Prior to the First Books Reading, author Kate Hopper, author Josh Ostergaard, Coffee House publisher Chris Fischbach, and author Andy Sturdevant appeared on a panel to answer questions for MFA candidates.
On Thursday, March 15, the University of Minnesota was proud to host three Twin Cities authors, who read from their first books.
Kate Hopper is an alumna of our MFA program; she graduated with a nonfiction focus in 2005. Her memoir, Ready for Air (University of Minnesota Press), is described as a "harrowing, poignant, and occasionally hysterical journey into motherhood," in which "Hopper confronts the challenges of becoming a preemie mom with 'brazen honesty and an occasional fitting expletive.' Ready for Air is a triumph--a testament to the strength of motherhood, and the sharing of stories, to transform lives." Read more about her work, including an excerpt, in a previous post.
Josh Ostergaard graduated from our MFA program in 2011 with a nonfiction focus. He also holds an MA in cultural anthropology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has been an urban anthropologist at the Field Museum and now works at Graywolf Press.
Ostergaard's new book The Devil's Snake Curve: A Fan's Notes From Left Field (Coffee House Press) is about much more than its author's love of baseball and sports history. It's about "the domestication of the human animal," the role of the spectator, and the "soft violence of American culture and the ways in which historical and contemporary representations of professional baseball absorb, reflect, and legitimize actual physical violence (war, etc)." It's also about, as Ostergaard puts it, the "damn Yankees," the "regal Kansas City Royals," and the "damn Royals."
The concept behind The Devil's Snake Curve came to Ostergaard in 2003, when an exhibit called "Baseball as America" passed through the Field Museum where he worked. Ostergaard says this exhibit occurred at "precisely the same time that the crescendo to the war in Iraq--the false claims of WMDs--gave way to the launching of missiles. Millions of people who were paying attention knew the war was based on false pretexts." As Ostergaard walked through the "Baseball as America" exhibit, he found it "impossible to reconcile the mythology of the national pastime with the very real war that had just started." He began paying attention to the ways baseball had been represented throughout history, and noticed that representations of the sport often support the nation, even when the nation moves against democracy and human rights. "I noticed that the professional sport is more than a game and more than entertainment," Ostergaard says. "It's also a tool, like a hammer or a gun, which can be wielded by those with political power and financial capital."
This innovative and politically relevant book was a long time coming. At first, Ostergaard jokes, his goal was to "write a bestseller as a way to meet women and generally embark on a life of ease and adventure." His first attempt was titled Let's All Hate the Yankees, which he discarded because it was too straightforward. He then worked for several years on a novel called The Case Against the Yankees, about an "insane" father and son who spend the entire 20th century accumulating evidence that the Yankees are the worst team in baseball history. This draft was retired to the bottom of a pile of books in Ostergaard's living room, and he started over again. In his third approach, he began to recognize the significance of his underlying obsessions (war, social control, religion, representations as tools, and propaganda), which had remained the same throughout each manifestation of the book. For three years, he worked on a new draft, with the goal of "refuting narrative and avoiding direct argumentation and letting juxtaposition, word choice, and structure do that work." Ostergaard set aside his hopes for publication, and took chances with form and content. Nevertheless, he asserts that he still expects "to sell a million copies and waste the remainder of my life on a beach somewhere in the South China Sea, chewing betel nut and guzzling Pocari Sweat between snorkels." We wish him luck.
Ostergaard began the approach that would become The Devil's Snake Curve while attending the University of Minnesota's MFA program, where he brought portions of the book to workshop. He credits classmate Josh Morsell with suggesting the title, after reading a section about Billy Sunday, a baseball player turned preacher, who claimed the devil wanted to snare good men with a "snake curve." Ostergaard believes his original title, Baseball, Hair, Hot Dogs & War, lacks the artfulness of Morsell's suggestion.
