Monday 24 February 2020
Interview with John Schad
John Schad is Professor of Modern Literature at University of Lancaster. His books include Victorians in Theory (Manchester, 1999), Queer Fish: Christian Unreason from Darwin to Derrida (Sussex, 2004), a memoir, Someone Called Derrida (Sussex, 2007), a novel The Late Walter Benjamin (Bloomsbury, 2012), an experimental biography called Paris Bride (Punctum, 2020), and (with Fred Dalmasso) Derrida | Benjamin. Two Plays (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). He has also had two retrospectives published - Hostage of the Word, 1993-2013 (2013) and John Schad in Conversation (2015). He has read his work on BBC Radio 3’s ‘The Verb’ and at various literary festivals, and his plays have been performed at The Oxford Playhouse, Duke’s Theatre Lancaster, Watford Palace Theatre, HowTheLight GetsIn (Hay-on-Wye), and the Sheldonian Theatre Oxford.
Interviewed by Jonathan Taylor
JT: How would you describe the genre you work in? Is it literary criticism, philosophy, creative writing, creative-criticism, life writing, theology, literary theory, or a mixture of some or all these things?
JS: Guilty of all the above, plus: slapstick, pantomime, and circus. So, yes, I guess I do mix things up; or, rather, I am mixed up. I am particularly mixed up about the difference between reading and writing, which I shall never grasp. It’s why I am always writing out of reading, always writing in the shadow, or shelter, of a prior text, in the margins, or between the lines. On a good day this works, and I'm off, running away to the circus, off to the far side of Literature. On a bad day, Bad.
JT: How would you describe your style or voice?
JS: Dull. Which is why I'm always trying to lose my voice, or to throw it, throw it away, and find another one, a voice that can do more with less - less effort (being lazy, you see). It never seems to happen though.
JT: You write for the theatre, as well as for the page. How do the two forms relate to each other in your work?
JS: Ah, yes, the theatrical antics, they emerged out of the prose. It just happened one day. (Pause). You know, sometimes I am persuaded that all writing, in the end, aspires to the condition of theatre, of voices or bodies performing before a darkened auditorium in which there may, or may not, be an audience. There was, of course, theatre long before ever there was writing.
JT: Do you find there are things you can do in one form that you can't in the other?
JS: Yes. Theatre lets you get away with not describing boring things like the weather and faces; you can just do the voices and leave the rest to the actors. An almighty relief. And when I can’t find any actors I simply write a book which suddenly, or for a while, becomes a play – it’s cheaper.
JT: How would you describe the parts played by philosophy or religion in your writing?
JS: You know, I have recently begun to imagine that I'm writing books which think or pray by themselves. To put that another way, I imagine that the book is a thinking machine – that if I could but wire it up sufficiently, build enough connections both within the text and with the world beyond, that the book will start to think all on its own. I have in mind Alain Badiou’s wonderful question, ‘What does the poem think?’ The answer to this question may, of course, be ‘Not much,’ but that may be where the prayer begins - with stupidity.
JT: Who (do you think) is your intended reader? Who do you write for?
JS: I’m never quite sure if there is a reader – and not just because I am so very dull. You see, I suspect that the reader might not really exist at all, or is at best a kind of ghost. I am, then, used to talking to no one, or the air. Like now. Mind you, sometimes I dream that the reader does exist and that s/he might yet redeem the book, make nothing of it.
JT: Much of your writing is heavily intertextual. Do you think the reader needs to have read the explicit intertexts to which you allude (by Jacques Derrida, Samuel Beckett, Emily Dickinson, Katherine Mansfield, Dickens, Walter Benjamin, et al) to understand your work?
JS: No. You see, these damned texts just turn up, unannounced, out of the blue, much like any other character or voice - walk right in they do, quite unexplained and strange, as fresh as they day they were first coughed up.
JT: Can you tell us a bit more about your new book, Paris Bride: A Modernist Life - its origin, the premise, its aim?
JS: In 1905, in a Baptist church in Paris, a young woman called Marie Wheeler married (or thought she had married) someone called Johannes Schad, a clerk from Basel. Marie and Johannes then lived together in suburban London until one day, in 1924, they went to the High Court in the Strand, and the marriage there ended, or was declared never to have been. The stated reason for what happened in the High Court was, and is, hard to credit. Marie, nevertheless, disappeared, returning alone to Paris. And that is all the official records revealed.
One day, however, I received a message from an angel in Paris called Jacques, who said his great-grandmother knew Marie, and that her diary revealed quite another version of events. The angel also sent me a photo of the young Marie, a few of her letters, and one or two details of her life and death.
So, clutching said fragments, I fell head-first into a whole pile of books written by giants like Wilde, Kafka, Woolf, and Mansfield. And there, time and again, I swear that I glimpsed the face or the back or the shadow of Marie. And that’s the book, Paris Bride - it thinks that it reads Marie back into existence. Mad.
About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor is the director of Everybody's Reviewing. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the poetry collection Cassandra Complex and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Many thousands of years ago, he was John Schad's PhD student.