Image: “Lumières allumées,” by Bella Chagall, 1948.
Liz Cettina: How did you begin writing “are you there?”
Anna Schwab: Well I found a message in a bottle actually, the summer before I wrote it. And it was kind of the feeling of finding a message in a bottle and being really excited, and it was actually a family from Nantucket—and it wasn’t very exciting, so I thought I was not going to respond. But my boyfriend, Jack, said,“No, you have to write them back! When do you find a message in a bottle?” And so I wrote them back, and it was a really sweet experience, and all the kids sent me photos of them waving, and they were so happy that someone actually found their message in a bottle. They kept emailing me saying, “Where are you from? Who are you?” It was really sweet.
L: They were obsessed with you.
A: The kids thought it was the most incredible thing. And really it took a week from Martha’s Vineyard to Nantucket.
L: Why did you change it in the story to Lily receiving the letter from the family later and being kind of disappointed?
A: I like the idea of capturing the feeling of waiting for something huge and exciting, and then being faced with reality, and it not matching up to your expectations. So I felt the reverse of what happened to me captured that.
Emma Raddatz: Do you remember what the message you received said?
A: It was actually the message from the story.
L: Was that their actual information?
A: Yeah, Bradley@bbs-law.com.
L: Oh my god, should we not have that?
A: Oh no it’s fine, I mean they put it in the ocean for anyone to find. I should find the actual email correspondences from two years ago, though. It’s pretty cool. You don’t know that many people who find a message in a bottle. Actually, there’s this crazy story about my dad’s friend—I might not tell the story right—but his friend faked a message in a bottle being sent from the East Coast to Spain, and they ended up mailing it and the parents put it on the beach. But it actually became this huge news story, and they had just done it as a prank for their children, but then it became this huge deal and they couldn’t say that it was a lie. So they got caught in this web of lies. You can actually find the story online, it’s crazy. Mine was a real message in a bottle, though.
E: What was the revision process like for this piece?
A: It actually didn’t have much of a revision process. I wrote it in a creative writing class, and I chose not to revise this one. So that’s actually the rough draft.
L: But you revised it from the real story.
E: And in the process of writing you do a lot of revising as you go along.
A: Yeah, I do that. I sit with a paragraph for a while before I keep going.
E: I thought that the post office scene worked well as a sort of interlude—or “junction” as you write. What gave you this idea?
A: I wanted to make the girl live in mostly an imaginary world and have her imagination implode into this sort of fantasy, and so I thought having her work at the post office and pretending that she had all of these communications with people emphasized how lonely she was and how very much in her head she was. And she’s not actually dealing directly with people by working in a post office. She’s kind of like the medium people use to get from one person to another, so she’s caught in between different correspondences, which I thought was a nice image for her character. Not truly communicating with people but being the in-between.
L: Does that relate to why you chose this specific setting?
A: It’s less about the place and more about the time of year, summer. When you’re young, the summer is this moment of transition when you’re in between. I also like the idea that there’s a time deadline with summer. She only has so long to wait for the letter before she leaves.
E: Who are your favorite writers?
A: I have been reading a lot of Philip K. Dick recently. He’s a science fiction writer. He wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I’ve been on a science fiction kick recently. I also love Joan Didion. I would say those are the two main authors that I’ve been reading.
E: There’s this one passage in your piece, “Those messages shine out through the windows in deep winter, lighthouses of snowy banks,” that made me wonder if Virginia Woolf influenced the writing of this piece.
A: She did, definitely. I love To the Lighthouse. The sentiment in To the Lighthouse is similar to that of my piece—characters existing in this expansive sense of time, very much caught up in their expectations of things versus how they actually are.
L: Are Philip K. Dick and other sci-fi writers influencing what you’re writing about?
A: Definitely. I recently love thinking of artificial situations that you can put characters in to reveal human nature in an interesting way. I’ve been writing this piece where the characters exist in a world where no one can see anything and how beauty and the standards of beauty change to people’s voices. And language becomes important in a way that it isn’t in the visual world.
E: What’s the relationship like between your music and your creative writing?
A: I use creative writing as a sort of break from writing music and a different way to flex creative muscles. I think creativity is a muscle you have to work and be disciplined about. Even when you don’t feel like it, you have to try to put something on the page. Also learning how to tell a story completely is helpful for any kind of writing I do. I find that learning that in a class setting is helpful for music as well.
E: When you write a piece, do you have a sense of how it’s going to end?
A: Usually I start without knowing where it’s going, and then when I have an idea, I map it out and go from there.
L: When you said, “tell a story completely,” before what did you mean? What constitutes “completely”? Which aspects of a piece are most important to “finish”?
A: “Complete” to me means having something that is completely self-referential in terms of the images you use. Does everything have its place? Is everything working together? Was everything an intentional choice? To me, that is something that feels finished. With plot, there obviously has to be some sort of resolution or non-resolution. The best part of the editing process is when you finish something, and you know that everything has its place, nothing is there that doesn’t need to be.
