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Northwest Corner Reader’s Guide

By John Burnham Schwartz

Northwest Corner by John Burnham Schwartz


Northwest Corner picks up twelve years after the end of Reservation Road. What was it like to revisit those characters?
The passage of time and the changes it brings are two of the great themes that novelists wrestle with virtually every time they sit down to write a complex story. Sometimes we do this explicitly: For example my novel The Commoner is one woman’s story told across seventy years of imagined time. Some- times we do this implicitly, by instead condensing time and appearing to inhabit it moment by moment, thought by thought, in an attempt to suggest its emotional weight and urgency for a particular set of characters at a particular point of intensity in their lives. Both Reservation Road and Northwest Corner would certainly fall into this latter category. The first book covers roughly four months, the second book roughly two. But in between these two stories sit twelve years, a vast wealth (from a novelist’s point of view) of undocumented time and un- mapped journeys.  I was interested in juxtaposing these two kinds of time—the long and the short of it, you might say—and seeing what sort of sparks could be made. What I discovered along the way is similar to what my characters discover: Namely, that life is at once jam-packed and weirdly spotty; that whether we are aware of it or not, we carry our histories with us, leaving very little of sub- stance behind; that the meaning of the past usually presents itself in those present moments when we are least prepared, or able, to comprehend that meaning at all.
RHRC: Reservation Road revolves around the death of a young boy, the effects of which are felt in Northwest Corner as a father tries to mend his broken family. In between the two publications, you and your wife had a son. Did fatherhood change your perspective when returning to these characters?
JBS: I can’t help but think that becoming a parent has deepened my sense of how, by watching our children grow and succeed and suffer, we are inevitably faced with a view of the familial past not as a series of discreet compartments to be unpacked and analyzed in their own place and time, but rather as the river it so clearly is. It carries all—known and unknown, tales told and those forever un- recorded—along in its churning, inexorable path. Perhaps more than anything else except love, I’m coming to believe, this under- standing is what we parents and our children ultimately share.
As in Reservation Road, the narrative engine of Northwest Corner is one violent act. How and why did you decide to once again open a novel this way?
I seem to be drawn in my fiction to narratives that revolve around moments of action that are simultaneously moments of, or catalysts for, significant and irretrievable loss for my protagonists. Given the familial relationship between the two novels, their mutual explorations of generational conflict and inheritance, I knew from the beginning that a violent act of some kind would be the inciting incident of Northwest Corner.
In referring to her cancer treatments, Ruth says, “To live, then, means continually opening her most hidden self up to clinical scrutiny. No other way to do it.” What was it like writing a character who is in the throes of a disease, and how did you come to incorporate that plot point in the novel?
In the early months of thinking my way into Northwest Corner, I had an intuition about what the dozen years had been like for Ruth since I’d last encountered her in Reservation Road. Back then, unlike Dwight, she had seemed clearly to have the upper hand, to be in control. Life, of course, won’t support such a state for very long, and so it is with Ruth. I simply knew that she was battling her own ills, and that doing so would in certain ways alter and deepen her perceptions of Dwight, as the two were brought together again by events involving their son.
Both Ruth and Dwight are strong presences in the novel, as are Emma and Sam. What do you find are the differences in tackling male and female characters? Is one more difficult than the other?
I honestly don’t find a significant difference in writing male or female characters, save for the possibility that, because I’m a man, I might feel a bit less restricted in my imaginative impulses when writing female characters. The training wheels of familiar auto- biography are clearly off to begin with, and one can get down to the real business of creation. Other than that, though, they are all one’s offspring, with all the love and difficulty that would suggest.
RHRC:  One of the emotional crescendos in the book is when Ruth and Dwight meet in their old bedroom. How did you piece together this scene, and this very complicated relationship?
The complicated, difficult, surprisingly intimate relationship between Dwight and his ex-wife, Ruth, was one of the aspects of Northwest Corner that I simply felt in my bones from the start. It just interested me deeply for some reason, the idea of these two very different and scarred veterans of countless skirmishes being brought back together by forces that they still can’t, and never will, fully understand, except to acknowledge (without victory on either side) that there is seemingly no point at which one’s life history and one’s heart do not touch.
Northwest Corner is told through five different points of view, with only Dwight’s voice in the first person. Why did you choose this particular structure?
JBS: Simple though it may appear at first glance, the structure of this novel was probably the most difficult thing about writing it. To tell the story essentially without authorial presence—to have the characters unwittingly hand the baton of the narrative off to one another after short, intense dashes of event, thought, and feeling—meant that I was forever switching hats and losing momentum.  I might spend a week writing a  three-page chapter from one character’s point of view, only to finish it and have to begin again from an- other’s, and so on. And because the emotional intensity of these chapters was part of the story too, I was relentlessly challenged to find that intensity within myself, day after day, over  a couple of years. It was exhausting.
