A Conversation with Lynne Sharon Schwartz

By Kimbel Westerson

The biography of Lynne Sharon Schwartz reads like every writer’s dream.  One of the first works that brought her attention was published by The New Republic, a Watergate satire called “The Tapes as Theater.”  Her first novel, Rough Strife, was published in 1980 and nominated for the National Book Award.  Later, in 1989 she was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for her novel Leaving Brooklyn.

She writes in many genres—non-fiction, fiction, poetry and has published translations and has now published 19 books.  The Coachella Review was fortunate to get an interview with Ms. Schwartz recently when she was at University of California, Riverside—Palm Desert Graduate Center, reading from her memoir Not Now, Voyager.

From a craft perspective, when you started putting this together, did you decided, OK, I want to write about several specific trips, and then mold them together?  Or did the writing take you where it took you?
You know that’s a really good question, how this got put together.  I wrote a book, it came out in 1995, called “Ruined by Reading.”  This is kind of a sister or companion book. I started Ruined by Reading at a time I thought I have nothing to write about, I don’t know anything.  I had written myself out.  … 
I don’t know how exactly I began.  I may have begun writing about the person I call my uncle Burt, who is my uncle but that’s not his name.  “What can I write about?  I’ll write about that old trip to Florida.”  It was nothing.  It was nothing, but you know you have to make something of it.  So I use it in a sort of comic way and also as a sort of example of a certain kind of alienation, a “what am I doing here” feeling which I had as a traveler for the first time then.  I began it before I went on this particular trip to Italy. … That was not a successful trip.  I mean, it was less successful than most of my trips and partly because a good friend of mine had recently died which didn’t really belong in the book.  But I just didn’t want to be there.  I thought, “I’m too old to go every third day, a new town a new hotel.” I had started the book before that.  When I came back after this trip, it gave me even more material: “What’s wrong with me that I can’t enjoy myself on these trips the way everybody else does?”  And I began to explore that.  Now, what you said about the strands is very good, because I think of it as, these three—well, the Tao De Ching entered into it.  But there are three trips: the Florida trip, the year in Rome, and then there’s this Jamaica trip.  I think that’s all.

Greece.  You begin with Greece.
I begin with Greece, right, but that’s not really a strand.  That’s just like, the horror.  That’s a true incident.  Of course I knew the lights would come back on.  But I did feel quite lost in the dark in this strange, ugly town.  So these three main trips began weaving themselves in and in fact, I had an old piece of writing that had to do with Jamaica. It was supposed to be a story.  This Jamaica trip was in 1980, so it’s a long time ago.  And I went with my sister and her children and my children, it was a whole big family thing which I didn’t want to bother going into, so it sounds like I was there alone.  But I wasn’t.

I wondered while I was reading it if you were alone in all of these places.
No, I wasn’t.  …When you write, you really have to cut out a lot of stuff as the book shapes itself that may be very important in my life, not for the book.
So, I had written a story about what happened in Jamaica, the part where I go in the water, I think I see the hand in the water, and I wrote the story but I couldn’t make it work and the reason it didn’t work was that there was no resolution.  I never did find out what it was and so—yeah, a story can end in mystery, but the mystery has to allude to something.  And it didn’t.  It was just a mystery without any meaning. 
So by surrounding it in the book, this book, by other aspects of Jamaica, it didn’t really have a lot of meaning, but there is this political and racial tension throughout which I think comes through.  And so this hand takes on some kind of significance, if it was a hand, which I doubt.  But I think when a “symbol”—I use that word in quotes—you’re not quite sure what it’s doing, what it means, it’s suitable in this case because I didn’t know what Jamaica was all about, and here I am seeing something that maybe was an indication of racial enmity, but I don’t know what.  I don’t know what it was.  I just learned a little more about Jamaica.  For the book I looked up what was really going on there in 1980 and I put it in.  But I didn’t know then.  …
But the shaping this book was the hardest.  I had it all down there.  I had everything. I had one long narrative.  There were no chapters, it was just one thing leading—it was like a jig saw puzzle. That’s not a good image.  Something linear, like you have the numbers 1 to 10, and you arrange them in as many permutations, 1, 4, 6, 8.  Which I sometimes do with stories, I move those parts around for months.  And I showed it to a couple people whom I trust and they both said, “we don’t get why you go from this to that.”  So I decided I had to make the links even stronger and then I made chapters.  I really hated that I made chapters because I felt it was a concession to conventionality and that if I had been—not that anybody forced me—if I had been known as a famous avant garde author, I could do whatever I want.  I could make them go 10, 9, 8, 7, 6.
I do try to do different things all the time and I think my work is actually quite subversive but because it presents itself in ordinary English with paragraphs and the whole thing, they think it’s conventional, but to me it isn’t.  All right, give ‘em chapters and I’ll sound normal.  But in fact, I want the effect to be subversive and to be having you constantly questioning and sort of undermining conventional wisdom.  The unexpected.  You kind of wonder every now and then, does she really mean this? A little bit outrageous here and there, like the part about the borders.  Do you remember the part about the borders?  I think I was talking about South Africa.

