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INTERVIEW WITH LUKE SALISBURY

Luke Salisbury

Write a bio.

I was raised on Long Island, went to prep school in Princeton, college in Florida, and have lived my adult life in New York City and Boston. The spiritual territory was upper middle class pretensions, stories of lost family glory (My mother is southern), the military traditions of the Salisburys (The men all seemed to have been wounded in wars), never enough money, and a general sense not belonging anywhere, so books, sports, imagination, friends became very important. We have to invent home. It took a while.

Describe the room you write in.

The room I write in reflects needs and obsessions. A big desk-a door trimmed and finished: I recommend doors for desks-built in book shelves, standing book shelves, a glass book case, and books piled on the floor. One of the shelves holds the Library of America, so the American cannon dominates the back wall. My wife thinks the LOA is hopelessly middle brow as the books have slip cases not covers, and don't look interesting on a shelf. I sympathize. I also judge books by covers, but the presence of all that American literature is a force of nature. I'm hopelessly middle brow anyway. I like Folio Society books but those are downstairs.

Books are both a wall of protection from the outside world and the masonry of one's inner castle.

I have a Chinese scholar rock on my desk, pictures of the Scott Fitzgerald, DW Griffith, Carmen Basilio, and a wonderful Rockwell Kent illustration of Moby-Dick leaping into the stars, on the walls. Some times the room is neat. It isn't now.

You have one of the most extensive libraries Iíve ever seen. Have books always been such an important part of your life? Is your library a mixture of different kinds of books?

Book collecting is my mania. Books are everywhere in the house and the house is big. I like literature, history, baseball, vintage paperbacks, own a few first editions, a lot of Armed Services Editions (Those odd little World War II paperbacks that were supposed to fit in a soldier's pocket), and an eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It's madness, but madness that keeps one sane.

Discuss your fascination with baseball. When did you first become interested in it?

Baseball has been an internal fixture since I was 10, broke my arm, and couldn't play that spring. A friend gave me a Joe Reichler Baseball Annual, and I fell in love with the lists, statistics, tales, lore. The game played in your mind became more important than actually playing, which I liked, but wasn't very good at.

You are well known for your TV, radio and newspaper articles on baseball. Talk about this and some of the places you appeared on as well as wrote for.

I did a lot of radio interviews for my book The Answer Is Baseball. Christopher Lydon liked the book and had me on the old Ten O'clock News. Since then I occasionally get asked to be on TV, usually to talk sports, sometimes movies, or if Greater Boston can't find anybody else. Radio is easy. TV is fight or flight and it's almost impossible not to talk too fast. It's an adrenaline rush and I can see how it could become a substitute for writing. Even a sliver of celebrity is distracting.

What was it like being an American Correspondent for AERA? Discuss your experience. This seems like it would have been a very interesting experience.

I wrote about American sports for AERA, the Japanese equvalent of Time. It paid well. One article about Tonya Harding netted more than the advance for my novel The Cleveland Indian. The Japanese like American scandals. We do too.

Discuss your books, The Answer is Baseball: A Book of Questions (Times Books, 1989), The Cleveland Indian: The Legend of King Saturday (The Smith, 1992), Blue Eden (The Smith) and your award winning book, Hollywood and Sunset (Shambling Gate Press, 2005).

My books follow my obsessions. The Answer is Baseball was a search for the best baseball question. It's a quest for the most interesting/significant baseball question, i.e. the shortest question that generates the longest answer. I wanted questions and answers that connect baseball to American history/culture, illuminate the present by the light of the past, entertain like a flash of wit. It was fun to write. This was before steroids broke the continuity between the present and past. Baseball is an alternative world with a detailed history, but that history has been severed. The presence of what men did prior to 1987 is gone. Seventy-three home runs or seven Cy Young Awards is a joke. Recent records can't be compared with the past because of steroids, HGH and whatever other phramaceutical tricks have been played on fans. Chemically enhanced performance is pro-wrestling, not baseball. It reduces baseball to entertainment. It makes an alternative world only a game. I still watch but don't write about it.

The Cleveland Indian is an answer to one of those questions: who was the first Native American to play major league baseball? It's a novel because I wanted the freedom to take the story wherever it might go. King Saturday represents a rebellious energy that has no place to go in America. Harrison, the narrator, thinks that energy can go into baseball, that baseball is safe, that his inner world can be his outer world, but Harrison gets involved in running the Cleveland club, in the business, in trying to own a club. All hell breaks loose and many lessons are learned. Perhaps I should say experienced, as novels provide emotion and intuition, not answers.

Blue Eden is three stories placing J. Edgar Hoover in a diner owned by a Black man. The action concerns Dillinger, Ty Cobb threatening to kill Jackie Robinson, and the Kennedy assassination. Outlaws, baseball, conspiracy. Death.

Hollywood and Sunset explores another alternative world-movies rather than baseball or the labyrinth of Dallas. I've always been fascinated with DW Griffith because my mother's father was an old-style southerner who I loved and perpetually disagreed with. Henry Harrison, narrator of both novels, is forced to deal with his wife and child, after a life of seeking alternative worlds.

Historical fiction is wonderful to research and write. A little bit of time becomes yours, and you have the freedom to move in it, test it, understand it. You can look for historical truth, debunk or try to explain historical figures, imagine places, and of course put your psyche there. History and fiction are a marvelous combination. There might even be a distinction.

You are a big music fan of groups from the late 50ís and the 1960ís. Yes Luke, of course I have to bring this up. We have had some great conversations about this. Has music played a part with your writing?

Isn't there a Lou Reed song that says, "Her life was saved by rock and roll?" Whose wasn't? Figuratively if not literally. Great songs encapsulate time and energy. They are pieces of usable past. I've always had trouble sitting still. I used to drink three cups of coffee and listen to the Rolling Stones to get psyched to write. Sometimes Derrick and the Dominoes. If it got to the Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, do-op, gospel, or hits from key parts of my life, then the music lasted longer than the writing. Yes, rock and roll is a drug.

I don't listen every day. Never thought that possible. We change. The music doesn't. It's there when needed.

You have taught at Bunker Hill Community College since 1984. Discuss the classes you teach. What are the biggest challenges you face when teaching, if any? What do you like about teaching to have been teaching so long especially at the same place?

Teaching at Bunker Hill Community College is great. I can't imagine a better day job for a writer. If you're going to teach, and many of us do, who better to teach than people who need it? Our average age is 30. We are 60% students of color. The students come from everywhere and many have decided they are ready to get educated. BHCC is educational democracy. The entry requirement is a high school diploma or GED. It's $1200 a semester, not $47,000 a year like my son's college. It's also a lot of work. We teach 5 courses a semester, so the main challenge is time and energy. But it's worth it.

What are you working on now?

I'm now working on three novels based on three generations of Salisburys. My great grandfather was wounded in the Civil War, my grandfather in WWI, my father in WWII. War is the last obsession. War and family. I've just finished the Civil War novel. I know several Civil War buffs. Have you ever met a World War I buff? That war is a horror of horrors. Let the research begin.

Any last comments?

I don't know how people who aren't writers survive. It's the perfect balance of obsession and imagination. Demons and truth. Escape and essence. A way to stay out of trouble.

God speed.

 


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