Nat Schmookler graduated in 2011 from Harvard College where, among other subjects, he studied writing. “The Can Down the Road” is his second published story; the first appeared in Gulf Stream in 2012. He lives in New York and is a freelance writer and editor.
Amoskeag: Your main character is hopeful as he faces extreme difficulties with a person whom he deeply cares about. How does the narrator, as well as Mel, get to these points in their lives? What makes their personal views of the world so different from one another?
Nat: I’m not sure I agree that their perspectives are really so different. I think what makes them a great match is that they both believe that things will be better in the future. That’s what keeps them going in spite of the obvious horror of their relationship. And that’s why things can get to such a state: they both say to themselves (and each other) that things will soon improve. The metaphor I imagine is that of a family locking itself in the cellar to wait for a storm to pass over: It’s horrible while you wait, but imagine how glad you’ll be once you emerge to those clear blue skies.
Amoskeag: Are either of your characters perspectives of the world reflective of the way you see the world? Or were you surprised by what they saw and how they felt?
Nat: So far in my stories, I have found that the only compelling characters I’ve managed to create are those I can empathise with. To me that means that I can catch glimpses of what’s going on inside them and see what it feels like to be them. Does Joe Protagonist massage a sense of victimhood when he sits in traffic? Does he care that he forgot to pack a lunch? What thoughts does he keep at bay by watching baseball? All these aspects and countless others, if considered from very far away, blend together to become our “point of view.” And, if my characters come off as believable, it is because I managed to get a sense of that point of view. So, I suppose that means I do share a point of view with my characters, at least partially, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also surprise me. That surprise comes when I realize how wrong I was in my assessment, and some new piece slides into place. That surprise is a great feeling.
Amoskeag: Why did you begin “there”? What inspired you to choose such a sensitive issue /conflict for your story?
Nat: Those who struggle with body issues and eating disorders are an appallingly large group in this country, and this group is troublingly faceless. There is no Michael J. Fox for this group, so it felt important to humanize those peculiar sterile words “bulimia” and “anorexia.” To that end, I started in the car, hoping to capture the words’ essence: crisis. The story starts in the middle of one and it ends when the crisis defused. But of course it isn’t really defused; there will be another one the next day, and the next day. The story could have started anywhere and have been more or less the same.
Amoskeag: Did you plan for your story to end the way it did and why/why not?
Nat: I did not. I’ve only written one story whose end I knew when I start, and I felt it came out too tidy and therefore absent of life. Much better for me is to start with a character or situation that interests me, and see where it takes me. Each story is always telling you where it needs to go next, you just have to listen. My hope is that if I find my ending surprising, the reader will too.
Amoskeag: How did you construct the language of the piece? How did you come to hear and record the feelings of your narrator?
Nat: To the extent that I thought explicitly about tone, my thought was this: the pacing has to be just right. Moments of crisis seem to move by at breakneck speed, but not quite: they also lurch into moments of odd overfull stillness. I wanted the reader to experience the event with the narrator, so it was important to get his sense of time. But how does one strike that tone? Couldn’t say. Lots of drafts though.
Amoskeag: What is the significance of the line “You don’t love me, you’re ashamed of me”?
Nat: This is the line Mel uses to get the narrator to relent and put off the confrontation. He decides to wait until a better moment to press her to keep her word. Of course, she won’t keep her word next time either. The line is also significant, I hope, because I believe that Mel is correct. The narrator is lying either to her or to himself, and it’s true he no longer loves her. Sooner or later, he’ll confirm her worst fear.
Amoskeag: How do you feel when a piece gets accepted and readers that you don’t know are now going to complete the story that you worked so hard at to shape? What emotions do you want the readers to feel or what messages do you want them to comprehend?
Nat: It feels great! As a young writer with little chance of getting paid for my stories any time soon, writing is necessarily a solitary labor of love. I write because I love it, because I need it, because I don’t know what else I’d do. And so when a story gets accepted, it means that somebody connected with what I wrote, and that makes me feel more confident in my work. But I don’t have specific emotions or messages I’m trying to communicate; I’m not sure fiction is a great medium for messages and, even if it were, I don’t have one. Instead, I just hope that each reader finds the story engaging enough to finish, and gets enough from it to be glad to have done so.
Amoskeag: What’s next for you as a writer?
Nat: This fall I’m taking a fiction workshop at the 92Y and applying to MFA programs for next year. And, of course, doing at least a little bit of writing each day.