the story. I could as easily set the stories in the world of ballet, were I as knowledgeable in that arena. But the thrust would be the same. Kids dealing with hard choices. To me, that's the definition of YA lit. They're stories about that first time in life when one has to stand on one's own two feet, make a life-altering decision, then live with the consequences of that choice. If it happens on the ball field, fine. But usually it doesn't. It's just that events on the ball field may lead up to that moment and help shape the kid so that one day he can take his stand.
CC: In both your novels, the narrators are alienated from their fathers. Where does that come from? From your experience as a son? As a father? Or is it a plot device you like? JHR:
I forget who it was, but some children's author once said that the first thing the children's novelist has to do is kill off the parents. That's why YA fiction is filled with orphans and runaways and foster kids. It's like all bodice-ripping romances need to have certain elements, murder mysteries need a dead body in the first chapter, and all YA novels need to have a kid sans parents.
And because of that, I made a conscious effort to keep the parents--or their looming presence--strongly in the story, if not in the scene. But it's pure plot device. My dad never struck me, was not particularly religious, and was actually quite involved in my life--that is, considering he was the father of six kids. But beyond that, I wanted to explore a specific father/son dynamic. So in both novels I asked, what if this "problem" father is loving and well meaning? What if he only wants the best for his son? Then how does the boy view the father's harsh treatment? In the end, both books are about a boy trying to save his father. Why would an alienated kid do that? The answer, I think, is what Tyler finds out in Over the Wall. It comes down to discovering what he really believes, then having the courage to act on it.
People say time heals all wounds. I used to think so. Now I know better. Time won't heal anything.
Time is nothing but a stack of yesterdays. Nothing but a stack of full moons waiting for a new one. Or a stack of memories waiting for a better one.
I've always known there was a pull to the moon. Standing on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, my mom once told me that's how the tides roll in and out. But I never knew how much one or two memories could tug at your brain. Or that a single yesterday could pull down all of your tomorrows.
You see, back when I was four years old, my father did something that shook our family like an earthquake. Like one side of the earth just took and shook loose from the other, shook down California, the mountains, the oak trees and boulders, and rattled every inch of that rickety old ranch house we lived in, too.
And it's pretty much been like that ever since.(opening of Over the Wall)
You mentioned once that writing was in some ways like anthropological research. How so?
I was referring to all of the cultural research that goes into a novel. For Choosing Up Sides, set in Southern Ohio in the 1920s, I did tons of research on religious movements, on characteristics of left-handers, and the Appalachian dialect. But I also had to visit the region and interview people who lived there to get an idea of their culture and customs. Luckily I still had living relatives who could help.
But the same method applied to my modern-day story, Over the Wall, which is set in New York City. I became an anthropologist. I interviewed the shopkeepers, the residents, the ballplayers. Do I need to say that I found cultures there that were vastly different from my own? And I'm not satisfied with noting obvious differences. What I look for is nuance. Like the social code of the elevator attendants. Or the constant search for one's own quiet spot.
Was having one novel--now two--what you expected it would be? What's it like being an "author"? What failures and frustrations have you encountered along the way?
I really had no expectations. It was like my first trip to New York. No matter what anyone told me it would be like, I didn't listen. I just went ahead and let the experience wash over me. If there are any failures or frustrations, I think it would have to do with the industry itself, starting with the lack of good mentors. I come from a construction background where I served a three-year, union-monitored apprenticeship.
But in this trade, every author who comes along has to reinvent the wheel. There's no journeyman craftsman ready to take you under his wing and tell you what to expect. I wish there was some sort of "buddy" system where either your publisher or some writers organization teams you up with a veteran who could say, "Hey kid, don't waste your time on such and such. That comes later. Do this first. Build your name rec, build your resume, get the books moving. And here's what I think is the best way."
Of course, old friends like Beth, Pam Munoz Ryan (Riding Freedom) and Ben Mikaelsen (Rescue Josh McGuire) have helped, as well as new friends like Joan Bauer (Rules of the Road) and Mary Cassanova (Riot). They've taken the time to show me a few tricks, tutor me on what to do and what to expect.
Aren't there books that will give you that information?
Sure, but can you learn to plumb a house from a book? Or would you rather talk to an old pro and learn first hand? That's all I'm saying. If the publishers sponsored such a program, I'm sure it would pay off in book sales. It just makes sense. How many good writers do we lose each year because the marketing side of this business is such a mystery that they just give up?
How do you write? Explain your process, such as where do you get your ideas. How do you revise? Do you have an audience in mind?
The driving force behind all my stories comes primarily from finding something that really bugs me. And so far, it tends to be some sort of injustice. But I refuse to write revenge stories. I hate them. I won't even watch a revenge movie. To me, it's the easy response to injustice, and it lacks integrity. I mean, is it any wonder this world is always at war? Everyone is so hellbent on getting even. So I try to look for an alternative solution. That's what spawns my ideas.
Once I have the basic idea, I begin to research the book's general domain extensively. It might be ancient religious beliefs or earthquakes or Roberto Clemente. I dig up all the facts I can find the weirder and more obscure, the better.
Finally I start to write. Always in longhand. As Graham Greene said, "My fingers on a typewriter are never connected to my brain. My hand on a pen always is." It's like I'm painting the words--I don't know how else to describe it. But the part of my brain that I engage so heavily in dreaming up the first draft does not engage in the same way at the keyboard. The second draft, however, goes into the computer. But all line editing and new scenes are done by hand on notepaper or the printed hardcopy.
