Image: Claudia Schatz in her first grade production of “Misty Gets Lost.”
Liz Cettina: How did you begin writing “Deadweight”?
Claudia Schatz: Well, it’s based on a true story. I first got the idea from reading an article about this happening in Idaho. A two-year-old shot his mother in a grocery store. It was pretty big news so you might have heard about it. It was in the same vein as a story I’d written in the past also about accidental shootings though that one was more of a general exploration and less of a specific event. Reading this article gave me the concrete: This is what happened, and I wanted to explore the after-effects of that. So that definitely sparked the idea in the first place. And hearing that story, I felt like I had to write it. But by the end, as we discussed in my workshop [Art of Revision], the initial catalyst was taken out so I guess in that regard it’s interesting.
L: Were you happy you made that decision?
C: I’m happy, yeah. I think it said a lot about the story that it could stand without this prop, this drama to rely on to make it more exciting or engaging. But I did kind of wish that it had been still related to this original idea of accidental gun violence especially among children because it’s something I can’t stop thinking about and writing about, so I kind of feel like it fell out of that genre because the initial action wasn’t there anymore. But I also thought that was one of the best responses I’ve ever gotten for a story that I didn’t even need the thing that I was relying on so much. It stands as a story between two people, focusing on their relationship. It’s stronger than the drama behind it.
Emma Raddatz: Can you explain the revision process and your experience in “Art of Revision” with Brando Skyhorse?
C: It was the best class ever. It was all about writing one story over the course of the semester, so first we wrote a five-page draft and then we were workshopped. And after people read the first draft, we had to write a second draft which was ten pages, and it had to be 60% new material so going from first to second draft was obviously dramatic just doubling in length, but was also supposed to be extremely different. It was definitely the most dramatic revision I’ve ever done. My first and second drafts were almost unrecognizable.
E: Was that ever painful for you, cutting out a huge portion of this thing that you worked on a lot?
C: It’s horrible! It’s the worst thing ever. But it makes the story a lot better.
L: Why do you think so? What do you think changed so much, and why, in the end, were you okay with making such drastic changes?
C: Well, it was partly because we wrote the first draft in a week, and nothing I write in a week is going to be any good. So the first draft just felt very ramble-y and monologue-y, and I didn’t really pin down what the story was about or what the characters wanted. In the second draft, I had a much clearer sense of [the characters’] motivations. Like, “What do they want?’ in the more general sense and then how that actually manifests and how they act as a result of it. What, concretely, are they trying to get from each other? What are they trying to say? That’s a result of what they want in a larger sense.
E: Who are your favorite authors?
C: I hate that question.
C: Because there’s too many.
L: Okay, what have you read recently that you’ve liked?
C: Well, there’s still lots of answers. That’s why it’s a hard question. I mean, my favorite, probably my favorite, writer is Tim O’Brien. I love the way he thinks about truth in storytelling and the idea of using fiction to get at the truth. I definitely think about that when I write. I read The Little Prince over break, and it changed my life. I can’t believe I’d never read it! It’s so sweet and sad and has all these reflections on growing up and adulthood and what it means to love somebody. It’s so beautiful!
E: How do you choose which book to read next?
C: Usually, what I get for Christmas because I get a lot of books as gifts.
L: Are there writers you try to write like?
C: Definitely Tim O’Brien. But I was thinking about The Poisonwood Bible, which I read junior year of high school, and I think I didn’t consciously try to write like that but I definitely got into family dynamics. Almost all of my stories at this point are about internal family worlds, and I think that’s very much a result of the artful way [Barbara Kingsolver] did that with the different voices, different perspectives, everyone seeing the same events in different ways. Family relationships are really interesting to me, I think, partly because I saw [Kingsolver] do it so well.
L: This is sort of related to what you said about family dynamics. Are there any techniques you catch yourself always using?
C: I always write in little chunks with the little asterisks between them. I don’t write prolonged scenes. I almost always write pretty terrible dialogue the first couple times around. It takes me a while to get it out right. I almost always write from a child’s perspective. That voice comes naturally to me. As a result, I use a lot of simple but not really literal language. A lot of short sentences. A lot of loose associations. Kids tie things together in all sorts of strange ways. In “Deadweight,” Paul personified the cabinet, and the guns took on their own lives. The mother was inextricably bound to the father and son, but it wasn’t explicitly said why. So setting that up in the beginning. I guess I like to set up interconnectedness in the beginning and then throughout being able to reference something very specific, but have it recall the entire thing. I think I do that a lot.
L: That connects to our other question about how you begin a piece. Do you have a whole in mind when you start? The pieces?
