Suspend Your Disbelief

Interviews |

Speaking Briefly on Long Subjects: An Interview with Steven Schwartz

With the release of Steven Schwartz's new collection, Little Raw Souls, Steve Wingate speaks with the author about character preoccupations, the differences between working with indie publishers and major houses, autobiography in fiction, and more.

Steven SchwartzSteven Schwartz has a lot of fiction history under his belt—almost three decades’ worth—and it shows in the stories of his latest work, a collection called Little Raw Souls from the up-and-coming Pittsburgh-based indie press Autumn House. The narrating voices of the collection, whether first person or third, do not observe the world with the surprised uncertainty of the self-discovering ingenue. Instead they tend to discover trouble in familiar settings, often brought on by small but consequential changes in equilibrium.

In “Meeting Miles,” a man who had a teenage crush on his cousin learns decades later that she has undergone a sex change. In “Stranger,” a woman who falls asleep at an airport is less concerned that her wallet has been stolen than that the man who did it kissed her on the cheek. In “Opposite Ends of the World,” a man calls his whole life into question when his neighbors complain about his barking dogs.

Not every story follows this pattern; “Absolute Zero,” about a teenage would-be Marine with a dying mother, is one of the best stories I’ve read in this young century, and its changes in equilibrium are far from small. But the collection overall digs into those unexpected, tantalizing moments when we humans consider the possibility that the narratives we make of our lives to not cohere in precisely the way we think they do. Some other story is going on as well, and Little Raw Souls delves fruitfully into those tales. It’s a rich, rewarding read that left me feeling all too susceptible to such moments of realization in my own life—a not entirely comfortable feeling, but precisely the one that has always drawn me to literature.

Schwartz teaches in the residential MFA program at Colorado State University and the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College. Recently, he has become fiction editor at Colorado Review. He has also written, for Fiction Writers Review, a 2010 essay on “Finding—and Losing—Memories in Fiction” that we hope you’ll check out.


Steven Wingate: Your characters have the raw quality that your title suggests; they are vulnerable, stuck, feeling out of viable options, and perfectly ripe for changes they can’t expect. At what point in the process did you know you were writing about these raw souls? Did the theme announce itself to you and the stories follow, or did the stories build toward the theme by accretion?

Steven Schwartz: When I first came across the phrase “little raw souls” in an Ann Carson poem, albeit used in a different context, I sat straight up, knowing it was to be the book’s title. The description summarized a preoccupation of mine about what happens when characters lose their illusions and have to find some way to endure or not. Most of the stories in the collection include some sort of precipitating event that forces the characters to act: a robbery, a terminal illness, a car accident, an unexpected birth—even a mundane complaint about a dog barking. But what’s often driving the characters is the past. Although it may be distant for them, something happens that causes it to become raw all over again.  As a writer, you try to create those circumstances, those events and actions that will bring the past to the fore.

The word “little” in your title throws me a bit, maybe because I’m used to thinking about the soul as something broad and connected to the infinite. What is it about your characters that makes their souls “little”? Is this a word they would use to describe themselves?

Little Raw SoulsIt’s hard for me to think about the short story without the word “little” attached to it. I don’t mean this as a diminishment. The short story has always been about the little person’s struggles—whether they be the grieving parents in Raymond Carver’s “A Small Good Thing” coping with a harassing baker during the dying of their child, or the poor clerk, Akaky Akakievich, in Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” trying in his crushed existence to hold onto his one prized possession. Characters who populate short stories generally have less grand schemes to plot than private and uncelebrated troubles to manage. Also, “little” as a modifier suggests childlike for me. When people find themselves in extreme circumstances, as many of my characters do, they often discover a renewed innocence. Rather than being defeated, I think one can experience a quiet direction, which you might call a soul’s clarity—if such an entity exists.

Little Raw Souls is a story collection, which tips the balance of your body of work ever so slightly in the direction of short fiction (three titles) over novels (two). Can you talk about your relationship with each form?

