Adam Schwartz’s Novel Transforms Life Experience into Fiction

April 27, 2011
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A Stranger on the Planet
by Adam Schwartz

Buy this Book
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An exclusive Authorlink interview
with Adam Schwartz

 

 

By Ellen Birkett Morris
May 2011

 

Somewhere among his things, Adam Schwartz, author of A Stranger on the Planet, has a set of brown construction paper leaves that hold his first writing efforts, poems about autumn that he wrote in the fourth grade.

“I recognized then the powerful, magical feeling that came from writing. . .”
—
SCHWARTZ

“I recognized then the powerful, magical feeling that came from writing,” said Schwartz. He continued to write, garnering praise in his high school creative writing class. Schwartz went on to write for his college’s literary magazine and eventually made his way to a PhD. Program in English at the University of Chicago. He was several years into the program when he realized that his current track was not helping him become a writer. He spent the next few years teaching part time and then he took a “leap of faith” and applied for the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was accepted into the program.

“It was the best thing I did for myself as a writer. It made me realize being a writer was a real thing, a real possibility,” said Schwartz. He joked that with every bad sentence he wrote he would look up the information about taking the law school entrance exam.

He was a classmate of bestselling author Kim Edwards (The Memory Keeper’s Daughter) and gained a set of peers who continue to serve as first readers for his work today.

“You learn as much from your classmates as you do your teachers,” . . .
—SCHWARTZ

 

 

 

 

“You learn as much from your classmates as you do your teachers,” noted Schwartz. He also gained a mentor in writer James Alan McPherson, who taught him “how a writer thinks, looks, and registers the world” and “how he transforms the experience of life in his fiction. ”

Schwartz said he was self-conscious at Iowa and said his best writing came after he left the program, including the first story he wrote after graduating, “The Grammar of Love,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 1988. His first novel would take over 20 years to complete.

That novel, A Stranger on the Planet, tells the story of Seth Shapiro from adolescence to adulthood with a primary focus on his relationships with the women in his life, his twin sister, his emotionally needy mother and a number of women friends and lovers. Schwartz describes Seth as “a less sympathetic version of himself.”

“For me, stories always begin with character.”
—SCHWARTZ

 

 

 

 

“For me, stories always begin with character. My goal is to figure out who my character is and what he or she wants. Once you feel you understand everything a character would do in his or her life that is very rewarding. Then you have to figure out how to get them into some kind of trouble,” said Schwartz.

 

When he discovered that the short stories he was writing in the late 1980s and early 1990s featured characters that were very similar, he decided to write a collection of related stories. As the stories grew longer and more open-ended, he began to think of the work as a novel.

 

“What novels do better than anything else is to allow us to understand lives very different from our own,” said Schwartz. His goal with the stories was to write about problematic, flawed characters in a way that humanized them.

 

“I learned from McPherson how important it was to humanize characters,” said Schwartz.

 

His protagonist Seth, also a writer, was someone who appropriated other people’s stories to understand himself in relationship to the world, whether he is imitating the style of Saul Bellow or borrowing plot lines from his girlfriend, observed Schwartz.

 

“His journey is to realize and accept his connection to other people, especially his mother,” said Schwartz.

 

The development of the novel was a 20 year journey for Schwartz, who wrote many of the pieces as short stories. In the interim, he was teaching, writing and co-parenting his adopted daughter, who is now a teenager.

 

“For a long time I was just writing, not thinking about what form it would take. It was only in the last three or four years that I saw how the stories could come together to form a novel,” said Schwartz.

 

His greatest writing challenge was reigning in the part of the book that tells the love story of Seth and Molly, which ran as long as 100 pages at times when he wanted it to be around 40 pages.

 

In an effort to figure out how to bring various chapters together into a seamless narrative, he read several novels in stories, including Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Lucy by Jamaica Kinkaid and Three Junes by Julia Glass.

 

When it came time to sell the book, Schwartz reconnected with some of the agents who had contacted him when his story appeared in The New Yorker. He made the mistake of sending a rough draft to one agent, who summarily rejected it.

 

“After I sent the manuscript I had a friend who told me not to send a manuscript to an agent until it is as polished as it can be,” he recalled.

 

After polishing the manuscript and sending it to 12 top agents, he tired of hearing “I really liked it, but I don’t think Io can sell it.”

 

He sent it to Soho Press based on their good reputation and willingness to read unsolicited manuscripts. They bought the book.

 

He worked with Editor Katie Herman, who has since left Soho Press, who helped him shape the ending of the book, including suggesting that Seth’s story within the story, A Stranger on the Planet, appear at the end serving as a mirror to reflect everything that came before it.

“Remind yourself that if you are writing a really good book it will find an audience.”
—SCHWARTZ

 

 

 

 

Schwartz advises novelists, “Just keep at it. Remind yourself that if you are writing a really good book it will find an audience.”

He is currently working on a second novel that explores the experience of an African American woman adopted at birth by a Jewish couple that explores how adoption affects one’s identity.

“In A Stranger on the Planet, Seth's childhood defines him throughout the book, and he never becomes a parent. In my next book, I want to write about parenthood,” noted Schwartz.

About Adam Schwartz

Author Adam Schwartz is a professor at Wellesley College. A Stranger on the Planet is his first novel. His short fiction, including a previous form of A Stranger on the Planet, appeared in The New Yorker. This is his first novel.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists. 

 

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris