“What’s the name of your book, dear?” the middle-aged woman asked me, smiling. She had heard I’d written a children’s book and visions of talking rabbits danced in her head.
“Tom Seaver: Portrait of a Pitcher,” I answered. The smile vanished in her surprise and she quickly changed the subject. Obviously she wasn’t expecting to hear about a baseball biography from me.
I understood her reaction, because when I first started writing I’d made the same mistake by assuming my first book would be the story of a sensitive young girl. I never imagined I’d write about a young boy who becomes a phenomenal baseball pitcher, but a little luck, some chutzpah (Yiddish word for gall-plus-guts), and a lot of determination led to a contract for Tom Seaver’s authorized biography.
The project began in the wrong publishing house. I was in New York doing research for a biography about a woman who loved baseball so much as a young girl, she grew up to become the only woman owner of a major league team, the New York Mets. I wanted to talk to some publishers about the idea, and since a writer friend told me Holiday House might be interested because of their sports series, that was my first stop.
“I understand you’re doing a series about women in sports,” I began confidently to the editor.
“No,” he said, puzzled. “Maybe you’re thinking of Harvey House. They do that, but we haven’t done much in sports or biography.”
An awkward pause followed as I desperately thought of what to do next. I finally broke the silence with a nervous recital of my idea and left in my embarrassment. I was sure Holiday House would chuckle every time I sent them a manuscript.
A few days later I met with Tom Seaver, then a pitcher for the New York Mets, to talk about the late owner of the team. He was cooperative, friendly and the interview went well. As we were leaving, I remarked that during my research I hadn’t seen much written about him. As his eyebrows raised in surprise, an idea popped into my head. “Would you be interested in working with me on a children’s biography? I asked him.
He hesitated a moment and then smile. “Sure, ” he said. I couldn’t believe my ears. How could it be so easy? “Good,” I said calmly, but inside I was doing cartwheels.
When I returned home to California, I wrote Holiday House, along with two other publishers, to thank them for my interviews. I also mentioned my conversation with Tom Seaver and asked them if they would be interested in the project. A week later Holiday House replied that they thought it was a good idea and suggested I aim for the 10-14 age group. At first I was simply relieved that my clumsy interview hadn’t mattered to them. Then the surprise and the excitement of a possible book started me thinking.
My writing teacher had told me, “When an editor takes the time to answer personally, you should follow up their interest with a prompt reply.” So that morning I wrote Tom, telling him of the editor’s positive response, and wrote another letter back to the editor. The letter told him why I thought Tom was such an exciting subject for biography and gave him a chapter-by-chapter breakdown, with titles, of the proposed book. Three days later the editor called, asked me a few questions about the outline and said something about a contract. I held my breath, wondering how to find out if he was offering me a contract. Finally, it became clear that was exactly why he called. I thanked him, hung up the phone, and tried to catch up with where recent events had taken me. One month after my trip to New York City, I, who had never written a book before, now had a contract to write about one of baseball’s greats. It was incredible and almost too easy.
Getting hold of Tom wasn’t so easy, however. After six unanswered letters and four unanswered phone calls, I was ready to give up. Feeling both frustrated and depressed, I was driving a noisy carpool of children one day when someone on the radio announced a USC-Major League Alumni baseball fame. I quieted the children and heard that it would be played on Saturday at USC, the school from which the Mets had drafted Tom. I decided to go to the fame on the wild chance he’d be there.
On Saturday I drove out to the college with a poorly written children’s biography of Tom Seaver. It was filled with fictional dialogue, printed on cheap paper, and was unillustrated except for one drawing opposite the title-page that looked like very pitcher. I wanted Tom to know about this book, because there would be more books like this until he participated in his own story.
Walking down to the fence that separated the field from the fans, I saw Tom by the fence autographing baseballs, shaking hands, and posing in photographs for the throng of fans surrounding him. Book in hand, I became part of the crowd and waited my turn.
Tom looked up for a moment, saw me, and then looked away. Sure that he was avoiding me, I turned to leave. “Hi, Malka,” he said, still concentrating on his signature. I rushed back, pushed through the crowd and pushed the book at him.
“Is this the kind of book you want written about you?” I asked him. He looked at the garish binding and frowned. He read a random paragraph and laughed.
“No, ” He said, and handed the book back quickly. As though it were offensive to him.
“Then write one with me,” I said, “where you have a say about things. The other book had convinced him. He agreed and the next day we had lunch, where we worked out the contract and planned the interview schedule.
Now that the contract was arranged, the research for the book could begin. My first job was learning how to read the sports page of the newspaper. I expected all the information to be clear and accessible at first glance: in fact, it took me 15 minutes just to find the scores. After two months the words and numbers became less code-like and took on meaning. My childhood passion for baseball returned as I absorbed its variables and strategies, and I came to appreciated the game for more than homeruns and strikeouts. I came to understand Tom Seaver better, too. I learned to put myself in his skin, sense how he felt after he won or lost a game.
Yet I still dreaded having to interview Tom. I had no training in journalism and didn’t know how to draw people out, to get them to talk about themselves. Tom, however, who had been interviewed thousands of times, made the job easier with his clear, thoughtful replies to my questions. After the first hour I stopped checking my tape recorder every five minutes, began to listen to Tom carefully and learned that the less I said the better.
I’m not going into the actual writing of the book here, but the next step after the interview was a detailed outline. At my suggestion Tom made changes and added what he’d like to see in the book. When the book was finished and I’d gotten the editor’s approval, I gave the book to Tom for final changes. To my great relief and satisfaction, he returned the manuscript, saying, “I liked it, Malka. The book brought back memories for me.”
Yet the miracle of the work didn’t touch me until the day my beautiful shining book arrived in the mail. As I held it in my hands, staring at my name in disbelief, my mind flashed back to my first meeting at Holiday House. What if I hadn’t wandered into the wrong publisher? I thought of my first meeting with Tom. What if I hadn’t suggested the book? I thought of my trip to USC. What if I hadn’t had the nerve to talk to him?
When I look back upon my writing adventure, I want to tell every potential writer, “You can do it. What it is you’ve been afraid to tackle, just start it.” At times I was tempted to let my inexperience, under-confidence or children be an excuse not to write. But once I began one step led to another, doors were not nearly so shut and rules were not rigid as I’d assumed. My drive became direction and my chutzpah became confidence. An accidental meeting became my first book.
And that’s not all. My publisher liked the book enough to ask me to write another biography, this time about George Foster. I can’t wait to see where this new project will take me.