I met Katherine Hill in grad school, where she wrote the beginnings of her first novel, The Violet Hour. She achieved the holy grail of grad students: a thesis worthy of publication, and so she was one of the great overachieving luminaries of our program. This suited her well.
Since publishing her debut, Katherine has become professor at Adelphi University, collaborated on a fascinating work of hybrid-criticism called The Ferrante Letters (on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels), and has now published her second novel, A Short Move which is the occasion for this conversation.
Six years ago, I read an early draft of A Short Move, which is a moving family saga set against a backdrop of football and Americana. I know little about football, other than my amateur experiences playing on teams as an adolescent. But Katherine’s elegant prose guided me through the narrative with each satisfyingly constructed sentence, and brought me, even in that early revision, to an emotional catharsis.
Three years ago, when I released my first novel, The Book of Formation, Katherine interviewed me on the Logger, and now we’ve flipped the conversation. Katherine and I have had dozens of conversations in the meantime, several of them during a recent writer’s residency we both attended in the mountains of Colorado.
On account of the pandemic, Hill and I spoke over email, a format that had previously been too formal for one of my most valued friendships.
THE BELIEVER: When did football start to capture your attention? Before or after you took an interest in literature?
KATHERINE HILL: Literature was definitely earlier and louder, but they were both important to me as a kid. Football was just in the air. I watched college and professional games every weekend with my parents, who are also lit people, and I spent six really formative years in Central Virginia, where football was the dominant sport and community event. One of my many contradictions is that I’m intensely drawn both to private activity and to participation in some kind of social collective. As a kid, I wanted that collective to be the dominant one—my private literary life was weird enough—so the part of me that wanted to just be in the world, and be with other people, was the part that found its way to football.
BLVR: What kind of football fiction have you read over the years?
KH: I’m not sure I read any before embarking on A Short Move. I saw fiction and football as totally separate worlds until it occurred to me to join them. Then I made it a point to read some, so I’d know the tradition I was entering, but not all, so I wouldn’t lose my nerve. My favorite is Jim Shepard’s short story “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak,” about Texas high school players. I still haven’t read Peter Gent’s iconic North Dallas Forty.
BLVR: In the book, did you try to express your feelings as a sports fan?
KH: Chapter twelve, the last chapter, takes the perspective of a fan. There are eleven players on a side in American football, and there’s a saying that the fans are the twelfth man, so I liked the parallel there. Chapter twelve is also the only chapter written in the first person, and the only chapter written from the perspective of a person who shares some of my general cultural and sociological background. It was sort of my way of saying a nerdy female fan made this novel, not a player. In case you couldn’t tell.
BLVR: Is literature able to capture the experience of watching sports?
KH: This was an exciting challenge with this novel: How do I write about a physical game? Wouldn’t it make more sense to run or tackle about football? But of course there’s a whole body of literature devoted to capturing the feeling of watching or playing sports—sports journalism. The best, like Nicholas Davidoff’s Collision Low Crossers, is observant and arresting, but most adheres to convention to the point of banality.
This is true of every broad category of writing. There’s a standard script: Reporters say their lines and athletes say theirs, which is too bad, because so many sports have really interesting relationships with language. In football, for example, most plays begin with the quarterback’s voice. I really wanted to capture the conversational quality of the game—all the talking, on and off the field, that gets us through four quarters of play—and I wanted to confront that original challenge. How can I meaningfully render a physical, nonverbal experience in words?
BLVR: Top five favorite sports films?
KH: A League of Their Own. The Cutting Edge. Rocky. Zidane. Hoop Dreams.
BLVR: Have you studied play books?
KH: I learned enough to suggest what a player might understand. This does not, in any way, mean I can play or coach. It just means I can write sentences that invite a reader’s belief.
BLVR: Who’s your team?
KH: I can actually say the name now! The Washington Football Team [Previously the Redskins].
BLVR: Were they your team because they were close to where you grew up?
