Marc Schuster on The Grievers — A Hilarious, Inspiring Must-Read

Sometime during high school, I watched The Dead Poet’s Society on VHS. I remember thinking, “This’ll be good,” before watching it, and “Holy crap, that was awesome!” at the end. Watching the two-ish hour film felt more like living years within the character’s lives. I laughed, cried, wondered and learned along with them. The story made me examine my own life and decisions, and has stuck with me since.

Marc Schuster’s The Grievers reminds me of The Dead Poet’s Society, only slightly because it involves a prep school. The relatively short book felt as rich as a series. I laughed, ached and learned, thanks to the main character, Charley. (Did I mention laughed?) He had me pondering my own life and changed the way I look at the dancing chickens on Hollywood street corners…forever. Though it’s not been long since I read it, I have no doubt I’ll think of The Grievers again in the coming years. In a word, I found it inspiring.

Synopsis:
When Charley Schwartz learns that an old high school pal has killed himself, he agrees to help his alma mater organize a memorial service to honor his fallen comrade. Soon, however, devestation turns to disgust as Charley discovers that his friend’s passing means less to the school than the bottom line. As the memorial service quickly degenerates into a fundraising fiasco, Charley must also deal with a host of other quandaries including a dead-end job as an anthropomorphic dollar sign, his best firned’s imminent move to Maryland, an intervention with a drug-addled megalomaniac, and his own ongoing crusade to enforce the proper use of apostrophes among the proprietors of local dining establishments.

Desperate to set the world right and keep his own life from spiraling out of control, Charley rages through his days and nights, plotting all the while the ultimate eulogy for his deceased friend and a scathing indictment of a world gone wrong. (The Permanent Press, 2012)

The Grievers officially releases today. (CONGRATS, MARC!) I’m so thrilled to bring you insight from the author himself…

 

AM: You’ve called The Grievers “a coming of age story for a generation that’s still struggling to come of age.” What did you mean by that?

MS: There’s such an emphasis upon entertainment in our culture that we’re losing the ability to take things seriously. We’re really into melodrama, into quick laughs, into anything that amuses us. Look at The Daily Show for example. I love watching it, but there’s something mildly disturbing about the fact that I get a lot—if not most—of my news from John Stewart. It’s like I can’t digest serious information without a heaping teaspoon of humor to help me get it down. What does this say about me? About people of my generation? When am I going to start taking things seriously? Questions like these were in the back of my mind as I was writing the novel, and they’re also the kinds of questions that plague its narrator.

AM: Tell us about the main character, Charley Schwartz. How similar is he to you?

MS: It’s probably fair to say that he’s an extremely exaggerated version of myself. What separates us, I hope, is that I think before I speak, whereas Charley is a lot more impulsive. As a result, he puts his foot in his mouth far more frequently than I do. In terms of biography, though, we do have a few things in common. We both went to prep schools in our teenage years, and we are both the products of our respective educations. Perhaps most importantly, Charley and I have extremely patient wives who let us know when we’re making fools of ourselves. The difference, again, is that I usually have the good sense to listen, whereas Charley doesn’t.

 AM: The Grievers presents numerous lessons. Was that intentional?

MS: I don’t think I set out to teach specific lessons as I was writing. Had I done that, I’m pretty sure those lessons would stifle the novel, or it might come across as preachy. Instead, it’s probably a matter of having certain values, beliefs, and assumptions in the back of my mind as I was writing, and they crept into the finished product on an unconscious level.

AM: You came close to self-publishing The Grievers some years back. What prompted you to consider that option and then change your mind? 

MS: I’d written a few novel-length manuscripts by then, but The Grievers was the first one that I thought really had potential for publication. Unfortunately—or so I thought at the time—agents and editors didn’t agree with me. So I imagined self-publishing might be the way to go. At about the same time, I wrote a fan letter to Chuck Palahniuk in which I told him about the book and my plans to publish it on my own. He wrote back saying that he liked the idea for The Grievers, but he urged me not to self-publish. His point was that instead of putting my efforts into publishing the novel, I should start working on a new one and then return to The Grievers with fresh eyes. In the end, I decided to take his advice, and I’m glad I did. Setting the manuscript aside for a couple of years gave me the perspective I needed to do a thorough revision, and having another novel published in the interim taught me a lot about publishing.

AM: You’ve shared some great deleted scenes from The Grievers on your blog. How did you decide what to cut and keep? 

