My special guest today is John Burnham Schwartz, the acclaimed author of The Commoner, Claire Marvel, Reservation Road, and Bicycle Days. John’s new novel, Northwest Corner, has drawn rave reviews. He is currently enjoying a virtual book tour Northwest Corner, with TLC Book Tours.
Northwest Corner is set twelve years after a tragic accident that landed attorney Dwight Arno in prison. Since his release, Dwight has lived near Santa Barbara, California, working as the manager of a sporting goods store. Now fifty years old, he has not seen his son, Sam, for more than a decade. Suddenly, Sam, a college baseball stand-out who is on the brink of graduating from the University of Connecticut, shows up on Dwight’s doorstep. Sam is on the run from an incident that has caused him to question just how much like his father he really is — and whether he is destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. Author Dennis Lehane calls Northwest Corner “that finest of things — a moral novel about mortal events.” Author Anna Quindlen raves that “in the ways that count, the author is entirely absent. It never feels as though any scene is gerrybuilt to carry plot; they are all just what happens. . . . It all feels completely natural and inevitable. Real life, only more so. And once again [Schwartz] makes so credible and terrible one central fact of the human condition, that bad, bad things happen and there is fault to be assigned, but not clearly and not really.”
A Few Thoughts on Northwest Corner
I never expected to re-visit any of the characters from any of my books. Honestly, it simply hadn’t occurred to me. But after finishing The Commoner I was eager to return to an American environment, some less inhibited place in which the characters related to each other viscerally, unrestricted by any external code of behavior. One day, after flailing around for several months, I found myself thinking about Dwight and Sam Arno from Reservation Road; there was something in the desperate, confused friction with which they interacted with each other and their pasts in that novel that I found strongly compelling and worthy of further investigation. And, odd as it may sound, the fact that I’d already created lives and characters for these people in the earlier novel gave the new project the sense, almost, of historical fiction, which I found appealing, having just written my first historical novel in The Commoner.
I’d been working on Northwest Corner for about a year and a half before I really began to understand why and how it was it’s own story, separate from (though of course related to) the earlier novel. That said, I knew from the beginning that I wanted Dwight Arno to be around 50 – very much in middle age; I wanted the cumulative story of those years following his accidental killing of Josh Learner in the first book. And I knew that I wanted the surviving children from the first book, Sam and Emma, not to be children anymore, but people on the cusp of their adult lives.
My writing process remains much the same from novel to novel, I’m afraid. It certainly isn’t pretty to watch (just ask my wife). During the several years it takes me to write a book, I tend to throw out hundreds of pages. Since I’m not what you’d call a maximalist writer to begin with – not one of my finished books has been longer than 400 pages – this leaves me, every time, with a discouraging ratio of failure to success.
I write in the mornings, usually six days a week. If my schedule allows, I extend into the afternoon. (If you see me writing at night, you can be pretty sure I’m feeling desperate.) I begin the day working longhand on the print-outs of whatever I’ve done recently; often by the time I make it over to my computer, there’s hardly anything left of the last day’s work. Yet hope occasionally springs up at these moments: out of the act of erasure, some strange and buoyant (and no doubt fictional) sense of momentum takes hold.
John Burnham Schwartz grew up in New York City and attended Harvard College, where he majored in Japanese studies. After graduating, he was offered a position at a prominent Wall Street investment bank, but turned it down when he sold his first novel, Bicycle Days. The book, a coming of age story about a young American man in Japan, was published on John’s twenty-fourth birthday in 1989 and was a critically acclaimed bestseller.
In 1998, John’s second novel, Reservation Road, was published. It is the story of a family tragedy and its aftermath. Once again, John received accolades and his work was a bestseller. He also drafted the screenplay for the 2007 film starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, and Jennifer Connelly which was directed by Terry George.
Claire Marvel is a love story set in America and France, while The Commoner, published in 2008, was inspired by the lives of the current empress and crown princess of Japan. Spanning seventy years of modern Japanese history and looking deep into the secret, ancient world of the Japanese Imperial Family, The Commoner garnered John the best reviews and sales of his career to date.
Northwest Corner is a continued exploration of the characters in Reservation Road. Set twelve years later, John’s latest work has been described as “an urgent, powerful story about family bonds that can never be broken and the wayward roads that lead us back to those we love.”
John work has been translated into more than 20 languages, and he won a Lyndhurst Prize for mastery in the art of fiction. His writing has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, and Vogue.
Since turning to screenwriting with Reservation Road, John has written screen adaptations of New York Times editor Dana Canedy’s memoir A Journal for Jordan, and Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. He is currently creating a dramatic television series for Showtime, inspired by Den of Thieves, James Stewart’s account of the 1980’s insider-trading corruption scandal.
John has taught fiction writing at Harvard, The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Sarah Lawrence College, and serves as the literary director of the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, one of the leading literary festivals in the United States.
John has generously provided a copy of Northwest Corner for me to award to one lucky Colloquium reader (selected at random)! So be sure to visit Colloquium tomorrow, Monday, August 1, 2011, to read my review of Northwest Corner and enter to win!