By Daniel Ford
Hunting for authors to interview on Writer’s Bone is an imperfect science. It’s a blend of finding a new name during a stroll through a bookstore, stalking our literary heroes, and discovering up-and-coming personalities on Twitter.
In the case of author Joe Schwartz, it was seeing his recent book cover that featured a flaming guitar and the words, “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.” After digging into Schwartz’s oeuvre, I didn’t hesitate to email him and ask him about his career, transgressive fiction, and why aspiring writers need to find a great editor to be successful.
Oh, and much like myself, he’s got a healthy respect for the word “fuck.” Consider him a Writer’s Bone favorite from here on out.
Daniel Ford: First things first: I need you to pair a rock song with a bourbon.
Joe Schwartz: Easy, all rock songs are about drinking and fucking anyway. I’m sober now, but when I wanted to guarantee a blackout drunk, it was always Mudvayne’s “Dig” with Canadian Whiskey, anything from the bottom shelf for under $10 and more than 90-proof.
DF: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
JS: About nine years ago. I wrote a screenplay for a local film maker and they paid me for it. To keep that energy going, I started writing short stories and loved it. The novels came later, which, by comparison, is like trying to prepare yourself for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro by walking in a 5K.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
JS: The first thing I want to find is a good idea. Something I can base a whole story from trying to find an answer to questions I never intended to ask. Here’s the way I feel about outlines: all the surprise is sucked out and the joy of discovery is gone for me personally as the writer. My theory is if I didn’t see it coming, and I wrote it, there’s no way in hell the reader is going to guess ahead and get bored with the story. Outlines are so fucking formulaic. Writing from the hip, walking the tightrope without a net, is far more exciting and dangerous. Fuck wearing a helmet. Turn the throttle on this hog and let’s do 90 down the highway. If I fuck up, I’m a grease spot, but if I make, oh man, that’s going to be one cool story.
DF: Explain to me what “transgressive fiction” means and why that genre appeals to you.
JS: Transgressive fiction for me is a means of storytelling that expressly depends on the character using illegal or illicit means to achieve their goals. Paradoxically, it gives me permission to not have a happy ending, bad guys can win, and good old fashioned comeuppances because someone is a real asshole are rare, and more often than not, are more attributable to an act of God than vengeance. I suppose, though, a lit critic would say my determined use of crude language and graphic violence would be a more appropriate determination of the genre. Either way, I’m writing first to entertain myself and second the reader. If I gasp at what happens while writing it, hopefully someone will damn near shit their pants when they read it.
DF: What inspired your recent novel, Ladies and Gentlemen: Adam Wolf and the Cook Brothers?
JS: I was into music for a long time. It was my dream to be a rock star. Turns out, I suck. Somehow, that fact couldn’t stop me from trying. By the time I was 32 years old, I had been in rock bands for half my life. That said, I witnessed and participated in a ton of weird, stupid, and generally boring shit in the name of making it. Funny thing about being in a band, nobody cares. You show up, do a gig, pack up, put it all back in the garage or basement, and go do it again. Of course, who cares about that? Nobody. What people really want to know is what is it like to be in a band, to stand on a stage and feel that rush of applause, to go across states in a van trying to stay alive, about having casual sex, using drugs, and living to brag about all of it like you’ve done something with your life when the truth is usually just goddamn depressing. Playing music seems to be the thing non-musicians could give two-shits about. If I had a dollar for every time somebody found out I was in a band, and without hesitation asked me about how much pussy I was getting for doing it, I could buy a Ferrari.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters in the novel? How do you develop your characters in general?
JS: I think Faulkner said he didn’t write as much as follow the people around in his head and describe what they were doing to each other. I usually start writing with a title to the story in mind. That title is my theme. Beyond that, I have a general idea how the story is basically going to go but is malleable as the plot progresses. People constantly show up on the page when I write I had no idea even existed, and yet, they become as real to me as the person sitting next to me in a restaurant. As for real people I actually know showing up in stories, I try like hell to avoid it. I might use someone as a model, smooshing three or four people into one, but it is not often. Personally, I don’t find it hard to make up imaginary people. The weirder, the better.
DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?
JS: Hemingway said every first draft is shit. He is empirically correct. I can’t tell you what an average round of edits is for me. Some stories look good after only two or three, others still look like garbage after a dozen. I find the best way to do this is the way Stephen King recommends. Write it and put it away in a drawer for six months. Take time to fall out of love with it and go write something else. The best way to approach the editing process I have found is when I can’t remember even writing the goddamn thing anymore. Then, it’s all new again, and I have no hesitation in making it better. One last word on editing, it is not something you do alone. A good editor will guide you to the top of the mountain but also get you safely back to base camp. Like my first editor told me when I balked at the changes she was suggesting, “It’s not my name on the cover of the book, it’s yours.”
DF: You also wrote several short story collections, and we’re big fans of the short story here at Writer’s Bone. What is it about that format that draws you to it?
JS: If writing a novel is like being a professional fighter, then writing short stories is like learning to street fight. This is where you learn to bleed, to hit, to bob and weave, but most especially, you learn to win at all costs. I cannot tell you how often I’ve been stuck writing a novel and went back to my short story roots. I believe a good short story should be like a single chapter from a great book. If you can flip the readers expectations upside down, ruin them for satisfaction as to what they thought was coming next, that’s the jackpot. If I’m writing stories less exciting than going to the grocery store and coming back home, than why in the hell should anyone want to read them. Trust me, when I write my pulse is pounding. I want to see what comes next, too. The one thing short stories taught me is to never be predictable. Predictability is literary death. Like James Patterson says, the only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.
DF: Speaking of short stories, I noticed that your collection The Veiled Prophet of Saint Lewis is in audio format on your website. What inspired that idea?
JS: I wanted to write short stories and wanted a theme that offered a wink toward my roots without all the sentimental bullshit that goes along with being a melancholy crybaby. The VP fair was something I grew up with. When I was a kid, it was synonymous with the Fourth of July. Fuck if I knew what it was. It just seemed super creepy, this old Merlin looking dude who looked like he belonged on the cover of a Black Sabbath album was somehow a secret benefactor, patriarch, and enchanted guardian for St. Louis. A friend of mine, a local recording engineer, and lover of weird shit in general, offered to do an audio book for me in exchange for a guitar I owned. Turns out its much harder than it looks. Of course, I tried to read the stories in character, not just out loud. So far, no one has come to me and said they liked it, which sucks, but that’s life. You try and see what people find interesting, trying your best not to repeat mistakes. Unless someone offers me a bag of money to do another one, I won’t.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
JS: Get an editor before you do anything casually like self-publish a book or go hunting for an agent. The more professional you can appear, literally on paper, the more seriously your work will be considered.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
JS: I have never voted.