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Some outtakes from our interview with Schicker:
"I love running and it is somehow deeply connected to my writing. In high school, running cross-country and track was close to the most important thing in my life. I loved then and love now the discipline of running, the solitude, the self-reliance, the lack of equipment, the hard-won elations. I also respect and accept the injuries, the patience, and the days when I've just got nothing. I don't think about these things while I run, I just run, just as I don't think about writing while I'm writing, I just write. As a runner, I don't have the stamina or zip I had when I was seventeen, but I have stamina and zip as a writer, and somehow the one prepared me for or inspired me toward the other."
"I love movies and television. I see about two films a week out at theaters, and I stay up late most nights watching movies or shows on TiVo. Current shows I love are: 24, Arrested Development, The Office, Monk, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, NYPD Blue, and The Family Guy. These are smart, masterfully created pieces of entertainment, and, for the life of me, I can't understand certain people's kill-your-television crusades. I work hard, love my wife, friends and family, love traveling, sports, reading, dining out, the whole shebang, but I also need (especially after working all day with words on a page) the pleasure of television. I watch almost exclusively fictive shows, though, and I never watch more than 10 or 15 minutes of news a day: overall, the less news I watch, the more thoughtful, relaxed, and, I think, kinder I am."
"I come from an enormous family of about 70 first cousins (my father is one of ten children, my mother is one of eight, and I have three sisters and no brothers). Despite not knowing many of my relatives well (many live far from me), I consider them -- in their vast array of personalities and lives -- a blessing, comfort, resource, and just plain great story, and I hope I am sometimes the same for them."
"I'd like all my readers to know how grateful I am that they read my books and stories. Given how fraught and harried our lives often are, it is a winning and wonderful fact that people still seek out and cleave to fiction. I consider reading and writing two of the freest, most civilized, dangerous, occasionally radical, and rewarding pursuits of life, and it excites and inspires me that people might enjoy the stories I have to tell. So, truly, thank you for reading! Also, a request to my readers: if you know of any books that you think I'd really love (given all I've said above and the kind of fiction I write), please feel free to drop me a line on my web site and make a recommendation: I'd enjoy hearing from you."
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In the summer of 2004, David Schickler took some time out to talk to us about his favorite books, authors, and interests:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I've been most influenced by the Bible and, as a close second, Edith Hamilton's Mythology. The Bible I still read regularly, but Mythology I only read as a boy and then again while teaching high school English (which, along with directing plays, I did from 1994-2000).
In terms of fiction writing, what these two texts taught me and still teach me is that the engine of drama and all powerful storytelling (i.e. the engine of myths, parables, archetypes, fairytales, fiction) lies in human wanting. You could call it intention or motivation, but wanting is the real, hungry word for the real thing. Above all else, as human beings, we want: we want money, salvation, steak, orgasms, revenge, hugs, forgiveness, sleep. And the word wanting also connotes our lack of all these things we crave, these things for which we might kill.
Icarus wants singular power, Cain wants respect, Jonah wants escape, David wants Bathsheba, and all men want Helen. These characters' wants are so clear and outsized and famous that the characters need no more than first names for us all to remember them and what they did. Well, when I write, I want my characters to be as memorably murderous, lusty, hysterical, saintly or pathetic as the characters in Scripture and mythology. Also the stakes in Bible stories and in myths are always at their highest: the character's body and soul are usually on the line, and, to keep your audience on the edge of their seats, why play for anything less?
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
These are in rough order of their importance to me, but this is also a constantly changing list. To be on this list, a book must be one that I can finish reading and return to page one and immediately start again and still find new things to enjoy or love or fear within it. Taste-wise, I avoid clever gamesmanship (Joyce's Ulysses or the like); so, with the arguable exception of the Bible, all of the choices below are straight, transparent narratives (i.e. the author is never a character in the story, the judgment of the characters is left to the reader).
Portions of the Bible -- For personal reasons and for those explained above.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- Because the writing itself is an undying romance, a party, a love affair. I reread Chapter Three (Gatsby's enormous summer fete) often; I can smell the perfume of the women at that party, I can taste the liquor, I can hear the laughter deep down in my ear. When I read that scene, I am in it, I am there, falling in love with what's around me, and it is painful to leave.
