Adam Lewis Schroeder, Writer

 

Adam Lewis Schroeder, Writer

Adam Lewis Schroeder, originally from Vernon, B.C, now lives in Penticton with his wife and children. He is the author of two acclaimed novels, Empress of Asia (2006, Raincoast Books) and In the Fabled East (2010, Douglas & McIntyre) and a book of short stories, Kingdom of Monkeys (2001, Raincoast Books). His novel All-Day Breakfast is being released in 2013 by Douglas & McIntyre. An M.F.A. creative writing graduate from U.B.C., he teaches creative writing for U.B.C. at U.B.C. Okanagan.

1. You teach and help raise a family. When do you find time to write? Very early in the morning? The midnight hours like Balzac? Or just whenever you can?

 My wife and I each work three days a week and have two at home with the kids (and her mom takes them for one more, if you’re doing the math) so when I’m not teaching I have three days with regular business hours, and when I’m really caught up in a piece I’ll work from nine at night until after midnight too, when the phone doesn’t ring and the kids aren’t doing anything entertaining in the next room.  In the Fabled East was largely written at night because as babies they’d really trained me to go without sleep though I’m losing that ability as they get older, which is too bad since the nights are the only times available during the university term—though my wife will also send me into my office for entire weekends when I get a particularly desperate look on my face.

2. What were your favorite books as a young teenager?

 Comic books—mid-eighties superhero stuff by John Byrne and Frank Miller.  I was also so into the Watchmen series when it came out that now I can’t brush my teeth without thinking about it, because I read one particularly disturbing issue involving German Shepherds while I was waiting to have my braces tightened at the orthodontist’s. 

 3. Your first three books have been set mostly in Indochina and the Pacific Rim countries. You traveled extensively through Indonesia and Malaysia years ago. What attracted you to the various cultures there?

 My girlfriend-now-wife was an exchange student in Indonesia after high school, so after we finished our undergrad degrees we figured we’d go away for a year while we had the chance, and since it’s sunny and relatively cheap and she spoke the language, I don’t think we considered going anywhere else.  And everything I saw there seemed to present itself as a story.  Since I didn’t know too much (this plays into the answer for #10) about any one place, I could see every salt-farmer in a field or tussle on a street corner as pure story, without distractions.  There may be a certain giddiness resulting from being 24 that made that possible.  

 4. You’ve chosen settings in Vietnam, Bali, Borneo, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand. In doing so, you’ve followed in the footsteps of writers like Conrad, Somerset Maugham, even Kipling (though his territory was the Indian sub-continent), Pierre Loti, J.G. Farrell, Marguerite Duras.  To what extent were you aware of some of those precedents when you were working on your books?

 I read thousands of pages of Maugham while we were on that trip, any of his Asia stuff, and I read Conrad’s Victory.  The setting is so critical to both their work, and in Maugham particularly the stories turn so often on ignorance of local culture—sometimes blustering and pompous, more often a subtle misunderstanding.   It’s by no means a little-known plot device, but it was as though he’d handed me an answer key for getting these places onto the page.

 5. Westerners can be accused of exoticism when they site their works in unfamiliar territory filled with jungles and ancient temples.  Your work doesn’t fall into that category because it features characters who are victims, your stories are not romantic quests, you don’t celebrate indigenous cultures for their superior wisdom, and you have a lot of humor in your work. Your novel journey In the Fabled East has elements of Conrad and the heart of darkness of moral and physical illness, but also makes fun of that convention. Yet in the academic community, there remains some critical suspicion of taking the route of the foreign locale.  This, despite all the Canadian novels in recent years from writers of your cohort, like Stephen Galloway, Kevin Patterson, Steven Heighton, and Camilla Gibb. Shouldn’t writers be able to choose how they want to tell their stories and where, provided they do so skillfully and honestly?  What is your sense of the restrictions seemingly put on writers about staying within their own culture?

 I think you can write about any culture so long as you approach its people as individuals—painting any group with a single broad brush is just racism and we learn not to do that when we’re kids.  Coming from outside a culture, there are limits to what you can know about it in comparison to someone raised within it, but so long as you’re respectful in light of what you do know I don’t see any reason why you should get into trouble.  A Bangladeshi writer, say, might do a book on Canada and have surprising and insightful things to report, provided they stop short of saying, “Honestly, all 30 million of them are assholes.”  Though it’s in our Canadian nature to find that completely hilarious. 