MS: In many cases, the cutting had to do with the pacing of the novel. I might, for example, realize that I’d already established an idea or theme and cut a passage because it was redundant. In other cases, I was striving to make the novel as much a work of fiction as possible. The germ of the story started with my own life and observations, but for the novel to work as a piece of fiction, I felt I really needed to make Charley his own person. So I cut anything that struck me as too autobiographical. The final thing that helped me decide what to cut and what to keep was input from other readers. I’m fortunate to have a lot of avid readers in my life, so I had a lot of very strong, very informed opinions to draw upon. If someone I respected enough to show the manuscript told me that something wasn’t working, we’d talk a bit about why and whether or not it was something that could be fixed or simply didn’t fit. If, in the end, we decided it didn’t fit, I’d cut it.

AM: Any chance we’ll see it on the big screen someday? (Spielberg might read this. You never know…) Who would you cast as Charley?

MS: I could definitely see Jason Schwartzman as Charley. I loved him in Rushmore, and to an extent, I see an affinity betweenThe Grievers and that movie. Charley could conceivably be described as an adult version of Schwartzman’s character, Max Fischer.

AM: You’ve received some awesome praise from reviewers. (Congrats, by the way.) Do you have a favorite? Any nail your book on the head or surprise you?

MS: Thank you! I’ve been so flattered by all of the praise that the book has received. A blogger named FP Dorchak made me smile when he wrote, “To be utterly blunt if not politically correct, this book had me laughing my ass off.” But I’m also glad that reviewers are picking up on the balance between humor and tragedy that I tried to bring to the novel. Robin Black is an author I admire immensely, so her praise also meant a lot to me: “The Grievers is a an extraordinary weave of humor, insight and intelligence. Marc Schuster has written a perfect comic novel, one that never strays far from either poignance or hilarity.” He book If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This is one of my favorite short story collections.

*****

For more information, check out Marc Schuster’s blog and follow him on Twitter. To purchase The Grievers, zip over to Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

Any thoughts or questions to share with Marc? I’m sure he’d love hearing from you!


Author Interview: Marc Schuster

I’d just finished reading Marc Schuster’s fantastic blog series, A Novel Approach, when I jumped over to Amazon to check out his work. Man, this guy’s smart, I thought. I hope he writes thrillers!

Nope. But my preference turned out not to matter. Marc’s breakout novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl, takes off with thriller velocity and supports my belief that all great books maintain page-turner momentum, keeping the reader enthused. His prose are so fantastic they’d intimidate, if not for the pull-you-in nature of the story and characters. I wasn’t sweating through pages at the gym, but in the mind and life of Audrey Corcoran, a middle aged divorcee who’s swept up into a world of addiction.

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Marc Schuster’s colorful debut novel paints a riveting portrait of a divorced mother whose quest to be everything to everyone exposes the dark secrets of America’s suburbs.

Audrey Corcoran never dreamed she’d try cocaine, but a year after a bitter divorce, she meets a man named Owen Little who convinces her that a little buzz might be exactly what she needs to lift her spirits. And why not? He’s already turned her on to jazz, and no one in his circle of friends ever thinks twice about getting high. Soon, however, her escalating drug use puts a strain on Audrey’s relationship with her daughters, and she begins to sell cocaine from her home in order to subsidize her habit. By turns horrifying and hilarious, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl offers a scathing indictment of American consumer culture and the wildly conflicting demands it makes upon women.

On the surface, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl is about overcoming addiction. At the same time, however, the novel examines society’s conflicting expectations of women. Consumer culture constantly tells women to be fun, smart, wild and sexy, but at the same time, this same culture also demands that women be dependable, reliable, sensible and safe. In short, women are expected to do it all. Against this backdrop, protagonist Audrey Corcoran discovers cocaine and thinks she’s found the product that will allow her to be everything to everyone. Her struggle with addiction, then, is also a struggle with her sense of identity, and her essential dilemma is whether or not to buy into the myth of the perfect woman or to accept herself as flawed and imperfect, yet no less worthy of love. (PS Books, May 2009)

Interested??? I thought so. Today I’m THRILLED to bring you one of my new favorite authors, Marc Schuster:

AM: I laughed so hard reading the first chapter, I nearly fell off the elliptical. What role does humor play in your writing—this novel in particular?

