My interview with Josh Wilker

The baseball blogosphere is filled with people who haven’t gotten a professional break, people like myself. Many of us are dedicated and passionate, but for whatever reason, we find ourselves here. Every so often, though, one of us breaks through. Last spring, I noticed reviews on and in Sports Illustrated of Josh Wilker’s book, Cardboard Gods, a memoir framed around his childhood baseball card collection. I subsequently reviewed the book and thought it was excellent. As a baseball blogger and a writer, Wilker is a lot of things to aspire to be: funny, honest, and original. It gives me hope he’s gotten to the point he’s at.

I’ve been interested in interviewing Wilker since reading his book, and I finally made some time to talk with him on Saturday. Excerpts of our 30-minute phone discussion are as follows:

I’ve been a reader of your site pretty much since I read your book in April or May. One thing I noticed during the summer was your frequency of posting slowed for a few months. I was just curious– did you experience a post-book creative letdown at all?

Wilker: I had another book that I had to write so I was putting whatever creativity I had into that really and then trying to keep my blog also going along. But I think in general, even up to this moment, there was a lot of momentum in me working on my blog for the first few years I was writing it, and that momentum kind of climaxed with the book. I had a story I wanted to tell about my life, and I found a way to get to it, piece by piece, by writing about it first on my blog and then working on the book. And then when I got it to find its shape in the book, then I wasn’t sort of searching for that anymore. I’m still interested in the cards themselves, I’m still interested in trying to find ways that relate it to my life. It just doesn’t– I don’t know if it has the same urgency it did in the early days.

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How has the release of your book changed your life?

Wilker: Not in any huge ways outwardly. I still live basically the same life that I was living before the release of the book. I write in the morning, then I go to my day job, come home, watch TV, drink a couple of beers. It’s pretty much the same story as it was before. I think internally, it was very satisfying to see a creative piece of work make its way into a published book. I’ve been writing for over 20 years, and most of the satisfaction just comes from the writing itself. But I’m certainly not above getting the kind of external validation, and just enjoying that, the validation that comes from just getting a book out there and sharing it with people….

I would say [something] that’s changed, I suppose, is just the idea that some people have read it which makes me kind of uneasy because there’s some really personal stuff in there. For example, I very much like the people I work with but I haven’t told them about my life in such detail that, if they happened to pick up my book, suddenly they know my whole story from birth to right now, and that makes me feel a little weird.

I know I was reading, and especially like the last half of your book, it was really, really personal stuff, and I mean, frankly, it’s more detail than I would go into if I was writing my life story. When you were writing the book did you ever wrestle with, ‘Hmmm, some of this stuff, should I be putting this in?’ What was that like for you?

Wilker: I think I’ve been inspired by books that try not to hide from the whole story, if they can and get it out there. There’s some memoirs that I really like, This Boy’s Life and A Fan’s Notes and The Basketball Diaries, and these books really do go to places that most people wouldn’t really be comfortable talking about so publicly. So I had those kinds of things urging me on because those books were so important to me. I think I felt it would have been insincere to not try to live up to that. But it’s a story, too, and there’s parts that I leave out. I didn’t tell everything, so I suppose there’s definitely a thought in my mind, I don’t want to go everywhere. But I did want to, as much as I could, lay myself open to scrutiny and just show all my limitations and faults and not hold back and make myself look good.

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I’m 27, and I’m kind of at the stage of my life where professionally I’m not where I’d like to be as a writer. I work as a delivery driver right now to get my rent paid, and one thing that really resonated with me from reading your writing, both on your blog and in your book, is it seems like we’ve kind of been the same places. Were there ever times as a young man when you wondered what your life would amount to?

Wilker: Oh sure, yeah. The only aspiration I had was to be a writer, and for most of my adult life, it wasn’t really bearing any fruit in the real world, and meanwhile, I was making ends meet, or not. That was the toughest times, actually. Being unemployed is infinitely worse than having a crappy job.

I absolutely, absolutely agree with you.

Wilker: Actually, some stability with work I think really might have helped me, because I was kind of bouncing from very tenuous job to tenuous job. I think when I had a job with kind of regular hours that wasn’t killing me in any kind of anxiety or ways, it helped my writing. It gave me a better routine every day and allowed me to focus on the writing a little more steadily. But back to your question, I did worry about that, for sure, and I still worry about it. I think it’s a worry that I’ll always have.

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What’s one thing you wish you did better as a writer?

Wilker: I often wish that I was more like [Anton] Chekhov who in some ways is the most awe-inspiring writer to me because when he would write a short story, there wasn’t any discernible part of his own personality in the writing. He would just drop into the life of somebody who was completely unlike who he was, a writer/doctor. He would become anybody. It was like he could become anybody and find drama in a life where most people wouldn’t see it as dramatic. I don’t know if I could boil that down to one word, but sometimes I feel shackled by my way of writing which is very much centered on a memoirist’s approach, where I’m just kind of writing about my own life, and then sometimes, I’m able to disguise it a little bit and fictionalize it. But I would like to be able to explore kind of more widely and freely into other lives, through fiction, in a way that he did.

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What advice would you give other baseball bloggers hoping to write a book?

Wilker: I don’t know if I’m qualified to give advice. It took me a long time to do anything that led to anything. Like I’ve sort of been saying, I was writing mostly because I’m just compelled to write, and I love to do it. I thought there was a book out there about the baseball cards and my life intersecting, but I didn’t push it in my own mind very hard. I just wanted to explore the material. So I just kind of relaxed and just churned out the blog posts about the cards and just tried to have fun, and a form kind of slowly suggested itself from all those posts.

I guess if I had to put that in the direction of advice, I would just say, if you’re writing a baseball blog, or any kind of blog or doing any kind of writing, try to go where the enjoyment is and maybe the urgency, and just try to go with it, and don’t get too wrapped up in those early stages and any kind of finished product. I know that in my own writing life, I think I’ve probably sabotaged some possible books by just going too quickly by going too quickly toward the idea that I could come up with a finished product instead of just exploring the terrain for awhile.

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One final question for you: Has there been any word from Yastrzemski or still no word? (Wilker writes in his book of penning an unanswered fan letter to his hero as a child)

Wilker: [laughs] No, no word from Yastrzemski. I did get a great letter from somebody who’d read an article in the Boston Globe about my book, and the writer of the letter was this woman from Worcester, Massachusetts. Her husband had gotten an autograph from Carl Yastrzemski back in, like, 1979, and she was cleaning out some stuff and she found it and sent it to me. So, all these years later, I do get an autograph from Yaz, which is all I wanted. What I describe in the book– I write to him– I wasn’t asking for him to come meet me. So, I got my autograph. There’ve been some really cool kind of connections through the book, and that’s right at the top of the list.

3 Replies to “My interview with Josh Wilker”

  1. This is to strongly commend “A Fan’s Notes” (which Josh mentions)to the uninitiated. Author Frederick Exley called it a “fictional memoir”. Basically, it reveals the life of an alcoholic and brilliant writer, who is strangely obsessed with the life and career of Frank Gifford. It is profane and hilarious, sad and insightful. Highlights include Exley’s take on “Lolita”, witnessing an elderly aluminum siding “closer” doing push-ups, and his seemingly-fatal seeming heart attack described in the book’s first sentence. The author attended USC when Gifford did, and was shocked upon bumping into him at a soda shop to find what a nice person Gifford was. (“Always the coolest guy in the room”, Exley noted.) Man-love followed, as Gifford found success with the Giants.

    “A Fan’s Notes” is the first of a trilogy – and the only book that received superior critical recognition. “Pages From a Cold Island” is funny, too – the author’s misadventure in attempting to interview Gloria Steinham is precious.

    “Last Notes from Home” was poorly received – perhaps rightly so – but Exley’s description of playing golf in Hawaii, afflicted with uncontrollable diarrhea, and his having his caddy bury his beshatted trousers in a hole dug with his pitching wedge makes the slog worthwhile. I’m laughing now, recalling the vivid imagery.

    For the truly interested, there is Jonathan Yardley’s “Misfit”, which is at once a sympathetic and clear-eyed biography of the man. Yardley won a Pulitzer for Distinguished Criticism – this bio reads a lot like a novel itself.

    I write this to the sort of guy who loves to write, but struggles with tangential issues – which can include addiction, of course – to the sort of guy who has an affection for sport, a deep sense of personal place, and is possessed of the large-in-every-way-but-size hopefulness of the cynic. If you’re this sort of guy, and read “A Fan’s Notes”, I promise that you will for the rest of your life list it as one of your ten favorite books. It really is a masterpiece of some sort. (It was nominated for the National Book Award, and won the Faulkner Prize for best first novel. Exley received a Rockefeller Foundation Grant of 10K as a result.)

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