Atticus Press has become a wee bit tired of the ubiquitous author Q&A, so instead of profiling the individual behind the words, we’ve decided to interview characters from the pages of novels we admire. Some critics might chalk this off as intellectual foolhardiness or an ill-fated attempt at reinventing a tried-and-true format (and we’d be hard-pressed to argue either point), but we believe one of the chief roles of literature is to chip away at linear thinking and redefine the boundaries of imagination. Plus, as much as we like getting inside the heads of writers, it’s enlightening to see them crawl inside the heads of their own creations. You never know what thoughts might spill out post-production.
Marc Schuster is the author of two novels, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl (The Permanent Press, May 2011), and The Grievers (The Permanent Press, May 2012). The latter work is a bitingly sarcastic and an ultimately endearing tale about a group of friends who are turning the corner on their 20s and coming apart at the seams just when they should be coming of age.
In the following interview, Charley Schwartz, the frazzled protagonist of The Grievers, rides roughshod over his insufferable friend, Greg Packer, who comes across creepily Mitt Romney-like normal in our discussion. Excuse Charley for being testy. He is dealing with a ton of crap, such as feelings of remorse for how he treated his deceased high school lab partner, loathing for his rich adolescent tormentor, and instability with his best friend who is moving away and doesn’t seem to give a bucket of horse feathers. Oh, and there’s Charley’s cell phone, too, with its infuriating 1970s sitcom theme ringtone that simply won’t quit. Not to mention the upcoming world premiere of the Hogan’s Heroes musical produced by Packer and staged at the academy fundraising fiasco, all in remembrance of “a boy who says that Schwartz is the one.” It’s no wonder that Charley is going daffy.
Atticus Press: What are crudités and why would Billy Chin want them served at his memorial service?
Charley Schwartz: They’re vegetables, chopped vegetables, but that’s beside the point entirely. The point is that Billy wouldn’t want them at his memorial service, and he wouldn’t want doughnuts, either. He wouldn’t want anything. I think he wanted to disappear from everybody’s life, quietly and completely, and this whole memorial service just—it’s so not him is all I’m saying. He never liked being in the spotlight, and now he is. And this whole damn circus is my fault.
Greg Packer: I believe what my friend is trying to say—
Charley Schwartz: I said what I was trying to say.
Greg Packer: Is that Billy Chin was a quiet soul, a contemplative individual who always saw the best in everyone. In this respect, I’m sure he would have preferred the crudités.
Charley Schwartz: That doesn’t make any sense. How are those things even related? A quiet soul means he would have preferred crudités? Where do you come up with this—
Atticus Press: Okay, gentlemen, maybe we can move on. You’re both graduates of Saint Leonard’s Academy. What do you think of the education you received there?
Greg Packer: Unparalleled in all respects.
Charley Schwartz: You’re kidding me, right? It was a school like any other. Am I glad I went? Sure. It’s where I met all my best friends. It’s where I learned to think. It’s where I started to become the man I am today.
Greg Packer: Such as he is.
Charley Schwartz: Such as I am? At least I don’t live with my parents.
Greg Packer: Parent. Singular. My father is no longer in the picture.
Charley Schwartz: I stand corrected. But if Saint Leonard’s Academy is unparalleled in all respects, why are you still living with your mother, Mr. Bates?
Greg Packer: Ignoring your outdated pop culture reference—not to mention the less-than-subtle implication that I partake in the sin of Onan—for the moment, I’ll say only that the education I received at the Academy has provided me with a framework for dealing with all manner of intellectual, spiritual, and philosophical questions. All of this is to say that I agree with your basic premise. If not for the Academy, I would not be the man I am today.
Charley Schwartz: Such as he is.
Atticus Press: Kids make fun of each other’s race, color, and creed no matter how or where they are raised: enlightened or unenlightened household, private or public school. Are we stuck breeding future generations of bad ethnic joke tellers? What does this say about modern society, the Western World, and man’s inherent nature and warped sense of humor?
Greg Packer: Academy grads transcend racism and all forms of discrimination. As pillars of society, we’re above such nonsense.
Charley Schwartz: He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot. Of course we’re always going to be stuck with racism, and of course things like race, color, and creed will always be at the heart of our humor. That’s what humor’s all about—making other people look bad so that we can look good. I’m not saying this is ideal, but it’s the truth. As human beings, we’re great definers and great discriminators. We’re great at looking at everything we do and labeling it as “good” while we see everything everybody else does as “bad.” Or stupid or wrong or just plain weird. In a word, funny, and I mean that in the broadest sense possible. Uncanny may be another word for it. Things that are different make us uncomfortable, so we laugh at them to make ourselves feel better, to make us feel like we’re right and they’re wrong, to make us feel like God is on our side.
Greg Packer: Which He is.
Charley Schwartz: Seriously, Greg, do you ever listen to yourself?
Atticus Press: What is more embarrassing? Working a dead-end job as a walking, waving dollar sign with balloons tied to your wrist or being ridiculed by your science teacher in front of a roomful of biology lab classmates for mistaking a feline’s pregnant uterus for a scrotal sack?
Charley Schwartz: You know what’s really embarrassing? Living with your mom when you’re thirty.
Greg Packer: That, my friend, was completely uncalled for. And to answer the gentleman’s question, I would imagine that walking back and forth in front of a bank dressed as a giant dollar sign for the pittance that Charley gets paid would be infinitely more embarrassing if only for the fact that he’s an adult now. We can forgive the mistakes of our youth, but past a certain age, our mistakes can begin to define us.
Atticus Press: Suicide is about as heavy a subject matter as a writer can tackle. When friends and relatives are grieving the sudden loss of a loved one, a lot of feelings get hijacked and suppressed while raw emotions—such as anger, denial, and blame—boil to the surface. Levity lessens the pain. What is your favorite line or exchange from a Marx Brothers film?
Charley Schwartz: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.”
Greg Packer: “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”
(Editor’s Note: Both quotes indeed are from Groucho Marx, but neither quote, to our knowledge, appears in a Marx Brothers film, which only proves the fact that neither of these bananas has ever seen a Marx Bros. film. We’re going to remedy that this instant with the 1932 Marx Brothers motion picture, “Horse Feathers.”)
Atticus Press: Which song better defines your character: the theme to The Jeffersons or Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”?
Charley Schwartz: Did you really just ask that question?
Greg Packer: If I may, the theme from The Jeffersons clearly speaks to the aspirations of all Academy grads. We’re all moving on up to the big leagues and taking our turn at bat. We’re all on our way to that deluxe apartment in the sky. And one day, we’ll all get a piece of the pie.
Charley Schwartz: That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. We can’t all get a piece of the pie. There isn’t enough to go around. Only guys like Frank get a piece of the pie. The rest of us are left to scrounge around for the crumbs he drops on the floor.
Atticus Press: Right—Frank Dearborn. Why do you think people like him typically run the asylum?
Charley Schwartz: They’re better looking, they come from money, and they have connections. That’s all there is to it.
Greg Packer: What my friend is overlooking is the fact that the Frank Dearborns of the world are quality people—educated from good stock, as it were. Certainly every opportunity that’s been afforded to Frank has also been afforded to Charley—
Charley Schwartz: You have to be joking.
Atticus Press: I’m sorry, gentlemen, but we’re running out of time. If you could do one thing differently, what would it be?
Charley Schwartz: I’d be a better friend.
Greg Packer: I’d change nothing.