“We are a hair’s breadth away from tragedy at all times. It’s a really sour outlook, but I think we’re also lucky because we evade it most of the time. I feel like there are so many times things could go wrong and they don’t. And how great that is.” Liese O’Halloran Schwarz talks with Mary Laura Philpott about her book What Could Be Saved on NPT’s A Word on Words.
Ever been in a reading slump, when nothing holds your attention? Here’s the cure: What Could Be Saved, the third novel by writer Liese O’Halloran Schwarz. If this high-stakes drama about an ex-pat American family living in early 1970s Bangkok — and the mystery that resurfaces decades later — doesn’t revive your reading life, well… maybe you can’t be saved? For this edition of A Word on Words, Schwarz speaks with host Mary Laura Philpott about her writing life, her reading life, and the origins of this breathtaking story.
Mary Laura Philpott: Hi, Liese. Thank you so much for filming with us via Zoom today. May I ask where you’re joining us from?
Liese O’Halloran Schwarz: Hi, Mary Laura. Thank you so much for having me. I’m in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Philpott: And it looks like you’re at home in front of some fabulous bookshelves.
Schwarz: I am. I actually had these all built, and for one nanosecond, they could hold all my books. Now you can’t see the piles of books off-screen on the floor.
Philpott: That’s what happens. Okay, holy smokes, this book! There’s so much I want us to talk about, but let’s start with the basics for those who have not read it yet. Can you tell us, what’s the premise here and who are the primary characters?
Schwarz: Sure. The primary characters are the American expatriate family, the Prestons. There’s Robert and Genevieve, the parents, and then the children, Bea, Philip, and Laura. They’re living in Bangkok in the 1970s, and one of the children goes missing — Philip, who’s eight years old. And the book actually opens in 2019, Washington DC, when his younger sister, Laura, who’s now in her fifties, is contacted by a man who claims to be the vanished Philip.
Philpott: That’s where it grabbed me — and then I stayed up super late because I could not delay finding out what happened. So before we dive further into this story, which we are going to do, could we back up just a minute and talk about your career? I was floored to read that before you were a novelist, you were an emergency room doctor. Or was it vice versa?
Schwarz: No, that’s right. I wrote and published a novel when I was still in medical school. And then I decided — I was making the decision whether or not to continue medicine or go full time into writing — to continue with medicine. It really takes your focus, so I focused on that. The stakes are high. It’s really important to pay attention. It filled my whole screen. I think I really believed that it would be easy to do, or not easy, but it would be doable to do both full-time. And I really couldn’t. I had to do medicine full-time for quite a long time in order to do a good job, and I really enjoyed it. I felt like I was useful. And I think that’s partly why I went back into medicine instead of leaving it and writing full-time.
I was very young when I made that decision. I decided that I didn’t know much, and I didn’t have much to say back then. And I was on this path in medicine and it meant a lot to me. I liked being useful. I liked the intellectual challenge, and I very much enjoyed my years in medicine. They were hard. And when I quit, it was really hard to do that, but I needed to write. I always needed to write, always knew I would write. And I finally faced up to the fact that I needed to not be doing anything else. Other people can do both. I don’t know how they do, but I needed to focus on this full time.
Philpott: So you were always interested in both, even when you were young, storytelling and medicine?
Schwarz: Oh, always. I wrote my first book when I was three. It was incredibly ambitious, the history of the world. I still have it. It’s ridiculous. I always knew I’d write stories.
I wrote poetry for a long time. I wrote poetry until medical school. And then in medical school, I started writing fiction. And I think part of the reason why it was so hard for me to make the transition was that all those words are really overwhelming, and I’m a real perfectionist. I would worry about a comma and a line break for ten years, and that’s ridiculous. You can’t do that when you’re trying to tell a story — you have hundreds and thousands of words. So I finally started writing short fiction and then eventually tackled the long fiction. And it’s hard. Thank God for computers, because it allows me to move things around and, you know, I can edit much more easily.
Philpott: How on earth did you find time to write when you were in med school?
Schwarz: I took Thursdays off.
Philpott: So Thursdays were for writing and everything else was medicine.
