More About the Author
Here is an interview with me in The New Yorker. The interview tells about how I came to write A STRANGER ON THE PLANET, discusses the themes of the book, my writing process, and the connection between my life and the book. Feel free to email me with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
March 22, 2011
The Exchange: Adam Schwartz
Posted by Sally Law
In the July 18, 1988, issue of The New Yorker, Adam Schwartz published "The Grammar of Love," a short story based on his teaching experiences in Chicago. He followed with the publication of "This Bed" in the June 22, 1992, issue, and earlier this year, both stories were incorporated into the novel "A Stranger on the Planet," which follows Seth Shapiro through his life. We meet Seth as a lost adolescent, and watch him become a somewhat-less-lost man. Seth and his family are, as Schwartz says, "New Jersey Jews behaving badly"--his mother is needy; his twin sister is pragmatic yet willful; and his father, who is married to the French woman that broke up his marriage to Seth's mother, is cold and later estranged. Also estranged is Seth's brother, Seamus, who responds to his family's distress by becoming orthodox.
Recently, Schwartz and I exchanged e-mails about truth, divorce, and the writing life; an edited version of our exchange appears below.
How did "The Grammar of Love" and "This Bed" become part of a novel published twenty years after their publication?
I had thought that the stories I was publishing in The New Yorker would be part of a short-story collection--my apprentice book. But because the characters in my stories were so similar, I decided to turn the book into a collection of related stories about the same cast of characters. Once I began writing about the same characters, the stories became more open-ended and longer. Writing these novella-length fictions was both exhilarating and depressing--exhilarating because I felt liberated from the formal demands of the exquisitely wrought short story (I wanted my short stories to have the richness and density of a novel, and writing them felt like trying to coax an elephant into a doll house), depressing because the stories were too long--forty or fifty pages--to be published. Writing fifteen-thousand word stories is not a great career move unless you're Alice Munro.
"This Bed" fit seamlessly into the novel because it's about a penultimate moment in the lives of the central characters. "The Grammar of Love," the story I published in 1988, was more challenging to incorporate into the novel because, as originally published, the subject matter--Seth's adventures teaching at an all-black college in Chicago--was more removed from the chapters about the Shapiro family and Seth's love life. I had lived in the Hyde Park section of Chicago from 1978 to 1982, but then I didn't return until 2005, when I went to a professional conference in Chicago. I was supposed to stay at the Drake hotel in downtown Chicago, but instead I rented a dorm room in the International House at the University of Chicago. I spent hours walking the streets of Hyde Park, retracing my steps, so to speak, through the story I had written many years earlier. That return visit to Chicago was a major turning point for me in the composition of the novel. It rekindled Chicago in my imagination, and I ended up setting about one hundred pages of the book in Chicago. In fact, I completely blew off the conference I was supposed to attend and spent most of my three days there holed up in my rented dorm room writing "Virgins," the long chapter set at the University of Chicago.
"The Grammar of Love" is based on your teaching experiences. How much of the novel is autobiographical?
When I wrote "The Grammar of Love," I learned to write myself away from the facts of my life and to create a parallel fictional universe. Yes, I did teach at an all-black college in Chicago, but virtually every detail in the story is invented. In early drafts, I'd include amusing details drawn directly from my experiences--for example, one of my students kept asking me if I'd teach her how to drive--but those details just didn't come to life in the world of the story. The details I invented were more alive on the page than the things I actually experienced. Is my novel autobiographical? I can reasonably say that most of it is invented and that it's all true--true to a fictional universe that parallels my own life. The parents in the novel bear a very close resemblance to my real parents, and I did live in the same places where my protagonist lives. But one of Seth's most important relationships is with Sarah, his twin sister, and I don't have a twin sister. Several years ago, I was sitting at my desk on a Saturday morning writing a story about a character based on my mother when the phone rang--it was my mother, of course. I was irritated that she had interrupted my writing, but then my mood brightened when I heard the profound dissonance between the voice in my ear and the character in my head. It meant that my writing was going well, that the character based on my mother had a fictional life of her own.
The novel explores plagiarizing and inauthenticity, both in writing and in life. What led you to that theme? How does being a child of divorce influence the perception of truth, for both you and for Seth?
