The Rumpus Interview with David Schickler
I hadn’t heard of David Schickler before I received a review copy of his latest book, The Dark Path. I had no clue what it was about, but I read in a blurb that the writer had “been torn between his intense desire to become a Catholic priest and his equally fervent desire for the company of women.” This memoir might be God-awful, I thought. But because I also saw the words “karate” and “beer” in the book’s promotional materials, I gave it a chance.
I tore through Schickler’s memoir in two days, and I read his debut short story, “The Smoker,” in a 2000 issue of The New Yorker the next day. I read his Times bestselling novel Kissing In Manhattan the following week. I’m one of those people who gets off on telling other people I don’t have a television; I’ve never seen an episode of Banshee, the Cinemax show he co-created—because I don’t have a television. But if it marinates in Schickler’s sometimes-dark, sometime-teenage boy humor, I’d likely enjoy it too.
The end of The Dark Path picks up as Schickler’s career takes off: after living in his parent’s basement post-MFA, he lands that previously-mentioned story at The New Yorker, finds love, and begins to reconsider his relationship to what he calls “Lack-of-God.” His story until this point involves discovering O’Connor, Cheever, and Oates at Georgetown, worrying about blow jobs and drinking too much beer, and wrestling with two vocational paths that may require a divine intervention for any overlapping. Schickler is my spirit animal, I wrote in my Los Angeles Review of Books essay on The Dark Park.
I spoke with him earlier this month on the phone for more than hour, perhaps the longest I’ve been on a phone call since I wooed girls in the fifth grade. A kind and funny soul, he wanted to talk more about my journey of going from law school to divinity school than his own story in the pages of the The Dark Path. But I finally got him to talk about himself and his far more interesting journey, and our edited conversation appears below.
The Rumpus: First things first—do you still telepathically zap haikus to people?
David Schickler: I moved on from haikus, and I started to telepathically zap entire treasure troves of poems and novels and confessions of love to many, many women that were walking around in my life. Of course, none of them ever knew this. People that meet me now have a hard time reconciling the me now with the fact that I was a pretty quiet guy up until Georgetown.
I grew up with three sisters and no brothers. There were a lot of girls in our house, and it was sort of a female-centric household as a result. I took a lot of mental notes and was just really fascinated by girls. One of the first things I learned was if you want girls to like you, be funny. Not to make blanket statements, but I think it’s one of the things women either seek most or enjoy most about the company of men.
I wrote a lot in my head and in my heart before I wrote things on paper. I wrote some haikus and some poems here or there, but I definitely felt a yearning to pour myself out narratively. A lot of that was pouring myself out toward trying to win the attention or the affections of girls. The basis for my book was my struggle between wanting to devote all of myself to God and to a certain extent, wanting to marry God—the next step you become clergy in the Catholic tradition. If you’re a nun, you are a bride of Christ, and if you’re a Catholic priest, you’re signing up because it’s just you and the Lord. That was the biggest problem for me—I wanted to give all of myself to God and to give all of myself to women. If I had grown up any other kind of Christian besides Catholic, this would have been all right.
Rumpus: You mentioned that women search for humor in male counterparts. Do you think the reverse is true? Do think females searching for female partners want humor? Are we all just looking for humor in our companions?
Schickler: I think I can’t speak for the entire human race, but I know that one of the things that people are always looking for is escape or relief—relief from everyday drudgery, relief from the cares of daily life, or just having to go through life. There are different kinds of escape and relief, and one of the ones I’ve always enjoyed the most is comic relief.
I’m amazed sometimes by how just being in the company of my wife or one of my closest friends makes my stress level plummet. I’m my own worst enemy so much of the time, that in spending time by myself in the company of just myself, I can get very self-absorbed about my work. I think, God, if I don’t fix this one thing in this one story or in this one screenplay, my life is over. I’m never going to succeed. I’m never going to get from point A to point B to point C.
It’s funny that we’re talking about humor so much because it’s one of the biggest reasons I did not become a priest. It’s not that I didn’t know priests who had great senses of humor. I did. But the priests that meant a great deal to me were taking everything in life very, very earnestly. I was already taking my own spirituality, my spiritual future, and my potential job as a priest so seriously. For me, it was all or nothing. It was life or death, body and soul.
I found that prayer was deeply important to me, but as soon as I was done with Mass or a deep prayer, I needed the flip of that somehow. I needed some relief. I needed some humor, and it took me a long time to realize that I didn’t have to live in such a way that those things were mutually exclusive. There are many people, not everybody, who maybe could use a little bit more of a sense of humor in their approach to other people in terms of having a more merciful attitude toward other people.
Rumpus: I bet you like the new pope.
Schickler: Yeah, he’s a good guy. I think I can say with some degree of pride, as somebody whom Jesuits educated at a Jesuit high school and at a Jesuit college, and who almost became a Jesuit, that I’m proud for the Jesuits. The attitudes that he is exhibiting and trying to encourage are very much the kinds of attitudes that I found particularly good in the Jesuits. I found them very much concerned with the poor and with personal humility, and a sense of humor goes a long way to being a person of humility.