Schwarz: Yeah, Thursdays we had a short class day, so we only had a few hours of lecture in the morning. And actually, first I was at University of Virginia for medical school, and the wonderful George Garrett was there and Richard Bausch was visiting as a creative writing instructor. And one of my best friends there was a poet, he lived next door to me. So I sort of wandered into that crowd. And then I took a workshop class at UVA — you can just take workshops — a fiction workshop with George Garrett, which was just delightful. A lot of drinking. I don’t drink a lot, so it was a little overwhelming, but… Then Richard Bausch came, and he’s just amazing. I took his workshops on Thursdays. I just wasn’t a medical student on Thursdays.
Philpott: That’s amazing. Okay, let’s talk about What Could Be Saved. How did this story first arrive in your brain? Was it a character, a place?
Schwarz: It was a place. It began in medical school. Actually, I wrote a short story called “The Driver.” It was seventeen pages, and it was probably the fourth short story I ever wrote. It described an incident in the start of the book, which is still at the start of the book. It was something I actually remembered from my childhood in Bangkok, but I don’t like writing nonfiction. I don’t feel capable of it, and I feel challenged by it. I like the whole concept of writing fiction, so I needed everything to be very different. So even when I wrote that short story, lo these many years ago, one of the main characters, Genevieve, who was one of the main characters in this short story, she’s the mother of this family. I needed her to not be like my mother at all. And so I made her dislike being in Bangkok, and her character grew from there. My mother loved Bangkok, and if we could have stayed there, we would have all stayed there forever and never left; but Genevieve hated it. And that kind of fundamental difference is enough to bloom fiction for me. So, although my mother had a lot of characteristics like Genevieve — very capable, very vivacious — she didn’t have that negativity that toward Bangkok that Genevieve has.
Philpott: How long were you in Bangkok as a child?
Schwarz: Not long. We were there maybe almost three years. It was such a formative period of my life though, and my parents loved it so much. My father became fluent in Thai. They went back every year. It really marked me. It formed me. It was my first memory of school, you know?
Philpott: So you were little?
Schwarz: We left when I was a little over seven, maybe seven and a half. Yes, I was little, but that’s a wonderful time, and I love the wide open feeling that you had because you met people who weren’t necessarily all from the same place. That became the norm for us, you know? Then we went to Washington, DC, where everyone is from everywhere. So we really had that lovely feeling of almost being global. Even though we didn’t belong in Bangkok, it didn’t matter. We loved it there.
Philpott: Were you moving around because of your parents’ work?
Schwarz: My father was a social scientist, and I was actually born in Africa and we lived there for quite a while. Then we spent a little sliver of time in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then we moved to Bangkok. His company did research in the social and behavioral sciences.
Philpott: There’s a very glamorous kind of, almost late Mad Men-era feel to this setting — this time and place, early 1970s Bangkok. How did you re-familiarize yourself with that place and time given that it was so long ago?
Schwarz: That’s such a good question. Some of it’s just purely from my memory. That was the world that I remember. I mean, I was young. It wasn’t the 60s obviously, but all of that… the cocktails and the cigarettes and people wearing hats… it was all normal. But I had to familiarize myself for the first time with details as an adult would see them, because I was a child, and I saw very little, at a very small view. So I did a lot of research. I read a lot of books. There are some amazing books out there that you can get. I got some oral histories printed on demand. I got books sent to me from Bangkok. I read a lot of memoir from around that time. There would be little details, and I filed those away. And then I also got some books that are maps of old Thailand, old Bangkok, because the city has changed. When I looked at the maps, you know, it had some sort of typography in my mind. Also: picture books — like Time Life books. And YouTube has some amazing short bits of soundless footage that were taken originally by soldiers on R&R or people visiting Bangkok. You just see snatches of the cars, the buildings, the people… it was incredibly useful to refresh my memory in that way.
Philpott: Thank goodness for the internet.
Schwarz: Thank goodness for the internet! I was thinking about this story for many years, even before the internet. So I have a lot of those books, because, you know, in the old days we used to just read books. I think the internet gave me YouTube. Sometimes you’d just be tired, and you’re just trying to think, you’re trying to generate plot and the characters aren’t moving around for you, so you watch YouTube and get little details. You don’t even use all of them. I didn’t use all of them at all, but just enriching my memory gave me a sense of the environment and the place.
Philpott: You wrote something in the acknowledgements of this book that I loved. The way you put it was “how a story can carry a flavor of truth about a family while not resorting to actual fact.”
