From Our Authors | July 24, 2018

Andrew De Silva’s   2017 Jeffrey E. Smith Prize finalist in fiction, “Coach Schwartz,” excerpted from his novel-in-progress, is the story of Ryan (“Blood”) Schwartz, a twenty-five-year-old professional tennis player whose life takes a precipitous turn when his older brother, Dan, disappears, leaving Ryan to care for Dan’s school-aged daughter.  TMR intern Oliver Getch talked with Andrew about his compellingly drawn protagonist and about the novel. You can read “Coach Schwartz” here.

 

Oliver Getch: “Coach Schwartz” is a story about a young athlete, Ryan, a professional tennis player, who becomes guardian for his niece, Thump, after his brother, Dan, disappears. Relationships are at the center of this story, but the relationships between Thump and Ryan and between Ryan and Dan are quite different. How do those relationships reveal Ryan’s character?

Andrew De Silva: Dan is almost a ghost in the story; Ryan (and readers) only interact with him in one flashback scene, when Ryan finds him at the bar. So Dan’s absence is felt more than his presence, and that means the Ryan/Dan relationship is built on bits of memory scattered throughout the story. But he does loom large: Ryan is raising Thump in Dan’s house, with Dan’s hockey sticks in the garage and half of Dan’s genes in the child. This might reveal something about Ryan: even after four years, he still sees himself as temporary, as a steward, waiting, hoping, for his big brother to return.

And of course, with Thump, the fact Ryan steps in at all, that he accepts this duty to be next of kin, shows his devotion to his troubled family. But here he’s caught between duty and capacity: he’s not necessarily a good guardian, given our paradigm for a nurturing, twenty-first-century parent. He’s still a twenty-five-year-old male. He didn’t come from a nurturing household. Thump confounds him and can piss him off. Sometimes he is—and perceives himself to be—just a warm body, a placeholder. I didn’t want him to be some befuddled goof like a character Adam Sandler would play (Big Daddy?), or a hard man who goes goo-soft, discovering what really matters in life simply by spending time with a child. But I also didn’t want him to be a hard man who stays hard, who resents being saddled with his niece, a totally embittered crag of a man receding from his glory days, which is another stock-character formulation (Michael Fassbender for this role?). If I did it right, Ryan exists in the middle space between rejecting and embracing the girl (and the life) thrust upon him.

OG: Ryan is an up-and-coming American tennis star, but after he takes over guardianship of Thump, he becomes an unpaid assistant high school coach. He’s failed to find his brother, and he has to sideline his career.  Did you intend this to be a story about how Ryan learns to navigate failure?

AD: In a way, yes, the story is rife with failure—but the original sin might be his brother’s failure, and the dominoes fall from there. So I might say that the crux here, and the thing that interested me, was Ryan being caught between the thing he was meant to be (a professional tennis player) and the thing he ended up becoming (a suburban parent, a high school coach). It resonates because it’s kind of a classic storytelling scenario: in our own, likely more humble, ways, every adult feels this kind of schism between their potential selves, the life they are living, and some other life they might have lived.

Much like I didn’t want Ryan to be a stock character, I didn’t want the “unlived life” to be the clear winner—it’s not a given that going back on the pro tour is all Ryan pines for. He also finds something deeply meaningful in his relationship with Thump, in his life in suburban Chicago. Hitting serves in the rain to those high school kids after the match is unexpectedly special for him, this moment of simplicity and peace. So that’s what I think he is navigating: a complex knot. He’s conflicted over where he offers the most to the world and where the world offers the most to him.

OG: The most dramatic event in the story is Ryan’s frantic search for his brother, but it’s a small portion of the narrative—backstory in the larger story of Ryan’s current situation with his high-school coaching and Thump.  Why did you choose to tell the story this way?

AD: “Coach Schwartz” is carved from a larger, novel-length work I’m writing with these characters, and actually both story moments—the search-for-Dan scene in February 2003 and the high school match in 2007 in which the search is embedded—are flashbacks. The novel’s “present” is in 2015, with Ryan back on tour after two knee surgeries, grinding out the tail end of his career on the minor-league circuit, haunted by his time in Chicago with Thump.  I’ll be coy about why he left, and what he’s seeking, and all of the other stuff a novel’s scope might reveal (note to self: figure this all out, finish book!). Ultimately, I thought the high school scene could stand on its own as a short story, but it needed the ballast/backstory of the search-for-Dan scene to inform it, so I pulled them from different sections of the novel draft and paired them together.

OG: How important is the brothers’ backstory in determining what happens to each of them?

AD: It’s definitely important—they come from the same place, the same parents, but are different men. Dan’s depression, his anger at his father, Big Lou, and his inability to cope with crises together cause him to do a horrible thing: abandon his daughter in her most vulnerable moment. Ryan is on better terms with Big Lou and has a less chaotic brain chemistry, which make him no saint but perhaps a different kind of sinner. He also has more athletic promise than Dan, in a family where it means a lot.  But Dan is a big brother to Ryan, and Ryan’s childhood hero, so it’s hard for Ryan to condemn him outright. It’s a tricky—and devastating—thing, when a person turns out to be less than you thought they were. Ryan still holds out a flicker of hope for Dan, even as he hates his brother for what he did.

OG: In the climactic ending of the story, Ryan is using Dan’s hockey stick to hit old tennis balls on the front lawn that have sat there through the winter.  The yard and house where he lives with Thump are more or less a wreck. He seems to have reached a resolution, but he stops short of defining what it is. Has he made a definite decision about where he is going from here?

AD: That’s a good question—and one I might have to leave open. Readers have asked whether he hits those balls as catharsis or as an act of impotent rage, with anger at Dan or with sadness, but I’m not sure I have a definitive behind-the-scenes answer. But what I do think I know: Ryan has been using Percocet to keep himself level, to keep the Verge at bay. The Verge is the moment of reckoning that he’s scared to have: confronting the life unlived, confronting the life he’s living. And in that final scene, he does finally reckon in his own way. That reckoning didn’t feel like it should be a big speech or explicit epiphany since Ryan is an athlete—it felt like it should be a physical act.

OG: What are you working on now?

AD: This ol’ Ryan Schwartz novel. I think we need more literary fiction about tennis! It’s a fascinating world, and Geoff Dyer argues that outside of Infinite Jest and the Lionel Shriver novel Double Fault (both published in the ’90s), we don’t have much. Of course, the world of any novel is only as interesting as its characters, and man, I love this Blood Schwartz guy and am enjoying spending more time with him.

***

Andrew De Silva grew up in suburban Detroit and lives in Los Angeles, where he is an associate professor teaching writing and critical reasoning at the University of Southern California. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and studied fiction at USC. This story took form while he was attending the Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon. “Coach Schwartz” is his first published fiction.

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