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PHOTO: Leif Zurmuhlen

The Schwarzschild Radius

Nationally praised author Edward Schwarzschild makes Albany his home while keeping his hometown, Philadelphia, in his heart

By David King


One generation ago, Edward Schwarzschild’s grandparents lived in a row house in Philadelphia. After growing up in his parents’ house in Philly, and then studying creative writing at Cornell University, Boston University, Washington University and Stanford University, Schwarzschild today lives in a row house in Albany’s Center Square. It makes sense to him.

“I feel like that’s going back a generation in my family,” says Schwarzschild, who sits nestled behind a table at the Daily Grind. It’s his favorite local coffee shop, and is only a brief stroll from his house. “My grandparents lived in a row house, and I like that. I feel connected.”

Schwarzschild has been thinking a lot about his grandparents lately. His mother’s father passed away in May, leaving his own parents as the elders of his family.

His parents have lived in the same house since the beginning of their marriage.

“I used to be jealous of my friends who got to move,” says Schwarzschild as he cracks a smile, “but now I feel really lucky that my parents stayed in one house. My dad grew up minutes from the house he ended up living in. My mom grew up 15 minutes from that house. They are a pretty entrenched Philadelphia family, and how could I not be inspired and influenced by that?”

Schwarzschild’s latest collection of short stories begins with “Open Heart,” which deals with an elderly couple who suddenly realize they are in their twilight years.

“They do take off on these characters who are similar to but [are] not my grandparents,” says Schwartzschild. “I didn’t disguise them much at all, but I started the story as a way to honor them.”

Schwarzschild, like William Kennedy, the man he works with in his appointment as a member of the New York State Writers Institute, brings his childhood home to life in his work—especially in his first, highly praised novel, Responsible Men, a book that is in some ways reflective of Schwarzschild’s life growing up in Philly as a son of a salesman. This fall, Schwarzschild will release The Family Diamond, his collection of short stories about families in Philadelphia. And although he brings it up as a side note, Schwarzschild also has been named a Fulbright Scholar and will teach in Spain this fall.

On his position at the Writers Institute, Schwarzschild says, “You know, it’s a dream job. I get to hang around with William Kennedy and [Writers Institute director] Don Faulkner and all the writers who come through. And I get to teach creative writing.”

Kennedy remembers the process of hiring Schwarzschild, and the praise and regard Schwarzschild’s name brought with it.

“It was all true,”Kennedy says proudly.

“I expect great things from him. I expect him to have a place in the high level of American literature as time goes on.”

Unlike Kennedy, Schwarzschild no longer lives with his city/muse, but for Schwarzschild, Albany is the next best thing.

“I haven’t written anything set in Albany yet, and hanging around with Bill Kennedy, how could you possibly? But the space of Albany and the kind of history of it that I’ve learned through Kennedy, and through living here, is not dissimilar to my sense of Philadelphia history, a history that goes back to pre-colonial times, of really wacky characters; corrupt, crazy politicians; and some good politicians and some good people. Albany does not feel that unfamiliar to me.”

In his role as professor, Schwarzschild teaches both creative writing and contemporary writing, and introduces his students to the works of authors visiting the New York State Writers Institute. When the writers arrive for their visits, Schwarzschild’s students are familiar with the authors’ work and ready to ask questions.

“I’ve been here six years now, and if I started to rattle off writers I’ve gotten to meet and listen to. . . . Even if you were in New York or San Fransisco you wouldn’t get to meet this quality, with this frequency and this convenience. I feel incredibly lucky. I think my students are lucky, because they get to meet the same writers that I meet. And that is what keeps me here.”

Schwarzschild also is able to guide the students through the process that led him to refine his inspiration into his works—writings that have already earned him comparisons to Arthur Miller.

“When I first started writing, in college, like so many undergraduate writers, you start writing about things that have meaning to you, really important things that build up your worldview,” he says. “For a time that was my grandparents, my family, and I guess I’ve stuck with that a little bit longer than some people have.”

As a child, Edward Schwarzschild was told there was one thing he could not be when he grew up. His father insisted that his son not follow in Dad’s footsteps and be a salesman. So when Schwarzschild veered off the premed track at Cornell to explore his love of creative writing, all he had to do to console his family was promise to get a master’s degree.

And while Schwarzschild’s recent work has drawn directly on his family for inspiration, down the line he thinks he might draw inspiration from a Schwarzschild he is not familiar with.

“I’ve been fascinated about someday writing about this distant, distant cousin Karl Schwarzschild. He worked with Einstein’s forumlas and discovered these things called black holes, and has this thing called the Schwarzschild radius he gets credit for.”

The Schwarzschild radius by definition is “the radius of a collapsing celestial object at which gravitational forces exceed the ability of matter and energy to escape, resulting in a black hole.” An object smaller than its Schwarzschild radius is a black hole.

Karl Schwarzschild’s story is a compelling one, but for now, Ed Schwarzschild intends to further explore his connections to the Schwarzschilds in Philadelphia.

Kennedy says Schwarzschild’s relationship with Philadelphia is one that he can explore for the rest of his career if he chooses to, wherever else he goes. It’s a relationship Kennedy thinks the younger writer may well be stuck with.

“Everything that Joyce wrote took place in the turn of the century into the teens of the century, and he spent all these years in Paris and never goes home again. So it’s what is in the mind and the memory that will determine what Ed will want to do with it. A writer is very lucky when he has this. I don’t know how many times writers have envied me and wished they had a town like Albany in their history. Edward has Philadelphia, and that’s a fate the individual has to cope with.”

Edward Schwarzschild will read from The Family Diamond on Sept. 7 at 7 PM at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza. For more info, call 489-4761.

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