Uncovering the Uncoverable
Jason Schwartz interviewed by Jason Lucarelli.
3:AM: What are your earliest and most formative memories of stories?
Schwartz: Well, I have no recollection at all, for instance, of the bedtime story, though I’d like to think there was such a thing, at least on occasion, and I can picture, without difficulty, precisely where a parent would have sat in relation to my bed, the angle of light, some of the accoutrements of the room, and so on. I’m not sure they were stories, exactly, but I liked Richard Scarry’s books, I know that, and I suppose this was fairly early—all those collections of animals costumed as humans, moving through a town.
3:AM: When did your writing-inclined side begin to take shape?
Schwartz: High school. I had in mind a very long espionage novel, filled with ludicrous complications, and I managed to stack quite a lot of paper, and to scatter still more around the room. It was a terrific assemblage of garbage. I prepared elaborate charts—as appendices, I guess—to document the plot, every deformity of the story. All the possibilities, as I saw them.
3:AM: The term “experimental” has been attached to your work. Are the “experimental” aspects of texts reducible to the emphasizing of certain techniques over other, more commercially craved or expected techniques? Is the experimental label as reductive as attempting to enforce the frame of fiction or poetry on certain works?
Schwartz: To take the last bit first: yes, poor distinctions across the board. Or you find yourself “in between,” as they say on the backs of books. And yes, “experimental” is a reductive label too, often a useless one. As is “realist,” its supposed opponent, counterpart, what have you. This seems obvious, but sometimes we take sides anyway because it’s good manners, or to amuse ourselves, the way Color War amused us at summer camp. And if so-called experimental work simply pursues a plain description of real things—“reality,” as people used to say—well, what then? I’m happy to call that a particular form of realism, or a matter of style, or style by another name, or, better still, to call it nothing at all. But we also associate prose with office memos and with newspapers and with notes from our grandmothers. You call for the ambulance in prose, at least most of the time. So it could seem to some readers poor form to tamper with it, and—once disfigured—more of an insult than the other arts. There’s plain and there’s plain, after all, and then there’s strange, or the supposedly strange, and this often translates as “experimental,” for better or worse.
3:AM: I’ve read other prose writers express the idea that the fiction writing tradition has not progressed nearly as far as, say, poetry.
Schwartz: Prose fiction seems the more provincial form, for all the obvious reasons. Prose functions as currency of a sort, by day, and then carries—or drags—its so-called transparency everywhere it goes at night. And it always finds amusing ways to mutilate poetry. Your car and your center fielder: “poetry in motion.” The work of a certain novelist: “his poetry of paranoia.” Apparently it’s extraordinary, poetry—unless it’s actual poetry, in which case it’s irrelevant.
3:AM: How soon after publishing A German Picturesque did you begin writing what would become John the Posthumous? How long did it take for the book to come together?
Schwartz: There were a few other things, beforehand and alongside. There was a long story that eventually became something else, and then, in turn, a third thing. Well, not really—that’s not quite it. They are actually three separate items, three pieces, and I visit with them from time to time, and I’ll eventually find a place for them, probably in the next book, or in a burial ground outside town. Something else, about Rosso Fiorentino, I had done a version of in college, and insisted on revisiting. I do this occasionally, for kicks, and in the interest of providing myself a grievous detour. And so, long ago, there was a story called “In Virginia, We Stopped,” and this became, a few years later, a story called “A Grammar,” which appears in A German Picturesque. But to answer your first question: three years, give or take. And the second: I handed it off, once and for all, in January of this year. That’s a long time. There were these excursions, of course, the aforementioned, and some other things—but that’s no consolation.
3:AM: The vocabulary in John the Posthumous and A German Picturesque seems lifted from religious and other historical texts. Have these texts always interested you? How have they come to insert themselves into your fictions?
