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. His non-fiction has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, Sewanee Review, The Forward, New York Daily News, Sun Sentinel, Bethesda Magazine. Adam has an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis and for twenty-three years, he has taught high school in Baltimore City.
First of all congrats again on winning the 2020 WWPH award for fiction. The Rest of the World is such a well-written, compelling collection of stories. When I first read this collection, I was so impressed by your control of voice, point of view, language–all of it really. Think back to the initial composition of the stories contained within this collection. What inspired you to craft these stories and to bring them together within this collection?
I’m now in my 23rd year teaching high school in Baltimore. Increasingly, I’ve come to see the world through the eyes of the young people I meet at school. Baltimore is hard on children. It’s a city that puts a lot of kids through a wringer—through grief and loss and trauma and all kinds of instabilities. (No doubt this says something about our country, but I’ll leave the politics aside.) These challenges force many children to navigate a minefield of choices. And, yet, many of the teenagers who come through my classroom are engaged learners who remain hopeful, thoughtful, determined and generous. You don’t have to be a writer to be moved by children in turmoil, but watching kids strive for better in the face of steep obstacles is inspiring.
I might also add that getting to know students creates a lot of resonances for me. What to do with all these resonances—the reflections, stock-taking, eccentricities and vulnerabilities some students reveal? Well, if you’re a writer, you invent characters and stories.
When did you realize that you wanted to write short fiction and publish a book?
I began trying to write stories in college. It’s exerted a strong pull on me since. I love the short story form. There’s something about stories in general that feels all-natural, organic, essential, and rooted in real life, in lived life. As a literary form, I love the compression– how short stories lean into Aristotle’s principle of “saying only what the story demands.” Some of the most profound encounters I’ve had with books have come from short stories. The spell cast by great stories written by Richard Ford, John Edgar Wideman, E. Annie Proulx, Edward P. Jones—to name a few favorite authors—remain with me years later. Writing fiction is so much about hiding the contrivance, and these artists do it artfully. These works recast the world for me and through language and character and narrative gave shape to certain experiences I’d had no idea there was language for.
For a time, the first stories in my collection were distinct, individual narratives, each set in Baltimore and each with its own protagonist dealing with her or his own troubles. But after I’d written some of the stories that would eventually go in the book, the scope of my concerns began to come into focus and a theme emerged: they were coming of age stories in which teens or young adults were introduced to some unforgiving aspect of the world. I realized that I was interested in making a book of stories about kids who’d been separated from their innocence in some way and who were searching for the right way forward. Eventually, I had a book of character-driven narratives about young people in crisis.
Talk a bit about point of view and how you approach it within this collection.
Four stories in the collection are told in 1st person POV, and four are told in 3rd person. I like the immediacy and urgency of writing in 1st person, as well as channeling events through a narrator with inherent blind spots.
About the stories written in 3rd person, I’ve had readers tell me my P.O.V. is a little wobbly or drifty in certain stories. But I don’t mind when writers do this—when they alight from the prevailing 3rd person limited to briefly inhabit another character’s perspective.
And many of these stories also revolve around young people. You seamlessly capture the lives of characters younger than yourself. Can you talk a bit about your methodology?
Some students at my school go through a lot. I try to create a space where students feel comfortable talking about whatever is on their mind. Some kids want to talk; some don’t. Obviously, I respect both choices. But when kids do feel like talking, I like to think I’m a good listener and an empathic one.
I’m interested in what Baltimore draws out of young people. I’m interested in the ways Baltimore shapes teenagers’ views of themselves and their prospects. How do kids hold onto their ideals when things are unraveling around them? In what ways are they sustained by loved ones and community?
Like many writers, I’m drawn to understand people—their struggles and triumphs, drives and disappointments, the forces that shape our identities; the vulnerabilities we hide. Writing these stories—carrying these characters around in my head—has been a way to transcribe the resilience I see in so many Baltimore teens.
Place stands out as another pertinent strand within this collection. From a writer’s perspective, can you describe your relationship with Baltimore? Sorry, I know this question is a bit abstract.
Setting of course is the stage for what happens in a story. And things happen in my stories. There are conflicts and fateful choices and fallouts that characters must live with.
Not too long ago I came across Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules for Good Writing” and was struck by number 9: “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” I sort of like this idea insofar as it prizes narrative. Nonetheless, I want my readers to feel invited to situate themselves in the places I write about, and I hope my setting descriptions are consonant with the lives of my characters.
Is there a particular story that you view as the anchor of this collection or that you gravitate towards?
I remain especially fond of “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” It’s the longest in the book; it covers a lot of ground temporally; it’s a story within a story. It has an eclectic cast of characters. But most of all the protagonist undergoes a reluctant transformation. The narrative follows a young man who falls in love with the daughter of the owners of the neighborhood carry-out. Her family is Korean, and her parents don’t want her involved with a dude from the neighborhood. One night, just as things seem to be lining up for the protagonist, he becomes entangled in an altercation that he might’ve avoided. (Readers can decide.) Setbacks ensue and over time—almost without realizing it—he finds himself on a redemptive quest that takes him down the unlikeliest of paths.
Do you have a certain fictional mentor? How do you view the role of mentorship that you provide to the young writers you teach?
I’ve had many great teachers. I went to Northeastern University for undergrad. The school was not known for its liberal arts programs. Its reputation was built on its business and engineering programs. But the English professors I had at Northeastern were wonderful and regularly said profound things about the books we read. They awakened my interest in books and writing, and I’m forever indebted.
Building connections with young people is one of the most important things I do in my work as a teacher. Everything else stems from it. Additionally, I think modelling my enthusiasm for books, writing and ideas is vital. Students see that my interest in these things is sincere, and that carries some weight.
My father was a mathematician; he could be unsparing when it came to matters of learning. I tend to err on the side of being encouraging to young learners.
I would love to hear about artists, musicians and/or writers who inspire you.
So many artists have inspired me. Two of my biggest literary heroes are John Edgar Wideman and Richard Ford. Though very different writers, each writes with a lyrical, almost elegiac beauty about loss and the ways people cope.
In general, though, many authors of disparate periods and backgrounds have written work that has spoken to me. You read Robert Penn Warren’s “Black Berry Winter” or Willa Cather’s My Antonia or Ron Rash’s stories or The Grapes of Wrath and you’re left to ponder how did this author make something so powerful, real, evocative and beautiful, and could I ever make something half so?
Obviously, the pandemic hit in 2020, disrupting your book tour or certainly shifting it online. How has the experience of doing a virtual book tour worked for you?
On the one hand, I’m grateful for the amazing innovations in technology that have made virtual readings routine. But giving readings virtually—like holding classes virtually—is a lame replacement for the connectedness of real people sharing a real room together. Zoom is amazing, but it can’t reproduce the unscripted immediacy of face-to-face interactions.
Here is the dreaded question: what are you working on next? I have to ask.
I’ve recently sprung myself free from a wee bit of inertia. I continue to write stories. I’m about half done with my next collection.
Thanks again for chatting, Adam. Good luck with everything in 2021!