How I Write: Christina Schwarz
Published: February 3, 2003
|It was a stunning piece of good fortune when Oprah picked as her book club selection Christina Schwarz's first novel, Drowning Ruth, an unsettling story of secrets that take their toll on a family. Schwarz knew she had written a good book. "But I didn't deserve that kind of luck," she says. The "idea that what you deserve and what you get don't necessarily match up" fascinates the author. Her second book, All Is Vanity, a hilarious account of a blocked writer in New York City and her social-climbing friend in Los Angeles, tells a story in sharp contrast to her own. Schwarz, who proves to be a biting social commentator, doesn't spare her characters, who befall one misfortune after another. While mild-mannered in person, she's wicked on the page.|
The author, who has an M.A. in English from Yale and taught 12th-grade English before writing her first novel, is married to Benjamin Schwarz, literary editor at Atlantic Monthly. They live in New Hampshire with their son, Nicholas.
Why: As a child, I was a big, big reader, one of those kids who would read the cereal boxes if there was nothing else. I remember at some point thinking, "Oh, if I wrote some books, I'd have more to read." I was always better at writing than I was at anything else, except reading. I wrote a lot of letters and thought in terms of stories.
Writing is a way to legitimize daydreaming because that's what you really get to do. You get to just dream up this world and live in it, like living inside a book. I really like that.
When and where: That's changed a lot. I have a 1-year-old son, and since he has gotten to a stage where I cannot take my eyes off him, I've hired a babysitter for three hours a day, four days a week. That is the only time I'm working now. It's unbelievable how much I can get done in three hours, especially compared to how little I used to get done in three hours when I had eight hours.
How: In a notebook, I often write something I could imagine someone saying, things that go into a character's motivations, history, what they do, what kind of coffee they drink, something that is a telling detail.
With Drowning Ruth, I just wrote any scene that came to mind. I didn't know how I was going to put them together. I didn't know what the plot was going to be. For years, I didn't know how to write a scene that I might need to stitch things together. I really taught myself how to write with that book. There was a key scene ... where [two characters] get together. It wasn't coming to me like other things were. I figured it out, and I wrote it. It was a huge breakthrough. I felt like I had a lot more control.
Sometimes I just sketch out a scene. I make notes to myself in the scene. I'll often ask myself questions like, "Should there be more of this?" I like talking to myself on the paper. When I'm trying to get the scene down, I write sentences very slowly. I'm very aware, I hope, when it's flat. If it's not right, I'm not going to be able to get on to the next thing.
Obstacles: It took me a long, long time to write Drowning Ruth. I wanted to give up so, so often. Every other week I thought, "What are you doing? This is ridiculous. You're wasting your time. You're making a fool of yourself." Underneath all that doubt, I knew there was some story there, and if I could just get at it, it would be good.
The same was true for All Is Vanity. I had a lot of doubts, different ones than I had with the first [book]. But there was something about each of these stories that I knew would be a good novel, if I could just crack it.
Advice: Find someone you trust to read your work. You can't always tell if something is working. You have to find someone whose opinion you respect. They have to be a good reader and be able to be honest with you. My husband is my main reader. I would listen to his advice above all others'.
Photograph by Jerry Bauer