Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with David Lerner Schwartz

by Virgie Townsend Read the Story March 19, 2018

Part of me is hesitant to ask you too many questions about this piece because it’s so atmospheric and subtle, which is rare in stories that discuss money. Where did this story idea come from, and how did you decide to take this approach stylistically?

I just wrote it, to be honest. But looking back, I could say that I’m intrigued by our preoccupation with magic—the performance of something that we know, of course, is not magical. Who is the woman about to be sawed in half? How can a magician be so confident to threaten her? Why do we watch? Sex and money—potent things of value and exchange—have similar paradoxes in my mind.

The voice came to me first. I then wanted the language to read like alchemy. I wanted each new line to unveil something that both continued the story and also changed it, keeping the whole piece brief so that it mimicked a magic trick in and of itself.

I read this as a story on the price that women are forced to pay as they try to support themselves, particularly women of color. There are undercurrents of violence. The narrator takes the teller into the vault like in a bank robbery. The narrator says the teller just wants to learn the coin trick, so the implication is that she doesn’t want to have sex. There’s also the detail that the teller has dreads, which suggests she may be a black woman. Were those themes you were conscious of while you were writing, or did they emerge unconsciously? How do you balance intuition and planning in your writing process?

Thank you for that reading, Virgie. These themes were both conscious and unconscious—the power dynamics of consent, the sexualization of vulnerability, the violence of mystery—but who can write fiction like that?

I very rarely know where my writing is going until I’ve written it. Donald Barthelme says, “Not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made.” You can plan where a story takes place or know the beats to the plot, but you can’t know what happens on the page until you’ve written it. Revision, in this way, is maybe the balancing act, once the not-knowing and almost-knowing have been done. In my editing, I tuned the story to say what I hoped it could say in a way that fit the piece.

The piece doesn’t name the narrator, and we know relatively little about them, except that they were the advisor of the school’s magic club and listened to magic programs on the radio. Why did you choose to leave so much unknown about the narrator?

The story’s written to be tight and contained, and so the few specific details create a tension in the tone with what isn’t said. Dana Goodyear said of Lydia Davis, “What is left out gives the shape to what remains.” Sometimes it’s scarier where the reader’s mind goes in the white space, which also implicates her by requiring the reader to conspire with the story.

What pieces or authors have influenced your writing?

I try to read a book a week. It gets me into a rhythm and makes writing real. I imagine it’s how artists approach art or musicians songs. Joy Williams’ Ninety-Nine Stories of God and Mark Richard’s Charity and Ice at the Bottom of the World were buzzing in my head before I wrote “Safe.” In general, Amy Hempel and Justin Torres’ writing has had a big impact on me. Writing can be powerful in its absence, while at the same time tasting, as Torres says, like “orange juice concentrate.”

About the Author:

David Lerner Schwartz is a writer and designer living in Brooklyn, NY. His work has been published in New York Magazine, HOW, Gravel, and more. He is working on a collection of stories. Find him on Twitter @SchwartzStories.

About the Interviewer:

Virgie Townsend is a staff reader for SmokeLong. Her short fiction has been featured in such publications as Tin House’s Flash Fridays, Gargoyle, and Bartleby Snopes, as well as the anthologies SmokeLong Quarterly: The Best of the First Ten Years and Best of Pif, Volume One. Find her online @virgietownsend.

About the Artist:

Find more of Ryoji Iwata's photography on Unsplash.