David J. Schwartz has written dozens of short stories, the Nebula-nominated novel Superpowers, and most recently, a serial novel set in a magical community college called Gooseberry Bluff. He tweets under the name Snurri and blogs at www.snurri.com. If threatened in the wild, herds of elephants will come thundering to his aid. He may or may not have answered these questions while riding elephants through the streets of his native St. Paul.
William Alexander won the National Book Award for his debut novel, Goblin Secrets, about a troupe of theatrical goblins, and the Earphones Award for his narration of the audiobook. His second novel, Ghoulish Song, just came out. He read the audiobook for that one, too. More stuff at www.goblinsecrets.com. He studied theater and folklore at Oberlin College and English at the University of Vermont, and now teaches at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
William Alexander: Let's start with the challenges and possibilities of writing serial fiction. What are they?
David J. Schwartz: Some of the challenges are similar to that of writing a plain old non-serialized novel. For me, as I write I get excited about the possibilities inherent in the characters, the setting, the backstory, everything. I'm constantly thinking of new things that I want to throw in there, to add to the stew, because as a reader I like to experience a world that feels fully realized, that feels larger than the story itself. So for the first half I tend to let myself put those things in, but around the halfway point I start restraining myself, because now I've only got half a book left to connect those loose threads. They don't all have to be tied off neatly at the end—I prefer to leave some things dangling—but the story has to end in a way that pays things off. I'm just past the halfway point of The Thirteenth Rib as we do this interview, so I'm at the point where I'm trying to pull things together and not add new complications.
Then there are a couple of challenges that are specific to the serial, as I see it. The first is that each episode needs to be satisfying in some way—you need to give the reader some tangible story progress, whether it's a piece of information, a confrontation, some action, what have you. The flip side of that is the cliffhanger aspect, which is really about holding something back—leaving one of your characters in danger is the classic strategy, leaving the reader to worry over whether and how they're going to be OK. But it can also be a revelation without its full context, a surprising discovery without an immediate exploration of its implications for the characters. Anything that leaves the reader wondering and wanting to know more.
The second challenge has to do with possibilities, in that we'd like to do another "season" of Gooseberry Bluff, possibly several, and to that end there are things I'm seeding in The Thirteenth Rib that might not pay off for another book or two. But I have to resolve enough in this book for the readers not to feel cheated, or to feel like they're being sold something that doesn't stand alone. It's a bit of a tightrope. My hope is that when the book ends, readers will feel like the story is complete, but will be left wondering about one or two things and wanting more of these characters, and that I'll have the opportunity to follow up on those things in a book or two.
My turn. I’m curious about the challenges in some of your own work. Your novels Goblin Secrets and Ghoulish Song take place in the same setting—the divided city of Zombay—and the events happen more or less simultaneously. How challenging was that for you, to keep track of the larger events in Zombay, and to navigate the points where the stories intersect?
WA: That was a bit of a tightrope walk, too. I dropped several breadcrumbs for the second book while writing the first one. Okay, now I'm imagining the difficulties of balancing breadcrumbs on a tightrope. . . Never mind.
I tried to make those crumbs/points of overlap unobtrusive at the time, hoping to come back for them but unsure if I'd ever get the chance. Then I did. Each one became a fixed and immutable part of Ghoulish, since I couldn't go back and revise them out of the already-finished Goblin. I stuck a huge pad of drawing paper on my office wall to sketch the double-outline and highlight the overlapping bits, just to keep track of them. This was certainly a challenge, but one I really enjoyed; it created interest-sparking limitations rather than annoying difficulties.
The goal was to give a de-centered sense of urban living; uncountable stories unfold simultaneously in any city, and Zombay is a very big city. Telling a story from a single and limited point of view also implies that this singular perspective is the most important one—especially if the viewpoint character goes about saving the world, or at least saving the city. Writing about simultaneous events that have nothing to do with Rownie (my protagonist in Goblin Secrets) hopefully expands and complicates that assumption. And I felt that Kaile deserved her own book, independent of the first one.
I also had mundane and practical reasons for writing a companion book instead of a proper sequel. Debut novels sometimes vanish without a trace. What if no one had read Goblin Secrets? I wanted Ghoulish to stand alone if it needed to.
Back to Gooseberry. Your protagonist experiences prosopagnosia, or face blindness, a neurological condition famously shared by Oliver Sacks and Chuck Close—but not by yourself. How did prosopagnosia become a part of the story?