The Devil's Snake Curve is one of those rare books that finds its way to publication via a publisher's slush pile. Ostergaard submitted his manuscript to Coffee House Press because he respected the work they publish, especially writing by Paul Metcalf. Ostergaard says when it came to getting published with Coffee House, he had "no idea that Chris Fischbach, the publisher, liked baseball. I just got lucky." On Halloween of 2012, he skipped a Father John Misty concert to submit his manuscript on the final day of the fall submission period. Two days later, Ostergaard says, he walked out of a meeting and listened to a voicemail from Chris Fischbach, who said he loved the book and wanted to publish it. "I nearly had a stroke," Ostergaard recalls. "I could barely push the buttons on my phone when I called him back because my fingers had lost their strength. There are a million manuscripts floating around, but unless they find the perfect reader at the right moment, they will have a hard time getting published. Chris Fischbach was that person for The Devil's Snake Curve, and for that I am grateful."
Read the opening section of The Devil's Snake Curve:
Long Ago, in Kansas
The clover in deep left field was delicious. I crouched for a better look, laid my glove on the thick green grass. My shoe was untied. A cluster of purple flowers gleamed, each blossom a mid-inning snack. I picked the best one--not the biggest, because their nectar has usually dried, but the darkest purple bud. I stood, tucked my glove under my arm, plucked the long purple threads, placed their white stems between my teeth, and pulled. Sweet nectar spread across my tongue. Coach called my name. I looked. The inning was over. My teammates were already in the dugout.
Andy Sturdevant is an artist, writer and arts administrator living in south Minneapolis. His work has been exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and The Soap Factory. Andy was born in Ohio, raised in Kentucky, and has lived in Minneapolis since 2005. At the First Books Reading, Andy read from his new book, Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow (Coffee House Press).
The book is an amalgamation of the many aspects of Midwestern life that Sturdevant finds compelling, from artists and public art to communities, history, visual culture, and food and drink. Broadly, Sturdevant says, this book is about "the contemporary urban Midwest. Specifically, it's about Minneapolis and St. Paul. But beyond that, I usually tell people it's also about liquor store signage, train graffiti, trust fund kids, R.E.M., Mary McCarthy, Jorge Luis Borges, winter, the Metrodome, futuristic birdhouses, old man bars, Bert Blyleven, Buffalo Wild Wings, flags, empty storefronts, and Xerox machines. Those are just some of the specific topics that make up the experiences of the contemporary urban Midwest covered in the book."
Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow came into in an existence under unusual circumstances. Sturdevant and Coffee House publisher Chris Fischbach had become acquainted through public art and literacy projects in the Twin Cities, such as Works Progress, a public art and design studio. Sturdevant admired the work Coffee House Press was doing, and he and Fischbach casually discussed the possibility of collaborating. When Fischbach suggested that Sturdevant compile a book-length work using short pieces he had been working on for diverse publications, Sturdevant undertook the hard work of combining essays, prose, and semi-fictional pieces into a cohesive whole. The product: Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow. "It was very unusual," Sturdevant said, "but it felt very organic, like it was the result of a relationship that had been developed through admiration, collaboration, and a shared interest in how literature, art and public programs can overlap."
Read an excerpt from Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow:
That's why I've always found the idea of "the heartland" as a metaphorical flourish so odd and inappropriate for the Midwest. The heart is the center of the body physically, just as the plains of the Midwest are the geographic center of the country. But think of driving through the exurban interstate corridors in the region's right-wing strongholds and coming across those anti-abortion billboards that picture a gurgling baby proclaiming, "My heart was beating at three weeks!" The "heart" metaphor in "heartland" is getting mixed here, since the heart is also among the earliest organs to develop. The rest of the body grows out from the heart. How could someplace as recently populated and as hastily improvised as the Midwest be the heart of a country at least a century or two older than it is? If the Midwest is the heart of this land, it's an artificial heart, one that's cobbled together from the parts that were lying around.
That very self-conscious, deliberate manufacturing of heritage creates a certain compression of nostalgia. Oftentimes, especially here in the urban parts of Minnesota, you'll hear people talk about the "old Minneapolis," or the "old St. Paul"; they're talking about things that aren't more than forty years old, which almost anywhere east of here is a millisecond, the snap of a finger. They're not delusional. The Minneapolis or St. Paul they knew is in fact gone, paved over or demolished to make way for something else.