Interview with Steven Schwartz
Interview by Marc Dickinson
What is the toughest story you’ve written (either because of writer’s block and getting stuck, or because the material was emotionally difficult to work through, or maybe you didn’t experience the situation yourself so you struggled to get into a character accurately)? And how did you get through it—what helped you save or “figure out” the story to make it work?
The toughest stories are those that you try to force closure on before they’re ready to be finished. I’ve always loved this excerpt from Zorba the Greek:
I remember one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the back of a tree just as a
butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out. I waited awhile, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life. The case opened; the butterfly started slowly crawling out, and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my breath, in vain.
It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand
That pretty much sums up what happens with a story when the gestation becomes rushed. “Short” has nothing to do with how long a story takes to write. (Some, of course, can be quick.) Three of the stories in my latest collection, Little Raw Souls, each took about ten years because I was too wedded to the actual events that inspired the stories: one, an incident about a thief who robs and kisses a woman while she’s asleep in an airport; another about a character who has a crush on his cousin as a child and years later meets her after her sex change; and the other concerning an American soldier who survives a German firing squad, an event I thought crucial that didn’t even make it into the actual story (though I kept trying!). You have to listen sometimes to the fainter, submerged and truer heartbeat of a story rather than the banging false knock calling for your attention to hurry up and get it done. And often that requires killing your proverbial darlings and remapping the narrative from an earlier point. In Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” a charlatan Bible salesman steals a wooden leg, the climax of the story. The theft of that leg . . . well, there’s no story without it. But you can’t just throw a leg in there any old place and expect it to have impact. Its place in the story has to be cultivated. And when I haven’t cultivated the elements of a narrative it fails to be fully realized. So I’ve often had to ask myself when I’ve gotten stuck on a story: what’s undeveloped and what’s the most direct way to rectify that.
You’ve written both novels and short story collections. How do you approach a short story differently than a novel—what qualities do they share and how are they dissimilar in terms of process and product. And when it comes to building a collection of short stories, what is your philosophy on how to construct one (in other words, what holds it together and how do you know when you have a collection ready)?
I’ve said before that novels are beasts, short stories strokable creatures. You can hold one in your lap but have to negotiate your distance with the other. And to belabor the metaphor, this doesn’t mean one form is less wild or fierce than the other in its effects. I love both forms, but I can keep an entire short story in my head, regardless of how much time it covers. A novel has so many blind curves it defeats any grasping of the material as a whole when writing it. In a story, I’m trying to craft narrative events that suggest what has happened before and could happen afterward to the characters. You’re working so much with the untold in a short story. And yet what is shown has to make you feel you know the complete picture.
An overlooked difference between stories and novels is the function of subtext. In a story, the subtext, that resonant level of implicit meaning, needs to be consistently present. In a novel, you often have to get somewhere that requires the expediency of surface action alone. But in a short story the hourglass is turned over and urgency dictates you concentrate meaning in a limited space. You can’t waste an opportunity to have every sentence count toward aggregate tension and insight. Any longueurs show up prominently as glaring miscues. And of course I don’t mean by subtext a “message” or bald explanations. Far from it. The short story runs on subtlety. You should be able to run your hand over the story and feel its heat, and that heat is the mystery and matter awakening the reader’s nerves to the story’s secrets. A novel for me accumulates this mystery and matter in a slower, more deliberate fashion, by thickening the braid of the narrative strands. A story has that braid too but by design, regardless of whether the form is linear, associative, impressionistic, collage-like or any other of the myriad possibilities, that braid is a tightly woven band of sustained meaning and movement.
As to your question about constructing a collection of stories, I wish I could say there’s a method to the madness rather than that the process falls between the arbitrary and the inspired. You can monkey around with chronology or first-person versus third or longer versus shorter pieces or use the strategy of the strongest stories first and last. Much, of course, depends on how linked the stories are versus independent. In the end, you wind up using your intuition to arrange them (and many readers pay no attention to the writer’s anguishing over order and just jump around in their reading).
The more important consideration is which stories to leave out (if you have some to spare). A collection of stories encourages comparisons in a way a novel never does. You don’t have readers on Goodreads listing their favorite chapters. So you want to include stories that stand on their own and their inclusion isn’t justified for linkage or background or reinforcement of others or any other eason. I love, for instance, Olive Kitteridge, and because Elizabeth Strout is such a strong writer anything she writes is compelling. But there are definitely weaker and younger stories in that collection that despite their qualities make you wonder why they’re included. A good arrangement of stories is one that doesn’t make you question the inevitability of any of the stories any more than you would chapters in a novel as all part of the narrative tissue.
How would you describe the voice of your work—an essential Schwartz trait stylistically? And in terms of topic, what idea are you often preoccupied with, a theme you often come back to? And why does that subject attract you?
In my sixth decade of life, I’ve come to accept and stop making apologies for not being a writer of pyrotechnic prose. I definitely descend from the Chekhov line more than the Joycean or Lawrencian. Whenever I’ve tried to overwork the prose, it crashes mockingly under my concerto-in-A-minor-keyboard-pounding fingers. So I’m always cautious when rewriting to be alert to whether I’m forcing a sentence to do more than it should and as a consequence wreck the balance of narrative elements. I have plans one day to write an essay on the difference between craft and style, without preference for one over the other. Obviously, in many ways the terms are interchangeable, but writers have a tendency toward either the prose serving the content or vice versa. I’ll add, however, that style and voice are not interchangeable terms for me. Style is a part of voice. The many elements of voice, including the emotional charge generated by the language, the use of wit, and the elusive yet all-important aspect of “authority,” come under the domain of voice.
