Monday, September 8, 2008

Guest Blog, David J. Schwartz: Pleased To Meet Me

Greetings, Twin Cities book lovers. That is, I assume that if you are reading this, you love books. At the very least you buy them, and while the link between love and money has not been scientifically proven, there are certain things that have to be taken on faith. This, at least, was what I told myself last week, while my city was under occupation by delegates and law enforcement officers from all over the country. "It will be over soon," I told myself, and in the end my faith was rewarded. I don't care what your political beliefs are--having a helicopter hovering above your neighborhood around the clock is going to disturb your sleep.

Who, you may ask, am I? I'm Dave Schwartz (though on the books it says David J. Schwartz), and I'm honored to be your guest blogger this week. My novel Superpowers, about five college kids in Madison, Wisconsin who drink a batch of home-brewed beer and wake up with a hangover and weird powers, came out in June, which is when I found out what it was about.

That probably sounds odd, so let me explain with a link. Lauren McLaughlin, author of the recent YA novel Cycler, blogged recently about how doing interviews and other publicity for her book had forced her to think about it in a way she hadn't before. She says of analyzing her own work:

I was an English major in college so this should be a piece of cake. After all, I don’t have to hypothesize what the author intended. I was there. I know what she intended.

Or do I?

I had a flash of recognition reading Lauren's post, because, like her, at some point between the conception of a work and the completion, lots of things change--at least, for me they do. Whatever my intentions were with Superpowers when I started writing it, a lot of them shifted along the way. Morphed, you might say. I blame the characters, personally. For some reason, the more real they become, the less amenable they are to fitting into grand thematic matrices. The nerve: without me these people wouldn't even exist, and yet here they are telling me their stories. That's supposed to be my job!

So I found myself having to look at my novel from a new perspective, to try to approach it as a thoughtful reader might, and some of the conclusions surprised me. Among other things, I've written a book about power that implies that perhaps the best thing to do with power is not to use it. I never had a single conscious thought about inserting that idea, but I don't disagree with it. If I'd read it in someone else's book I'd think that was pretty insightful (even if the author went a long way to say it), but since I know the author pretty well I'm not impressed. I'm not going to give that guy credit for a happy accident.

Some writers don't have this problem, I suspect. Some writers work with strict outlines, and when a character starts to wander from the narrative path they either steer him straight or kill him off. But everyone who gets as far as publication has to deal with reviews, and that's where you really get to know yourself. At least, you get to know a version of the person who wrote your book, and sometimes it's someone you don't much care for.

Reviews, in the age of instant commentary via blogs, email, user reviews, social networking, etc., are, with a few unhappy exceptions, the black hole of author commentary. Many of the writers I know are online and will happily make mention of everything from politics to traffic to that awful waitress at the restaurant last night; but while most of them will happily excerpt and link to positive reviews, it's a near-universal taboo to take on the bad ones. This is a good thing, to be clear, as the occasional head-butting between author and reader at Amazon will attest. But I only really came to appreciate how difficult it could be to keep mum about such things when my own book came out.

If analyzing your own novel is a surprising experience, reading someone else's analysis will teach you things about your writing skills, knowledge of subject matter, and motives for telling your particular story that you have probably never suspected. Taking the good with the bad, you may discover a book and an author so full of contradictions that their existence seems unlikely. A book can be both "thoughtful" and "ill-considered," both "earthbound" and "soaring." It can "zip along" and "never attain any sort of urgency." Characters can be "superbly drawn" and "remain mostly static."

Please note that I am not arguing with any of the less-than-glowing reviews. (I would, however, like to point you at some rather glowing ones, like this one here, this one, and this one.) I'm just trying to illustrate a point, one that I'm trying to prove to myself: these people opened the same book, but they all read a different one. It doesn't mean that the reviews don't matter, because even the most dismissive one has an opinion to express; but it's just an opinion, and in the end I have to weigh mine a little heavier than theirs.

So who, you may ask again, am I? I was born right here in St. Paul, and I'll be blogging a little about that this week. I love baseball and elephants (whom I consider to be non-partisan), and I'll be blogging about those things, too. First, though, I think I'll talk about superheroes, which--as you might guess from my book--I'm also a fan of. More on that tomorrow.

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