Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with David Schweidel

by Jacob S. Knabb Read the Story June 19, 2017

It was interesting when you decided to explore a cliché as the stated motivation driving Morris’ decision to approach the narrator. Was this choice to explode a cliché part of the plan for this short or a sort of happy accident during the writing process?

I take my dog Leonard for a walk most mornings, and on one of those morning walks I got the idea of a story about a tree that fell over in the forest, and the tree goes to a shrink because he’s not sure if he even made a sound. A groaner of a joke—but it gave me the freedom to play around with some ideas I took very seriously—the feeling that you haven’t accomplished what you wanted to accomplish, that you haven’t left a significant mark. The joke of the premise, I hoped, gave me a way to treat a subject that otherwise might have been maudlin.

If you were to walk into a shit-ass roadside establishment in an unincorporated town where you were extremely likely to get your teeth knocked out, what would you order and which song would you play on the jukebox?

For the song, I’d definitely go Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin’”—that song is bulletproof. Your question reminds me that I once stopped at a bar on Highway 666, somewhere north of Gallup, New Mexico, and all the men in the bar (no women in sight) were drinking Budweiser. The TV was tuned to a basketball game, but the sound was either broken or off. No one looked at me or at the friend I was with, not even the bartender. We ordered Buds, drank them quick, and got back on the road. (I don’t remember a jukebox, but maybe the song I should have played was the Carl Douglas classic, “Kung Fu Fighting.”)

Did you know how this story would end? When did you realize how this story would end?

I did not know how the story would end until I got to the last line. I was feeling pressure, because I knew I was nearing the end. I wrote the first draft in a single sitting because I could hear the voice of the narrator pretty clearly in my mind. There was a mood I was going for, half bad joke, half philosophical inquiry, and maybe the bad joke won out at the end—but later, when I looked at the last line with an eye toward revising, and I wondered if “leaving” and “leaves” could coexist in the same sentence, I decided—or rationalized—that the story was all about leavings, so I left the line as it was.

If you had to describe this story to an elderly relative what would you say?

I’d describe this story as being about a tree that goes to see a therapist because he fell over in a forest and isn’t sure whether he made a sound or not. I think that this idea of making a sound and being heard should resonate with elderly relatives. I hope it resonates with anyone who wonders if what they do and what they’ve done will have any lasting significance.

I think the moment when Morris’ branches flutter is the key to the story—particularly your decision as an author not to assign meaning or motivation to that moment. Was that a hard decision to make? Was there an earlier draft where you explored motivation here or assigned a reason behind this moment of sublimity?

Thank you for this question. I really liked the mystery of those fluttering branches. And I really did try to get into the mindset of a therapist, the idea of the importance of letting certain things be. The impulse to analyze and explain only takes you so far. It was also important to me that the therapist lose his authority. I wanted the client and the therapist to be on equal footing at the end. The client still has his secrets. The therapist doesn’t know everything. In fact, he’s mystified.

About the Author:

David Schweidel writes fiction and creative nonfiction. His novel Confidence of the Heart won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize. His nonfiction book, What Men Call Treasure, co-written with Robert Boswell, was a Western Writers Award finalist. He lives in Berkeley and teaches poetry as an elementary school volunteer.

About the Interviewer:

Jacob S. Knabb is a social media and communications manager for a large not-for-profit. In a past life he was editor-in-chief at Curbside Splendor Publishing, editor-in-chief at Another Chicago Magazine, and taught publishing and creative writing at Lake Forest College. Follow him on Instagram: @hambonehambone & twitter: @jacobsknabb