IT IS POSSIBLEto be a serious literary success in the Twin Cities without claiming any measure of celebrity. I realized this a month ago, when I set an appointment to meet Bart Schneider in the coffee shop at the Loft Literary Center. Though Schneider is a successful man of letters--the editor of the journal Speakeasy and the author of three critically praised novels--I'd never seen his face. Imagine going on a blind date and being told to find the guy who looks like he writes books.
As it turns out, I recognize Schneider easily--perhaps through some unspoken signal between two guys who have spent unhealthy amounts of time stringing words together. He's in his early 50s, his days of svelteness in the past, and he carries himself with such an understated politeness that one is almost moved to ask whether the hopelessly sophisticated craftsman of his books has sent along a plainer cousin in his stead.
Schneider shrugs off a suggestion that his ego might be inflated after the string of accolades for his latest book, Beautiful Inez (Random House). "I might be a more evolved charlatan than some people," he offers by way of explanation.
While Schneider today lives in St. Paul with his teenage children Simone and Anton and his poet wife Patricia Kirkpatrick, he's a San Francisco Bay Area product transplanted to the tundra. Schneider describes a resoundingly unimpressive high school career, then a flowering of his love for words at a Catholic college ("a curious choice for a Jewish boy," he says, deadpan). He then studied creative writing at San Francisco State with Robert Hass, who would go on to become U.S. poet laureate.
After years of making ends meet through assorted gigs and penning poetry and writing for the stage, Schneider landed in Minnesota as founding editor of The Hungry Mind Review (and later The Ruminator Review). It was an easy switch, then, to move on to Speakeasy, though he talks about the magazine with a glint of ambition in his eye.
"Hungry Mind was more of a straight book-review magazine," Schneider says. "I had a sense I couldn't do anything wrong with it, and if it was good it gave people more than they expected."
Speakeasy combines reviews with new work and literary essays, usually revolving around a theme. Schneider, who seems to combine professional dedication with a hipster's temperament, prefers to fly blind with each issue. "I don't know any way to work other than intuitively," he says. "It's like I've got this hand with a two, a three, a six, and a seven in it--I don't even have five cards. I think, 'Man, you're a dummy,' which I never think working on a novel."
Spend a little time around Schneider and such expressions of humility become routine. "I don't think I'm particularly hot stuff," he says--a statement he actually appears to believe. Later he describes himself as "a frighteningly inarticulate person, basically." All the while, of course, he's touching on the Sixties, jazz, classical musicians, the future of publishing, and the Dylan concert he's taking his 15-year-old son to see in Nashville. While reserved at first, Schneider, once he gets going, frequently seems to catch himself on the verge of being outright tickled with an idea, and he sometimes stops himself in mid-thought, as though his inner editor has thought better of using a particular phrase.
At one point, talking with Schneider about various ways of earning a living as a writer, I begin to blather about the concept of "interfacing" with a text. He looks surprisingly pained. "Don't interface," he insists. "You're much too young to be using words like that."
THE CRITICS HAVEbeen kind to Bart Schneider. Reviews of the author's previous two books, the jazz novel Blue Bossa and the interracial romance Secret Love, have praised his "perfectly realized prose," claiming he writes with the "brashness of a bop trumpeter." A starred review in Booklist called his latest "a brave novel and a resounding success" while a Chicago Tribune review declared it "accomplished, rich, and ambitious."
Beautiful Inez tells the story of a middle-aged violinist in the San Francisco Orchestra whose suicidal drive is tempered by an unexpected affair with a younger woman. Her family is oblivious, and Schneider delicately crafts a scenario in which no one is entirely honest with anyone else. Each character's urges and wishes are stunted or abandoned amid a shell game of false surfaces. It's a book full of allusions and sophisticated references, though they're tempered with a playfulness that saves the novel from pretension.
"Sometimes when I'm sitting in Dr. Rosconini's office and I have little to say," one character remarks of her weekly shrink bill, "I think, 'There goes a cantaloupe. Say goodbye to a wedge of Camembert, a little wheel of Bucheron.'"
While Schneider's measured, almost delicate prose might mark him as a product of the university-creative-writing system, his work evinces more heart than that of your standard Iowa Workshop grad. Part of it is his love of music: He describes himself as a "stone-cold jazz person," whose violinist father played with the San Francisco Orchestra for 50 years. The subject is rarely far from his fiction. (Schneider walked through the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto score by phone with his dad while writing his latest book, and his portrayal of Inez's profession captures both its beauty and bone-weary tedium). More to the point is Schneider's methodical attention to detail, and the way in which his prose holds ideas luxuriously up to the light, taking in every reflection.
"What would she tell Jake Roseman about his wife?" Inez's lover wonders at one point. "That Inez actually likes to be kissed along the scars on her belly. That she can be persuaded to stand under the shower until all the hot water in the building runs out. That, despite her protests, food is important to her. That she likes to eat with her fingers and have the nubs of her calloused digits sucked one by one. That sex makes her hungry."
That sums up the world of Beautiful Inez: sensual pleasures, nourishment of spirit and mind, all underground and cast against a pall of despair. The book is often as reticent and evasive as is its subject; the novel resisted my initial headlong rush at it almost as though it had to be read on its own time.
After wandering from Schneider's office at the Loft, we end up at a picnic table by the U of M Law School. The demands of a new issue of Speakeasy await, yet it is also nice to have a job one can stroll away from when one likes (and show up to wearing rumpled shorts). Schneider talks about writing fiction in terms of "taking dictation, getting out of your own way," Then, just like that, he proceeds to get out of his own way, wandering into a favorite memory from more than 30 years ago.
"It was a poor man's Pebble Beach," he says of a San Francisco golf course where he used to play. "It was like growing up in the great outdoors--deep fog, twilight. I played by myself. There were gay and straight couples going off to Land's End, so much going on. It felt like the whole place was exploding, and there I was just hitting the golf ball, talking to myself."
Perhaps only a writer would take particular comfort from the notion of being alone among other people. The flip side of this fantasy may be the fear of writing without any readers. While Schneider's work has garnered plenty of good ink, as a novelist he currently resides in the no-man's-land of the critically lauded but commercially somewhat marginal. In the publisher's promotion, a hopeful note suggests that Schneider has "crafted his breakout book."
"Everything in America wants you to get caught up in this numbers game," Schneider says when asked about fame and fortune. "I just think about the old jazz musicians, the way they kept on working no matter what."
With a subversive half-smile he describes his current project, Schneider's first book to take place in the present day and in Minnesota.
"My agent asked me to describe it for a meeting," he says, shifting forward a little, savoring the thought. "I told him to call it a thriller."