 6. Michael Chabon has done a lot for your generation of writers in overcoming some of the resistance between genres, especially between literary fiction and speculative fiction or science fiction and between literary fiction and detective fiction. Do you know his work, and how do you see yourself in that debate—recently brought to attention with Margaret’s Atwood’s essay on science fiction?

 I haven’t given much thought to inter-genre debates.  You need to write about subjects that fascinate you if you expect yourself to keep working at them, so for me and probably most writers that entails a story you can tell in nuanced moments with funny, relatable characters, regardless of which side of an arbitrary genre divide they might fall.  With that in mind I giddily contributed a story last year to the Darwin’s Bastards sci-fi (well, specifically they asked for near-future dystopian fiction) anthology, and I’ve been slowly building a collection of literary ghost stories over the last ten years.   In the Fabled East is often a detective novel, and when Adelie comes back at the end she’s as much ghost as person.  You can also read my answer to #12 and decide if it’s describing a zombie novel.  If I enjoy what I’m writing I don’t do much soul-searching beyond that.  The non-literary genres get a bad reputation because of occasional bad, derivative writing done beneath their umbrella, but I’m sure there’s bad, derivative writing done in literary fiction too—I’m not sufficiently well-read to be able to name names.  I loved Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay, incidentally—the scene with the dangling saliva has really stuck with me.

 7.  Kingdom of Monkeys, your debut short story collection, features a number of stories set in Asia or British Columbia. An exception is “Distance,” a story set in Prague that seems to satirize the way history can be commodified to fit popular cultural consumption. But the history of the Jewish ghettoes and the Holocaust brings up for me the touchy matter of treating such subjects with the devices of humor. For example, Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated begins with wonderful humor before it counterposes the very funny story of the Ukrainian translator with the tragic story of the narrator’s family in the Ukraine. It’s an uncomfortable fit. I asked my class whether a writer could write humorously of the Holocaust—even if he were Jewish. In other words, are some subjects off limits to certain treatments? You’ve touched on that part of European history a little, but as far as I know, you’ve kept away from it in the rest of your fiction.  Can you say anything about tragic history and humor, that conjunction?

 It wouldn’t be appropriate for me personally to write about the Holocaust as a series of jokes, but, at the opposite pole, somberly listing all 7 million names wouldn’t convey nearly enough to the reader.  It has to be approached somewhere in the middle of that very wide spectrum, and it does have to be written about, it should be presented afresh to each generation—the murder of seven million ought to stay at the front of people’s minds for the next several thousand years.  I think reading This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen would be enough to get the idea across, but, realistically, rather than hope people will track down some old book there needs to be Holocaust work on the New Releases table.  In any case, the subject of the Holocaust is not only about seven-digit numbers or gas mixtures, it’s about many, many individual people, and jokes become darker and more frequent the worse things get for people, any group of people.  This Way for the Gas has a lot of jokes, which is why the reader never doubts that these were living beings. 

 But should I have written about it, even if it was only for a couple of pages in that one story in 1996?  I don’t know.  The story makes fun of Timothy Carson, this relatively-soulless American actor, for trying to deepen his persona by buying into the maudlin history of the European Jewish community, but in hindsight it’s satirizing me too, a 23-year-old United-Church Canadian, who despite the sarcastic window-dressing was essentially trying to pull the same trick as Carson.  I imagine a reissue of Kingdom of Monkeys without that story in it.  That said, I do have a scant personal connection to the Holocaust in that my great-aunt through marriage, Susan, was a Warsaw Jew who in 1940 fled to Canada, via Lithuania and Japan, while her entire extended family stayed behind to be killed.  Her daughter, my aunt, wrote most of a book about Susan’s childhood and escape, and after my aunt died of cancer I did interviews with Susan and then, with my cousin, more or less finished the book.  It’s called I Have My Mother’s Eyes and was published two years ago by Ronsdale Press.       

A last thing: I think most people can’t help but experience a certain subcutaneous thrill when they read or write about the Holocaust because it’s constantly reminding them that this unimaginably large group of people was killed within a certain span of months while you, the reader or writer, is still gloriously, deliciously alive, no matter how shitty a day you might’ve imagined you were having.  Through no particular effort at all, you are in the midst of being a survivor.

