From Pembroke to Published: An Interview with Writer Dana Schwartz

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Like you, Dana Schwartz ‘15 was originally pre-med.

Judging from her hilarious, immensely popular parody Twitter accounts, you would never know. Schwartz runs the Guy In Your MFA and Dystopian YA accounts, where she skewers literary dudebros and the tropes of young adult dystopian novels. Schwartz, whose accounts are followed by the likes of Ava DuVernay and B.J. Novak, is also an accomplished culture writer, with pieces in The New Yorker and a current position as a staff writer for Entertainment Weekly.

Schwartz’s first young adult novel, And We’re Off, was published in May 2017. She also has a memoir, Choose Your Own Disaster, coming out in June. Dana was kind enough to take the time to speak with us over the phone about her experience at Brown and her post-grad journey as a writer. Here is Blog’s interview with the prolific writer and social media maven:

Brunonian Beginnings

EW: How would you best describe your freshman year at Brown?

DS: Oh gosh, I feel like I’m going to verge into all clichés, but incredibly exciting. I had an amazing time at Brown. Looking back, I’m so grateful for the entire experience. My freshman year, I joined an a cappella group. I was in the Alef Beats, which I loved. I was pre-med at the time, which was a terrible mistake. But I was basically just figuring out who I was and what sort of things I wanted to do. You know, I hadn’t really gotten into writing or comedy, but I was learning about myself socially, academically, and I really enjoyed the freedom.

EW: What would you say your academic experience was like at Brown?

DS: Definitely I went through phases. I started pre-med, like I said. I even entered Brown as a physics major. I thought I was going to be hard science. So I did a lot of lab work and a lot of science my freshman, sophomore year and gradually, because Brown lets you take other classes, I started realizing that the classes I was excited about were the history and English classes that I was taking to balance out my science. By my senior year, I was taking almost entirely English, lit, and history classes and I sort of realized that that was what made me happy and what I wanted to do.

EW: And do you feel that your Brown education has been valuable in your writing career so far?

DS: Incredibly. I mean, I didn’t take as many lit and English courses as I could’ve, because I didn’t concentrate in that and I didn’t even realize until my senior year that writing was something I would even consider doing. But I think things I learned at Brown, like the reading I did and the friends I made, overall as an experience, shaped who I am as a person invaluably.

EW: When you were at Brown, did you feel like you were a part of a specific community?

DS: I did. Again, I was in an a cappella group, which is its own community, and I was also in St. A’s, St. Anthony’s Hall, which is King House, the literary frat. And so that was another community I was in, which was really nice.

EW: And do you feel like either of those communities have followed you post-grad at all?

DS: In terms of friendships, yes. Definitely.

EW: And what would you say was your favorite class or professor at Brown?

DS: Ooh! You know I loved Deak; my favorite biology professor was also my advisor, Richard Bungiro, who is an incredible professor. Just devoted and fun and interesting and his class was my favorite science class. In terms of English, Deak Nabers is hilarious and I looked forward to his class everyday.

EW: That’s so nice. And what was your all-time favorite memory at Brown, if you could pick it out?

DS: Let’s see, I’m sure I’ll come up with something good. My senior year…Oh, I have it! My junior year I directed the play Arcadia and working with that cast and becoming a family was sort of my favorite memory.

EW: If there’s anything you could have done differently at Brown, what would you have done?

DS: I would have realized I wanted to be a writer sooner. But then again, my biology experience also really informs my interests and the type of things I like to write about and the way I view the world.

EW: Just a couple fun questions… Where was your favorite study spot at Brown?

DS: I did go to the Rock a lot because the SciLi made me depressed. I’m trying to think if I had anymore secret…you know, people would tell me about the music library. There’s a music library.

EW: Oh, I’ve heard about that too. I’ve never actually been there, but I have heard about that.

DS: Oh, and do you know a place I discovered my senior year? I hope it’s still open. There’s this smoothie juice place, down not quite at Wickenden, but if you’re at the Rock and you keep walking south there’s this juice bar cafe that I actually would study a lot in my senior year.

EW: And what would you say your favorite dining hall is?

DS: Andrews wasn’t quite open yet. And it wasn’t like… you know, I hear it’s gotten pretty good. But I was a Ratty loyalist.

Beyond Brown

EW: Okay. So now I’m going to ask you some questions about your career, if that’s okay. Just to start off, I know you said you didn’t always know you wanted to be a writer. Where was the point when you finally decided that that’s what you wanted to do?

DS: Senior year, I was still basically planning on applying to med school. And I started a few parody Twitter accounts just to sort of like distract myself and have fun. And it took off. And then I was like, wait. This could work. Maybe people do want to read my writing. And I basically figured I would give writing a try and if it didn’t work out I could always go to med school. And so I sort of gave it everything I had. My senior year, I tried to get an agent, I pitched books, I freelanced for anyone that would have me, and I haven’t needed to apply for med school.

EW: Wow. So when you say that you freelanced, what did that involve?

DS: So when I was a senior in college, I wrote a bit for Mental Floss. I just freelanced, I was a contributor. And I applied to a few other places, but mostly Mental Floss. And when I moved to New York, I worked for them as a staff writer.

EW: And, so, how did you transition that…because I saw you also have written for GQ and the Observer?

