The persistent literary writer: An interview with Robert Schirmer

photograph of author Robert Schirmer

Author Robert Schirmer

How do you persist when the odds are against you? Sandra Hutchison interviews Robert Schirmer, author of BARROW’S POINT, published October 2016 by the small independent Gival Press.

Robert, we were in the same graduate fiction writing program at the University of New Hampshire in the mid-1980s. You’ve been working away as a literary writer ever since, part of that time also teaching as an adjunct. I’ve done enough of that to know it’s not an easy way to make a living, or to have energy left over for writing. How have you survived and persisted all this time?

It hasn’t been easy! Soon after I received my MA at the University of New Hampshire, I moved to Tucson and received my MFA degree in Fiction Writing from the University of Arizona. Around that same time, my graduate school thesis project, a collection of short stories titled LIVING WITH STRANGERS, won the Bobst Award for Emerging Writers and was published by NYU Press. I also received a year-long screenwriting fellowship from the Chesterfield Writer’s Film Project out in Los Angeles, so for a few years I was playing around with screenwriting. During that time period I had a screenplay optioned by Amblin Entertainment and Warner Brothers.

In the mid-90s I decided to leave the City of Angels and move to the Big Apple, where I’ve lived ever since. I also did the adjunct teaching routine for over a decade, and trying to find the balance between writing and teaching was always a challenge. Over the past three years I’ve been making a living off freelance editing and occasionally tutoring students one-on-one with their novels and story collections.

One thing I’ve been pretty good about doing over the years is making time for my own writing. On most days I require myself to write on my own work for a minimum of one hour. No matter how busy I am with other stuff, or think I am, I have to log in at least one hour. No excuses! No “this can wait.” Often we fall into the trap of spending our time “making a living,” and so we neglect to set aside the time needed to sit at the desk and just write and ponder (although who writes and ponders at a desk anymore?).

Flannery O’Connor was a big proponent of sitting herself down in front of her typewriter for two hours a day, even if she just stared at the blank page or wrote a page or two of labored prose. She said, “I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and at the same place.” I admire the discipline of that practice and try to follow it myself, minus the same time part.

I know you had a literary agent at one time, and the story of how you moved on from that is interesting. What can you share?

I had an agent at a highly regarded literary agency. As I was working on the final rewrite of BARROW’S POINT, she told me she didn’t think she could send it out to major publishers because the novel had “so many gay people in it.”

Needless to say I was floored by her comment. She later apologized if the remark came across as homophobic, and explained that she’d had another client whose novel she’d been sending around for some time. That novel had a lesbian protagonist, and my agent had a difficult time placing the book. Eventually, a small publisher took on the novel, but my agent said, “I don’t want to go through that again.”

Well, even the apology was problematic. She was assuming the reason the other novel was having a difficult time getting accepted was because it had a gay lead character. But don’t books get rejected by commercial publishers all the time, including ones with straight characters? Why did she automatically assume the reason for the rejection of the novel was because of the gay lead character? Were the publishers really writing back and saying, “Hey, we like this, but that lesbian main character is a problem.”

In the end, I parted company with that agent. Whatever her reasons for her perspective, I decided I wanted—deserved—an agent who was going to fight for the book and any other novel I might write. Even if she was right and the commercial publishing world does have a bias against fiction with “so many gay characters,” I wanted an agent that would push back against that mindset, one who wasn’t just submitting to the bias but was at least trying to fight against it.

Related to that issue of the market for LGBTQ-themed fiction, do you think your writing and publishing trajectory would have been different in a world that was more tolerant when you first began? Do you feel it has opened up a lot now? Or not as much as we might hope?

To tell you the truth, BARROW’S POINT (and “Fag Killer,” the short story the novel is based on) are the only LGBTQ-themed fiction I’ve published so far, so I don’t have a great deal of past experience in this regard. In a certain way, I want to believe that as the general culture has grown seemingly more tolerant (the legalizing of gay marriage and so on), that must mean the publishing world is more tolerant as well. On the other hand, since so much of mainstream publishing has become corporate and focused on the “bottom line,” I suspect there are still barriers to knock down. Certainly, if we’re to believe my ex-agent, a barrier to LGBTQ fiction still exists.