That theme is very directly connected to the central concern of the novel--how does one invent a self? Early on in the book, at the end of the second chapter, Seth says, "Between the distant poles of my mother and father, I felt as if I were trying to navigate my way in the middle of some vast white tundra." He's twenty years old and his life is a blank canvas, but he doesn't know how to create a self because his parents pull him in such opposite directions. He has no models, no sense of who he is, so he plagiarizes and appropriates other people's stories. In high school, he wins a writing prize by submitting a story partially plagiarized from a Saul Bellow story, and that prize helps him to get into the University of Chicago; at Chicago, he writes a story based on a painful episode from his girlfriend's life. His girlfriend, Rachel, is furious with him--she accuses him of violating her trust--but his achievement in that story is authentic; Rachel's story provides him with a medium through which to tell his own.
My parents divorced when I was six, and I believe that event turned me into a first-class liar. My world was broken, and I could only fix it through my imagination. When I was in second grade, my father had come to visit for a weekend. He was his usual cold self, remote, palpably bored. At school on Monday morning, the teacher called on me for show and tell. I didn't have anything to show, so I told a whopping fish story about my father's visit that weekend--I think we ended up being pulled out to sea without a boat. Every time the teacher interrupted me to ask if my story were really true, I'd respond with a more exaggerated lie. I was trying to invent a relationship with my father, of course. In my novel, Seth's father says to him, "You know what your problem is? You remember everything that's not important." My father never actually said that to me, but it's something he might have said, and it rings so true for me, that in conversations with people I'll repeat that line as if my father really said it. More than forty years later, I'm still doing the same thing--telling lies about my father in order to revise my relationship with him. I suppose I'm acting out the theme of plagiarism too--if I count plagiarizing from myself.
Are you most drawn to writing about romantic love, or family love? Or are the two hopelessly intertwined?
All of the above! Seth's relationship with his mother, Ruth, drives the novel, so in that sense writing about family love came more easily. But Seth has two important romantic relationships in the book--with his college girlfriend, Rachel, and with Molly, the woman he's married to for a brief period of time. The chapter about Seth and Molly's relationship was the most difficult section of the book to write. It's nearly sixty-five pages, but I found that length extremely confining for credibly capturing the ebb and flow of a romantic relationship. In draft after draft of that chapter, I found myself resorting to various forms of narrative short-hand to convey the arc and the rhythms of Seth and Molly's brief but intense courtship and marriage. Writing about Seth and Rachel was much easier because their relationship develops over twenty years. After they graduate from college, Rachel comes out to Seth as a lesbian, but he never really falls out love with her. In an earlier draft, the novel ended with a long chapter about Rachel and Seth going to China so that Seth can assist Rachel in adopting a baby. The premise was prompted by the experience of a gay friend. She and her partner were adopting a baby in China, but the adoption agency told her not to travel to China with another woman, especially her partner, so she went with an old boyfriend. When Seth and Rachel get to China, nothing turns out as expected--the baby bonds with Seth and rejects Rachel, and long-dormant romantic feelings between Seth and Rachel complicate things even more. The chapter was titled "Like Family," in part because it deals with the intertwining of family and romantic love.
Do you think you'll rework that chapter for another project?
I'd certainly like to try. My daughter is adopted from China, and I lived in Shanghai for a year, so I'm very drawn to the material and to the idea of how families create themselves.
Seth has been called an "anti-hero"--do you agree with that assessment?
I think that's fair; readers use the label because they see Seth as always undermining himself. The term "anti-hero" never came to my mind when I was writing the book, but I did very consciously think of Seth as the "anti-Nathan Zuckerman." Partly I was reacting to my self-consciousness about inhabiting the same fictional territory as Philip Roth--I was writing comic fiction about New Jersey Jews behaving badly. But, more substantially, I was drawn to the theme of the competing demands between art and life in Roth's novels, especially in "The Ghost Writer." Unlike Zuckerman, Seth can't place art before life; he can't free himself from the bonds of convention and family in pursuit of his art.
I was completing the final revisions of the novel during the first two weeks of January 2010 when I read an essay by Adam Gopnik titled "Van Gogh's Ear." Reading that essay cast my novel into very dramatic relief for me. The essay is too complex for me to fairly summarize here, but at the end of it Gopnik writes that great modern artists like Van Gogh "bet their life" on their art; art patrons, on the other hand, people who love art but don't create it, place more timid wagers. Seth is an anti-hero because he always bets the house odds; he abandons his writing to play percentage baseball with his life--and it costs him more dearly than if he had bet his life on art.