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Turmoil and Resilience : Q&A with Adam Schwartz

For the last twenty-plus years, writer Adam Schwartz, 56, has taught high school, primarily at Baltimore, Maryland’s Career Academy, an alternative high school for juniors and seniors, many of whom have faced challenges that interrupted their education, including teen pregnancy, difficult home lives, and juvenile arrests. In his work with his students, Schwartz came to admire their tenacity and began writing and publishing stories that grew out of his appreciation for their lives. In 2020, the Washington Writers’ Publishing House awarded Schwartz their annual fiction prize and published his collection, The Rest of the World. The title story previously won both the Philadelphia Stories Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction and the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mississippi Review, Saranac Review, Arkansas Review, the New York Daily News, the Baltimore Sun, and Pop Shot, among others. His story “Carman and Ant” was a finalist for both the Narrative and New Letters fiction prizes.

Last month, I interviewed Schwartz through a series of email exchanges and two phone conversations.

Joe Schuster: What was it that first made you want to write fiction? Was it something you read, a number of somethings you read? What was it about the work that made you say, “I want to do that”? 

Adam Schwartz: I think I have always had this attraction to storytelling and have always felt that there is a lot of power and resonance in storytelling. Even as a young child, fourth or fifth grade, I tried to write stories. But this impulse to tell stories was interrupted by a sometimes unmoored adolescence and young adulthood. Stable homes with loving, educated parents in safe communities served by good schools are supposed to inoculate teen boys against their own reckless stupidity. In my case, this didn’t happen and I guess I was kind of adrift. I daydreamed a lot in class, didn’t go to school a lot, and eventually dropped out of high school. All of this sort of short-circuited my storytelling impulse.

I eventually righted myself and returned to college in earnest at 23 and something surfaced that had been percolating far below: a delightful receptivity to the power of stories to carry a force much greater than just an assemblage of interesting characters and clever observations. For me, this period in my life felt like something vital snapping back into place.

In addition to the many canonical works that English majors are exposed to, around this time I stumbled upon writers whose work I fell in love with. Those early influences—from writers like Richard Ford and John Edgar Wideman—were transformative. 

The music of John Edgar Wideman’s sentences catalyzed my interest in writing. I thought, I want to write sentences like this. In different ways, stories like Richard Ford’s “Great Falls” and “Communists” and his novella Wildlife also had a profound impact on me. These works were about innocence and the ways teenagers are made to part with it. Other works became touchstones for certain emotions and experiences: Bernard Malamud’s novel The Assistant, for example, contains profound insights on shame, regret, and redemption, and offers a kind of map for how these experiences can be distilled in fiction. 

These were some of my early literary heroes, and I longed to write stories that would mimic some of the effects of their work.

Another thing I learned early—which hasn’t changed—is that generally I like my narratives taut. Of course, I love novels too, but I regard novels as almost a different species from short stories. The novelist, if I may, stretches out on the analyst’s couch and muses panoramically. The story-writer hooks the analyst’s arm in the waiting room and says, I’ve got a story you gotta hear. The motive force, the urgency and immediacy promised by the short story form, remains captivating to me. 

JS: After college, you eventually ended up at Washington University for an MFA in fiction. I’m curious: why that particular program?

AS: I graduated from Northeastern University and applied to a dozen MFA programs. None—zero—accepted me. I took a job working in financial services at a big insurance company in Boston and kept trying to write stories. Two years later, I applied to another round of MFA programs and got into four. I chose Wash U because I was impressed by its storied writing program and legendary faculty—Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Gerald Early.

Working on annuities and tax compliance didn’t suit me. When I went off to Wash U, it was as if I was dropped into a kind of paradise and invited into this world where I could be a part of all of these things that interested me, like books and writing and how fiction works.

JS: If my math is right—the copyright page of your book says you were born in 1965—you were 30 when you finished the degree. Was there a specific event that prompted you to go at that particular time? 

AS: I do everything late. I dropped out of high school and graduated a year late, didn’t finish college until I was 26, didn’t find a career I like—teaching high school—until 33, and didn’t publish my first book until 55. Time—its passage—reduces us to clichés and like anybody else, I don’t know where the years go.

JS: All of the stories in the collection, save the last, are from the point of view of young people—high school age, primarily. I know you have taught high school for close to 25 years—is this where your impulse to write about these characters comes from? 

AS: To varying degrees, the transition from youth to adulthood is universally fraught. Take the volatility and uncertainties of adolescence and add to it the kinds of problems many kids in Baltimore face. Over the years, this has become the theme I return to: young people coming of age in a city that puts enormous pressure on them. As a schoolteacher, I’m sometimes witness to teens in turmoil and to their resilience. I see the ways kids strive for better against steep obstacles and the ways they are sustained by the various kinds of love around them, from family, from their community, from friends. 

JS: What drives you to write these characters?

AS: Creating these characters has been a way to transcribe the courage, self-reliance, and resilience I see in many of the students in my classroom.

JS: Since I read the op-ed you wrote about your story “Carmen and Ant” for the New York Daily News, I know the story has roots in something that actually happened to students at your school—but when were you aware that you were going to write this specific story? What drove you to tell it? 

