Katherine Hill has always been an omnivorous sports fan, someone who can get caught up in March Madness, World Cup soccer, Wimbledon, and the Olympics. But football was the sport she wanted to explore in her second novel, A Short Move, which follows the life story of Mitch Wilkins, a high school football star who makes it all the way to the NFL. For Hill, football was the perfect sport for thinking about fate: “There were so many formal aspects of the game that were interesting in terms of thinking about a lifespan—the stopping and starting of the clock, the specificity of each position and what each particular player’s skills are, what they’re good at, what their job is on the field. And with the intensity of its collisions, with its demands—it’s such a physically demanding sport—it really felt like kind of the perfect metaphor for life under capitalism.”
Told from a variety of perspectives, A Short Move begins when Mitch is in utero, and his parents are deciding whether or not to have him. (Spoiler Alert: Mitch is born.) The reader then meets Mitch at different points in his life, sometimes seeing the world through Mitch’s eyes, other times inhabiting the perspectives of Mitch’s parents, coaches, wives, and teammates. It’s a kaleidoscopic approach that looks beyond one man’s individual talent to the ecosystem of people, places, and industries that both nurture and exploit an athletic gift.
Hill is a friend of mine, our connection forged in part by the fact that we both have school administrator parents, an occupation that entails a certain amount of moving around. Born in Washington D.C., Hill grew up in Manhattan, small-town Ohio, central Virginia, and suburban Maryland. A Short Move hops all over the country, but the heart of the book is in central Virginia, where Mitch is born and raised. It’s a region that Hill remembers well, maybe because she left it at a formative age, in her early teens, to go to high school in the suburbs of D.C. “When you move a lot, you notice differences in culture. Amherst, Virginia, and Bethesda, Md., are just three hours apart, but the climate is different, the people are different, the politics are different. It’s night and day.”
I had hoped to interview Hill in person, in her Brooklyn home, but in these times of quarantine, we ended up talking over the phone. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
The Millions: Tell me how you came to write this particular story, a cradle-to-grave story about a football player.
Katherine Hill: It started with a short story that I wrote that was about a woman who drops out of college and finds herself working in retail. Her name is Alyssa, and her father, a minor character, is a former NFL football player. I wrote that story, thought it was a one-off, and published it in n+1. The editor asked me if it was part of something larger, and it actually wasn’t, but sometimes you just need someone to ask you that question. I was really interested in the father, so I wrote another story about him, when he is basically the same age that Alyssa is in the first story. He’s 18, about to go to college, and he has an awareness that he’s about to become the person he’s going to become, that he’s on the cusp of some new self. In that story, I met his mom and his girlfriend and I wanted to know more about all these people. I also found it interesting to think about the huge changes in his life, from his late teens to his early 40s. I wanted to fill in the gaps knowing I could never actually fill in the gaps. But I wanted to plot out his life and its trajectory.
TM: What do you mean you wanted to fill in the gaps knowing that you couldn’t fill them in?
KH: Well, one of the really important features of this book is the absences, which is something I’ve always been interested in, artistically. In theater, it’s the stuff that happens offstage. In visual art, it’s the negative space. And in novels, it’s the stuff that’s off the page or between the lines. From the beginning of this project I was attracted to the idea of a novel that would invite the reader to supply a lot—the actions and events that are not put into words by the author. I thought this structure made a lot of sense for a story about an athlete who wears many different identities, who experiences blackouts as a matter of course, and whose body develops rapidly, and also falls apart rapidly within a compressed period of time. He’s a retired old guy in his late 30s. For most of us, late 30s is prime.
TM: You use a lot of different points of view in your novel: Mitch, Mitch’s wife, his father, his coach, his teammate, his mother. I wondered how you decided which points of view to include?
KH: I centered the book on the family: I started close and then moved out. I was really interested in his mother, first of all, who raised him on her own. And also, the absent father. And then his first wife. Perspective from the family seemed really important, because it’s a life narrative, not a classic sports story. It’s a family novel. Some of us grow up and have our full story from womb to tomb without family being a huge part of it, but for most of us, the family that you leave, the family that you raise, the family that you work hard to build—in many ways that is the plot of life. But Mitch also has an important public life, so I had to include some perspectives from that world. And I think, in a way, the perspectives I found there were also familial. His teammate, D’Antonio Mars, is like a brother, a fellow traveler. So there’s a family quality to those sections of the book, too.
TM: Were there points of view you attempted and then decided not to do?
KH: I considered doing something with a reporter, and someone involved in the corporate sponsorships of athletes. But in the end, I just went deeper on the family. Even though I was interested in gaps and leaving things out, it’s inevitable—for me, anyway—to want to get to know my existing characters better. And so I worked that out by going very deep in short sections. You get to know the characters very well during a particular moment in time.
