The Beatrice Interview

Leslie Schwartz

"Everybody calls this a dark book, but I think it's a book about hope."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Leslie Schwartz's debut novel, Jumping the Green, traces the downward spiral of San Francisco artist Louise Goldblum into alcoholism and sadomasochistic sexuality--assisted in her degradations by a photographer named Zeke who picks her out of the crowd at a bar one night--as she struggles to come to terms with the death of her older sister, Esther. Even before the official publication date, Schwartz (who had spent several years as a freelance journalist for women's magazines while working on short stories in her spare moments) had received the James Jones Literary Society award for best first novel. We met at the Standard in West Hollywood and talked over iced teas.

RH: As you were writing your short stories, did you know that you wanted to eventually write a novel?

LS: No. The short story just got longer, I just kept writing. I was working as a secretary at the time, a demeaning job in a lot of ways. I took my boss' laundry to the laundromat, I took care of his children when he was going through a divorce--but in exchange for that, I got to write at work. So I started writing this short story, and it just kept getting longer and longer. I didn't expect it was going to be a novel at all--it just turned into that.

RH: What part of the story came first for you? Was it the first scene in the published novel, with the young Louise?

LS: Yes. It began with the girl on the raft, discovering her sexuality and living in her dysfunctional family. Suddenly I got a structure going between what was happening to Louise as a child and her relationship with Zeke as an adult. But it wasn't thought out. I didn't draw a picture, it just happened.

RH: As you got deeper into the story, did you at any point step back, surprised at where it was going?

LS: No. The only surprising thing for me has been the publishing process, dealing with agents and editors, how supportive they've been. As far as the process of the writing, and the story, it's very germane for me to just write. It was fine. It felt very natural.

RH: So there was no trepidation as the story headed into the psychosexual territory?

LS: What do you think?

RH: Well, I'm working on my first novel. When a relationship in it went in a direction I wasn't expecting, I wrote that first scene, then stepped back and said, "Am I prepared to write about this?" In particular, I've seen a lot of bad writing about sexuality and eroticism, so I felt that if I was going to write about it, I knew I had to be ready to do it right, that the writing would be as good as it was in other scenes.

LS: For me, the sexual stuff is always going to be easier to write about. I stepped back on the stuff about her family; that was much more painful for me to write. That's probably not what you want to hear, but the sexuality was actually fairly simple to me. When I look back at the book now, it's almost embarrassing. I feel as if the sex is almost superficial and immature. The best parts of the book, really, are when she's dealing with her family, because they were harder for me to deal with.

The book was never meant to be erotic. People keep classifying it as erotic, and that pisses me off. I don't think it's erotic at all. I think that Louise got into a bad relationship with somebody who abused her, who really hurt her--but she made the choice to get into that relationship. The sexuality in the book is about self-annihilation. Some people deal with their pain through drinking, some through sexuality, and some people by killing themselves. I think was easy for me to write about a guy doing this to a woman, because women make choices like that when things have gone wrong in their lives. It's so much easier than saying, "Things have gone wrong in my life." And it's also phonier in a lot of ways.

A lot of people, especially straight guys, hate this book. They don't understand why a woman would make that choice, and when she does, it pisses them off. My thinking is that she made the choice to go into this relationship, and he willingly participated, too. They played a game with each other, and that's hard for people to accept. Their relationship has nothing to do with love, but they were drawn to each other. I firmly believe people can be drawn to each other for the wrong reasons. Louise hates the guy, but she's sexually drawn to him. There's no romantic connection at all.

You know what I really want to say? Louise made the choice. Women make the choice, so do men. It shouldn't be so taboo, so startling to people, to hear about that. I chose to express Louise's grief through a very detrimental and degrading sexual experience, but I could have done it another way. Heinrich Boll has the protagonist of The Clown put on a clown suit. It's not about the sex. It's about the choice to degrade yourself, the choice of not being happy. It's about not being able to recover from what hurts you the most in a positive way.

RH: Do you see it as ironic that you've fulfilled your artistic vision by writing about somebody who negates herself?

LS: I love this character, and maybe that's why it's so painful for me to read the book now. I think Louise couldn't find the grace to love herself through the grief of her family life, so she did the easy thing. She drank and fucked some guy who had no respect for her.

Everybody calls this a dark book, but I think it's a book about hope. Anybody that can recover from those experiences and survive, as Louise does--that's a hopeful thing. I don't believe this is a sad book. What she went through is sad- -but that's not who she is. When you talk about choice...she made a choice at the end, to survive. She didn't want to die. She didn't want to be the girl destroyed by her sister's death, by her sexual choices. I give Louise a lot of credit. She's a very courageous person.

RH: She finds the courage to accept the love of her best friend, Alice.

LS: I can't read the chapter near the end, with the two of them in the restaurant, anymore without crying. It's just so amazing to me that somebody would love someone as much as Alice loves Louise, that she's willing to forgive so much. When I read that scene, I think Louise is so lucky that Alice forgives her...

RH: And this is nearly three years after you wrote it. How did it affect you then?

LS: It didn't. It wasn't until later that it hit me. And there's some scenes that I can't read at all now, I find them so sad.

RH: Who are some of your favorite fiction writers?

LS: I like Francine Prose a lot. I think she's great. I liked Susanna Moore's In the Cut. I love Mary Gaitskill...she's an amazing writer.Her stories are scary. I want to meet her; I'm just blown away by her talent, her willingness to take risks. I like writers who push the limits a bit. I tend to like writers that other people haven't heard about.

There's a short story by Lorrie Moore about a baby that almost died; people have asked her if it's autobiographical or not. So at one event, she was asked to read that story, and she got three minutes into it, then left the podium crying. I didn't see this, I read about it in the New York Times. And the author of that article raised a great point--what does it matter if this happened or not? It's a powerful story, and a story is a story. Does the fact that it happened or not make it any less a story if the story is well told? No, it doesn't. Is the story good? Is the writing good enough to keep you interested? That's what I think is the relevant question.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Elissa Schappell | Complete Interview Index | Maggie Estep

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan