Conversations in the Author's Corner: Adam Schwartz
About the Book: “Adam Schwartz’s debut collection The Rest of the World introduces a writer whose ear is so pitch-perfectly trained to his characters it seems as if he’s an angel eavesdropping from their rooftops. His cast heralds from every walk of life, from street corners and housing projects, from dive bars and fishing boats we might otherwise drown out with the noise of our lives, and he listens to them with a gigantic heart. In a literary world where we’re warned by some to stay in our lanes and others who bemoan the airlessness of auto-biography, his work is refreshing, fearless and, like a subway’s third rail, hums with electricity.” —Adam Ross, editor of the Sewanee Review and author of the novel Mr. Peanut.
About the Author: Adam Schwartz’s debut collection of stories, The Rest of the World, won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House 2020 prize for fiction and was published in October. His stories have won Poets & Writers’ WEX Award, Philadelphia Stories’ Marguerite McGlinn contest, Baltimore City Paper’s story contest and have been published in Arkansas Review, Mississippi Review, Raritan, Gargoyle, Popshot, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Little Patuxent Review, and Saranac Review. A novella-length story appeared in December Magazine. Another story is forthcoming in J Journal . In September 2019 his story collection was named a finalist in the Orison Book Contest, judged by Victor LaValle. His non-fiction has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, Sewanee Review, The Forward, New York Daily News, Sun Sentinel, Washington Independent Review of Books, Bethesda Magazine. He attended the One Story 2016 Writer’s Conference and Sewanee Writers Conference in 2018. He has an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. For twenty-three years, he has taught high school in Baltimore City.
Kiera Wolfe: I’d love to start by talking about how this collection came together. The earliest story was originally published in 1997, and the most recent just last winter. How did these stories find each other?
Adam Schwartz: If you asked me back then if I thought it would take me another 20 years to finish the collection I would have said Of course it’s not gonna take that long! But it did. I’m kind of a turtle-ishly slow writer. I have to produce a lot of bad fiction to get to the material that’s worth keeping. When I first started teaching in Baltimore in the late 90s, I was struck by the array of problems [I saw] children having to navigate. I had some years where I was just digesting this experience – being in the same space with kids who had catastrophic things going on in their lives outside school. After some years of being immersed in that environment–in as much as one can be immersed in it from a school building– I began thinking about how to make stories out of the experiences students sometimes shared with me or that I saw students going through. I don’t want to make it sound like more than what it is, but when a kid opens up and puts their vulnerability between you and them, it creates some profound resonances.
KW: Kevin McIlvoy describes the book as a “portrait gallery of young people,” as many of your protagonists are teens and young adults navigating circumstances unique to that particular time of placelessness and uncertainty. Can you speak more on how your time as a teacher has influenced your work?
AS: If I wasn’t a teacher, there would be the usual, familiar barriers between me and getting to know the kinds of students in my classroom. By this I mean the same barriers around race and class that divide so much of our country. A classroom is a strange, sometimes magical space because it naturally melts these barriers away. I’ve gotten to know a lot of young people I otherwise wouldn’t if I wasn’t a teacher. And these kids have allowed me to understand the world through their eyes.
KW: Were you interested in writing younger protagonists before you became a teacher?
AS: I’ve always been interested in the transition from childhood to adulthood. It’s during this time that we’re trying to figure out who we are, what kind of people we want to be, and how we’re going to make our way in the world. This is also the time, of course, where we all, to varying degrees, part with our innocence. And young people in Baltimore are sometimes exposed very early to the hardness of the world. How do kids withstand the pressures Baltimore puts on them? How do these experiences transform teenagers? How are they sustained and nurtured by friends, family and community? So I’ve always been interested in the ways our identities take shape during adolescence, but it became a focus of my writing once I became a schoolteacher.
KW: The collection is largely set in Baltimore - with city landmarks like the Inner Harbor, specific streets and monuments, or even the recurring Footlocker laid out specifically for the reader. I’m always interested in authors anchored in a very particular space - how do you see your work in conversation with the city? Or each story in conversation with the others?
AS: In the same way there are two Americas, there are two Baltimores. There are thriving neighborhoods around the water like Canton, Federal Hill, the Inner Harbor, and Fells Point. That’s one Baltimore. Then there are vast stretches of the city that are really distressed. My school recently relocated to Harlem Park, a neighborhood in West Baltimore. The depth of poverty in many parts of West Baltimore is staggering. Block after block where there are more vacant homes than occupied homes, going on for miles in some directions. This is a place that has been starved of investment. Imagine a child’s shock when the city’s brutal contrasts reveal themselves and she realizes that, while her neighborhood struggles, other, whiter Baltimore neighborhoods thrive —beneficiaries of robust economic investment. In Canton and Federal Hill, the Inner Harbor and Port Covington, capital flows and prosperity spreads. I’m interested in how young people navigate both of these Baltimores. When we think of struggling communities, a lot of people tend to pathologize or problematize them. The local news has a fetish for lurid crime reporting that rarely humanizes the people or communities affected by the crimes being reported. What I’ve seen over the years is that people in struggling communities hang together and support one another in ways the local news never gives them credit for. I hope my stories capture the strength and resilience of young people in Baltimore.
KW: Something I really admire about your work is the pace - each story moves, in its dialogue especially, with a real efficiency. How do you think about narrative speed and structure in your writing?
AS: When I was at the Sewanee Writers Conference a couple years ago, I met a wonderful writer in my workshop, William Pei Shih. He had attended the writing workshop at Iowa, and he described a feature of strong narratives that he learned there. He called it “scene hygiene.” And one of the ingredients of “good scene hygiene,” include entering a scene as late as possible. Although I’d never heard the idea put this way before, William complimented my work because I brought the reader into scenes as late as possible. I’m not sure where I learned to do this, but early on, I fell under the sway of similar ideas about narrative: Aristotle implored us to “say only what the story demands”; Poe urged “unity of effect” ; Tobias Wolff insists “everything must be subordinated to the purposes of the story.” I like to have things already motoring and percolating as soon as the reader begins a story or a new scene. I’m terribly afraid of boring the reader. My narrative style and pacing developed out of this interest in keeping the reader absorbed.
KW: Finally, for our Author’s Corner project, we’re promoting authors who have published with small, indie presses. Could you talk us through your publication process?
AS: The Washington Writers’ Publishing House has been great! The press is a cooperative where winning writers agree to stay on and pitch in for two years after their book wins [the prize]. Many writers choose to remain involved with the press much longer. It creates a tight knit community of writers and everybody there has been great–professional, savvy and kind. After the book won, I received help with editing. The feedback I got from other writers was insightful and wholly supportive. There’s a modest budget for cover designer, book designer / typesetter, and proofreader. And experienced writers at WWPH helped steer me toward these professionals. One of the really cool things about having WWPH publish the book is that the winner gets a lot of say about how it’s going to look – the design layout, the font, the cover. For an author to have that kind of input into what their book will look like is somewhat unique in the publishing world. It’s been a great experience.
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About The Inner Loop: The Inner Loop is a literary reading series and network for creative writers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. We aim to create a space for both emerging and established writers to connect with their community, and to transform the written word into a shared experience through the act of reading aloud. This interview is part of our Author’s Corner campaign, promoting local authors publishing with indie presses.