|Tuesday, July 03, 2007
|The Bookshelf: Diamonds are forever
In his sophomore effort, fiction storyteller Edward Schwarzschild mines the tales of his own family.
From our July/August 2007 issue
One of the first short stories the fiction writer Edward Schwarzschild ever wrote was an account of his grandfather’s open-heart surgery.
The year was 1989, and Schwarzschild was a Ph.D. student in English literature at Washington University in St. Louis. He was only writing about 25 pages of fiction each year, focusing instead on honing skills that could earn him tenure, stability, a real job.
That the story, called “Open Heart,” is the opening narrative in Schwarzschild’s new collection of stories, titled The Family Diamond, serves as a tribute to his grandparents, on whom the collection is based, and in particular his grandfather, who survived the surgery.
However, the collection in its entirety recently became doubly poignant, when Schwarzschild’s grandfather passed away in late May, four months after celebrating his 90th birthday.
On the eve of Schwarzschild’s first press tour before the publication of The Family Diamond this fall, I called him to see if he wanted to postpone the interview, scheduled to take place just days after his grandfather’s funeral. He declined the offer, saying the book was about his Zayde; that it would be good to talk. We made plans to meet the next day at a coffee shop in Brooklyn, not far from his apartment.
Settling in over coffee and chocolate chip cookies (“comfort food,” he says), Schwarzschild concedes, “It’s still very, very fresh in terms of figuring out what happened…. I’m sad and upset about how quickly he went from that 90th birthday to his death.”
Discussing the collection, he says he had to rewrite the boilerplate language that typically precedes any fictional work — this time to indicate it was based on real characters. “Milly and Charlie are a little more real than everybody else,” he says. “That’s the truth. They’re not exactly my Bubbe and Zayde, but they’re more than merely the inspirations for those characters.”
Schwarzschild grew up in what he describes as a Reform, working-class family in Philadelphia. In interviews, he has described two miserable summers when he was a member of a kosher Boy Scout troop. (“I ran home,” he says. “You hear about kids who run away from home, the kosher Boy Scouts made me run back home.”) At home, Schwarzschild was particularly close to his two younger brothers, who he describes as his favorite people in the world.
Not surprisingly, family is a recurring theme in Schwarzschild’s work. Responsible Men, published in 2005, is centered on a family of salesmen, while The Family Diamond loosely focuses on Milly and Charlie Diamond, the characters modeled after his grandparents.
“I think I’m drawn to family, to father-son questions, husband-wife questions, to sibling questions, because they seem so fundamental to me,” Schwarzschild says. “I find it fascinating, I find it baffling, I find it inspiring, the different ways people figure things out in the context of the people they are closest to.”
The Family Diamond weaves together anecdotes from Milly and Charlie with stories about those tangentially related, but in some ways the collection is a tribute to their relationship. In one particularly poignant scene after Milly loses her sight in one eye, she spends the day stealing glances at her husband, but otherwise keeps both eyes shut. When Charlie asks her why she doesn’t use her good eye, she tells him that if she should suddenly lose her sight completely, she wants him to be the last person she sees.
“My Bubbe was a huge influence on these stories when she was alive,” Schwarzschild says. “When she was blind, I would send her cassette tapes of the stories so she could hear them.” Of his grandfather, he says, still using the present tense, “Zayde’s different from Bubbe, but he would listen to the stories. He was always interested in writing and not a phone call would go by without him asking, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘What did you finish?’ ‘Is the new book done yet?’”
Despite his family’s enthusiasm for his work, Schwarzschild did not come from a literary family. His grandfather worked in construction his whole life, and his parents, who did not attend college, work as a nurse and a salesman. As his parent’s oldest child, Schwarzschild was encouraged to be a doctor, though writing won out.
Schwarzschild’s first job was teaching at Sweet Briar College, an all-women’s school in Virginia. Ultimately he directed the Honors Program and was a tenure track professor there, but, he said, he always felt out of place. “I was young, male, single, Jewish, northern, sort of working class, non-horseback rider,” he says. “There was no way I fit in.”
After four years at Sweet Briar, he took a one-year sabbatical and attended Boston University’s creative writing program. While at B.U., he was offered a two-year Stegner Fellowship for creative writing at Stanford University. Still tied to Sweet Briar, he called to ask if he could extend his sabbatical. When they declined, he says he pondered the decision for ten minutes and then resigned. After two years at Stanford, Schwarzschild was armed with credentials of a fiction writer and accepted his current position at the State University of New York in Albany, where he holds a joint appointment in the English department and the New York State Writers Institute.
Dividing his time between Albany and Brooklyn, where he shares an apartment with his girlfriend Elisa Albert, author of How This Night Is Different, Schwarzschild is a quintessential example of the young and smart writers populating the Jewish literary scene of late.
But while Schwarzschild says he loves reading what’s coming out (“It just feels vibrant to me,” he says), he cautions against any kind of label. “No one wants to be pigeonholed,” he says. “If someone calls me a Jewish writer — I don’t care — but when I’m home in my study I’m not thinking, ‘I’m a Jewish writer,’ I’m thinking, ‘I’m a writer trying to write a good sentence and then another good sentence.’”
Schwarzschild says that in looking back, he had no plan for how to become a writer. “It was just one thing after the other,” he says. “I made certain compromises. I followed certain passions.” The process in and of itself is similar to writing, he says. “You have an idea but you can’t see very far. You might have a dream of where the idea is going, but in the process of writing the story or the essay or the novel, there’s so much discovery that goes along the way.”
Case in point is the final installment in The Family Diamond, in which Milly and Charlie’s youth is restored, as first evidenced by the return of Milly’s eyesight. Schwarzschild says he resisted including that story in the book, although the story eventually “won out,” he says.
In retrospect, he acknowledges, “It seems like there is this alternate future possible for Milly and Charlie, who are dying.”
“These days that feels really, really powerful to me,” Schwarzschild says. “What, people like Milly and Charlie, my fictional version of my Bubbe and Zayde, get younger? And go off into some unknown world? If only that were true!” he says.
“Who knows where they are now,” he muses. “I hope they’re together. I hope they’re their youngest, best selves, more happy than I can imagine them.”
-- Text by E.B. Solomont / Photo by Jennifer May