Schwartz: Well, I know I found the crucifix very troubling when I was young. A person was wearing another person. A person was hanging from another person’s neck. It was puzzling. But religious documents and the like? No. I became interested later on. I wasn’t the slightest bit interested as a kid. Save, maybe, for a phrase here or there, a little stray thing, some odd sound during a holiday service. But even this wasn’t interest, exactly. It all seemed to happen in passing. And my Hebrew was unusually poor. So a retired cantor was hired to recite my Torah portion into a tape recorder. It was upon me, at that point—or so I thought—to mimic his every breath, every crack at the back of the throat, as he made his way from phrase to phrase. I got the gist, at least, and tried to fool the room. And now: I think I just happen to like certain kinds of specialized language, religious or historical or otherwise. Two trains collide and, in railroad parlance, it’s a cornfield meet. I like that. And then I’ll find some diversion in inventing a bit within that idiom.
3:AM: I’m interested in this aspect of the text where you take terms, deform their original meaning, and reform them for your own use. Is this process one of the ways in which your sentences derive their momentum?
Schwartz: I’m not sure I always deform them, necessarily. And often the “history” is entirely made up. And “made up,” I prefer to think, is quite distinct from “make believe,” as in “imagination,” which can be a bit garish. So maybe we gather together some knives, our things for butchering, for surgery, et cetera, and all is well. Your kitchen implements, your catlin knife, and so on. But what about your bed knife, from boyhood? Or the griever’s knife, which seemed to me a reasonable invention, under the circumstances. How else for the poor mortician to force the corpse from the clutches of all those sad mothers and sons?
3:AM: The title of the novel is taken from the nickname of John I of France, a real life king who was, as the novel notes, “alive for five days.” The title “character” persists inside a single sentence. Can you speak about the notion of character in John the Posthumous?
Schwartz: I think your second sentence may answer the third. That said, I do sometimes wonder about one schoolroom view: characterization as a conjurer’s trick, a kind of parlor game, as though credible representation were an end in itself. Well and good, but maybe the actor’s main job is to show heartbreak on his face.
3:AM: The first section of John the Posthumous is called “Hornbook,” and begins the index of objects and conditions—the pattern, if you please—out of which the rest of the book develops. A little research reveals that the original use of the term stems from 1450 as a tool designed to teach children how to read. With a text as strange as John the Posthumous, is it important to teach readers how to read the narrative as it unfolds? Is it important for you to explore the ways in which readers might read anew?
Schwartz: And later on, I’m told, to teach children how to destroy a bed. As for teaching readers: I assume that readers are very smart. Or that the book, in its own way, is pretty simple. So I don’t really think about this in terms of teaching. I try to make something logically and carefully, and if people want to come look at it, that’s great. Attention to the pattern, as you put it, or the patterns within the sections, within each chapter, the book as a whole—this is certainly a way to manage navigation. I just happen to favor format as someone else might favor plot. So you do without the latter, but you have a kind of architecture instead. But then again, I’m a fan of the Kantian table of contents—as an independent art form. And the closing credits are usually the best part of the movie—words on a black screen, set to music.
3:AM: What were the early formations of your relationship with Gordon Lish? How did you come to be in his class in 1989?
Schwartz: I saw The Quarterly, one of the early issues, maybe the first one. I liked it, and I sent in a few things, these little poem-like things, which Gordon took for the magazine. He then invited me into the class. I was a sophomore or junior in college at the time, in New Orleans, so this would have been 1987 or so, 1988. And, right, I took the class in 1989, just after graduation.
3:AM: Some of the pieces that would be collected in A German Picturesque began appearing in The Quarterly in 1992.
Schwartz: 1992, yes, and “Ram Farm” was the first of those pieces. That one and “Ox” and a few of the others were written in 1991. “Killies” was 1992. “Antwerp” and “The Staves” were 1993. I sent these off to Gordon and he ran them in the magazine. Not a crowd favorite, let’s face it, but he took a chance, and I’m grateful for that. He’s been a good friend to me for a long time.
3:AM: Lish would leave Knopf in 1995, but the books he accepted for publication—books by new authors like Ben Marcus, Gary Lutz, Christine Schutt, Victoria Redel, and Ken Sparling—were published after his departure, yours being the last of its “kind” to arrive in 1998. What was your publishing experience like?
Schwartz: Gordon sent the book contract in 1994, but there was no book at that point. I had in hand the aforementioned stories, and some others, but I didn’t complete the book until the fall of 1997. By then, I had a new editor at Knopf. I was always asking for more time—I remember that very well. How about another six months? Once they had the manuscript, things moved along rapidly. The book was in production by the start of the year, and it was out that summer, 1998. And that was that.