DS: It filtered in, as things do. I had seen a piece on 60 Minutes about it, and some time later—a few weeks, probably—I was thinking about my protagonist, Joy, and the characteristics that made her unique. Gooseberry Bluff is in many ways a detective story, and detectives often have odd quirks, so this was something that I was simultaneously aware of and resistant to when it occurred to me. Besides, since Joy was going to be an agent for the Federal Bureau of Magical Affairs, it seemed like not being able to recognize faces would be a barrier to her employment. Then it occurred to me that she could have the ability to see auras—not as a compensating ability à la Daredevil, but as a skill she had developed in order to function socially, which coincidentally made her well suited for finding criminals in a magical world. (Also, it saves me from having to do a lot of description, which I find tedious both as a writer and a reader.)
WA: Contradictions are useful, character-creating things! My protagonist in Goblin is shy, quiet, and mostly good at keeping his head down. But he also really wants to become an actor, stand on stage, and face the scrutiny of large crowds. That isn't the same sort of difficulty that a face-blind FBI agent might face, but it still illustrates my point that contradictions are useful.
So what sort of feedback or interaction with readers are you getting? How much do reader opinions haunt the work as you continue to write it?
DS: Amazon Publishing has forums set up for readers to discuss the serial as it unfolds, and I absolutely pay attention to them; I check them nearly every day. I wouldn't say that anything that's been said in the forums "haunts" the work; so far it hasn't impacted the writing at all, which isn't to say that it won't. If, for example, I noticed that the forum reactions to a particular character were skewing largely positive or negative, it might affect how much that character was featured. But to some extent things are locked in, at least insofar as the broad plot strokes are concerned.
It’s great to hear from readers, but I imagine that for you there’s an added dimension, when you’re writing for kids. I know that as an adolescent I was passionate about Piers Anthony’s Xanth books and wrote him several fan letters. Do you hear from your young readers? What is that like?
WA: I do! The fan letters have started, and they always makes me grin. Kids love what they love with passionate intensity. It's hugely gratifying—and intimidating—to get that kind of response. It creates a kind of mutual-squee feedback loop.
DS: You've published short stories for an adult audience, but now that you've won the National Book Award for Goblin Secrets (Yay!) and have committed to another two books with McElderry, you've sort of become a children's author, at least for the time being. Is that a good place to be? Was that planned? Does having won the NBA put additional pressure on you to deliver? Is this question making you nervous?
WA: I did cut my teeth on short stories for grownups, but my favorites all have very young protagonists: "Ana's Tag," "The Birthday Rooms," and "Nicholas Went Looking for the Mayor's Right Hand"—which is very much not a story for kids, even though it's told from an eleven-year-old's perspective. So I've been unconsciously gravitating towards kidlit for awhile. Now that I'm here, it does feel like the best place to be—even without the added glow of the award medallion. My inner eleven-year-old is very pleased. Kid logic just makes more sense to me.
I do feel slightly terrified in the aftermath of the National Book Award, and some pressure to prove that Goblin Secrets wasn't a complete fluke. It feels like stagefright. This is probably what roller coasters feel like to people who enjoy them. I don't. Not at all. I always rode them anyway—usually twice—just to prove that I could, but I never actually enjoyed them. I do enjoy stagefright, though. It's an exciting flavor of nervousness.
On a related topic, though, Gooseberry Bluff is described as a cross between Harry Potter and The X-Files. Do you feel a weight on your shoulders trying to match up to those behemoths of pop culture? Am I making you nervous?
DS: The literary critic Harold Bloom (who, incidentally, hates the Harry Potter books) coined the term anxiety of influence, which roughly paraphrased, is the theory that artists who are inspired by other artists will have a tendency to repeat their idols. In order to produce original work, you have to get beyond that, see your idols as flawed—it's almost a symbolic killing of one's heroes, a rather Freudian take on creation. I think there's something to it, though, and I can point to my early novels (both published and unpublished) and rattle off the writers I managed to slough off by writing those books. The first novel I ever wrote was my way of getting out from under J.R.R. Tolkien, William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, and Cormac McCarthy—it sounds more interesting than it was, honestly. My first published novel, Superpowers, was—among other things—my way of working through the immense amount of comics I read in my late teens and early twenties. It's only recently that I feel like what I'm producing is original to me, because while I'm still filtering the things that get me excited, it's no longer just about reacting to those things, or trying to do them one better. I'm just trying to write things that turn me on, so to speak, and not worrying much about how much it looks like X or Y.
