Lately, my blog has been focusing on the idea of hope in literature, particularly in fantasy and science fiction. Hope is something that can be found in many fantasy and sci-fi books in one shape or another.
I’m happy to be able to discuss the theme of hope in the fantastical with Michael Lortz, author of Curveball at the Crossroads.
WS: Hi Michael. Thank you for agreeing to talk with me about hope in the fantastical.
ML: Thank you for having me. Always a pleasure to talk about what inspires us.
WS: Curveball at the Crossroads is described as being about second chances. What led you to write a book with such strong themes of hope and second chances?
ML: Good question. Let me talk about second chances first. I read several real-life stories of sports injuries and being a big fan of blues music and the crossroads folklore, I wondered what would happen if I put the two stories together. If someone’s dreams were ripped from them, what extent would they go to get those dreams back?
Now to the hope part. What if a deal you made cost you everything you grew to love? My main character makes a deal with the Devil. As he matures, he doesn’t want to lose his soul. That’s the main conflict. The Devil is possibly the most powerful antagonist in all of fiction. It would be very easy for the character to give up and the Devil to win and the book is over. I did think about that ending as I wrote. The challenge for me as a writer was to figure out how the main character could defeat the Devil.
This might sound weird, but I took a lot of influence from professional wrestling in writing the conflict. In professional wrestling, the bad guy always commits a moral violation. He might cheat or hit the good guy when he is not looking. He is a rule breaker. The crowd cheers for the good guy to reset the moral balance. If the bad guy was weak or beatable, resetting the moral balance would be easy. There would be no challenge. The goal is to make the bad guy as strong as possible, but still beatable. This gives the audience – in our case, the readers – hope that the good will win out. Pro wrestling fans, like many readers, believe in comeuppance.
WS: That is an interesting comparison. It seems like, in your book, you have obstacles to hope that are both internal (JaMark’s emotional state) and external (the deal with the Devil). Was one struggle more difficult to write than the other and why?
ML: Wow. I never thought of one conflict as harder to write. But the more I think about it, the internal obstacle was probably the harder of the two to write. The reason for this is because as a writer, you put yourself in the character’s mind state. JaMark is lost before he makes a deal with the Devil. He knows it and his family sees it. In order to write that and make it believable, I had to put myself into the mind of my own struggles. That realism is important, especially in regards to dialogue. There are parts of the story where he talks with other characters about his struggles. That has to be as real as possible in order to bring in the reader.
One of the important parts of the book (no spoilers!) is that a deal with the Devil can impact both your external and internal state. Do you keep it a secret? Do you tell people all of your interactions with the Devil? The Devil is a cunning, devious antagonist who will make life nearly impossible if you go it alone.
WS: Your main character, JaMark, loses something incredibly important to him and it changes the trajectory of his life. Was it difficult to write a character who faces such big setbacks while keeping a hopeful tone?
ML: In my book, JaMark loses his ability to play baseball and with that loss, he loses his hopes for a better future. I set the story in rural Mississippi, the poorest part of the United States. JaMark has pinned his dreams on his left arm. When his arm breaks in his final amateur game, his life spirals downward. He eventually makes a deal with Devil to return to his dreams of playing professional baseball.
I wanted that strong ebb and flow of hope and setback. There are a lot of ups for JaMark, but there are also a lot of downs. At one point, he takes to alcohol and pills to ease the pain. But he realizes, through the help of key side characters, that there are no shortcuts in life. With their help, he is able to gather the strength, courage, and hope needed to face the Devil.
WS: Do you feel that themes of hope are important in the fantastical?
ML: Definitely. In the fantastical, authors can create evils of unlimited power. With a strong antagonist, the only way good can prevail is through hope. I mentioned the Devil as a strong antagonist. I am also a fan of the Star Wars Universe and that was definitely an indirect influence. When you look at Darth Vader, he looks unstoppable. But the main characters never lose hope. The challenge as writers is creating a situation for the protagonist so all they have left is hope.
WS: How do you define subgenres such as noblebright (or hopeful fantasy) or “cozy” books? Is it possible to have strong themes of hope in darker books?
ML: Honestly, I had to look up noblebright. Very interesting. From noblebright.org, “The world of a noblebright story is not perfect, and indeed can sometimes be quite dark. Actions have consequences, and even good characters can make terrible mistakes. But a noblebright story is generally hopeful in tone, even if there are plenty of bad, grim, dark things going on in the world.”
I think that is a really good definition of Curveball at the Crossroads.
I think there is a lot of darkness in our own world, where sometimes hope is all we have. Take world hunger, for example. I hope we can solve that one day. It helps to be positive. As a big music fan as well, I believe dark music, like dark novels, is for us to relate to, and eventually rise above. Curveball at the Crossroads has a lot of blues music influence. The blues is a music heavily based on relatability through bad times. If you have no money, you have the blues. At one point or another, many of us can relate to having no money.
But in relating to others, we are able to dissipate our pain or find someone who has gone on the same journey. And that’s where we find hope. Sometimes the hope is obvious. Sometimes hope is in the understanding that we are not alone in dark times. In Curveball at the Crossroads, the main character definitely finds that out along the way.
WS: I like what you mentioned about sometimes hope is the understanding that we are not alone during dark times. Do you think that a side character is often the more hopeful one in books? Why or why not?
ML: Yes. Definitely. A perfect example in fantasy is Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings. As the Sparknotes.com page on Lord of the Rings states, “If Frodo’s burden is to carry the ring, Sam’s is to carry Frodo.” That’s perfect.
The side characters in Curveball at the Crossroads were often the most fun to write because of their interactions with JaMark. Not all had to be as directly involved as Sam to Frodo, but I like when side characters help guide the journey. If they care about the main character, they probably see the conflict. Some might even have seen the conflict occur in unwritten backstories. Maybe it becomes a Wizard of Oz scenario where they form a group and strength in numbers to solve all of their problems. Whatever their involvement, their energy can be vital to the main character.
WS: Do you gravitate toward books with a hopeful tone?
ML: In the books I read, I think I do prefer those with a hopeful tone. As I mentioned, there is too much darkness in the real world for me to read books with a bleak worldview. Although I do appreciate stories or sections of stories that leave me worried about how or if our hero will save the day. As a Star Wars fan, I call those “Empire Strikes Back” endings.
WS: That makes perfect sense! I think you need those moments of uncertainty to really appreciate the themes of hope.
About the author:
Michael Lortz received his BA in Creative Writing from Florida State University. After getting a day job in the defense industry, he started writing about sports and music in his spare time on his personal blog. He has now written for many of the most popular baseball sites and covered music for local news media. His baseball writing and research has been quoted in USAToday, on ESPN.com, and at local county commissioner meetings. Michael lives in Tampa, Florida and Curveball at the Crossroads is his first novel.