Jeff Schnader was at Columbia University in 1972 where he participated in sit-ins, marches and protests against the Vietnam War. He took part in demonstrations in front of Hamilton Hall where students were beaten by N.Y. Tactical Police in full battle regalia. He graduated with a BA in physics. His short story, The Champion, won first prize in the 2020 Annual Quills Contest. His novel, The Serpent Papers, which will be published in February 2022 by The Permanent Press, was a short-listed finalist in the 2021 Blue Moon Novel Competition. Chapters of The Serpent Papers and his short story, The Oma, were published previously in THE WRITE LAUNCH. After graduating from Columbia, he received his medical degree from McGill University and trained at Johns Hopkins. He retired as full Professor of Medicine after authoring over 50 scientific publications and chairing & speaking at over 130 national medical conferences. He was a frequent guest on NPR’s “Sound Health” and has been awarded for teaching and for editing a medical journal. He worked full-time in the Department of Veteran’s Affairs for 22 years, serving American war veterans, including those of The Vietnam War.
For me it is passion. I had a busy career and raised two sons, but my passion is what drove me to write. The passion for me was not for the act of writing itself but for expressing myself about perceived injustices that I saw in the world. In writing The Serpent Papers, I felt an imperative to bring justice to a topic where justice was lacking. As an American, I have passion for justice which may correct societal wrongs. My desire to heal my generation’s rift over the Vietnam War, an issue which has broken my heart repeatedly over the last 50 years, has been a burning passion, which has now been much assuaged because I have written The Serpent Papers.
There are many roles for writers and reasons that they write, and I will omit the reasons of wealth, fame and power (which are significant factors for many). The spectrum of writers goes from those who report facts to their readers to those who stir debates, propose societal changes, stir our passions, excite our senses, kindle feelings of romance, pique our curiosity for mystery, warn us of our frailties and responsibilities, and remind us of our humanity. Often, writers take on several roles as they strive to stimulate thought and engender creative reasoning.
The next book I am now writing erupts from a passion to correct a centuries-old wrong. Other writers strive to startle, thrill or horrify their readers, others wish to tell happy or romantic stories. But all of these types of expression are enhanced when there is passion and when justice triumphs over societal injustice.
Before you wrote The Serpent Papers, which will be published by The Permanent Press in February 2022, you gave up on your first novel. What was it about? You didn’t think your second novel was good enough. Why not? What insight about these two experiences led you to write The Serpent Papers?
My first novel, Trois Lacs, was about French Canada. I lived in Quebec for five years during a tumultuous period in its history during the late 1970s when Rene Levesque was leader of the Part Quebecois. I had a passion for the French-Canadian people and their history. I believed in the union between (as Hugh MacLennan coined it) the Two Solitudes of English and French Canada, but I also saw that the British, going back as far as 200 years to the French and Indian War, had treated the French Canadians badly. Wellington’s forced migration of Acadian farmers to Louisiana—so that English farmers could steal their lands and settle Lower Canada— particularly galled me. In any case, my book, Trois Lacs, suffered from insufficient plot and the balanced development of its characters. I had gone to medical school and hadn’t had the benefit of an MFA in writing, and I saw my limitations as insurmountable at the time. As a result, I put Trois Lacs aside and never returned to it.
My second novel was much improved. At 450 pages, it had what others told me was excellent writing. It had the basis of a good plot and some engrossing chapters while the characters were robust, unique and believable. But there were still deficiencies, including stilted dialog, which made me wince when I reread it some years later. There were also parts of the book which were slow for the reader, and one subplot was wholly uninteresting. I now know that no part of a novel can be slow or ponderous—not a single page. This book could still be resurrected, but at the time I decided to move on and write The Serpent Papers. I can’t see going back to this prior book as my current passions have taken me elsewhere.
Give us a synopsis of The Serpent Papers.
The Serpent Papers is set at Columbia University during the Vietnam War, the most significant event of the baby-boomer generation. The war created a rift between those who fought & those who protested—a rift which the book aims to heal with rapprochement, featuring demonstrations, riots, 1970s counterculture, & murder.
