Interview with Christina Schwarz

Posted by Goodreads on September 18, 2008
A sister drowns mysteriously in the frigid waters of a Wisconsin lake, a writer deceives her best friend to fuel her naked ambition, a guilt-ridden husband leads a secret life with his mistress — these are all main characters from Christina Schwarz's novels. In 2000, Schwarz rocketed to national attention when Oprah selected her debut novel, Drowning Ruth, for her Book Club. Now the Yale grad has a new book, So Long at the Fair. She shares some of her tools of the trade with Goodreads.

Goodreads: Your new book, So Long at the Fair, is written from multiple perspectives. The reader gets inside the heads of wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, and even a mistress and a stalker. What is it about using multiple perspectives that fascinates you?

Christina Schwarz: Generally, I'm interested in the idea that reality is subjective, that each person observes a single event in a different way. That, in itself, is a story to me. Multiple perspectives were ideal for this novel because I was trying to present a situation in which people couldn't possibly see eye to eye — adultery — but I wanted my audience to be sympathetic to all parties. The only way to do that was to show readers the affair from the point of view of each of the three people involved.

GR: Your first two books, Drowning Ruth and All Is Vanity, focused much more on female perspectives and the world of women. In contrast, So Long at the Fair has several male characters, and the story hangs on Jon's inability to choose between his wife and his mistress. How is creating a male character different from creating a female character?

CS: For me, it was much harder. I think men's experience of the world is in some instances different from women's. While a woman may have been equally angry at the honking man in the SUV, for instance, she would have been less likely to challenge the driver. It's natural for me to think of how a woman might react in certain circumstances, but I have to consider more carefully and deliberately when I'm deciding what a man might do. And then, too, I lacked confidence in my choices, at least until Jon was well established. Often, I checked with my husband to see if Jon was thinking and acting in ways that were believable from a man's point of view.

GR: Both Drowning Ruth and So Long at the Fair are set in Wisconsin and have a distinctly Midwestern sense of place. Although you grew up in Wisconsin, you've since lived in several more urban places, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Boston. Do you still spend time in Wisconsin? Why does your hometown inspire you?

CS: My parents and my sister and her family, with whom my family is very close, still live in Wisconsin, so I spend lots of time there. In fact, we lived there for about two years recently, in part so that I could research settings for So Long at the Fair. We spend about a month there every summer, and I like to spend a little time there in winter every so often as well.

I use Wisconsin in my fiction partly because it's in my blood. Southeastern Wisconsin is a place I know intimately and yet have enough distance from to "romanticize" readily. Because it's so steeped in my mind with personal memory and with the stories of my grandmother, my great aunt, and my father, it's just full of atmosphere for me.

GR: After Oprah's Book Club helped place Drowning Ruth in the "women's literature" category, did you become interested in expanding beyond this label?

CS: I hope I have some universal appeal, but to the extent that my books are particularly interesting to any one group, I'm thrilled that it's women. Women have historically been and continue to be a terrific audience for novels. I write what I'd like to read, and, since I am female, it's no surprise that my taste tends to coincide with that of lots of other women.

GR: Although we learn a lot about the characters' past, the primary action of So Long at the Fair takes place over the course of a single day. Why did you choose this structure for the story?

CS: I wanted the story to move quickly — at least on one level — and it seemed a good way to give the book this sense of urgency. Also, very early on the idea came to me of organizing the book around a couple driving from Madison to "the fair" in Milwaukee — sort of a metaphorical straying from home, but, ironically, also a return home, in that this is a place the husband and wife had gone even early in their relationship. It occurs to me as I write this that, at one point, I intended to use this drive (traveling in the opposite direction) in Drowning Ruth. I guess it's an evocative stretch of highway for me.

GR: Your writing often has a strong element of suspense. Do you purposefully shape feelings of tension and foreboding, or is suspense a natural byproduct of revealing a plot slowly to the reader?

CS: It's not exactly purposeful in that I don't consciously think about what elements will add suspense, but I'm always making decisions about what information to reveal when, and I think my natural inclination is to want to keep the tension high, because I enjoy that as a reader.

GR: A major theme in your books is the weight of past events on the present. Do you think we ever escape our past? Would you like to give some of your characters a fresh start?

CS: I don't subscribe to a theory about how much people's pasts shape their lives. I think it must vary enormously from person to person. I'd like to write a book that pays no attention to the past at all, but I wonder if I'd be able to do it. I think part of the reason I'm so drawn to the past is related to my interest in multiple perspectives. In a flashback, I can write not only about an event, but also about how the character experienced the event at the time against a backdrop of what has happened to change that character since. It's very layered and rich.

GR: Drowning Ruth and All Is Vanity were published only two years apart, but now So Long at the Fair comes more than five years later. Did this story take a long time to take shape, or have you been focusing on other projects?

CS: My slow progress with this novel is almost entirely owing to motherhood. As I answer these questions, someone is telling me (endlessly) about Legos.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

CS: I'm not as disciplined as I ought to be, and for the last few years I've felt, like many women with small children, like I'm trying to squeeze my work in around everything else, so, sadly, there is no "typical" writing day for me. I can do a lot of thinking about discrete problems with character or plot while walking the dog or running or driving, but it's almost impossible for me to move forward significantly without a good long stretches of four or five hours, because to some extent I have to get myself out of the real world and into the world of the book. I have to daydream a lot and try ideas and then adjust and readjust them. I don't give myself a set number of words to produce (part of being undisciplined), but generally I'd say I do maybe half a page to a page a day, and then the next day redo that radically and move on by about half a page to a page. Some scenes go much faster, some even slower. I do like to move around from day to day. It seems to refresh me. I'm grateful for laptops and would have a hard time being chained to the same desk in the same room for the duration of a novel. I also do some work on paper, especially when I'm trying to work out something complex and need to think nonlinearly.

GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?

CS: I'm would read all day if I could, and my tastes are pretty catholic, so it's always hard to name my favorite authors. At this stage of my life, I guess my top choice would be the 19th century realists like William Dean Howells and Edith Wharton. They have astounding insight into their characters, both psychologically and socially, and they tackle big plots. More recent books I've been pushing on friends and family include Julius Winsome by Gerard Donovan, The Secret River by Kate Grenville, The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, Any Bitter Thing by Monica Wood, The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer, Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan, and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.

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