Susan Perabo's first collection of short fiction, Who I Was Supposed to Be (Simon & Schuster), arrived to glowing reviews in 1999. Surprisingly for a contemporary short-story collection, it sold out its second printing, and this month was reissued in paperback. But City Paper had an ulterior motive in phoning Perabo as the All-Star Game approached. Not only is she an associate professor at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pa., with a published novel (2001's The Broken Places) ... but the 37-year-old St. Louis native is also honored in the Baseball Hall of Fame as the first woman to play NCAA baseball.
Cooperstown story, please.
I played for one season at a little school in St. Louis called Webster University, which had a very new [Division III] sports program and an even newer baseball team. It was a very artsy kind of school, and it was just introducing intercollegiate sports. There were no tryouts to get on the baseball team. I had grown up playing softball officially, although I had also grown up with a group of boys and played a lot of neighborhood baseball, and had always preferred that.
There was no softball team at Webster, and when I saw the sign-up for the baseball team, I thought, "Wow, I'll give that a shot." Because I knew if there was any team I might possibly be competitive playing with guys, that it was probably with this school and this team, because it was so new.
I also played basketball at Webster. I was a terrible basketball player. I was the fifth woman on a team of misfits. Basically, it was the kind of place if you wanted to play sports, they were just thrilled to have you.
How much hardball did you play?
I was the backup second baseman. I didn't hit well. I did well in the field. I think I started one game, maybe two games, and I played a handful of innings in other games.
So where does the Hall come in?
A few years later, I found out that I was actually the first woman to play NCAA baseball. A few years after that, when I was in graduate school and this was long behind me, my parents went to Cooperstown on their vacation. They called me from Cooperstown ... from the Hall of Fame! ... and they were crying, and they said, "They have a plaque here with your name on it." There was a plaque that said, "In 1987, Susan Perabo played for the Webster University Gorloks."
The Gorloks. It's a made-up mythological creature made up of the streets Gore and Lockwood, the cross streets in Webster Grove, where the school is.
That's really nerdy.
It's awful, isn't it? It's horrible. That's why I knew I could play for that team. The next year, some friends of mine from the basketball team and I started a girls club-softball team, so I did that.
This experience became a literary marketing device?
When I sold the collection of stories, a couple of the people at Simon & Schuster were huge baseball fans. They're Mets fans, and I said, "I'm a Cardinal fan, and here's my baseball story." And they like flipped out, completely, because of course they were looking for any angle. They turned it into a bigger deal than I would have liked. Finally I just told them to calm down.
Is any of your newer work about baseball?
I felt like I would be selling out if I talked about it. But I wrote an essay about my playing experience, about being a pro-baseball fan, being a Cardinal fan. I kind of sat on it for a while. [A University of Illinois magazine] published it, and it has since been picked up for an anthology from the University of Nebraska press. And [Pittsburgh-based] Creative Nonfiction said they were going to do a special baseball issue. I got a piece for them about why there are no women in the major leagues. I did another thing for an anthology about the subway series, the Mets-Yankees Series.
Regarding Who I Was Supposed to Be, do you see any themes today that you missed before?
Actually people sort of told me what [the themes] were. A lot of the narrators are sort of dull. I think that's kind of me: dull people who surround themselves with people who are more interesting or more outgoing, or on the surface more assertive.
Most of the stories are in the first person.
I feel very comfortable in first person. I try to write in third person sometimes because I feel like I'm sort of a loser if I can't.
Many of your narrators are male.
The question I almost always get asked, especially by younger audiences like college students, is, "Is it hard to write from the point of view of a man? Why do you do that so often and is it difficult for you?" But almost no one ever asks me, "Is it difficult to write from the point of view of a woman whose child has died?"
That assumption [is] that the biggest leap that a writer [can make] ... maybe a woman writer, I'm not sure if it's a gender thing ... must be gender. Whereas for me the most difficult leap is always experience. The whole kind of gender thing never occurred to me as I was writing the stories individually.