Marc Shuster is one of those unique novelists who has not only mastered the art of telling a tight story in the Aristotelian model of plot, character, and dialogue, but also in regard to his characters’ complex feelings, which reflect all of our own foibles and virtues. With The Grievers (Permanent Press 2012), Marc has crafted a novel that deftly addresses the issues of loss, career procrastination, and self-worth through the misadventures of Charley Schwartz. After reading this thought-provoking work, I was pleased to conduct the following interview with the author.
How did your experience writing your first novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl, inform your approach to your follow-up work, The Grievers?
I actually wrote the first few drafts of The Grievers before I wrote The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl. In the earlier drafts, though, I was struggling to stick to a single narrative thread. As a narrator, Charley had a tendency to offer a lot of side stories about his childhood that didn’t contribute to the forward motion of the narrative. Working on Wonder Mom gave me a stronger sense of how a story works and how to keep the action moving in a single direction rather than going all over the place. As a result, revisions of The Grievers that I worked on subsequent to writing Wonder Mom were a lot more focused than the earlier drafts.
Do you find any significant differences in writing a male protagonist with The Grievers‘ Charley Schwartz versus a female one with Audrey Corcoran of The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl?
Not really. Charley and Audrey are different in a lot of ways, and gender is only one of the differences in the mix. What they have in common, however, is that life has dealt each of them an unexpected blow. For Audrey, it’s rebounding from a bitter divorce and recovering from a debilitating addiction. For Charley, it’s dealing with his friend’s suicide. They’re both ill-equipped to deal with their issues, but that’s the nature of issues. If we were well-equipped to deal with them, they wouldn’t be issues. This is really what I try to get at in all of my fiction-that we’re all frail and flawed in some way, but that these flaws make us human. As someone with plenty of frailties, flaws, and weaknesses, I have a lot of material to draw on regardless of whether my characters are men or women.
How did your time as a student at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School shape your portrayal of St. Leonard’s Academy in the book?
One thing I loved about going to St. Joe’s Prep-or the Prep, as we called it-was a sense of tradition. It’s a Jesuit school, so we learned a lot about Ignatius of Loyola and how he founded the order. I tried to echo this effect in The Grievers by inventing an order of priests called the Noblacs-named for Saint Leonard of Noblac, who is an actual Christian saint. For Charley, attending St. Leonard’s Academy is a bit like stumbling upon a heritage he never knew he had, though he’s fairly ambivalent about living up to the so-called Noblac ideals.
In what way does The Grievers comment on how prep schools enforce a vision of self and school spirit in their students and alumni?
It’s definitely a double-edged sword. On one hand, you have the fact that these schools do a great job of building self-confidence. On the other hand, there’s always the danger of self-confidence turning into unbridled ego. It’s easy, I imagine, to graduate from a place like St. Leonard’s Academy and think that the world owes you something, or at least that the world will make accommodations for you because you’re special-or so you’ve been told. But then the world pushes you around a little bit, and you snap out of it. At least, that happens in the best of situations. Other times, you end up like Charley.
What research did you conduct into the psychology of grieving?
I really didn’t do any research at all, at least not in the traditional sense. I know that there’s a lot of literature on the topic, particularly with respect to the seven stages of grieving, but I really didn’t want Charley to go through a textbook model of grief. If I started with denial and worked my way methodically to acceptance, the narrative would have felt, at least to me, a little predictable and stilted.
You depict your protagonist as a confused and somewhat lazy Ph.D. candidate. What type of commentary does this provide on the academic lifestyle?
The thing about being in a Ph.D. program is that you need to be motivated and organized, and these are two qualities that Charley lacks at this point in his life. So I’m not really trying to say anything about the academic lifestyle so much as I’m trying to provide an example of how not to live it.
Are you offering a metaphor via Charley and Karen’s constant struggle to remove the stubborn, yellowed wallpaper from the walls of their home?
I can see how the setting of Charley’s home might work as a metaphor, but that particular detail comes straight out of real life. My wife and I were renovating our first home when I was writing the novel, and the visceral experience of scraping wallpaper from the walls was always fresh in my mind while I was writing. But as I was working on the novel, it also occurred to me that it worked as a metaphor, which is why I kept that detail in the book even as I jettisoned pretty much everything else that appeared in the earliest drafts. Really, Charley knows that his life is a mess-and that it’s all his fault. He’s drifted for so long, relied on his wit and charm (such as it is) for so long, that he’s forgotten how to take charge of anything. What he realizes is that he needs to get his house in order.
Does Charley prove that the dreams of adolescence uncomfortably collide with the reality of adulthood?
As an American growing up at the tail end of the twentieth century, I was encouraged to think of myself as special. We all were. It was the message Mr. Rogers drilled into our heads day in and day out-that we were special, that we could do anything, that a man in a sweater who we’d never met was proud of us just for being us. But then we all graduated from college and came to the sad, sudden realization that we probably weren’t going to get to be the first rock stars in space like we’d been promised. I emphasize probably, of course. Personally, I’m still holding out for that one.
Tom Powers teaches composition courses at Montgomery County Community College. His fiction has appeared in Kaleidotrope and Trail of Indiscretion, and he has had comedy sketches produced by the Philadelphia-based Madhouse Theater Company.