Hey, Jim Pransky, Why’d You Do That in Your Novel THE TENOR WITH THE GOLDEN ARM?
Writers are asked many general questions about their craft.
…”What is your overarching philosophy regarding the inherent power of fiction?”…”What IS–character–to you?”…”What is the position of place in your work?”…
These are great and important questions, but I’m really curious about the little things. In the “Hey, Why’d You Do That” series, I ask accomplished writers about some of the very small choices they made during the process of composition.
Jim Pransky is an interesting man who has the kind of career to which many of us aspire. He’s been a baseball scout for many years and is currently with the Colorado Rockies. When he isn’t identifying talent and evaluating young men for their suitability to make it in The Show, he likes to write books about our great National Pastime. In addition to writing biographies of overlooked players that deserve attention, Mr. Pransky writes novels that use baseball as their setting.
The Tenor with the Golden Arm (published by Black Rose Writing) tells the story of Tommy Bauer, a young man who is in the enviable position of having a loving family and vast athletic talent. While he can play basketball and football, his heart is set on baseball. Tommy isn’t a Gerrit Cole or a Bryce Harper–a can’t-miss prospect over whom every major-league team will fight. No, he’s a solid hurler with good stuff and a high ceiling.
The book chronicles his life in the months leading up to the MLB Draft…this is a stressful time in a guy’s life! Tommy must deal with school and girl problems and must figure out who and what he is, all while hoping for the opportunity to play pro ball. He’s also not a stereotypical jock. As the title suggests, Tommy is very musical and enjoys singing and playing piano.
Adults will certainly enjoy the book and the opportunity it bestows to think about their own adolescence, but I hope a lot of young men and women check the book out. Not only does the reader get a story, but Mr. Pransky’s understanding of the world of high-level baseball recruiting immerses the reader in a world they probably don’t know a lot about.
Mr. Pransky was kind enough to answer some questions I had about the choices he made in writing the book. The answers he gives can help us decide how to make the best choices in our own work.
1) You happen to be a hard-working long-time baseball scout. You’ve signed a number of ballplayers who made it to the big leagues and have evaluated countless more.
One of your responsibilities in THE TENOR WITH THE GOLDEN ARM is to paint Tommy’s world in a realistic manner. He’s a young pitcher who is drawing attention from scouts and who is something of a celebrity in his little world. How did you balance immersing the reader in Tommy’s experience as a fairly prominent prospect with your responsibility to tell a story? What were your thoughts about the amount of scouting-related material you included?
Most people (parents and students) have little (if any) experience with pro scouting or college recruiting. Unless they’ve gone through the process with an older sibling, most of what they know is from someone who knows someone who knows someone…
I thought that explaining the process (tools, grading system, radar guns, stop watches, eligibility, $$) would help define the process along with identifying issues that Tommy and his family were going to have to navigate eventually. I thought it was important to show the time frame that everyone goes through; September is a “less pressure” time than May of a draft year. I wanted to be careful to exclude “scouting” for lengthy periods of time to bring out the relationships Tommy had with music, his family, Kenzie, his buddies, etc.
As for writing about scouts, I wanted readers to see scouting as more than carrying a radar gun and stop watch. The radar gun was valuable in Tommy’s case, of course, but I wanted to explain as his father did toward the end of the book, about the importance of location and movement along with Tommy’s ability to reach back for extra velo when needed. I also wanted to include my belief that a young person should play as many sports as possible for as long as he can. Sometimes a player will make those decisions as Tommy did with football and basketball. Sometimes the playing scenario dictates the decision (a third-string quarterback or a first-string point guard, for example).
2) Some things are really, really hard to depict in prose because they are inherently sensory. Magic tricks, for example. It’s also hard to write sentences that give the reader the same experience as watching a person perform a song.What were you thinking when you wrote the scenes in which Tommy sings? What did you do to make it seem as real as possible for the reader?
When Tommy first introduces his singing talent to his music teacher, Kenzie and his sister, I wanted to make the scenes as personal, peaceful and quiet as possible. The listener would be captivated by only one thing, the sweetness of the sound of Tommy’s voice and the surprise and sheer appreciation. Sometimes we show that by yelling, hollering, clapping, etc.; that all took place eventually in the last club performance. And there are periods when we see or hear something so remarkable we are speechless, not wanting any distraction from what we are witnessing. I also wanted Tommy’s sister and Kenzie to comment after a performance on what they had just heard along with Tommy just singing and playing–no theatrics, very little contact with the audience. I thought that added a little mystery, “Who is this kid?”
