|An Interview with Marc Schuster
Marc Schuster’s debut novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl, was widely praised for
its searing wit, sharp dialogue, and edgy humor. Library Journal described the book as “an amazing
read,” while Steve Almond lauded it for being “very funny and very sad, two qualities that travel well
Along similar lines, his sophomore effort, The Grievers, which is due in May from The Permanent Press,
also walks the fine line between comedy and tragedy, as evidenced by Robin Black’s advance praise:
“Marc Schuster has written a perfect comic novel, one that never strays far from either poignance or
Recently I caught up with Marc, and we discussed his latest work.
The Grievers is being billed as “a darkly comic coming of age novel for a generation that’s still
struggling to come of age.” That's a strong indictment. Can you comment on that?
I sometimes feel like American culture doesn’t encourage anyone to take anything seriously. We focus on the
ridiculous, on the entertaining, on the melodramatic—largely because that’s what sells. Our culture revolves around
having fun. That’s why so many so-called adults spend so much money on videogames every year. I’ve read that
the average video gamer is thirty-five years old and has been playing videogames since age thirteen. That’s a
whole generation of people who never got around to putting away childish things, and it’s just one symptom of the
problem. Mine is a generation that’s more interested, on the whole, in celebrity gossip than world events. I’d also
argue that we’re much more adept at coming up with quick, snarky observations than relating to each other in
anything approaching a meaningful way. As a result, when something serious happens, or when tragedy strikes, we
have a lot of trouble dealing with it. Our culture has trained us to go straight for the punch line, so we turn
everything into a joke. At least, I do. It’s a state of affairs that doesn’t lend itself to coming of age.
How do you address this conundrum in The Grievers?
The protagonist, Charley Schwartz, is a product of his times. He’s in his late twenties but has yet to take on any real
adult responsibilities. Despite the fact that he’s married and has a mortgage to worry about, he’s still slogging
through graduate school and clinging to a dead-end job as an anthropomorphic dollar sign to make ends meet. He’s
a slacker, more or less, a bit of a wise-ass who’s never taken anything seriously, but then he learns that an old
friend from high school has committed suicide, and he’s forced to deal with it.
Why suicide? I mean, why this problem, in light of other problems?
When I was about Charley’s age, a friend of mine did, in fact, commit suicide. The earliest drafts of The Grievers
were much closer to real life than the finished product because I was working through my own grief at the time. But
those drafts were very rough, more raw emotion than anything else. Writing helped me find a way through it, helped
me make sense of what I was feeling, if not of the tragedy itself. Over time, I managed to erect a story around my
grief, to create a character in Charley who was more clueless, more emotionally adrift than even I was at the time,
and to give him a chance to finally grow up. Whether he does or not is certainly up for grabs, but the reality of his
friend’s death at the very least forces him to realize that he can’t make a joke about everything, that some things are
serious, that some things are real.
Do you think people today lack a sense of reality?
It would be hard not to. How many hours a day do we spend watching television or, to go back to my earlier example,
playing video games? A huge chunk of our time is spent in imaginary realms. I think it was T.S. Eliot who said that
humankind can’t bear very much reality.
Earlier, you mentioned Charley’s high school, which serves as a major setting in the novel.
Saint Leonard's Academy. Home of the Raging Donkeys!
Right! Are any of Charley’s prep school experiences based on your own?
Only tangentially. I did attend a prep school when I was growing up—Saint Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia—and I had
the school in mind when I was describing Charley’s alma mater. The novel, of course, is a complete work of fiction,
but I did run the manuscript by a friend of mine who works in their alumni-relations office to get his take on it. I
wanted to make sure the school was okay with the book coming out, especially given the superficial similarities
between Saint Joseph’s Prep and Saint Leonard’s Academy. If any of my classmates read the book, though, there’s
always the chance that one or two details will bring a nostalgic smile.
I’m sorry, but I have to ask about the anthropomorphic dollar sign. Your previous novel, The Singular
Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl, includes a character who dresses in a panther costume and tells
kids to stay off drugs. Now you have a protagonist who marches back and forth in front of a bank
dressed as a dollar sign. Do you play a lot of dress-up in your professional life?
Not anymore. Actually, Captain Panther was based on a real-life motivational speaker named Tiger Man. I heard him
giving his just-say-no talk at a nearby nursery school one day, and I had to include him—or some version of him—in
Wonder Mom. And the dollar sign was based on an actual person, too. The Commerce Bank in my neighborhood
used to have someone dress like a giant red C and wave at passing motorists all day long. I always wondered who
would take a job like that and why. Eventually I realized that the answer was Charley.
Because he’s a bit of a screw-up but not so big of a screw-up that he refuses to get a job. He has bills to pay and
knows at some level that having a job is part of being an adult. He just hasn’t put all the pieces together. He needs a
nudge in the right direction, a chance to prove himself. A chance, I guess, to finally grow up.
On that note, thanks for taking the time to chat with me.
Thank you, Charles. The pleasure was all mine.