John Burnham Schwartz, author of bestselling novels including Reservation Road and The Commoner, is also an accomplished screenwriter and currently literary director for the Sun Valley Writer’s Conference. Here, Schwartz discusses his decision to return to the characters he first introduced in Reservation Road with his new novel Northwest Corner.
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How did writing this novel compare to writing Reservation Road?
Reservation Road was more grueling to write than Northwest Corner for two reasons: I was 27 when I began the first book and still grasping for certain techniques and perceptions that I now understand to be part of any serious novelist’s tool kit. Second, and perhaps most importantly, though Northwest Corner is certainly not a light book in terms of physical and emotional drama, no loss in it is as irreparable as the loss that begins Reservation Road, and consequently, I think the new novel manifests and imparts a significantly greater possibility of redemption.
Was your writing process different given that you already knew these characters from the past? Were they still able to surprise you?
I can’t imagine writing a novel in which the characters don’t possess not just the capacity, but the need, to surprise me, or indeed any reader, constantly. Why else go through the agony of creation in the first place? With Northwest Corner, I’d say that the biggest difference in the writing process from Reservation Road was that making the narrative distinct in its own right, wholly independent of the earlier story, was by necessity a conscious decision on my part. It took me about a year and a half of false starts before I finally began to understand why Northwest Corner, despite its obvious blood relationship to Reservation Road, was entirely its own book, with its own reasons for being. That was a hard-won recognition and the beginning of my truest work on the novel.
Was your writing influenced by the film version of Reservation Road?
I’m happy and relieved to report that when, a decade after their exile, I first began hearing from the characters of Reservation Road [the novel] again, they in no way resembled Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly or Mira Sorvino, the incredibly talented actors who played those roles in the film of Reservation Road. I’ve done a fair amount of screenwriting since that project, and though I enjoy the work and find it interesting, for me it doesn’t…come from as deep or mysterious a well as my fiction writing, nor feel as soul-crushingly difficult.
What was the writing territory you wanted to explore in Northwest Corner?
[I'll use] the title of Tim O’Brien’s great novel about the Vietnam War...The Things They Carried. We carry it all with us, it seems to me: as individuals, family members, children, parents, isolates, lovers. We go forth through our lives and forget things, sure, or try to, and recast our memories, but we are incapable of truly leaving anything behind. Our lifelong vulnerabilities—to ourselves, to each other—and our extraordinary, at times almost spiritual, resiliencies are both borne of these invisible, tragically weighted inheritances.
We don’t know what we are until we come to understand how much guilt and love we have blindly carried for so long, and at what cost to others and ourselves. With Northwest Corner, I wanted to write a novel that immersed the characters and the reader in an intense, life-driven period of just such a reckoning; to make characters and readers alike feel both the moral cost and the surprising, mysterious wonder of it.
Northwest Corner offers readers multiple points of view, allowing readers a very complicated sense of sympathy and compassion for those often at odds. Can you comment on the rewards and challenges of constructing the novel this way?
In my experience, each novel attempted throws a couple of major technical challenges at the writer. In The Commoner, for instance, I had to figure out how to navigate 70 years of personal and historical history in a manner that amplified, but didn’t obscure, the inner psychological life of my protagonist. Perhaps the greatest technical challenge in writing Northwest Corner was likewise structural: namely, trying to tell the story through five different, constantly alternating points of view, integrating perceptions and actions in such a way that the narrative, set over a relatively short time-span, and told in brief chapters, appears to be an unbroken chain of moral and emotional urgency in which I, the author, am nowhere present.
Can you comment on what you are working on now?
These days I’m doing research for my next novel for Random House…It will take a few years to write, I’m sure. I’m also doing some writing for television for the first time, creating an hour-long dramatic series for Showtime set in the early-1980s world of insider trading. And a separate series that is, for lack of a better phrase, mildly sci-fi.