C: With this piece in particular, definitely not. I had no vision of how it was going to turn out. In general, though, I think I do. I kind of plot points out. Plot points. Ha ha. I see certain places I have to get for the story to hang together and make sense. It’s a matter of reaching them one by one. At the beginning I usually see what sentences have to be said or what moments have to happen, and then it’s a matter of winding to them in a way that’s actually compelling and not awkward or forced. Which is usually the hardest part.
E: Why did you choose to keep the mother in this piece as a mysterious figure of the past instead of bringing in specific moments with her?
C: I guess the idea was that Paul didn’t know her well enough to really have many memories of her, and the whole issue is that the father can see a three-dimensional person in this hole, but Paul just sees a cabinet of guns. They can’t bring their views of her together even though she’s the same person. I think that’s a lot of where the conflict comes from. That was actually in an earlier draft, Paul clumsily trying to address, “Does he really love her or not?” Because he doesn’t know her but she’s his mother so how does that relationship work? And the dad resents him for not being able to fully love her. But also how can he blame him for that since he didn’t have a chance to know her? And would it even be offensive for him to claim he does love her because he never really knew her? That didn’t work its way explicitly into this draft. I think her appearance would have confused the story a bit.
E: What about your choice to have a male narrator? Was that because the true story you based the story on was about a young boy who killed his mother?
C: I think the stem of it was definitely that. There’s probably a bunch of small reasons. I don’t know if any of them are really good. I also read The Catcher in the Rye this summer so I kind of had this bitter boy’s voice in my head. I was also interested in the masculinity aspect of it especially relating to guns. I don’t think there would have been the same tension over learning how to shoot and being a part of this western world if he’d been a girl. Identifying strongly with the father in a setting where the father strongly identifies with guns was pretty important for the main character.
E: Can you explain the importance or significance of the robin scene?
C: I had about a week after my second workshop before the English prize submissions were due so I had very little time. One of the things Brando said was how important it was to warm up the relationship between the father and the son because Brando was picking up on more anger and more tension than I had intended, and I wanted there to be a lot of sympathy and a lot of admiration that Paul had for his father. I agreed that the best way to do that was in a brief and intimate scene so I wanted to use something that was very emotional and sympathetic and have the dad act as a kind of hero at least in Paul’s eyes. Even though the robin died and he didn’t save it, Paul couldn’t see that. Just trying to give Paul a reason to truly admire and love his father beyond all the other tension in their lives so that their relationship was more interesting. I hadn’t intended there to be as much anger as there was, and that was a good example of a disconnect between my intentions and what the reader picks up on, so there needed to be more warmth between them and that scene was meant to do that.
L: When you map out the story, what are the things you track from point to point? Just the plot?
C: I think it’s less the plot than the emotional trajectory. Because at the beginning of the story, they feel “this” way, and at the end they’re going to feel “this” way. And I can’t say they’re going to feel this way because he took a gun or because his dad is now searching the house. The facts of the matter come afterwards when you think about what emotional state of mind the character’s in and how they’re going to be acting as a result of that.
L: How did you decide to reveal information? Space out scenes?
C: I think it’s easy to rely on one big reveal. And that can be really effective, but it can also feel too dramatic, and like “Oh, you are holding everything back so then suddenly we understand that it all turns on one little piece—like finding the key to the whole story is this one thing that happened a hundred years ago.” And that can just feel a little fake. I think that’s a little bit of what happened in this one, because the scenes themselves felt more organic than the actual plot twist, so I guess more spaced out and less dramatic explanations for what was going on in the past fit the story better after I took out the big reveal.
E: How did you get the idea to describe the guns as teeth in the cabinet?
C: I guess I thought it would be very threatening and also very human, because guns themselves are very threatening, in my opinion. But to have them be teeth personifies them and works with the image of the cabinet. So, a mixture of being human but also scary, because to Paul I don’t think they felt like machines or objects. They definitely felt like a human threat.
L: Is there anything you have read that you consider important for everyone to read—based on form or content?
C: I don’t want to repeat myself too much, but Tim O’Brien. Just the way he manipulates the truth, I’m just so fascinated by. Every time I read The Things They Carried, I finish it and I’m just like, “This is perfect.” And if I could write like that, I would be content. Because it’s just so brilliant to me the way he sees a true story and the function of the story is not just telling what actually happened, but telling the way it felt, and telling the mood, and telling the way you remember things, not in a literal sense—you don’t remember what people actually said or what they actually did, but years later you still remember the way you felt during that time, and you remember what it meant to you. Because we’ve probably all had that experience where you write down exactly what someone said, and it sounds so stupid, like “No one’s going to believe this!” Even though it was true, it’s exactly true! But you have to make it false in order for it to feel real. And especially when I get ideas from news articles, I find that to be true. When you read tragedy in the newspaper you don’t really absorb any of it. You just kind of let it go past you. I guess the goal for a perfect piece of writing would be to take something you can’t even understand and make it real enough.