MS: Thanks! I’m glad my sense of humor struck a cord with you. It plays a huge part in all of my writing. One reason is that I come from a family of very funny people. Our go-to method of communication is joking with each other. Or teasing, depending on how you look at it. This makes communication with the outside world difficult at times. Even when I’m discussing serious topics, my instinct is always to go for the punch line or the easy laugh. It’s something I learned to do when I was very young. I was a very bookish child, which made me an easy target for bullies. The only defense I had was my sense of humor. If I could make people laugh, it meant that they weren’t punching me. Now whenever I’m nervous or in a tense situation, my gut tells me to make a joke out of it. With practice, though, I’ve managed to rein in my jocular tendencies, especially when I write.

With Wonder Mom, the humor is there to leaven the heaviness of the subject matter, but it’s also there because life in the twenty-first century can be so surreal that it’s hard not to see a funny side to it. The novel is about a woman dealing with addiction, which isn’t a funny subject at all. But the world she lives in is so full of contradictions, and places so many ridiculous expectations upon her, that the humor came fairly easily. I guess I’m trying to say that I didn’t have to inject humor into the story. Telling it straight—in essence, holding a mirror up to our world—provided all the humor I needed.

AM: Wonder Mom also inspires I’m-so-touched chills, heartache and serious thought. What inspired you to take on such heavy issues? 

MS: The idea for the novel came to me years before I started writing it. I was working on a paper for a course I was taking in graduate school. The paper was called “Laughing Gas Theatre: TS Eliot and the Numbing of the Masses.” Though it was about drug use and other modes of self-medication that were becoming popular in the first half of the twentieth-century, some of my research turned up first-hand accounts of contemporary drug use. One book I read included a case study of a divorced mother who tried cocaine because her boyfriend said she might like it. When she was interviewed for the study, the woman had only tried it once, but she said that she would definitely try it again because she liked the outgoing and confident person she became when she was high.

I could be wrong, but I think the book was called The Steel Drug. The last time I looked at it was probably in 1997, but the idea of this mother experimenting with cocaine must have stuck with me. A couple of years later, I was in a writing group, and every month we’d come up with writing assignments for each other. One month, the assignment was to write about someone with an obsession, and I immediately thought of the woman in the case study. Where was she now? What had become of her? This line of questioning led to a short story that eventually evolved into the novel.

AM: If you can do it without getting arrested 😉, please tell us about your research. 

MS: I really only buried my nose in books—nothing stronger, I swear! For the most part, my research consisted of reading case studies, though for some of the more technical details of drug dealing, I turned to the US Government for help. The National Institute on Drug Abuse website offers plenty of information on things like the going rate for a gram of cocaine and the kinds of ingredients that drug dealers use to cut their product. Once or twice, I drew on experiences that friends of mine offered when they found out what my book was about, particularly the more visceral experiences like Audrey’s description of the acrid drip in the back of her throat. But overall, my research hinged almost entirely on print sources like the aforementioned Steel Drug and another excellent book on the subject titled Cocaine Changes.

AM: You wrote Wonder Mom/Party Girl from a woman’s perspective—and quite well. Did you find “writing female” different than writing from a male standpoint? Was it more challenging?

MS: Once I started writing from Audrey’s perspective, it wasn’t difficult at all. Obvious differences aside, she’s not too far removed from me. I’m highly sensitive to criticism, as is Audrey, and I’m the kind of person who strives to keep other people happy, just like Audrey does. The big difference between us isn’t so much that I’m a man and she’s a woman but that she turns to drugs to deal with stress, whereas I just curl into a ball and hide under the table. Which isn’t to say the fact that Audrey is a woman doesn’t matter. It just matters in a different way—in terms of the social queues she’s always receiving from the world she lives in.

Part of my research into Audrey’s character was reading through magazines that are traditionally geared toward mothers. The ads in these magazines tend to create a mythical perfect woman that mothers everywhere are supposed to strive for—at least as far as the ads are concerned. One thing in the back of my mind as I was writing from Audrey’s perspective was that in addition to all of the other pressures in her life, she also had the added pressure of knowing that she didn’t measure up to the myth of the “perfect mom.” On one level, a purely intellectual level, she could tell herself that it was, indeed, just a myth, but on a more emotional level, she still wishes she could be the perfect mother she sees depicted everywhere she looks.

AM: You wrote much of the book in present tense, which I love, by the way. Why?