J-Bee, son of a military officer, is raised in a violent milieu during the 1960s. After his little brother is persecuted by bullies, J-Bee commits a retaliatory act of brutality, the nature of which scars him. When his best friend, Gilly, volunteers to fight in Vietnam, J-Bee—repulsed by his own violence—refuses to follow either his father or Gilly into the military. Instead, he matriculates at Columbia University in 1971, an era of counterculture, drugs and sex and rock ‘n roll, to seek his redemption.
While there, he is introduced to the mysterious Serpent, a sage who recites in the campus café, and to the politically active Margo who schools him in antiwar politics and the virtues of peace. Although he feels loyalty to his best friend (Gilly) fighting overseas, he increasingly sympathizes with Margo’s rationale against the war. Torn between supporting the war or protesting against it, J-Bee’s paradoxical feelings are ignited when his friend Gilly, on furlough from Vietnam, visits him at Columbia. With ratcheting tensions and bullhorns leading students in protest, pro-war and antiwar factions collide in campus riots, and J-Bee makes the choice that defines his life, solidifying his outlook on violence.
J-Bee, the main character in The Serpent Papers, is a student at Columbia University where he protested the Vietnam War. How did you first experience J-Bee? What did it feel like to have originated this character? How did he change during the fifteen years you wrote the novel?
J-Bee embodies a dilemma that has been within me since I was an eighteen-year-old protester at Columbia, and I came to realize it is a dilemma shared by many in my generation. Unlike World War II which was a righteous war, the Vietnam War was a bad war in many ways (not that war is ever good). But the boys who fought for America in Southeast Asia were certainly not to blame—in fact, they were patriots despite being vilified by many who were against the war. This paradox gnawed at me; it was a dilemma I wanted to resolve.
J-Bee is a character who straddles both sides of the Vietnam War argument: he is the son of a long line of military fathers, and he comes, gradually, to see that America is wrong to be fighting in Vietnam. The resolution of this paradox within him gradually changes the landscape of his world view, his Weltanschauung, if you will. He did not change over time from when I began writing the book to when I finished, but he did become fleshed out with more detail over time.
Although he is fictitious, there is a lot of me in him. It is my position that authors must write about what they know and understand so that the reader feels that the story is real; otherwise, the story and the writing may not be believable to the reader. It is this believability that is seminal to the communication from author to reader. For me, a novel is a dream that the author creates and that the reader inhabits. Inconsistencies in the writing will awaken the reader from the dream, disrupting the read. Along these lines, the more journalistic or real the writing, the more the reader is locked into the story. My role model for this style of writing is George Orwell, himself a journalist by trade.
Ultimately, I was satisfied and pleased with having created J-Bee, especially since my editor and early reviewers regard him as a consistent, believable, and unique individual. Although he and I are alike in some ways, there are differences between us which make us very distinct. J-Bee is an Irish-Catholic American; I am neither Irish-American nor Catholic although I grew up in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood. J-Bee’s father is a career military officer; my father was not military. J-Bee suffers violent, physical abuse at the hands of his teachers, the nuns, something I heard about from my boyhood friends and experienced one time, but not with the severity that J-Bee did. To be a boy growing up in America, now as always, means to know one’s place in a world—a hierarchy—of physicality and violence. To understand this means to understand something that is innate to the male psyche, a subject that remains taboo though it is close to the center of what ails this country and the world.
I did go to Columbia University as an undergrad like my protagonist. Like him, I had to confront rampant drug use, relative sexual inexperience, the fear of the draft (after Nixon abolished student deferments from the military draft in 1972 for the first time in American history), and the fear of having to fight a war on foreign soil for dubious reasons against a determined Vietnamese people, fighting righteously for their country’s reunification. Like all boys in 1972, I had to face the stark possibility that I might be sent to Vietnam and die for an unworthy cause while President Nixon escalated the war by bombing Hanoi, drafting more American boys, and widening the geographical theater of the war into the noncombatant countries of Laos and Cambodia.
