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Competitive spirit fires up author Cochrane inspired by love of baseball, sister's drive

Buffalo author and Canisius College professor Mick Cochrane writes beautifully crafted, heartfelt novels about people who endure what should be mortal blows and somehow survive with grace and spirit.

That he manages to be very funny at the same time is somewhat of a miracle.

Cochrane, a St. Paul, Minn., native and Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius, has just published his third novel, "The Girl Who Threw Butterflies," which is set in Buffalo and features a girl with a talent for throwing a knuckleball pitch.

Cochrane cites many inspirations for this book, which is geared toward young readers: "Reading dozens and dozens of baseball books as a kid, playing sandlot ball with my sister, a fierce competitor who never threw like a girl; learning in high school to throw -- very badly -- a knuckleball; seeing Ila Borders, the first woman pitcher in men's professional baseball, as a member of the minor league St. Paul Saints ..."
Cochrane will read from the novel and sign books at a reception celebrating release of the novel at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Grupp Fireside Lounge on the second floor of the Richard E. Winter '42 Student Center at Canisius. Copies of the book will be available for purchase from Talking Leaves Book Store.
Here, Cochrane makes some observations about the book:

What inspired you to write for what publishers call "middle-grade" readers?
An editor who read "Sport," my second novel, told me he thought I would be good at writing for young readers. He said he was looking for good books about kids -- no special requirements for subject matter or style. This story about a knuckleball-throwing girl had been kicking around in my head so I thought I would give it a shot. Writing this book felt just like writing my so-called adult novels, exactly as challenging, exactly as rewarding.

Was it difficult to find the voice of a 13-year-old girl?
I think the key to writing from the point of view of a young person is that you have to be willing and able to remember what it felt like to be young. I seem to be able to do that.

The novel has interesting things to say about communication between parent and child, as Molly feels pressured to be the perfect daughter. Do you think parents know how to talk to their kids?
It's hard for parents to talk to their kids, I think, and probably even harder for parents to listen to their kids. They may say some things parents don't want to hear. ... One of the preoccupations I see in all my fiction is the difficulty of communication, period, how hard it is to find words for what's in your heart. In baseball, Molly becomes fascinated by different kinds of wordless communication: the signs and signals, the scorekeeping, a complicated secret handshake between teammates -- she discovers you can even express yourself by spitting. That's one of the appeals of the game for her: It frees her from language.

You dedicate the book to your sister, Sue. Can you tell us a little about her?
She is my older sister. When I was little, she told me and read me stories. She even drew me illustrations to accompany my favorite books. She's one of the most creative persons I've ever known. She's a family court judge in Minnesota now, a great mother, a cancer survivor, a voracious reader, an amazing musician. She's my hero. Without her love, support and inspiration, I don't think I'd ever have written a book.

Is baseball still the game you loved as a kid?
I don't love reading about steroids and multimillion-dollar contracts, but I still love what Molly loves about baseball: "the sound and smell of it, the leather and wood, the grass and dirt, the story and surprise in a good game." And I still love playing catch.

Are there any players out there now who can throw a knuckleball pitch?
Tim Wakefield! He played for the Buffalo Bisons in the early '90s and has had a long, distinguished career in the major leagues.

Can you throw a knuckleball pitch?
Sort of. Not really. We all fooled around and tried, but no one really could do it.

What can you say about Buffalo as a setting for a novel about grief?
Molly's mother hates Buffalo because it's so gray: depression-on-a-stick, that's what she calls it. Buffalo's weather and economic woes serve as a kind of counterpoint, I suppose, to the emotional grayness of the opening of the novel. But no matter what her mother says about Buffalo, it's home to Molly. It's where she's from and part of who she is. I think she identifies a little with the city: Both are scruffy underdogs. Personally I'm fascinated by how some people from fairly bleak landscapes may still flourish imaginatively: The Beatles came from Liverpool, Bob Dylan grew up on the Iron Range in Minnesota. I think Molly may be one of those people.

e-mail: jwestmoore@buffnews.com

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