An Interview with David J Schwartz
David J. Schwartz has had over two-dozen short stories published in the last seven years. His short fiction is complex and atmospheric with a recurring theme of reflecting on the art of storytelling itself. He has an uncanny ability to mock various human behaviors while simultaneously questioning why people would ever dare laugh at the misfortunes found in those aforementioned human behaviors. Science fiction and fantasy writer Christopher Rowe described this phenomenon as a state “where everything is funny and light, and then there’s a jab of something painful to remind you that life really does suck sometimes, and a pause as if to say ‘And you were just laughing, weren’t you?’”
In Superpowers, Schwartz’s first published novel, five housemates, students in college, develop the titular powers. The novel’s not underwear perverts without pictures, even though they eventually adopt costumes. It’s about normal human beings, with normal human problems, who eventually find out that the stereotypical comic book powers (like invisibility, awesome strength and flight) don’t do as much to change (or save) the world as comics have almost always promised that they would. With that as a backdrop, it’s also a frank look at the violence that came with September 11th, 2001.
Karen Joy Fowler described the book as, “A thoughtful and convincing blend of magic and realism. I believed in these ordinary, recognizable college students with their extraordinary abilities. As their powers change and fail them (and vice versa), Superpowers tells us a story both soaring and sober.”
As mentioned in this interview, Mr. Schwartz writes his fiction by hand. He doesn’t mention that it’s in a semi-legible scrawl that sometimes even he can’t read. David J. Schwartz’s novella, The Sun Inside, has just been released by Rabid Transit Press as the debut in its Electrum Novella series. He once printed up bookmarks that described him as: “Fantasist. Smug-looking bastard. Elephant fanatic.”
You blogged about how your financial straits were dire right before selling your first novel, mentioning that you could barely afford Next Wave. Could you retell that story? With hindsight, does it feel different now? (Don’t worry, most Bookslut readers know that first novelists don’t get to retire on their advances.)
Yes; the tragedy of being unable to buy comic books. Certainly there have been points where it was a choice between, say, buying food or paying the electricity bill; but if I’ve experienced poverty it’s a middle-class sort of poverty, because I have a safety net and because I was living with things like high-speed Internet despite everything. The book contract did come at a particularly bad time, though. For a few weeks afterwards I was walking around feeling bits of tension bubble off of my shoulders, tension I hadn’t even realized I was carrying. And I vividly remember the first time I sat down to write after we had the deal and realized that I was actually getting paid to do what was by that point just habit. But if I have been (or am) “suffering for my art,” it’s because of choices I’ve made. I could chase more freelance work, or I could get a real career and write in my spare time. In part I don’t because of temperament, in part because I fear losing focus. I’m still modulating my lifestyle to make the money go farther; I got rid of my car last year, and I moved to a cheaper city. Next I plan to get rid of my apartment and move into a small grove of trees I recently discovered. The wireless signal there is really, really clear.
To a certain literary community, you’re known for short stories. Does your writing process differ for a novel?
The process differs insofar as (usually) writing a story does not feel like a task with no visible end, as a novel can -- particularly after you’ve been working on one for a while. There is no perfect metaphor, which is why I’m always making up new ones; but writing a story can be like carving a flute out of a tree branch, whereas writing a novel is more like carving a slightly bigger flute out of an entire forest. There’s a lot more whittling and it’s worse for the environment.
More seriously, one of the most meaningful differences is that as a writer I can hold a short story in my head, but I can’t hold an entire novel in there at once. This is also part of what makes writing a novel so frustrating. It’s why we can get lost in novels but not (usually) in short stories; at some point the story-endorphins kick in and say, “Relax. This is too big. Stop trying to cram it all into your critical brain and just see where it goes.” As a reader, that’s a great feeling; as a writer, it’s the sort of thing that you either forget or take undue advantage of. It’s much harder to get away with being a lazy short story writer, because every wrong word weighs that much more. It’s easy to be a lazy novel writer and just think that your readers won’t notice. I think they do, though, it’s just that if you’re doing enough things right they may be willing to forgive you. Maybe. As a lapsed Catholic, I am impatient with forgiveness and obsessed with perfection (or perhaps just control), and where novels once seemed easy now they are getting harder. Short stories are a really nice break now and then, although I still don’t feel like I’ve quite figured them out either. The mechanics of writing either are very much the same; write something down (on paper, ‘cause I’m old school), then figure out what happens, then write some more. (I know that some people like to figure out what happens before they write. Those people are dangerous and should be electronically monitored.) The work is the same, but the experience is different.
What, pray tell, does the phrase Spicy Slipstream Stories mean to you?
Titillating tales that make you feel very strange? I remember when I first looked at the guidelines for that anthology, and I thought to myself that there was no way I’d ever manage to write something that could fit into what they were looking for. That’s less of a comment on what they were asking for than it is on the fact that I have a lot of trouble writing to fit into a particular framework. Believe it or not, the story that I ended up placing there (“Proof of Zero”) -- at least, the final image of it -- came to me in a dream, and I wasn’t sure I could make it work. I’ve tried to write stories from dreams before and they just fell apart. But this one was particularly weird and vivid, about a theater troupe that performs plays based on famous math problems until one of them is horribly murdered. I’m eager to have it out there for people to read.
