Exhausting the Vein of Realism: A Conversation with Lynne Sharon Schwartz




I DON’T KNOW when I first became aware of Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s writing, but it was probably sometime between 1980, when Raymond Carver lauded her on the basis of her National Book Award–nominated first novel Rough Strife, and 1989, when Sven Birkerts raved about Schwartz’s PEN/Faulkner Award–nominated Leaving Brooklyn in The New York Times. I do remember reading that latter book with ardor, because although Schwartz’s Brooklyn and mine bore little resemblance to one another, the intensity of her gaze and the precision of her language were benchmarks for the kind of writing I hoped to do when I was ready. (Of course, I was never ready, but I did eventually start to try.)

Schwartz, meanwhile, has never stopped writing. She’s published continuously and in many genres. Her 24 books include novels, memoirs, translations from Italian, collections of poetry and short stories, and even a children’s book. Her most recent work, Truthtelling: Stories, Fables, Glimpses, was called “perfect” by trade tastemakers at Kirkus Reviews (a level of enthusiasm which sounds almost unseemly, coming from that quarter). Whether or not it actually is flawless, the book is full of invention, soul, and wit, and also marks a departure from Schwartz’s earlier fictional work, as it explores aspects of choice and behavior that verge on the fantastic and surreal.

I had the chance to talk to Schwartz about this bend in her road earlier in the summer, as we sat in our respective New York City apartments, feeling grateful for fewer sirens and more daylight.

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RACHEL CLINE: You’ve had a remarkable career as an acclaimed novelist, short story writer, translator, and essayist. Now, with your new collection of short fiction, Truthtelling, you have found your way into a new realm of fiction that evades an easy label. Can you talk about how this new approach evolved for you?

LYNNE SHARON SCHWARTZ: Most of the stories in Truthtelling were written over the past three or four years. And as I wrote them I kept surprising myself — unexpected things began happening, as if a new inner voice were asserting itself. Until then my fiction, both stories and novels, had used a traditional realistic mode. Now, suddenly strange and eerie things were intruding. The stories seemed to swerve into a not quite logical world. The odd things that appeared — forgetting the existence of one’s mother, having a fit of hysteria on a subway, being thrown into an existential panic by a wrong number on the phone — were not impossible, but extremely unlikely. So unlikely that the stories came to occupy a formerly unexplored space between reality and imagination, or nightmare.

Yet although the stories were not quite realistic, they were abundantly real in the psychological and emotional sense. It was as if the characters’ most fearsome fantasies were coming true — not supernatural fantasies, but jagged turns they would normally not take, paths unnoticed before. It struck me that I was exploring a new voice, or rather giving voice to an aspect of my writing sensibility that I’d never yet released. It was a kind of freedom to go beyond the conventional limits.

This new approach might have come from the world outside, as well. It’s often remarked that events today in all spheres of life — political, social, sexual, artistic — are stranger than fiction. Witness the world-shattering and surreal pandemic we are currently suffering through. In general, the pace of change in every area is unprecedented and mind-boggling. With swift technological advancements and an overall weirdness now shaping — and, really, distorting — our modes of thought, the details of ordinary life no longer seemed enough: I wanted to go beyond, in every sense. So I was led to imagining how commonplace events, like a spell of laziness, or listening to a concert, or simply watching a woman walking her dog, can take on a surreal edge, and thereby become super-real. The stories became a venture into possibility: where could events lead when freed of the expected patterns? I felt I had exhausted the vein of realism and discovered, or freed up, an attitude to the world — skeptical, bizarre, untrusting — that had been lurking within me for a long time, like a prisoner craving release.

You have never allowed your success as a novelist to keep you from trying other kinds of writing. Do some genres come more naturally to you than others?

I was an avid reader as a child. I read everything I could get my hands on. My parents stored books on shelves in my bedroom, so I went through those, including a marvelous old collection called The Little Leather Library, which were these tiny books, maybe three square inches, containing essays, poems, stories — Poe, especially, and even a couple of Shakespeare plays. I didn’t know what genres were; to me, it was all just writing. The stories I wrote when I was about seven were kinds of philosophical inquiries, asking questions like, How did the world come to be? and Why not free all prisoners?

From my readings in college as an English major, I acquired the old-fashioned idea that writers could and should write anything. And to some extent that idea is still with me. Of course I know now what genres are, but learning their distinctions never meant I couldn’t try my hand at any and all of them. Fiction is the mode closest to my heart and my inclinations, but I also love writing essays and poems. I’ve published three collections of poems, and while they are less ambitious than what I do in prose, I can live with that: it’s pleasure enough just to write poetry. In fiction, though, I strive for the highest.

Then there’s translation, which I also love to do. I think of it as a vacation from fiction because when translating you don’t have to make anything up — it’s all there already! All you have to do is play with words and phrases and sentence rhythms, which I find the most delightful part of writing. I’m one of those writers who loves revising. I often wish someone could write my first drafts for me, and then I’d take over and perfect them, tinkering to my heart’s content. Well, that’s exactly what happens in translation, a wonderful vacation from writing.

I first thought of translating when I was taking intermediate Italian classes at the Universitá per Stranieri in Perugia, Italy. My Italian class was reading the essays of the great 20th-century author Natalia Ginzburg, who wrote equally great fiction and essays, and as I read them I found I was putting them into English in my head, so I tried translating them seriously. I enjoyed the work immensely — I felt a kinship with her wise spirit and the brilliant clarity of her writing. Over the course of several years, I translated a good many of her essays, which were eventually published by Seven Stories in a volume called A Place to Live: And Other Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg.

So many of the stories in your new collection feel especially — that is, pandemically — relevant to this moment, even though I know you wrote them well before this spring! For example, the story “The Golden Rule,” about a relationship between neighbors in a New York City apartment building, mirrors all the fears I’ve had during these recent months in New York, filled with sirens and evening clanging. I saw myself in both characters. As I continue to reflect on the story, I really think you should have titled it “The Cunning Tyranny of the Weak,” a phrase you use to describe the behavior of Maria, the older of the two. 

That would have been a great title for this story. Now I’ll have to write another, using that title. My title, “The Golden Rule,” of course refers to the proverb about doing unto others, which is what the protagonist Amanda attempts to do for the elderly neighbor who constantly asks her for favors. Amanda finds that following the golden rule is not as simple as it sounds; it leaves ample room for exploitation. Of course there’s resentment on her part, but once she assumes the role of helper, she can’t get herself out of it. And in Maria, the exploiter, she sees herself as she might be in 20 or 30 years, needy and dependent. It’s an examination of how far we can take the biblical injunction to love our neighbors, and can we keep it up when more and more is asked of us?

This story, unlike most of the others, is based on an actual experience I had with a neighbor, and after her death I, like Amanda, was left in possession of something valuable (though luckily not the contents of an entire dilapidated apartment). I don’t know if I could have thought that up on my own. But as you say, it fits well into the general scheme and alludes obliquely to Amanda’s relationship with her daughter, who is far away. It may be that what spurred me to write it was the neighbor’s rejection of my excellent homemade soup — the last straw!

My favorite piece in this collection might be “A Taste of Dust.” On the surface, it’s almost a drawing-room comedy: a woman named Violet makes a holiday visit to the suburban home of her ex-husband and his new wife, who are now long past the glow of infatuation. The next generation, including a newborn grandchild, are also on hand to complicate things. During the visit, Violet readily concludes she has no regrets about the loss of the marriage, but some buried regrets — if “regrets” is even the right word — make a stealthy reappearance at the last possible minute. I’m reluctant to even characterize this turn in the story because I found it so moving. Did you know this was what you were aiming for when you were writing?

“A Taste of Dust” was suggested by the situation of a friend whose husband divorced her in middle age to marry a younger woman, a not uncommon occurrence. I made up the visit, the family, the characters, and all the rest. You’re quite right about the sudden turn at the end being “a stealthy appearance.”

Violet has made a fairly good life for herself post-divorce: she’s an ophthalmologist, it’s suggested that she has had lovers, and she enjoys seeing her recently married son with his wife and baby. The story illustrates how the aging ex-husband is disrespected and even mocked by his new wife and their teenaged daughters. The reader sees the self-confident Violet actually feeling sorry for him: he made a bad choice in leaving her for this woman. But at the end comes a sudden turn in her feelings that is meant to jar the reader as it jars Violet. I didn’t know I was aiming for this conclusion as I was writing, but I knew when it came to me that it was right.

I’ve probably spent two-thirds of my life on the MTA, and it’s never occurred to me to set a story there. Your story “Public Transit” describes a series of very familiar experiences from the pre-pandemic world, when we used to travel together daily on buses and trains. The incidents lead to a moment of abandon — the narrator calls it her “demise,” though she also tells us it was a willful act — that is funny, inevitable, and horrifying. 

“Public Transit” is actually one of my favorite stories because I find the heroine’s wild imaginings on buses and subways so funny, and yet so believable. As New Yorkers know, anything can happen on a subway, including long, unexplained stops in the dark. Subways are by their nature surreal, moving through smelly dismal tunnels, dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon, as Milton says in Samson Agonistes. The thoughts of people with imagination can run wild. The first three episodes of the story, though weird enough, take place on buses, which are far less menacing. There is the reassurance of the view out the windows, streets, shops, traffic, pedestrians. People on buses are reasonably courteous, while on subways we seem to lose our usual manners and mutual regard: incivility is always lurking, never a surprise.

The heroine of “Public Transit” is unnerved by studying her fellow passengers during the long stops underground. She feels an almost uncontrollable urge to express her building anxiety in a loud scream. Many of us may have felt this on a subway, but being reasonable people, we control the urge. As in other stories, I wanted to explore what would happen if we took the extra step, ditched self-control and gave ourselves up to panic. I have often wondered, when people lapse into extravagantly neurotic and disruptive behavior, whether they have really lost control or whether they have made a choice to go nuts.

I wonder that too!

A similar incident happens in my story “An Impromptu Visit,” when a mother and her teenaged daughter seek shelter from a rainstorm in a friendly woman’s suburban house. The protagonist feels a sudden urge to steal a small trinket from her host’s house, something she would not ordinarily do. She wants it so badly, she simply allows herself this ungrateful as well as unlawful act: a moment of gross self-indulgence, or willful self-gratification. As in many stories centered on emotional or psychological quandaries, I’m looking at places where a line might be drawn, and that line is often obscure and hard to discern.

Your characters are mostly New Yorkers of a certain sort: they earn their money in relatively interesting ways but are not quite glamorous; they have marriages and relationships, some intact, some failed; and they are old enough to know themselves well, though they don’t always manage to do so. Do you think of yourself as a writer of a specific milieu?

It’s true that many of my characters can be found in New York City. It’s the place I know best and most intimately. I was born in Brooklyn back when it was terminally dull, before it became a cool Mecca for young artists. Though I’ve lived in many other places since, I always return to New York. I feel as though it’s my country.

The term “regional writer” is often applied by critics from the literary centers of either coast to subtly — or not so subtly — put down writers from Appalachia, or the Midwest, or parts of the South. This is grossly unfair — some of our best writers have been and still are “regional.” I’d be happy to be called a regional writer, with New York City as my region.

On the other hand, in some of my more offbeat stories, such as “Breaking Up,” or “The Middle Child,” or “A Few Days Off,” the characters could be from anywhere. Rather than a geographical region, they share an affective one: the region of the odd, the uncanny, the emotionally off-balance.

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Rachel Cline is the author of the novels What to Keep (2003), My Liar (2008), and The Question Authority (2019). She has written for The New York TimesNew YorkMoreSELF, and Tin House, and is a produced screen and television writer. She lives in Brooklyn Heights, New York.

 

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