Monday, June 29, 2009

Accept No Imitations

My book "Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World" will soon be available - I am expecting to receive bound copies this week.

There is another book on Trudy (aka Gertrude Ederle) which is also due to appear soon. But I am happy to say that, at least in the minds of every reviewer thus far (Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, and The Wall Street Journal) "Young Woman and the Sea" has been the clear winner.

In fact, "Young Woman and the Sea" received a coveted "Starred Review" from Publisher's Weekly, which praised the book for its "great storytelling... Stout's moving book recovers the exhilarating story of a young girl who found her true self out in the water and paved the way for women in sports today."

Of the other title, however, the PW reviewer was far less enthusiastic, writing that the "...pedantic prose and workmanlike account of Ederle's breathtaking feat, however, is as joyless as Ederle's swim was triumphant."

So read "Young Woman and the Sea." Accept no imitations.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Sea

On the one hand you have Marc Sanford and Michael Jackson. And on the other you have Trudy Ederle.

Sanford has ridden his relatively limited notoriety into ignominy. Jackson’s fame, over several agonizing decades, killed him.

And then there is Trudy Ederle (aka Gertrude Ederle), the subject of my new book, Young Woman and the Sea, which will be in bookstores in just a few days.

In the wake of her 1926 record setting swim across the English Channel, in which she became just the sixth person – and first woman – ever to swim the Channel, beating the existing men’s record by nearly two hours, Trudy was the most famous woman in the world. She was far better known than Marc Sanford will ever hope to be, and, briefly, better known than Jackson has ever been.

When she returned to the United States she was nearly crushed by fame. Given the biggest ticker tape parade in New York history at the time, she was arguably America’s first celebrity, and in her first 48 hours back she received a full dose of everything it had to offer.

The result? She lay huddled in a fetal position, paralyzed by the attention.

And although Trudy did go one to cash in on her fame with a vaudeville tour, in the end, wisely and to her credit, eventually she withdrew. She was not cut out for the rigors of celebrityhood and - unlike Sanford or Jackson or Lindsay Lohan or any of dozens of other celebrities - she knew it. Within a decade of her achievement she was nearly forgotten, and she seemed to like it that way, following her remarkable achievement by doing something perhaps even more remarkable – returning to her life, living quietly and privately, unconcerned with the fading cheers, content and certain who she was and what she had done. And that was enough, and something Michael Jackson never, ever knew.

She passed away in 2003, age ninety-eight.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

It Ain't Easy Being Green

Last night I slept in my cabin that floats at the edge of a large swamp of several hundred acres on Lake Champlain. I try to stay there every few weeks or so in the summer, where, after kayaking from dusk into darkness, I sit, listen to a baseball game on the radio, and then listen to the sounds of the water and the swamp as I fall asleep.

Last night I heard the muskrats in the swamp, the occasional squawk of a great blue heron disturbed in its roost, the buzzing of mosquitoes at the screen door and the beavers splashing along the lake shore, all sounds I have heard many times before.

But apart from this, it was silent. That has never been the case before. In past years the swamp and the surrounding woodlands have been filled with the sound of frogs, from the spring peepers and wood frogs of the early spring, to the leopard frogs, pickerel frogs, green frogs, bullfrogs, gray tree frogs, western chorus frogs and even their cousins, the American toad (see for both pictures and sound samples). In fact, frogs have always been everywhere here, at least since I first moved to Vermont this week some seven years ago. During some summers it has been impossible to take a step without causing a frog, buried deep in the grass, to leap out of the way, and I leave the mower high to keep from acting as the inadvertent grim reaper of my neighbors. In the same town in which I live there is even a commercial frog collecting company that captures them for biology class, and locals have told me of earning extra money as kids by capturing big bags of frogs.

But this year, almost total silence. The peepers and tree frogs and wood frogs appeared and disappeared just as quickly, and I’ve hardly heard any of the others all. In past years, the waters of the swamp have nearly boiled with tadpoles as they approach maturity, but this year I have hardly seen any at all. And last night in the swamp, apart from a distant, single bull frog calling in vain all alone, nothing.

Amphibians are endangered nearly everywhere and as the journal BioScience tells me:

“Amphibians’ physiology (permeable skin) and complex water-and-land life cycle expose them to more environmental changes than most animals, and though they have survived climate changes before, today's changes are accelerating too rapidly for frogs to keep pace.
Also, frogs’ eggs have no shells, exposing embryos to increased UV-B radiation levels, which can cause harmful mutations. Pollution has contaminated the water frogs thrive in and global climate change is causing higher levels of infectious diseases.”