America had never lost a war to that point. What I understood was that Vietnam was a new sort of war, entirely unlike World War II which had been a righteous war between the forces of good and evil. I knew that if I went to Vietnam, there was a strong chance that I might die, and I realized how brave and patriotic the boys were who had volunteered. Along with other students in the dorm, I watched the six o’clock evening news and saw bewildered American boys, live, being bloodied in jungle firefights and killed on camera. Sadly, those boys did not see what I saw, that the war was not for a good cause. Further, both LBJ and Nixon had lied to the American public about pulling out of Vietnam and about other things.
Meanwhile, my mother said to me, “If you are drafted, you will fight for your country, and if you die, you will die for your country.” I didn’t see it that simply, and eventually I took a stand against the war by protesting: marching, joining sit-ins, and demonstrating at Columbia with other students. I do not regret my actions. Finally, the riot depicted at the end of my novel is a real historical event, and I was there, a participant and a witness to what transpired. I recount this event factually in The Serpent Papers after having relived it many times, over the years, in my mind.
We have published your essay “My Pilgrimage to Publication” in bookscover2cover.com and four chapters from The Serpent Papers in The Write Launch. In the essay, you discuss writing the first novel and finding flaws that you needed to address. For example, your characters were one-sided; your plots were underdeveloped; and your dialogue was stilted. What did you learn from this process so that you could begin to write The Serpent Papers?
Early on, I realized that I would not succeed if I did not address the flaws in my novel writing. It’s hard to do this because to work so hard and then discover that your book is not up to scratch is a heavy blow. Demoralizing, in fact. It proves one’s flaws; it shakes one’s confidence, and it’s painful. Without this triad of failure, a writer cannot grow. If one is insanely confident and does not pay attention to criticism as a result, one’s writing cannot improve—regardless of any commercial success. There is a fine balance here as well because a writer must get to the point at which he or she knows when the critic is right and when the critic is wrong. This takes experience and the strength to submit to and temper the pain of criticism.
Writers do need confidence to commit themselves to the heavy workload and to keep going in spite of the pain. Getting confidence, however, takes a global understanding of one’s abilities and weaknesses, and you can’t get this understanding overnight. It takes years to know oneself in writing and to lay the foundations of confidence.
So, what happens in the interim to prevent the writer from giving up? Love is probably the only thing that can conquer the deadly triad of flaws, lack of confidence and pain. A writer must love writing for its own sake, even if success is elusive. It is what sustains us in our blackest hours of doubt and pain. We must love what we do; we do it because we must.
In “My Pilgrimage to Publication,” you cite several books that helped you become a better writer. What are the titles of these books? What did you learn from them that gave you more confidence in your writing?
Most of the books on writing that I’ve read have focused on my personal weaknesses, e.g, plot. They have helped me to develop what my editor has said is a highly successful and engrossing plot in The Serpent Papers. I’ve also read about character development and the elusive concept of book structure. These topics are only my personal predilections; other authors may have different interests as they read about the writing process. So, for example, Strunk and White’s classic book, The Elements of Style, is a huge favorite. I have not read the whole book myself though I imagine I should revisit it; I read parts of it many years ago.
Here are some of the titles that I have read from most to least helpful:
20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias (most helpful, superb)
Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman (very, very helpful)
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner (helpful)
How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen (helpful)
On Writing by Stephen King (his personal journey, not so helpful)
The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer (an interesting, narcissistic voyage of one author, less helpful—title is the best part),
You worked on The Serpent Papers for fifteen years. Describe your daily writing schedule.
My daily schedule, for most of my adult life, consisted of getting calls in the middle of the night about desperately sick patients, making rounds in an ICU with junior physicians whom I taught, seeing patients in a pulmonary clinic, writing and editing for a peer-review medical journal, running a research lab, speaking at national meetings to large audiences. After hours, I raised two boys. If I had the energy when the boys were old enough, I would go to my local coffeehouse and write fiction for 1-2 hours.