KH: More or less. In high school, I moved to the Maryland suburbs, which is Washington territory, and then I paired up with a Marylander who’s a die-hard fan. The Washington Football Team has been a big part of our relationship for almost twenty years now.
BLVR: For you, what does it mean to have a team?
KH: For many years, it felt like letting down a friend to miss a game—like flaking on a prior commitment. I would argue with myself in all sorts of ridiculous ways. Is this other thing I think I have to do really more important than the game? I know a lot of people take the opposite position—it’s just a game, what could matter less?—but I think because it was so connected to my husband, it felt important. It was something we did together for no other reason than to pay attention to the same thing together, and it was something we talked about with friends and family back home. I watch so much less now, and so does he, partly because our lives have gotten busier, partly because the team has been so bad and the organization so disgraced, and I often regret it. Sports teams are bridges between people who might not otherwise have much to discuss, and televised sports are great occupations for the mind.
BLVR: Do you feel the same way about writers? Do you have a writer who you feel loyal to?
KH: I’ve never thought about that before, but yes. I’m the same way with people. I will never let go of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, and I will never let go of friends from school.
BLVR: I find that it’s helpful reading an author in their entirety, the good and the bad, to see them as a whole artist, instead of just reading the hits. Do you more easily forgive those authors for their missteps?
KH: I think I do. But I could never do it without that initial sense of loyalty. The first or second encounter has to be powerful for me to commit to the warts and all. And then I’m reading the writer differently, studying them, looking for connections among the works, even as I enjoy or argue with them.
BLVR: You recently wrote an in-depth study of Elena Ferrante. Why isn’t she one of your writers?
KH: Oh, she is. I have a big personal pantheon and Ferrante is at the top. But I found her as an adult, so she didn’t suit my cute school days analogy. Her interest in finding a language for experiences that often elude language feels relevant to this conversation.
BLVR: This kind of loyalty to teams/writers is a way of building up identity through associations. What other cultural touchstones are important to your identity in this way?
KH: School for sure. I cultivate detachment when it comes to employers and institutions, but I always show up at reunions. Politics, where I’m Team Bernie and Team Left. And you know what else is coming to mind? Those old identity charts, where you would fill in your favorite books, movies, music, foods. Remember those? I loved doing them as a kid. It was so satisfying to see myself organized into categories, defined by my particular taste. By the time Facebook came around, asking the same basic profile questions, I was much more skeptical, but I still gave my answers. I was a senior in college, and everyone was doing it.
BLVR: Does it work the same way in the other direction? Do you hate any teams?
KH: I hate all of Washington’s rivals in the NFL: the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Giants, and the Philadelphia Eagles. I also hate the New England Patriots for winning too much. This is a very mild, mostly pretend form of hate, though. Please don’t worry about me too much.
BLVR: Do you think there’s any danger in sports rivalry?
KH: Not for a peacemaker like me. But for people who like to brawl, sure.
BLVR: Do you see athletes, in any way, as artists?
KH: In a very general, but very meaningful way, yes. Athletes create something out of their chosen material, the same way I do. They work with patterns, and within limits, which give their work its form. There’s often a pursuit of the sublime in the execution. And there’s a significant relationship with an audience.
BLVR: Do you watch other sports?
KH: So many! Figure skating. The Olympics generally. Tennis. World Cup soccer. March Madness. NBA basketball. I especially love tournaments and playoffs, because they feature a limited cast of characters for a defined period of time. But I also love following favorites over the course of many years, sometimes intensely, sometimes at a casual distance. I miss Dwyane Wade in basketball, and love that I can still check in on LeBron. The current era in tennis has been amazing for that: more than twenty years of Serena Williams and Roger Federer winning titles and changing clothes and having children. Such an innocent question, such an intoxicated answer! For me the pleasure of sports is as much about character as it is about action. I guess in that way fiction and sports have always shared space, as vehicles for narrative.
BLVR: Do you find that the narrative arc of games succeeds or fails on the same terms as fiction?