AS: The story was provoked by an incident at my school in which one student shot another on the sidewalk just outside the school building. This happened minutes after both students exited my classroom where they’d been sitting quietly the previous hour. Later I would learn that a disagreement had been smoldering between them. For different reasons, I’d liked each kid, both the kid who did the shooting and the student who survived the multiple gunshot wounds he suffered that day.

The whole episode was traumatic, not just for me, but for students and other teachers, including those who rushed to the injured student and rendered aid. I think I knew soon after that I would write about it, but a year passed before the framework for the story came to me in the form of an invented girlfriend caught in the middle. The story was a way for me to try to make sense of this event for myself, to try to understand how violence that seems so senseless to many, can seem rational to antagonists, and to show how otherwise kind, perceptive, decent teenagers can feel pushed into brutalities they’d hoped to be better than. 

JS: I know from the op-ed that you had some blowback for the story, specifically at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, where there was a sense among some of the writers in the workshop where you shared the story that you shouldn’t have written it at all, since it’s about two Black kids. I wonder: when you were writing it, did you anticipate any sort of response like this? 

AS. I expected there would be some writers in workshop who would feel that I’d trespassed by writing a story with mostly Black characters. Still, some of the criticism went too far and became, I thought, performative. It felt at times like my whiteness was being workshopped, instead of the story. I was called fetishistic, voyeuristic, and exploitative. There were no Black writers in this workshop so none of the criticism came from Black writers. Most of the workshop participants were supportive and tried to say helpful, constructive things, but I ended up hearing the small group of detractors loudest. 

JS: I know we talked briefly in some of our email exchanges about the notion that some people have that writers should stay in their own lane, so to speak—that middle-aged white guys shouldn’t write about young Black kids. I’m curious how you respond to what seems increasing pressure for writers to stay away from certain stories or characters who are not like the writer in question?

AS: Those who perpetuate stereotypes, who caricature cultural symbols, or who borrow from another group’s trauma for their own benefit should be condemned. 

But in a climate charged with concerns around identity, people also seem increasingly primed for resentment and outrage. Policing the influences that artists are allowed to draw on feels like a kind of separatism masquerading as an equity initiative. I certainly wouldn’t want some of these culture warriors policing shelves in my study. My copy of Cynthia Ozick’s story “The Shawl” might be confiscated on grounds that the author grew up in the Bronx and was never imprisoned in a German concentration camp. Or E. Annie Proulx’s novella Brokeback Mountain could be seized because Proulx is a heterosexual woman, not a gay man. What would happen to my CD of Irving Berlin’s holiday classic “White Christmas”? As you can see, it gets ridiculous—and a little stifling.

JS: I’m curious if this experience has had any effect on your writing since then? 

AS: It has and not in a good way. At readings and during interviews, I’m usually asked about whether a white writer has the right to write the kinds of stories I’ve invented. These persistent suspicions have made me a bit more wary and self-conscious about my work.  

JS: Do your students know that you write about “them”—I use quotation marks since you’re writing fiction? 

AS: While I share with students that I’m a writer, I don’t generally talk about my stories and where they come from. When I’m in my classroom, I feel like the focus should be on students, not me.

JS: You started publishing the stories that appear in The Rest of the World in 1999, and then several others appeared in various journals in the years afterwards. When did you start to think of putting them together in a collection?

AS: In 2012, my story “The Rest of the World” won the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award), and that included a week in New York during which they put you up in a hotel and take you around to meet with agents and editors. You get this immersive exposure to the industry, which was an amazing experience. A number of the people I met with had read and liked my story and talked about how I might make it a collection. After that week, I started seeing it that way—a collection set in Baltimore, largely about kids coming of age and dealing with this maddening array of obstacles.

JS: How did you arrive at the order of stories in your collection? Was there another iteration of it before the one you submitted to the Washington Writers’ Publishing House contest? 

AS: I guess I must be an outlier of sorts because I rarely read story collections in order. The stories in my book were written as distinct individual narratives. While all the stories in the collection are about teens coming of age in Baltimore, when I was writing them I didn’t really envision the stories in conversation with each other. So when it came time to decide on a final order for the stories in the book, it was a strange exercise for me. 

JS: The last story in the collection seems, at least from the outside, to be from the point of view of a character who seems pretty close to who you are—a teacher rather than a student. How did that story come about? Was it something that arose organically, or did it arise out of your thinking you needed a story that could bring the collection to a satisfying resolution? 

AS: Yes, the last story in the collection is the most autobiographical. The events the teacher-narrator relays in “US History” unfolded in my classroom in much the same way. (Similarly, the flashback in which the teacher accompanies a former student to a cemetery is also pulled from real life.) I did intend for this last story to act as a kind of postscript, to give the reader some context for how the earlier stories came to life.

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Joe Schuster is the author of The Might Have Been, cited by St. Louis Post-Dispatch as one of the 25 best works of fiction for 2012 and a finalist for the CASEY Award for the best baseball book of the year. His short fiction has appeared in Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, New Virginia Review, and other journals.

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