Michael Schein meets me at one of his favorite hangouts, a little second-hand book shop called the Couth Buzzard. It’s a nice place with cozy corners where people can enjoy their tea and the book of their choice. It was in one of those little corners, that we sat down. In spite of a first impression that hinted at a quiet demeanor, it quickly became obvious to me that mr. Schein is anything but quiet. In the following he shares candidly about his research and writing process, his inspiration and thoughts on what it takes to be an author today.
AP: How did the idea for writing “Bones” pop into your head, and what steps did you take before sitting down to write? How much research and what kind of pre-production did you do?
MS: In late 2004 I saw news coverage of the special Court of Historical Inquiry that was convening to re-examine the murder conviction and execution of Chief Leschi. I remembered this case, because a student in my history class had written a paper on it. I watched the historical court proceeding on TVW, and was hooked. I quit my day job to be able to devote full time attention to research and writing.
The first source I turned to was Ezra Meekerʼs wonderful 1905 book, The Tragedy of Leschi. Meeker was an early Washington pioneer who actually sat on the jury in Leschiʼs first trial. Then I interviewed several people connected with the 2004 re-trial, including Leschiʼs nearest living descendent, Cynthia Iyall (who later became Nisqually Tribal Chairwoman). In addition to interviews, I reviewed original court documents, pioneer papers kept in UW Special Collections, and read widely on early Washington Territorial history and Puget Sound Native American culture.
Altogether, I spent about six months researching before I began writing. It would have taken much longer, except that I had the luxury to devote full time attention to the project.
This is such a great question – I am always wrangling with it myself.
On the first point, my third novel (which has not yet seen the light of day) is entirely made up. So let me begin by saying why I wrote two historicals, and then address why Iʼve now written a pure fiction.
I love history. Not only is truth stranger than fiction, but real stories seem grounded in a way that pure fiction is not. Sometimes, when reading pure fiction, I wonder why Iʼm putting in all that time. Will I emerge a better person? Enlightened in any way? Thereʼs always the pure entertainment value, but movies or TV can do that – we put real effort into reading books, and I think we should get something deeper out of it. With a historical novel, I feel like the emotional resonance with past lives provides that deeper meaning.
Furthermore, I enjoy time travel – donʼt we all? If we had a time machine at our disposal, wouldnʼt we climb aboard, just like we get on airplanes to visit distant lands? Reading a historical novel is about as close as we can get.
I should add one more reason to write historical novels – as a new novelist, I enjoyed the structure and security it provided. It was tough enough to handle character, setting, voice, tone, and plot details, even when history spared me responsibility for the entire story. History hands us plots that have been proven to work – why not use them?
This suggests why Iʼve moved on in my third book. I feel Iʼve learned enough about writing to create the story arc myself. Plus, my imagination needed to stretch its wings. And it didnʼt hurt that moving away from the historical novel cut out the lengthy research that precedes the actual writing.
Next point: How do I choose where to take creative liberties and where to stick to the facts?
Historical novels run the gamut from entirely fictional accounts that are merely set in the past, to meticulously researched histories accurate in virtually every particular, except that conversation (which we couldnʼt possibly know) might be thrown in. Mine are closer to the researched side of this continuum. My basic philosophy is that I want the major arc of the story to be true to history, and many details to be true just for the fun of time travel, but I donʼt ever want the joy of literature to be sacrificed on the altar of pedantry. In other words, Bones Beneath Our Feet isnʼt a school book – it should be a rollicking good read. My first objective is to create a meaningful literary work that both entertains and enlightens.
To give just one example: Leschi was actually charged with murder arising out of the killing of A.B. Moses during the Puget Sound Indian War. The accounts I read did not definitively show exactly who did the killing. I used this opening to create the most dramatic answer to that question that I could come up with. My answer is fiction. The research I did provided no clear answer, so I was comfortable filling in the gap with an exciting version of fiction.
You ask whether it matters. It matters to me that I am true to the fundamental story, but not that I get every detail exactly right. I donʼt believe that even “real history” is a representation of objective reality, whatever that is. I believe the multiplicity of points of view, the pervasive subjectivity of the narrator, the biases of the time, and political pressures, all combine to color historical accounts. Each generation re-writes history for its own purposes. As TC Boyle says in Water Music, “And what is history, pray tell, if not a fiction?”
I go further than this – I think that the emotional truth of a time does not lie in a mass of names, dates, and other facts. I think it is bigger than history, and can best be tapped through literature and poetry.
Therefore, I have deliberately shortened time periods, combined or created characters, and put some people where they werenʼt. For example, I put Chief Se-alth at Medicine Creek Treaty Council although I know he was at a later council, just to get his wonderful – but disputed – speech into the book. In doing so, I know some guardians of their perceived past may be offended. It is not my job as a novelist to avoid giving offense, though I do not set out deliberately to offend. I must be true to my muse, not to political correctness or other imperatives.
