I first encountered Nicholas Mainieri’s fiction in those great baseball issues that Hobart used to put out every spring. His first published story “The Tools of Ignorance,” which appeared in the spring of 2008 and was titled after an old nickname for a catcher’s gear, carried itself with such authority and deep-in-the-grain understanding of our national pastime that it stuck with me for months afterward. Later that same year, I accepted a two-year position at The Southern Review at Louisiana State University, and, knowing Mainieri lived nearby, I looked him up and we began to meet regularly to watch baseball—my beloved Phillies won the World Series that fall—and talk about writing stories, including a novel he was just beginning to formulate. Back then, his book had a sort of Heart of Darkness sound to it.
When I got the chance to guest edit an issue of The Southern Review devoted to stories, essays, and poems about baseball, Mainieri may have been the first person I reached out to. (Other contributors included Pat Jordan and Witold Gombrowicz.) His story in that issue, “This Game Do That To You,” contains what remains one of my all-time favorite lines in a work of fiction, in which a less-than-charitable clubhouse attendant refuses to console a player who strikes out to end a low minor-league game: “‘Not your fault tonight, big fella,’ Leroy say. ‘Blame the fucking scout what signed you.’”
In the years since then, I’ve watched Mainieri’s voice and his vision grow even sharper and more nuanced, more fluent in different vernaculars and capable of deeper emotional resonance. His stories have appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Salamander, Sou’wester, and he now appears to be part of the house band at The Southern Review, with three stories in those esteemed pages. The arrival of his star-crossed, coming-of-age debut novel The Infinite (Harper Perennial) signals the next step of an already marvelous career. Emailing with him about it in early October felt like old times, like the sort of conversation we used to have along the first-base line at Alex Box Stadium at LSU.
Andrew Ervin: Tell me about the route you took from your first published story “The Tools of Ignorance” to having copies of your first book arrive at your door.
Nicholas Mainieri: Thinking about it now, it was eight years, just about to the day, from that story’s publication online in a Hobart baseball issue to a box of The Infinite galleys showing up at my house. You and I became friends because of that story, man! It was published alongside your great “Phillie Phanatic” story. The phrase “the tools of ignorance,” in baseball, describes catcher’s equipment—the implication being that catchers, were they any smarter, would play another position. As a former catcher, I like the phrase. It can be tongue-in-cheek, but it also suggests something about the hard work of existing at the game’s heart. And it seems to me now that toiling in the dirt and getting the crap kicked out of you for little glory provides a good analogy for the route from first published story to debut novel—or for the writer’s life itself. Work really hard, focused on whatever seems most essential. Experience a lot of rejection. Major successes occur mostly in obscurity (appreciated, if you’re lucky, by your family, and the writer-friends you’ve made, who understand). But, in general, “success” only means that you get up every day and do an unseen thing. It takes a long time to finish a novel and a long time to find a home for it. Someone might glance at those solitary years of work and wonder why in the hell you’d want to do that. I can take pride in that, and hope that I’ve made a thing that will be useful to someone somewhere. Anyway, hefting that box full of copies of the real thing was just really cool.
AE: What was the hardest part of writing the book?
NM: I don’t know how you or other novelists feel, but I found rewriting a novel to be especially hard—in both practical and intellectual ways. I get all screwed up when I try to edit a piece of writing in an existing document. When I rewrite I literally have to retype. Physical, marked-up manuscript on desk, new blank document on screen. By the end of this novel, I had retyped the complete draft from start to finish nine times. Inefficient, maybe, but it was the only way I could get it done. It was also best from an intellectual standpoint, however. Writing a story requires one really long sustained thought, one trail of logic—if this then this, over and over. But there’s a spirit hidden in there, too, somehow. The characters’ experiences become a kind of proof for ideas only understood through the rigor of repeating (rewriting) that complicated sequence again and again.
AE: I’m not letting you off the hook that easily. What I want to know is: what were the challenges specific to your story?
NM: Well, I can tell you about the great sense of relief I felt once I’d finally figured out the character of Jonah, one of the novel’s two central figures. Neither of the characters has a life that resembles my own, in the details. But the young woman, Luz, presented a puzzle I was much more conscious of from the get-go. I spent all my time thinking about her, and I knew who Luz was before I knew Jonah. And so the story grew out of her character, first. I got pretty far down the road and Jonah was still wooden—a name moving around, some flat dialogue. The question of his character became, then, much more rigid: who he was had to fit what was already there. It shouldn’t have worked out this way, but I got lucky. I was going through some old stories and I discovered that I’d already written about him. The story, “Bird Shot,” originally published by the Southern Review, features an unnamed child, duck hunting with his older brother, while their eldest brother has been sent to war. I wondered if this boy could grow into being Jonah nine years later. The timing, with a few tweaks, worked out. The character fit. Suddenly I had all this family history to work with. It was his origins, his roots, that I’d been missing. These were also things—I was learning—that would bear a lot of thematic weight in The Infinite.
