Interview C. J. Schüler, author & critic


C. J. Schüler, where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Kingsbury, northwest London. Before the arrival of an Indian community transformed its high street into a brilliant array of sari shops, this was a very humdrum lower middle-class English suburb. With a German surname, less than two decades after the Second World War, it was hard to feel anything other than an oddity. After my parents divorced, when I was eleven, we moved to Hendon where, with its large Jewish community, I felt less conspicuous.

What sorts of books were in your family home?
Both my parents’ education was cut short, my mother’s by economic necessity and my father’s by the Third Reich. But they were keen readers, and our bookshelves held a range of classics by Jane Austen, Dickens and George Eliot, along with early twentieth-century works by writers such as George Bernard Shaw and J. B. Priestley. I still have a hardback copy of Nabokov’s Pnin from those days, though I can’t remember which of my parents chose it.

Who were early formative influences as a writer?
I can’t single out any specific writers. I read omnivorously, and it all went into the mix.

Have you always wanted to write?
For as long as I can remember, but after a few early attempts I soon discovered I had no gift for fiction, and it then took years – and many distractions – before I found subject matter I could write about with authority, and the confidence to do so. Decades of copy-editing and rewriting other people’s words gave me the objectivity to regard writing not as some daunting, high-stakes creative endeavor but as a job of work.

What was the inspiration behind Along the Amber Route?
I first visited the Polish city of Wroclaw more than ten years ago, to see where my father was born when, as Breslau, it was part of Germany. I was struck by the quantity of amber jewellery on sale in the shops around the main square and wondered why this should be so, when the city is far from the sea. A visit to a local museum informed me that it was on the Amber Route, an ancient trade route, like the Silk Road. I hadn’t heard of it before, but when I got home I started researching it, and it struck me that I could combine a travelogue with a family history, with which the route proved to be closely entwined.

How did you plan Along the Amber Route? Did you have a plot outlined or did you write and see where it took you?
Once I’d worked out my itinerary, I did some preliminary research into each place along the way, so I had some idea of what I’d find when I got there. But it’s the unpredictable events and encounters along the way that make a travelogue, as opposed to a guidebook, so in the end you just have to set out and see what happens.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block and if so how do you overcome it?
Fortunately not. As a writer of non-fiction, I don’t have to wait for inspiration or conjure ideas out of thin air. Once I have found a subject, it’s a matter of researching it and writing up the results. It’s work, and I know what I have to do each day. Occasionally I get stuck on a difficult passage, where I find it hard to convey some complex idea or piece of information in a way that is elegant and readable, but if I set it aside and come back to it fresh the next day, I can usually fix it.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Be curious about the world, learn as much as possible about all sorts of things – people, history, geography, nature, human culture – and read voraciously. Read not just for content, but to see how books are written. The difference between merely functional writing and literature is the care taken over the rightness of every word, and rhythm of every sentence, every paragraph. Read your work aloud to yourself to hear how its sounds – it’s a reliable test that will expose any clunky writing that may trip a reader. Avoid clichés – look at a place, a person, a situation, and describe what you really see, not some second-hand image.

Your views on book publishing? What was your journey to finding a publisher like, and how long did it take?
Rumours of the death of book publishing have been greatly exaggerated. It was predicted with the collapse of the net book agreement, the arrival of the internet, and the development of e-readers. It hasn’t happened. Many independent presses were gobbled up by majors, but new ones have emerged to take their place, and have flourished, not least my own publisher, Sandstone Press. It’s clear that people still value books as physical artefacts, especially when they are attractively printed and bound. But publishing operates on a shoestring, and even well respected authors find it difficult to make a living without another source of income such as journalism or teaching.
I had plenty of rejections for my latest before my agent finally got a deal. Most were very polite and regretful, and the recurrent theme was ‘It’s a very good book, but not commercial enough.’ One editor at a major publishing house said, ‘Five years ago I’d have signed this at the drop of a hat, but these days it’s too niche.’

Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? And on social media?
Obviously the word processor has made rewriting and editing much easier. Gone are the days when ‘cut and paste’ meant literally that – gluing strips of typescript onto a page. But with me, the actual writing still begins in a notebook, or on any scrap of paper that comes to hand. At this stage it ranges from semi-legible scrawls made on jolting buses or trains, to extended passages of coherent prose. Typing up – and fleshing out – these jottings is an important early stage of the writing process.
Social media is an important – some would say vital – promotional tool these days. It’s also a way of keeping up with what’s going on in the world of books, and being part of a community of writers – though it can be a terrible distraction if you’re not disciplined about it.

Your views on the explosion of creative writing courses? How helpful are they?
They will never make a writer out of someone who does not have something original and interesting to say, but for those who do, it can be immensely helpful to have an experienced author share the lessons they have learned through decades of trial and error. Emma Darwin’s blog This Itch of Writing, for example, is packed with good advice – and it’s free.

What are your favorite literary journals?
Slightly Foxed, for its championing of the neglected, the quirky and the out-of-the-way, not to mention its beautiful production values; The Paris Review, for its superb archive of interviews and the sense it conveys of an international republic of literature; and the Brixton Review of Books – a brilliant newcomer.

What genres do you like to read?
Literary fiction, both classic and contemporary, in English and in translation; history, archaeology, travelogues and nature writing.

If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
It’s not an original thought, but I would go back to Braunau am Inn, Austria, on 20 April 1889, and strangle a certain infant at birth.

Five favourite writers translated into English, and why?
European classics of the twentieth century such as Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig and Robert Musil have played an important part in my rediscovery of my cultural heritage. For more recent perspectives, I have looked to W. G. Sebald and lately the brilliant German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck.

Five favourite feature films?
When I saw Werner Herzog on television recently, talking to Robert Macfarlane about Bruce Chatwin, I found it hard to imagine that this nice old gent was once the maniacal obsessive who made Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, powerful, disturbing films that left a deep impression. Tarkovsky’s Stalker has haunted me for years, and features in Along the Amber Route. Going back further in cinema history, Carol Reed’s The Third Man is still compelling and richly atmospheric. No. 5? Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue, I guess.

Five favourite musicians or bands?
Franz Schubert, especially Winterreise: I have the recording by Matthias Görne and Graham Johnson. Thomas Tallis: Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah. Kurt Weill. Jacques Brel. Nina Simone.

Your bedside reading?
Much of my reading is dictated by research, reviewing, and sifting though submissions to the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, so I rarely get to read purely for leisure. For that reason, I long resisted joining a book group, but I finally succumbed last year when the volunteers at my local nature reserve set one up to read nature writing. It’s a genre I wanted to explore, but I needed an external push to do so. It’s been rewarding; among the books we’ve read have been Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and J. A. Baker’s beautiful but chilling 1967 classic The Peregrine. Among recent English fiction, Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley impressed me greatly. The latest book I read ‘off the syllabus’, so to speak, was Deborah Orr’s memoir Motherwell: A Girlhood.

Your chief characteristic?
Persistence, attention to detail, a taste for nuance and complexity, and a distrust of simple answers.

Your motto?
“You know there ain’t no devil, that’s just God when he’s drunk.” (Tom Waits)

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About Georgia de Chamberet 372 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.