Tom Schabarum:Writing from the Well of Emotion
Author: Matthew Yau
July 24, 2011
“Writing is a deep need for me, an almost necessary component to my existence. In fact, some days I believe I wouldn’t be here at all if I didn’t write – whether it’s poetry or fiction, I’m compelled to find the emotional context for what I experience in writing...”
Tom Schabarum is the winner of the 2010 Creekwalker Poetry Prize. His work has been published by pifmagazine.com, OUT Magazine, The Breakfast District. His novella, The Narrows, Miles Deep (CreateSpace), was published in January 2011, and his 2010 debut novel, The Palisades (Cascadia Publishing) was a recent finalist for a Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Debut Fiction.
The Palisades concerns itself with the relationship between Marjorie and Nicholas, mother and son, who come together during one traumatic night. Nicholas has grown up with his father, stepmother, and brother, in southern California. After college he returns to Big Sur, where he reunites with his mother, to claim a part of his life that was locked in the past. At turns lyrical and heartbreaking, the novel is a fascinating portrait of how a disjointed family finds its way back to love.
You mention the writing of The Palisades took more than a few years. When did it first occur to you that you wanted to write and to publish your works?
I’ve wanted to write all of my adult life from college on and have done so. I never really wrote to publish, but last year, as I thought of turning 50, which is a milestone for me, I felt that it was time to get my work out, to really see if my writing was good, but more importantly, for validating the work I’d been quietly doing for so many years.
The Palisades took over four years to write simply because I was missing an ending component that made sense and once that came, I was able to go back through the novel and complete it. Two of those years I was part of the John Rechy workshop in Los Angeles. Mr. Rechy brought focus to what I was trying to do. He’s a great line editor.
I realize that all serious writers have a vocation, a sort of mystical call. What they exploit is not intelligence or training, but a glorious gift that is also an obligation. What do you think of this?
I believe this to be true. Writing is a deep need for me, an almost necessary component to my existence. In fact, some days I believe I wouldn’t be here at all if I didn’t write – whether it’s poetry or fiction, I’m compelled to find the emotional context for what I experience in writing something/anything.
I’m in constant amazement as to how my mind works and figures out the problems of a poem or novel, and when those problems are solved – most times when I’m doing the most simple of daily tasks. And I’m in awe of some of the great writers and poets that I admire – William Faulkner, James Joyce, Walt Whitman, Richard Jones, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Willa Cather, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tim O’Brien, Colum McCann, Raymond Carver, Wallace Stegner, Rick Bass, Virginia Woolf, Tom Stoppard, Robert Schenkkan, Mark Doty, Charles Baxter and Mark Helprin. All have told stories within their medium with a kind of grace and eloquence that speaks deeply to me.
I write from a deep well of emotion, which can sometimes be debilitating or [it can] stop the process for me altogether for a few days, but then I’m compelled to come back and pull from it again. It’s a little bit like flogging oneself.
A writer’s first published work is often compared to a firstborn. I have no doubt that The Palisades, a story of a mother and a son’s reunion, is very close to your heart. How did you conceive the story, and how is the theme of sustainable love and its loss standing out to you?
I think I would say that I’ve been searching for love my whole life. Whether it’s from my mother, family or a man. My mom passed away a few years ago and it opened up a deep well of grief in me that I didn’t realize was there due to our strained relationship for most of my life.
Writing The Palisades was my attempt at making those connections between a mother and son, and that son’s connections with his partner and family that, at the time didn’t exist for me. It really was an emotional journey, and I still don’t know if I’ve answered those questions personally, in particular when it comes to finding a partner – someone to love – but it did help me reconnect with my mother, and our last 3 years together were the best and most fulfilling even though she was going through so much pain.
The story of The Palisades began from an image of a woman standing on a rock in the rugged coastline of Big Sur, struggling against the grey fog blowing up from below and into the pines, which was given to me by my first boyfriend. I can’t remember the context after all these years in which we were talking about her, but that image is at the start of the novel.
Did you encounter any trouble, i.e. writer’s block, during the writing process? How did you resolve the complication?
I did not experience any writer’s block per se during my first two novels, but the third one (yet to be published) took me over 8 years to finish. I’m not sure what it was. I think it was a little bit of burnout from my MFA program, starting a new life in Seattle, not having validation for all the work I’d done up to that point, or just plain laziness. I do believe that stories find their way for a writer – but they do it on their own terms.
Did you reproduce the characters in The Palisades from your own experience? If so, do you find it challenging to make falsehood out of materials? For example, do you only ask questions about these people that you can resolve?
The Palisades ends with a major unresolved question (perhaps two) but they are absolutely right (in my mind) for the character’s journeys. Having said that, I try to be true to the characters and don’t impose myself on them at all. All the characters I’ve ever written have come from my emotional experience, not anything that has ever happened to me, except in the case of The Narrows, Miles Deep, but only in a couple of minor scenes.
I’ve tried and failed miserably to write autobiographically. It just doesn’t work so I find that the more I take myself out of a character’s experience, the better – and only then does it become real for me, and hopefully for the reader.
How do you think the novel would be different if Nicholas wasn’t gay?
When I set out to write The Palisades, I told myself I wanted to write a book centering around the idea of “how does someone learn how to love?” I didn’t set out to write a gay novel, but I needed a way into Nicholas, and I needed him to be my vehicle to explore love, betrayal, friendship, his mother, all of it. And being gay was my way of making real to me. It was entirely a conscious choice, but I also knew that I didn’t want to write a coming out story, I wanted to write him as a person trying to find himself as someone capable of love despite his past and his mother’s abandonment.