Is it fair to say that much of your work, in Superpowers and in short fiction, has a sense of longing? If you had to sum up all of your fiction so far up in a few words, would your head explode?
I forget the exact wording and I can’t find a copy of the essay at the moment, but in his essay “In the Tradition…” Michael Swanwick makes an argument for fantasy as the literature of regret: regret for things that are lost and cannot be regained. I think, although it’s not a conscious choice, that’s where I fit, because I seem to have lost a lot of my optimism. It may simply be a certain melancholy mindset, or a feeling of disconnection, but I tend to write about things that I wish were better, without any particular hope that they ever will be. I find myself constantly being shoved up against this dichotomy, because on the one hand I do believe strongly in personal power (as opposed to personal superpowers), be it political or economic or simply the importance of taking a moral stand. On the other hand, it is so rarely exercised, and I constantly disappoint myself in this regard. Which I suppose circles back around to my skepticism about heroism, and, sure, a longing for more of it in the world.
What are some of your favorite superhero teams?
The New Mutants -- the classic lineup, before they started killing them off. The New Warriors during the Fabian Nicieza / Mark Bagley era. The Keith Giffen / J.M. DeMatteis / Kevin Maguire Justice League. But my all-time favorite team is the non-team of the Defenders, specifically the lineup of Hellcat, Valkyrie, Doctor Strange, and the Hulk. And, OK, Nighthawk too, even though he’s a horrible whiner.
So superheroes have problems just like everyone else? Because that’s kind of sad! Did you plan on exploring the human side of superheroes, or did it just happen when you put realistic characters into tights?
Well, escapism doesn’t do much for me as a reader, so I wasn’t going to go that route. If you look at someone like, say, Spider-Man, getting beat up by bad guys is almost a vacation for him, because he’s got no end of problems in his personal life. Early on I had to make some decisions like, am I going to have super-villains? Are these kids going to have some sort of a high-tech secret base? And I quickly decided I didn’t want to move in that direction. I wanted them to be real kids with real challenges, and not move them onto some plane where you can only talk about heroism in some abstract, archetypal way. I think masks can become a crutch, really, a means of talking about good and evil as if they are something beyond normal humans. I wanted to keep the characters out of costume as much as possible.
Do you think Superpowers would’ve been reviewed differently by Publisher’s Weekly if the review had run in the SF/Fantasy section?
I couldn’t say. I think the book falls into a weird middle-ground. It has speculative -- or fantasy -- elements, but it feels more like a mainstream novel in a lot of ways, at least to me. When it’s a miss for someone it’s easy to wonder whether that has to do with genre expectations; on the other hand, I’ve had some really positive reactions from people who aren’t big genre readers at all. I think you just can’t please everyone. If a dozen of the writers I’m friendly with read the same book, I doubt we could all agree on whether it was good or not, so I don’t expect that the critical reaction is going to be uniformly good. Luckily it’s been largely positive, so far.
You once had a Scooby-Doo air freshener in your car. Why didn’t the Scooby gang have super powers? Was it Hanna-Barbera’s lack of imagination?
Wait, the Scooby gang didn’t have powers? I mean, not everyone, obviously. Fred and Daphne had nothing going for them but their neckwear. But Velma is a genius, at least, and very possibly some sort of psychic. She even has a super-hero weakness: nearsightedness is her kryptonite. Shaggy’s superpower, on the other hand, is just eating, and possibly cross-dressing. Which raises lots of possibilities for an alternate Galactus. But what about Scooby? He’s a talking Great Dane. I can’t understand how you missed that. Granted, he has a speech impediment, but then so does Sylvester the Cat, and I don’t see anyone suggesting that he’s not a super-villain.
Your narrator, Marcus Hatch, is a character in the book who witnessed some of the events. He wrote the story, but also addresses the reader from time to time. Were you concerned with his first person voice feeling like an intrusion, since some Writer 101-type guides would discourage against it?
Honestly? No. I had concerns about Marcus, but they stemmed more from the fact that he’s a conspiracy theorist and kind of a jerk. Marcus is there because I needed a filter for my own anger about the events surrounding 9/11 and the aftermath. I sort of needed him to be larger than life, because the characters needed to stay life-sized. He’s a little bit J. Jonah Jameson, maybe, to the Spider-Man of the five super-powered characters.
I think that the Writer 101 stuff is useful right up to the point where you’re ready to throw out the rulebook altogether. The sub-clause for any guideline like that is “Don’t do this because it’s really hard to do well.” And that’s important to know, but if you follow every rule then you’re going to end up with something really dull, you know?
Who should script and who should draw the Superpowers comic?
I should script it, of course, because I am a control freak; but I will not draw it, because while the stick-figure thing works for XCKD it would not work for me. In an ideal world I would say Art Adams should draw it, but given his rate of production the book might never come out. So in a still-pretty-ideal-but-slightly-more-plausible fantasy world I’d say Bill Sienkiewicz should paint (not draw) it. His is a name I speak only in hushed tones and which I always spell-check before typing.