Generally speaking novels are beasts; short stories strokable creatures. I didn’t write a novel until I was in my forties. Stories were my first love that I left for bigger ambitions and when those bigger ambitions—the third and fourth novels—didn’t pan out I returned contritely to the form and fell in love all over again. I used to believe I needed to save everything for a novel. Such a good line or situation! Surely I can have some character say or do that in a novel! But I slowly came to understand what I probably knew all along: there are simply subjects better suited to the short story.

I’ve heard a lot of definitions, and attempts, to define the diversity of the short story, but my favorite is Chekhov’s: speaking briefly on long subjects. Any good story will offer something long in reflection. In a short story, too, you can’t dwell while winding up or winding down as you can in a novel. Getting to and sustaining the story’s intensity—that vital nexus of character, conflict, and voice—becomes paramount. So I spend a lot of time looking at the first five pages of a draft, swallowing hard, and then cutting them and discovering the real start of the story on page six. Of course, a novel takes massive editing too, but with a story I’m always gauging its heat, as if I might pass my hand over top and feel when it goes cold and then know I have a weak spot. Unlike with a novel, I can keep an entire short story in my head. It works by exclusion, culling the unessential, whereas the novel functions by inclusion, sucking in research, stray comments, family stories, lovers, real and the imagined, like a central vac system.

Your first book, the story collection To Leningrad in Winter, came out from a university press in 1985. You’ve worked with big houses like William Morrow, and now you’re with Autumn House, a relatively young press that’s establishing a strong reputation. What has changed, from your perspective, about the publishing end of the literary life in those intervening years?

to-leningrad-in-winterI’ve run the gamut, no doubt about it. There are advantages (and disadvantages) to each type of publisher. University presses generally are concerned about equal treatment. Perhaps because of their academic mission they want every book to be fairly represented on their list. The major presses, with their commercial considerations, have no such concern about equal attention. They’ll give priority to whatever will do well, that is, sell. A writer, especially a midlist or literary author, can get lost in such a system. On the other hand, nothing can match the distribution and marketing savvy of a large house, especially if it smiles favorably on you. And often these publishers get preferential treatment from the media for reviews, etc.

Meanwhile the smaller presses, like the one I’m with now, though they can’t compete with the distribution or promotion—there simply isn’t the budget—do offer a writer extraordinary personal attention. I get calls and emails back from Autumn House in record time, and boy does that make you feel wanted. Let’s not forget, too, that some of the recent high-profile prizes, the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, have gone to books from small presses, Lord of Misrule, Tinkers, and Binocular Vision, respectively.

What levels the playing field of course (and challenges the traditional gatekeepers of publishing) is the Internet and social media. Newspapers, as everyone knows, have shrunk or abandoned their book pages. The online media to a degree has picked up the slack or even expanded the coverage. Yet there’s one caveat: whereas your review in a newspaper might have been an imprimatur for your book to thousands of general readers, a blog will often have a niche audience. There may be more outlets but they’re fractional. So you spend a lot of time, as I have, trying to figure out who the hell is interested in your work, because frankly the burden of publicizing a book whether you’re with a big or small house is now on the author.

Whenever I see a character who’s a writer, my antennae perk up for the possibility of autobiography. You’ve got one in “Galisteo Street”—an intriguingly self-limiting man who “would die neither defeated nor miserable, just with his wings voluntarily clipped.” Is there any autobiography in that story, or do you have a relationship with this character that’s discernibly unique?

I remember in graduate school being informed it was a bad idea to make your main character a writer. Never mind John Irving’s Garp, Phillip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, or Kerouac’s Sal Paradise. Still, I followed the advice, feeling perhaps that writing about a writer indicated a lack of imagination. That said, there comes a time when you can’t ignore, especially if you’ve been writing for so long, an essential aspect of your life. Especially, too, when that element has so much to do with what for me often drives my characters: success—or their lack of it. Writers anguish privately over why some other writer instead of them has gotten more recognition. I was speaking to my son the other day, who’s waiting anxiously to hear about an acceptance to a college program. We were laughing over how writers are always waiting to hear about some acceptance (but more likely rejection). He wondered how I could stand it. That’s a good question. After a while you just decide this is your fate and you deal with it.