3:AM: Writers edited, published, or taught by Lish are almost automatically tossed into the “minimalist” camp, for one reason or another. You noted your dissatisfaction with the term and the movement at a younger age. Were you mindful of this while studying with him? Are you aware of a certain audience reading your work against the backdrop of Lish’s legacy and his relationship with other writers and students?
Schwartz: Sure, and that’s great. Any backdrop is okay by me. As for “minimalism”: no particular quarrel with the term itself, then or now. The application of the term is another matter. But the abundance of realism—this may have made me a little gloomy at the time. Still, it was unfair to gather all those writers under one banner or another—the aforementioned, or “Dirty Realism,” or what have you. Willfully inexact, isn’t it, that sort of labeling? As for Gordon’s class: can’t say for sure at this point, twenty-five years on, but it’s more likely I’d have associated him with particular writers—and with some of the Esquire stories I’d come across as an undergraduate—than with one term or another.
3:AM: I remember reading a reviewer or online commentator refer to A German Picturesque as a series of linked stories, and this has stuck with me. Some stories share similar preoccupations with certain words, phrases, and conditions. I notice, in the new book, similar preoccupations and patterns prevailing. Do you view your work, as a whole, as one continuous narrative?
Schwartz: Not one narrative, exactly. But, sure, an ongoing project of sorts. The parts are in transit: I might revisit this or that, as subject matter, as parlance, as architecture. And sometimes for the better, I hope. I suppose I’m moving rather gradually–perhaps at a glacial pace–around my house.
3:AM: Your work has been described as an “artifact…nearly without antecedent.” Who or what do you see as being—or slightly resembling—your antecedent?
Schwartz: Trollope, obviously.
3:AM: You teach in the MFA program at Florida Atlantic University. Can any bit of your writing instruction be boiled down to what your students might call a Schwartzism? Is there anything you find yourself telling young writers over and over again?
Schwartz: At the moment, I suspect they might define any such sentiment this way: that which to avoid. As in: avoid Schwartz. So let’s boil that down to “avoid.” How did she have it, Diana Vreeland?—”elegance is refusal”? Or “elegance is restraint”? Either way, I might substitute “style” for the first word. As distinct from “Verstopfung”—which wasn’t the title of my course on the Messerschmidt heads.
3:AM: What kind of balance exists in your life between writing and teaching? How has one informed the other?
Schwartz: Hard to say. Depends on the semester, the class, the day of the week. This comes to mind: long ago, in New York, I taught middle school for a year. Rough and tumble sort of place. Lots of mischief, and no textbooks, as these had all been lost or destroyed or thrown out into a courtyard, where—I may be revising the memory slightly—there was a great pile of books, a pile nearly one story high. So it was upon the teacher to scratch out lessons on the blackboard. This was transcription, the transcription of many items, all these chapters from the absent books. And once this had been accomplished, once the blackboard had been covered with words, first thing in the morning, it was upon the teacher to guard the blackboard all day. So what to do when the fistfight breaks out? You know how people gather around. The teacher now fears the press of bodies, and the tendency of bodies to smudge, or even erase, words. Stop the fight or protect the blackboard? This seemed to me, at the time, the central educational dilemma. If you’re lucky, the fracas is close by, and you might arrange things accordingly—one hand here and one hand there, finding yourself in various complicated postures. I never managed that to successful effect. And perhaps all this explains why, in the old country, contortionists were always thought the best schoolteachers. Anyway, Mr. O’Riley’s room has been set afire in the meantime, or Mrs. Wilson has been trampled in the stairwell. The day would pass in that fashion, and then I would go home and write about postage stamps and Judas Iscariot. So—to answer your questions—who knows?
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Jason Lucarelli lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, NANO Fiction, and Squawk Back.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Jason Schwartz was born in New York and lives in Florida. He is the author of A German Picturesque (Knopf, 1998) and John the Posthumous (OR Books, 2013). His work has appeared in American Letters & Commentary, The American Reader, The Antioch Review, Conjunctions, New York Tyrant, Salt Hill, StoryQuarterly, and other publications.
John the Posthumous is available from OR Books, here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 21st, 2013.