E: Do you find that there are certain formal elements you’re drawn to in your writing?
A: I like messing with grammar a little bit and having phrases that aren’t necessarily syntactically correct but convey a feeling. This author I really love named Brian Doyle does things like that where he’ll have a run-on sentence to release the tension. It gives this beautiful sense of relief after a bunch of short sentences, so I like doing that. And playing with, Virginia Woolf does this, super long sentences that give you a sense of movement in time.
L: How do you use those techniques in this piece? Is there anything you did that you were like, ‘This is something people should notice.’? Something I noticed was the sentence-as-subject.
A: Yeah, I like doing ‘The something,’ taking a whole clause and making it into a noun.
L: What do you think that does?
A: I like the tone that it gives and makes it feel a little childlike, which is what I was going for with this. I also think it captures my feeling of the way we create these narratives, and they become this noun-thing in our brains. It’s almost like your own lexicon with yourself about things in your life. I think we all have our own private language with ourselves, and these ways of referring to narratives and ideas about the world. That sort of grammatical thing captures that for me.
L: Is there anything in music—I don’t know anything about music—are there certain phrases that become whole, a subject for one thing?
A: I wouldn’t know how to compare that. I definitely use certain chord progressions that I feel convey a specific feeling. I definitely think more before I write than I do with music. Music feels more immediate and then I go back and think about it, whereas with writing I’m putting more thought into it beforehand.
E: When you write music, do you tend to write the lyrics first?
A: I usually write lyrics last. It’s like when I’m trying to force myself to finish a song, I have to write the lyrics. It usually starts with a melody, not a vocal melody, but some sort of instrumentation, and then I add drums and vocal melody, and lyrics are the last thing.
L: What instruments do you play?
A: I play piano and guitar. Recently, though, I’ve been making electronic music so I haven’t really been playing instruments.
L: What does that entail?
E: These are such broad questions.
A: Have you ever heard of Ableton? That’s what I use. It’s a program that a lot of people who make electronic music use. There are instruments inside the program, and then I have a keyboard called a midi keyboard. And I can make sounds on the computer, and then when I play the piano, it triggers the sounds.
E: That’s so cool. Wow. We should make music, Liz.
L: We should make electronic music.
E: You mentioned Brian Doyle. What does he write?
A: He’s pretty unknown, but I think he’s one of the most beautiful writers. We read three pieces of his in Writing Creative Non-fiction. He writes short, non-fiction essays. And he works for some small newspaper. He has this beautiful piece called “His Last Game” about his relationship to his brother who’s sick, and it’s one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever read. He also has this piece I really like about a hummingbird and different animals’ heartbeats.
E: What do you think is the most important thing about “are you there?” Is there one thing you want readers to take away from it?
A: I guess something I was thinking about a lot, and considering To the Lighthouse, was the idea of the present moment and how we’re easily swept up in our heads and lost in our imagination, or how we’d like things to be and we forget to actually see what’s—at the risk of being cliché—right in front of us. I think that’s what I was trying to capture in this piece.
L: How does that work with the writing process? As the writer, everything’s exactly how you want it to be. What guides you that isn’t the you wanting a certain thing to happen?
A: That would be awesome if everything was exactly how I wanted it to be in a story. I don’t ever feel like that. I think that’s a huge part of being creative in general. You don’t always have control over what you’re making. You have this ideal of what you want it to be, but it never is that. So you have to accept the thing you’ve made and work with it. I think that’s one of the biggest parts of the creative process because it always gets away from you. You know where you want it to go, and then you forget how you’re supposed to get there.
E: Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
A: I think I like writing non-fiction more, but I go back and forth. If I’m in a non-fiction class, I like writing non-fiction. If I’m in a fiction class, I like writing fiction.
E: What about reading?
A: I definitely read fiction more.
L: When you’ve been in different classes or working within different art forms, have you ever felt limited by trying to fit within some mold?
A: I don’t think so because even when you’re presented with a certain form, there’s so many things you can do, and constraints you can put on yourself to make it a unique challenge. Sometimes I feel limited by page length, when a professor gives you a page length. I often write things and edit them so much they become shorter than the page length, and then I feel like I have to force more pages and that’s frustrating.
L: These are vague questions, and this is harder for you because writing is not your sole creative outlet. But you said writing is a good tool for you for discipline, etc. But do you think writing can accomplish something music can’t?
A: It’s definitely more linguistically oriented because I usually place more importance on the music than the lyrics when I write music. Writing engages more my internal dialogue with myself, and how I think about things through language that music doesn’t necessarily give me. Especially with non-fiction, I take writing as an opportunity to run with things I’ve been thinking about.
E: Are there certain things, topics, you write about often?
A: I really like writing about what it was like growing up in New York—the anxieties in that. I was claustrophobic, and I think a lot of it was from being in a cramped space. So I’ve been writing a lot about that and how unnatural it is to be a child growing up in a city.
Anna Schwab is a member of the Wesleyan Class of 2016. Check out her story “are you there?“