Dwight is the narrative carryover. I wanted his voice to be the bridge, the literal link to the earlier events of Reservation Road. His voice is somewhat changed from the earlier novel, of course, and so is he. I wanted to be able to show the added lines on him, and inside him, and giving him his own voice allowed me to try to do that.
RHRC: Do you have a character that most resonates with you and you most relate to in Northwest Corner? In all of your novels?
Dwight was the character I already had in me; writing him anew was a process of seeing him differently, or seeing more of him, but not of making him from scratch. Given some of his lesser qualities as a person and the many black marks on his record, I probably shouldn’t fess up to such an affinity.  But the truth is that over the years I’ve grown less interested in what (and who) is immediately likable, and more interested in characters and stories that not only make room for but insist upon a certain degree of challenging contradiction,  some darkness that acts perversely as a kind of beacon. We may all look one color to the outside world, but of course we’re not. It rains quite a lot in life, and the palette of whoever we are runs together. Naming and describing those newly made colors is one of the things that novelists do.
RHRC: You are also an accomplished screenwriter.  Does writing screenplays inform your novels, or does writing novels inform your screenplays? How does approaching each art form differ for you?
JBS: The structure of Northwest Corner consciously reflects certain aspects of cinematic storytelling that I have been working with since I wrote my first screenplay (for the film of Reservation Road) six years ago. I enjoy screenwriting, and I’ve been fortunate to get hired by studios to write some interesting projects. But from my perspective, novels and screenplays are fundamentally different kinds of writing, which feel generated in separate quadrants of the brain. Above all, fiction writing is about language: the novelist’s—and reader’s—world is made of it and nothing else. Screenwriting, on the other hand, is primarily about structure; it’s about constructing the blue- print for how a story is to be finally expressed by the director and the actors. A screenplay is not the finished building but just its infrastructure; it is the building without the façade, the decorative elements, or the living, feeling people inside who will ultimately give it its expressive life. Which leads me to what in my personal experience is the biggest difference between the two forms as practiced. This is the question of mystery, of what cannot be known to exist until it is somehow drawn up from the depths of an individual mind and written in just such a way as to make it real and known to the writer and to others.
That is the province of fiction, and especially, for me, of the novel. It is why writing novels is the most challenging form of writing I know, and always will be. For it requires a kind of faith that no one else can give you, and which can be earned only by going straight into the temple of individual doubt for extended periods of time.
What do you read in your spare time? What writers have affected you the most?
JBS: I read constantly and pretty widely, I always have, mostly fiction but also a lot of nonfiction, as well as essays and criticism and, once again thanks to my son, children’s literature. Most of it affects me in one way or another, though only some of it surprises me. And being surprised by writing—by any form of art—is the effect I crave the most. I don’t mean cheaply surprised, as with a trick or gimmick meant to shock, but rather deeply, humanely surprised as you might be if a window you didn’t even know was there is suddenly thrown open and you stood before it, amazed by the feeling of the wind on your face.
RHRC: What are you working on now, and what can readers expect next?
JBS: At the moment, I’m writing a film for HBO about Bernie Madoff and his family, in which Robert De Niro will play Madoff, and I’m enthralled by the story. I also have a definite idea for a new novel—in typical fashion, it’s taken me months of reading and thinking to feel certain about it—and am now looking forward, with the usual mix of intense excitement, hunger, and doubt, to beginning it.
1. What does the act of violence at the beginning of Northwest Corner tell us about the character of Sam?
2. How would you describe Dwight’s relationship with both his crime and his punishment?
3. What sort of mother would you say Ruth has been to Sam?
4. By the end of the novel, how would you describe Ruth’s feelings for Dwight? Dwight’s feelings for Ruth? For Penny? Sam’s feelings for his father? Penny’s feelings for Dwight?
5. How would you describe the role that memory plays in the lives of Northwest Corner’s main characters? In what sense is the role negative, and in what sense positive?
6. At one point, remembering a meal with her separated parents, Emma Learner reflects, “This is what it is like to know you are not forgiven” (page 94). Who do you think she’s talking about? Forgiven for what? Based on Northwest Corner, do you believe that forgiveness is possible between Emma and her mother? Between Sam and Dwight? Between Ruth and Dwight?
7. If you were to try to envision the future of the relationships among the five major characters in the novel, how would you imagine them?
8. How would you say the novel’s particular structure—the narrative continuously interwoven through five different points of view—affects the reader’s ultimate perceptions of the story and its meanings?
9. Has reading Northwest Corner changed your sense of what family is or can be?
10. By the end of the novel, how has each main character’s sense of familial inheritance been changed, and in what ways? Would you say that the parents and their children are closer together or further apart than they were at the beginning of the novel?
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