In 11th grade, Jerry Spinelli traded his baseball bat for a pencil. The two deciding factors: his dreams of being a shortstop for the major leagues were, in his words, "going down the drain," and his p m about his high school team's impossible victory, "Goal to Go," appeared in his hometown newspaper.
At age 59, Spinelli looks like he could still play shortstop. Greeting his PW visitor, he wears a red short-sleeve collared shirt, khaki shorts, white socks and sneakers, and neatly parts his salt-and-pepper hair the way he did at age 11, when he first played for the Green Sox Little League baseball team in Norristown, Pa. His impish grin, the twinkle in his eye and a boyish energy indicate the kind of ready-for-anything stance required of the position. Yet he is also a man of humility and great patience, ideal attributes for any good sportsman. Patience has served him well since he made his trade.
The idea for his latest novel, Stargirl, first came to him 34 years ago. A departure from his other books, the story takes place far from his home state of Pennsylvania, near the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, and stars a young woman who is both real and too good to be true, who exudes an unflagging optimism (as a cheerleader, she routinely celebrates when the opposing team scores) and possesses startling insight. Spinelli remembers making a few notes at his desk at Chilton, where he worked as an editor at Department Store Economist, in the winter and spring of 1966. That was at the dawning of his double life. For 23 years, Spinelli closed his office door at lunchtime to write fiction.
Stargirl's character and story underwent a number of transformations: one of the working titles was Under the Bomb, and Moonshadow was among the list of potential names for the heroine. Spinelli now says, "If there was any model for Stargirl at all, it would be Eileen," his wife of 23 years and a published author in her own right, whom he met at Chilton. But during those first attempts, the story wasn't gelling, so he put it away after 100 pages. Subsequently, over the course of 12 years of surreptitious lunch hours, he completed four adult novels, none of which were accepted for publication.
Something different happened when he began to write his fifth novel. He experienced what he refers to as a "muse visitation," the first of two. Spinelli had placed leftover chicken from dinner in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator to take to work with him the next morning. At lunchtime, as usual, he closed his office door to eat and write. When he opened his lunch bag, he discovered only bones. One of his six children had sneaked down into the kitchen after hours, eaten the meat and left the chicken bones, picked clean, in the paper sack. Greatly amused, Spinelli started to write about the incident from an adult's point of view, just as he always had. But then a thought came to him: it might be more interesting to write the story from the kid's point of view. The thought would change his career. That kid turned out to be Jason Herkimer and the novel, Space Station 7th Grade (Little, Brown, 1982).
Spinelli had been submitting his lunch hour endeavors to agents and publishers for years, to no avail--until Space Station. On the recommendation of a local author, he mailed the first three chapters of the as-yet-incomplete fifth novel to agent Ray Lincoln. Lincoln told Spinelli that she would review only a finished manuscript. But somehow Spinelli's wife, Eileen, convinced Lincoln to read those three chapters. "Eileen was driving the horse of my bandwagon for a long time," says Spinelli, admitting that he is still unsure of what magic Eileen worked to bring about an exception to the agent's submission policy. "The most thrilling moment for me, in publishing, was not the publication of my first book or any other," Spinelli says. "It was the letter I got from Ray Lincoln on a Saturday morning, telling me that she really liked my work," he recalls. Spinelli still has that letter; Lincoln remains his agent.
Even after securing an agent and selling his first book, Spinelli still had years to go before he would become a full-time writer. At least five of his published novels were written entirely at his desk at Chilton, on yellow magazine copy paper. With two writers and six children sharing the same roof, there were some ground rules, the most important being, "No kids allowed on the first floor after 9:30 p.m., even if you're in high school." Spinelli shares an anecdote about writing in his home office before the onset of computers: "I could show you a piece of yellow paper from [the manuscript of] one of my published books. You'd notice handwriting of another style, going up the margin." He g s on to explain that when his daughter, Molly, who knew he disliked being disturbed while he worked, wanted to ask him a question one day, she leaned over his shoulder--while he was writing--and, on the same page, wrote her question in the margin. "And I'm supposed to be able to concentrate in conditions like that," he remarks. "That encapsulates those years."
Yet that anecdote also reveals Spinelli to be a man who balances the pleasures of daily living with the discipline of his craft. He offers what he calls a "golden rule" to writers who ask his advice, which he, too, tries to heed: "Write what you care about. If you do that, you stand the best chance of doing your best writing." When it comes to his own, he adds, "Beyond that, I try to give a sense of the totality and the variety and the richness of a life well lived."
Anyone who has read Knots on My Yo-yo String (Knopf, 1998), Spinelli's memoir of his childhood, knows that he's had years of practice at living a full life. Growing up, he preferred playing sports to reading. If he had to single out one writer above all others who influenced him early on, it would be Felix "Red" McCarthy, the sports editor of the Norristown Times-Herald. "I read nothing more than I read the sports pages of the Times-Herald," he recalls. Later, McCarthy would be the man responsible for getting Spinelli's first p m published in the paper. A framed, yellowing clipping of "Goal to Go" hangs above Spinelli's desk; the American Legion baseball field where Spinelli played shortstop as a kid has since been renamed Red McCarthy Field. And it's on this field that Maniac Magee hit his famous frog ball.
