Q&A with Rick Wilber

Asimov’s Editors: How did this story germinate?

Rich Wilber: “Billie the Kid” emerged from a work in progress, a novel I’ve been working on for the past year or so, tentatively titled Alternating Currents. It’s an alternate-history novel about my fictional version of the famous World War II era baseball player and spy, Moe Berg, and it features him as the player/manager of the Hollywood Stars baseball club in the Pacific Coast League of the 1940s. I’ve written about Berg and the mystery woman who’s his spy handler and sometimes lover in previous stories that have appeared in this magazine. One of those stories, “Something Real” (Asimov’s, April/May 2012), won a Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History—Short Form, and another one, “The Secret City” (Asimov’s, September/October 2018)  was a runner-up for that award a few years later.

In the novel, the Twinks (get it, Stars twinkle?), as they were called, had a large number of Hollywood celebrities as their part-owners, who would come to the game and root for their Stars. The team was very popular all through the 1940s. A militant group of Nazi sympathizers are out to destroy the Jewish-owned movie studios and the Southern California aircraft factories and shipyards, which are starting to turn out fighter planes and bombers and warships of all kinds by late 1941, right before Pearl Harbor. Moe Berg, his time-traveling handler named Eddie Bennett, and a few others are trying to stop this sabotage before it happens.

As I was working away on the second or third draft of that novel, I needed to fill in details on the ballplayers on that team, so as I often do I fell back my extended family, which is chock full of talented women athletes. My “aha” moment came when I conjured up Billie Davis as a minor character, originally just to pay my respects once again to those athletes. But as soon as I started writing about her I realized that her story was so interesting that she deserved more than a minor role, and that Moe Berg and his mystery woman were going to be more minor players in this story.   

I set her background in St. Louis, where I grew up. I even put her into the all-girls Catholic high school that both of my sisters attended. It wasn’t long before I came to realize that the story I wanted to write was hers. It wound up at novella length, telling Billie the Kid’s story, and I was very happy with how it turned out. I’m sure some close version of the novella will be in the novel.  

AE: “Billie the Kid” has baseball as an important element of the story. You use sports a lot in your fiction, and especially the sport of baseball. What’s up with that?

RW: I suppose that as a writer I’m known best for my baseball science fiction or fantasy stories. I’ve just counted them up, and there’s a full two dozen published stories.  There’s also a baseball mystery novel, Rum Point (McFarland Press, 2010), a well-received memoir, My Father’s Game: Life, Death, Baseball (McFarland Press, 2007), a couple of short-story collections, Rambunctious: Nine Tales of Determination (WordFire Press, 2020) and Where Garagiola Waits (University of Tampa Press, 1999) and a large number of nonfiction articles and reviews.

You can blame my father for my dependence on the game as a useful tool for creative writing. Del Wilber (1919-2002) spent a lifetime in baseball as a player, coach, manager, and scout. He was a catcher for the Red Sox, Phillies and Cardinals, a coach for the White Sox, a scout for the Twins and other teams, a pennant winning Triple-A manager and, for one brief game (which he won) a major-league manager.

So my siblings and I grew up inside baseball’s extended family, often spending the summer months wherever Dad was playing or coaching, rambling around the ballparks where he played, like Fenway and Shibe and Busch, or the several minor-league parks where he was manager. We even spent six months in Havana, Cuba, pre-Castro, when Dad played winter ball one year for the Habana Leones (Havana Lions).

It was an amazing childhood, and I was deeply imprinted by it. I played high school and college baseball myself, and then played amateur baseball for a variety of teams well into my fifties before I finally gave up trying to hit a good curveball.

If you write what you know, the thing I know is baseball. Dad was also a great storyteller, and my mother was an excellent writer, so when you put that together with my love for science fiction, you get someone that the Coode Street Podcast called “Science fiction’s dean of baseball stories.”  That’s a title I’ll happily embrace.

AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?