I am not a scientist and am not quite certain that the low level of frogs this year is due to the factors cited above. It could be some natural, cyclical fluctuation due to weather conditions or other factors. I do know that when the lake and the swamp froze this winter, for example, the water level was much lower than in recent years, and I wonder if the lack of sufficient ice cover caused an abnormally high die-off of hibernating frogs. Similarly, the lake never reached flood stage this spring and some habitats that usually are inundated remained dry. This, too, may have affected the population.

I do know that the silence makes nights in the cabin a bit longer, and more lonely. And that great blue heron may simply have been hungry.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How to Get From Here to There

After driving more than 1,500 miles over the last week - to Ohio and back - I’ve thought quite a bit about length and distance. And as the PR machine for Young Woman and the Sea, my bio of Trudy Ederle (aka Gertrude Ederle) , starts to fire up, I’ve recently done a couple of interviews about both the book and about writing which will soon appear. I’ll link to them when they do, but one of the interesting things about doing such interviews is that I occasionally get asked questions about the process of writing, which is something I usually don’t think too much about – until I do.

So I’ve been thinking about length. My experience is rather unique in that I've written poems, columns and non-fiction for both juvenile and adult audiences, and books that range from between 20,000 words and 250,000 words – from one hundred double-spaced typed pages to more than a thousand, for those who think in those terms. Different books, different audiences, topics and approaches require different lengths – but length isn’t the right term, really.

It is time. No matter the subject, I write as long as I need the reader's time to tell the story, so when I am done I feel done, with no unanswered questions or stray cats still roaming around in my brain. A book of several thousands of words needs to feel as finished and complete as a poem of only ten or fifteen words.

It is the same inside the book, with chapters. I’ve written chapters as small as 1,200 words or so and as long as 15,000 or more – whatever it takes to feel that they are complete and unified. I NEVER write a chapter to length just because I’m stuck on a number, although in most books most of my chapters fall within a range similar range.

I think of chapter breaks like big breaths, where you feel the need to pause, inhale, ponder and move on - and you have to be a reader here, as well as a writer. Be sensitive to when natural transitions occur - an event comes to a close, a conclusion is reached, a character experiences some kind of defining moment, there is a moment of quiet before action, or action before quiet, some contraction within the narrative.

Much of it is just learning to listen to your own work. I think it helps, when ending a chapter, to find a way to lift it off the page a bit, and cause the reader to reflect a little, just like the end of a long story or magazine piece, where the story turns back on itself a bit. Again, if you are just breaking off for the sake of breaking off, don't. And see if a lead for the following chapter comes easily. If it does, you're breaking it at the right place. But if you neither have an end, or a lead, then you simply might not be at the end of the chapter yet, or have already rushed past. Trust me, it gets easier the more you do it.

It sounds simplistic, but it really helps sometime to scattershot through your library just reading leads and ends to chapters, or the beginning and ends of magazine pieces, even the beginning and ends of poems. This can help you not only to brain storm your own transitions, but you’ll also realize that some writers you may like a great deal use the same strategies over and over. There is nothing wrong with that, if it works, but I must admit that ever since I did that to a writer who I had always admired and realized that nearly every story ended with a similar sensory impression, my admiration dropped just a little. So don't abandon your change up – try not to repeat yourself.

And use your outline as that - an outline - and not a dictator of length and chapter. Maybe I'm the outlier, but I've never worried for a second about abandoning the outline as I write, as long as I make sure I cover what I have promised to cover. For the writer I think the writing process is also a learning process - no matter how much I think I know beforehand, I don't make the really valuable connections until the act of writing takes place, and that can cause me to recast the rest of the book entirely.

One of the most lasting things I ever wrote came about when I was in the process of telling a small, familiar story that I expected to write quickly, but then I found one question that I didn't have an answer to, then another, then another, and I started looking for answers and all of a sudden not only did I have an entirely new chapter, but the information in that chapter informed the remainder of the book and provided a entire logic that wasn't there when I started writing, and that I didn't know was there in my research the whole time.

That's why you do this.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Getting It Across

While I generally don’t think writers and actors have that much in common, I do think we share a capacity (or at least a desire) to “inhabit” a subject, in other words to get inside a character and see/feel/think what the character feels. It's a challenge.