 8.  In the Fabled East reminds me a little of The Royal Way by Andre Malraux (though the countries, Vietnam and Cambodia, are different). Its combination of adventure, journey, and ideas, its notion that in the jungle all values get tested and possibly re-made links it to Malraux for me. In a chapter named “The Ruined Temple” Henri cynically observes in the heat and the flies ”…[as] gruesome as it may have been to see those Malays gouged up I can’t help but wonder how ten or fifteen could possibly be missed. Across Indo-China at this moment there are boys in their thousands falling off buffaloes to drown in paddy-fields, and though it grieves me deeply I can’t rush a life-preserver to each one, can I?” (212). In the next chapter, Adelie begins to cough, hemorrhage, and laugh, perhaps at the absurdity of conventions, expectations, life itself: “Through the hemorrhage she caught glimpses of the white wall, thick foliage outside a window, the perfect curl of one of the girl’s ears, the cuspidor inlaid with ivory parasols and elephants and at the bottom a large-eyed frog awaiting the rains” (224).  Human suffering is presented against a backdrop of the harshness of Nature and the indifference of the universe. Europeans—the French—go to Indochina for their own purposes, but don’t really get it. Even after many years, Henri still imposes his French values on Vietnam. Despite that sense of physical and moral rot coming through the story, however, there is also a kind of jauntiness, also jocularity that is part of the narrative voice. The description by Pierre when he first sets eyes on Saigon, for example, makes fun of his romantic pre-conceptions. How difficult was it to combine the subtly comic tone (with its variations) with the careful description of disease and suffering?

 I find it tough to write effectively about either one for very long, though for In the Fabled East I wrote Adelie and Pierre’s stories separately then shuffled them together afterwards.  I thought the tone of each would be more consistent that way, not reacting overly to the other character’s chapter that ended on the previous page.  And each storyline does have darker and lighter moments, though I think Pierre having Henri along gave him an unfair advantage as far as hi-jinx—I wish I could’ve also had Henri stumble through Adelie’s sickroom now and then, dispensing theories that TB is a peasant disease and can only be cured with good strong drink, etc.  

And thank you for the Royal Way reference—I tracked it down at the used bookstore here in Penticton after scouring Wikipedia for French Colonial literature that it might be possible to read in English.  I liked the interplay of the French characters in that novel and his descriptions of the sheer gruesomeness of the plant life in a Cambodian jungle, but I also found it strangely mannered and inscrutable in the way Conrad’s work sometimes is, where the characters’ emotional lives seem to hinge on which direction a guy blows his cigarette smoke.  Readers of 80 years ago, I suspect, must’ve been able to infer certain information that we no longer can.  At any rate, in Fabled East I called the doomed steamship captain Malraux so that anyone who happened to know his books could give themselves a pat on the back.

 9. One quality I like in your novels is the careful description of setting. You never rush a scene. You allow the dialogue and the setting to emerge together as the story unfolds. How much do you depend on research for the depiction of setting?

 For me to tackle any significant setting I usually have to have been there myself at some point, but I also read like crazy to see what the place would have been like during the relevant period.  I want to feel that I’ve done my best in collecting the ambient details.

10.   Some writers have said that they would never touch the historical novel, or, if they have done so, as with Dennis Lehane, never again. Too much work, too hard. You’ve gone twice to that well. What’s attracted you to the form?

 I find the time and place I’m in right now—and I don’t believe Penticton BC in 2012 to be anything extraordinary compared to the rest of the world—to be too rich with detail to write about.  There are too many million stories and details to choose from, so the historical writing sets up a filter that lets me only pick at the bits I want.  And from a practical standpoint, I’m more likely to sit at my desk if the work will take me away to somewhere super-cool.

 11. Empress of Asia splits the point of view, from first to second. That is fairly unusual. The separation allows us to see Harry’s inner world and his emotional connection to his wife Lily. His belief in courage and his naïve faith in honor and love (as well as his references to the “Terry and the Pirates” comic strip) remind me of some of the heroes in 1940s and 50s detective movies or adventure movies.  The separation also sets up the revelations of the final chapters. That narrative strategy allows you to show us the poignancy of individual loss and longing while showing that none of it “amounts to a hill of beans” against the forces of history and nature. All the adventures and terrible experiences Harry has can distract us from the important themes of love and war, but you pull it off.  How difficult was it to decide on the point of view and does any of this commentary fit your own sense of the novel?