RW: Outside of my family and its connections to sports and writing, which I’ve already mentioned, my greatest influences and inspirations are the writers, editors, professors and colleagues whose work I admired and tried to emulate, in theme if not in style. Early in my career these people were a mix of mainstream and genre authors and academics, from Bernard Malamud (The Natural)  and Martin Quigley (Today’s Game, The High Hard One) on the baseball side of things to Andre Norton, Walter M. Miller and Ursula Le Guin on the genre side. Martin Quigley isn’t much remembered these days, but he was a terrific novelist and editor. I was lucky enough to be one of his writers for a magazine in the Midwest where he was editor-in-chief. He loved softball and though he had some years on him by then he was our pitcher in a city-league slow-pitch team that did really well. I learned a lot about writing and publishing by sitting next to him on the bench between innings and paying attention to his stories about his life as a writer in New York before he came to the Midwest. He was a sharp-eyed editor on my stories for that magazine. Oh, and he was an amazingly effective pitcher in slow-pitch softball, too.

On the academic side I really admired Roberta Bosse, Dickie Spurgeon, and William G. Ward. All three of them were professors at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville when I was there getting my bachelor’s in journalism and master’s in English (and, later, my doctorate in Education). There was very little creative writing taught in those days, so I was a journalism major, and Bill Ward was the best journalism teacher I’ve ever met. I was in awe of his writing and his teaching skills and incredibly proud of the fact that he brought me onto the journalism faculty after I completed my MA in English. That was when my teaching career began, and here I am nearly fifty years later still teaching and writing, and still appreciative of what the late Bill Ward taught me.

On the fiction side of my writing, Robert Bosse and Dickie Spurgeon, both on the English Department faculty at SIUE were the two professors who happily supported my desire to write science fiction and fantasy and allowed me to write short stories for my term papers, which was critical to my goals at the time. They were both on my thesis committee for the master’s degree, and with their help I muddled through.  Without their support I wouldn’t have become a teacher and writer of science fiction and fantasy. I owe them both a great deal.

On the inspiration side, I’m in awe of all sorts of fabulous writers in the field who I admire and try to learn from by reading their work. Many of them have become good friends over the years and they’ve inspired me to press on with my own work and try to improve. A very short list would include Ben Bova (who died from Covid this past year, and was great loss to the field), Robert J. Sawyer, Julie Czerneda, Gregory Bossert, Alan Smale, Kathleen Goonan (who we also lost this year to illness) Kevin J. Anderson (who’s a faculty colleague at Western Colorado University, and with whom I collaborated with writing a novelette for Asimov’s called “The Hind,” that made the Asimov’s Readers shortlist for best of the year), Fran Wilde (also a faculty colleague), Nicholas DiChario (who’s my trusted first reader and an excellent writer), James Patrick Kelly, Alex Jablokow, Walter Jon Williams (who runs the Rio Hondo workshop where I first met some of these very talented writers), Michaela Roessner-Herman, Oz Drummond, Gregory Frost, Brad Aiken, Adam-Troy Castro, James Morrow, and many, many more.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

RW: I’m about ready to send out a new novella, “Goose Flight,” that’s a companion piece to “Billie the Kid.” It’s set in 1941 Hollywood, and it’s a prequel to the action in “Billie,” following the spy handler Eddie Bennett as she travels in time to recruit Billie to take part in some important counter-espionage that will, a few years later, lead us into the action in “Billie the Kid.”

Together with the novella “The Secret City,” (that ran in the September/October 2018 issue of Asimov’s and was runner-up for the Sidewise Award in 2019), these new stories will comprise the novel, Alternating Currents, that I’ve been working on for the past few years. It’s what we call a “fix-up” in science fiction, where you put shorter work together to make a novel. In this case, it’s a fix-up that I’ve had in mind since I first wrote “The Secret City” and ended it with these next two stories in mind.  

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?

