I had no idea what to expect when I picked up Marc Schuster’s debut novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl. But I’ll admit to some trepidation. After all, the novel’s narrator and heroine is Audrey, a recently divorced mother of two daughters who takes up with a local restaurant owners, and her good friend … Cocaine. I had no idea how Schuster was going to pull this voice off, and feared he’d wind up resorting to the violent mayhem that drives the television series Weeds.
The novel has plenty of zany plot twists. But Schuster keeps the focus on Audrey’s internal struggles—her attempts to balance the selfless directives of her superego against the liberating wants of her id. The result is a novel that’s funny, suspenseful, but also beautifully tender.
I sat down with Marc (electronically, as it were) to find out more…
I was surprised that you wrote from the POV of a single mom, and that you nailed the voice. How did Audrey’s voice come to you?
Audrey’s voice evolved over the course of many drafts and many, many hours sitting in front of my computer and trying to get it right. A lot of my effort, though, had less to do with trying to conjure a convincing woman than trying to conjure a convincing human. Mainly, it turned out to be a matter of tapping into my own insecurities. I have a strong tendency to dwell on everything I could be doing better, and it’s this same tendency that drives Audrey. Of course, I can blame a lot of it on Catholic guilt. There’s a line in one of the prayers I learned when I was growing up that asks forgiveness “for all I have done and all I have failed to do,” and that idea is always with me. For Audrey, though, it has less to do with religion than marketing. A lot of what I was trying to do with Audrey’s character was to explore the relationship between the media and motherhood. Page through any parenting or women’s magazine, and you’ll see loads of ads whose basic message is that you’re not good enough and you can never be good enough—unless of course you buy the products we’re hawking. If you do, then you might have a chance.
At one level, we can all dismiss advertising as a pack of manipulative lies. We know intellectually that advertisers are trying to take advantage of us, but on an emotional level, we all feel that pull, that sense of hope that advertising holds out to us. At least I do. Maybe buying a lot of useless shit will fill that existential void at the center of my life. Part of what I was trying to do with Audrey was play with these ideas—to imagine the ideal target for the kinds of ads and marketing campaigns I’ve seen directed at women in general and mothers in particular—and to take the basic message of these ads to their logical extreme. As a mother, Audrey gets the message that she’s supposed to be all things to everyone and that she has to smile while she’s doing it. And cocaine turns out to be the product that allows her to do it. At least for a little while.
I love that she winds up doing … coke! At first, I was like, ‘Coke? Really?’ But the more I thought about her trying-to-do-it-all character, the more sense is made.
The novel actually started out as a short story, and the story grew out of an assignment that my writers group at the time cooked up: write about someone with an obsession. I knew from the start that the obsession would be cocaine. I imagine this may have something to do with the fact that I grew up in the Eighties, but I’d also done some reading on cocaine addiction when I was in graduate school. I was supposed to be working on a paper about drug imagery in TS Eliot’s poetry, but my attention kept wandering to more contemporary accounts of drug abuse and addiction. One of the books I’d read included a case study of a divorced mother who reported that she’d tried cocaine once with her boyfriend and wanted to try it again because she liked the outgoing person she became when she was high. I probably read that five years before I sat down to write the short story, but the thought of that woman haunted me. Where was she now? Whatever became of her? I was also intrigued by the idea of a responsible adult deciding to do something she saw as reckless. What would make her do that, I wondered? A lot of my writing starts with questions.
You get the feeling of coke incredibly well. Wanna explain how, mister?
A lot of it goes back to the reading I was doing in graduate school. I remembered the titles of a couple of the books and picked those up. They included a lot of first-hand accounts of cocaine users, many of them describing first experiences with the drug and changes that occurred in their personal lives over the course of their use. I’ve also known a few people who’ve experimented with cocaine and drew from their experiences. One friend told me about the acrid aftertaste—the drip—and that made it into the book. I also briefly dated a girl in college who told me that she’d been on cocaine for a while and quit because it only made her feel angry all the time. Some former coworkers of mine were in recovery, and they used to tell me about all of their drug adventures. It was like being friends with a lame version of Fleetwood Mac that ended up publishing a coupon magazine instead of making music. They were the inspiration for the coworkers who nudge Audrey in the direction of her own experimentation.
One thing i admire so much about the book is your portrait of motherhood, the kind of impossible pressures we put on modern moms, especially single ones. What was your own mom like? Can I ask that?
