[img_assist|nid=3236|title=marc schuster|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=68|height=100]Local author Marc Schuster sat down with us to discuss his upcoming novel The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl (PS Books May 2009). The tale centers on Audrey, a woman who struggles with issues of addiction and romance. The novel offers a darkly comic look at consumerism and the ideal of perfection.
At what age did you start writing?
I used to come up with odd little stories when I was eight or nine. One story I remember was about Halloween masks coming to life and terrifying the kids in my neighborhood. I’m not sure how the masks got around once they came to life, but I thought it was a great idea at the time. I also remember stealing the plot of a Doctor Who episode and writing a story called “Killer Robots,” which, coincidentally, was about killer robots.
What inspired you to write WMPG?
The novel grew out of a short story I wrote when I was a member of a local writers group. At one meeting, the assignment was to write a short story about an obsession, and I took the liberty of changing "obsession" to “addiction.". Everyone found the premise of a level-headed mom sliding into an addiction seductive, but the overwhelming consensus was that it needed development. I took it as a sign that what I had on my hands was actually a novel in its earliest stages.
Why did you choose a woman for the main character of your first novel?
I’ve always enjoyed the “conjuring” aspect of writing—inventing characters whose experiences are vastly different from my own, but at the same time finding common ground with these characters, discovering what we all share that makes us human. I did this in “My Life as an Abomination,” which Philadelphia Stories published a few years back, and it gave me a chance to explore the life of a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality. With WMPG, I wanted to do something similar, to use one woman’s story to examine the notion of addiction and how all of us can be susceptible to it in one form or another—even someone as smart and witty as Audrey.
Why choose a drug addiction to exhibit the consequences of the double standard society puts upon American woman?
I almost see drugs as the ultimate consumer product. The promise of every product that’s marketed to us is that that it will make us feel good. I see a real connection between buyer’s remorse and the crash that follows a cocaine high, for example. So we keep coming back for more. This really says something about how we really intuitively understand that we want the products in our lives to make us feel good. For Audrey, turning to drugs makes about as much sense as turning to some other product might make to someone else. Coke gives her energy, makes her feel sexy, and helps her tackle all of the overwhelming chores she faces on a daily basis. Who wouldn’t want that? And what household product doesn’t ultimately promise that? Of course, the promises of all of these products, like that of cocaine for Audrey, turns out to be empty in the end.
Audrey must, by the end of the novel, decide whether to reject the idea of being the perfect woman and accept herself as she is, flaws included, or continue to believe the “perfect woman” is an attainable existence. This is ultimately a question every person faces at some point in their life, regardless of gender. What differences do you see between men and woman and how this ingrained pressure affects them?
I’m not sure the issue always falls perfectly along gender lines. In a lot of cases, the “ideal” versions of ourselves are based on whatever we value on a personal level. At the same time, though, I think that a lot of people, myself included, don’t take time out to ask themselves why they value certain things. Why is the idea of being “number one” or the best so important in our culture? Can’t we all just be good? The idea of perfection, I think, is largely an idea invented by Madison Avenue to make us feel bad about ourselves. Personally, I see magazine ads in which beautiful and largely hairless young people are lounging around on rolling lawns, and it takes a bit of effort for me not to dwell on the fact that I’m not as young as I used to be, that I’m hairy in places I’d rather not think about, that I have a gut, that I’m a little jowly, and that I never was and never will be one of the “beautiful people.” Even so, I also know that some small part of me believes in that fantasy, that the people I see in ads are real and happy. Unless we get past that, unless we’re all okay with the fact that we’re flawed and that human beings do, in fact, smell bad on occasion (among other imperfections), then we’ll always be miserable.
The subject matter of WMPG is obviously dark, and yet there are many moments of levity with a wide range of colorful characters. How did you manage to balance the tone?
Most of my favorite writers strike this balance, so I had many wonderful examples to follow. One of the reasons Kurt Vonnegut is so great is that he simply points out the more ridiculous ironies of life. To some degree, that’s what I was trying to do in WMPG. For example, I think it’s interesting that we’ve evolved in such a way that pretty much anything that makes us feel good will kill us. The other part of the equation is respecting the characters. Audrey is a sharp and witty person with a keen eye for irony. Since the story is told from her point of view, it’s only natural that she’s going to pick up on all of the ridiculous things that happen around her—everything from the bizarre efforts of characters like Captain Panther to keep kids off drugs to her seven year old daughter’s strange fascination with haute couture. It’s tough to have your wits about you in this world and not see that much of what we do is incredibly absurd.
Would you describe your novel as a feminist novel?
I think it resonates with a lot of issues that might be termed feminist, but I was ultimately aiming at a more humanist target. I wanted to underscore the dignity of humanity and to explore the ways in which each of us struggles to make something of our lives—basically how we dig ourselves into holes but also have the power to dig ourselves out again.
Which authors influence your work the most?
Kurt Vonnegut, of course. Don DeLillo is another big one. I love the epic sweep of Underworld. I’m also a big fan of Chuck Palahniuk and Jonathan Lethem. Lately I’ve been getting into Michael Cunningham and Jonathan Franzen as well. The Loss of Leon Meed by Josh Emmons is another book that I really admire—big cast of characters with a touch of magic realism. I’d like to do something along similar lines
What do you hope readers will take away when they finish your book?
I don’t want this to be a moralistic book, the kind of book where people can reduce it to a single lesson like “Just say no.” I’d rather have readers come away with a sense of the complexity of addiction and an understanding of the human dimension of addiction. It’s so easy to think of “addicts” as a category and thus to dismiss them as human beings. By painting a portrait of a specific person who has fallen into an addiction and recovered, my hope was to humanize the phenomenon, to allow readers to sympathize with someone they might otherwise be tempted to dismiss, and to allow readers to recognize some element of themselves in the character of Audrey.
Do you have any signings or readings planned before or once WMPG is released?
I have a couple lined up at Rosemont College—with their literary magazine and through the Rosemont Writers’ Retreat, where I’ll be teaching this summer. I’ll be at Doylestown Bookshop on May 22. I’m also reading in September at Montgomery County Community College. Anyone who wants me to read or meet with their book club can get in touch through my website—www.marcschuster.com.