Lynne Sharon Schwartz
A Professor of the Writing Seminar Program at Bennington College in Vermont. She has published a wide variety of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in many different forms.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz first novel, Rough Strife(1980), was nominated for a National Book Award and her coming-of-age novel, Leaving Brooklyn (1989), was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Schwartz’s writing often takes a different turn than the reader expects. She “likes to take a current idea or trend and look at it from the other direction.” There is a witty, almost dry sense of humor in her style that paints the world in a different light. Schwartz has also translated several works by Italian authors. She was interviewed by Mount Hope’s Leah Catania.
Mount Hope: I know you’d mentioned talking about writing between different forms—
Lynne Sharon Schwartz: You know, a lot of writers think nowadays, “I’m a writer of novels, or a writer of stories or poetry,” and they don’t want to venture into anything else. It’s like a specialization—you know, as among doctors or lawyers—but I’ve always thought if you were a writer, you could write anything. All the 19thcentury writers that I was brought up on were men, or women, of letters and they just wrote. They would write in various forms. Sometimes they were best in one or another. I think my strong point is fiction, but I enjoy writing in all genres. Sometimes I get an idea that’s not really a story. I think, “Well, how would this idea take shape?” And sometimes it doesn’t want to be a story; it wants to be an essay, my mind wandering on one topic or another. Or sometimes it’s very, very small and it comes in the form of an image and then it wants to be a poem. So I just kind of follow my instinct on that. More often what I write turns out to be fiction. I started writing very young and I didn’t know about genres or what they were and I just wrote everything. I’m still that way. I don’t like to think in terms of strict genres. Even now that the memoir has become so popular, and some memoirs are a little-bit made up––not mine, but some are––the line between fiction and nonfiction is growing blurry.
MH: You mention something in the introduction—it’s actually quoted on the back of the book—that I thought was really interesting. “A writer writes anything and everything, just as a composer composes anything, not only sonatas or only nocturnes, or only symphonies.”
LSS: Yes, that’s exactly right. Very good, I’m glad you’ve caught that. You don’t have to specialize in one (well, maybe some people specialize in one), because the form is determined by the idea or the motif. It takes shape; it finds its own form. If you’re composing, sometimes it turns out that it’s a symphony. It’s not a little nocturne. And if you’re writing a symphony, you’re writing for an entire orchestra. That might be comparable to writing a novel, where you have many voices and many events, whereas a sonata may be more like a short story. These are pretty rough analogies, but I think it’s the same. Or the same with visual artists. You have visual artists, Matisse for example, who does paintings and drawings and sculptures and prints. I feel writing is really the same way.
MH: You had a couple of what looked like very typical poems with the short lines and very regular stanzas, and then you had a couple that were almost as if they could have been short stories that I really liked. One of them was “In Solitary.” It almost read like a short story.
LSS: Yes, it’s a long poem with long lines. Some people say my poems are kind of prose-y, like, “Why aren’t they prose?” But I think they’re poems. I write them that way and I love to play with the idea. With “In Solitary” I had a long thing to say and there were a lot of ramifications, whereas there are some very, very short poems. There’s one poem called “doctor untangle.” That was just an idea, it didn’t really warrant more than those few short lines. I have a new book of poems called See You in the Dark and that line is also from one of the poems. Some of them are formal, they even rhyme and have a particular rhyme scheme, and some are very free.
MH: I really identified with a lot of the things you said in Ruined by Reading. I guess it was nice to hear that an established writer doesn’t necessarily remember half the things that she’s read.
