Lynne Sharon Schwartz, interviewed by Dawn Raffel
On music, writing, ambition, and keeping creativity alive
Lynne Sharon Schwartz is a virtuoso writer whose 19 books include novels, short stories, nonfiction, essays, poetry, and translation. Her latest, Two-Part Inventions, is an intricate novel of marriage and music. It opens with the sudden death of Suzanne, a world-renowned yet reclusive classical pianist. Before long, her record-producer husband Philip’s “vast, gray-skied prairie of grief” is darkened by the realization that his deceit—he doctored her records—is about to be exposed. The reason Suzanne recorded but didn’t perform in public was that her husband was fixing her lapses by inserting uncredited snippets from other musicians.
You write with such intimacy and precision about the world of classical music. Are you also a musician?
I started playing the piano at a very early age and took lessons until I went to college. Since then I’ve tried to keep it up, on and off. At seventeen I played fairly well, but now not very well at all, alas. But music has always played an important part in my life, next to literature. I listen all the time and go to lots of concerts. I never played nearly as well as my character, Suzanne, in Two-Part Inventions, but it was a fantasy of mine to be able to do so.
Do you feel that music has informed your writing in ways that go beyond subject matter or plot?
Definitely. In an earlier novel, Disturbances in the Field, the heroine was also a pianist, and played professionally in a chamber group. In writing short stories I often think of the arc of the story as a musical shape. In Two-Part Inventions I thought of the structure very roughly as sonata form—exposition, development and recapitulation—with the various themes popping up here and there in the movements. I wrote an essay, “The Piano” (published in Agni Magazine) in which I describe my rather ambivalent relationship to my old piano, which my parents gave me as a high school graduation present and which I still have. And of course in writing poetry the music of the lines is foremost, the sounds of the vowels and consonants and how they mingle.
In the current issue of our magazine, The Literarian, nine writers tell us about a work of visual art that inspires them. Can you do that with a work of music?
Disturbances in the Field is informed, maybe even haunted, by Schubert’s “Trout Quintet,” which plays an important role in the story. I’m currently trying to learn some of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues from “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” and besides struggling to play them, I’m thinking a lot about their complexity and counterpoint, and imagining how this could be replicated in writing.
The themes of ambition, competition, the fear of being not good enough—not real—and the temptation to cheat a little certainly transcend the music community. Have you seen these play out in the literary world?
Two-Part Inventions is based on the actual story of the British pianist Joyce Hatto and her husband, William Barrington-Coupe, who doctored her CDs. What intrigued me about their story is, how could anyone enjoy success when they know it is based on fraud? I’ve never been tempted to plagiarize, and one of the reasons—besides the fact that it’s wrong—is that I could never feel any personal fulfillment if I knew my success was not really mine. In the novel I tried to imagine how far one would go with an ambition that was wildly out of bounds. Of course how much my character, Suzanne, knows about her husband’s machinations is uncertain, as it was in the case of Hatto as well.
Though so much is written about “love,” it’s a rare author who writes knowingly and honestly about the complexities of feeling and motivation in a marriage. Binnie Kirschenbaum, who is reading with you, does it too. Are there other writers’ whose portrayals of marriage you admire?
Oh, there are so many. Henry James in The Golden Bowl is the first that comes to mind. And Tolstoy’s Family Happiness, which is a painful story to read, with its very negative—to me—view of marriage. Some of Jane Austen’s portrayals of marriage are wickedly funny. And there are many contemporary writers who do this well, but I think women more than men.
You’ve been writing and publishing for a long time. What keeps it fresh for you? What keeps you alive as an artist?
I keep looking at the world and seeing new things, or interpreting old things in new ways. Every now and then I see or hear something that strikes my imagination and gives me an idea for a story. I write in various genres and when I feel tired of one, I turn to another, and that helps keep the work fresh.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz is the author of 21 books, including novels, story collections, non-fiction, poetry, and translations from Italian. Her most recent are the poetry collection, See You in the Dark; the memoir, Not Now, Voyager; the novel, The Writing on the Wall; and Referred Pain, a collection of stories. She is also the editor of The Emergence of Memory, an anthology of interviews with and essays on W.G. Sebald. She has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Foundation for the Arts. She is a faculty member at the Bennington College Writing Seminars and the Columbia University Writing Program.