Richard Fellinger is an award-winning short story writer and former journalist who teaches writing at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. His story collection, They Hover Over Us, won the 2011 Serena McDonald Kennedy Award for literary fiction. He also won the 2008 Flash Fiction Contest at Red Cedar Review and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He also coached youth baseball for ten years.
Made To Break Your Heart (Open Books) is his debut novel. Find more info here.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations, man. This is your first novel, and I’ve found first books, and especially first novels, often have unique trajectories. Can you tell us about Made to Break Your Heart’s journey?
Richard Fellinger: When I was in grad school in 2009, I often told my cohorts stories about coaching my son’s Little League teams. Some of them suggested I write a memoir. So I started drafting one, a couple chapters. But I soon realized my life wasn’t interesting enough to carry an entire book, so I decided to turn it into fiction, start making stuff up. The novel’s first draft was titled Memoirs of a Little League Dad, but it didn’t have enough substance. Some friends in a writing group suggested it needed more emotional heft, so I revised with the idea of turning it into more of a family saga. Several revisions later, here we are.
CS: Your story collection, They Hover Over Us, was put out six years ago. Were stories your first love—or was writing a novel always part of your plan? How would you compare the process between crafting stories and a novel? What are the rewards and frustrations inherent in each?
RF: For a couple of reasons, I was drawn to short stories until recently. As an undergrad at Pitt, I studied under Chuck Kinder, Raymond Carver’s close friend, so Kinder and Carver were big influences on me as a young writer. When I graduated and needed a job, I started writing for newspapers, so shorter forms became the norm for me. Even when I wrote fiction, I was drawn to the shorter form.
In April 2009, I lost my job as a Capitol reporter, a victim of the Great Recession and the newspaper decline. After that, I felt more attracted to the longer form of the novel. My writing mindset changed, and I was able to focus more on the longer form. And honestly, I felt like I needed to write something with more potential to sell, because when you’re out of work you don’t have the luxury of writing stuff that doesn’t sell. And short stories don’t sell.
CS: I’m always interested in hearing about a writer’s routine. Are you an everyday writer or do you wait until you’re feeling it? Do you plan your work out or plunge right in?
RF: I try to be an everyday writer, but it doesn’t work out that way. One of my favorite quotes about writing routines is from Isak Dinesen: “Write a little every day, without hope and without despair.” Yet I teach, and I have a family, so my other responsibilities don’t always give me time to write every day. So I’d say I write most days, and mornings tend to work best for me, but I try to keep my work in my head even when I’m not writing—driving to class, taking long walks, even taking a shower. And that helps me stay in my stories and come up with some of my best stuff. As Agatha Christie put it, “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”
CS: Baseball is central to the novel—and I know you’re a big fan. What is it about the sport that calls you? What have you discovered in the game that’s made it a rich background for this fictional world you’ve created?
RF: Father-son connections, for one, and the history. I read an interview recently with John Irving, who said that The World According to Garp, which is one of my all-time favorites, is basically a book about fatherly anxiety. My novel is, too. So when I was revising it, trying to give it more substance, that theme just sort of naturally took over, and it came naturally from the sport.
CS: Little League—both for the protagonist as a coach and his son as a player—plays a big part in Made to Break Your Heart. Both of us have coached, and I think it’s safe to say youth sports have changed since our days growing up. What’s your take on this phenomenon? Do you think it’s healthy for the children? You also investigate the role of parents in kids’ sports. Sometimes it seems that a child’s success and involvement provide a type of status for parents, an element that strikes me as distant from—and sometimes at odds with—a child’s enjoyment of the sport.
RF: Yes, I wanted to write about that culture, but I didn’t want to fall into the same old trap of writing about how parents spoil it for the kids. While I wanted to cast the appropriate critical eye on the culture, I also wanted to write about people like they are—real people. I wanted to write about them with compassion—their family histories, their impulses, their anxieties. I think those things play a big role in how people act and react in the Little League culture, and it’s important to understand things like that. I think that’s one of the things that sets my novel apart from a lot of the writing on youth sports.
CS: The novel also involves off-field troubles in terms of a marriage that’s reached a crossroads. I’m always interested in the textures and currents of a novel. What storyline came to you first—baseball or the home front? What challenges did you find in weaving and balancing them? How did they end up complementing and strengthening each other?
RF: Because this began as a Little League memoir, baseball obviously came first. As I revised and turned it into a fictional family saga, I kept thinking about ways to complicate my protagonist’s life in believable and realistic ways. David Ross, my publisher at Open Books, said in our first Skype chat that the story teased him, because my protagonist doesn’t jump right into an affair with the woman who’s competing for his affection. I told him that’s because I’m a realist, and that was my main concern: I want my plots to be believable. Little League, marriage, and parenthood are all perfectly real parts of life, and they came together for me in a natural, and I think realistic, way.
CS: Now that your first novel is done, what lessons will you take with you as you write the second?
RF: It was a long and winding road for my novel—almost eight years from the first day of drafting to publication. So I have a lot of takeaways about the writing process and the process of shopping the work to agents and publishers. A lot of them might seem like relatively small things—from how to weave in backstory to how to revise a query letter so that your book really appeals to agents and publishers. Looking at the big picture, I think I can feel confident that I can do something like this if I just plug away at it slowly and patiently and believe enough in the work to do whatever it takes to get it in the hands of a good publisher.
CS: What are your favorite sport-influences novels?
RF: One is The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, a great contemporary novel about a college ballplayer. There are other novels, however, that have been a big influence on me that have connections to sports, but aren’t largely about them. I mentioned The World According To Garp; while it’s not largely about sports, Garp is a wrestler. Also, Independence Day by Richard Ford, which is also a father-son novel set during a July 4 trip to Cooperstown.
CS: Any chance for my Phillies this year? Be honest.
RF: Sorry to say, but I’m a big Pirates fan. Grew up in Western Pennsylvania. However, I married a Phillies fan, so we follow the Phils a little, and I have to say I think the Phils are at least a couple years away. I’m beginning to fear the Bucs may be, too.
CS: What’s next?
RF: Another novel, and I’m pretty deep into the first draft. It’s about a guy with a history of bad relationships who sees on the news one night that an old summer love was gunned down in a mass shooting.
Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chapbooks, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing published Kurt Vonnegut: Bookmarked, a collection of his essays about Slaughterhouse Five.