In Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s airy, plant- filled apartment overlooking Riverside Park, I notice a beautiful photograph of—what? The fire escape of a many- storied apartment, shot at a dizzying angle? An air conditioner seen so close, the vents splay like the spokes of a wheel? No, it’s what lines the hallway, the bedroom, the study; it’s what she has just written. A book, with its pages fanning out from the spine like modernist plumage. Her older daughter created the image. “The assignment was to take a familiar object and make it unfamiliar,” Schwartz says.
That’s the task the mother has set herself, too, in the many novels, short stories, and essays she has published over the last 30 years—including the comedy of errors In the Family Way, set on the Upper West Side, where Schwartz and her husband have lived for four decades; the critically acclaimed 9/11 novel The Writing on the Wall; and, recently, the delightfully idiosyncratic memoir Not Now, Voyager. The “familiar object” in this last case is travel, which Schwartz views from the unusual angle of a proud homebody.
“My work doesn’t look ‘funny on the page,’ as Flannery O’Connor said. It’s just nice sentences strung together,” Schwartz explains. “But beneath that accommodating surface”—and there’s been no crack in it today: Schwartz is a warm, engaging host—“I’m subverting received wisdom.”
Travel is thought good for you: “People who do it are esteemed for their efforts, like people who get up at dawn to jog,” she writes. But often it proves exhausting, disorienting, and even self- sapping: “The self can lose strength like a photographic negative left out too long, or lose sparkle, like soda in a bottle left uncapped. It can slowly seep away like the juice from an aging fruit; all that remains is a dry light husk filled by a plangent ache.” Meanwhile, one’s personal baggage is as heavy as ever.
“Since the book’s come out,” Schwartz says, “a lot of people have told me, ‘You’ve given me permission not to travel.’ And I’m glad. But what interests me are all the issues of identity” that travel raises. She writes, “Like the cat in the hat, [the self] spreads and shrinks according to its container—context—and its need.”
The seed for Not Now, Voyager was planted in 2001 when the World Trade Center fell. Schwartz had been enjoying a late-summer retreat on Cape Cod. “People thought New Yorkers would want to flee, but it was the opposite— everybody wanted to come back,” she recalls. “And once I got here, I was just so stunned, I didn’t want to move. It was that feeling, Why go anywhere? And then narratives began to come in and the book just grew.”
We follow her to the Bahamas, Italy, and Montreal. Along the way, we dip into Camus, Calvino, Gertrude Stein, George Eliot, and the Taoist Book of Changes. Wherever we go and whoever we meet, the question of identity prevails. “It’s easy to know who you are when you wake up in your house, have your family, have your friends, have your work,” Schwartz says. “But who are you when you take yourself away?”
Her first life-changing trip was to Barnard, where she grew into herself. “I had always wanted classes where they would discuss literature, history, and art,” she says. “I had craved it.” The role of Barnard Woman—“feisty, outspoken, very urban”—fit like a second skin. And she learned to adapt to enticingly foreign customs, such as the afternoon teas.
She says, “We had tea where I grew up”—several stops into Brooklyn on the IRT. “You know, you put a teabag in a cup and poured water over it.” But tea in a Victorian parlor, with sugar and cream?
Her parents came up to join her once. “I thought, ‘My father confronting [College president] Mrs. McIntosh with a cup of tea in his hand—what will that be like?’” Fine, it turned out. “My parents were great: ‘Hello, how do you do? I’m so happy my daughter is here,’ and that was it. It was a revelation. My parents were naturally gracious— gracious in their own way.” And nothing about Mrs. McIntosh, the tea, or being in an unfamiliar place stripped them of their grace.