Iʼm not saying that nothing is real, itʼs all solipsism. Iʼm saying that whatʼs “true” is more slippery than we think, and that fiction is as valid as way – perhaps even a more powerful way – to get at whatʼs true, than by piling fact upon fact.
My writing routine for a novel is to write 5-6 days a week, from about 6 or 7am until about 11am or noon. By noon, Iʼm burnt to a crisp; useless; dunderheaded. I might go back and tinker later that night.
Usually Iʼll start by re-reading what I wrote the previous day, and perhaps giving it a light edit – but it must be light, because I donʼt want to turn on the “editor” too soon. All of us have an editor inside us whose first job seems to be to prevent us from writing anything at all. That editor must be squashed. Once youʼve written tens of thousands of words, the editor becomes invaluable, because his (her for women writers?) second job is to cut out the flab, and make our prose sing.
I donʼt have any rituals. The world could be falling down around me and I wouldnʼt care so long as I could keep writing. I have to write on a computer. Sad, but true. Itʼs comfy if my surroundings have lots of books and papers all piled to the ceiling. I agree with the aphorism that a clean desk is the sign of a diseased mind. I need water, tea, easy quick food. I need to hope that I donʼt get another of those fucking emails from the bank telling me my account is overdrawn. But even that I can ignore if Iʼm on a roll.
AP: In today’s market, all but a select few writers need to promote their work. How do you feel about that part of the job? Do you have any words of advice for other novelists and poets on this topic?
I am honored and grateful that anyone wants to hear about my work. That is a privilege. Therefore, interviews like this are a pleasure.
The nitty gritty of setting it all up is no fun, but again – professional writers need to recognize that this is a job, and jobs are not all fun. I do pay a publicist to handle the nitty-gritty, but I canʼt afford it, so I still do part of it.
I donʼt much like hovering in bookstores, hawking my wares. I guess Iʼm old school; to me, it feels undignified. Nonetheless, there are moments of connection with readers that can be very special, so thatʼs what I like to focus on.
Iʼve blogged on the art of selling in a bookstore. Youʼve got to stand in front of the table, not sit behind it. Youʼve got to engage people in genuine conversation. Youʼve got to put the book in their hands. Youʼve got to close the deal – “may I sign that for you?” Ugghhh! But it works!
The most serious problem with the writer-as-huckster culture is that it can harm the work itself. First, it distracts from writing, because the publication cycle means that you are always selling old news – a project from your past – while you are trying to work on something new. Second, it distracts from writing simply by taking up time. It is disconcerting to think that for some writers, the culture of writer-celebrity has greater allure than the actual work. The result is too much shit between the covers.
What it really comes down to is that I am immersed in the substance of my work, and I love to share it with others. I am not keen on selling myself – Michael Schein the writer-widget-product. I suspect that the necessity of writers to be heavily involved in the process of moving “product” is bad for literature.
AP: You’re also a poet and a playwright. What is it appeals to you by these different genres? What do you take away from writing a poem versus a novel? Do you find the different formats equally easy or difficult?
Poetry is my first love, and the purest of the literary arts. Its purity is part formal, part economic. The formal purity lies in its brevity, the way it distills vast reaches of experience into a few lines. As the poet Marvin Bell has said, “Prose is what it is because of what it includes; poetry is what it is because of what it leaves out.” I love deepening meaning by what is not spoken. The economic purity is simple: while there is some chance of making money at novel-writing, there is virtually no chance of making any significant money writing poetry. The community of poets is therefore almost entirely a community of inspiration, not one of aspiration. So sweet!
Writing a play grew out of my first novel, Just Deceits. At the urging of a NYC playwright, I’ve co-authored a stage adaptation. It is painful to see how much of the novel that must be left out of a play. Playwriting is a much more public enterprise than writing a novel – it is part-way between a novel and a movie. Lots of people get involved – director, producer, cast – and lots of money is required to get it produced. So there are tensions between commerce and art that are more pronounced than with the novel. Still, I suspect it will be gratifying – and terrifying – to see it on stage.
You ask, “What do you take away from writing a poem versus a novel? Do you find the different formats equally easy or difficult?” Well, I’d be a dolt not to say that writing a novel is much harder than writing a poem. I can dash off a poem in ten minutes. And yet. Considering that the finest poets write perhaps a half-dozen to a dozen poems that stand the test of time, it may be that writing a GOOD poem is more difficult than writing a GOOD novel.
In the end, I take the same thing away from writing a poem as I do from a novel. I have had the privilege to dance with the ineffable, to lose myself to another world, be carried off by characters or dreams, and to discover what I know without knowing. It’s all one muse. Fiction, playwriting, poetry, music, painting – all the arts – are simply different paths to tap into the essential wonder of life.
Video: Michael Schein reading from “Bones Beneath Our Feet”
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