I think the world has been waiting for a long time to see when the Catholic Church can have a sense of humor about itself. It’s a relief to millions of Catholics in the United States, myself included, to hear folks say, “You know what? Can we all just take a step back from constantly discussing abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, birth control? Can we step back from all of those hot-button social issues and just talk about broken human beings and trying to take care of one another?”
That’s what I read in the gospels. Jesus never said the word “abortion” as far as I know. I read those books pretty carefully. He didn’t really have a ton to say about what we do in bed.
Rumpus: You mentioned your wife a few minutes ago. Early in your book, you write:
Growing up, I saw it each night when my father got home from work. After removing his coat he would pull my mother to him. Closing his eyes he’d hold her tight and groan, sometimes for minutes, and I could hear those groans lettings go of the world, of everything outside him and her…. That’s marriage, I thought watching. If I ever have a wife, that’s what I’ll have.
Do you have that marriage?
Schickler: Yes, I do. That was like watching my father let off steam, like opening a valve in himself and letting out all of the things that he’d been made to think about during the day that were clearly not the most important things in his life. I wouldn’t want to be married to a woman if it wasn’t going to be that because otherwise, it sounds like work. Life is hard enough.
Because of seeing that in my parents, I felt a great deal of discontent when I was in intense relationships with people, particularly sexual relationships, where I didn’t have that. I once heard somebody say that every relationship you have until your marriage is practice for the one. You’re building up your skills, your strengths, and your weaknesses.
I was never going to be my dad. I was never going to be my mom, but I did want to find somebody that’s my best friend. My best man in my wedding said, “Talking with your wife, you should be able to say absolutely anything to her, and it should be like falling into the most comfortable chair that you know.” Hearing him say that and watching what my parents had with each other gave me a great deal of guidance about the kind of complete and utter candor and honesty that I needed to find with a woman. I didn’t have that until I found Martha.
Rumpus: You have a special relationship with your father, and from the end of the book, it appears like you have a similar bond with your own son. Your father didn’t care too much about the type of writing that you wanted to do. Perhaps he wasn’t a fan of Father Greely, your role model and the dirtiest mind ever ordained according to the National Catholic Register.
Rumpus: Your own story is pretty spicy. At what point in your son’s life would you like him to read it?
Schickler: Oh, boy. That’s a good question, and a tough one because I don’t know. I was talking to him a little while ago about the tone of peoples’ spiritual lives and the tone with which you conduct your spiritual life. All I can say is that the tone of my sexual self is really up. I’m not trying to say something self-absorbed or self-complimentary at all by saying that, but I once heard a friend of mine, who is now separated from his wife, talk about the fact that he never knew she wasn’t a deeply sexual person. It just wasn’t that important to her. I can’t say it’s a blanket statement that it’s as deeply important to other people as it is to me, but it’s tremendously important to me. This is a roundabout way of answering your question. I don’t know.
Rumpus: This reminds me that you like to write about Saturday nights.
Schickler: Yes, I do. To answer your question about my son, if and when my son gets to a point in his life, whether it’s when he’s fifteen or when he’s twenty-five, that his sexuality is a particularly strong current in his life, I feel like that will either be the worst possible time or the best possible time for him to read my book. Thinking about your parents as sexual creatures is just, No. People just don’t like to go there. That’s not a natural thing, and that’s not a fun thing to think about.
But I did write the book to a huge extent for my son, because I don’t want him to go through what I did. Everyone is going to have his struggles in life, but I don’t want him to put himself through quite so intense a spiritual sexual ringer as I put myself through. Most books are “man versus nature” or “man versus man.” This is really a “man versus himself” memoir because a lot of what took place in the book is an interior struggle.
I was trying to reconcile my life with God and my life with other human beings, so I guess it’s a little bit of both. I can’t say exactly when I’d like my son to read it, because I think sex can be the vehicle for the most transportative joy that we can know. I also know that it can bring about challenge and destruction in people’s lives—and confusion, unbelievable confusion.
Rumpus: Speaking of sex, when you discovered writers like O’Connor as a student at Georgetown, you think they’re “so damn good they make me want to throw a thousand punches or fuck a thousand girls or kiss the sun.” I feel that way whenever I read something by Jamie Quatro, Jeffrey Eugenides, or Junot Díaz. Who makes you feel like that now?
Schickler: The man I co-created “Banshee” with—his name is Jonathan Tropper. His book This is Where I Leave You is intelligent literary writing, but it’s also hysterically funny and sexy. There are consequences at stake in peoples’ physical relationships with one another, whether they are violence or sexual consequences. That’s something I really love about Jonathan’s writing.
This might sound odd, but I also really like Jo Nesbø. I’m moving a little bit more toward genre writing. Very few people in writing programs are showing each other workshop submissions that are chapters of suspense novels. It’s always short stories or literary novels, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I would say that some people that are in MFA programs turn their noses up at the people who can write plots—the Stephen King’s of the world. I’m here to tell you that there are people who can write beautiful words sentence-by-sentence-by-sentence, and then there are people who can write plots. I know which is harder, and it’s writing plots.
Rumpus: I have a friend who’s applying to MFA programs right now, and she told me that submitting any of her genre work would be the death of her application.
