Interview With Steve Kluger, Author of Last Days of Summer

Written by Claudia Kinsley | September 16, 2015

Steve Kluger is a successful author, whose career began over thirty years ago with the publication of his first novel and his first play. He followed this “overnight success” by writing four more works of fiction, a non-fiction book and three more plays.

In this interview, the author discusses the moment it all began and the experiences, which combined to contribute to his unique and creative marketing skills. His writing is a reflection of his personal passions, most notably baseball, the gay lifestyle, and World War II.

Steve offers aspiring authors solid advice about the important steps to take when self-publishing, the value of viewing rejection as a challenge and explains how fearlessness was integral to his success. Be sure to stick around for the end of the interview, where he makes a very exciting announcement!

For more information about the author, see http://www.stevekluger.com/. To purchase his books on-line, visit Amazon.com

AP: You burst onto the literary scene in 1984, when your first novel, Changing Pitches and your first play, Bullpen, were both released in the same year. How in the world did that happen?

Steve Kluger: Dumb luck.  I wrote them both in 1982, and since I had no experience and hence no literary agent, I made up a phony manager, got him his own letterhead and telephone number, and submitted the novel to every publisher in New York.  Within a year, all but one had turned it down, so I had pretty much lost hope—until the truant holdout came through with an offer.  Meanwhile, my circle of friends included a few actors, so getting the play to local stage companies in L.A. (where I was living at the time), wasn’t very difficult.  Changing Pitches came out in May of ’84, and Bullpen opened six weeks later.  Even then I was smart enough to think to myself, “Don’t expect this to happen every time.  This ain’t normal.”

AP: In 1998, you returned to familiar subjects and published my all-time favorite novel, Last Days of Summer. This wonderful baseball story, written in your trademark epistolary style, depicts a young boy’s heartwarming relationship with a major league baseball player. You followed that up, in 2004, with the release of a laugh-out-loud gay romance, Almost Like Being in Love.

How would you describe the public’s reception to these two novels and how did it influence your future writing?

Steve Kluger: The response to Last Days of Summer was so overwhelming that I was convinced my mother had paid these people to write the reviews they wrote.  It’s been in print for 17 years, won a bunch of awards, and is now a standard part of high school and college curricula.  I bring this up to underscore the fact that it took six years to sell—nobody wanted it.  They were so thoroughly put off by the unorthodox narrative style that they rejected it out of hand.

Similarly, Almost Like Being in Love took 3½ years to sell, even after the success of Last Days of Summer.  Again it was an instance of the narrative style, in this case coupled with a gay storyline (which major publishers still shied away from in 1999), which earned it a rejection from every publishing house in town.  Eventually, my new editor at HarperCollins, who’d taken over Last Days of Summer from my previous editor (who’d been the first person to turn down Almost Like Being in Love), asked to read it.  Two days later, he bought the book for Harper.

When it came out in 2004, it was released as a mainstream novel rather than a gay one; it also won a couple of awards, got me my favorite review quote of all time (“As breezy and preposterous as a Broadway musical”), remains in print today, and seems to be the most durable of them all—at least in terms of sales and the letters I get from readers.

The moral here is that a proven track record doesn’t seem to count for much.  I wrote one more novel after that—My Most Excellent Year—to which the identical thing happened:  a full year to sell it, rejections from most of the industry, an eventual buyer, awards, Mom-type reviews, etc.  But after awhile, the positive results aren’t enough to balance out what you have to go through to get there.  I gave up writing novels after that and went back to stage plays and newspaper/magazine pieces.  It just wasn’t worth it any more.

AP: Weighing the benefits between self-publishing versus traditional publishing is a quandary among new authors. Which would you advocate for aspiring authors and why?

 

Steve Kluger: Traditional publishing is always going get you a kind of traction from the press that you won’t normally get from self-publishing, so it’s best to start off by trying to sell your work to an established house.  Failing that, self-publishing is definitely a viable way to go, but you’ve got to follow a couple of rules:  (1) hire somebody who can edit and proofread it for you.

As a reader of both traditionally and non-traditionally published books, if I get to the third typo, grammar error or misspelling, the book goes into the trash; (2)  Approach authors, directly or through their agents, who have written books that are similar in theme to yours and see if you can get a jacket quote from them; and (3) Don’t think the job is done once the book is on Amazon.  Mail it to every national book reviewer whose contact information you can find and come up with ways to promote it online—via blogs, a web page, Facebook, and other social media.

AP: Writing a novel has got to be a daunting task. How do you begin and, most importantly, how do you motivate yourself to keep at it, day after day, until it’s finally done?