Harry Potter and The X-Files are certainly works that I admired—Community, the brilliant brainchild of Dan Harmon, is also frequently mentioned as a touchstone for Gooseberry Bluff, and the first three seasons of that were my favorite thing on TV in recent years. But the idea goes back to at least 2005, when Community didn't exist. The fact is—and this right here will be the first time I contradict myself in this interview, but probably not the last—Gooseberry Bluff is most directly a reaction to Harry Potter. I loved the books, but I had the idea to write about a magic school that felt more like my own school experiences, more work-a-day, more grimy, more desperate. At first I wanted to do it as a shared universe thing for a zine I ran (for two issues), to have New Yorker-style stories set at this community college, where there's magic but it doesn't really make anyone's life any easier, it's just a job and your wife still falls out of love with you and you still get outmaneuvered on your quest for tenure. But the zine (it was called The Dogtown Review, and I lost all the copies I had left in a move, so you're probably out of luck) didn't last, so the idea fell by the wayside until last year. The idea changed because I had changed and my interests as a writer had changed; it wasn't as important for me to stick it to the New Yorker or to talk back to J.K. Rowling. People still point to Hogwarts, of course, and that doesn't bother me—there are other magic school stories, but none are as well known. But it's not Hogwarts, and Joy is not Scully, and Dean Pelton does not appear.
WA: Why was it so important to set this story in a community college rather than the rarified air of a more traditional magic school?
DS: Because I am contrary. I mean, it's simpler than that, really; it's just something different. I don't think we really need any more stories about the Most Prestigious magic school (although I'm happy to be proven wrong). But one of the things that fantasy is traditionally pretty bad at is exploring class issues, and this is one way to come at that. The dynamics of a student body which is housed in cozy dorms on campus are very different from the dynamics of a student body which has a significant percentage of people who are coming to class from a full-time job, or leaving class to go to a part-time one, or scrambling to find child care so they can come to class in the first place. It changes the focus, so that everything isn't about the school as the center of the action, and it becomes about the town and the wider world around it. It also puts magic itself in a different light, because—in this story, anyway—magic is an everyday thing, and yet on the whole it doesn't make life any easier. You might use it in your job, but it's still just a job. (Well, except for librarians. Turns out libraries plus magic equals automatic coolness.) Besides which, when you tell stories about the Most Prestigious school then you usually end up with some kind of Chosen One, and I resent the concept of the Chosen One. It's undemocratic.
Your own characters tend to be fairly working-class, and their stories tend to be less epic and more personal, which is part of what makes them compelling. Do you think that’s a conscious choice? Do you see yourself as working more in the fairy-tale tradition?
WA: My fascination with class in Zombay came from fairy tales, theatrical history, and—predictably—Dickens.
Actors in Elizabethan England embodied a whole grand swack of class anxieties and contradictions. It wasn't a respectable profession. They lived way down at the bottom of the social ladder, barely qualifying as people at all. But they could also wear silk, learn swordplay, and mimic the affectations of the aristocracy—even though silks and swords were otherwise forbidden to everyone except the aristocracy. Theaters could only exist in the least reputable parts of town, but their groups also played at the palace. Actors didn't have social mobility, but they did have a strange and selective kind of class immunity. There's no other perspective like it for taking in a whole city and society.
And then there's Dickens. I borrowed less from Oliver Twist than from his essays about the bits of London that everyone else ignored if they could. Some of his theater-going descriptions went straight into my book. So much easier to steal from nonfiction.
DS: But with added magic. How did you go about making that happen— what does magic mean to you?
WA: My magic works in much the same way that I understand both language and music to work. These things can influence the world if shaped properly. But that sense of shape, of rhythm and pattern, is very subjective. Magic in Zombay isn't alt-science. It can't be reproduced in laboratory conditions. And it isn't learned in ivory towers, either. This is folk magic. Anyone can cast a charm, offer a blessing, or throw a curse around.
DS: See, that’s how I like to think about magic when I’m not writing about a magic school. It’s how I usually think about it. But my characters, they're in a world where all magical traditions, from ancient mystery religions to modern Wicca, have at least some validity and work. And since the characters are all academics, they're trying to describe and classify these things that can't be classified neatly, just like real-world academics try to classify the messiness of our world. Just in the same way that history and sociology and geography all overlap, divination and conjuration and security magic all bleed into one another. The lines are all fuzzy.
But your comments make me feel a bit defensive, because in a lot of ways, in the world of Gooseberry Bluff magic occupies a space similar to that of science and technology, because instead of the atomic bomb ending World War II, it was weaponized demons that did it, so magic is ascendant over technology—the computers don't work as well, there are crystals instead of cell phones, car and plane travel is less common than just portalling to where one wants to go. Just like technology, magic is a tool, but also just like technology, it can be dangerous.
So part of me is like Right! Exactly! and another part of me is like What, are you steppin’ to me, Alexander?
WA: We should fight about this! Fight fight fight!
