Marc Schuster is a teacher and author whose debut novel The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl offers what author Steve Almond has referred to as “a terrific and unconventional look at motherhood.” In a recent interview with the Miami Herald, Almond went on to praise the novel by saying, “It’s about a divorced mom of two who sort of goes nuts and becomes a giant cokehead. It’s very funny and very sad, two qualities that travel well together. Schuster has a great ear for dialogue, and he’s both tender and ruthless with his heroine. I love books like this, ones that take big emotional risks.”
When he’s not writing, Schuster is the editor of Small Press Reviews, and he teaches English at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. His second novel, The Grievers, is due from The Permanent Press in May of 2012.
PS: Have you ever tried cocaine?
MS: No, I've never tried cocaine, but I did a lot of research on the subject to make Audrey's descent into addiction feel realistic to readers. The idea for the novel itself started with some reading I was doing for another project altogether. I was writing a paper on drug imagery in the poetry of TS Eliot, and the section of library where all of my sources were located included a lot of contemporary books on the issues of drugs and addiction. I started paging through one of them, and though it was fairly dry, a case study caught my eye. This was back in 1997, so I'm a little fuzzy on the exact details, but what I remember is a description of a divorced mother of two who had tried cocaine for the first time when her boyfriend offered it to her. She reported that she liked the drug because it made her come out of her shell. When asked, the respondent said she would probably try it again. That case study stayed with me for a long time, and, in my mind, anyway, the woman in the study eventually evolved into Audrey.
PS: Ah, Audrey. From the very first opening line I knew I liked her. Then just a few pages in, I became infatuated with her. She's so perfect in her imperfections, so deliciously feminine. Being a man, how were you so able to capture the mindset of a woman? Surely this is beyond the scope of research?
MS: Oddly enough, I did do a little bit of research—not into the character of Audrey so much as the kinds of messages our culture is always sending out to women in general and mothers in particular. This research consisted largely of paging through parenting and women’s magazines and making notes about the kinds of articles and advertisements I saw. I give a slight nod to my sources when Audrey and Melinda head off to procure some cocaine from a new, sketchy source and Audrey pages through a magazine called Pretty Easy to take her mind off the neighborhood they’re driving through. I don’t think there’s actually a magazine called Pretty Easy, but the ad copy that Audrey reads, and which makes her feel guilty for not being a perfect mom, comes directly from real-life advertisements. One of my favorites is “Having sexy underarms is no sweat.” I wish I could have made that up, but it was pure Madison Avenue. The same goes for “Me time should come drizzled in chocolate.” The only difference for Audrey is that her vice of choice when she gets some “me time” isn’t chocolate.
As for capturing the mindset of a woman, I never sat down and thought to myself, “I’m writing from the perspective of a female character.” Instead, I tried to think about all of the things that make Audrey tick, all of the things she wants, all of the insecurities that might motivate her. Personally, I have plenty of insecurities to draw on, so it was easy to get into Audrey’s head. The biggest one, at least as far as her character is concerned, is loneliness. I’m not quite the loner I was in my youth, but there was a time when I felt incredibly isolated, and that’s what Audrey’s going through in the wake of her divorce. She’d met all of her old friends through her ex-husband, Roger, and the only adults she knows are her coworkers. When Owen Little shows up and pays a bit of attention to her, it’s her loneliness—her fear of never really connecting with another adult again—that makes her take risks that she might not normally take.
PS: God, you make me want to menstruate, but towards the end of the novel, you outright broke my heart. Owen gets rough with Audrey and demands that she admit being attacked by "goat-boy" turned her on. And that she made her kids watch them have sex and threatened to have their father killed if they ever told. At any point did you worry you went too far there?
MS: A lot of people are disturbed by that passage, and rightly so, I would say. But I never thought I went too far. I generally don't go into writing thinking, "Is this going to upset people?" Life upsets people, and life is what I'd like to think I'm writing about, so I assume that some of what I write is going to be disturbing. In this sense, I'm glad I broke your heart with that passage. It lets me know you're not a sociopath! As far as writing goes, though, I also don't start out trying offend or disturb people just for the sake of doing so. I'm not into gratuitous sex or violence. Or gratuitous anything, for that matter. I usually try to make sure everything I put into a story or novel is there for a reason.
PS: Yes, later I realized it's a key scene to the entire story. Any scenes that didn't make the final version you want to tell us about?
MS: There were plenty of dead-ends when I wrote the first draft of the novel, and even characters that ended up getting cut completely. Early on, I had Audrey working at a commercial real-estate company. There was a sub-plot where she was selling drugs out of unused office spaces. At that point, I actually had two different characters that I eventually merged into Melinda. One was a hairdresser named Deirdre, and the other was a co-worker named Melinda who encouraged Audrey to have a little fun once in a while. It wasn't until draft three or four that I remembered I knew nothing about commercial real estate and that my actual background was in editing the kind of rag that Audrey works for in the final version of the novel. At the very least, this gave me the opportunity to create a believable livelihood for Audrey--or one that I understood, anyway.
A scene that got dropped later in the revision process involved Audrey's first experience with cocaine. The research I had done suggested that many first-time cocaine users don't get much of a buzz. As a result, most of the early drafts of the novel have Audrey trying cocaine once and not feeling much of anything. The experience, however, is enough to make her curious to try it again, and it isn't until the second time that she falls in love with the feeling the drug gives her. One of the ideas that I was trying to convey was that she was effectively addicted before the drug even got her high--that just the idea of cocaine, the allure of the drug, the fact that using it makes her someone other than the woman her ex-husband rejected, is what gets her hooked. As much as I liked this idea, it slowed the story down a bit, and my editor didn't feel that it matched up with popular mythology regarding the drug. Ironically, my attempt at realism made the editor think my portrayal of Audrey's first experience with cocaine was unrealistic.