Yes.  The mingling of the oceans.
And that was nice, it was a lyrical part and that’s really not so hard to do, I mean … that kind of thing you can do if you’ve written a lot.  But then I thought, as I often do, “Why do we need borders at all?  Open up all the borders and people will go where they want.”  Now, I really do know this is an outrageous idea.  It’s as likely to happen as I should fly to the moon.  But I really think that.  So I thought (I would) throw it into this rather conventional setting, now, with the chapters and nice paragraphs, and see what people make of it.  Is she some kind of a nut?  Does she really believe this?  So I threw that part in and then I resume the narrative that reassures you that I’m kind of one of you.  One of us.

And you’re not.
Everyone is that way, they sort of drop in and out of conventionality.  But anyway, those three strands, I worked very hard on finding links that work. They’re very tenuous. But they work and that’s what I really wanted, as I said, in the introduction.  The book is like a trip.  You go from here to there and you don’t often know if you’re a spontaneous kind of person, which I am not, but my husband is more, as a traveler, anyway.  You know you wake up one morning and how about go here, and then you stay there three days, and how about going there—and that’s how the book is.  So I’ve kind of indulged.  It’s saying two things.  That I’m kind of stodgy and just like to stay home, but on the other hand, when it comes to travels of the mind or the imagination, I can be quite daring.  That’s a long answer to your question.

It’s interesting to look at a memoir because in general, I think people say to write what you know.  Do you write what you know, or what you don’t know about what you know?
Do you know that’s a Grace Paley line?  That’s very good.   I have quoted that so many times.  I was on a panel with her and she’s asking that question and she said, very wisely, she said, “well, write what you don’t know about what you know.”  And I thought oh, that’s so brilliant!  And so when people ask me that, I always attribute, Grace Paley said, and here I thought it was so unusual.
I think you have to start by knowing something.  There’s so much I don’t know.  I’ll give you an example.  I was in South Africa recently and visited Robben Island where the prisoners, Mandela, et cetera, were, and we were led around on a tour by a former prisoner.  I’m not going to say the specific thing, I like it, I still want to use it, but a few of the details were very, very pungent and I said all right, I’m going to make a poem or a story about that particular detail about their lives in the prison.
I know a lot about South Africa. I’ve read and I know people from there.  And I started to write, it sounded very hollow. And I thought, “what do I know about being on Robben Island after all?”  Maybe I could write about prisoners on Riker’s Island in New York, you know our local druggies, I know a little about that, because I live there.  But what do I really know about being a black dissident in apartheid South Africa?  I just felt presumptuous.  So you have to know something.  I don’t know how people write about things they know nothing about.  They do a huge amount of research, for one thing.

Historical novelists.  But you still have to start with something.
I could do the data.  I could easily find out.  I do know what they wore and what they ate because they tell you.  But how they felt?  That would take a lot.

