An Interview with Marc Schuster
What inspired you to write The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Super Girl?
I was working on a paper in graduate school when I started reading a pair of books called The Steel Drug and Cocaine Changes. As the titles suggest, they were about cocaine, and they included case studies of people who had used and abused cocaine. Some of them were very compelling, but due to the nature of the books, the stories were also very fragmentary. With The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl I wanted to flesh out some of the details in a fictionalized forum, to try to come up with a more fully imagined version of the scraps I had read and started to piece together.
Tell us about your blog, Small Press Reviews, and the appeal of reviewing the works of small presses.
I started Small Press Reviews in November of 2007 after sitting in on a discussion of small presses at a local writers’ conference. One of the speakers was an author named Curtis Smith. I bought his book The Species Crown and loved it. Between his talk and the book, I was sold on small presses. Part of the appeal is that I feel like small press readers and writers share a strong sense of community. I had lunch with a small press author named Christian TeBordo a few weeks ago, and though we’d never really met before—aside from running into each other once or twice when we both taught at Temple University—we found that we shared a common language, so to speak, as we dropped names of small presses we really admire like Featherproof and Atticus Books, as well as small press books we both enjoyed like The Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Somerville. Being part of the small press scene is a little bit like belonging to an exclusive club, but one that’s—ironically, I guess—open to anyone who’s interested in joining. All you need to do is read a few books and join the conversation.
What’s the premise of Don DeLillo, Jean Baudrillard, and the Consumer Conundrum? What is the “Consumer Conundrum” and how is it reflected in the works of DeLillo, an American novelist, and Baudrillard, a French social theorist?
The book basically looks at the problem of consumerism in the western world. Early in his career, Jean Baudrillard wrote a book called The System of Objects in which he argued that humans have surrounded themselves with commodities which no longer serve any real purpose other than to signal status. This observation in itself is nothing new, but Baudrillard’s argument was that by surrounding ourselves with objects, we’ve taken on the status of objects ourselves—that our sense of self-worth is bound up in the constellations of objects we arrange around ourselves as signs of value. This is a bit of an oversimplification of his argument, but the conundrum I talk about in the book is that of figuring out how to overcome the inertia of commodification, how to stop being objects and, instead, become subjects, become human again. Baudrillard offered a lot of commentary on this predicament over the course of his career and eventually decided that it really couldn’t be done. Don DeLillo, on the other hand offers a more hopeful view of our species’ potential to regain its humanity—through art, though language, through doubting the logic of accumulation that surrounds us. It’s been a long time since I wrote that book. I’m a little fuzzy on the details.
Is there a link between capitalism’s need for gain (profits, acquisition, expansion, accumulation) and an addict’s need for increased dosages just “to maintain”? (“Wonder Mom” seemed to touch on this indirectly, albeit from the perspective of a Drug Morality Tale. Audrey’s inevitable crash late in the novel and the global economic cataclysm aren’t too dissimilar. Or am I reading too much into it?)
No, you’re not reading too much into at all! In fact, a part of me always hoped that readers would draw a similar parallel. Look at the publishing industry, for example. John B. Thompson wrote a book a couple of years ago called Merchants of Culture, and in it he talks about the publishing industry’s need to make 10% more money in any given year than they did in the previous year. That’s why you always see a glut of crappy, gimmicky books just before the holiday season. The publishers are gambling that people who don’t generally read might buy these books as gifts, that they’ll be good for a laugh or will look good on a shelf in someone’s house somewhere. Yet another reason, I suppose, to favor small presses over big conglomerates. The same thing, as you note, happens to Audrey as she continues to fall deeper and deeper into her addiction. She’s hollowing out her soul as she strives for that extra 10% that will help her keep her head above water, at least until she needs her next hit. I always had consumerism in mind when I was working on that book.
Between your novels, your blog, and your teaching, what’s your work schedule like? Do you ever feel like one area is being neglected while you tend to another?
Hah! Yes! All the time! I teach five courses with an average enrollment of about twenty students each. On any given weekend, I’m grading between forty and sixty papers. I love teaching, but that much grading really takes a toll. Needless to say, I don’t get much time for writing during the school year, but I do try to squeeze it in here and there. On one hand, I wish I had more time to write, but I also wouldn’t want to give up teaching. Not just because of the steady paycheck and benefits, but because I really feel like I come alive in front of a classroom—sharing ideas with students, helping them learn to express their ideas and participate in the wider dialogue not just of academia but of culture at large. Even so, I frequently wish I had more time to write. And blogging? I liken it to punk rock. When I’m working on a novel or an essay or a short story, I’m obsessing over craft and getting the content and form of the piece just right, like Brian Wilson taking months to record “Good Vibrations.” But with blogging, it’s more like the Ramones recording their first album in a day. Get it done, and get it out there. Share it with the world, warts and all.
What projects are you working on these days?
My second novel comes out in May. It’s called The Grievers. I should be getting galley copies this week, so I’ll be proofreading and making notes for any minor changes I want to make before it goes to print. Otherwise, I’m mainly gathering scraps in a notebook and hoping they eventually coalesce into something somewhere down the line.
Who are your favorite authors (novelists and/or academics)?
I like anyone who bridges the gap between “ivory tower” academic discourse and a more down to earth yet intelligent public discourse. There’s a lot in the news lately about the hollowing out of the middle class. I think there’s also been a gutting of the ability to have an intelligent conversation in the United States. At one end, there are academics who speak and write in impenetrable and, frankly, boring prose, and at the other end there’s the bombast and vitriol of the shouting heads on TV and radio, not to mention the histrionics of anyone involved in reality TV. It’s tough for regular people like you and me to have a thoughtful, intelligent, public conversation about the arts or culture or even politics anymore, but it is possible. Authors like Jonathan Lethem and Steve Almond do it in their nonfiction, and a lot of bloggers are doing it, too. Anyone who raises the bar on public discourse is okay in my book.
But if you’re looking for names, I love pretty much everything by Kurt Vonnegut. I was also on a George Saunders kick for a while, hot on the heels of a Chuck Palahniuk kick, a Neil Gaiman kick, and my perennial Philip K. Dick kick. Over the summer, I read Chistopher Moore’s Fool and told all of my friends to read it. More recently, I’ve been reading a lot of short stories. Robin Black’s If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This is amazing, and I really enjoyed Steve Almond’s God Bless America. I also liked Don DeLillo’s The Angel Esmerelda. If I’m not teaching or writing, I’m reading.