A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene -- This isn't Graham Greene's most heralded book, but I love it and love rereading it. The main character, Querry, a broken, hollowed-out, once-famous architect, takes shelter in a middle-of-nowhere African leper colony, wanting only to be left alone. His tragicomic story is the best example I've found of unsentimental redemption for a character that doesn't even have the energy to hate himself.
Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson -- Hardcore, violent, sexy, pared-down, urgent. When I read this book, I feel like I'm reading electricity, or even like I am electricity. The drugged-out narrator is so in love with the sad, raw world (even when it kicks him) that I can't help but stay with his weird, perfect voice.
A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O'Connor and....
The Stories Of John Cheever -- These two books hold some of the most authoritatively written short stories I know. I fell for both collections just for the first story in each (the title story in O'Connor's and "Goodbye, My Brother" in Cheever's): the final sentences of those stories ring in my head like darkly righteous bells. Also, O'Connor's use of grotesque figures always points me back to mythology, to Minotaurs and monsters, to looming beasts whose wants are unforgettable.
Red Sky At Morning by Richard Bradford -- Library Journal called this 1968 novel "a sort of Catcher In The Rye out West" and the Fort Worth Press called it "a book to make you think the world really has nice people." I agree, and this sweet, sad and charming story lit me up in high school. Like Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons, this novel has an easy, youthful, warm magic to which I've sometimes needed to return just for comfort's sake.
CivilWarLand In Bad Decline by George Saunders -- This is a satirical, apocalyptic howler, and one of the most original, imaginative books I know. I first read it in a café and I got glares from other patrons, because I was slapping the table and bursting out laughing. One critic called Saunders' stories "Disneyland on acid" and if you allow acid to mean something both psychedelic and brightly bitter, it's a perfect description of this twisted funhouse.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller: I love Shakespeare, but his plays (and virtually all others to me) live or die in my watching them performed or in performing or directing them. I think that's healthy and what Shakespeare was after and what any true playwright seeks. Miller's play, though, is the only one I've read where the tension between characters -- the injustice and irreconcilable wantings -- is so palpable on the page that I want to grab characters by their throats and shake them. Strangely, I've never yet seen The Crucible performed (and I've seen it done well) where my experience of the play on its feet trumps the rage and engrossment I felt on first reading it. That strikes me as a tribute to Miller.
Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness -- If it isn't yet evident (from some of my other selections), I confess fascination with the dark, elemental side of human nature (though I temper it with a love of magicians like Fitzgerald and Gabriel García Márquez on one hand, and, on the other, writers like Bradford and Saunders, who lead with sense of humor). In any case, Conrad's book is odd, haunting, timeless, and unsettling: like the novels of Pete Dexter (Brotherly Love, Train), Heart of Darkness shows men who appear to act on ordinary instinct, but who execute incredible, clamoring violences while doing so. Creepy, creepy, creepy...and true.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
My favorite films usually have one of two currents running through them: a gritty, driving, relentless sense of purpose, or a slightly shimmering sense of joy, hope, or romantic possibility. Some great films have both currents. Like with my ten favorite books, to be on this list, a film has to be one I can watch over and over and still find new treasures in it. Basically, if it's late at night and I'm channel-surfing and I come across one of these films in mid-story, I get sucked in and usually watch till the end. These are (not in any order really) ten of my favorites:
The French Connection -- Popeye Doyle is pure, nasty, relentless purpose personified. If he's on the side of right, he's barely on its side, but you can't look away from him and you want him to prevail. That's a remarkable narrative achievement.
Witness -- For my money, the film that best dramatizes a blend of crime drama, fish-out-of-water culture clash, and doomed romance. Also, it's rare to see a male hero on screen as vulnerable as Harrison Ford's John Book (the other best example is probably Luke in Cool Hand Luke). And, toward the end, when that car peeks ominously over the farm hill road in the early morning mist, then slowly pulls back into shadow, it might as well be the predator from my next choice....
Jaws -- The shark and the pacing are great, of course, and Quint and his monologue about WWII are like some epicenter of human will, but how the hell did Steven Spielberg and his actors also make this film so funny? I guess even in a town where children get chomped to bits, the petty remain petty, the snotty remain snotty, and it falls to one terrified man (The Chief) to rise above and save the day (though he'll probably get nothing near the thanks he deserves).
The Philadelphia Story -- When Dexter (Cary Grant) is talking tough to Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn), I'm hoping she'll end up with him. Then, when Mike (Jimmy Stewart) is talking tough, or soft, to Tracy, I change my mind and think choose him, choose him. Only a first-rate comic romance can dance your sympathies back and forth like that. And, like with The Great Gatsby, I wish wish wish I could've been there, too, drinking and quipping my way through that glittering summer party.
