Author Interview: L.D. Harkrader on Airball: My Life In Briefs

Airball: My Life In Briefs by L.D. Harkrader (Roaring Brook, 2005). From the catalog copy: “Kirby Nickel loves basketball. He loves watching basketball. He loves talking about basketball. The only problem is he can’t play basketball. But coach has a plan for Kirby and the supremely untalented seventh-grade team. It involves the guys playing nearly naked — only in their briefs. Maybe the so-called Stealth Sportswear (think: The Emperor’s New Clothes) will really inspire the team. Maybe. And maybe, just maybe, Kirby will find out who his real father is.” Ages 8-12.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I had written a short story called “Rudy and the Prince” for Meadowbrook’s anthology, Newfangled Fairy Tales, and was playing with ideas for other fractured fairy tales. I love fractured fairy tales, probably because most real fairy tales never made much sense to me. (I always thought people long ago in fairy tale times must not have been very bright. I mean really, who’s stupid enough to mistake a wolf in a nightie for her own grandmother?) But I always liked “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and I kept thinking, what if this story were updated to a modern middle school? What would be important enough to keep people there from speaking the truth? And who would be the brave soul who finally told the emperor he was naked?

That’s how Kirby and his basketball team–the seventh-grade Stuckey Prairie Dogs–were born. The first drafts were much more like “The Emperor’s New Clothes” than the final book turned out to be, right down to the two con men who come to town selling invisible sportswear. Fortunately my brilliant editor, Deborah Brodie, pointed out that Airball had evolved beyond the initial ispiration and that much of the scaffolding holding up that original story wasn’t needed any more. So I let go of the fairy tale during my revision and I think the book is stronger because of it.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Oh, gosh, it took a long time to write Airball. I started the story in 1998 and finished the first complete draft at the end of 2003. I revised it on spec and sold it to Roaring Brook in 2004, and it was published in September 2005. Seven years total. In my defense, I was also writing other things during that time–three ghostwritten series novels, seven nonfiction reference books, and many short stories and articles–so, while I admit to a certain amount of sloth, I’m not quite as lazy as I sound!

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

I knew I was walking a fine line between a contemporary realistic story and complete fantasy, and I worried that my story wasn’t enough of either to keep it believable. A couple times I almost talked myself into just burning it and starting a new, easier story (as if there’s such a thing as an easy story). But I loved Kirby and my other characters so much that I couldn’t give up on them. I was lucky that my editor saw enough in them to love, too, and was willing to help me hammer the story into a more believable shape.

Why do you think books set in the midwest are so rare? Off the top of my head, I can think of fewer than ten with contemporary, Kansas settings. What can we do to encourage more heartland literature?

I’m so glad you asked this because it’s something I thought about a lot as I was writing Airball. I prefer stories that have a concrete setting, rather than ones that take place in Generic Anywhere, USA, so I specifically put Kirby in Kansas. I did wonder whether that was such a great idea. I mean, there are libraries full of books set in the south, or in the northeast, or just in Manhattan (Manhattan, New York, not Manhattan, Kansas, because yes, there is such a place!), but nobody sets books in Kansas unless they’re historical. And I wondered if all those other writers knew something I didn’t. But since I’d lived almost my entire life in Kansas and didn’t know any place else even half as well, I had no choice.

I think one of the reasons people don’t set books in Kansas, or in other Great Plains states, is the perception that it’s boring here. That nothing about it stands out. And I admit that I’m guilty of thinking that, too. But people in the heartland really do have a character all their own that’s different from that of people in the south or the northeast or New York or Boston or California or Texas. So that’s what I focused on–the way the setting shapes the characters. I think Kirby’s grandmother is the character in Airball who best personifies the character of the people in this part of the country. She has her quirks and obsessions, but beneath those lie a bedrock of common sense, practicality, and hard work.

So maybe that’s the key to encouraging more literature set in the middle of the country: Help writers look beyond the physical elements of setting, such as mountains, oceans, islands, or cosmopolitan city-scapes (all of which are in short supply here in the heartland), and see it as the way the physical place shapes character. Viewed in that way, I think the setting here is as rich as it is anywhere.

Cynsational News & Links

Laura Bowers: Writing Without The Reins: a LiveJournal from the author of an upcoming YA novel, Beauty Shop for Rent (Harcourt, 2007).

“100 Best of the Best for the 21st century” from YALSA. Number I’ve read: 47. Of those, number I would’ve picked, too: 40.