If you’re approaching that from the standpoint of shaping a proper story, if it’s fiction, you have certain latitude, don’t you?
Maybe I could do it more easily than I think.  The thing I do know is human psychology, emotional reactions, how people behave.  So maybe it wouldn’t be so hard for me to figure out how a dissident in South Africa felt.  I’m not sure.  I think it takes an awful lot of guts and presumption.  I had a heroine who was a mathematician. I did some research and interviewed a few people and made it sound pretty authentic and it got by.  And a mathematician once wrote me and said, “You know, it’s a very good book but I didn’t believe for a minute that she was a mathematician.”  Thanks a lot. 
Then I wrote a novel about a mother of four, she was a pianist and two of her children are killed in a car crash, a bus crash.  And I thought I did a pretty good job.  I got letters, “it happened to me, thank you,” very nice.  And I got a letter from a woman who said, “Well, yes, it was a very good book and very well written, but I lost a child and I have to tell you that you don’t really get it.”  So what could I do?  I wrote back and said I’ll try harder next time.  I did my best.  And I never forgot that letter among all the nice letters and wouldn’t you know it, she turns up at a reading like 10 years later and says, “I don’t know if you remember me but I wrote you that letter.”  You?  Must you turn up in my life?  And she said it again.  You have to defer to the tragedy, I think.  … I guess I wondered with that book, because I had young-ish children, you know, 10, 12.  This didn’t happen to me.  I have friends who it happened to.  And I thought well, what is it really, what would it really feel like?

Talking about your fiction now.  Do you start with a concept, an experience, a character, idea, all of the above?
It starts with a feeling, maybe an emotion as embodied in a little incident or an anecdote or something like that.  I say anecdotes because they’re not full-fledged stories.  And then I kind of draw something, make more curlicues.  I don’t usually start with a character.  Sometimes an idea.  And sometimes in stories, just a few lines that sound intriguing, where would they take me? …

Do you feel that your writing takes you places, or do you decide where you want to go and write your way there?
It takes me places.  Yeah.  When I know where I want to go, it’s a little harder.  I have written some stories that way.  One of the first stories I got some attention for, “Rough Strife,” which became a novel.  It was a 30-page story and I wrote the whole thing in order to get to the last three pages.  I knew what they were and that was hard.  And I’m currently thinking of a novel and I know where it’s going and it’s very hard to get there.  So I like to just have it open-ended. …

And it started from a short story.
It’s very narrow in the sense that it only has two main characters, it’s about a marriage.  There are a few other characters floating around.  So I wrote this one story and I kind of liked these characters so I wrote eventually five stories about them in various stages in their marriage.  They were published here and there.  And an editor saw them and said, “How about writing a novella about them and we’ll put it with the stories in one of the books?” and I jumped at the chance.  I wrote a novella—it took months.  And I gave it to him, great, wonderful—five minutes of that.  And then he said, “You know, how about if you sort of … open up the novella and slot the stories in and then we’ll have a novel.” And I said, oh, sure.  Easier said than done.  So I did that.  And he was right.

Was that the first novel you had written?
No, no.  I wrote a novel that was never published.  You know, in the olden days, (people) didn’t go to a writing program. The people I knew who wrote, we never expected that our first novels would be published.  It’s like if you play the violin you don’t expect people to pay to hear you for 15 years.  My first novel is somewhere in a drawer.  Then I wrote another novel called “Balancing Act.”  Then I wrote “Rough Strife.”  So this editor, he published “Rough Strife” as a first novel.  But then, once I had a deal with him, I said “You know, I have this other one in a drawer.”  “Balancing Act.”  The first one I forgot about….
Because “Rough Strife,” he felt, and he was right, was the sort of book that would capture readers’ attention more than “Balancing Act.”  The reason is because it was about a marriage which is always a perennially good topic.  It had a lot of sex and infidelity. It had all this stuff that people love to read about.  And you know, I’ve learned that critics are in their 30s and 40s and are going through all this stuff, children, everything.  Critics love books that reflect their own experience, so if you write about those subjects, yeah, they like it. …

