Steven Schwartz’s new book, Madagascar: New and Selected Stories, positively aches (often sighs, sometimes chuckles) with wisdom. Steven understands people. He understands why they do what they do, how they feel when they’ve done it, and he understands too how the twists of life can disrupt all of that so people act in peculiar, unexpected ways and respond with surprising acts. These stories, funny and poignant, are a tribute to the failed human aspiration to be in control, of events and of oneself. They are as engaging and as haunting an expression of the human condition as I have read, if the human condition includes earnest yearnings, failed dreams, lasting connections, and fleeting ones too.
Steven’s work has received numerous accolades over time: the Nelson Algren Award, the Sherwood Anderson Prize, the Cohen Award, the Colorado Book Award, two O. Henry Prize Story Awards, and more. He is Fiction Editor of the Colorado Review out of Colorado State University, where he has recently retired from teaching after many years.
And you can’t gloss over Steven’s teaching as if it’s a sideline or a by-product of necessity, because it is so integral a part of who he is, and who he has been to many, many writers. He was my first supervisor in graduate school, at Warren Wilson, and there is rarely a day, thirteen years later, that I don’t call on an insight he shared with me, some craft approach, or often some approach to my relationship to the work. What demons might be getting in the way? What habits have I fallen back into because their familiarity make me feel safe? He never let me forget that I was a human being, relating to the work and to the characters on the page in very human ways, even as I created them.
Steven’s interest in psychology permeates his fiction—he has a novel called Therapy, after all—and never more exquisitely than in this new collection, and so, it was on the subject of psychology that I opened my interview of him.
The Rumpus: Your work, which it’s been a pure pleasure to read again, has a keen psychological insight to it that leaves me nodding my head, “Right… right… that’s just how a person might respond.” But at the same time, the stories are full of surprise. People may do things that make sense from a psychological perspective, but they don’t do or feel or say things that are expected. I am fascinated by the whole project of portraying psychologically logical behaviors while avoiding predictable ones. It seems ideal to me to elicit both responses: “Oh, yes, that makes sense,” and “Whoa! I didn’t see that coming.” I wonder how much you think about any aspect of this balance, and if there’s any advice you have to give to those of us who may not so reliably evoke the twin responses of concurrence and surprise.
Steven Schwartz: Every character has a potential for the unexpected, and as an author you have to determine how much of it is built into the character’s DNA. Any surprise, however, has to have an antecedent somewhere in the fiction that prepares you for its occurrence. So, for instance, in “Absolute Zero” from Madagascar, I have a female character, Giigee, who commits a highly destructive act at the story’s end. One might say it comes out of nowhere, but in previous scenes I try to show the degree to which she’s capable of real danger. It’s not foreshadowing exactly. That would be heavy-handed and draw the narrative toward contrivance. I’m more interested in keeping a character’s humanity at center. But when Giigee first appears in the story, she’s the character that you should think, “Uh oh.” As a writer, I might not know exactly what she will do, but I do know she’s there to increase the stakes in the story and surprise us. It then becomes important for me to nurture the character’s potential for the unforeseen. At the same time, I’m always trying to find a character’s deepest level of vulnerability to make her relatable. So, in effect, I’m actually working toward a disequilibrium as much as a balance, keeping a character teetering between the familiar and unfamiliar.
Rumpus: I see that disequilibrium in the story “Lives of the Fathers”—one that I particularly love. For those who haven’t read it, it’s the story of a man on the verge of becoming a father who is engaged in taking care of his own father. It’s a completely surprising take on that situation and I admire particularly the way the story seems to keep opening and opening, seeming to be about one thing, and then another, and another up to the ending which is honestly one of the best I have ever read, pulling all the strands together in just a few haunting words. But to get back to the disequilibrium, there is an element of the story, the father’s obsession with a now elderly girlfriend from decades before, that seems to have an almost antic quality at times, but a deeply poignant one at others. I wonder about the use you make of such tonal shifts, the role they play in keeping a reader a little off balance, what other uses you make of that kind of range in tone.
Schwartz: Well, you’re right about the tonal shifts. Here is a son about to become a father while helplessly watching his own father pursue a decades-old lost love, who just happens to be mentally incompetent. How to tell such a story? Tell it straight and it will seem only perverse. Tell it as satire alone and I’ll run the risk of creating caricatures. What I’m after is how to play on that edge—again a kind of disequilibrium, as you say—between pathos and comedy, the antic and the poignant. I want the vulnerability that comes with the sadness of this elderly, widowed father unable to face the grief and grudges of his long marriage and seeking comfort in an unrequited and mythic love. At the same time I need the son’s perspective to point out the irony and, frankly, bizarreness of his father’s actions, along with the son’s very real apprehensions as to what fatherhood and marriage demand. But it’s important to stress that I never decide in advance here’s a story that will be serious, comic, or a combination. I can’t possibly know that until the characters start revealing themselves and they tip the needle one way or another. I do know, however, I never stop seeking to unearth some repressed hurt in whatever vein I’m working in. And as everyone knows, comedy can hurt just as much as seriousness.
Rumpus: I well remember you saying to me when we worked together (and I repeat it a lot to my own students) that at times the best reader a writer can have is the one who can tell you where the life, the heat of the story seems to lie. The terms in which you discuss a reader thinking—or maybe feeling—“uh oh” at Giigee’s appearance reminds me of that in a way, as both notions involve a reader’s interaction with the story that takes place on a not quite conscious level. So now I’m switching from the psychology of your characters to that of your readers. How does your awareness of that level of response find its way into your work? Is there a point in the drafting process at which you yourself become more conscious of a reader’s subconscious responses, or is that level of awareness there from the get go?
Schwartz: I think it’s important to distinguish among three kinds of readers. One reader is the theoretical general public whom you’re hoping will be interested in, or, let’s be shameless, wowed by the work. This reader, however, is a slippery constituent. Try too hard to please, and you’ll please no one, especially yourself. That doesn’t mean I’m writing for myself; it simply means too much awareness of a public leads more often to self-doubt than confidence. The virtue, however, is that this conjectured reader can be a great motivator because you hope someone out there actually cares about what you write.
The second reader is the personal one. In my case, that’s my wife, a writer also. We agreed a long time ago, in some tacit vows, to be honest with each and trust that whatever is said will be taken in good faith as an effort to make the work better. Again, though, one has to be careful. Show a work too early and you’re already collaborating on it with someone else, or as you put it, the subconscious has a conflating awareness. You’ve displaced a bit your own instincts in deference to another’s. Your own instincts are paramount in the early drafts, even if they misdirect you. You have to allow yourself to make mistakes in order to take risks, possibly fail, and discover you can come back from that.
And finally, the last reader is oneself. At the right distance from the writing, after detachment has set in, intuition returns. You can clearly see both the flaws and strengths of the work, and there is no better editor than oneself. In short, you’re as wise as you’ll ever be about your writing.
Author photograph © Stephanie G’Schwind.