Character Driven: 10 Questions With Author Ben Schwartz

  Ben Schwartz

Ben Schwartz

By Daniel Ford

During my most recent trip to RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H., I picked up a copy of Ben Schwartz’s The Drift of Things, which won the silver medal in the 2014 Piscataqua Press Novel Contest.

I reached out to Schwartz for an interview before I had even finished the book and was delayed sending him my questions because I was so engrossed in his story. The Drift of Things is packed with heart and features some of the best dialogue you’ll read this summer (after you buy the book immediately after reading this).

As an up-and-coming writer, Schwartz lent some valuable insights into the writing process, how to develop characters, and why deadlines are important.

Daniel Ford: When did you start writing? Was it something that came to you naturally or was it developed over time?

Ben Schwartz: I've always enjoyed writing, but more in an abstract sense—as in, that would be a fun thing to do. During and after college I had written some poems and decent enough short stories, but nothing bigger. As I started to finally attempt a novel, I decided I needed a little more guidance or inspiration or something. That's when I enrolled in an MFA program, which was great, both for the instruction and the deadlines. Deadlines help. My writing definitely developed much faster when I was doing it constantly.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you outline? Listen to music?

BS: It's pretty simple. I don't outline, though I do have ideas scrawled through a notebook. I'm a high school teacher and am married with two boys. So pretty much everything I write is after everyone goes to bed, sitting in the dark. The toughest part was editing out lines or entire chapters that I loved, but didn't fit in with the rest of the book. I kept finding myself trying to structure a whole scene around squeezing in one good line, and that doesn't work. It's forced. The lines which I ended up liking best were the ones that just kind of appeared.

I always listen to music when I write. I have a hard time listening to new music while writing, because I pay too much attention to the lyrics. So it's usually one band for an entire piece of writing, even if they're not my absolute favorite. It also helps pick up where I left off if I start with the same song I finished with the night before. When I wrote The Drift of Things, I listened very heavily to The Hold Steady. I like their lyrics a lot, and in retrospect, it seems many of their themes wound up in the novel.

DF: Your novel The Drift of Things features witty dialogue between characters that genuinely seem to care about each other on a deep level. How did you go about developing that dialogue style and how do you go about developing your characters?

BS: Dialogue is tough. I tried very hard to make it both true and useful. I feel dialogue should really serve no other purpose then to either reveal something about the speaker or move the story along—without seeming heavy-handed. I think a few well-placed spoken lines can serve to negate the need for excessive narration.

My dialogue really came from getting to know the characters very well. As it developed I did a lot of going back and changing tone or vocabulary. I had a professor who said very rarely do you need more than "said" after a line. If you do, they didn't say the right thing. That influenced me to really make the dialogue speak for itself, so to speak.

As far as characters, I started with some very vague ideas about their past, how it relates to their present, and how they reconcile the two. Sarcasm comes probably too naturally for me, and that seeps into the characters. It sounds pat, but I found I really have to let the characters grow on their own. Sometimes they'd surprise me, I didn't expect them to put themselves into that situation, but it worked.

DF: The heart of your novel is the relationship between your main character and his father. Do you have a similar relationship with your father or did those two characters come from another place or your imagination?

BS: I definitely don't have the same relationship with my father as Norm does with Blake. My mother's alive for one thing, nor were my parents together growing up. I think I needed Norm to see someone, more similar to himself than he realizes, who spent his whole life in the town which now terrifies Norm. Their relationship certainly grows over the course of the book. But, as far as where that came from, I guess it came from them. I ended up caring a lot about them. That seems to show in the way they feel about each other.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters?

BS: A lot. None of the main characters are me, or anyone specific, but they certainly say things that I would. Or would like to. Many of the minor characters, especially the students, are taken more directly from actual experiences. The more horrifying student-based events are all based in reality. I like paying a lot of attention to people around me, how I would describe them, what their motivations are. Sometimes small pieces of those thoughts end up in my writing.

DF: When you first finished The Drift of Things, which served as your thesis for your MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits before you had something you felt comfortable sending out into the world?

BS: The Drift of Things was edited so many times that I think I could recite it. The original "finished" version had a different first chapter which I cut. Which was hard, because I liked it a lot. It may end up as a short story. I did like the book, and felt comfortable, probably more comfortable than I should have, sending it out to agents. I've experimented with a different ending, but have ended up sticking pretty true to the original.

DF: What went through your mind when you won the silver medal in the 2014 Piscataqua Press Novel Contest?

BS: It was great. I had received so many outright rejections, and a few interested nibbles, from agents that I was just really glad that that process was over. Piscataqua Press has been great to work with, and I like the small press. I was able to make final decisions on the cover and layout that I may not have been able to with a larger press.

DF: So now that you have a novel under your belt, what’s next for you?

BS: Another one, I guess. I have a few beginnings and ideas. I need to give myself some deadlines, and maybe some more willpower.

DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers?

BS: First off, I am very far from being an established writer and still hope to be up-and-coming. Advice, though? Write a lot. Often. Get to know your characters to the point where in the early morning you're confused about whether or not they're real. Write badly. My favorite writer's quote about writing comes from William Stafford. He wrote for hours every morning. Someone asked him what he did when he didn't like what he wrote, he said, "I lower my standards."

DF: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

BS: I've purchased Speedos from a Speedo vending machine. Then I wore them.

To learn more about Ben Schwartz, visit his official website.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive