Evan I. Schwartz started out reviewing rock concerts for his high school newspaper on Long Island. He is the author of five non-fiction books, including the acclaimed historical narratives Finding Oz (Houghton Mifflin) and The Last Lone Inventor (HarperCollins), named by Amazon Books as one of the “100 Biographies and Memoirs to Read in a Lifetime.” He lives in New England. Revolver is his first novel.
In this post, Schwartz explains how he went from writing nonfiction to fiction, how he came to find his non-profit publisher, and more!
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Name: Evan I. Schwartz
Title: Revolver: A Novel
Publisher: Concord Free Press
Release date: Jan. 2021
Genre: Hybrid YA suspense and historical fiction
Previous titles: Finding Oz (Houghton Mifflin, 2009); The Last Lone Inventor (HarperCollins, 2002) and three other non-fiction books about innovators and history.
Elevator pitch for the book: As the 1970s end, two star-crossed lovers from Long Island go on a mystical journey that takes them deep into the heart of rock’n’roll—and puts them on a collision course with their hero, John Lennon.
What prompted you to write this book?
I started off writing about rock music in high school, reviewing albums and concerts—Springsteen, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith. I wanted to be a rock writer.
Instead, I did something that paid a little better, writing about technology and innovation for magazines, then later in five published books. But I had never tried writing a novel.
Until four years ago. I began thinking about why music often tells lasting truths. And I started to write a novel and set it in the time I went to high school, on Long Island, 1978-81. The characters in a real town would be fictional, yet there could be mystical twists that involved the music.
So, I imagined it being the story of how one extremely musical high school got through the terrible time when we lost John Lennon. Getting on the train and going into the city to mourn by the Dakota was the most awful thing we ever did.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication?
The basic idea remained the same—that it would be a rock ‘n’ roll high school love story. It took 40 months.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
Coming from non-fiction, it started with me sketching out real stories I had about some close brushes with the coolest rock stars, things I’ll never forget.
But I was surprised at how useful one piece of advice was to me. I had read the memoir by Alexander Chee, How to Write An Autobiographical Novel, and when I saw him speak at a bookstore, he emphasized this quote:
“The story of your life, described, will not describe how you came to think about your life or yourself, nor describe any of what you learned. This is what fiction can do—I think it is even what fiction is for.”
Even though I had the quote taped up, I still had to learn it the hard way. My first draft was 450 pages and was inspired by real stuff that happened to me, but to create a novel, I had to cut half of it and change the rest, then add the good stuff, the “what only fiction can do” parts. So, it was like discovering a character’s emotional arc on a very personal level. The final book is 280 pages.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
Yes, I learned about the Concord Free Press, which is a unique non-profit publisher. They send out wonderfully edited and designed paperbacks—for free, including postage. The book jacket simply asks the reader to donate any amount to any cause.
I found out that the author doesn’t get paid, and that everyone there is a part-time volunteer. But the advantage is the book gets published in a beautiful way, and copies get passed around to generate even more donations to charities or people in need. Each of 50+ independent bookstores across the U.S. gets a carton of copies to hand out for free in person. So, it’s a nice thing, especially around the holidays.
But the author retains the rights, and when the 2,500 copies run out, the book becomes available for a commercial publishing deal. So far, books from the Concord Free Press have inspired $3.7+ million in generosity. And its books have gone on to be published by outfits such as St. Martin’s, HarperCollins, and McSweeney’s.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
After they enjoy the story, I hope their feeling is like what you get from the music. It’s really a love letter to rock ‘n’ roll, and how so much of the music we all grew up with was influenced by the Beatles. And ultimately, how John Lennon’s legacy of peace and love can inspire us to reimagine a better world.
If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?
Workshopping my pages really helped get it to the next level. For me, that’s where I improved my alternating first-person narrators, the two teens in the relationship.
I workshopped the first draft at Grub Street’s Novel Generator, which is a nine-month writing group with a wonderful teacher that meets weekly for nine months. I also did week-long immersive workshops for each of three summers, just doing revisions.
Having to keep revising a manuscript is just hard. So, it helps to be around other people going through it too, and you’re all helping each other.