KH: Well, I’m a very weird sports fan, and a decently weird fiction reader. I don’t need satisfying resolutions in either case. Watching football, yes, I want Washington to win, but there are boring wins and spectacular losses, and who’s to say which of those is a better way to spend an afternoon
BLVR: Do you dislike satisfying resolutions? If I’m enjoying a film or book and anticipate a resolution that is too satisfying, I might stop before the end. People think I’m insane, but I’d just rather leave it open-ended.
KH: I just think you have standards! I admire elegance, so I can appreciate a “perfect” ending, but it has to surprise me. I can’t see it coming.
BLVR: For you, what are the great unresolved endings in literature?
KH: Tristram Shandy ends prematurely, with an interruption about animal husbandry and a dick joke—which couldn’t be more perfect for that book. Ferrante’s ending for Neapolitan Quartet enraged many readers, but it works for me on so many levels. It’s at once formally tidy, with the return of a totemic object, and emotionally unsatisfying, with respect to the narrative’s central friendship. I read it as a blunt challenge to our expectations for literary realism.
BLVR: In your book, to what degree were you considering the classic arc of the rise-and-fall sports biography?
KH: I used its outline to write against it. It’s so familiar to us that I think we can largely assume all the big events—the first catch, making the team, the championship run, getting cut. I was interested in the non-events, like aging, shooting the breeze with coworkers, and trying to understand your kids. The feeling of life.
BLVR: When I think of your writing, I always think of your sentences. Do you think in sentences?
KH: I had to think about this for a moment, and that thought was basically your question, rephrased. So, yes, I do! But most thoughts are so fast that they’re more like outlines of sentences, skipping over the words I already have. When I’m working through something, I’m thinking more slowly, building the sentences as I go. I think my private life probably features a lot more nonverbal thinking, especially now that I’m caring for a baby full-time, but my work life (writing) and social life (talking) are very much the terrain of sentences.
BLVR: As a teacher and writer, do you find that there’s any kind of taboo within intellectual circles against sports?
KH: In some corners, sure, but lots of people get it. Public Books, which was founded and run by scholars, has a whole section devoted to sports. It might be fairer to say that sports is niche in the literary academy, rather than taboo. A couple of years ago, I was on a panel about sports in fiction and poetry. It was at AWP, the big national conference of writers and writing programs, and thirty to forty lost souls showed up to talk about athletes and language and narrative time and capitalism. At the time, I was struggling to find a publisher for A Short Move and yet I’ve never had a more enthusiastic response to a presentation. People still write to me about it. I think we all felt a bit misunderstood by the literary mainstream and were grateful to find each other.
BLVR: You feel that this book has connected to your audience more than The Violet Hour?
KH: All I know is that I’ve been astounded at the number of people who have read it and written to me about it—people who love sports, and people who don’t. I don’t remember this kind of reaction the first time.
BLVR: For you, what is a truly satisfying reaction to your work?
KH: When a complete stranger emails or approaches me out of the blue to tell me my book felt like their life. That’s happened a couple times. It’s extraordinary—like sharing a psychic connection.
BLVR: You just had a baby who I have, unfortunately, only seen in pictures. How has motherhood begun to change your approach to writing?
KH: So far the primary change is a carefree lack of concern for the writing. It’s on the back burner, but I’m trusting I’ll return to it eventually. Ten years ago this situation would’ve really stressed me out. I have more patience now.
BLVR: On another note: something I’ve always wanted to know about you is, how do you maintain your positive attitude all the time?
KH: You’re the one calmly conducting an interview in the middle of a wildfire evacuation! The truth is, you’re catching me at an outstanding time in my life. Oxytocin is coursing through my body, making me feel generous and resilient, and enlarging my sense of perspective. If we’d had this conversation two years ago, when I was struggling to get pregnant, and struggling to publish A Short Move, it would’ve sounded very different. But I do think I’m lucky generally. I was born to loving parents with favorable material circumstances in late 20th-century America. And my brain chemistry has, on the whole, been kind.