Some people say to start with short stories because you can waste a couple years of your life on what turns out to be a bad novel.  Short stories, you waste a couple months, you throw them in a drawer, you forget about them, it’s not so traumatic.  Looking at those two forms, is one easier than the other?
I can’t argue with that.  The time you lose on a bad story is less than time you lose on a bad novel.  But a lot of people think, “I’ll start with stories, I’ll write stories and then when I sort of grow up and have written enough stories, then I can write a novel.”  I don’t really think it’s that way.  I think the experience of each one feeds into the other.  But they’re very, very different.  A story is very tight thing.  You just don’t have room.  You focus on one effect you want to achieve and everything is directed toward that end and when you’ve got the effect, it’s over.  With a novel you can do a lot and you can, I won’t use the word ‘waste’, but you can spend time on non-essentials on describing the contents of a store or a room or what somebody’s wearing just because you kind of like it, that you want to have the reader see it.  But in the story you have to justify every detail much more stringently.

I wanted to ask you about “Writing on the Wall.”  It deals with 9-11 and when you started to write that, did you feel particularly compelled that you had to write something about 9-11, that that experience was so profound that it had to come out somehow, or did you approach it with trepidation, is this going to be another 9-11 book—
There weren’t any at that point because it takes awhile to write a book.  There was an article in the (New York) Times, I remember, saying “Novelists finally tackle 9-11.” It was about two or three years after.  It was a review about four or five books, including mine, that were coming out.  Finally?  I mean, it happened, first you have to get over it, then it takes a few years to write a novel. …
I was irritated—starting with the day after, a lot of writers, journalists (were asking), “what do you feel, what do you think?”  But many writers, two days later, “this is what I feel, this is what I think, this is what it means.”  Then in November, I was asked to do a little piece for a book. … I thought, maybe now I could write something.  It was really hard to write.  It just had to be a short essay.  Just four or five pages, which I did.  And that got me thinking, maybe I can write something.  I felt I did need to write something about it.  But then I dragged out this old novel about the twins and this murder and God knows what and I used it.  It was very satisfying.

I love that no work is ever wasted. It might take years, but it will come out somewhere.  Your biography says that you didn’t take writing seriously until you were in your 30s.
Yeah, I started to publish around 1974 or ‘75, a couple stories in very small magazines. It’s true.  I wrote all the time.  I think I was about 23 and I sent a story to The Paris Review.  And I got a note back from George Plimpton saying, “We can’t use this, but we really enjoy your writing and please send something else.” If I got a note like this today, I’d just up and send them something the next day.  But I thought, “Oh, that’s nice,” and just put it in a drawer.  I didn’t get it.  I just didn’t know what to do.  So stupid. 
I just went along writing now and then and once in awhile sent something out.  I was afraid.  Then the women’s movement came along and I learned that if you want something to happen to you, you have to make it happen.  Now, I know younger women, you all know that, but I didn’t know that.  I thought it just happened. You want to get married—well, everyone gets married.  I’m exaggerating.  But in my day, you’d get married, you had babies, you didn’t have to do anything, it just kind of happened.  And I wanted to be a writer and I guess I thought it would happen.  Then I realized that anything you want to have happen to you, you have to make it happen. I think of that every day to remind myself.  So then I began. 
I sent a piece to the New Republic. It was about Watergate, the tapes, and she called me up and said, “Who are you?  I’ve never heard of you, where have you been all my life,” and all that.  Then my husband said, “You have to meet her and you have to ask if you can review some books for New Republic.” And I said, “Why would I go to Washington?”  And he said, “Well, let’s see.  You could tell her that you’re going to do research on Shakespeare at the Folger.”  It was a complete lie.  But I met her and I reviewed for them.  Then he said, “Well now that you’re reviewing for The New Republic, you have to write to The Nation and say, “Well, I’ve got a lot of reviews in The New Republic maybe I could review for you, too.”  And I did that.  You really have to calculate and do it.