RW: Unless an editor for a magazine or anthology solicits a story from me, I always have Asimov’s in mind when I’m writing science fiction short stories. I feel like my work fits well in this particular magazine, and I always find the editing advice and copy editing from Editor Sheila Williams and Managing Editor Emily Hockaday to be very helpful in terms of maximizing the story’s potential. Asimov’s is my favorite magazine to read, though I love all the magazines in the field, and I’m always proud to have another story published in its pages.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

RW: I’ve been in the business for a while, and with the publication of “Billie the Kid,” and counting a few poems, too, I’ve had about twenty-one stories published in Asimov’s, starting with “Suffer the Children,” in the April 1988 issue. That’s more than a third of my total published short fiction.  

AE: What are you reading right now?

RW: When I’m working on this Alternating Currents novel or the Moe Berg stories associated with it, I’m very much in espionage mode, and World War II-era espionage in particular. My favorite author for that sort of material is Alan Furst, who’s remarkably adept at evoking the tension and fear of Nazi-occupied Europe. I just finished Mission to Paris, the twelfth book in his Night Soldiers series.

I’m also reading In the Woods and The Witch Elm by the remarkably good Irish mystery writer Tana French. I love her pacing and detail. I’ve also recently read Roddy Doyle’s The Dead Republic from his The Last Roundup Series. If you think you detect a certain Irishness to that part of my reading you’d be right. My wife and I have a real affection for Ireland, and have been there a couple of dozen times, often leading college study tours. On our last tour before the pandemic hit we led a wonderful group of science fiction writers and editors and academics and friends on a pre-Dublin Worldcon tour that was really terrific: great scenery, great people, great history, great conversation. It was a chance to introduce some of my favorite Americans to some of my favorite Irish friends. It was sort of a traveling Algonquin Round Table-ish tour of the West of Ireland.  We all had a marvelous time.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?

RW: I began my writing career as a sportswriter for several different newspapers, which isn’t too surprising given the sports culture I grew up in. And then by the mid-1970s I began a college teaching career that I’m still part of and still find very fulfilling. For a very long time I was a journalism professor who worked part-time at the local newspapers wherever I was living as a copy editor, reporter, and reviewer. I wrote too many reviews, interviews, travel stories, feature stories, sports stories and the like to begin to count them. I really enjoyed newspaper work and the search for the truth of things and I find the slow death of the newspaper industry to be deeply troubling in several respects. Newspaper reporting certainly helped me learn to write to a deadline, something I find much harder to do these days writing fiction than I did when I was covering rock concerts and basketball games for one newspaper or another.

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

RW: There sure are, starting with sports and especially baseball and especially women athletes. I’ve also been told my some reviewers and a couple of editors that I write mostly about relationships, usually one-sided ones where someone holds power over someone else, and that someone else chaffs under that kind of duress. Certainly that’s what my most recent novel, Alien Day, is all about where one of the main characters (a woman who played two college sports, of course) struggles to control her own life under pressure from several men (one of them an alien) in her life. I also often have Down syndrome characters in my stories and novels, all of them presented as the positive, upbeat people that they often are. I have a Down syndrome son  who’s had an enormous impact on my life in any number of positive ways and I proudly inhabit that particular culture as a caregiver and parent. There are a number of those Down syndrome influenced stories in my Rambunctious short-story collection from WordFire Press in 2020.

You can look for me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Rick.Wilber   and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/WilberSFWriter and I have a good website that gets updated with some frequency (and through which you can reach me) at www.rickwilber.net

Rick Wilber is a frequent contributor to Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, with stories that are often infused with elements of baseball and other sports. His new novel, Alien Day (Tor, 2021),features a near-future journalist who uses a “sweep” system for his reporting, where his audience becomes one with the journalist as he works. Rick has published a half-dozen novels and short-story collections and some sixty short stories, including the Sidewise Award-winning “Something Real,” and the Sidewise Award runner-up, “The Secret City,” both published first in this magazine. Those stories and his current Asimov’s story, “Billie the Kid,” feature a fictional version of famous ballplayer and spy, Moe Berg. Rick is a visiting professor in the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at Western Colorado University and he lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. His website is www.rickwilber.net.

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