MS: There’s an illustration of sorts that appears somewhere in the middle of the book. It’s a black square that takes up most of the page. On the page before the black square, the narrative is in the past tense, and on the page after the square, the narrative moves into the present tense and three months have passed. What I want to convey here is that a distinct shift has occurred in Audrey’s life and that decisions from the past are finally catching up with her. I also like the immediacy of the present tense.

AM: Without preaching, you managed to convey valuable life lessons. I wouldn’t be surprised if the book changes or even saves some lives. Have you considered this? Was it a goal?

MS: The big thing I was really trying to do with the novel was to humanize addiction. It’s a misunderstood concept in our culture, and one that’s highly maligned. We tend to see people who fall into addiction as weak or, worse, morally corrupt. But there are so many complicated factors that lead to addiction, and, in some ways, the impulse to self-medicate is a highly sensible one. As thinking creatures, we recognize that we’re in pain, that pain is bad, and that getting out of pain would be a good thing. It’s a perfectly rational train of thought. That’s what happens to Audrey, and to some extent it’s what happens to many people who struggle with addiction.

One interesting thing that’s happened since the book was published is that some readers have told me that I was, in fact, telling their story. One woman approached me after a reading and said, “This is my story.” She went on to explain that she had gone through a rough divorce and that some friends had turned her on to drugs. She eventually stopped using, but she was glad to see someone talking about her experiences in a sympathetic way.

AM: Your next novel, which I can’t WAIT to read, The Grievers, comes out in May, 2012. What’s it about? 

MS: I’m calling it a coming of age story for a generation that’s still struggling to come of age. It’s about a group of friends who attended a fairly prestigious prep school in their teens and are, in their late twenties, finally coming to terms with the fact that the world won’t be handed to them on a silver platter. At the same time, they’re dealing with the tragic death of a classmate and their alma mater’s efforts at using the tragedy to turn a fast buck. As heavy as the material may sound, there’s also some levity in there. I was lucky to get some advance praise from a few of my favorite writers, including Beth Kephart who wrote, “Raging cluelessness has never been this funny or, in the end, this compassionate.” That about sums it up.

AM: What books do you most enjoy reading? Can you read and enjoy your own?

MS: I love everything from the paranoid futures of Philip K. Dick to the magical realms of Neil Gaiman and the twisted present-day reality of Chuck Palahniuk. I’m also a big fan of Don DeLillo and Kurt Vonnegut. Lately, though, I’ve been reading short story collections. Two of my recent favorites are Steve Almond’s God Bless America and Robin Black’s If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This.

On occasion, I might look at a passage or two from one of my own books, particularly when I’m gearing up for a reading, but for the most part, my books just sit on the shelf like neglected houseplants.

AM: Ha! I have a few of those. (Neglected house plants, that is.) What do you hope readers will gain from your writing?

MS: To me, a good book is a friend of the mind. I want readers to feel at home in the worlds that I’ve created, to pick up one of my books and enter a mental space where they’re completely welcomed and never judged, a place where they can be human and see what it means for other people to be human, too—to revel in the glory of our shared imperfection.

AM: Any tips for up-and-coming novelists?

MS: Read a lot, and read a wide range of books. On occasion, I meet would-be authors who tell me they don’t read much because they don’t want other people’s writing to influence their work. This is a ridiculous position to take, and writers are the only people I know who tend to take it. Graphic artists, musicians, and standup comedians all steep themselves in the work of those who’ve gone before as well as the work of their contemporaries. Why? Because they recognize that they’re part of an ongoing, ever-evolving dialogue. And the better writers recognize that, too. Writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Also, keep at it. I wrote four novels, each incrementally better than the last, before I wrote The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl. There were many points along the way where I thought I should just stop writing. Usually these points coincided with rejection letters. But I kept at it largely because I couldn’t keep away from writing. I’d have an idea, and I’d have to start playing with it, developing it. If you have stories to tell, then keep telling them and keep working on them. And do it because you love writing, not because you think there will be some kind of major payoff somewhere down the line. Writing itself is the payoff.

AM: Brilliant. Thanks again for doing this, Marc. Best of luck in all of your ventures!

For more information, visit MarcSchuster.com and his blog, Abominations: Marc Schuster’s Random Musings and Ephemera.

To purchase, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl, visit Amazon.com.

*******

Have you read Wonder Mom and Party Girl? Any thoughts to share with Marc? I always love hearing from you.