. . . I really wish I actually wanted to fight. Thing is, though, your wizardry does scratch that magical itch on both sides of the brain—the linear side and the associative one. It does in my brain, at least. And when your Gooseberry professors describe their rational magics I don't hear a D20 roll across the table. N. K. Jemisin blogged about the D&D effect on magic in fantasy literature, and I'll just link to that here rather than rehash her glorious rant.
I keep coming back to the phrases "daytime logic" and "nighttime logic" when thinking about this stuff—phrases I first heard from Kelly Link. Some things make sense at noon, and an entirely different set of things makes sense at midnight. The various genres you're mashing together now—police procedurals, espionage thrillers, alternate history—all need linear, daytime logic to be satisfying, so the magic needs to make rational sense. But its rules don't read like a rulebook, and there's also plenty of unsettling weirdness at work underneath.
My magic never makes much sense at noon, though. Nighttime logic is the only sort of logic I've put into Zombay.
DS: What about a different kind of darkness? In some ways fantasy has become really grown-up lately. As we're doing this interview, the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones has just aired on HBO. Not all adult fantasy is Grimdark, but from a certain perspective by choosing to write for kids you are bucking the trend. Can you pinpoint the difference, at least in your own mind, between writing for kids and writing for adults? Is it a matter of content, tone, voice, or all of the above?
WA: You know, I'm not sure I can pinpoint the difference. It certainly isn't a matter of sophistication or complexity. Never talk down to your audience, especially if they happen to be younger than you. It isn't a matter of vocabulary, either. Children are used to encountering words and ideas that they don't understand yet. Happens all the time. So they don't find such things threatening, and they're usually very good at filing them away for later. Adults are the readers who get grumpy when they encounter unfamiliar vocabulary. Adults are the ones who delude themselves into thinking that they already understand the workings of the world. We don't handle uncertainty nearly so well.
There is a difference in perspective, in the particular kind of curiosity that kids are so good at. You write from a different point of view when you try to satisfy that curiosity.
The question of darkness is a whole separate thing—one that blows up occasionally. Every couple of years someone notices just how scary children's literature can be, and then we get pearl-clutching editorials and a few more titles banned from school libraries. I think the whole fantasy genre is making larger forays into Grimdark territory—Young Adult and Middle Grade included. This might be happening because we've taken down the "Horror" label from most bookstore shelves, and all that creepy stuff needed somewhere else to go. Beyond labels and marketing, though, I think we have a responsibility to tell unsettling stories to children. There's no safer way to experience unsettling things than through stories. They vaccinate us against unsettling events.
DS: That’s true, particularly for kids, who I think are tougher and more pragmatic than many adults give them credit for.
And yet sometimes I worry that fantasy—that stories in general—can also have a numbing effect. I have a tendency to cringe when people talk about fantasy as escapism; the fantasy I most enjoy is too unsettling and too questioning for that label, I think. And yet when I want something escapist, I read murder mysteries, which should probably be more disturbing to me. In some ways mainstream mystery, like mainstream fantasy, can be distressingly conservative. Both tend to be about enforcing or re-establishing the status quo. Murder mysteries tend to reassure us that murder and violence is aberrant and that those who engage in it are generally brought to justice; fantasies tend to reassure us that the rightful ruler can be returned to the throne and then all will be right with the world. And yet we know that these things are not necessarily true in reality. The people in charge are often the ones engaging in violence, and whatever terrible things our government may get up to when the "wrong" people are in power, the "right" people are likely to continue those practices. This is something I worry about as a fantasy writer, and as someone who has activist impulses: are those two things incompatible? Is commercial fantasy inherently consolatory? (Please show your work.)
WA: Yes. And also no, definitely not, absolutely not.
First the pessimism. The basic tropes of fantasy (or mystery) might be inherently conservative, conciliatory, and resistant to change. The force of its power and authority is often ancient, immutable, and dependent on dead languages. The world only listens if you say it in Latin.
But even escapism isn't necessarily conservative or conciliatory. It might even be the opposite: a refusal of reality, a conscientious objection to it. Fiction itself, in any form whatsoever, carries the implicit message that things could be otherwise. Any given story might be reactionary, problematic, or just a few hundred pages of mindlessly reassuring comfort food. But it's still a story, one that fosters empathy just by asking readers to imagine circumstances not their own. It still implies that the world could be different (even if it responds to that difference with unnecessary panic and rage). And fantasy makes that implicit claim absolutely explicit. The word we know isn't the only possible world.
Here I am trying to comfort both of us by insisting that fantasy isn't just comfort food. . .
DS: At its best, it isn’t. Your answer is reassuring, though I think I’ll be asking that question until I die.
WA: Yeah. Me too. And on that happy note, it's probably time to wrap this up—thanks for the conversation.
DS: And thank you.