LSS: I read all the time. Every night, whenever I get done with whatever I have to do, I just sit down and read for a couple of hours. It’s like an addiction. It almost doesn’t matter what I’m reading, I just have to sit there and read. Of course, partly what I’m reading matters, but it’s just the act, the act of sitting there with a book and just being quiet and letting it kind of seep into me. I used to be bothered by the fact that I didn’t remember a lot of what I read, but it happens. I have to accept it; I have no choice. I don’t want to take notes. I don’t want to spoil the process. It’s an act you really do for the moment. You’re in the moment and for those moments while I’m reading I’m totally absorbed and I’m totally with the text and I know I understand. I know it; I remember it, from moment to moment. And then I finish the book and a couple of days later… It’s not that I forget it totally, but what I come away with is more the feel of the book, the style or sometimes a particular character. I don’t even always remember the plot, which was very absorbing. While you’re reading, you’re kept going by plot. But later it’s more the sense of the book. I mentioned in Ruined by Reading, I think it was a little funny story, how in Billy Budd, the Melville novella, there’s this conflict between the rule of law and personal understanding and mercy. A young man has killed somebody and he’s supposed to be hung, but he really didn’t know what he was doing. He was provoked and it wasn’t intentional. He’s basically such a good person and there’s a conflict between the moral issue––he should certainly not be convicted––and the rule of law, obeying the strict rules. I understand all that very, very well. But in the end, I actually forgot he committed a murder. My daughter had to remind me. It’s not at all a small deed, but it was the basic theme of the book, the sense of the book, that remains with me.
MH: Do you find when you go back and re-read books that you think you remember how they went because of the feel you got from them, and then it turns out that the plot didn’t actually go that way?
LSS: I think some things stay with me, buried, I wouldn’t say unconsciously, but somehow it’s all there and if somebody reminds me, “Remember when her sister did this or that?” It’s “Oh yes, yes I remember that.” But I think it all seeps into me somehow. I think it shapes you as a person, even if you don’t remember the details. With each thing you read, you grow. You see another point of view and you see another way of looking at life. I became a writer through reading. I read when I was young and I loved reading as a kid. I wanted to write when I realized that actual people wrote these stories. I said, “Oh, I can do that too,” and I was inspired to do my own. But even people who don’t write—there are lots of readers who don’t write—it forms them. It makes you who you are; it makes you bigger and more knowledgeable about the world.
MH: I agree with that completely. Sometimes I say something and someone will ask, “How did you know that?” and I will just know it from somewhere, but not be able to remember where. The only answer I can come up with is “I read it somewhere.”
LSS: Exactly. I read mostly fiction. I read some non-fiction, but I’ve realized that so much of what I know about the world I get from fiction, whereas other people know a lot of facts from reading history or sociology. For example, last year I had the flu and I was home for a couple of weeks, and I re-read War and Peace. That’s what I know about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. I know it from there. I know a lot of British history from reading Shakespeare’s plays, although they may not be totally true to fact, but I trust Shakespeare. Lots of what I know comes from fiction. If you read novels about other countries, distant places that we don’t know very well, you can begin to understand the culture as well as, or maybe better than, you would if you had read, say, a history book.
MH: What was your reasoning behind writing the memoir?
LSS: When I wrote it, it was 1995, I had just finished a novel. I was really feeling empty, as if I had nothing more to write. It was twenty-five years ago and I’m still writing, but I didn’t know what to write next and I felt I didn’t know anything. I was written-out. And I thought, “Well, what do I know?” And I said, “One thing I know is reading.” So I just started writing about that. First it was published as an essay, called “True Confessions of a Reader.” I wrote this long essay and published it in a magazine, Salmagundi, and then I heard from an editor at Beacon Press, who happened to come across it. She liked it and she said, “What would you think about trying to turn this into a book?” So I thought, “Hmm, that’s an interesting idea.” I put down everything I could think of that had to do with my personal reading history and reading in general. I just kept writing and writing and before I knew it, I had a book. It was really that editor who led me to it. It might have just remained an essay if she hadn’t urged me.