There are a lot of MFA programs now and many of the students are not fresh out of undergraduate school—they’re 30, 40, 50.  What do you have to say to those people who are going back now?  It seems like a sort of paralleled what you did, finally taking it seriously in your 30s. 
Well, I didn’t go to a program.  And I teach at Bennington, so I do teach these people.  And in fact, you ask any writing teacher, they will all tell you, we all like the older students.  Everybody loves the older students because they have something to say.  And it’s nice if they have talent, as well, it helps.  But these young ones, 23, 24—they don’t know anything.  And some of them are very gifted, but it’s all style.  I even taught freshman English at Hunter College, a city university, in the late afternoon, night students, and I was so relieved to have them. They’d get up to speak they said something. …
I really think that anyone has the right to learn anything.  I had a friend who … always said, “Better that they should study writing than get an MBA, just remember that when you’re in the classroom.”  Well they’re here.  They’re not going out to become stock brokers.

It used to be that writers just went off and wrote.  And here are all these MFA programs.  Is it just another way to get people where they want to go?
For me, it’s too soon to tell.  Nothing is going to destroy literature.  This is not going to destroy literature.  What will destroy literature (are) computers and MP3 players and Kindle and all that other crap.  At worst, it’s making people good readers (that) care about literature.  And at best, it’s creating more writers, if you think that’s a good thing.  I’m not happy with the fact that it’s all happening under the aegis of academia because I think that writing is considered anti-establishment and it should not be in an academic structure.  The whole idea that I have students and I have to tell them, “You have to have your story in by April 1, and if you’re late, that’s no good.” That’s absurd.  I can’t do that.  I could never do one of these programs and keep to the rigors.   It takes me two or three months to write a story.  To treat it like an academic thing with a degree and a thesis, I don’t like that.  But—if you want to be where the writers are, this is where the writers are. They used to be in the cafes and now it’s in writing programs so that’s where they are.

I think that’s a big attraction—being with like-minded people.  You also write in several different genres and it sounds like that was your intention from the beginning.
Yes.  It never felt unnatural to me.  Of course there’s a different between fiction and non-fiction but I never felt that meant that just because I did one I couldn’t do the other.

Do you feel that certain experiences or instances might lend themselves to one genre or another?  Do you want to have all those colors on your palette?
Yes.  Definitely.

What about your writing practice?  Are you at your computer every day?  You said it takes a couple months to work your way through a story.
Yeah, I’m pretty disciplined.  Lately my time has been very fragmented.  I think it’s because I have a book coming out.  It’s difficult when a book is coming out. …  My head is filled with stuff.  So I haven’t been disciplined.  But generally I am.  I get up and do my odds and ends and I have a place where I go to work and I stay there until I have to go somewhere else.  When my kids were young, I’d get them when they were coming out of school.  Now they’re grown.  Sometimes I cook dinner.  Whatever.

You don’t write in your home.
I have a little office where I do—it’s like a little cottage industry.  My husband works at home.  He’s a consultant, an urban planner.  He didn’t always work at home.  When he started working at home, I realized we couldn’t work together.  I couldn’t work with it.  We had separate rooms in our apartment and I still couldn’t do it.  There was a time when I was younger, like 23 or something, and we did share—but whatever I was doing, I wasn’t writing.  And he’s sort of oblivious to what’s around him.  I did it then, but I couldn’t have written.  Now I must be totally alone.  I have a little apartment. I lock the door.  I didn’t have a phone for a long time, but I don’t have a machine.  I don’t like it when people call me there.  But then people say I’ve called you but you don’t have a machine.  I know I don’t have a machine.  I don’t want to go there and find daily life to take care of.  I want to go there like it’s a little separate place.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s most recent book is the memoir, Not Now, Voyager, just out from Counterpoint.  Among her 21 books are the novels The Writing on the Wall; In the Family Way, Disturbances in the Field; Leaving Brooklyn (nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award) and Rough Strife (nominated for a National Book Award). She is also the author of the poetry collection, In Solitary; the memoir, Ruined by Reading; and, most recently, the editor of The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald, a collection of essays and interviews. Her work has been reprinted in The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Essays, and many other anthologies, and her reviews have appeared in leading magazines and newspapers.  She teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars.

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