Today, I had the pleasure of two firsts: conducting my first interview and conducting my first interview with author Marc Schuster. Schuster’s second novel The Grievers is gearing up for release on May 1, and he graciously sat down with me over our respective computers (who does this stuff face-to-face anymore?) and answered questions about writing, the state of education in America, and, most importantly, about what it’s like to be friends with me. Here’s how it went:
The Grievers is your second novel, following pretty closely on the heels of The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl. What was the experience like this time around?
I actually wrote several drafts of The Grievers before I wrote Wonder Mom. About three drafts in, I felt like I had to switch gears a bit, and that’s when Wonder Mom started coming together. It wasn’t until later that I returned to The Grievers.
I think it was good to put the project aside, because a lot of it is very personal, and getting away from it for a while gave me the distance I needed to make it a pure work of fiction. It also allowed me to be more objective about what was working and what wasn’t. With the earlier drafts, I was feeling my way around in the dark and trying on different authors’ voices. I was Tim O’Brien on some days and Toni Morrison on others, and it showed in the writing, which was very disjointed. When I returned to the project after writing Wonder Mom, I had a stronger sense of who I was as a writer and what I was trying to do with the story.
Does that mean there was less anxiety with this one?
Oh, no. Definitely not. Anxiety is pretty much a constant in my life. I’m always anxious about everything, and writing is no exception. For me, it’s a constant feeling of, Oh my God, what am I doing? And what will I do next? And why is this whole thing such a mess? Eventually it starts to make sense and feel right, but when I’m in the thick of things, I feel very twisted up most of the time.
The protagonist of your first novel is a woman, while in The Grievers, the protagonist is a man. I hate to ask this question because, personally, I think writers should be able to capture a “human” experience that isn’t necessarily “gendered,” but is there a difference in writing in the voice of a woman as opposed to the voice of a man?
What the characters from both books have in common is that they’re both highly flawed, so I think that’s the thing I was exploring. Gender was part of the mix, but the bigger challenge was trying to create believable characters who were in the process of screwing up their lives but doing it in a way that makes a reader want to see what happens next. To an extent, it’s more a matter of imagining the social forces that are acting upon the characters than trying to figure out what’s intrinsically “gendered” about them. With Audrey, it was, Okay, here’s a woman whose boyfriend asks if she wants to try cocaine. What are the cultural messages that would tell her to say no? What are the messages that would tell her to throw caution to the wind? How does she navigate those messages, and which set of messages wins? Even as a man, I can try to imagine what it would be like to receive such conflicting messages about a lot of things on a daily basis and have to figure out where I stand in relation to them. At some level, everything I write is about insecurity and how we deal with it. And since insecurity is more or less universal, gender isn’t so much of an issue.
The Grievers embodies a lot of heady themes: mortality, self-doubt, exploitation, greed – to name a few. Which themes do you think will resonate most profoundly with your audience and why?
Different readers will probably gravitate toward different elements of the story, but anyone going through a quarter-life crisis might find a friend in Charley Schwartz and his efforts to find some degree of fulfillment in his life. He’s a guy with a dead-end job, and he’s wracked with doubt about whether he’ll ever amount to anything. Personally, I remember struggling with the same problem when I graduated from college. I was stocking shelves at a drugstore and thinking this was it—that I was looking at the rest of my life. Charley’s job is a little more ridiculous, but it’s just as mind numbing. Anyone who’s ever been stuck in a dead-end job will probably appreciate that aspect of the story.
You approach these difficult themes with humor and light-heartedness. Do you do that to tone down the heavier themes and make them palatable for the reader or because you see it as a defense mechanism that your protagonist would most likely use? Or, are you just really funny?
I personally tend to use humor as a coping mechanism, but I also think that life can be so ridiculous at times that all I have to do as a writer is point to things that are really happening and I’ll get a laugh. So it really isn’t a matter of trying to make heavy issues more palatable. It’s just a matter of saying, Here’s what the world looks like. Some of it’s sad. Some of it’s funny. And most of it’s just plain crazy. For me, the real touchstone is MASH. It was on twice a day every weekday all through my grade school years. Between third and eighth grades, I must have seen every episode dozens of times. It was a show that was irreverent about a lot of things, but never about its main focus—trying to save lives in the midst of the turmoil and madness of war. I try to do the same thing in a lot of my writing—skewering the ridiculous stuff that people worry about in order to draw attention to the important things we should be worrying about.
Along those lines, The Grievers is basically about a high school that sees the tragic death of an alum as an opportunity to raise some money. Is the novel making a larger point about entrepreneurism infiltrating education?
As far as I can tell, we live in a culture that really doesn’t value education at all. Sure, there’s a lot of handwringing about the issue, and people are always lamenting the state of schools in our country, but no one is willing to do anything about it—not in any real sense, anyway, because education is so expensive. The basic position most people take is that they want better schools, but they don’t want to pay higher taxes to get them. As a result, schools are put in the unfortunate position of having to grovel for every penny they can get. Part of that groveling, as you’re suggesting, masquerades as “entrepreneurism,” but that’s just a nice word for prostitution. It’s a reality, and it’s unfortunate, but I don’t blame the schools for doing it at all. Schools should be funded because having an educated populace is a good thing, but since most people don’t seem to recognize that fact, schools need to hire people to sniff out money and wear shit-eating grins in order to get their hands on it. These people are saints as far as I’m concerned. Without them, schools everywhere would have to shut down for lack of funds. Sadly, that isn’t an exaggeration.
The group of male buddies in this book reminds me of the friends in Stand By Me. We see male friendship depicted in a lot of American movies and TV shows, but we don’t see it so much in literature, where it’s usually circles of female friends discussing life-altering issues. Can you speak to this idea of adult male friendship—how it’s portrayed in your book, and what role you think your book plays in the development of this image?
There’s a stereotype in our culture that men don’t talk about important issues, but we do. The trouble is that the stereotype is so prevalent that it makes having those important discussions a bit difficult. We have to find our ways into them, back into them sometimes, or develop workarounds. In The Grievers, I play with this idea a little bit. When Charley needs a little help from his friends, he puts himself in awkward positions that will make talking about his feelings seem a little more natural. Or, to avoid talking about his feelings, he’ll give his buddies a hard time. He finds the weirdest ways to let his friends know that they’re important to him, that he loves them. But it’s not his fault—not entirely anyway. A lot of it goes back to his high school days when he was more or less programmed to equate expressions of affection with behaving like a jerk.
I was definitely aware of this as a theme as I was working on the novel. At one point, Charley even comes out and says that he hates his school for doing this to him—for making him so perverse when it comes to expressing his feelings to his male friends. But, of course, it’s not just his school but the world at large that does this to him, does this to all of us. And as far as that perversity goes, I wouldn’t be surprised if the real reason I wrote this book was that I needed to construct a fairly elaborate means of telling all of my friends from that time in my life how much they meant—and continue to mean—to me. I guess you could call it a belated love letter. I really hope those assholes appreciate it.
Before we let you go, I received the following email from a fan. J.G. Atsby from Long Island writes: “Hey, Marc. Loved Wonder Mom…can’t wait for The Grievers. So, what’s it like being friends with Monica?”
It’s like being in the eye of a really fun and outspoken hurricane all the time.