In Young Woman and the Sea, my book about Trudy Ederle, (aka Gertrude Ederle) the first woman to swim the English Channel, my biggest fear was that I would be unable to “inhabit” her and translate her experience as a Channel swimmer with authenticity. After all, I am not only not a nineteen year old girl, but - at best - I’m a pedestrian swimmer. What do I know about that experience?

All I could do was all I could do, steep myself in research and use my life experience to try to gain access to her experience, and by that I mean the physical discomfort and mental gymnastics I’ve experienced from a variety of activities – running regularly for more than thirty years, pouring concrete for fourteen hours a day, pitching a baseball, kayaking on Lake Champlain in a wide variety of weather conditions, and other things I’ve done that have required real discipline, focus and physical stamina (like writing a book). That being said, I was still worried I’d get something wrong, and that an experienced open water swimmer would roll his or her eyes and call me on it.

Yesterday I received an e-mail from someone who has read the book, a person who has swum the Channel several times, both in relays and alone. She wrote of the book that, “It is wonderful. You really were able to capture open water swimming and what it is all about.” And then she went on to cite specific examples, scenes from the book that resonated with her own experiences both swimming the Channel and training for it.

Writing a book is a long slog, and that e-mail made me feel like I'd just made it across an English Channel of my own. It is already my favorite review.


How do you know when you’re done? That’s the question.

I was never much of a ballplayer, but after not playing for seventeen years, at age thirty four I re-habbed my torn rotator cuff, got in shape and started playing in some pretty competitive over-30 baseball leagues. Almost every team had a few guys who played division one in college, a few teams had guys who had played minor league ball, and there was even the occasional cup of coffee major league straggler. I did okay against these guys, made the league all-star team three or four times and won more games than I lost for teams that usually lost more than they won

I’ll never forget my first game back, a doubleheader, actually. I thought I was in pretty good shape. I was running about thirty miles a week, spending several hours lifting weights in the gym, and had participated in regular practice for about a month. We played a doubleheader. I pitched a complete game, went something like 5-9 at the plate and walked a couple times, a good day.

And the next morning I could not get out of a chair without pushing myself up with my arms. Or go down the steps more than one at a time.

Fans, sports writers and even the athletes themselves drastically underestimate the physical demands of playing. Fans and sportswriters do so because most of them haven’t really played since they were kids, when baseball was easy, and they have no conception what it is like to play even three or four games a week (which I did when playing in two over-thirty leagues) much less every day, as they do for long stretches in the major leagues, an incredibly grueling schedule. Players themselves even underestimate the physical demands because when you are in the midst of a career, or even a season, it’s hard to see what slips away from one season to another, or even day by day.

Here’s an example. After playing for several years I went out one spring to discover that I could no longer sprint, at least not every fast. Before, I’d always been able to steal bases, take the extra base, and had never grounded into a double play. All of a sudden - gone. Same weight, same workout, but the gear was gone. After being thrown out a half dozen times in our first couple games, I learned to go station-to-station.

After that, a little went every year. I couldn’t stay out late and play the next day without paying the price. If I skipped a pre-hab day at the gym, (building my arm back up between starts by a controlled lifting program) my arm felt it. One year I couldn’t pull the ball anymore. Then I lost most of my power. I went from a guy who threw hard and hit third or fourth to a junkballer who slapped the ball the opposite way. And there was nothing, absolutely nothing, I could do about it, and I tried everything. Then the reflexes went, and soon after I got hit in the head by an 85 mph pitch I never saw, and essentially got folded in half by a wicked comebacker that hit me in the side and left a grape-purple bruise the size of a dinner plate, I stopped playing. I was forty-four.

Leaving aside rumors about his age, PED use, and off field activities, all of which might make Ortiz’s decline more pronounced, I think we’re seeing the inexorable and effect of age, what Kerouac called “the forlorn rags of growing old.” There have always been players, particularly power hitter, who seem to lose it fast, often in their early to mid-thirties, guys like Bob Allison and Rocky Colavito, who were both basically done at age 33, and Ortiz’s identical twin, Mo Vaughan. Add an injury or two and the decline can be even more pronounced and instantaneous, particularly if some PED enhancement gets taken away at the same time.