3) You mention a number of “old” songs and ballplayers in your book. (RIP Mark Fidrych!)
While the book is certainly appealing to full-fledged grownups, how did you decide which ballplayers and songs to mention, especially considering the book’s multiple audiences?
I believed many of these references help identify Tommy’s relationship with his dad. His dad taught him baseball, his mom and dad had old albums in the house that Tommy and his sister listened to constantly as youngsters. As mentioned, Tommy enjoyed today’s music, but playing some older material–most of what people in his age group weren’t familiar with–made him feel less of a “cover” artist. I think he mentioned his fondness for some groups and individuals of the day. Re: multiple audiences and trying to hit on something that everyone is familiar with–I’ve never been overly concerned with that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a reader having to pick up a dictionary or do a google search to familiarize themselves with a word or a musical group. I do it when I read almost anything and I don’t think it breaks up the rhythm. You don’t want to do every four or five lines, but no one ever got hurt by learning new vocabulary. I appreciate the importance of keeping a steady flow throughout, but with a multiple audience story I think it’s okay to “stump” a reader on an occasion. Also, all the songs that were chosen were piano-based songs and would emphasize Tommy’s high tenor to almost falsetto singing ability. There even were a couple of tunes that were made popular by female singers. I did not want Tommy as part of a four- or five-person band, at least not yet. I wanted the readers’ and viewers’ attention on him solely.
4) Baseball prospects are an incredibly diverse lot. Still, young ballplayers are young adults and often behave that way, for better and worse.Tommy is very, very respectful of others and doesn’t really do too much about which he should be embarrassed. Were you afraid he might be too much of a “good boy?” What made you make Tommy the way he is?
I did not want Tommy to be a nonconformist: simply trying to be different than everyone else. I wanted him to be a young person who could develop personal strengths (all of his relationships, athletics, dealing with potential unpleasant scenarios (assistant football coach, bar manager). The baseball scene with the opposing coach (Do you know who I am?) was one of several in which his competition qualities were brought out dramatically. His immediate and post-reaction to Willie’s death was another. I think most would see many of these qualities coming from his dad’s tutelage.
5) It’s not really a spoiler, as we know the book is about a pitching prospect, but Tommy chats with a scout toward the end of the novel. The situation is pretty clear; the scout wants to feel out Tommy’s mental state to see if he’s a hard worker or if he might be a problem in the clubhouse.You don’t cast the discussion in scene. Instead, you format the discussion in a Q. and A. Why did you make that choice?
In this book and three other manuscripts that I’m holding, I attempt with a lot of effort to portray scouts the way that I have seen them the last 25 years which means, like any business, there are some really good people and some assholes. Through all these years, I haven’t built up much anger or bitterness, but I have a ten-foot wall of disappointments. My background differs from almost every scout I’ve ever known-it doesn’t mean better or worse…just different.
The job can be pretty easy if you just lock yourself in to a self-made criteria, (“I like guys who do this or I don’t like guys who do this.”) Some scouts wouldn’t like Tommy because he was too small, his hair was too long, he had other interests (usually it’s a high academic kid or a multi-sport player). Tommy was a strong competitor, but not a false hustle kid. He was polite, but not overwhelmed by pro baseball or huge college campuses. He was a very mature 17-year-old. Some scouts would see all those listed qualities as potential negatives or worries for the future. Sometimes, people fail to look at big-league rosters, see what’s there and how they got there. Kiddingly, but sincerely, I have told front office people that we only get marriage right 50 percent of the time. How in the hell are we supposed to be assured about 17-18-year-olds? That doesn’t mean you have an excuse to be wrong more than right; it simply means there are lots of factors involved.
Some of those reasons are why Tommy went in the third round. In a typical draft, there were probably some clubs that may have slotted him after round ten. They can always come back years from now and say, “well, he was barely six feet, 160 pounds. We didn’t know how much he loved the game, blah, blah, blah.” I wanted Tommy to be a player that a scout like Willie (true, experienced and fair) would recognize and some others would not.
Jim Pransky is a former college baseball coach and a current scout for the Colorado Rockies. Further information about his baseball novels and biographies can be found at his website.