Today, I’m excited to welcome David J. Schwartz to the blog to talk about his story “Bear in Contradicting Landscape” from The Book of Apex Volume 4.
As I write this, I am in a haze of pain and pain-killing medications. In about twenty-four hours I’ll be having an infected wisdom tooth extracted, after which I will be in a haze of hopefully slightly less pain and even more drugs. This strikes me as the perfect state of mind in which to talk about a story that I wrote almost ten years ago, which was built on another story that I wrote about ten years before that.
Writing, for me, is an altered state of mind; even when I go into it with a plan, somewhere in the physical act of moving the pen or pressing down upon the keys other agendas take form. I’m not a planner, in life or in writing. This is sometimes a bad thing. But I like it when my stories surprise me, and “Bear In Contradicting Landscape ” does that.
I wrote “Bear” when I was living in Chicago, making frequent trips along the Blue Line to various temp jobs. I was also in a state of creative ferment like nothing I’ve experienced since. During that time I wrote dozens of short stories, sometimes finishing one in two days, scribbling down sentences wherever I happened to be. Some of those stories were published. Some of them seem slight to me now, like listening to someone else’s vaguely interesting dream. Others, like “The Water-Poet and the Four Seasons,” still work, but almost seem like someone else wrote them.
“Bear” is different. “Bear” feels like the nightmares I had when I was young that still make my blood pressure spike when I think about them now. And just like everything else right now, the reasons why this is so are hazy to me.
On one level “Bear” is about writing in ways that are borderline wankish: insecurity about being a hack, impostor syndrome, creative plateaus. When you’re trying to get better at something, there can be long stretches where your reach exceeds your grasp; you attempt things and fail, and you have the feeling that you will never get better. “Walk Out,” the story-within-a-story in “Bear,” was a real story, one that I wrote back when I was first trying to write short stories. It is as terrible as everyone in “Bear” says that it is, and the people in it are just as awful as L says they are. I think I fixated on that story because at some point between writing it and writing “Bear” I had become a better writer, and I couldn’t pinpoint how or why that had happened, why “Walk Out” was so fundamentally ill-conceived and poorly executed in comparison. I wanted to explore that, which is why I committed the sin of making myself the protagonist of the story.
But other things happened along the way. The rabbits, for instance. I have some vague memory of the cats at the warehouse I was working at toying with a baby rabbit in much the same way it happens at Eddie’s house, but the way they bled into the rest of the story was unexpected. The scene with the graffiti artists gives me the creeps. It’s perhaps odd for me to say that, since this is a story that I wrote, but time and haze make that seem less true.
For the record, L is a complete fiction; I never lived with, dated, or even had a crush on such a person in real life. It’s interesting to me that so many people who read the story think L is an unpleasant person. This may be because in creating her I was so wary of doing anything like a fantasy fulfillment that I felt the need to punish myself, my protagonist-self at least, for the very possibility of doing so. Which is both very Catholic of me, and eerily congruent with the reasons that L ends up leaving the protagonist.
(Please blame all odd or uncomfortable digressions on the fact that I’ve had very little in the way of solid foods for the last week.)
I think “Bear” is a very odd story, even if you’re not me, but I like odd stories. There was a time early in my career when I was so desperate to make a sale that (I later realized) I would read the magazines I hoped to be published in and try to anticipate what sort of stories I could write that they might buy. I was in a strange middle ground between the naïve awfulness of “Walk Out” and the unbridled-yet-partially-self-aware weirdness of “Bear,” a place where I didn’t trust my own tastes and directions enough to write something true to myself. It wasn’t until I wrote something so weird that I wasn’t even sure it was a story that I started making sales.
If there’s a piece of writing advice in this post, it was somewhere in that last paragraph.
Nowadays when I write short stories, I always think that whatever I’m writing at the moment is the weirdest thing I’ve ever written. Sometimes that means that the stories are difficult to find a home for, and I’m grateful to Lynne Thomas for taking in “Bear.” It took a lot longer than two days to get it right, and I’m glad she enjoyed it enough to share it with all of you. I hope it freaks you all out a little bit.
David J. Schwartz is an eleven-year-old bookworm in a grown man’s body. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota in an apartment with many books. So. Many. Books. His short fiction has appeared in such venues as Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and the World Fantasy Award-winning Paper Cities. His first novel, Superpowers, was nominated for a Nebula Award; his second novel has a long, long title. His website is snurri.com.