Joseph M. Schuster is the author of The Might Have Been, which was just released from Ballantine Books. He has published more than 600 articles, essays and reviews in national, regional and local magazines and newspapers. His short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, Missouri Review, Western Humanities Review, Marlboro Review, 108, The Kenyon Review, The New Virginia Review and twice his work has been cited among the “distinguished stories” in Best American Short Stories.
Joseph lives outside St. Louis, Missouri, is a member of the faculty of Webster University and holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College.
On top of his offer to give away a copy of The Might Have Been to one lucky commenter, Joseph is also throwing in a signed hard copy of one of the book’s deleted scenes. “Mostly what I ended up cutting that hurt the most were a bunch of very minor characters,” Joseph says. “My editor was (of course, because she’s a brilliant editor) right in asking me to cut those passages — but I have been thinking about how there are probably quite a few writers who cut darlings that hurt.”
And now, Joseph takes the Deb Interview…
Talk about one book that made an impact on you.
So many books have changed my life in some way. I spent six months living with Madame Bovary when I was in graduate school, reading it over and over, studying its structure, and learned so much about how to build a narrative. I still remember the first time, years ago, when I read the first page of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, sitting in my car in the parking lot of the bookstore, and having my head blown open: you can do this with nonfiction? I re-read Kingsley’s Amis’s Lucky Jim every fall to mark the start of a new academic year and it’s an important ritual for me.
If I were to name one book, however, it would have to be Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, which won the National Book Award fifty years ago this year. I first came across the book not long after I finished college. I was making not much as a bank teller in Seattle (back then, I wrote poetry and wanted to be T.S. Eliot, hence the bank job) and because I had student loans, rent and other expenses, I didn’t have much extra to buy books. I remember going back to a bookstore several times, taking Percy’s novel off the shelf, reading another page or two further into the book, thinking, “You can’t afford a book just now,” and putting it back. At one point, however, I was waiting for a bus one day when it started raining. Next to the bus stop was a Catholic bookstore and so I went in to browse and stay dry until the bus came. I was surprised, and further intrigued, when I saw Percy’s book on a shelf there and so I bought it that time (“How could this novel I’ve wanted to read be a Catholic book?”), read it in a couple of days and then read everything I could find by and about Percy. I loved his voice, the rhythm of his sentences – Richard Ford once said, “From a writerly point of view, I’d rather read a sentence written by Walker Percy than a sentence written by anyone else . . .” – but mostly the character in the novel spoke to me as no other character had to that point. He was someone a few years older than I was, but he was someone trying to make sense of the world in a profound way that resonated with me.
Share something that’s always guaranteed to make you laugh.
I love stupid funny movies–movies like Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, Best in Show, This is Spinal Tap, which really are absurd, but I even love some movies that I am embarrassed to say I often quote from, like Zoolander and, more embarrassingly, Talladega Nights. But if someone were to say to me, “Okay, you can only watch one funny movie over and over again for the rest of your life,” I would have to say Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein. I can start laughing if I only think about some of the dialogue and comic bits from the movie: Gene Wilder as the scientist and Peter Boyle as the monster in top hat and tails, clomping on stage to “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” pretty much anything that Marty Feldman says or does, all of Mel Brooks’ double entendres that are so obvious one has to groan but that’s part of the charm of the movie.
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
If I were going to sum up my advice in one sentence, it would be, “Take more time with your work than you think you need to take.” It’s not fresh with me, but I believe that some writers are too quick to send out their work to agents and editors; I have seen someone finish the first draft of a novel or a short story and then try to publish it, but it’s the rare – very rare – writer who can turn out a near perfect piece of work in the first pass. In fact, I don’t know of anyone who can do this. And then, when no agent will take them on or no editor will publish their work, they get angry with that particular agent or editor or agents and editors as a class of people. It’s hard to write fiction; it’s hard to write a novel and so it doesn’t make sense not to work at it and work at it until it’s the best you’re capable of making it – and then let it sit for a month or longer, take a look at it again, and work on it to make it even better. Beyond this, I’m sure everyone has read the same articles I have, that it’s harder to sell a novel and almost impossible to sell a collection of short stories these days and so even from a strictly mercantile point of view, it doesn’t make sense not to make your book as good as it can possibly be, because you get one chance with a particular agent or editor. If you send them something that’s not good, not polished, and they reject it, you can’t write them back in six months and say, “Remember that thing I sent you a while back? I’ve revised it and want you to look at it again.”
Have you ever met someone you idolized? What was it like?
Years ago, when I was an editor for a magazine, I had a chance to interview Walker Percy when he was coming to St. Louis to accept a literary award. I’d interviewed I have no idea how many people by then but Percy was the first person I felt intimidated to interview. He was my favorite writer, really my literary hero, and so I was nervous as all heck at the prospect of asking him questions but he was amazingly generous, both with his time and the seriousness with which he took my questions. I finished the interview admiring him even more than I had before hand. Not long after that, it was his birthday and I sent him a card that had an Ansel Adams photograph on the front, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.” He sent me back a very gracious handwritten thank you letter, saying that the photograph on the card was his favorite of Adams’ work. I still have the letter.
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
I was once a telephone solicitor – yes, one of those people. I did it for three days when I was a college freshman, answering an ad that someone had posted on a bulletin board on campus. All of the salespeople were college students, and we were selling tickets to what was supposedly a charity circus to raise money for a police benevolence association. The man running the phone bank gave us all a typed script of what we were to say and lists of phone numbers. I don’t remember much about the particulars, but I do remember that if someone were to use the excuse, “Oh, I can’t go that weekend,” we were to ask them if, instead, they wanted to make a donation that would allow “deserving, underprivileged children” to attend. I remember that phrase, because I remember wondering if there was such a thing as “undeserving, underprivileged children.” I hated the job, hated asking people to buy the tickets and hated even more asking them to buy tickets for someone else’s children. I also had the impression, which I tried to squelch, that the operation was not entirely above-board. The man who had hired all of us told us at our orientation meeting that if we wanted to quit, all we had to do was not show up one day; he didn’t want us to call and tell him we were quitting. So, on the fourth day, I just didn’t go in. Looking back, I don’t even remember if I ever went back to get my check for those three days.
Thanks for being with us, Joseph! To learn more about Joseph M. Schuster and The Might Have Been, check out:
The Might Have Been is a story that looks at the moments that change our lives forever. Can you think of a single moment that changed your life? Comment below for a chance to win The Might Have Been and a deleted scene!