 I gave Harry that fascination with Terry and the Pirates and various movies and musicians because I couldn’t have him spend his four years in and out of prison camps just dwelling on how miserable he was.  I had to let him be a kid in the midst of an—albeit doomed—adventure for his sake, my sake, the reader’s.  I remember tree-planting, out in the boonies above Smithers for weeks at a time, and becoming obsessed with the band the Black Crowes, though I barely knew their music and had no access to it.  In a vacuum the mind just occupies itself. 

 The “you” voice developed on its own—he walked into Lily’s hospital room and Harry as narrator immediately started addressing her.  I wouldn’t have kept the device if I hadn’t thought it worked.  I think it lends the voice an intimacy regardless of what other historically-vast thing might be going on, especially after Lily hardly seems to be in the story for a hundred pages while the Japanese are after him, and suddenly we get, “And then I saw you.”

12.   Your next novel, due out in September 2012, is called All-Day Breakfast. You seem to have left the historical novel genre. Tell us about the book and the experience of writing it.

 All-Day Breakfast is about a Nebraska substitute teacher, a widower with two small kids, who takes a science class on a field trip to a plastics factory where they’re caught in an accident and sprayed with seemingly-innocuous pink goo.  He and the students develop terrific strength, violent tempers and cravings for bacon, even as chunks of their bodies start to fall off.  So for the sake of the affected students and in order to live long enough to raise his own kids, he goes on a cross-country quest to find a cure, if such a thing exists.  The book’s a thriller but I think of it as simultaneously more poignant and cartoonish than what that might usually entail.

 The first draft was written during the last six months of my dad’s cancer, and being in the midst of losing him coloured every minute that I was sitting up at night typing.  The narrator’s own sense of loss is still raw, and the further he goes from home the more chaotic and mean-spirited the world becomes.  But before I got mired in that darker aspect of the writing, my initial impetus was to try to combine the Lee Child novel my wife was reading one particular evening with the Walking Dead graphic novels I’d taken out of the library—some hard-assed narrator ploughing his way through a yet-to-be-determined heartland apocalypse.   I’ve never been to Nebraska.  I wanted to set it somewhere flat and bleak, and anyone I’ve talked to who has been to Nebraska says I picked the right place.

13. Do you keep a journal of ideas, impressions, ”found” lines when you are writing a book?

 All of the half-formed thoughts that come to me concerning the piece I’m writing get jammed at the top of the Word document, where hopefully two or three will rub against each other until they form a coherent idea, but I also have so many back-burner projects that I have a giant spiral notebook filled with ideas collected over many years and coded GJ or MF or Suckas so that when I eventually get around to reading the notebook I’ll have some sense of what I’d been talking about each time.   It also contains various phrases scribbled at random with no particular destination, eg. Motown’s old slogan, The Voice of Young America, would be a great title for absolutely anything.

 14.  What do you tell your own creative writing students?

 Whether poetry or prose, put a concrete detail in every line, and if not you’d better have a good reason.  First drafts may not be perfect but they’re better than no draft at all.  Write from what you’ve done and felt yourself rather than what you’ve seen on a screen or read about.  Follow your own voice.  Then I go back to harping about concrete details.

15.  What are you working on at the moment?

 All-Day Breakfast is still actively being rewritten—it’s coming out in Spring 2013 now—so I have two novels to deliver to Douglas & McIntyre in the next 14 months, which is slightly overwhelming but totally preferable to work not having a destination at all.  The second book centers on Anita Budde, a German tourist who was murdered in a pickers’ cabin outside Penticton in August 1958.  The various investigating officers and their families are my entirely-fictional main characters, but the true story that forms the skeleton of the story is full of so many bizarre turns that it starts to get ridiculous.  I’ve divided the narration between five characters and most of the writing I’ve done so far is in the voice of one John Morrison, himself subject of the largest manhunt in BC history up to that time and a beautifully enthusiastic interviewee for the newspapers once that manhunt concluded.  He was a fully-formed character just waiting for me on the microfiche at the library.

 Thank you, Adam.

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