As for preoccupations, when I look back, I see I’m still writing about parents and children, especially fathers and sons, about identity, about prejudice, about failure, success, shame, loss, and redemption. And desire, often unrequited. I suppose the common thread is instability of connection, how easily severed it is and yet how hard all my characters fight to sustain it. I think that’s become an even more important concern to me as I’ve aged and seen how time erases so much I once thought permanent.
And a follow-up: as you return to that same question in your work, how do you try to make it new each time and avoid imitating your own work—I guess, I’m asking here: how have you maintained your own personal vision yet also grown over the course of your career?
I don’t want to repeat myself, yet I know that I have to heed my obsessions, which is the way I define personal vision. As a younger person I avoided those obsessions thinking no one would be interested in them since they were so obvious, and then once I took them seriously or stopped discounting and faced them, the work came alive. So I can’t exactly disown my obsessions, but I have to find a way to, if you will, renew my vows to them.
We used to live in an older home that had a large backyard. At one point, we called a tree trimmer to do some pruning on our linden tree. The tree trimmer was in his seventies and had lived in the town all his life. He told us we had the oldest linden tree in the city, and it certainly was a beauty with its enormous shading canopy. He also mentioned that the roots of the tree extended for two blocks, and maybe more. What you learn as an older writer is that though you thought you pulled out all the roots of your material, they keep surprising you in how deep, far, and unknown they actually run.
You just recently retired from Colorado State University after teaching there for many years, and are still teaching at Warren Wilson’s MFA program. But before this of course, you were also on the other side of the workshop as a student yourself. How has being on both sides of this relationship influenced your approach to writing? In working with students and critiquing their writing, how has this maybe changed your view of craft over the years? And how has teaching students informed you as a writer in your own work?
I was always so nervous before I had a story discussed in workshop. I just wanted to know if it succeeded or failed, thumbs up or down, and I tended to overreact to criticism, that is, beat myself up about it. But that was a necessary process to toughen me up (despite my first workshop instructor refusing to discuss a story on the basis that it had no merit at all). Writers, artists in general, tend to be exceptionally sensitive, yet we sign up for one of the roughest of all professions in terms of rejection. What other line of work are you repeatedly reminded that your expertise is only as good as the next project you produce? And this applies whether you’re a highly esteemed writer or not. You’re always open to judgment once you put anything out there, whether as a beginner or advanced writer. So what I’m proudest is that I’ve kept going all these years, given how vulnerable I felt in the beginning. But in fact, I wasn’t as vulnerable as I thought, or let’s put it this way: something in me wasn’t as vulnerable—the part that wanted to create beyond any approbation or opprobrium.
One of the main challenges of writing is to put aside any idea of what I’ll call permanent validation. If only I could get a story published, if only it was in the New Yorker, if only I won a prize, if only I published a novel, if only I got a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review. If only Michiko Kakutani liked my book or maybe better, Oprah. The “if onlies” never die, because though they’re the least important contributor to the whole process of writing, they’re also the whiniest in their demand for more and more proof of legitimacy.
As a teacher, I have to be double sighted. On the one hand, I have to see exclusive of my own proclivities what the student is up to for the fiction. On the other, I have to envision possibilities for it that the student might not yet see. If you’re trying hard enough as a teacher, you’re always navigating between deference and guidance, trying to take on the work as if it’s your own, without taking it over. The easier job is pointing out problems with point of view, transitions, background material, weak dialogue, etc. The harder one is peering deeply into the fiction to glean just how far this work can go, despite how rough it may be.
You’re currently the fiction editor of Colorado Review. What is your vision for the fiction in the journal—what do you personally look for in a story? As well as what are common pitfalls you often see in stories you reject?
The most common pitfall is when I know exactly as much about a story, well written as it may be, at the beginning as at the end. It doesn’t take me anywhere, illuminate rather than illustrate a premise, surprise me with its effects. In short, it’s the difference between a situation and story. Situations can be elaborate, beautifully expressed, but where are the shifts that create some sort of narrative advancement, regardless of how experimental the form may be? And in that answer is what I look for in the story. No bias toward form, subject matter, point of view, gender of character or writer, just a want of the richness of shaped experience.
Lastly, what is a bad writing habit you warn others against, but you indulge in yourself—one that you wish you could break?
Bad habit or habits? Well, to pick one, it’s looking for the guarantee in my work. That is, reading it over (and over) prematurely and trying to eliminate all doubt by having an internal debate as to its merit. You don’t have to go to the extreme of Jonathan Franzen by putting a blindfold on so you can’t read what you just wrote. But it just helps in those early drafts to be dumb and oblivious to anything other than just putting one keystroke in front of the other
Steven Schwartz grew up outside Chester, Pennsylvania, and has lived in Colorado for the past thirty years. He is the author of two story collections, To Leningrad in Winter and Lives of the Fathers, and two novels, Therapy and A Good Doctor’s Son. His writing has received the Nelson Algren Award, the Cohen Award, the Colorado Book Award for the Novel, two O. Henry Prize Story Awards, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the Cleanth Brooks Prize in Nonfiction from The Southern Review. Married with two grown children, he currently teaches in the low-residency Warren Wilson MFA Program and is the fiction editor of the Colorado Review.