Steve Kluger: I’m the wrong one to ask about this, because I work in a completely unorthodox way.  Once I have an idea for a novel, I keep a notebook in which I periodically jot down ideas, characters, story developments, etc.  Meanwhile, I forget about it and let the whole thing germinate in my head for however long it takes.  Without fail, there’s always an unanticipated moment when something totally unrelated causes all of the pieces to fall into place.  When that happens, the notebook gets picked up, the notes are re-read, the chapters and their contents are blocked out on a structural grid, and within 3½ months, the novel has been completed (Last Days of Summer took seven weeks to write—after thinking about it for 11 years; Almost Like Being in Love took fourteen weeks to write—after thinking about it for 13 years).  The issue of motivation doesn’t come into play, because once the process has begun, I literally can’t stop it.  It’s genuinely a case of the book’s writing itself.  The years of letting it simmer have taken care of working out all the kinks ahead of time.

AP: Everyone has their own deliciously unique life story. Please tell us yours; including the experiences which may have influenced you in your writing career.

Steve Kluger: For starters, let’s just say that growing up on I Love Lucy was less about a pioneering television show and more about learning a set of rules—or anti-rules in the case of Lucy Ricardo’s “brainstorms”—that could get you anywhere you wanted to go despite the preposterousness of the odds.

I’d prefer to skip over the first 13 years (except for the part about shaking Lucille Ball’s hand at the World’s Fair and meeting Ethel Merman at Lincoln Center), since you can pretty much get it out of any Dickens novel from Oliver Twist to Bleak House:  The splintered family, the warring divorced parents, the four sons played as pawns, the ostracism to military and prep schools, etc.  The only benefit of the prep school from 9th through 12th grades was that it moved me from Baltimore (where my mother lived) to Tarrytown, New York, 25 miles north of the city (where my father lived), which meant that on Saturdays, I was allowed to leave school for the day and spend 12 hours in New York.  Translated, this meant that I had every Broadway musical in town at my feet.  (In an effort to compensate for having no interest in providing me with a home, my father instructed the ticket agency with whom his firm had an account to let me have a pair of seats to any and all Saturday matinees I requested and to send him the bill.  Even then, I knew I was getting the better end of the deal.)

During my first year in high school, I evolved a form letter that I’d personalize to the star of whatever show I was seeing that day and drop it off at the stage door beforehand, requesting permission to come backstage afterward to meet him/her.  For some wholly inexplicable reason, my powers of persuasion at 14 were remarkable:  I batted around .850, and half the time these people had to have been asking themselves, “Wait.  Why did I invite this kid back?”  Most memorable experiences were fifteen minutes of discussing ancient Greece with Melina Mercouri, a compliment from Ingrid Bergman on my typing, casual banter with Angela Lansbury about Gilbert & Sullivan, and an apology from Lauren Bacall because she had to go into an interview and didn’t have time to talk.  Then there was the Tony Awards.

It was two months before I turned 16, and I got it into my head that I was going to see the Tony Awards in person instead of just on television (despite the fact that they’d been sold out for months).  So I sneaked out of boarding school in my school blazer and slacks, took the train into New York, tried without success to find a standing room ticket, and wound up pulling open the gold-painted stage door at the Shubert Theatre and telling the stage doorman that my mother—Carol Channing—had forgotten to leave my ticket at the box office and could he please go get her for me?  Three things worked in my favor:  (1) I may have been 15, but I looked 12, which made it appear extremely unlikely that I was pulling a fast one; (2) I knew he couldn’t leave his post because it was his job to stand guard and keep out gate-crashers like me; and (3) I was obviously telling the truth since it would have been so easy to prove that I was lying:  “Miss Channing, is this your son?”  “Why, no, dear.  I’ve never seen this boy before in my life.”  So he waved me in and told me where to find the dressing room in question—and when he wasn’t looking, I took a detour up a flight of stairs and wound up watching the entire thing from the downstage right wing, along with the various celebrities waiting to go on.  When I used this story—verbatim—in My Most Excellent Year, I often got the criticism that this was the only part of the novel that people tended to think crossed the line in terms of credibility.  This is the down side to “write what you know”—sometimes the truth reads like a Vitameatavegamin commercial.

That’s part one.

The other experience that not only influenced but actually began my writing career happened on Sunday, June 18, 1978, which was the day I discovered baseball.  I’d been dragged to Dodger Stadium against my will to watch Don Sutton go head-to-head with Wayne Twitchell  and the Montreal Expos (and to be aided in the late innings by Bobby Welch making his first appearance in the bigs).  For fifteen outs I was bored to tears.  And then, at the bottom of the third, Davey Lopes began to rattle Twitchell but good in his repeated attempts to steal second.  For over five minutes it was a tug of wills, each one defying the other to make a move—and I was absolutely mesmerized.

