Chad Schuster lives near Seattle with his wife and two children. He earned a journalism degree from the University of Washington and wrote for several newspapers before leaving the news business in 2008. He works for a communications firm in Seattle and writes fiction late at night. His story “Another Song in the Desert” appeared in issue #60 of the Potomac Review.
The following interview was conducted over email by Ryan Brown in spring 2017.
Q: You do such a great job with grabbing my interest, from the first sentence of the blunt description about the weather in your story “Leveling” to the curious premise of a pterodactyl in “Last Light.” What advice would you give to a writer when it comes to crafting the first sentence of a story?
I focus a lot of energy on opening lines. I’m trying to capture the reader, of course, but it’s also a way to shape the sentences I’ve yet to write. My stories tend to start out as disconnected thoughts or images that get stuck in my head. I’m happy to carry them around like that for a while, but eventually I have to figure out what they mean and why they’re important to me. Once I do, I try to condense that meaning – or at least a portion of it – into an opening sentence. Doing this makes it easier for me to find a way into the story. I started my writing career as a journalist, and I’m sure this practice traces back to that.
Q: I have noticed several recurring themes in your stories, those being sports, heroin addiction, and swimming in lakes. Can you talk about these themes and why they are commonly touched upon in your work?
I haven’t consciously committed to any particular subject or theme in my work. I’m mostly just trying to write stories that I find interesting and that other people might want to read. I don’t know that there’s any special significance to the subjects you highlighted. I’ve always been a sports fan, and I grew up in a region that’s surrounded by water. I’m horrified and fascinated by addiction, but I don’t have anything new to say about it. Like most people, I’ve seen its effects on people I care about and artists I admire, and so it occasionally finds its way into my work.
Q: While many your stories are written from a male perspective in a masculine tone, you convincingly expressed the thoughts and feelings of an emotionally beaten wife in your story, “Another Song in the Desert.” What was your inspiration for the character Violet?
My grandparents got divorced very late in life. I was just a kid at the time, too young to know the particulars that led to their separation, but even then I understood that this was unusual. I always wondered what might prompt someone to leave a marriage at a time in life when most people avoid disruptive change. The characters and events in the story are entirely fictional, but the premise grew out of that curiosity. I chose a female protagonist because I was close to my grandmother as a child, and I wanted to spend some time imagining the world from the perspective of someone like her.
Q: What advice do you have to give to writers when creating a protagonist of the opposite sex?
The best any writer can do is approach each character with respect and humility. Fully realized characters are complex individuals. They’re human, above all else, with unique histories that usually don’t align with preconceived notions about gender or any other facet of identity. Writing, like reading, is an act of empathy. Inhabiting other viewpoints is a powerful way to gain new insights into what it means to be alive, but writers should be mindful of how their place in the world might limit – and in some cases should limit – the characters they choose to represent. Whose story are you trying to tell, and are you the right person to tell it? These questions aren’t easy to answer, but they’re rightly at the center of many literary discussions these days. This is a long way of saying I don’t really know of any safe way to write outside of one’s gender, and I suspect no one else does either. Be thoughtful, I suppose, and be prepared to get it wrong.
Q: On your website, it says that you work at a communications firm and are a father of two, yet you manage to write at a level that allows you to get published seven to eight times a year. How do you find the time and motivation to write with such a busy schedule?
Like most writers, I’m tormented by the knowledge that I don’t write nearly enough. It was easier before I had a career and a marriage and kids, but anyone who’s serious about writing will find time to do it. I write on the bus ride to work, or during my lunch break, and often late at night after my kids have gone to sleep. I go through stretches where I’m disciplined and productive, followed by long stretches where I get no writing done at all. Inevitably, these dry spells are what bring me back to the keyboard. They remind me why I started writing in the first place. They also remind me that not writing isn’t really an option for me.
Q: I have spent many years working in retail and found a personal connection with your story, “Guardians.” Where did you find the inspiration and motivation to write this story?
I started writing Guardians during the recession, when many people were working in jobs they didn’t care for just to get by. I found myself thinking about the kind of malaise that inflicts people who are trapped in unfulfilling jobs. There are many, many jobs that fit this description, but I had personal experience with this in retail. Many retail establishments, especially large corporate retail establishments, have devised entire systems to suppress the individuality of their employees. These systems have a practical business end, and most people abide by them as a condition of employment, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t spiritually exhausting for the individuals who work there. Even the most optimistic, loyal, industrious worker will sometimes feel superfluous knowing they’re part of something that doesn’t really need them.
Q: Your stories “Last Light,” and “Vorkov’s Angel” both have surreal elements which challenged my expectations and took me for a trip. What was your process for writing a surreal scene like that of when Vorkov collapses in the bathroom?
I sometimes turn to surrealism to counteract a story that’s become overly serious. Other times it’s essential to the plot. In any case, it’s fun to write scenes that don’t have to conform to any rules. I’ve always liked strange imagery. It’s particularly effective when the reader doesn’t see them coming. They think they’re reading realist fiction and then the story spins off into something else.
Q: Which story have you found the most enjoyment in writing and why?
Every story comes with its own challenges and rewards. Some are easier to write than others, but all of them, by virtue of their existence, have some personal significance to me. They remind me of the things that made me write them. Lately I’ve been focusing on shorter pieces because they fit better with my schedule, but I always like to have something longer in the works as well. I start to panic when I don’t have at least a few things going at once.
Q: Do you have any personal goals and expectations when it comes to writing for this year?
I’m working on a mess of a novel. I’d like to finish a draft this year. I’ll also continue to write stories because I can never seem to stick to one project. My main goal is to put the time in, though. Just write. That’s the only part that really matters.