Author Schwartz reveals life’s ‘underlying strangeness’

Referred Pain

In one of Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s 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 Kevin’s possible work transfer to Paris and tests Joanne has undergone for a mysterious neurological ailment. We also learn, near the end of the story—which 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 you’ll 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 she’s 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 don’t 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, too—the difference between someone’s 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 wasn’t what she set out to do. “I’ll get an idea,” she says, “the bare bones, a situation I find interesting and before I know it I’m writing it and all these old themes work their way in. They find me. It’s as if they say, ‘There she is writing a story. We’re going to go in and invade it.’ I can’t escape that.”

Schwartz’s 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 their—often absurd, frequently poignant—conclusions. “Maybe because I’m 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, you’ll 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 I’d 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