As for audience, the only one I think about is my editor, Michael Green, at Philomel. He's a big sports fan whose only flaw is that he roots for the Mets. But he's a perceptive guy and such a kid at heart that I figure if I write stuff I imagine him liking, then I'm confident the kids will like it, too.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Turn around! Go back! There's still time to save your life!!
Okay, okay. Let me think. So much depends upon motivation. Just like in a good story. I'd start with that. Why do you want to write books? I've taught at writing conferences, and I see so many budding authors whose sole motivation is to be a blooming author. You know what I mean?
So they have trouble taking criticism. They won't listen to guidance. And they'll never get published. In the past three or four years even, we've seen a tremendous surge in the quality level of children's books. I know veteran authors who are getting rejections from their publishers because they haven't responded with higher quality work. So you have to know what's out there and you have to write books that are even better. Beyond that, I'd say you have to join a writers group. If you're so shy or so ego-driven that you won't show your work and get feedback, you should probably quit now and save yourself a lot of frustration. Please don't let an editor be the first person to see your work.
Next, I'd say, build your resume. Anywhere. Local newspapers, magazines, writing contests. It's so important. For example, one of my earliest novels won the Judy Blume Award for a work in progress from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. When I look back, that was probably my biggest break. And someday, after heavy revision, it will be published. No, really. But the point is, the award opened doors for me, and the book caught my editor's eye, which led to his buying my second novel. Having a resume of any sort just helps you to stand above the rest.
But most importantly, learn the craft of storytelling. Learn how to grab a reader's interest, hold on to it, and keep it until the very last page.
CC: In both novels, religion plays an important role, though it's more obvious in Choosing Up Sides than in Over the Wall. What do you see as the role of religion--or religious faith--in your stories? JHR:
I don't come from a religious family, but for some reason, I was a religious boy. In fact, I was an altar boy! I think it came from searching for answers to lots of existential questions that hounded my life.
Anyway, it was quite natural to write about a boy who prays, a conscientious boy who has high standards--or at least he shoots for high standards. But I also know that religious beliefs can be at the root of bigotry and prejudice. Throughout our history slavery and war, for example, have been justified from the pulpit. I have a cousin who's a well-published biblical scholar, and my father-in-law is a minister. So I've had many late night discussions on what they call the "paradoxes" of religious beliefs. For instance, how a man who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus can go to war, pick up a rifle, and kill another man. Because to me, that's not a paradox, that's hypocrisy.
But I saw that terrain as being fairly untrodden, especially in children's lit. And I believe writers need to go into uncharted territory. Especially if they have existential questions.
Both your novels deal with history. Why?
I believe every novel is historical fiction, regardless of the time and place. Telling a story is like building a house. You don't start with the roof. First you build your foundation. And history, whether cultural or political, oral or written, is at the foundation of every story told, from science fiction to romance novels. How can I write about the problems and prejudices of today if I ignore the historical perspective?
What kind of reception have your novels had? Any complaints or challenges?
The overall reception of both books has surpassed my wildest dreams. From booksellers to librarians to teachers to kids. At a book fair, I once saw a kid read a bit of my book, then beg his dad to buy it. I have testimonial letters from grandparents to fifth graders, all saying how the books have touched their lives.
As for complaints or challenges, not at all. Which hasn't really surprised me. I have such love and empathy for all of my characters, whether they be Fundamentalists or homeless or bomber pilots. And I worked hard to be even-handed with all of them, to treat them with dignity and respect.
Why do you write for teenagers instead of adults?
It goes back to that old saying, "Kids may have a lot to learn, but they have a lot less to unlearn." I think the potential impact of any work is greater on those who aren't so set in their ways.
CC: Even so, your stories can be enjoyed by readers as young as 10 or 11 at face value. But older readers with more life experience, including adults, will see multiple layers and deeper symbolism in your work. What leads you to write this way?
Just for fun. I mean, first and foremost, it's important for me to be sure I reach younger readers. But I have this mind that constantly scans for puns. So double and triple meanings come easy to me. Though, when you think about it, that's all a metaphor is. A literary pun. So somewhere in the revision process this weird part of my brain kicks in. For example, the apple in Choosing Up Sides. The same fruit that got Adam and Eve into trouble also gets Luke in trouble. Then it lures the poor rabbit into the snare. Which also suggests Luke and the trap he's in. Then I realize that "apple" is old time slang for a baseball. It all connects, on and on. But it's so subconscious. I rarely plot out a metaphor. I discover most of them in the work, sometimes long after the book is done. In this case, the spark was a story my dad always told about a buddy of his tossing crab apples at a telephone pole by the hour and turning into a great pitcher. I just let that thought bounce around in my mind, and every apple I ever knew got worked into the story.
One final question: What's your next writing project? When can we expect it?
For my next book, I'm finally coming home. It'll be set in rural San Diego County. Younger kids, this time. A couple of modern day country boys who get so fed up with sports schedules and homework and running like rats 24/7, that they fix up an old tractor and head off down the road hoping to capture something in the hills that seems to be missing in their hectic lives.
John H. Ritter is a frequent presenter at NCTE, IRA, and ALAN meetings. For more information about him and his books, check out his interactive Website: http://www.JohnHRitter.com. He enjoys hearing from adult and adolescent readers.
Chris Crowe, a member of the English Department faculty at Brigham Young University, former member of the ALAN Executive Board, and former BYU football player, is currently the editor of the Young Adult Literature column of English Journal.
Reference Citation: Crowe, Chris. (2000) "An Interview with John H. Ritter." The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 3, p 5-9.