So much was going on, and with so few moving parts involved, that I began to see the entire contest in terms of the thousands of tiny decisions we’re required to make every day of our lives, and the risks that are inherent in each one of them.  It wasn’t so much an epiphany as it was a permanent shift in the two hemispheres of my brain.

Irrevocably hooked on something brand new and indefinable, I sneaked into the ballpark on my own the following Thursday afternoon to watch Joe Niekro and his Astros squeak by Doug Rau, 4-3—and I knew before it was over that I was never going to be the same again.  In fact, I absorbed the 150-year history of the game so voraciously that, by late September, people were asking for my opinion before they placed their bets in playoff and World Series pools.

Which leads directly to the next question.

AP: What was the impetus behind your decision to pursue writing as a full-time job? Was there a pivotal moment?

Steve Kluger: July 7, 1979.  I was writing a letter to a friend, and it turned into my first novel (unpublished), titled Slightly Off Base and chronicling the rise of a left-handed shortstop for the Yankees.  It literally happened out of nowhere.  Up until then, I’d been concentrating on a career as an actor, so this took me completely by surprise.  I’d been told through my high school and college years that I had the ability to write—but it never occurred that there was a potential career in being able to bluff my through the essay part of an Ancient History exam (especially when I literally had no idea what the Peloponnesian War was) and wind up with an A.

(In 1963, I wrote a fan letter to Madeleine L’Engle after I read A Wrinkle in Time, and in her reply she suggested that my letter to her showed all the early signs of an embryonic author.  I didn’t believe that either.  But later, when I was an adult, she told me that she never wrote that to any kid unless she actually saw signs of a talent that needed to be encouraged.)

AP: Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give the young aspiring author, Steve Kluger?

Steve Kluger:  I wouldn’t.  The 29-year-old who wrote Changing Pitches knew exactly what he was doing:  He thought outside the box, he treated every rejection as a challenge rather than a defeat, he stayed plugged into the fearlessness that got him backstage at the Tony Awards for the three hours that Carol Channing was allegedly his mother, and he didn’t recognize the word “no” as a valid part of the English language.

AP: Novelists often use their own their personal experiences, and people they know, as inspiration for their books. On your website, it is clear you are a rabid Red Sox fan and that you also exhibit a strong interest in the gay and lesbian community.

In 1990, however, you veered off course, with Yank: The Army Weekly. The book, a scrapbook view of the war from the GI’s perspective, is actually a collection of representative pieces from Yank, during the period from1942 to 1945. To this you added an introduction, an essay preceding each section, and a year-by-year overview of the changing home front.

Why the decision to delve into non-fiction and why does it remain as your sole work in this category?

Steve Kluger: I’d always been a bit of a World War II buff, and I was already involved in the Japanese American internment redress movement, but I’d never read about life in the Army during the war years from the guys who’d actually lived it.  Then I found a few copies of Yank in a used bookstore and was immediately transported.  From the letters column, containing GI gripes, to the “Notes Around the Bases” feature, to the hard news, to the cartoons, to the Hometowns in Wartime photos, to the pinups, it was literally like being there yourself.

Eventually, I’d collected most of the issues from 1944 and 1945 (those from 1942 and ’43 were virtually impossible to find because paper recycling was in effect during that time); I wasn’t particularly interested in the idea of writing a nonfiction book per se, but this material grabbed me enough to want to do something with it.  So I put together a proposal because I felt that this was the kind of book that would immediately bring the era to life for kids who were studying that period in American History classrooms.  Not coincidentally, it was also an alternately funny and heartbreaking read that any nonfiction reader could appreciate.

When the proposal sold, I traveled to the Department of Defense in D.C. to read through the archives and to copy the material I wanted to use from the missing issues.  It didn’t take very long to put a completed manuscript together, and that was the extent of my foray into nonfiction—mostly just assembling the words of others and inserting essays and commentary of my own where I felt it was needed.  As a genre, nonfiction is my favorite kind of book to read, but I could never really write one myself—it’s too constricting for me, and it limits the ability to use my imagination.

It also turns out that Yank was a terrific rehearsal for Last Days of Summer.  When I wrote the latter seven years later, I didn’t have to do any research at all—it had already been done in 1989.

AP: What can we look forward to next?

Steve Kluger: A Broadway musical adaptation of Last Days of Summer.  It’s been in the works for a couple of years, but the script and score were finally finished three weeks ago.

AP: Ah, we always love happy endings! Thank you, Steve, entertaining us with your adventures in life and for offering your own experience-proven advice to our readers.