The Big Lebowski -- Every character's agenda is so small and clearly defined (and usually so ridiculous without the character ever knowing it) that none of them will budge on what he or she wants, and the results are hysterical. The dialogue itself is my favorite character in the movie. I also love that if someone asked you to explain what happens in this story, you'd be hard pressed to answer, because it doesn't really resemble many familiar story arcs or motifs. With the dialogue being its own character and the plot being almost irrelevant, seeing this film is like reading A Confederacy Of Dunces -- you're simply witnessing the unspooling of comic genius, and the only way to ruin the fun is to insist on asking what it all means.
Moonstruck -- Just warm, winning, original comic romance, with an across-the-board perfect cast. And, like with The Philadelphia Story, a great leading female character.
On The Waterfront -- Terry's about as perfect a mix of gritty purpose and romantic possibility as it gets on screen, and I hope that Henry Dante, the main man in my novel, Sweet And Vicious, has in him at least some of Terry's kind of breeding.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark -- The perfect comic book, the perfect visual adventure story. The stakes couldn't be higher, the mythology couldn't be more foreboding or resonant, the casting couldn't be more truly aimed at the intent of the screenplay. I saw this film in the theater eight times when it came out (I was twelve or thirteen), and all through high school, I tried sneaking lines from Raiders into puppy love romances I had with girls. (e.g. "Yeah, you're sorry... everybody's sorry for something.") The line-pilfering was silly and never worked, but the movie endures!
The Shining (Kubrick version) -- When I was a college senior, I first watched this on VCR late one night alone. I was living in a house with six buddies and a girl we knew was crashing on our couch. I didn't know her well, but I woke her (at about 3 a.m., right when the two twin girls appear in the hallway) and begged her to watch with me because I was terrified. Alongside The Exorcist, this is the most frightening film ever made, and I love that the most frightening elements are not the eventual blood and hatchet work: instead, it's the Big-Wheel ticking across the hardwood, then the carpets, then the hardwood again; the smiling bartender, Lloyd; the tennis ball. Kubrick's direction and Stephen King's novel show that any prop, any basic physical item in the world (e.g. a tennis ball, a shrub) can become loaded with import, even with the mortal dread of eternal doom.
Casablanca -- Do I even need to say anything?
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I don't listen to music while I'm writing, unless rain or the traffic sounds of New York City or the summer hum of an air conditioner count as music.
My favorite kinds of music are rock and blues, some folk, some Irish, some occasional smooth big band on the dance floor with my wife. In no particular order, these are some favorites: U2, The Beatles, Liz Phair, Weezer, The Pixies, Lightning Hopkins, Patty Griffin, Lyle Lovett, The White Stripes, The Cars, Cowboy Junkies, Led Zeppelin, Sinead O'Connor, The Rolling Stones, and any way, way rocking song that I can either stomp around to full tilt or sing at the top of my lungs in the car, in the shower, or on my parents' old riding lawnmower (ask my sisters and childhood neighbors, they'll tell you)!
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
If we were reading fiction (and we would be), we would read books in which you feel yourself purely in story-world from the first sentence. That is an almost impossibly subjective criterion, maybe, but for me it's critical.
I can only really give random examples: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, Richard Russo's Empire Falls, John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy Of Dunces, Hannah Tinti's Animal Crackers. These are plainly told, trimly edited tales where the author gets him or herself out of the way and allows the characters to pursue their fates and lets you muster as much care or loathing for the characters as you wish. I believe that's what fiction is meant to do: it's meant to free you, the reader, to experience another world and not be told how to judge that world. We get enough promptings for how to judge our own world, and the promptings are exhausting, and my book club would give us a freaking break from all that. And I'd serve yummy wines, too!
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have nothing on my desk when I write except my computer monitor, keyboard and printer. If the floor around the writing desk is dusty, I have to dust before I write. If an important letter has to go out, I have to mail it before I write. My writing desk is the drafting table that my late Irish grandfather used in his study. I used to write for a couple of hours after school on most weekdays back when I taught. Now that I write full time (an unbelievable blessing for which I am grateful, grateful, grateful), I read for an hour in bed in the morning, then eat some cereal while watching 15 minutes of The Price Is Right. Then I briefly check e-mail or call my agent or best friend and shoot the breeze for a procrastinating ten minutes. Then I write from about noon to 5 p.m. (20 minutes for lunch in there somewhere). If I'm really hot with the pace of an unfolding project, I will write again at night from 9 to 11 or midnight.
