By JUDY WEST
In one of Lynn Sharon Schwartzs short stories, we meet Nick and Julia Willard, a typical pair of empty nesters whose dinnertime conversation revolves around the exploits of their grown children. We learn of Kevins possible work transfer to Paris and tests Joanne has undergone for a mysterious neurological ailment. We also learn, near the end of the storywhich appears in Referred Pain and Other Stories (Counterpoint Press, 2004)that the Willards in fact have no children. Their parental conversations are part of an elaborate fantasy life that has sustained the couple over the course of their childless marriage.
Such scenarios, where a surface veneer of normality is peeled back to reveal a far stranger truth, are something of a Schwartz signature. The author, who has 14 books of fiction and non-fiction to her name, including the novel Leaving Brooklyn and the memoir Ruined by Reading, will read from Referred Pain and other work Nov. 30 at Kelly Writers House.
The underlying strangeness of the ordinary is one of the themes I write about most, says Schwartz. It seems to me there is always a layer of strangeness beneath the ordinary, and youll find it if you look a little deeper.
Sometimes the strangeness is very strange indeed. In the short story Twisted Tales, a woman becomes obsessed with the idea of ridding her house of clutter. She starts with newspapers and magazines, but soon moves on to half-eaten candy bars and vases, until, Soon, she was tossing down anything left on a surface, coffee cups with their dregs, mail, scraps of paper, books, pencils. Her plan is to create space to think, though when shes finally thrown everything into the basement, including her husband and children, all she can think about is the life going on in the basement without her.
Schwartz, who admits she herself fights a constant, losing battle to keep her desk clear, sees the desire as paradoxical. We think, If only I could have a clear space. But of course you never do, and when you do, you dont really want it. We think there is some unattainable peace and clarity somewhere and daily life is getting in the way.
The idea of secret lives intrigues her, toothe difference between someones inner life and their outer presentation of themselves. Her characters might be fine, she says, if they never had to acknowledge the truth, but she likes to catch them at the moment when they see the disparity. In Sightings of Loretta that moment happens to the protagonist Bennett when his wife dies and he realizes how completely he neglected her because of his obsession with the girl he loved when he was six years old.
Though several of the themes in Referred Pain echo those of earlier novels, she says that wasnt what she set out to do. Ill get an idea, she says, the bare bones, a situation I find interesting and before I know it Im writing it and all these old themes work their way in. They find me. Its as if they say, There she is writing a story. Were going to go in and invade it. I cant escape that.
Schwartzs tendency toward the odd has always been a hallmark of her writing, but she sees Referred Pain as even freer than her previous books. Writing it, she found herself pushing situations further, following them all the way to theiroften absurd, frequently poignantconclusions. Maybe because Im older and more in despair about writing and publishing I think, What the hell! I might as well really enjoy myself and do what I want, she says. If you worry, youll never write anything.”
For younger writers, she acknowledges, inhibitions can be harder to overcome. What embarrassed her as a budding writer, she says, was not so much that people would think she had done the things she wrote about, but that they would think Id had those transgressive thoughts. To succeed, she says, writers have to cast out such thoughts, overcome embarrassment and persevere.
Today, Schwartz is happy to let her imagination take her wherever it wants to go. My dread is to be taken as a nice competent lady writer.
Lynn Sharon Schwartz will read at the Kelly Writers House, Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT or go to www.writing.upenn.edu/~wh/.
Originally published on November 18, 2004