The movement toward corporate publishing has led, I think, to an increased need to pigeonhole fiction into a particular genre. Today’s publishing world seems to want a clear picture of what they’re selling, something familiar, an easy brand to market—so fiction with a gay lead character gets pigeonholed as “gay fiction,” fiction with a female lead is “chick lit” and so on. More complicated work that can’t be easily categorized is at a disadvantage.

In BARROW’S POINT the general premise of the novel is that several gay men have been killed in a small college town in Wisconsin. One of the lead characters is a gay cop. The novel really isn’t a whodunit/mystery/serial killer book, but you’d be surprised how many people connected to the business wanted to try and lump the story into the genre of “murder mystery” and were bothered when the novel started straying out of those confines and wasn’t following the traditional steps of a mystery/suspense novel. Again, it was the need to pigeonhole the novel into an easy marketing brand/genre.

So to bring the answer back to the original question, I do think there are still barriers to publishing LGBQT-themed work in the commercial market, but part of that barrier is getting publishers to understand these books can engage with a universal audience, and just because the lead character is gay doesn’t mean it will only appeal to a gay audience.

Separate from that issue, is there anything in terms of your writing career that you would do differently if you could? What is your advice for aspiring literary writers today?

I do feel as if I spent too many years on the adjunct teaching wheel. If you can get a full-time creative writing teaching gig, that’s probably a different matter, but trying to write while also teaching full-time as an adjunct gets exhausting quickly. Or at least that was the case with me. And the pay is deplorable, needless to say, so I wish I’d thought a little more about the gloomy financial picture I was willing to settle for.

But the main thing I would try to do differently is alter a certain character trait within myself. I’m a very prolific writer in many ways, but I’ve only published two books so far. The biggest problem is that I’m a terribly inefficient writer. I write so much and yet finish so little. My head in constantly jumping over to new stories, new novels, even occasional attempts at plays or screenplays. I have over thirty novels and story collections sitting around in various stages of completion. I have twice as many incomplete short stories lying around in my Brooklyn hovel, many of them written (half written!) in longhand in various old-school notebooks.  I’m the Joyce Carol Oates of unfinished work! If I never have another original story idea for the rest of my life, I still have enough projects to work on, just finishing up all the stuff I’ve already started.

Over the past 3-4 years I’ve gotten better at focusing on one thing at a time and actually finishing work rather than just starting it. So a piece of advice I’d offer is finish what you start. The market is really bad for incomplete works! And always remember the quote that says “with ordinary talent and extraordinary perseverance, all things are attainable.” The market is really bad for incomplete works! -- Robert Schirmer Click To Tweet

barrowspointYou’ve landed with a small independent press. Tell us about that and about your recently-published novel.

BARROW’S POINT is an expanded version of a short story titled “Fag Killer” that was published in Glimmer Train back in 2006. As I mentioned in an earlier question, the novel focuses on a college town in Wisconsin where several gay men are getting murdered. The novel won the Gival Press Novel Prize in 2015 and was published in October 2016.  After I parted with my agent, I hadn’t sent the novel around much, so I’m fortunate the book found a home at Gival Press so quickly. The experience has gone pretty well—there’s good communication with the editor, Robert Giron, and the entire process, from notification of winning the award to the novel appearing in print, took exactly one year.

Of course, the difficulty in publishing with an independent press is that it’s more challenging to get exposure and get your novel read. Getting reviews is also problematic. I had to learn to do my own publicity and legwork, which I hate, but more and more writers are having to market their own books these days, even a lot of writers publishing with the big houses. I guess it’s just the way things are done now.

It is indeed! To learn more about Robert Schirmer and his work, check out his web site: www.robertschirmerwriter.com.

You can buy BARROW’S POINT at Amazon or at your local independent bookstore via IndieBound.

Feel free to join the conversation about publishing, persistence, literary fiction, LGBTQ fiction, or anything else by leaving a comment below. (You might need to click on a little dialogue bubble next to the headline to see it. Please note that comments are moderated.)

Robert Schirmer on persisting as a #literary writer, challenges #LGBTQ fiction can face. Click To Tweet

 

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