MH: I know that you never actually studied writing—
LSS: I never went to a writing program. When I was in college, I took one or two writing courses. But no, I never went to a writing program because when I was starting, there were hardly any. Now, they’re all over the place, but there was the Iowa Workshop—I didn’t even know about these things. I had little kids, I worked, I did various editorial and other jobs. I worked on Fair Housing during the Civil Rights movement. It never occurred to me to go to a writing program. I just thought I had read and read and read, and now I’m going to write.
MH: Do you find that when you go back and read, you end up thinking about the mechanics behind the writer’s thought process sometimes?
LSS: Yes. Sometimes I still read like a kid, just “Oh, this is fun,” or “this is interesting.” But very often, especially when I read contemporary writers, and younger writers, I like to see what they are doing. How are they doing this? But I don’t think of it in terms of hi-tech. I teach at Bennington, an MFA writing program. I know my students throw around fancy language and terms to describe the writing process and I generally do it in a much more simple way. How is this being done? Why is this so effective? I just read a book by a young writer, Zachary Mason, who re-told stories of the Odyssey, Odysseus’s return from the war in Troy. It’s called The Lost Books of the Odyssey. I often think I could try that, or I could try that, or that’s a good technique. I certainly do that. I don’t always end up trying it. I translated from Italian a wonderful writer called Natalia Ginzburg. She died about ten or so years ago. I just loved her work. It was very, very simple. It was very profound, but it was written with very simple language. I later read that she was a translator of Proust, the French writer. Proust is known for his long, involved, complicated sentences that could go on forever, pages. She said that’s what she wanted, to write like and when she sat down, everything came out thin, spare as a bone, very short sentences, very simple language. So even if you think you want to do one thing, you are who you are as a writer. Even if I want to be innovative or do something that I see somewhere else, sometimes when I sit down, it’s just me all over again. I think you can’t change your sensibility or your use of language, but you can certainly learn and be aware that you’re one of many different sensibilities and many different ways of approaching a subject.
MH: I really liked In the Family Way. I was intimidated when I first opened it to the map you have of the family lines. I couldn’t figure it out for the life of me, but after the first chapter, I went back and looked at it and everything mostly made sense. I’ll be honest with you, I was expecting to be lost throughout the whole book because of all the different connections and then the ways it kept switching time periods, but I wasn’t at all.
LSS: That book was so much fun to write. I really did the family tree at the end. It was kind of a joke, because there were these huge Russian novels that had family trees. But I did think maybe readers would have trouble figuring out who was related to whom. I don’t think it’s a difficult book at all. I really meant it as a comedy, kind of a satire. There are a lot of laughs, but with all that what I had in mind was a picture of the modern family. This book was written in the late nineties, and it was just at the time when there had been so much divorce. I remember in the seventies, everybody I knew got divorced. I didn’t, I’m still married, but everybody was divorcing. There would be stepparents and children, his, hers and theirs. Now we have gay couples marrying. I didn’t have that in the book––I mean I had gay couples in the book, but they weren’t marrying; it was illegal. But I was so interested in the new shape of family that I really wanted to make a total mix-up, not mix-up to confuse the reader, but total families intertwining, I just thought that would be fun and it would really give an exaggerated picture of the way the traditional nuclear family has transformed into what it is today.
MH: I think you did that. It was funny.
LSS: I really did enjoy it. As far as the complications, I actually had charts. I don’t usually have to do this for a novel, but I made charts of who was doing what, especially in the building. There are a lot of things going on in the building, elevators breaking, the windows being washed. I live in a co-op, and I’ve always lived in New York apartment buildings, so I’m very aware of life in an apartment building and the daily routine of keeping the building going. So I had charts of what would be going on in the building and who would be affected by it. The main man, Roy, he keeps marrying people, he had babies with different women, so I did have to have charts to keep track of it all.
MH: Do you still have those?
LSS: Somewhere, I don’t know where. But I did it so the reader wouldn’t have to do it. I wanted it to be very clear. Just as you said, I didn’t want the reader to be sitting there, scratching her head. So I made it clear for myself so I could make it clear for the reader.§