Add it all up, and I think he’s finished. Short of releasing him, over the remainder of his contract the best the Red Sox can hope for, I think, is to platoon Ortiz or use him as a pinch hitter, spotting him against certain pitchers in certain ballparks, and hope that he can be reasonably productive in limited duty.

Because here’s the thing - even when I was in my quick decline, there were those times that the guy on the mound (or when I was pitching, the batter) was battling the same thing I was.

In those situations, I still had a chance. For a moment, I was who I used to be.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Buzz

I can almost hear it.
All you can ask for from writing a book is the chance for people to hear about it and read it. The sad fact is that for most books, by the time they are published, the audience is already known, the niche has been defined and it is extraordinarily difficult to break out of that.
It might be different for "YOUNG WOMAN & THE SEA," my biography of Gertrude Ederle, aka Trudy Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel. A couple of really, really good pre-pub reviews have attracted some attention and given the book a bit of a profile. It was selected as a "Best Summer Read" by the Wall Street Journal, which appears to be attracting even more attention. None of this is bad with the pub date still some weeks off.
Could be it has some "buzz."

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Taint

"Chin Music" Boston Baseball, June 2009

From Curt Schilling’s blog, 38 Pitches, May 8, 2009:

“For the past 19 years or so I’ve had suspicions, some stronger than others, but to sit here today and say I played on even one team that was totally clean would be denying reality… I played pretty much my entire career in the Steroid Era.”

Those words are pretty damning. Although Schilling goes on to stridently proclaim his own innocence, denying he ever used any PED in any form, and calls the notion that Boston’s two most recent world championships were tainted “a load of crap,” his own admission provides evidence to those who feel otherwise.

As I have written before, I find every championship of the last twenty years, if not tainted, then certainly tarnished. But that is something for each of us to decide how we feel for ourselves, and I respect those who disagree with me on this point.

But the Steroid Era did leave a taint, one that may not diminish the accomplishment of any one team but certainly does leave a stain upon certain individuals.

Make that every individual. No player of the era, clean or not, comes away untarnished, and that includes Schilling. While he may have been the only virgin in the whorehouse, as those around him were putting anything and everything into their systems, Schilling nevertheless benefitted – quite a few of those home runs won him some pretty big ballgames - and for the vast bulk of his career, he kept his suspicions to himself while he accepted the glory – and the championship rings – that might not have been acquired totally on the square. Schilling, like most players, states in effect that so many guys were using it all evens up and even though he had suspicions he never actually saw anyone take anything, and gosh darn it, you just can’t accuse someone because of some darn suspicion.

True enough. But he might as well be wearing one of those “Stop Snitching” t-shirts that were all the rage in gangland a few years ago. Because a person of conviction might have stood up and taken a stand, gone public and proclaimed long and loudly that the game was dirty and something should be done, the personal consequences be damned. Schilling may have ended up a pariah among his peers, but he could have looked himself in the mirror without doing a moral back flip. Yet Schilling, like virtually every other professional ballplayer, stayed silent, took the money, looked the other way and became adept at the same kind of self delusion that allows corruption to flourish in any institution.

At its core, that’s what the Steroid Era represents – corruption. Everyone agreed to go along to get along because the turnstiles were spinning and the contracts were getting bigger and more lucrative every year and fans were so swept up in the spectacle that no price was too high to pay for the privilege of watching. All players who knew better and stayed silent are no better than the residents of any community that look the other way as criminal syndicates or gangs act with impunity. Only no one was going to kill a ballplayer for speaking out – they just wouldn’t get asked to dinner. The corruption of the Steroid Era floated all financial boats. Only a sucker would have turned down that, right?

Those in the front office fare no better. Uber GM’s like Billy Beane and Theo Epstein, and managers like Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre and, yes, Terry Francona are also tarnished. Who is Billy Beane minus Giambi and Tejada, or Joe Torre without Pettitte and Clemens, or LaRussa without Canseco and McGwire?

Epstein and Francona without Manny, that’s who. Simply two more names whose personal success is so inexorably bound up with the Steroid Era that, like Schilling and Manny, it is impossible to measure their accomplishments with any certainty. And that is what, in the end, taints everything and everyone. Ask yourself, would any of these men have succeeded in an era without steroids? We will never, ever know.

And neither will they.

Glenn Stout hopes he won’t have to write about this again, but suspects he may have to. His next book Young Woman & Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World, will be published in July. You may contact Glenn at