Schwarz: Yes. I think it’s very much some like something that I read in an interview that was done with Ann Patchett after she released Commonwealth —
Philpott: I did that interview! “None of it happened, but all of it’s true”?
Schwarz: Yeah! None of it happened, but all of it’s truth. That was so perfect, because it’s the feeling of the truth without actually getting into the gritty, you know, “This happened to me.” None of the things happened in my book in real life, but all of it could have happened. And I’ve been really lucky. I know some people who are older than I am, they lived in Bangkok during that time, and I’ve heard from them the most wonderful things. They said, “You got so much of it right. You got it.” I mean, one person would question a little thing here or just a little thing there. But I feel really glad that it passed muster, because people who lived in place like that are very… It’s a brilliant memory, I think.
Philpott: There are so many moments in this story where if one tiny thing had happened differently, if someone had shown up a minute earlier or looked a different direction in a specific split-second, everything would have been different. And I’m curious as to how, or if, that reflects your own view on life. Do you think a lot about before-and-after moments?
Schwarz: Oh, sure. I mean, I think there’s actually a line about this in my previous book, The Possible World. One of the characters is a doctor, and she says, “It’s another opportunity to plow that divide between before and after into somebody’s life,” because you go into the room as a doctor and you say, I’m so sorry, your husband’s dead. I mean, that’s extremely… you are a witness to a lot of before-and-afters.
I think that in fiction, things need to tie up more neatly than they do in real life. That’s really challenging to create, but I really do believe we are a hair’s breadth away from tragedy at all times. It’s a really sour outlook, but I think we’re also lucky, because we evade it most of the time.
Philpott: Yeah, no, I think about that a lot too. It’s kind of a dark thought that we’re a hair’s breadth away from tragedy all the time, but it also gives you a lot to be grateful for.
Schwarz: Absolutely. That’s how I think of it. You know what the veterans say? Every day someone’s not shooting at you is a good day. It’s a little bit like that. I feel like there are so many times things could go wrong and they don’t, and how great that is.
Philpott: I’m glad you mentioned The Possible World. Before we got on this Zoom I was texting with a friend of mine who just finished reading The Possible World, and she was texting me her favorite pages. She said it had the “grabbiest opening” of any book she has ever read. And that leads perfectly to our next question.
I have to tell you, there were two books that broke me out of my pandemic reading slumps. I got into a phase where I just couldn’t read. Nothing held my attention. One was White Ivy by Susie Yang, who we’ve also had on the show. And then I got into a slump again, and I thought, oh no, here I am, and then your book came along, What Could Be Saved. And I was back! I mean, it grabbed my attention and it held my attention. Like I told you, I stayed up, and I am not a person who stays up late. I love my sleep. I stayed up until 1:30 a.m., because I had to know what happened. Talk to me about how you create that narrative drive — because your writing has narrative drive like nobody’s business. How do you create that tension?
Schwarz: Thank you so much for the lovely words about the book. I do love to know that people stay up late, and I love to know if people cry, it’s a really sadistic thing. [Laughs]
I think there are a few things. One, I’m a reader first. So I’m always, always, always thinking of the reader. What is the reader looking for? What are they interested in? It’s not going to be every single person who’s going to love every single thing, but I’m always aware that someone is reading this book and has to sound out the names in their head and has to differentiate between the different names. They can’t be too similar. Little things like that can get in the way. I do sometimes edit or work with other people on work, and I’ll just say, you can’t have anything obstruct that feeling of being in the moment for the reader.
I heard something years ago on an NPR interview — probably Fresh Air because that’s the best — and I believe it was David Chase, who wrote The Sopranos, but I’m not sure. It was a TV writer, and I think a lot of the greatest stories are being told on the small screen now. He said something about a TV pilot. This is many years ago. He said, you know, when you’re writing a TV pilot, you need to open up a lot of questions and not answer any of them at first — just don’t answer any of them. And then you need to start answering them. But when you start answering, you open up more, and some of the questions will be answered in a paragraph, sometimes in the next chapter, sometimes it will last the whole length of the book. But there’s always something that the reader wants to know that pulls you through.
Stephen King said in On Writing, that wonderful book, that the character has to want something. Something as simple as a glass of water, something as simple as getting across the street, but the wanting something pulls in the reader. So I think I don’t calculate what I’m doing, but if it feels right and I know I’m being pulled along myself as I write, then I feel like the reader might be also.
