DeKALB – Jim Ball had never written anything before his first novel, but you couldn't tell that from reading it.
"Digging Home" is the story of a 12-year-old Catholic boy named Benny who rescues a dog about to be euthanized at the county animal shelter. Little does he know it at the time, but the dog will eventually save both his family and their home. These events are set against the backdrop of a fateful summer in the 1970s in this coming-of-age tale of loss, laughter, childhood pranks, puppy love, Little League baseball and an act or two of heroism.
A lifelong resident of DeKalb, Ball retired from the U.S. Postal Service in 2007. He and his wife of 35 years, Barb, have two adult daughters. Ball works part-time at the Northern Illinois University bookstore and has been a referee for middle school and high school football and basketball games for 35 years.
"I like (reffing) football better because you're farther from the fans," the longtime Chicago Cubs and Bears fan jokes.
Published by Windy City Publishers, the 250-page paperback can be found on Amazon. Local bookstores are expected to carry it next month.
Ball sat down with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson on a snowy day recently to discuss his book, dogs and baseball.
MidWeek: Why did you decide to write a book?
Jim Ball: A couple of years ago, I retired from the post office. I was thinking of some things I might like to do and I wondered if I could write a book. I had a couple of ideas bouncing around in my head so I thought, "Why not give it a try?" I had a lot of fun doing it. I really enjoyed it.
When I first told my wife, I thought she'd think I was crazy, but she was like, "Oh, yeah, go ahead and do it."
MW: How did you come up with this idea?
JB: I had been told, "Write about what you know about." I know about baseball and about dogs and kids. Different things in the book that happened, whether it was sports or just coming-of-age-type of things and religion, are kind of things I had memories of. I just tried to add a little humor into that.
MW: Without giving anything away, how would you describe your book?
JB: It's just about how you get by with day-to-day struggles. It's an enjoyable book with a little bit of value. I hope to get more kids to read it.
MW: Is this for children or teenagers?
JB: Mostly young adults, but I think anyone from 9 to 99 would like it.
When I wrote this book, I kind of pictured it as a movie, too. I think it's the kind of book that could be turned into a movie.
MW: How long did it take you to write it?
JB: About a year and a half. I did it all in longhand. ...I finished it about a half a year ago, but then I took it to Windy City Publishers and the editors wanted to refine some things. So it probably wasn't totally complete until about a month or two ago.
MW: Where did the dog rescue come from?
JB: I don't know. It just kind of happened. When you write a book, you want some things to happen. You can't just talk about everyday things.
MW: Where you ever involved with TAILS?
JB: Yeah, that's where I got him (his dog, Digger). ...We've fostered a few dogs from them over the years.
MW: Besides giving him the same name, did you model the dog in the book after your own dog?
JB: Yes. Actually, Digger (his dog) was rescued after Hurricane Katrina. The TAILS people went down and got him. They went down in vans and rescued a lot of dogs. They did a heck of a job. My dog had died the second month or so before that and I heard they had a bunch of more dogs they couldn't find homes for.
MW: Have you always had dogs?
JB: Since I was 18 or 19.
MW: Were any of the human characters based on real-life people you knew?
JB: The Wiswalls. I actually had a pair of older ladies living down from me. The priest is kind of a combination of two different priests that I knew. The police officer is someone I kind of knew back then. The kids, I just kind of made up them. Tara, I just kind of came up with her.
MW: Is it hard to remember what it was like back when you were a kid?
JB: It was. Sometimes you look at old pictures and you go, "Oh, yeah." You remember certain things that kind of impressed you at that age. Some of it just kind of came to me.
MW: Was the Little League season made up, or was some of it real?
JB: It was mostly pretty much made up.
MW: When I look back on Little League, I can remember a play or two, but that's all.
JB: Right. I can't remember a whole game. Oh, gosh, that was too long ago. ...You remember good plays you made and a few bad plays you made. In fact, the one play where the ball goes through the kid's legs, it cost them a trip to Wiliamsport, that did happen to me one time, but it was just a regular game. It wasn't a big game. It just squirted under my glove. I felt like two cents when I went back to the dugout.
MW: The chapter where they go to Wrigley Field, did that really happen?
JB: No. When I first wrote it, I wrote it in present day and I had them going up there and singing the National Anthem, but then I had to redo it, so I put it back before Harry Caray, but no, I never really got to do that myself.
The first time I went to Wrigley Field, it was back when we had black and white TVs, and I saw the ivy on the walls, I couldn't believe it, you know, I thought it was gray. It was just like in "The Wizard of Oz," you know, where all of a sudden everything went to color. I was in awe. It was beautiful.
MW: Have you ever been on the field at Wrigley Field yourself?
JB: We did go out on the field one time when Burt Hooton threw a no-hitter. We were in the bleachers and we didn't realize it because there were guys on base every inning. ...We jumped on the fence and down – actually, I sprained my ankle – so we did go out on the field.
MW: Once the book was done, was it hard to find a publisher?
JB: I just heard them (Windy City Publishers) on WGN one morning. There were being interviewed about people writing books in the Chicago area. ...They were good to work with. I told them this was my first time around. They had a few people work with me on it. They helped tighten up a few things.
MW: When will the book come out?
JB: Amazon should have it in a week or so. I ordered about 500 copies or so for myself, so that should be should be about a month. I'm kind of hoping for a book launching in April. I talked to the people at the Ellwood House, they have that carriage house back there. That's available April 20. The bookstore will also have a book signing whenever I want, so there's that, too.
MW: Because of the cute little way it ends, will there be a sequel?
JB: It could be. I'll have to see the way this goes. The thing right now is I have to market this.
MW: Do you think you'll write another book, even if it's not a sequel to this?
JB: I would like to. I would say probably, but I want to get through this one first.