Illness Ends a Career, Spurs Another: Q&A with ‘Hard to Grip’ Author Emil DeAndreis

EmilDeAndreisEmil DeAndreis’s memoir, Hard to Grip (310 pages; Schaffner Press), is delivered in five stages, which is fitting, because in many ways this book of baseball and chronic illness is a grief memoir. DeAndreis begins jubilantly with his story of a promising high school career, becomes absurdist when he arrives at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, and then takes a sharp, dark turn as he is confronted with an unlikely diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis. DeAndreis, 23 and preparing to pitch professionally in Belgium, must reckon with the end of his career because of a disease that most commonly affects middle-aged women. The writer, who is now a College of San Mateo professor as well as the author of a novel, must break down and rebuild his value system—he can no longer find his self-worth in toughness or physical strength; it hurts to even make a smoothie at Jamba Juice. The second half of Hard to Grip is about denial, anger, and eventual acceptance as DeAndreis mourns the loss of the game that defined his life.

I met DeAndreis when he was 17, and I was 14—a freshman at the same high school of which he was the star baseball player. San Francisco’s public school league is far from elite, and DeAndreis accurately portrays himself as a big fish in a small pond. But at 14, that pond was an ocean for me. DeAndreis, like many other ex-players, seemed destined for greatness—and then, like almost every other player, returned home. I understood, vaguely, that his arm had failed him. I never knew the failing was a chronic illness that altered his life far beyond sports.

Though DeAndreis’s career was unexpectedly taken from him so early, the fact is that every athlete faces the moment he or she can no longer play. DeAndreis writes at one point about a conversation he has with the players he coaches today. They ask him what it’s like to not play baseball anymore. He tells them “it’s like a disease you learn to live with.” They understand, as does the reader, that everyone eventually loses the game.

ZYZZYVA spoke with DeAndreis about the way chronic illness pushed him from the pitcher’s mound to the classroom and the world of writing.

ZYZZYVA: I know you started to work on Hard to Grip right when you were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. A lot of the book is about accepting this nasty twist of fate, but what was it like to write about the experience right as it was happening?

Emil DeAndreis: Writing after the diagnosis was all I could do—I just lied to everyone about the disease at the time. I was not honest about it, because I didn’t want the sympathy. As a 23-year-old, that was the last thing I wanted. You are now weaker. You are helpless. You are harmless. You are all these things. Now it’s been so long that I don’t even care. But finishing the book was that closure.

The narrative arc of this book is the narrative arc I experienced. I was writing this since 2011 when I was 24 and when I turned 30 I was still writing the book. In the course of a life, it’s a small window of time. But so much change happens for anyone in that time.

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Of course, I was a different writer as a 25-year-old than I am now, so I had to rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite. But the things I was thinking and the things I was processing were very organic. There’s nothing retrospective in terms of my cognitive process in the book.

Z: Your first book, Beyond Folly (152 pages; Blue Cubicle Press), follows the absurd trials of a San Francisco public school substitute teacher. At the time, you were subbing in the city—the narrator seemed like a bizarro version of yourself. But with Hard to Grip, you were forced to tell the story without the remove of a fictional narrator. What was the process of creating the voice of DeAndreis the narrator?

EA: With Beyond Folly, my approach was humor above all else. That led me to create caricatures of people, of San Francisco, and of public schools. But with the memoir, it was exciting to be forced to create authentic characters that people knew and understood and related to. I wanted the narrator to be believable and complex. I had to be able to expose my weaknesses and make sure even my proudest moments had flaws. I think those are the ways that people receive their own experiences.

Z: Hard to Grip is hilarious at times, but there is a rawness throughout, especially after the diagnosis. Did humor help you write more truthfully and openly about the painful moments of your life?

EA: Humor was the engine for the story. And retrospectively, it’s clear humor was the engine that got me through this disease. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I told every story with the intent to make people laugh because I was trying to make myself laugh as this was happening. I wrote this book as I was getting diagnosed. I was a young man attending support groups with old women; there are ways to make that appear tragic, and ways to make that appear funny. I chose the latter.

Z: How effective was the book as a way of you understanding how to live with rheumatoid arthritis and without baseball?

EA: When you get rheumatoid arthritis, there are two ways you have to acclimate: one is physically and one is psychologically. Physically, you just react. It came on so quickly that I didn’t have a choice. It was not like anyone said: in six months, you will have this disease, so now you have time to dread it. It was instantaneous—I was waking up every day more and more swollen.

But psychologically, it was different. Suddenly I had all this free time that I was used to committing to baseball. It was hard to accept that I was no longer a baseball player, but it was easy to fill up my time doing something else, which was writing. I started writing three or four hours a day.

I had been a creative writing major in college, so as my baseball career died out, writing took over. Kind of like passing the baton. Except track is probably not the best metaphor, because I couldn’t move. [Laughs]

hard-to-gripZ: So writing took over the same central place baseball had occupied? Are there other parallels between writing and baseball?

EA: In high school, I was not a prospect. I was good in the city but I wasn’t anywhere else, so it was hard to get scouts to come to my games. So I was forced to be tenacious. Getting recruited out of public schools, your back is against the wall and you have to prove yourself and you have to be committed from the beginning. You cannot fear rejection, because you’re going to get rejected. And not just on the field—there’s a whole nation of coaches and scouts who don’t think you have anything to offer, who you have to prove wrong, and it’s not easy.

Trying to get published isn’t much different. So basically, the idea of not accepting “no,” holding yourself accountable to your own practices, and not fearing rejection. Those things are so paramount in both writing and baseball.

Z: You’ve managed to return to the game, as a coach. You also have found your way to the classroom, teaching writing at College of San Mateo. Was returning to baseball cathartic?

EA: Anyone whose career ends prematurely goes through a period when they resist entering the game as a coach. I mean, it takes time to get past that. I hated baseball for a while. My first couple of years, I was not invested as a coach. I was bitter at the game of baseball and I was selfish. I thought I should still be playing. But then slowly you get to know these kids and you actually want what’s best for them.

When I finished my MFA, I had already coached for six years and subbed for six years. I had gotten over my bitterness. I had aged into someone who actually gave a serious fuck about younger people’s experience. So, I applied for the College of San Mateo job.

I treasure my time in the classroom.  Standing in front of 18-, 20-year-olds and engaging them in introspection and creative thought—it keeps me on my toes.  And their humor keeps me young. I love helping them become improved, and god forbid, even passionate, writers

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