A Good Doctor's SonI’ve certainly considered at critical moments—when trying to start something from scratch; or feeling defeated because a book didn’t do well; or believing you’ve said all you have to say (witness Phillip Roth throwing in the towel recently)—giving up myself. I know few writers who haven’t contemplated how much happier they might be without writing, only to decide like me they have no idea what would replace the intensity and focus writing gives our lives. In my character Ben’s case in “Galisteo Street,” with his “wings voluntarily clipped,” he’s had his shot not just at success but its inflated cousin—fame, which didn’t come through, and he still can’t get over that disappointment. But the real conflict for him is about his estranged daughter, and now new granddaughter, and how he seems to believe—and this is often the dilemma for writers or any artists—he’s missed out on real life by pursuing his literary ambitions.

The narrator of the final story, “The Theory of Everything,” struck me as different from the others. He’s able to call things as he sees them more clearly and directly than some of your other narrators, who can get hung up in how they think things should be. Is this just because he’s older than the others, or is there some specific trait that allows him this clarity?

Partly it’s age, partly generational. This story came out of a visit I made to interview a man who served in World War II and faced a German firing squad.  He survived—a story in itself—but what came to interest me was that this man and his wife in their eighties were raising their grandchildren. I wanted to interview him because of his dramatic war experiences but discovered the real story, because of how it tied into issues in my own family when I was growing up, was his quieter, domestic heroism. You often think you know what you’re writing about until the anticipated subject slips away faster than a yanked tablecloth. It’s hard to create a truly heroic figure, because most characters frankly are flawed. But I knew in this case I had someone who had the stamina for which his generation is reputed and the clarity, to use your word, to know what was right to do. Ironically, the dramatic details of surviving the firing squad never made it into the story, though I tried. Rather, I found out that they were those invisible notes that inform the writer but have no place in the final story.

Sometimes I feel, long after I’m done writing my characters, that I’d like to meet them by chance and check in with them the way I would with an old acquaintance. Just see how they’re doing, figure out if they have another story to tell me. Does anybody from Little Raw Souls stick with you in that way?

lives-of-the-fathersI find that true both as a reader and writer. A character pops up spontaneously to say hi or nudge you. I suppose this is what sequels are for, or those “persona” characters who appear in one book and return in another years later with more to say. Rabbit Angstrom, Updike’s guy, goes through every life stage possible. I do think most writers keep a character in the wings—a recent example would be Junot Diaz’s Yunior—and these characters won’t quit you unless you kill them off.  In truth, it’s often the voice associated with a particular character that motivates more development. Plugging into that voice through the character makes for a fluency that is hard to give up. I have a character in this new collection, David, who appears in the story “Seeing Miles,” and has been in stories from my previous collection, Lives of the Fathers.  His background may be inconsistent over time, but he’ll occasionally resurface, grab my attention, and play out a further episode of his life in the same voice as years earlier.

In Little Raw Souls, I am curious what happens to the young man in “Absolute Zero” who loses his mother to cancer. Does he in fact, as he wishes, join the Marines and survive combat? I also think about the retired highway inspector in “Bless Everybody” who can’t bear to acknowledge how much he wants to reconcile with his ex-wife until he gets mugged. I wouldn’t mind knowing whether the couple desperate for a child in “Opposite Ends of the World,” but deterred by the husband’s multiple sclerosis, actually gets their wish. Mostly, though, you let characters live out their lives off the page. Sometimes they do return, but they’re often so changed in their new roles that you don’t recognize them at first until they’ve come and gone.

Links and Resources:

Literary Partners