John Burnham Schwartz: LibraryThing Author Interview
John Burnham Schwartz is the author of several critically-acclaimed novels, including The Commoner and Reservation Road. His latest book, Northwest Corner, was recently published by Random House. The novel features many of the characters familiar to readers of Reservation Road.
From LTer upstairsgirl: I'd love to know why you chose to revisit these characters after such a long time—was it something you were always planning to do, or did something happen to make you want to tell more of their story? Were there particular challenges to choosing to pick the story back up, and how did you deal with those?
I never expected to re-visit any of my characters from any of my books. Honestly, it simply hadn't occurred to me. But after finishing The Commoner I was eager to return to an American environment, some less inhibited place in which the characters related to each other viscerally, unrestricted by any external code of behavior. One day, after flailing around for several months, I found myself thinking about Dwight and Sam Arno from Reservation Road; there was something in the desperate, confused friction with which they interacted with each other and their pasts in that novel that I found strongly compelling and worthy of further investigation. And, odd as it may sound, the fact that I'd already created lives and characters for these people in the earlier novel gave the new project the sense, almost, of historical fiction, which I found appealing.
I'd been writing Northwest Corner for about a year and a half before I really began to understand why and how it was its own story, separate from (though of course related to) the earlier novel. That was the breakthrough.
To follow up on that a bit, how did you decide where to situate Northwest Corner chronologically in relation to Reservation Road? Did you know right away, or did that take some planning?
I knew from the beginning that I wanted Dwight to be around 50—very much in middle age; I wanted the cumulative story of those years following his accidental killing of Josh Learner in the first book. And I knew that I wanted the surviving children from the first book, Sam and Emma, not to be children anymore, but people on the cusp of their adult lives.
In your Powell's Books essay "The Return", which seems very appropriate to this particular book, you write "By stubbornly, needfully going back, we are asking to be relieved of our strangeness, when strangeness is the whole point. Embrace me, tell me the old stories again, we say by making the trip at all. And arms may indeed embrace us, and stories may get told. But in the end they won't keep us, and we can't stay. We must go off again, back to the place where we live now, and find some way of telling those stories in our own language, as the people we have become." Did you have these thoughts in mind as you were writing Northwest Corner?
You know, it's very interesting to read these lines from that little essay now. Like so many things I've written, I recognize the expressions as mine, and yet am somewhat surprised by them; not by their meaning—I still feel the same way—but by the evidence of continuity in my thinking and feeling over time. Actually, I find it kind of heartening. All to say that, in ways both perceivable and mysterious, I suppose I did have thoughts like these in mind as I wrote Northwest Corner.
Are there any lines or scenes in the book of which you are especially fond?
I tend to be a pretty brutal critic of my own work, rarely letting myself off the hook, but I'd be lying if I didn't allow that there are some passages and scenes and chapters that give me private hope and pleasure. And I'm pretty confident that, as usual, these parts won't be the parts that many readers choose to praise; rather, they're just rather odd moments in which, for whatever reasons, I feel that I stumbled on something true, where language and character meet in a surprising and revealing way. Often these moments have some visceral quality, and might even be a little rough to the touch. To give you just one example, there's a chapter in Northwest Corner around the middle of the book where Ruth is driving her troubled son Sam to the college he's just been kicked out of, to begin the process of reckoning with his violent assault of another student. The chapter is one relatively brief scene, and it's told from Sam's point of view; it's not momentous or climactic in any way. But when I read it I still feel a freshness that hasn’t begun to fade; I feel very close to seeing the lived world through the eyes of another person. And this, as I've said, gives me hope, as both a writer and a human being.
Can you describe your writing process for us? Any quirky methods or habits?
My writing process remains much the same from novel to novel. It's not pretty. During the several years it takes me to write a book, I tend to throw out hundreds of pages. Since I'm not what you'd call a maximalist writer to begin with—not one of my finished books has been longer than 400 pages—this leaves me, every time, with a discouraging ratio of failure to success.
I write in the mornings, usually six days a week. If my schedule allows, I extend into the afternoon. (If you see me writing at night, you can be pretty sure I'm feeling desperate.) I begin the day working longhand on the print-outs of whatever I’ve done recently; often by the time I make it over to my computer, there's hardly anything left of the last day's work. Yet hope occasionally springs up at these moments: out of the act of erasure, some strange and buoyant (and no doubt fictional) sense of momentum takes hold.
What authors/books did you love as a child?
Wow, that's a long list. I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on (though I admit that I watched a lot of TV too), from E.B. White to Roald Dahl to Robert Cormier to T.H. White (his magnificent The Once and Future King) to Frank Herbert to, weirdly, a 40-book series of rather prosaic biographies of people as disparate as Crispus Attucks and P.T. Barnum.
What's on your bookshelves now? What have you been reading lately?
The Israeli novelist David Grossman's masterpiece, To the End of the Land; Dave Eggers' Zeitoun; Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns; my friend Jenny Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad (for the second time). These are all wonderful books, and I urge everyone to read them.
Can you tell us a little about your next project?
I'm creating a television series for Showtime—I've just written the pilot—loosely inspired by Jim Stewart’s non-fiction classic, Den of Thieves, about the insider-trading world of the early 1980s. The best cable shows today are far and away the most novelistic form of dramatic writing there is, so it's a pretty compelling project for someone like me.
And I've begun the long (made longer, I'm afraid, by all the traveling ahead) process of working my way into another subject for a novel. It'll be months probably before I actually attempt to write the first sentence. All I can say at this point is that the book will definitely be set in a very different environment from Northwest Corner. That said, and who knows, I may well end up revisiting these characters for a third time somewhere down the road.
—interview by Jeremy Dibbell
Books by John Burnham Schwartz
The Commoner (651 copies)
Reservation Road (Vintage Contemporaries) (481 copies)
Northwest Corner (135 copies)
Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table: A Collection of Essays from the New York Times (133 copies)
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