Philpott: You said you don’t calculate it. Do you build a detailed outline? Because your writing has plot twist layered upon plot twist layered upon plot twist.
Schwarz: Yeah, no, I’m the least organized person about writing on the planet. I refer to my revision process as a Roomba. You know, when you watch a Roomba, it looks completely random, but there is a method to it. There’s an order, but like an “only I know what the order is” kind of thing. When I’m drafting, it’s a very wide open process. It’s almost a psychosis where I am the characters. I am there, doing all the things. I’m obviously still myself — I’m not truly psychotic — but you know, I have to put myself in the place and then write it.
It has to be very free, and I can’t be too self-critical or too self-editing and I can’t always know where it’s going. And then about one quarter or a third of the way through any book, I’ll have an idea what the end is going to be. I may not know the exact end, but I know sort of where I want it to end. I may know from the very beginning where I want it to end, and then I write toward that. But then the revision process is, I think, 98% of the work for me. Yeah. I don’t know what the heck’s going on most of the time. And I cut an enormous amount of writing out of this book before my agent even saw it, before my editor even saw it.
Philpott: I think that’s the secret to good writing, using that delete key a lot.
Schwarz: I think you’re right. And always remembering that if I find myself being too deliberate, if I find myself trying to plan anything, it can go okay sometimes, but sometimes it backfires and I find myself fighting with a scene. I finally have realized if I’m really fighting with it, it is not right, and it does not need to be in the book.
Philpott: There’s something very freeing about finally reaching that realization.
Schwarz: Really. It really is. When you’re like, “I have to have a scene that shows this…” / “You know what? You don’t.” Readers are incredibly smart. You need to tell them enough. With The Possible World, at one point, I was talking about the revision, and my editor, Nan Graham, said, “Okay, now you need to take out every extra word. I won’t tell you which ones. You just take them out.” And so I went through and I pulled out every extra word. Everything. I took out so much, they put some back in! I felt like it was literary Jenga. You’re pulling out as much as you possibly can and letting the structure still stand. It’s hard, because of course you love everything you write. You just fall in love with it. You’re like, “I don’t want to lose that,” but then the reader’s like, “Dude, I don’t know you. I don’t know why you love this so much. It’s boring me.” So take it out.
Philpott: Good advice from Nan. I’m a big believer that writers are what we read. We absorb something from everything we take in. What is your reading life like?
Schwarz: It is very broad. I read almost everything and anything. For many years, I read almost exclusively nonfiction — I would say I read maybe 10% fiction, 90% nonfiction. And I didn’t really know why I was doing it. And then one day I realized I was doing it all those years because I wanted to write characters. I didn’t want to write me. I needed to know other things, so that when it was time for me to write a person with a job, I would know about that job. I’ve read like six books on poker, and I could not care less about poker! Now I’m getting a little older, so I’m a little bit more discriminating about my time. And I’m reading a lot more fiction, because I feel like I have the leisure to do that now. I don’t feel as driven to read nonfiction, but I still love nonfiction, and I read a lot of it.
But oh, I really love literary fiction. There are just so many great books that are coming out and there are some books that are really good in audio specifically. For instance, Commonwealth, I listened to at first on audio and Hope Davis read it and it was just brilliant. And then I actually bought the hardcover, so I could read the words, because reading the words is a different experience than the audio, and they’re equally awesome. I want both for a book like that. So I read a lot of books like that. Although there aren’t that many of that quality out there, there are some writers that are just… they turn out these books that just glow. They’re so magical.
And there are also books that are very plot heavy. The writing isn’t particularly focused on being beautiful, poetic, but the plot is fascinating and fun. And you just want to read the book. So I read a lot of those too, because why not? I mean, it’s almost like you’re cleaning out your brain a little bit from all the words and you get to just enjoy the plot. I mean, I loved Ready Player One, and that was just an unbelievably plot driven, fun book, you know?
Philpott: Yeah. You mentioned you live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. What is the literary community like there?
Schwarz: I don’t really know so much, because I haven’t lived here that long. And now we’re in a pandemic, so who knows what’s going on out there. But the bookstores are phenomenal. We have Flyleaf and we have McIntyre’s and we have a new bookstore that just opened downtown called Epilogue. And I haven’t been in because of the pandemic, but I signed books outside. I looked in the window and it looks fabulous.
