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Interview with Michael C. Schmidt, author of "The Decadents"

Updated: Feb 22, 2022


The Decadents is in conversation with other satires about American life and the effects of individualism and so much more. What do you think the role or the power of satire is? The role of satire is social criticism, but I think its power comes from its ability to entertain. Couching commentary in humor can, in the best of cases, make those ideas palatable to the broadest possible audience—making them laugh and making them think. Hopefully, I’ve done something along those lines here. (I’ll settle for the laugh though.) The central characters of the novel—Lillian, David Samuel, Phil, and more—are so fully imagined. Did you have any real-life inspiration for these characters? Phil was inspired by a former professional acquaintance of mine. He was a small business owner and a client of the company I was working for at the time. I sat through many self-mythologizing monologues where he bemoaned the plight of the American job creator and proselytized his conservative politics. At some point, I started to amuse myself by imagining this bombastic personality in a variety of delicate situations, including talking a jumper off a ledge, which became part of the novel’s opening chapter. When I finally decided to write about this character, I spent a long time thinking about the kind of person who would not only choose to partner with a man like Phil, but who could also successfully maintain that relationship for decades. Because she needed to be believably motivated to stick by the side of this very difficult person, Lillian was the hardest of these characters to pin down. David Samuel, on the other hand, was just a matter of making a carbon copy of Phil and giving him an opposing set of beliefs, interests, and priorities—a son as volatile as his father but tuned to a different frequency. How did you come up with the plot? The story is full of twists and turns; did you plan these out ahead of time or were you surprised as you wrote? I didn’t have a plot when I started writing. I had an idea of what I wanted to say about Phil and his desire for power and status, and I knew that I enjoyed getting him in the same room with David Samuel and witnessing the chaos they created for each other. I wasn’t sure if it would be a short story or something longer, so there were many surprises for me as I was writing. Why did you choose to set the story in South Carolina? The atmosphere seems ripe for the kind of tension and conflict you create here. Is the South a place you are personally familiar with? Do you think it could’ve been set in another part of the country? I can imagine Phil being the product of certain other regions of the US, but I see a Blanche DuBois quality in David Samuel that only makes sense to me in the South. I think we have a collective shorthand understanding of the South as being conservative but also an area that’s spawned some fabulously weird culture and characters, and that combination made it the obvious backdrop for this story. I was less concerned, though, with accurately representing a place than with borrowing from an atmosphere I know from Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner and others. I do know the Carolinas though. They’re lovely.

You’ve written and published many short stories. How is the experience of writing a novel different than that of writing a short story? I spend a lot of time writing short stories, but even more time reading short stories and reading about how to write short stories. It’s such a difficult form (which I’m still far from mastering) because so much needs to be said with so little. Every word is essential, and every movement must have purpose. By contrast, I sat down with this novel night after night with the attitude of: Why not see what happens if Phil were to run for Congress? That could be fun! The amount of time I spent with these characters felt indulgent to me at the time. I’m pleased that it ended up holding together as well as it does (in my opinion). What are you working on next? I’m currently editing a supernatural YA novel that I started writing at the end of 2020. It’s a genre I’ve never worked in before, but it’s proving to be an enjoyable challenge.

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