DS: So I was a staff writer at the Observer after I left Mental Floss. And I freelanced…I wrote a few pieces for GQ. I think Kevin, the editor I worked with, knew my stuff and thought my voice would be good for certain assignments, which is fun. It’s a combination of persistence and luck and timing and getting your voice out there, because a lot of the best opportunities I’ve had just came because people knew my writing and liked it.

EW: And what would you say or who would you say is your greatest influence as a writer?

DS: In terms of story, I think no one knows how to tell a more interesting story and makes me want to turn the next page more than Neil Gaiman. His work early on was incredibly inspiring to me. And I guess I try not…I feel like I am also one of those people whose… my writing is always influenced by whatever the last book I read is. I also grew up loving Ray Bradbury and the way he switched genres. In terms of humor, I think no one does pastiche-y online humor like or better than Mallory Ortberg. And also I read Stephen King’s book on writing probably like once a year just to get my head on straight.

EW: And so what inspired you to create the Guy in Your MFA and Dystopian YA Twitter accounts? Do you have any specific experiences?

DS: Yeah. I mean, it was a combination of boredom and I thought it was funny. Definitely Guy in Your MFA was because that senior year I was in English lit class and I got kind of frustrated with the tone of the stories that people kept submitting. And I sort of felt we were all imitating a thing that doesn’t need to be imitated any longer. And then I was thinking, if I want to be a writer, maybe I should apply for an MFA, and then I sort of tweeted myself out of it.

EW: So when you’re on Twitter, how do you learn how to deal with trolls and people who just have different opinions from you?

DS: Learning how to deal with trolls, it’s miserable. You know, I feel like I’ve gone far enough where it’s sort of stopped bothering me for the most part. I’ve turned on the strictest features Twitter has, so I don’t see the worst harassment. And then you just sort of…I know it’s horrible to say, but you sort of get used to it.

EW: Yeah, that is awful. So would you have any advice for Brown students interested in writing?

DS: Be aggressive and get your stuff out there. With the Internet, there’s sort of no excuse to not put your stuff out into the world. All the best things I’ve done and all the opportunities I’ve had were because of things I created and put into the world. When I created Guy in Your MFA and Dystopian YA, I just did it because it was fun and not because I thought I would make money from it. And again, I still haven’t made money from a Twitter account. But just take the ideas you have and don’t be scared to submit and put them out into the world. Perfect is the enemy of done.

EW: And if you had to pick, what would you say your favorite article that you’ve ever written is or the one you’re most proud of?

DS: Oh, gosh. You know I like what I wrote for GQ, I wrote about the rise of the alt-right using the insult “cuck” for people. For the Observer, I think my favorite article I wrote was the legacy of Howard Ashman, who was a gay man who died of AIDs, who was the lyricist for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. But I think the article I’m most proud of was probably the first Daily Shouts piece I got on The New Yorker website just because I felt like once I was on The New Yorker, I sort of made it.

EW: So I also read your open letter to Jared Kushner and watched some of the media coverage that resulted. I was wondering what your experience was like with that?

DS: Oh. I wrote that in a fugue state of anger. I was so frustrated and furious at the state of the election at that point and the country. And so I really meant every word and I stand by it. My colleagues at the Observer by and large stood by me. I feel…I’m trying to find the right words…I stand by it, I’m incredibly glad I did it and got the response I did. You know, I wish, obviously, the results of the election had been different. I hate that the problem that I addressed or spoke to hasn’t been solved and we have seen even more xenophobic rhetoric in the alt-right in this country.

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In 2016, CNN interviewed Schwartz about her open letter to Jared Kushner.

EW: And so changing the topic a little bit…I know you had a young adult novel published in 2017, so I was wondering what your inspiration was for that book.

DS: After I graduated from Brown, I traveled for a bit while I was trying to figure out my next move. The young adult novel was almost entirely inspired by that trip. The protagonist, Nora, just happens to go to the same countries I went to. And even though we’re different characters, I was able to transpose some of my experiences onto her, which was wonderful. So that was published last year from Penguin Razorbill. And I have a memoir coming up to be published next June from Grand Central.

EW: So, for your memoir, what was the writing process like and how was it different from your novel?

DS: So, for my novel, I wrote when I was interning. So I was working three days a week and then I had four days to write, which was a godsend. This memoir I was working full-time as a writer and then had to come home and write another thing. So that was a challenge. Also, this is personal. It was an incredibly cathartic and emotional experience to write, but I am incredibly glad I did it and am excited for the book to come out.

EW: Yeah, that’s super exciting. And do you have any other upcoming projects?

DS: So I’m a staff writer at Entertainment Weekly, so that’s my full-time job. And I also am writing a book, illustrated by my friend Jason Katzenstein, who’s a New Yorker cartoonist. It’s a white man’s guide to white male writers of the Western canon, which I’m super excited about.

EW: Yeah, that sounds very interesting.

DS: It’s basically just the same thing that inspired Guy in Your MFA. It’s me getting to make fun of the white male sensibility of Western literature.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Image via and via.

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One response to “From Pembroke to Published: An Interview with Writer Dana Schwartz

  1. Your interview was interesting and revealed how millenials think about our current political situation. EW asked very specific and probing questions.

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