The library is so wonderful here. You know, the pandemic really stopped everything, but our library picked itself up and started doing curbside delivery as fast as they could. I feel like there’s a real attention to reading and books here just from the entire Chapel Hill community itself. I feel really lucky to be here.
Philpott: Where were you before?
Schwarz: I went to college at Harvard, and then I lived in Manhattan for awhile. I came down to Virginia for medical school, and then went back up for residency first to Harvard and then Brown in Providence. I love Providence. It’s just cold.
Philpott: What is next for you? Another book?
Schwarz: Of course. I was about a quarter of the way through the next book before the pandemic started. And then it really stopped me in my tracks because this book, unlike the ones before it, which were very much in the past, this book was set in the near future. It’s not science fiction, but it’s set in the near future. I really wanted to play with that. The story is kind of interesting — there’s a technological thing about it. But because the near future will be after COVID, I’ve had a really hard time envisioning that. When I write, I put myself there, and I can’t do that yet. I’m getting closer to putting myself in the post-pandemic era, and I’ll have to make some guesses and some choices, but I want it to feel really real. So I have to reshape the book I’ve already started and continue it in the post-pandemic era with a shadow from the pandemic. But I don’t really want to write about the pandemic.
Philpott: Have you ever taught writing?
Philpott: It seems like you would be a wonderful writing teacher.
Schwarz: Well, thank you. I did a lot of teaching in medicine. I love to teach. My father was a teacher before his other career. He was a math teacher. I love to break things down and make them clearer and communicate them. In medicine, a lot of the information that you’re given is so opaque, it’s like someone’s out there making it hard. And when you finally understand it and you tell it to somebody else in a clear way, the students are like, “Oh my God!”
I’ve never had the chance to formally teach writing, but sometimes I do read manuscripts and give feedback. I’m lucky enough to have some writer friends that helped me. A lot of times it just comes down to talking about a problem. I’m also lucky enough to have a very good friend who’s a film editor. I have two friends actually who are film editors. One is now doing primarily TV, but he has been doing reality TV, which makes him actually more of a writer than just an editor, because you create out of the footage, you create the story. It’s not like fiction in film where you write the scene and film it. You have to take what’s real and put it together. I’ve talked to him about story as well as my other friend, who’s a film editor at NYU. She told me some really great things about about story. I think people who go get an MFA or go to graduate school, they probably learn a lot of those things. And I just didn’t. So sometimes I get these gems and I feel really lucky to have them. I would welcome the opportunity to pass that along to other people.
Philpott: What about a book makes you recommend it to someone else?
Schwarz: It depends on the person to whom I’m recommending. It’s so fun. I think I would have loved to have been a librarian or a bookstore owner to recommend books to people. I try to think, what would I want to read if I were this person? It’s a specific kind of matchmaking.
Philpott: It is.
Schwarz: Although there’s one book that works for almost everyone, a nonfiction book called Shadow Divers. It came out about 15 years ago and it is so well written that it reads almost like fiction. I’ve recommended it to a range of people and everyone that I’ve recommended to just loves it.
Philpott: What’s a book that meant a lot to you as a child?
Schwarz: All Creatures Great And Small by James Herriot.
Philpott: Did you see — I don’t know if it’s new, but I’ve been seeing the ads a lot on PBS —
Schwarz: I’m afraid to watch it.
Philpott: Yeah. I know that feeling. You don’t want it to ruin it.
Schwarz: I’ve read that series of books so many times through the years, I have my own pictures of all the people. He was an incredible storyteller, and the love of telling a story showed in those books. That’s what caught me. It’s just wonderful. I read those books to tatters and I’m afraid to see them on film.
Philpott: Okay. Last one, and this is a pandemic inspired question. If you could go anywhere right now, where would you go?
Schwarz: I would probably go to New York City and meet my very dear friends, Spike and Robert and Emory and Carol and Alison and Eric. And we would all sit around like we used to do late into the night — um, without the cigarettes though, those are gone — but late into the night, and talk and talk and talk, and it would be wonderful.
Philpott: I hope you get to do that soon. Thank you so much, Liese.
Schwarz: Thank you so much for having me. This has been so fun.
This transcript has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Liese O’Halloran Schwarz Recommends
All the Ever Afters, by Danielle Teller
Emily, Alone, by Stewart O’Nan
Rules for Visiting, by Jessica Francis Kane
The Last Empress, by Anchee Min
The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason