Thursday, April 7, 2011

Russell Hill: Guest Blog

Today I welcome Russell Hill, twice nominated Edgar Award author. I have read all his novels, and I've loved them all. Each is unique in style and subject matter. The Dog Sox, his latest, may or may not be a mystery, but it's a terrific read. You decide about the mystery part. Because I enjoyed it so much (and I'm not a baseball fan), I asked Russell if he would write a guest post about how he came to write The Dog Sox. Enjoy!

Russell Hill is the author of two Edgar nominated novels, has been translated into French, German, Spanish and Polish. He has two novels currently under film option. He has lived long enough in California to consider himself a native, is married, has three children and six grandchildren. His latest novel is titled, The Dog Sox, published by Caravel Books, an imprint of Pleasure Boat Studio, A Literary Press in New York.


Fifty years ago I watched the Oroville Otters play baseball in a ballpark that had some grass, a lot of dirt, and a big gold dredge working in the darkness beyond left field. Years later I watched the Palladini Humboldt Crabs play in a sparkling little ballpark in Arcata where a home run over the left field fence landed in the middle of highway 101. They were semi-pro teams, which meant that some of the players hoped to get to the big leagues, or at least to double-A ball, and others simply played because they loved baseball. It was different from the Big Leagues. It was exciting, filled with mistakes and silliness and guys trying so hard to make a play they risked everything.

After I finished The Lord God Bird, and went to New York to the Edgars and didn’t win, I thought to myself, what can I set fire to next? And somehow, The Dog Sox came to mind.

I spent the next six months inventing a semi-pro team in California’s Central Valley. I had, for years, driven through Knight’s Landing, and one of the chapters in the book is true: I did see a dog get run over by a farm truck one afternoon, and it stuck with me, burned into my memory.

I love dogs, had my first one when I was nine, and had to leave Pam in Illinois when we moved West. She was a cocker spaniel with a brain the size of a walnut who would play with us in the vacant lot next door in the snow, and then whine when she came inside, ice frozen between her toes. I would have to lie on the floor and pick out the ice and rub her with a towel. That’s about all I remember about her. Years later, when my children were small, we got a dog named Sasha, a schnauzer-poodle mix who was sweet and ran in circles. She got run over by a car and her replacement was a schnauzer named Quincy, who thought he was a big dog. He ended up as my dog because he bit groomers and eventually ended up unraveling, his hips coming apart, his eyesight and hearing fading. I have no dog now, but I want a dog like the one Ray Adams had in The Dog Sox. He gave the semi-pro baseball team to Ava Belle, a beautiful San Francisco lawyer, and I was off to the races.

I had gone to San Francisco Giants games with Dan Goltz, who grew up with a Jewish immigrant grandfather in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Dan became my model for Dutch Goltz, the manager of the Dog Sox. And once I found Billy Collins, the freak 19-year-old submarine pitcher, I knew I had a story. I’m not sure where he came from. It wasn’t a mystery, like The Lord God Bird or Robbie’s Wife before that, both Edgar nominees. But it had crime in it: an arson, a plot to murder Billy Collins’ father, a midnight swim by Ava that nearly killed her, and the Mexican brother of girl that Billy falls in love with who threatens to do major damage to Billy’s vital parts if he touches the sister. The story has the same elements of a good mystery: waiting for something to happen that could be devastating to a main character, ferreting out the answer to a life threatening problem. It had moments from my own life: a cabin in the Sierras turned into a motel in Knight’s Landing, places in San Francisco, and memories of my father, who was a finish carpenter.

Otis Bickford, the middle relief pitcher was loosely based on a teacher I shared a classroom with at Tamalpais High School. He had pitched in a European league and he was tall and good-looking and eventually ended up teaching school, although he spent a summer in the only season of the Israel Baseball League where he was the league’s best pitcher. He wrote a book about his experiences, just as Otis Bickford wrote a book about the Dog Sox, and it comes out this May under a University of Nebraska imprint.

I filled the book with scenes that I knew--the Central Valley, the rice fields and the egrets that pick their way along the edges, and the Sacramento River flowing heavily through Knight’s Landing.

John Osborne, who wrote The Paper Chase, sat next to me one night years ago in our house during dinner. The power had gone out and the neighborhood had gathered, bringing their food to our house because we had a gas stove that worked during a blackout, and a dozen oil lamps, some of which we had bought during a year abroad in England. We talked about writing and he said that he felt a story needed to be “grounded.” You could not believe in the characters unless you could believe in where they lived. That their surroundings defined them.

I have spent a good deal of time following that advice. In Robbie’s Wife I used the English landscape where we lived in Dorset to define what happens. And in The Lord God Bird, the swampy forests of northern Louisiana became characters in the novel. The darkness and mystery of those swamps shaped what would happen to the two teenagers who were trapped in a growing maelstrom of danger.

So, The Dog Sox grew out of Knight’s Landing, even though the town has no team and no ballpark. But in my head there was a team on hot summer nights, mosquitoes humming in the neighboring rice fields; it became a real team, with real players and real fans, and the burritos served at the ballpark tasted real to me.

This is a different story for me. Otis Bickford gives Ava Belle a copy of Bob Feller’s Strikeout Story. When I was ten years old, I went to Sunday School where the teacher told us that if we memorized a psalm, she would give us a book. I had only a minimal interest in psalms, but I wanted a copy of that book. Feller was 17 years old when he was signed by the Cleveland Indians. He grew up in Van Meter, Iowa where his father, a farmer, leveled a corn field to make a baseball diamond where his son learned to throw a baseball at more than a hundred miles an hour. So I learned a psalm, recited it, and she was true to her word. I still have that book. It’s the one Otis Bickford gives to Ava Belle in The Dog Sox.

Russell Hill will be reading from and discussing his latest novel at the following Bay Area locations: 
M is for Mystery, San Mateo: April 16, 2 pm
Green Apple Books, San Francisco: April 21, 7 pm
The Book Depot, Mill Valley, April 28, 7 pm

1 comment:

Maddy said...

I am not a sports fiend either, but that sounds like an evocative tale.