TM: Was there a character who surprised you?
KH: They all did. One of the bigger surprises for me was the solidarity between Mitch’s mother and his first wife. They clash in the beginning, so realizing that they might find a way to get along was a lovely surprise and kind of a counter-intuitive one—but one that I was really committed to once I realized it could be true. The more standard and more boring story is one of rivalry and irreconcilable differences. In this case, that seemed like the direction it was headed in, but it emerged in a different way.
TM: Do you think of this book as linked short stories? Can they stand alone?
KH: I did think of it as a novel in stories, or an episodic novel. A book that was really important to me when I was writing was A Visit from the Goon Squad, which is a novel but also kind of a collection of stories. I just admired so much of what Jennifer Egan did, the way we had to imagine what had happened to characters between what she calls point A and point B. I actually think you have to fill in a lot more with her book because she has so many characters, whereas with my book, Mitch is always there at the center. He’s the spine of the novel. His life is the structure.
TM: I think A Visit from the Goon Squad has been pretty influential to writers, it gets mentioned a lot. I think it gave people permission to think about how to structure things in a different way.
KH: Agreed. Permission is a great word. I think many of us are looking to bust out of the current conventions of novel structure, which somehow feel so fixed. Which is interesting to me because the novel is actually a pretty unregulated form, unlike the sonnet or the tragedy. It’s a kind of wonderfully lawless form. Maybe it’s something about the commercialization of it, or the institutionalization of creative writing as an academic discipline, that’s tricked us into thinking the novel has a set form. But Egan reminded us that the form has so many possibilities—that it’s actually defined by its infinite possibilities. The only one standard feature being: figures over time.
TM: This is your second book. How did it compare to writing your first book?
KH: My first book, [The Violet Hour], is the one that taught me how to write a novel. And it felt very exciting because I was doing this big thing. I was writing a novel—it was so ambitious! But it also felt scary because I had no idea what success was going to look like. I mean I sort of had an idea, because I’d read a lot of novels, and I was trying to enter their company. But until you’ve done it, you haven’t done it. So there was this kind of incredible relief and elation at the end, and I started the second one on the high of having completed the first. I thought, I know how to do this now! I’ll just do it again! It got off to a great fast start. Much faster than the first one, which required a lot of wrong turns and starting over and re-outlining and all that. But the second one, once I had the first two moments in time—the daughter and the father—was easy to outline.
The first novel had a very complicated structure of going forward and backward in time, and it was also a family novel. So there are similarities between the two. But the structure of the second novel is more radical. I’m not sure it’s more ambitious, or harder to pull off. It’s just aesthetically more radical from what we consider to be the standard form. And as I was making it, I had to have a lot of faith that the choices I was making were good ones. Because once you start building something, it becomes more itself and harder to pick apart and rearrange. It ran into a lot of trouble getting sold. I was tested on that front, and it hurt, but I always believed that I had made the right choice.
TM: What was the trouble you had in selling it?
KH: It’s a pretty typical story. I actually think what happened to me is what happens to many novelists writing their second books. My first novel was published with a major press, and got some nice review attention, but it didn’t light the world on fire and it wasn’t a bestseller. So when the time came to sell my second novel, and it was more formally daring than the first one—which happens a lot, too—my first publisher declined to publish it. That was a big blow. They had an option on it, and I thought once you’re in, you’re in. Which is so naïve. But I had to believe that to write it. That kind of stupid confidence is really necessary when you’re working on a big, risky project.
My agent was like, it’s fine, this book is amazing, it will sell. I made a few revisions because I always have to revise after rejection, and then he took it out pretty widely in New York. They just all rejected it. I don’t even know how many. It was probably 30 or 40—a huge number of publishers. I was numb at first, then I was devastated, and then I was determined. It was a very emotionally volatile time, because I had devoted my entire artistic and professional life to this book. I’m a professor, I teach writing, and I had to get the book published to keep my job. But I’m also pretty stubborn about my creative work. My agent and I had some hard conversations. He still believed in it but had felt pretty discouraged by the response.
The one theme that emerged was that people weren’t into the structure. But for me, the structure was the book. It’s a life narrative, chronological, from before our protagonist’s birth to after his death, and it’s told episodically through a relay of perspectives. I was so committed to the overall effect. I didn’t want to write a different football novel, and I didn’t want to write a different family novel. And so I went out in search of independent presses that would be more open to formally challenging projects. I got a couple of offers and Ig was really enthusiastic. They got it right away and were excited about it. It was all the affirmation I needed.
TM: How has it been coming out with a book during this strange time of Covid-19?
