Jason Schwartz’s novel John the Posthumous was published last year to wide acclaim, despite—or maybe because of—its challenging, disruptive qualities. With blurbs from Gordon Lish, Ben Marcus, and Sam Lipsyte, John the Posthumous had “cult novel” written all over it from the outset. It was a 2013 highlight for many critics, including K. Thomas Khan, who called it ”a dizzyingly delightful and hypnotically haunting book that resists easy classification,” and David C. Winters, who described it as a “Fractal baroque: an unfurling art that enfolds us in incomprehension, in fear, but also in irreducible beauty.” In my review, I wrote that John the Posthumous is “strong, strange literature, a terrifying prose-poem that seizes history and folklore, science and myth . . . and distills it to a sustained, engrossing nightmare.”
Schwartz is the author of another book, A German Picturesque (1998). He lives and works in Florida. Schwartz kindly consented to an interview with me via email; his answers here approach the same oblique verbal dexterity that we see in his fiction. Get John the Posthumous from OR Books or your local bookstore.
Biblioklept: Your book John the Posthumous is a challenge to describe, let alone summarize. How do you describe the book to those who haven’t read it?
Jason Schwartz: I lie–it seems the only decent way to proceed. Why dwell upon unpleasant things?
Biblioklept: In a recent interview with 3:AM Magazine, you said that one of the first things you tried to write—in high school—was “a very long espionage novel.” You mentioned charts and appendices—lots of plots. In the same interview, you also say that you “favor format as someone else might favor plot,” which I think evinces in John the Posthumous and A German Picturesque. I’m curious what experiences—particularly what reading experiences—may have motivated a shift from an initial interest in writing plot-driven genre fiction to the stuff you write now.
JS: I’m sure I was abandoning other things too. I seem to recall something about a war. A catalog of imaginary battles, land and air–that would have been a handy enough project for a kid. Remember Little Wars? I don’t, but I like the idea of H.G. Wells and company concealed behind end tables, orchestrating cavalry raids. Unless the tactician was free to explore the drawing room, inspecting positions and so on, enumerating the wounded, admiring an especially fine artillery barrage. That seems more likely. But the would-be novel, espionage–I started that on a lark. I’d found an old Olivetti somewhere in the house–in the attic, I’d like to say, but we didn’t have an attic–and one thing led to another, et cetera, et cetera. A turn may or may not have occurred at that same moment, give or take, with all those devices, the appendices, the charts and annotated maps, captions for photographs that didn’t exist. Hard to say, exactly, going back now to the tenth grade. But they began to overtake the plot, such as it was. I liked some of the Bond books, and Graham Greene–still do–but I also liked The Encyclopedia of Espionage and that kind of thing, compendiums of jargon, biographies of Bulgarian spies. So maybe it was more the subject than the genre.
Biblioklept: Do you think about a particular audience when you compose?
JS: A young family, stranded on a mountain pass, killing time until help arrives. They take turns reading aloud–the text in question having been purchased by mistake and packed by accident, and later discovered in the luggage as potential kindling. The father shields the first child from those passages displaying traces of grotesquerie. The mother corrects the second child’s pronunciation or praises his elocution–as the case may be–on the occasion of the most ostentatious phrases. The third child, meanwhile, has wandered off into the woods. Ah!–it’s beginning to rain.
Biblioklept: Did John the Posthumous start as something smaller, like the pieces that make up A German Picturesque? Did you have the theme of adultery in mind from the outset?
JS: Yes, it was there from the outset, adultery, running through a number of things–directly and otherwise–and many of these appeared in magazines as individual pieces, beginning in 2003 or so. The “Corinthians” section, for instance, was once called “Breviary.” The final section in “Hornbook” was “Notation on Hidden Children.” Another one in that little series–a section in “Adulterium”–was “Notation on the Principal Graves.” There were changes in every case–all this happened over a very long period of time, obviously. “Housepost,” on the other hand, was done more or less at once, mostly in sequence. I published certain parts of this–“The Mary Casket” is an example–in various combinations, dismantling the house a few different ways.
Biblioklept: Your sentences are precise and concrete, but they also often refuse to give the reader something definite to grip on to. There’s a lot of power—and, I’d argue horror—in this restraint. How much of this technique is attributable to editing? How do you edit your work?
JS: As to the second question: it varies. No set method. And as to the first: I’m not really editing in that direction, no. I see this more as a simple matter of description. So–for instance–the schoolmarm in the museum, a wax form, with pins for eyes. A person of reputation in her hometown, I take it, and–it turns out–a distant relation of mine. I don’t wish to be flippant–or to sunder a cousin without good reason, here on the spur of the moment–but she seems easy enough to grasp in one’s hands, or at least as easy as any other set of letters. And she was, she certainly was, when they cut her in two, at the waist, and then into several smaller portions–her coat and purse set off to one side, forgotten there (the former eaten by moths, I’d guess, the remnants used to stuff the dummies on the second floor; the latter left on a shelf and, later on, mistaken for something foreign and important, given its own display)–in order to get her out the door. She’d have used, by the way, back at the schoolhouse, a razor blade and a ruler, according to a practice now out of fashion. “Children, let’s remove all your objectionable words and phrases, replacing them with more companionable ones.” And in the evening, the janitor and janitress would sweep up the scraps, and then use them to write ransom notes.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
JS: Sure. Including one from my grandparents’ bookcase, I’m ashamed to say. The book was The Deer Park. I was three, I believe, or four, or five. I was not, at the time, a fan of Norman Mailer. I must have mistaken it for something else–or maybe I had plans for it in the construction of a fort or what have you, some structure already underway, or only in the earliest planning stages, back home, down in the basement, off in a corner reserved for projects of just that sort. I suppose it could have been the jacket art, an attraction to that, but I can’t recall what was depicted on the cover, or even the colors on display. It’s unfair to speculate in this way, I know, but–to be on the safe side, and to put the matter out of mind, once and for all–let’s just assume it was a stick-figure deer, in black, on a field of red. Very much, in other words, the kind of stick figure–and field–I’d have quite disliked as a child. Anyway, my grandmother gave chase. She shouted in a language manufactured on the spot, and composed wholly of bedbugs and regret, dozens of variations on these words, accompanied by near-simultaneous translations, bent by the effect of her breathlessness, and taking curious shapes, in formation, at my back and overhead–or so it all seemed to me. And then? I was caught, of course.