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

 

Writing while white: Embracing diversity or appropriating culture?

By Sandra Hutchison

In interesting timing for me, the white author Lionel Shriver just caused an uproar at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival for rebuking the liberal left for sometimes condemning the “cultural appropriation” of other ethnic groups in fiction. As she puts it:

In the latest ethos, which has spun well beyond college campuses in short order, any tradition, any experience, any costume, any way of doing and saying things, that is associated with a minority or disadvantaged group is ring-fenced: look-but-don’t-touch. Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.

She mentions, for example, criticism of Chris Cleave for writing from the point of view of young Nigerian immigrant girl in LITTLE BEE (which I loved). The full text of her speech is available at that link above and it’s well worth reading.

497finalbaskervilleversionMy ears pricked up because my next novel, BARDWELL’S FOLLY, gets into that discussion. It obviously commits the offense in question, too, since it includes African American characters. Protagonist Dori’s white father wrote a bestselling novel about slavery years ago, but Dori and a black character, Maya, travel into his past and uncover something unexpected about what inspired him.

It really angers Maya, and I think her frustration is entirely reasonable. As she puts it:

Maybe I’d like to see some other beautiful books about the human condition get a little more air. Some that aren’t written by white people. Some that might actually be about an authentic black experience.

On the other hand, as Shriver points out, if condemnation of cultural appropriation is taken to its extreme, no one could ever write a character of another race, another gender, another economic class, another location, another era. Basically, all we’d be left with is memoir. Careful, inoffensive memoir.

Which would mean we never got HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD,  THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, THE INVENTION OF WINGS. Most of Faulkner, racially problematic as it may be. Lots of novels, poof. Gone.

Do we really want to go there?

Aren’t white people who’ve read those books more likely to pick up AMERICANAH, or THE COLOR PURPLE, or THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD, or THE INVISIBLE MAN, or BELOVED, and so many others? Aren’t they more likely to consider issues of fairness and justice and the history behind today’s debates? (Which, frankly, is alarmingly reminiscent of the George Wallace era I grew up in.)

Also, why should it be politically incorrect for me to wrestle in good faith with something that’s been a significant part of my existence on this planet, just because I’m the wrong color?

I was born in Florida in 1960. I remember watching the Rev. Martin Luther King’s funeral on TV. I remember my white parents expressing regret that they hadn’t thought twice about segregation before the Civil Rights movement. I remember the arguments in our neighborhood about desegregation in Hillsborough County, and the first day of school in August of 1971 when some angry whites threw rocks at our court-ordered bus as it made its way from the white suburbs to a black neighborhood in Tampa. I remember my best friend suddenly disappearing into private school. I remember having a nervous stomach-ache every morning before leaving for the bus stop.

I also remember that year as a great blessing. That’s also how I remember every year after that when I was privileged to attend integrated schools or live in integrated areas or attend integrated churches or teach in integrated classrooms. (It didn’t always happen. I’ve also lived in some very white places. And I won’t claim that marrying a white Puerto Rican counts as integration, either.)

The thing is, it’s much harder to hate or fear or hold idiotic beliefs about a whole group once you know enough individuals in it as friends and neighbors and students and colleagues and fellow parishioners and perhaps even members of your family.

A lot of Americans never really have that opportunity. They may actively avoid it, out of fear, or they don’t seek it out because they don’t know how illuminating it can be. Or they live in a very white area. And even in people of good will, that lack of personal knowledge creates enormous potential for racist stereotypes to take root.

Surely the empathy that arises from reading good fiction with diverse characters can help avoid that? No matter what color the author may be?

In BARDWELL’S FOLLY, Dori has grown up largely cut off from the diversity of the larger world. She’s not intentionally racist. Her Southern-born parents weren’t intentionally racist. Her father wrote that Pulitzer-Prize-winning book about slavery – not that she’s impressed. She’s burdened with her own resentments, and she also suffers from youth and ignorance. As the daughter of a famous author, she also has just enough name recognition to get herself in trouble for it.

This is a novel about family secrets and lies, about public shaming, about cultural appropriation and authenticity, and about the ties that bind us or break us apart. Ultimately, I hope, it’s about the redemption that can come when we seek out the truth about each other, even if we can never really know all of it.

Without any African-American characters, this novel couldn’t exist. I suppose it could have been slimmed down to basic small town women’s fiction. I’ve always written in that category. But I’ve always wanted more chew on than just a bunch of relationships. I’m thinking about faith and gay rights in THE AWFUL MESS. I’m thinking about sexual politics and how we treat rape victims in THE RIBS AND THIGH BONES OF DESIRE. And I’m thinking about cultural appropriation and race and poverty in BARDWELL’S FOLLY.

I knew I was living a little dangerously. I sure as hell sought the feedback of African-American friends in the hope of avoiding any terrible missteps.

hot-new-release-in-african-american-literature-2And yes, I know there’s an element of irony here: White author publishes novel in which white appropriation of a black experience is one of the themes, tags it “African American,” and the pre-order promptly shows up in the “Hot and Trending New Releases” list of African-American literature, quite possibly bumping an African-American author off the list.

I know. I get it. Sorry.

Not completely sorry, though, because I’d still really like you to read my book.

“The fierce urgency of now” if you’re white

When I visit my friends in Maine, we are cut off from most of the Internet and from most television, and frankly that’s always one of the lovely — if disorienting — aspects of the trip. It was dismaying to return from that to news of two more killings in just two days of black men by white policemen, topped off by the killing of five white police officers in Dallas by one angry black veteran.

So what can those of us who aren’t black do about it?

As a novelist, I am always tempted to think that if I can just help someone put themselves in someone else’s shoes, they will develop empathy for that person and his problems. And in fact, my next novel does get into racial issues.

But because I have also taught argument and persuasion in racially mixed classrooms using contemporary topics, I also know firsthand that there are some young white people (men, usually) who absolutely refuse to imagine what it might feel like to be, say, a frustrated black man, or the family of a black man slain by cops over a minor offense.

I’ve watched them refuse to do this even as part of an exercise that might help them produce a more effective argument for their own side. In their view, the cop is always right, the black suspect always had it coming, and to entertain any other possibility is letting down the team.

So whites who are capable of noticing that there is such a thing as racial bias in the world really need to do more than just sympathize with its victims.

I was hoping for something explicit in my somewhat racially mixed church this week, since our presiding bishop had suggested as much. Our white priest gave his usual excellent sermon, though it was (also as usual) without a mention of recent events. But it was about the parable of the good Samaritan, and examining Jesus’s answer to that question by the lawyer — “Who is our neighbor?” felt appropriate.

Later, the priest did explicitly address recent events during the announcements, and instead of an offertory hymn, we heard a reading from Lamentations, an expression of grief in lieu of what he said would be our tendency toward self-righteousness at this time.

And, yes, it seemed fitting in many ways — defeated Jerusalem surely had something in common with those who feel they’ve been abandoned to poverty and violence and injustice, though the Jews had obviously experienced being the group in power in their own country at some point, and you can’t say that about black people in this country.

And then the reading ended on a note asking us to wait patiently for the Lord.

Sorry, Father Steve, but here’s where I get all self-righteous.

Because surely waiting patiently for the Lord is the oppressor’s game? Surely waiting patiently for the Lord is a perk of white privilege? Surely waiting patiently for the Lord assumes that everything will work out eventually if we just wait in love and hope and faith for goodness to win out?

As far as I can tell, unless people actually fight for something, goodness only wins out on an eternal scale. And, yes, eternity is the focus of church. But surely not the only focus of a church that says it’s concerned with justice and peace. Jesus didn’t wait patiently for the Lord. He went around saying and doing stuff, and he delegated his disciples to go around saying and doing stuff.

Waiting patiently for the Lord doesn’t do anything to address the injustice of the world we have now, the lives being lost now, the human potential being squandered now. And no progress on this planet has ever happened without people fighting pretty damned hard for it … and then continuing to fight for it when the usual suspects try to reverse it. (Just look at what has happened to economic inequality in this country in the last thirty years.)

The Rev. Martin Luther King rightly insisted on “the fierce urgency of now.” His classic Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in response to the clergy of Birmingham who expressed sympathy for the plight of African Americans in that violent city while deploring the protests he and others led there, made this especially clear:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. (Excerpted from the full text here.)

This is what the Black Lives Matter movement attempts to do, and obviously not just in the South. Even if you don’t agree with all the movement’s specific positions (I don’t), you can still support its goal of ending America’s largely unjust pattern of policing and sentencing black people.

We already know who doesn’t get it, or chooses not to get it. They’re the ones who say, “All lives matter!”

Courtesy of JP Porcaro's Facebook post

Courtesy of JP Porcaro’s Facebook post

The white people who most frustrated King did get it, but responded with grief and prayer and moments of silence and hugs and yeah, okay, all that is lovely — but not if it’s all we do. Not when it becomes a substitute for actually trying to take steps to solve the problem.

OnceACopIn a related note, I just finished a good book, ONCE A COP, by former New York Police Department Deputy Inspector Corey Pegues, that vividly details the appeal of selling drugs and belonging to gangs to young black boys in tough neighborhoods. He was one of those young drug dealers, who somewhat miraculously managed to escape into the military and then became a rising NYPD cop. From that vantage point of the insider, he illustrates how “broken windows” policing — when driven to extremes by politicians — can cause arrests to skyrocket, especially among young blacks.

In fact, he shows how simply being stopped without ID at hand can cause a young man who wasn’t doing anything wrong to be taken in and get entered into the system, something that may dog him the rest of his life.

And that’s just in New York, which doesn’t have a private prison system providing a profit motive for incarceration. Which doesn’t, presumably, see incarceration as an easy way to strip voting rights from a whole bloc of people almost as effectively as any Jim Crow laws did in the past. Which does hire some black members of the police force (though it would appear from the book that they mostly get promoted when racial scandals make it temporarily expedient to do so).

So what do we do, those of us who can see the score here, besides grieving?

Well, there’s this advice compiled by Sally Kohn.

You can also vote for the politicians and parties that recognize there is a problem with racism and poverty in this country and appear willing to do something about it rather than fanning racial fears and hatred. Not just at the national level, but at the local level.

And then you have to hold them to it.

And then you need to continue to support them when some of that change threatens to reduce some of the many advantages you and your children enjoy simply by virtue of being white and middle- or upper-class.

Even if it means volunteering and contributing and voting in less sexy midterm elections and local elections. If politicians who do the right thing think it will cause them to lose the next election, many of them are going to play it safe.

It also means, sometimes, compromising your ideological purity to avoid electoral and judicial disaster.

There are, sadly, a lot of people in this country who think this world is a zero-sum game, and the more benefits they can get for themselves at the expense of others, the better.

For the religious among us, however, there is supposed to be that pesky matter of loving our neighbors as ourselves, and not just those who live in our own zip code.

And religious or not, there is also such a thing as enlightened self-interest — the idea that prosperous people without serious grievances are less likely to pass along disease, or mug us to make a buck, or get angry enough to overturn our government. They are also way more likely to pay taxes and in other ways contribute towards the greater good, perhaps even cause our stock portfolio to rise in value. Maybe even take care of us in our old age.

So there’s that. If simple humanity or religious duty doesn’t appeal to you, maybe enlightened self-interest will.

Something’s got to do it. Because it needs to get done.