David Schwartz' Superpowers
David Schwartz's first novel, Superpowers, came out this month by Three Rivers Press. The book has been praised by Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler, with Fowler saying, ""A thoughtful and convincing blend of magic and realism. I believed in these ordinary, recognizable college students with their extraordinary abilities. As their powers change and fail them (and vice versa), Superpowers tells us a story both soaring and sober." I interviewed Schwartz recently about his book. He answered the questions via email while "sitting at Nina's Coffee Cafe in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Nina's is a great little place in my neighborhood, despite having a redundant name. It sits in a corner of the Blair Arcade building, which used to be the Angus Hotel and the Albion before that; it's a gorgeous five-story red-brick building with lots of stonework and wrought iron detailing, built in 1887."
Amazon.com: So your superhero novel has no villains in it, I hear.
David Schwartz: In a way I think that the powers themselves are the villains, or at the very least a major complicating factor to the challenges the characters already have in their lives. It was important to me that the characters remain normal people, aside from their new abilities. I think that super-villains have a tendency to move stories to a different level, one that's more mythic (and, well, heroic) but is also less relatable, and less open to questions about the personal and societal implications of that sort of power. It's nice, sometimes, to think of evil having a recognizable face, like the Joker's. That way everyone knows who to punch when bad things happen. But aside from being an oversimplification, it's also a way of distancing us from the terrible mistakes that ordinary people are capable of making, even without a lot of power.
Amazon.com: What was the initial spark for the novel?
David Schwartz: The initial spark was just a love for superhero stories, and a desire to play in that sandbox. I was carrying the idea around for a long time before I wrote it -- the characters, the setting (Madison, Wisconsin, where I went to college), some skeletons of scenes. By the time I felt ready to start it, it was September of 2001, and of course that changed things. It took me a while to decide, first, that I wanted to address what had happened in the context of the book, and second, how to do that without being disrespectful or exploitative. So on the one hand it's very pop-culture inspired, and there are Easter Eggs scattered through the book for comics-savvy readers. On the other hand, it takes a pretty skeptical look at the drawbacks of having, and especially using, power.
Amazon.com: Do you have a favorite superhero?
David Schwartz: One of my biggest comic-book obsessions was the Junior-X-Men book The New Mutants, and I think my fave character from there has to be Cannonball, AKA Sam Guthrie. He's the son of a Kentucky coal miner with a mutant power that essentially enables him to turn into a human rocket; the only problem is that, at least in the beginning, he's incapable of steering and has a tendency to run into walls and such. He takes his role as a hero seriously, but he's conflicted by his responsibilities to his mother and his seven siblings. He's worked in the mines and as a farmer, but he's a science fiction geek who knows a Dyson sphere when he sees one. He's a shy guy who lands a rock-star girlfriend and a deeply moral young man who ends up leading an outlaw superhero team. When the character is done well (which is not always), he's complex and charming and believable.
Amazon.com: Is there a super power you would not want to have?
David Schwartz: There are so many to choose from! I wouldn't want to be a telepath like Professor X, because that way lies madness; I'd rather not be a stretchy guy like the Elongated Man or Mr. Fantastic, because that's actually kind of gross; and I fear that animal-themed powers like the Beast's would mean furry-groupies. Being a super-speedster would make waiting in lines sheer torture. Rogue of the X-Men has it pretty crappy, what with the can't-touch-anyone-or-I-absorb-their-being thing (the most literal take on fear of intimacy EVER). I think the worst, though, would be super-strength, in part because it so often comes with grotesque physical changes. The most poignant case I can think of is Ben Grimm AKA the Thing. He's a tough-talking but essentially decent guy, stuck in a body made up of orange rocks. He feels unlovable, even though his basic decency makes him the moral anchor of the Fantastic Four and one of the best-loved characters in comics. Which is all well and good, but he's still made out of orange rocks.
Amazon.com: How devoted are you to your book? Will you be dressing up in a cape and other paraphernalia while on your book tour?
David Schwartz: Do red Chuck Taylors count? It is my belief that capes and masks and an underwear-over-tights combo are perfectly acceptable fetish gear for consenting adults to use in private, much like high heel shoes, Nutella, and the novels of Ethan Hawke. But, you know, it's better to keep such things behind closed doors. The world is frightening enough.