Monday, February 22, 2016

My First Time: Anthony Schneider

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Anthony Schneider, the author of the novel Repercussions, now out from Permanent Press. Daniel Wallace (Big Fish) had this to say about the book: “Engrossing... Anthony Schneider does what all good war novelists do: he writes about the sacrifice one man makes contributing to a cause bigger than he is, and the causalities that happen off the battlefield.” Born in South Africa and educated in the U.S., Anthony has been published in McSweeneys, Conjunctions, Bold Type, Details, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), two fiction anthologies and other magazines. He and his wife and son divide their time between London and New York, with frequent trips to South Africa. Click here to visit his website.

My First Eureka Moment

A man stands alone on Prince’s Dock, Liverpool. He’s dressed in a dark suit and faces away from you, hands in his pockets, looking at the water. A tram rattles down Castle Street, passing men in hats, a department store window, a horse-drawn cart. Repercussions begins there, in Liverpool in 1934.

I didn’t know it at the time but I’d started a novel, writing about a character I didn’t know in a city I’d never visited. I had a book, Liverpool and the North West, a collection of old photographs with an introduction and commentary by George Chandler (London: B.T. Batsford, 1972 , long out of print). There’s a photograph of boys on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal—“bathing” is the word the book uses, though they are in fact simply standing there. When I did some research I learned there had been a heatwave in Liverpool that year, the year my man would have been standing beside a canal trying to decide whether or not to jump in.

You can go there, stand on the mossy cobblestones beside the canal. A ripe rotty smell rises from the swirling water, and the sun feels like a warm blanket on your back, just before you jump.

I wasn’t trying to write a novel. I thought it might be liberating to write a day in the life, a character sketch, not even a story. So I wrote about Liverpool and a boy who dreams of flying. After twenty or so pages, I moved on. A few months later I found myself writing about a grumpy grandfather in New York City, and at some point it struck me that they may be the same person. Just write, I told myself. If it interested me, I would keep going. I filled a lot of pages, and new characters popped up (and sometimes vanished as quickly as they’d appeared). The individual pieces didn’t cohere, nor were they all related to the same places, events or ideas. But I kept going. I wondered whose story it was, and what it was all about, and then I stopped worrying and wrote a bit more. And that’s the funny thing about writing. You delve, you scratch, you explore. You have an idea where you are going but you are also a passenger. You rush to find meaning, discover what it is you’re writing about, or what it is that’s stopping you from writing, but you also have to be patient. You have to play, and be comfortable in the half-light of your nascent creation. And maybe it goes somewhere and maybe it doesn’t. Rinse, lather, repeat. It’s half fun and half frustration, half search and half serendipity.

The first draft took a long time. I struggled to make it all cohere, to figure out what story I was telling—and why. First drafts are difficult, lonely endeavors, full of doubt and desperation, fueled by a dream and too much caffeine. But you can’t take a second step until you’ve taken your first.

Many drafts later, I took my book apart and put it back together. This happened while I was on holiday in Isla Mujeres, a beautiful Mexican island. Palm trees, warm Caribbean Sea, abundant light. I was there with a woman. Does it sound romantic? It wasn’t. We’d just broken up and while I’d offered to buy her out, pay for her part of the trip and get a week by myself to write and walk and swim, she said no, and I was stubborn and she was stubborn, and so there we were: two stubborn unhappy people side by side in bed, with matching Netflix envelopes, watching different movies. Actually we had an okay time. But she didn’t want to go to the little town for breakfast, and because she could order room service and breakfast was one more meal to get through without bickering, I walked the roads—sandy and mostly empty— from the beachside hotel to town each morning. There I ate excellent granola and yogurt or scrambled eggs and drank strong coffee and went through the book and played with structure. I ripped it apart and put it back together, moved sections and figured out a structure that could hold my jigsaw puzzle of a novel together. It was the closest I came to a eureka moment with this book.

Another beach, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The year is 1948. Freshly laundered towels, white sand, green sea. Two men sit together, idly watching a group of young women nearby. They watch as two of the women step into the frothy water, giggling and waving their arms in the hazy sunshine. The men, who work together, are talking about their boss and the boss’ son. Someone is shouting. It’s one of the girls nearby, and she’s running across the beach, pointing at a flailing figure far in the bobbing surf. You can go there too, run across the hot sand and dive into the cold water. You can save her.

1 comment:

  1. "You can go there too, run across the hot sand and dive into the cold water. You can save her."
    Beautiful ending to a lovely piece, and I particularly like how the ending conflates reality and imagination, a photo or experience and the creative process that transmogrifies that into art.