KH: Well, fortunately for me, it’s corresponded with the strange and wonderful time of having my first baby, so I was home all the time anyway. I knew at some point during the first months of her life that I would turn my attention back to promoting the book. And that is all still true and the same as I imagined. But one difference is that everything physical has been canceled. I was going to have readings in several places, a mini book tour. So that’s a bummer, because I love the chance to do big readings in the cities I’ve lived in—D.C., Boston, Philly, and New York. But, I guess because I have this wonderful baby, it doesn’t really feel like a loss. If anything it’s like, oh well, I don’t have to worry about the trip. Maybe that’s short-sighted. But a book lives for a long time, so I’m hopeful there will be opportunities in the future when we can gather again. Which I do believe will happen, maybe not as soon as everyone wants, but at some point.
I think a lot of publishers have been cancelling and postponing or moving their books, whereas we just stayed the course. So it remains to be seen how affected we will be by that decision—to be coming out in June when people are still at home or only tentatively going out. I’m hopeful that one of the things people do at home is read. And maybe they’re sick of screens, so maybe having a book with pages will be appealing to more people in this moment. I think if it had come out in March, when everyone was getting used to this new life, that would have been worse, but with June I’m bizarrely hopeful.
TM: Since this is a football book, I have to ask you about football: What team do you follow?
KH: I follow Washington. I can barely say the name out loud. So yeah, we have a racist name, it’s really bad, and we should change it. But I said it for many, many years before the current effort to stop. So, that’s my team. It’s a terrible franchise, the owner is despicable, and the team has been a disappointment for, I don’t know, 20 years? They last won a Super Bowl in the early 1990s.
D.C. is the closest thing I have to a hometown and I married a D.C. local. I followed them obsessively throughout the 2000s, in my 20s, especially in the years I lived in Philadelphia. Every Sunday my husband and I went to this ramshackle sports bar called Cavanaugh’s and watched the team play. We had to go out because unless you have Direct TV, you can’t follow anyone but the local team on television. And the local team was the Eagles.
On the one hand it was it was kind of nice because we couldn’t just stay at home and have our private obsession; we had to go out to a communal space, which is what sports want. And in Philly, we had all these wonderful fan friends. They were friends from, I think, a Quaker camp in Maryland. Many of them had gone to college in Philly and stuck around and they were all involved in social justice in some way—just the most decent, best people you could ever meet, and all die-hard Washington fans. Not only that, they were our kind of fans: in love with the players, optimistic, and really faithful. So we would watch with them. We literally met just sitting next to them at the bar.
I think that experience was something that led me to write this book, just that kind of die-hard fandom in my 20s. And, as I think often happens when we devote ourselves to a subject, the process of writing the book or going deep on the subject actually cures you of the subject, a little bit. I’m now watching less football than I ever have in my life. It’s not because I’m protesting the treatment of the athletes or anything like that; they’d want me to watch. It’s just because at this time in my life, I feel like I did football. Though I’m also pretty sure it’ll always be there for me to come back to. I have a daughter now, and I’m sure watching the game will be something we do together, which is something I did with my parents.
TM: What was your research process like for the book?
KH: I read a lot of football memoirs and journalistic accounts of football seasons. It’s sort of a classically clichéd genre, so I had to work hard to find the ones that would be illuminating and interesting—that would spark my imagination in some way. I have a shelf of pretty good books that got me thinking about the day-to-day experience of the athlete. I read Warren Sapp’s memoir, Sapp Attack, which is really outrageous but has a terrific voice; and Tony Siragusa’s memoir, Goose; and Nate Jackson’s memoir Slow Getting Up. He’s a pretty decent writer, and he wasn’t a star, which is such a valuable perspective. There’s also a really wonderful book by Nicholas Dawidoff called Collision Low Crossers, about a single season with the New York Jets—that’s full of really great details. So, books like that, that’s where I started. I also watched a lot of old game footage and did some in-person interviews. I spoke to a few former players, and I found this really wonderful YouTube show called The Real Rob Report, with Michael Robinson, who was a fullback for the Seattle Seahawks. It’s really hard to find now, you can only get little bits and pieces of it, but it was basically a behind-the-scenes perspective. He just had so much great locker room footage, which was the one thing I was never going to get access to. I toured one practice facility, the Baltimore Ravens, but they wouldn’t let me in the locker room.
A lot of the research was just armor I needed to convince myself that I could write about this world that I had never participated in myself. I had to make sure I got the football details right, or right enough, and I had to make sure I was representing a possible truth about our world. The harder stuff was the emotional and psychological stuff that no amount of research can teach you. You just have to let the characters discover that themselves, and you have to discover that with them.