L: When you say “real,” what do you mean?
C: Real in the sense that if someone told you the story in the end, you wouldn’t ask, “Was that a true story?” It wouldn’t even matter because it was functional and it was effective and you felt it. So regardless of if it happened or not, it worked. Tim O’Brien talks about this too. Transcending literal events—being real in the sense that it can hit different people in different ways, and it’s effective depending on who you are.
L: Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
E: In your writing and your reading?
C: Yes. I’ve never written much non-fiction—that’s a big problem I have—when I try to write about myself, I can’t figure out which details are important. To me they all feel relevant because I’ve lived them all. I’m focused on things the reader doesn’t care about, and I don’t realize that until someone says, “What’s actually happening here?” And I can’t tell because I lived through it, so I definitely have a hard time writing non-fiction. And reading it can be interesting, but I don’t usually find it as engaging as a good ol’ story.
E: What kind of news outlets do you tend to use in your writing? Local news?
C: At home I read my local newspaper.
L: Where are you from?
C: New Haven—the greatest small city in America. Just thought you should know. But, yes, I read the New Haven Register. I’ve always read the Sunday Review in the New York Times. Another story I wrote about gun violence was based on a headline in the Times. Rather than reading the story I started imagining my own. My mom—this is kind of weird, because I’ve now written two stories relating to guns—sometimes she cuts out stories of accidental shootings and sends them to me.
L: Oh my god. She puts it on the fridge.
C: So that’s a little scary—I’m like, “I appreciate the content mom” and she’s like, “Here, write this one next.” So mostly news from daily life, and from my mom.
E: Were there ever times when you were worried about being too explicit in your discussion of gun violence?
C: This story less than in the past. The first time I wrote about this sort of thing, it was only after I finished that I thought, “Wow, this is a pretty political story, this is pretty relevant.” So going into this one I was more aware that it was politically charged. I guess the whole point is that the politics definitely take a background role, and the whole problem of gun violence in America right now is kind of just the setting, it’s not really what the story is about. The story is about the father-son dynamic, and trying to humanize the issue so that it actually means something. I think we generally don’t talk about things in that way.
L: Do you think that writing achieves something other art forms can’t?
C: I don’t know. I don’t make other kinds of art so I’m not sure I can say. For me, writing is more natural. I think it has the potential to be the most clear. In The Little Prince, they say “Language is the source of misunderstanding,” and I believe that, but it’s goes both ways, you know. So many things can be misunderstood through writing and speaking, but the whole point of language is communication. That’s what I really liked when Brando said that writing is effective to the extent that it’s clear. I really believe that—writing has this potential to be extremely clear, a quality which is often sacrificed in other art forms for the sake of being cool. I mean writing isn’t particularly cool which I also like.
E: This might not be the most fitting question to end on, but when did you start writing?
C: In first grade.
L: Like handwriting?
C: Oh no, I knew how to physically write, but I first wrote this story about a little horse who goes to school, who gets lost. It was called “Misty Gets Lost.” A horse goes to school, and she meets this fox. She was always warned that foxes are very tricky and will try to fool you. And then sure enough, when they walk home, the fox tricks her and she gets lost in the woods. But that’s not the end! She gets home alright.
E: You should write children’s books.
C: I remember it was eleven pages long, which was extremely long when you are six years old, and I was so proud. And then my first grade teacher really liked it so we put it on as a class play. And it was an elaborate production! So that was the first story I ever wrote.
E: You’re a playwright.
L: What was it like adapting it to the stage?
C: It was a rough translation.
E: Did you play Misty?
C: I did! I starred in my own show. My mom said that we sat down and she was the one who helped my teacher type it up, and there were certain bits of dialogue in the story that I would not give up in the play version—they just had to be there even though they didn’t make sense.
L: Like, “This is my work! Mom, I’m an artist!” Drinking espresso.
C: There were a lot of discussions in the lunchroom in the school. That was probably the most gripping dialogue. It was fun though, quite an experience. And all throughout middle school, I was determined to be the youngest novelist ever published, but I wasn’t! Apparently someone wrote a book at age thirteen, and also my book was never published. I wrote this elaborate novel—it was several hundred pages long—about this girl who runs away to live with animals in the forest. It was basically a wishful autobiography. She was the leader of the animals and learned how to fight with a sword and kill the bad guys. It was awesome and so fun. Because I just lived in that world for all of middle school, and then I finished it and thought, “Alright, I guess I’ll be a teenager now.”
E: Do you have it on a hard drive?
C: I might at home. It’s terrifying, and I hope no one ever reads it.
L: We get access!
C: It’s your next Sinkhole feature.
L: The headline is: “LEAKED: CLAUDIA SCHATZ’S FIRST NOVEL”
C: Maybe someday I’ll excerpt it.