Friday, January 22, 2021

Liese O’Halloran Schwarz

photo credit: Amy Stern
Liese O'Halloran Schwarz grew up in Washington, DC after an early childhood overseas. She attended Harvard University, and then medical school at University of Virginia. While in medical school, she won the Henfield/Transatlantic Review Prize for her short fiction, and also published her first novel, Near Canaan.

She specialized in emergency medicine, eventually returned to writing, and published her second novel, The Possible World, in 2018.

Schwarz's new novel is What Could Be Saved.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I think it really accurately reflects the book, but it is subtle and the meaning isn’t clear until one has read the book. My editor and I struggled a good while to find the right title. My books tend to be sort of complex (What Could Be Saved is told in two timelines, on two continents and in two eras, from several different points of view), so we considered a number of titles that might fit one bit or the other well, but it was hard to find a title that worked not only to encapsulate the whole story, but also to communicate properly to the reader something about what the reading experience might be. My wonderful editor at Atria, Peter Borland, generated lists of suggestions, and What Could Be Saved was in one of his lists. It’s actually a phrase taken from a conversation between two characters in the book, but its meaning as a title is layered, and not limited to that specific conversation. I also feel it communicates a hint of hope— I want prospective readers to know that while the book contains some serious themes and might stir their emotions, the story has an overarching optimism.

What's in a name?

I think character names are really, really important. Not as blatantly as in Dickens, but I think they serve to reflect the background and age of the character. Most of my characters name themselves, and those original names stick. There was one exception in What Could Be Saved: the character who ended up being named Robert started out with a different name. That original name suited him, but it began with the same first letter as one of the other main characters, and I try to avoid that—I think it can lead to confusion. Luckily, I made the change to Robert early enough in the process that the character settled into it, and now it really feels right. In What Could Be Saved I also have Thai characters, and their names have meanings. They are play-names (nicknames used almost exclusively in place of official first names) given by the family for various reasons — their hopes for the child, or some aspect of the child’s temperament or physical appearance. Choosing those names was fun.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

Pretty damned surprised! I was a poet when I was a teenager, and although I always imagined that someday I would write fiction, I’m a perfectionist who would obsess over a poem’s line break, or the placement of a comma, for years. I think my teenage self would be amazed that I actually managed to wrangle so many words in one project.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings, by far! The entry into a book feels critical to me— it has to tell enough to get the story going, and ground the characters and settings and situations but not tell so much that it bogs down the movement of the narrative. It also has to strike the right tone when introducing characters. I usually have some idea of how I want the book to end when I’m about a third of the way through the draft, or even earlier. Although significant changes might happen when I fine-tune the ending, I labor much harder over the beginnings. I will sometimes completely redraft the beginning multiple times if needed to get it right, even after the rest of the draft is done.
Visit Liese O'Halloran Schwarz's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Possible World.

Writers Read: Liese O'Halloran Schwarz (August 2018).

The Page 69 Test: The Possible World.

The Page 69 Test: What Could Be Saved.

--Marshal Zeringue