My mother is about as far from Audrey as anyone can get. She grew up in a distinctly blue-collar neighborhood in a Polish section of Northeast Philadelphia. Her father was the kind of person who could fix anything, and he hated to throw anything away. This attitude rubbed off on my mother, and a lot of my childhood memories are of she and my grandfather fixing household appliances by cobbling together older household appliances. So she’s always had a strong DIY streak—something that contemporary culture, I think, tends to rob people of. Who’s going to go out and buy new stuff if we know how to fix the old stuff? To an extent, this is something that Audrey needs to figure out in the novel—not how to fix things so much, but how to make something of herself on her own terms. Her quest is ultimately a quest for self-reliance.
As you know, I’m a sucker for titles. I LOVE your title, which captures both the zany energy of the book, and the dual identity that Audrey tries to balance. When did it come to you?
For the longest time, the title of the folder where I kept all of my drafts was just “Maybe.” This is mainly because the short story was called “Maybe It Starts…” But it’s also because I was hesitant to commit to a title, or even to the fact that I was writing a novel. As long as I was calling it “Maybe,” I felt like I could play with the project and have a bit of fun. All the while, though, I knew I had to come up with a title, so I kept little scraps of paper with different possibilities. One was She Don’t Lie, based on the refrain from Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine.” Another was Mommy’s Nasty Bitch Powder, which was something one of the characters called cocaine in a really early draft. Wonder Mom and Party Girl was usually near the top of the list, but I also wanted to add something to give it the feel of a comic book. I probably had Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay in mind. Or Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, which is thematically more in line with my novel. At some point, I hit on the word “exploits” and liked the double-entendre, the suggestion that this is a story of exploitation as well as an adventure of sorts. “Singular” probably came from the passage in which Audrey’s mother sends her a self-help book called Singular Pleasures: The Womanly Art of Masturbation. The problem with having such a long title, though, is that now I have to say it every so often, and it’s mouthful.
How long did it take you to write? What was your process? I know – sort of standard issue questions. But as a failed novelist, I’m curious.
The novel has had a somewhat odd history. An earlier edition was published by PS Books in 2009, and The Permanent Press published a much different version earlier this year. All told, the first version took about five years to write. But it wasn’t like I was only working on that project the whole time. I had another novel going more or less concurrently, and a couple of other projects, too. My dissertation. A book on Doctor Who. The novels were a way to get away from the dissertation. The dissertation was a way to escape from the novels. I have a really short attention span, and I’m very easily discouraged, so it was good for me to have a lot of different projects to switch between at any given time. But Wonder Mom went through about five or six drafts before PS Books published it. Then I did a massive edit in about two weeks when The Permanent Press said they’d be interested in publishing it if the manuscript were about 90 pages shorter.
What’s it been like working with Permanent Press?
Really great. I’d reviewed and loved a lot of their books on my small press book review blog, so I was extremely excited when Martin Shepard, who runs the company with his wife Judith, got in touch with me about publishing Wonder Mom. Actually, it was my reviews that caught Marty’s eye initially. He liked what he saw and asked if I ever wrote any fiction. By coincidence, PS Books had more or less sold out of their run of the original edition, and I asked if he’d be interested in doing a reprint while I worked on my second novel. He was open to the idea, and he eventually published what I call the “blue” version of the book. What I really like about working with Marty and Judith, though, is the attention they give to their authors. I talk to Marty about once a month about a lot of stuff—my book, publishing, life in general. He even invited me and my wife out to his house in the Hamptons, which is also the base of operations for The Permanent Press, a while back just to see how the business works. And Judith is always the first editor to offer commentary on a manuscript. She has a great instinct for story. The sense I get from both of them is that they’re in publishing because they love finding new writers and introducing them to the world. I can’t imagine having a better relationship with a publisher.
Anything else I should have asked?
I have a second novel coming out in May. It’s called The Grievers. I’m telling people it’s a coming of age novel for a generation that’s still struggling to come of age. A lot of it has to do with those harrowing first few years out of college—the years when we’re supposed to be adults despite the fact that we have no idea what we’re doing. The narrator has a job wandering back and forth in front of a bank dressed as a giant dollar sign. When he finds out that a friend from high school has committed suicide, he more or less has a breakdown and starts dragging everyone he loves down with him. It’s sad and funny at the same time, which is something I try to do in all of my writing. I feel especially close to this one—writing it took a lot out of me, but I think I’m better for having done it. As a wise man once said, “Excessive emotional involvement is the whole point.”