What are you working on now?
I'm writing the screenplay of Sweet and Vicious for Universal Pictures (another real blessing!) I'm having a blast, and the producer I'm working with is Scott Frank, who wrote the film adaptations of Get Shorty, Out of Sight and The Minority Report. He is brilliant.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
In the winter of my senior year at Georgetown, I applied to nine graduate creative writing programs (Columbia, Iowa, Stanford, Brown, U.C. Irvine). I got rejected from all of them and deserved it. The night the ninth rejection arrived, I drank MANY beers. After graduating, I got a job waiting tables at the Chili's in Rockville Pike, Maryland. I wrote stories all day each day and worked at Chili's at night and applied to seven of the same nine writing programs again in January. At least one of the three stories I submitted was, I still believe, quite good and original. I got rejected from five of the programs, accepted at Brown and Columbia. I ended up at Columbia, but the acceptance letter from Brown came first, on a dreary March night, and I reread the letter about one thousand times and then sprinted around the block in my Chili's uniform.
I enjoyed Columbia and it helped my writing (though I had to fight tooth and nail to get into some classes which, considering tuition, should have been more accessible). I wrote a novel for my thesis, and then, while teaching high school in Vermont and upstate New York between 1994 and 2000, I wrote two more novels (the third of which ended up a short story, "Wes Amerigo's Giant Fear," that The New Yorker published in 2003). So, the fourth full book I wrote was Kissing In Manhattan, which was my first published book.
While I was writing my third book and then Kissing (between 1997 and 2000), I started submitting portions of these manuscripts to magazines as short stories. I got lots of stock rejection slips, then slowly some more personal rejection letters, then longer rejection letters: encouraged by the latter, I began corresponding with a young woman who read stories for GQ and who had tried to convince her editors to publish me. They never did, but that woman (still my friend now) recommended me to my now agent and indispensable career partner, Jennifer Carlson. Jennifer submitted some of the stories from Kissing to various magazines and got rejections, until TinHouse magazine published "Jacob's Bath" in late 1999. Then The New Yorker published "The Smoker" in their 2000 Summer Fiction issue and my career took off all in one very exciting week (I got a film deal for "The Smoker" and a two-book publishing deal with The Dial Press within a very short period of time). It was a heady, humbling, terrific, but also scary time.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
One of the best novels I've read in the past few years is Life At These Speeds by Jeremy Jackson. It's wonderful, wryly funny, and touching without being sentimental. The book was well-published by St. Martin's Press, so perhaps Jackson's already been ‘discovered' (I know he has a second novel out), but I've given Life At These Speeds as a gift to friends and will continue to do so, in the hopes that not only more people, but more people that I know personally, will read this fine book.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Rainier Maria Rilke, in Letters To A Young Poet, tells the novice writer that "no one can help you...no one." He's taking about relying on yourself alone, going deep into your heart and being ruthless with yourself about whatever you find there and writing about it and only it. That's a bit melodramatic, but it's true.
I once sent an early story to Tobias Wolff and asked for reactions: with true generosity, he wrote back and told me that while my story had wit and energy, it seemed kept at too safe a distance from me. He encouraged me to try writing about things I was afraid of or afraid to write about. It was liberating advice (though it took my writing years to catch up to what Wolff meant). I believe the worst thing you can do as a fiction writer is to write about things that other people tell you are important, interesting or necessary for the world to hear. There is no surer way to produce forgettable, unoriginal prose. The only real path (and the only way to have fun) is to live, look around, stare yourself down or reflect or pray or whatever you call it, and then write only what you want and need to write. If you feel honestly compelled to write about a down-and-out grasshopper mechanic on Pluto, then that's what you write and don't show it to anyone until you know it's vital and authoritative and yours alone. If it's authoritative and you need to write it (and, of course, if you have talent), it has the chance to end up singular and good.
On a practical level, if you're an undiscovered writer seeking to be published, you should make sure you've reached authority in your writing before submitting work to agents. It's a smaller industry than it might appear, and if you go out before you're offering truly singular work, agents and editors might not give you a second read once you are producing singular work.
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