Maniac Magee (Little, Brown, 1990), the story of a larger-than-life hero who unites a divided town, would win the 1991 Newbery Medal, but the story didn't come easily to the author. Here's where what Spinelli calls the "second documented muse visitation" comes in. After two tries, sitting at his Chilton desk, writing on that same yellow magazine copy paper, the author could not get the voice right. He was frustrated and decided to take a vacation from the book. No sooner had he turned his back on it than the opening line popped into his head. "I was in my office [at home] one night doing something else, and that's when the words came to me: 'They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump,' " he recalls. "I've never had the sense that I reached down and took hold of that sentence. It simply came to me."
Maniac Magee Country
To visit Magee country is to visit Spinelli country. It is the landscape of his childhood. Obliging his visitor's request, Spinelli leads a tour up Route 202 through Bridgeport, Pa., Maniac Magee's birthplace, over the Schuykill River headed north on what turns into Dekalb Street--Hector Street in Maniac Magee. This is the dividing line between East and West, black and white, a boundary Maniac breaks repeatedly in the novel. Along the way, Spinelli points out his childhood home on Marshall Street (the fictional Sycamore Street, where Maniac finds a home with the Beale family); his next home at 224 Chestnut Street, next to the lot where Maniac hits a home run; and 802 George Street, the memories of which Spinelli has mined most often for his fiction.
Each house on George Street has small, rectangular street-level windows through which coal was once delivered. Each window has a ledge about one to two inches deep. If you stand at the curb and throw a tennis ball against the ledge, the ball will come back on the fly. In this way, the young Spinelli practiced catching fly balls and grounders for hours. "That's how I got so good at being a shortstop," he says. At the end of the street, a field of grass seems to stretch into infinity. Through it run the railroad tracks on which Spinelli sprinted as a child, past Stony Creek to the right, Red Hill to the left; Maniac, too, runs atop these tracks, alongside this creek and past the eraser-red hill.
In Spinelli's acceptance speech for the 1990 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction, "Maniac Magee: Homer on George Street," he admitted that he and Maniac Magee are one and the same. "Childhood recollected takes on a quality that is practically indistinguishable from what we think of as myth," he says, his car pointed south out of Norristown. He drives past Lou's, where he often comes for a "Zep," derived from the zeppelin shape of the hoagie-like sandwich invented in Norristown in 1938. Spinelli points out that a Zep is more Italian than a hoagie, however: "You won't find lettuce or mayo; it's provolone, salami, Bermuda onion, tomato and oil, with or without peppers." Only Lou's and Linfont's still serve them.
The car passes the King of Prussia Mall, second only to Minnesota's Mall of America in size; "Malls like this sucked the life out of downtown Norristown," Spinelli notes a little wistfully. Once the town had four movie theaters; now there are none. The seat of Montgomery County, Norristown was once the largest independent borough in the world. Home to an impressive zoo, a state hospital that occupies about a quarter of the town's land (where Spinelli worked as a psychiatric aide one summer during college), a prison and four railroad stations, Norristown still relies on the P&W Trolley that figures so prominently in his Newbery-winning novel. Yet it's the fictional town in Maniac Magee that will live on in the minds of readers as well as the schoolchildren who come by the busload to visit Spinelli's Norristown each year.
In many ways, Stargirl marks Spinelli's return to the magical, legendary qualities of Maniac Magee. The title character's benevolent presence, like Maniac's, precedes her physical entrance in the novel. At times she resembles goodness personified. But Spinelli makes an important distinction between her mythic qualities and Maniac's. "In my view, Stargirl is emulatable, and not beyond the reach of today's kid, as someone who is larger-than-life might be," he observes. It's hard to imagine her living on, say, George Street or Marshall Street. She seems more like a desert mirage, hard to pin down, well suited to her Arizona setting. Yet one can imagine her being friends with the Beales; one can imagine her crossing Hector Street, cheering on Maniac's frog ball. As Spinelli observes, "I think she perhaps resides in more than just this moment. I see her as having come from the past and anticipating the future, at the same time participating fully in the present."
The author pulls into the driveway of the home he shares with his wife. Jerry and Eileen Spinelli have given up their 1929 house and two acres in Ph nixville, Pa., for a "two-office, one-bedroom house," as Spinelli refers to it. Their children have all left home by now. The couple's upstairs offices are separated only by a kind of loft area with a guest bed, fax and Xerox machine. Spinelli describes an ideal working relationship between them; the two act as each other's first editor and celebrate each other's work. "I feed Eileen my books chapter by chapter," he says. "If they're not right, she tells me so. If they are, she acts as a cheerleader. And I try to do the same for her." The image recalls that of Stargirl cheering for the other team. Spinelli chuckles, "If anybody would cheer for the other team, it would be Eileen."
The dinner hour approaches, and the two prepare for a barbecue with friends. They stand together at the door, bidding farewell with the ease of high school sweethearts. Lest anyone think that Spinelli, now a full-time writer for more than a decade, spends all his time working, he sets the record straight: "I'm a failed shortstop and a grandfather who writes."