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Q&A with Eric Nusbaum, Author of Stealing Home

June 15, 2020

stealing home

I had the privilege of talking recently with Eric Nusbaum about his new book, Stealing Home, an essential read for fans of baseball history, American history, or just plain great literature. I loved its complex, effective structure; its many echoing, slant-rhyming storylines; its character development and empathy; its exploration of deep political, social, human themes; and its understated poetry on place and family and community.

Josh: Can we talk a bit about your development as a writer? When did you first start writing? 

Eric: I always loved reading, and in school, as writing became a thing to be practiced for more than just a rote purpose, I started to love writing too. This was early — elementary school even. I think I identified subconsciously as a writer before I really let myself believe that one day I would “be a writer” whatever that means. 

Josh: What kind of writer did you want to be?

Eric: I probably would have said I wanted to write novels. Maybe Sports writer, but that would have meant giving up on the possibility of becoming a pro athlete, which I was not yet ready to do. 

Josh: What were you reading early on that shaped your writing?

Eric: I read the sports page of the L.A. Times every morning, and at night all kinds of books. My parents are both big readers. Definitely history and baseball books, lots of fiction; everything from fantasy to historical fiction to more literary type books. I have a vivid memory of my dad handing me “Goodbye, Columbus.” I was probably around 14 or 15. My family was always sharing books with me.

Josh: Who were you learning from? What were you learning?

Eric: So as you know the book basically opens in a classroom. I had some incredible teachers, from the time I was in elementary school all the way through high school. I like to think I was learning from them. 

Josh: Did you study poetry? How has that study influenced your prose writing about sports?

Eric: By the time I got to college I wanted to be a fiction writer. But the thing was, I didn’t really like the fiction classes I was taking. Then I took a poetry class…and everything changed. The teacher was named Margaret Rabb. She was a wonderful poet and teacher who passed away not long after I graduated. She ushered me into this incredible world of poets and poetry. I think all the best lessons I learned about writing in college were from poets. One teacher, in particular, Richard Kenney, helped me see the world and the written word in a different way. Also in my experience the poets are bigger and more ridiculous sports fans than any other kind of writer. 

Josh: How has your study and practice of fiction writing influenced you as a writer?

Eric: Absolutely, so even though I hung around poets I didn’t write much poetry. Five or six years ago I signed up for a class at UCLA Extension — basically an adult education fiction class. The teacher was a writer named Lou Mathews. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Lou believed in me as a writer, and taught me a lot of lessons that should have been really obvious: mainly about how stories work. He’s become a mentor and friend. He’s done a lot to make me a better writer on the page, and also make me believe that I’m capable of doing more than I might think I am. Ultimately, for my kind of writing to work, there has to be a narrative element. There has to be suspense, there has to be action, there has to be characters you care about, and whose actions impact the way the story goes. Obviously “Stealing Home” is a book about real people. But I don’t think I would have been able to write it without first figuring out those elements of what makes fiction work. 

Josh: Did you ever consider or pursue the path of the relatively narrower approach of the traditional sportswriter (i.e., focusing just what happens “between the lines”)?

Eric: Sure, but I could never get one of those jobs! Ultimately though, I think I fit in better with the weirdo blogger types. 

Josh: What’s been the most challenging part of the writing path for you?

Eric: Staying on it. Somebody told me early on that the only thing separating them from the writers that didn’t make it was simply not quitting. I love writing, but it’s work. 

Josh: What advice would you give a young person with inclinations similar to the ones you had?

Eric: Read a lot. Make yourself write. Trust that if you do the work, you will continue to improve in ways that you might not even realize. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people whose work you admire. I’m pretty sure that’s how I got to know you. 

Josh: This book is about stolen ground, essentially, and so it’s the perfect book for a sports-obsessed nation situated entirely on stolen ground. I’d like to know how you found your footing as a politically conscious writer. What was the political consciousness in your family growing up? 

Eric: My parents were pretty mainstream Democrats, I think. I remember when I was a kid my mom pulled me out of school because Bill Clinton was speaking at the little park near our house, and she got us in to watch. My dad’s folks were Holocaust survivors, and that experience weighed heavily on our family’s politics growing up. My mom’s mom was from Cuba, and that’s where my mom and her family lived when she was younger. They left Havana after the revolution but it was messy and my Grandpa Murray carried around a lot of anger about Castro and Che and losing his little business and their apartment and the life he loved there. He was sort of the outsider in the family politically — he was big into Ross Perot, for example. But he was the most politically active member of our family by far. He taught me a lot about activism, and about taking a stand for what you believe in.

Josh: In what ways did you first get glimpses of the America beyond the “Dodger blue” simplicity of the American Dream narrative?

Eric: It’s a credit to my family that I don’t think I ever fully believed that the American Dream narrative was perfect. I was taught to understand that there were cracks in it, and that nothing is ever permanent or what it seems. My paternal grandparents were classic examples of the American Dream. They came with nothing after losing their entire immediate families and made a good life together here. The lesson was always that “yes, it’s possible, but that it could also be gone in a minute.” 

Josh: In the book, you describe powerfully the impact of Frank Wilkinson’s visit to your high school. Were there other people who influenced your desire to look deeper at sports and the world in general?

Eric: I already mentioned my Grandpa Murray. He was a huge influence on that. All four of my grandparents were, really. As were my parents. I think a lot of the best nonfiction writing comes from a place of curiosity. For me the thing I was curious about was sports. 

Josh: The book is elevated by an expert and lyrical command of the world of sports that resides at the center of this story about so much more. I can assure you (as the son of a politically radical sociologist who was flabbergasted by his sons’ interest in sports) that the call in the book to look deeper at everything we are cheering for would have rung emptily had not it been issued by someone who knows deeply why we cheer and what we’re cheering for.  So a few questions about your fandom. When did you start cheering?

Eric: Honestly I can’t remember not being a sports fan, and especially a baseball fan. 

Josh: Who were you cheering for (team, favorite player)?

Eric: Unsurprisingly it was the Dodgers. I loved the early to mid-90s Dodgers teams. The rookies of the year, all of it. Eric Karros had my name. Raul Mondesi was probably my favorite player in the world. Hideo Nomo. It was a great team to grow up with. 

Josh: Why were you cheering?

Eric: I felt like the Dodgers both belonged to me and were a reflection of who I was. I loved going to the stadium. I loved watching games on TV and listening to Vin Scully. I loved the magic of it, and I loved the actual on the field baseball. It used to be that at Dodger Stadium you couldn’t walk down to levels that were lower than the one on your ticket. But my friends and I learned how to sneak from the upper deck to the field level and right up to the first row or wherever, and the amount of work that took felt like some kind of investment, like because we were willing to do that, then obviously on some level the team *belonged* to us. 

Josh: What does your sports fandom look like now?

Eric: It’s so different. The fundamental things that made me a sports fan are still there, but if you spend ten years reflecting on sports fandom as part of your job, you are probably going to change the way you think about it. I’m a lot more turned off by negativity and booing than I ever guessed I would be. I’m a lot more cynical about the way that teams manipulate and exploit fans to make a buck. I’ve seen it from the inside, covered games and Spring Training and been in the clubhouse etc etc. But ultimately I’m still a really big sports fan. It’s still a way I bond with my friends and family and with my city. It’s still a big part of who I am.

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