The book went through multiple revisions. Were they extensive? What was the submission process and finding an agent like?
It’s funny, because I think my memory of the revisions and edits is unreliable. In another interview I said something about them being relatively painless, and then someone close to the process e-mailed me to say, “Oh really?!” I don’t know what it’s like for other people, but for me there are stages of revision. First I go through and clean up the mess I made building the thing -- the dead ends, the redundancies, the overwrought language. Then I go into each scene that I know doesn’t work and chip at it and reshape it until it fits with the rest of the story. And then someone else has to look at it and tell me what they think isn’t working, and that’s where I get huffy and pull out my hair and generally act like a drama queen. The thing is, most of the time I end up agreeing with those readers, so once I calm down it’s just a matter of doing the work. What was tricky here was that there were a few points we didn’t agree on, initially, and that meant that we had to go back and forth on until we understood each other’s reasoning. Editing is -- hopefully -- a negotiation, so you just have to know your work so that you can make your arguments. Know what you were trying to accomplish, know why you made the choices you did. If you can’t justify it then maybe you’re wrong and it does need to change.
On the agent front, I actually found my agent before I showed her this particular manuscript. I might even say that she found me, because I was lucky enough to have her stumble onto my blog and then read a couple of the short stories that I have online. I fear that this story may make struggling novelists want to kill me, but it’s true.
Attempting to avoid a spoiler, one of your characters acts on rage in a way that can be viewed as sudden, unexpected and scary. What led you to go there? Do you have any concern that that particular scene could be misinterpreted?
Sudden, unexpected and scary is pretty much exactly what I was going for. I don’t want to say too much about it for those who haven’t read the book, because in a lot of ways that scene is the crux of it. It encapsulates my misgivings about power in general and American power in particular, and whether those who have it can really be trusted with it, regardless of their intentions.
What other fiction have you read that’s about comics?
Novel-wise, just The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay, actually. I haven’t read Soon I Will Be Invincible or Hero or any of the recent stuff because I didn’t want to get tangled up in worries about how much of the same ground we were all treading. I have a copy of Michael Bishop’s Count Geiger’s Blues around, too, and I look forward to reading that because Brittle Innings is one of my favorite books.
Because I went to school there (off and on) and lived there for about ten years. Because I used to work the brat stand at the Memorial Union terrace, and spent summers burning the hair off my arms and knuckles and smelling of pork and beer. Because when I think of directionless angst and emotional turmoil and a feeling of invulnerability I think of those years. Because Rush Limbaugh calls it the People’s Republic of Madison and former gov Tommy Thompson once referred to it as “twenty square miles surrounded by reality.” Because the statue on top of the capitol building has a badger on her head. Because the Midwest never gets any superheroes, and if you’re going to call us “flyover country” then we ought to have someone in a spandex bodysuit up in the sky. Because the Madison I knew was made up of people and places that are no longer there, and fiction is a repository for misremembrances.
Did you know that Madison has one of the most thriving industrial and goth music scenes in the U.S.? And, more importantly, do you know the band The Gothsicles? Because their song “Hey, I’ve got that font” is a must for writers…
I did not know these things! In my day Madison had a thriving indie rock scene, but then someone started burning down the venues, so that just sort of stopped. Oh, they’ll say that the fires were accidental, but come on. I was living just up the street when the Club de Wash -- actually, the entire Hotel Washington, with great bars like the Barber’s Closet and the New Bar -- burned to the ground; it was never rebuilt. I’d been drinking girlie drinks at the Barber’s Closet just the night before, and Club de Wash was my favorite music bar. I’d seen the Sturgeon-inspired Killdozer there, and the Old 97s before they were big. Then the Chamber shut down, and the place on Park by the railroad tracks that kept closing down and changing its name (I saw Ned’s Atomic Dustbin there), and then they burned down O’Cayz Corral and by that time everyone had gotten the message. I’m happy to know there’s something going on there now besides the occasional Garbage mention.
When’s the sequel? Have you thought about it?
Oh, man. I guess you can never say never, but so far it’s not something I’ve thought about. There are so many other things I want to write, and things I’m already working on, that any continuation of this story would be years off at best. Sometimes the sequels that readers dream up themselves are a lot more satisfying than anything the writer can come up with, and this might be one of those cases.
Considering that your book shows the ramifications of having super powers, what power would you want if you were trying to choose one that would get you into the least amount of trouble?
If I’m being honest, I’d rather have a practical sort of power. Being amazingly strong would be great until everyone started asking you to help them move, and flying around would be great for beating traffic but then you’d never have an excuse for being late. I wouldn’t mind having Cypher’s power. He was the New Mutant who could intuitively understand any sort of language, human, alien, computer, what have you. I ride the bus a lot, and my minimal grasp of Norwegian and Spanish does not help me to understand Hmong or Somali. I need to know what those people are saying about me, for my own mental health.