AE: What are the books that inspired The Infinite?
NM: I benefited from reading some top-shelf works of reportage. To single out a few… Ioan Grillo’s El Narco, John Gibler’s To Die in Mexico. So much of the late, great Charles Bowden’s work. In particular El Sicario, which is an autobiography of an unnamed man, recorded, transcribed, and edited by Bowden and Molly Molloy (Molloy also manages the website fronteralist.org, a vital resource on border issues and drug war violence). I also stand in awe of the Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez, who is doing some of the most important work on our continent.
While writing, I also read the collected poems of Octavio Paz, often Eliot Weinberger’s translations when necessary. Paz has a line in a poem called “Niña” that lodged itself in my head. I kept coming back to it again and again: Es transparente el infinito. I started thinking about the eternal, the essential—the transparency of it, in this sense, implies something separate from mere invisibility. It implies to me a lens through which we obsess over the temporal, and perhaps the inconsequent, but we don’t recognize that the lens exists. It asks us to consider what we are maybe failing to notice because what we don’t see is often the most indispensable, the most crucial. For The Infinite then, I was thinking about New Orleans, where I live and where this story begins. I was thinking about those who came and rebuilt the city. I was thinking about young people, marginalized, ignored—their experiences becoming casualties or collateral damage of so-called progress.
AE: A good friend of mine recently described New Orleans as “the most European city in America and also the most African city in America.” What made you settle there? How has that city influenced your creative life?
NM: Writing about New Orleans isn’t easy. For one, it’s hard to define. I can understand why your friend describes it that way. I’ve also heard it called the “northernmost Caribbean city.” That all might work, I don’t know. The fabric of the place is endlessly complicated and wonderfully varied. Something about it inspires a sense of ownership, too—each person’s version of New Orleans is the accurate one, and people aren’t shy about letting you know when your description of the city doesn’t match their understanding of it. But both of you are right, that’s the thing. The truth wears a lot of different hats here.
Two, New Orleans just doesn’t translate easily to fiction. The other week, I was walking our dog. I had a beer in hand. Suddenly, a parade came around the corner. Not a very big parade. It was a weekday, in the middle of the afternoon, no apparent holiday. This is a small street, in the backwater of a Mid-City neighborhood. The parade consisted of a couple small boats raised onto wheels, pulled by hand. People sat in the boats, drinking, waving to literally nobody. The marchers danced as they shuffled. A few towed coolers with drinks. I stress: nobody was even watching this parade. Music from a portable stereo, maybe. I seem to remember a PA attached to one of the boats, but I’m not sure—my dog, an eighty-pound boxer, got spooked, and turned and yanked me all the way home. Spilled beer all over the damn place. Maybe it was a practice run for some other parade, I don’t know. The point is that while it was unexpected it was utterly unsurprising. Of course some people put boats onto wheels and spent the afternoon towing them around the neighborhood, drinking and dancing. Of course they did. There’s a fun thing you can put into a story, if you can figure out how to explain it.
AE: How does that experience translate into your fiction?
NM: Every time I go for a walk I’m in love with the city all over again. People say hi from their porches. Ask a few questions. Wish you well. Despite whatever worries New Orleans has, or maybe in part because of them, a very real sense of community exists, of stewardship. Hardworking people who care about each other, who care about each other’s work, too. The arts community is an extension of this. The ways that people have fun is an extension of this. It’s what I found when I moved here almost nine years ago. As if others had said to me, If you’re here, you’re in this with us. I needed it then. Still do.
More than anything, maybe, New Orleans has taught me how to observe. How to be still and watch and listen. Fiction comes from that as much as it does from reflection, or from within the writer’s own mind. I think it’s actually less a matter of being near outrageous or unusual things (like that drunken boat parade) and more like learning to note the particular fractures in the sidewalk when you go walking. Small things. I think it’s important for writers of fiction to be able to explore, no real purpose to it aside from noticing what there is to notice. You try to describe those things, consider how they might texture your story. The warm sound of somebody’s laughter filtered through a screen door. The aroma of the sweet olive on the corner. The old cobblestone, like fossil where the pavement has eroded away. The quick pulse of a passing car stereo and the warping of the sound as it moves away.
Nicholas Mainieri’s debut novel, The Infinite, will be published by Harper Perennial in November of 2016. Born in Miami, Florida, in 1983, Nicholas has also lived in Colorado and Indiana. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame, he earned his MFA from the University of New Orleans. His short stories have appeared in the Southern Review, the Southern Humanities Review, and Salamander, among other literary magazines. He currently teaches writing and literature at Nicholls State University, located in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. He resides in New Orleans with his wife and son.
Andrew Ervin is the author of the novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House (Soho Press) and a series of novellas, Extraordinary Renditions (Coffee House Press). His nonfiction Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World (Basic Books) will be published next year.