While readers might be familiar with Dana Schwartz through her extremely popular twitter parody accounts, @guyinyourmfa and @dystopianya, they will be introduced to another side of her with her charming and insightful novel, And We’re Off. Nora Holmes is set to spend the summer before her senior high school at a prestigious art institute in Ireland, the perfect place to be with like-minded students, escape the gaze of her tightly wound mother, and shed the memories of a fizzled relationship. All of this is thrown away when her mother, nursing her own wounds after a painful divorce, decides at the last moment to accompany Nora on the trip. With a deft eye for character and plotting, Schwartz crafts a winning road trip while also exploring topics like identity, creativity, and of course, mother-daughter relationships. Schwartz spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on May 9th, 2017.
Nora’s steeped in pop culture, always referencing books and movies, plus running a successful fan art business on her tumblr. What were the important pieces of pop culture for you when you were growing up?
Definitely Harry Potter was a biggie for me. I know it’s cliche, but it’s cliche for a reason. It really shaped a generation. My sister read it to me, I went to all the midnight book parties–I would get the books at midnight and stay up all day reading them. I loved a lot of pop punkbands. I was a big My Chemical Romance fan when I was a teenager. I think that’s where I got out all my middle school angst.
The book seems to veer off from other Americans abroad stories because it really captures the mundane parts of travel, like the bus station on the edge of town, and going to a tourist attraction only to find out that it’s closed. How did those pieces of the book make their way into the story?
Literally from my real life. Last year I graduated from college and I took a trip through Europe. I didn’t really know what I wanted to career-wise and so I was lucky enough to be able to spend a little time abroad, country hopping through Europe. That experience was still really fresh in my mind when I was writing the book and I wanted it to read as accurately as possible.
And did you travel with your mother, like Nora does?
No, I was not with my mom! (laughs) I was alone for seven days and then I was with a friend from high school.
Nora’s pretty merciless in her depiction of Belgium. Have you gotten any feedback from Belgium yet?
No, the nation of Belgium has not addressed my ire, nor have I been banned from the country to my knowledge. Although maybe I’ll refrain from visiting because I’ll show up at the border and they’ll haul me away. (laughs) What happened was I went to Belgium and some of those frustrations that Nora has happened to me and then I exaggerated a bit because A., teenagers hate things, and then hopefully for a bit of comedic effect.
A big part of the book is Nora figuring out who she is and what her identity is apart from her family or her friends or the guys she’s interested in. Can you talk about how that theme made its way into the book?
I’ve had to wrestle with that myself and I didn’t get there as quickly as Nora did. I’m twenty-four and still figuring that out myself. Figuring out who you are is a lifelong journey. Usually when someone has a skill, like being an artist, you pigeonhole yourself and you define yourself as that. Nora’s advantage is that she has her mother acting as the other voice saying, “That can’t be all you are.” Even though the mother’s presented as the villain for a bit of the book–the foil to Nora’s ambitions–I hope that the reader recognizes that coming to terms with your own identity means being a full person in every respect, which means building your relationship with your mom, expanding your skill set, and not just defining yourself by being an artist or as a successful artist, and especially not by the boys you date.
One thing I really liked about the book was how it was honest about how some problems are too complex to be wrapped up in a tidy narrative. How did you balance resolving characters’ story lines vs the reality of them having big problems that might take a while to solve?
I think I had help with that because the story’s narrated by Nora. So she’s not privy to her mother’s thoughts or inner struggles or that she’s going through more serious issues. Nora, as most teenagers are, is very wrapped up in herself and focused on herself, and not paying attention to the challenges and difficulties her mother is going through. And so even though the issues aren’t exactly resolved I hope the reader gets to experience the same realization that Nora has, when she recognizes that her mom who–you normally think of your mom as furniture, she’s not a person, she’s just your mom, she’s a character in your life–and she recognizes that she’s her own person.
One of the beautiful aspects of the novel is how you capture Nora’s relationship with art and make her creative process come alive. Did you have any relationship with the fine arts when you were growing up?
I love art. I’m not very talented but I was good enough that I could play around a bit and I really enjoyed it in school and I loved learning about art. I think my inner art history nerd came out in the writing of this book. But definitely I understand the creative process. I’m a writer. I struggle with projects and building things. And so I tried to transmute that into Nora’s experience.
Honestly twitter makes writing a book way harder. I would say anyone who can be off twitter be off twitter.
Why is that?
It’s a distraction. It makes your brain think in 140 character bits. It makes you hungry for instant gratification because if you tweet something funny, you get the reaction immediately. Whereas writing a book is a slow internal process, which is basically the opposite of twitter.
Both those accounts have such distinctive voices, I was wondering if that was something you you were able to apply that creating your characters?
Absolutely. Being able to write in first person with a different person’s voice is a skill set that I’ve definitely been practiced in on twitter. I think the distinction is both my parody accounts are a bit one-note because they’re for 140 character tidbits. You need the voice to be more well rounded than that.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on another book, it’s a memoir called Choose Your Own Disaster. It’s basically a magnifying lens from twenty-two to twenty-three and it’s a Choose Your Own adventure where you can make different decisions than I did and follow along on imaginary paths.
And finally, what role has the public library played in your life?
I grew up in Highland Park, Illinois, and I loved our public library. I studied for my ACTs on the tables in the library, I tutored a lot when I was in high school there. When I was going on my European trip I checked out a stack of travel books. It was a massive help to me. I have amazing memories of my local library.