PS: Haha, I guess sometimes realism isn't so realistic. Has your editor ever done coke?
MS: That thought did occur to me, but I never had the courage to ask. And, of course, I can't tell you which editor it was.
PS: Fair enough. I understand there's a second version of your novel. Can you talk about why that is and the differences between the two?
MS: The novel was originally published by PS Books, which is the books division of Philadelphia Stories magazine. The run was about 500 books, and there was never a plan to do a second run. At about the time their stock was running low, Martin Shepard of The Permanent Press started reading some of the reviews I'd written at Small Press Reviews and called to ask if I ever did any writing. Though I was working on another project at the time, it wasn't even close to being finished, so I asked if I could send him a copy of Wonder Mom. He read it and liked it, and said he'd publish it if I could cut it down a bit. Since I've always respected The Permanent Press and loved its titles, I jumped at the chance. In the cutting process, though, I started realizing that the structure of the book as a whole would have to change. As a result, the two editions are very different from each other.
What I call the pink edition is the paperback version that PS Books published in 2009. It's a bit longer than the later edition, but the bigger difference is that it jumps back and forth in time. The blue edition, by way of contrast, is the hardback version from The Permanent Press. I cut a lot of backstory from that version--mainly information having to do with Audrey's divorce, because I didn't think I was doing anything especially new with that material. Fifty years ago, describing an ugly divorce might have been groundbreaking, but today, it's just part of the furniture, so I was okay with cutting it. But the novel started feeling a little lopsided when I started cutting, so I reshuffled the chapters and put them in chronological order. To me, the whole experience underscores the performativity of writing. We tend to think of a text as a single, unbending, unchanging thing in our culture, but my experience moving from one publisher to the next allowed me to play with the book and, in turn, allowed the book to evolve. In this sense, I see it as akin to a jazz performance. The basic themes are all present in both editions, but I do something different with them in each. I'm really happy with both editions.
PS: As you should be. Next I'd like to discuss the good guy of the story: Captain Panther, who perhaps seems pathetic in his ambition to be America's #1 anti-drug superhero, but really proves himself as a true friend and support to Audrey by the end. He's so unique yet real. I think the last time I saw a character like that was in a Tom Robbins novel. Where'd he come from?
MS: Captain Panther is a case of truth being stranger than fiction. I used to live near a nursery school, and one day when I was struggling with writer's block, I heard a drum machine and someone yelling into a microphone: "Come on out, Tigerman!" Then I heard a few dozen preschoolers chanting, "Come on out, Tigerman!" I looked out my back window and saw a man dressed like a tiger rapping about saying no to drugs and bullying. Initially, I was really annoyed. I was trying to write a novel, after all, and this guy was a bit of a distraction. But then it hit me that this might be the key to breaking my writer's block. A new character. A new direction for the story. So I started imaging what a guy like this would be like and why he'd do what he does--the origin story, as it were. It really helped me find a balance in terms of the characters in the novel. So many of them are just slimy and selfish. It was nice to be able add a decent, if somewhat off-kilter, human being to the mix. The only problem is that a few readers have complained that Captain Panther is just too ridiculous of a character, completely unrealistic. It's a problem I run into a lot, I suppose--reporting what I see and being told that it's not realistic.
PS: Do you think those readers have ever done coke?
PS: Ah, that explains a lot. Everyone knows you can't trust cokeheads. I used it for a while in college and found it totally un-heady; it affected only the lowest, most base parts of me: my id and ego. I did dumb, cliché things like snort lines off women's tits while thinking I was so cool. You've spent a lot of time with cocaine, even if indirectly, what are your thoughts about the drug now? How did your views change from the time you started until the time you finished?
MS: When I started working on the book, I was thinking of cocaine as a metaphor for consumerism writ large. We live in a culture where we're always encouraged to spend loads of money on useless shit we don't need. And we're supposed to do it quickly--probably because if we think too much about our purchases, we might be less likely to make them. We're really into immediate gratification, and that, from all I'd read, was also what cocaine was about. Feeding the id and ego, as your experience suggests.
As I continued to work on the book, though, I started thinking about addiction more broadly. Everybody, I think, has a void that needs to be filled in one way or another. We all feel pain, existential angst. Everybody hurts, to quote Michael Stipe. Some people discover that getting high is a way to quiet that angst, to quell those fears. Other people turn to things like shopping or gambling. Still others eat or love or pray. Or they starve themselves. Or cut themselves. Personally, I can't go five minutes without checking my email. It's not that I'm expecting anything. I just keep checking it on the off-chance that someone wrote to say something nice to me. It's like playing a really lame slot machine. It's also why I had to get off Facebook. I was on there all the time, seeing what people had to say.
I mention all of this because when I was meeting with book clubs and doing readings, some people would comment and say that Audrey was weak--weak for trying cocaine in the first place, and weak for succumbing to addiction. My response was always to say that everyone has a weakness, but this doesn't make everyone weak. It's how we respond to our weaknesses, how we deal with our angst and the mistakes we make that matters. For me, that's the whole point of the novel.
PS: Amen. I feel the same way about America which is why I hope everyone reads The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl which can be purchased HERE:
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this, Marc.
MS: Thank you, Peter. The pleasure was all mine.