Schickler: If you submitted only genre work, it would probably be the death of your application. If I were a judge or if I taught in a writing program, and somebody turned in one short story that showed that they knew beauty and knew how to write sentence-by-sentence and used great diction and arresting prose, that’d be wonderful. If their second piece showed me that they knew how people talk or that they could write an intriguing and unique plot, she would be a shoe-in for me.
There are many people from other writing programs who probably don’t agree, but a lot of that is envy. There’s a reason why suspense novels and thrillers are the books that you can buy in the supermarket. Everybody wants them. Everybody eats them up just like people watch shows that are police procedurals. There’s a reason why people watch them more than they watch some sort of Hallmark-themed storyline. There’s a great song, called “Candy Everybody Wants” by 10,000 Maniacs, and the chorus is, “If lust and hate is the candy, / if blood and love tastes so sweet, / then give ‘em what they want.”
Rumpus: That’s great.
Schickler: There’s one part of it where Natalie Merchant says, “So their eyes are going hazy ‘cos they wanna turn / it on / so their minds are soft and lazy. / Well, who do you wanna blame?” First of all, I don’t really pay that much attention to that lyric in the song because I don’t think people’s minds are going soft and lazy. I just think that at the end of the day, I write to entertain people. That is why I write. I write first and foremost to entertain myself—to crack myself up, to break my own heart, to make myself cry, and to laugh my ass off. Then, I hope and pray to God that the things that I write will do that for other people.
I’m not writing to show off, and I’m not writing for therapy. Writing for therapy is great. I can’t speak to the ministry that you do or are very interested in. If someone’s in prison and they need to write for therapy, God bless them. If you publish for therapy, you’re fucked, simply because anything that anybody says about any reaction that you get is either ego stroking or a personal attack, a personal affront.
For me to try to write to entertain forces me to be more generous as a writer. Here’s what Thomas Merton says: “If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men—you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted that you will wish that you were dead.”
He was a clever guy who was in a pretty good place mentally and spiritually, so he could afford to say something sort of pissy like that. There are people who really do need to write for themselves, in a sense that they can’t figure out how they feel about things until they’ve gotten words down on a page. For those kinds of people, it is therapy, and I think it’s great. If you publish therapeutically, I think you’re in big trouble.
Rumpus: It’s wonderful to hear exactly why you write. I heard Junot Díaz speak recently, and when someone asked him why he doesn’t read his book reviews, he remarked that if he were writing for other people or for their approval, his writing ceases to be art and turns into entertainment. He said this in a pejorative manner. It’s quite refreshing to hear you contradict this because you do it with confidence.
Schickler: I see what he’s saying. I’m trying to have a good time when I write because otherwise, life’s just too short, man. When I’m at the end of an actual day and my kids are finally asleep and my wife goes to bed before me and I’ve got like an hour and a half before bed and I get to read part of some suspense novel and I get to watch New Girl or Breaking Bad, I’m so grateful to the people who write them. I’m grateful in the same way that I was grateful to my teachers when I was in school.
It seems that Junot was saying—and I like a lot of his writing—that reading reviews may cause you to doubt you own self-worth. I know that I have way too high an opinion of myself. The last thing I need to be doing in my writing is trying to pump up my own self-image or my own ego. In my experience all human beings are so self-interested, so ego-centric like myself, that for me it is such relief to pour myself into the lives of other characters. When I watch a show or a movie or read a book, I’m trying to forget about my own life and my own concerns and my own self-worth. I’m trying to marry myself to their concerns and to their life. That is cathartic for me. That’s why I do it. I just want to get out of my own freaking head and to entertain myself.
Rumpus: And we come full circle to why you like to make yourself laugh.
Schickler: I know things that I need to not only enjoy life but endure life. Sexual vibrancy is something that’s very important to me to enjoy and endure life. Sexual vibrancy and fervent humor—I need those things the way that some people need nicotine.
I also think I need personal redemption, which is one of the things that keeps me a Christian and one of the reasons why I still go to Mass. I know what miserable corners I can get myself into artistically, spiritually, sexually, mentally, and emotionally. I can’t save myself from those things, but I have found that Christianity can get me out of those holes or pull me out of those corners. I don’t talk about it that much but I have to now because I wrote a book about it.
I like the Jesuits because they’re a teaching order and a missionary order, and they don’t proselytize. The joke about Jesuits is they create atheists and other Jesuits because they’re free thinkers in the sense that they say if you don’t agree with us, that really is fine. We’re not angry about it. There are other Christian leaders in the world who, if you don’t think what they think, get angry. They think that you’re wrong, and they think that you’re screwed, and they think that you’re damned. The Jesuits say you should inspect the philosophical underpinnings or assumptions that you work with as you live your life. You’ll render yourself a fuller and more satisfying life if you do, and you might just run up against some questions that they think their faith system answers. And again, they always do seem to lead with a sense of humor.
Rumpus: Thanks so much for your time, David.
Schickler: I’m wondering if I have ranged too far and too wide. Isn’t The Rumpus like “hipster hip”? Should I have been peppering my answers with Arcade Fire lyrics?
Featured image of David Schickler © by Martha Schickler.