After I retired from medicine, my routine changed. I would get up in the morning to pay bills, write query letters and finish other business so that in the afternoon, I could write for 1-3 hours. My aim has been 1800-2000 polished, self-edited words per week, meaning written and rewritten until nearly perfect (to my personal standards). I would rewrite each page between 5-15 times, depending on that page’s needs.
When a writer searches for an editor, what do you recommend they look for? How did you find the editor who guided you toward publication? What do you recommend that writers look for in an agent or a publisher?
There are two kinds of editors: those who clean up grammar and sentence structure (like copy editors) and those who do everything else from restructuring your book, reordering your book’s timeline, advising on character building, advising on deleting unnecessary passages, rewriting, and even ghostwriting. Finding the second type of editor is very difficult. Editors are experts, and experts have to be careful about letting the blood rush to their heads and overdoing their input. In other words, experts may be tempted to alter books in ways that may change what the author intends. They may make the mistake of going beyond their abilities, their expertise and their knowledge base because they have education and self-belief. As a doctor, I know how doctors (another type of expert) can advise or explain way beyond the boundaries of their knowledge and be, well, wrong. I’ve seen it. One must be careful, therefore, with editors as with any experts, and it is tricky because it is difficult to dispute what they say except, perhaps, if you are also an expert. So how does an author know which editor to trust? It’s a tricky business, and not all editors have the same talents or abilities.
For The Serpent Papers, I hired the editor with the best track record whom I could find. He had edited Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin and all of the books of Robert Ludlum. I had to send samples of my writing to him first before he would agree to take me as a client, but after he decided he would take me, the experience was invaluable, even sublime. The amount I learned from him was incredible. Although choosing an editor was the most difficult decision I had to make, I believe it was the most important. Finally, it was also expensive, and he was very up front with his charges. Any editor who isn’t should be avoided like the plague. As he so candidly told me, “You’re gonna pay.” But getting the right editor was game-changing.
You found a publisher before you found an agent. Describe how this “unusual” experience happened.
Finding an agent takes a lot of work, and most writers fail at this hurdle. I wrote many query letters and follow-ups and was rejected around 50-60 times. Not only was it time consuming, it was tedious, requiring specific research about the specific agents to whom I was writing. It is necessary to write a letter tailored to the proclivities of each individual agent; otherwise, it’s not worth writing at all. And there is a specific form to writing a query (see my essay in bookscover2cover, “My Pilgrimage to Publication,” from their December 21, 2021, issue for more on this topic). For me, I can’t think of anything about the process of finding an agent that is enjoyable, and I have yet to find an author who likes it.
Yet it is a process. My query letter improved over time after I learned things about my book, after I improved my short synopsis, and after I researched individual agents and the market. I probably had about ten agents who requested a full or partial manuscript, which is a qualified success in a way, but I was also told repeatedly by agents that I was “not the demographic” that they were looking for. Further, I was told by no less than five agents that no one would ever publish a book about the Vietnam War era and certainly never about a young man coming of age. [Note: when I use the word “told,” I should clarify that we never spoke; it was all via email. Agents do not want to be called; avoid this unless they ask for the call, or they call you first.]
Of course, in the end, the agents who said my book would not be published were incorrect, but at the time, it made me miserable on many levels. Other agents—to their credit—disputed the naysayers and said it might be possible to publish on my chosen themes, but still others opined that it would be a hard sell to publishing houses where screeners and editors are mostly young women who would be uninterested in Vietnam. One agent even said that “they’ve probably never even heard of the Vietnam War.” Although this statement was preposterous, the sentiment behind the statement was the message. Agents also said that my writing was exceptional but that they could not sell it, which was their bottom-line interest.
I was deeply discouraged, but I only had one item to sell—my novel. There was no Plan B or second product line. I had to keep going. Every day, I woke up to tell myself that my novel “is not everything; it’s the only thing.” I persevered. While I continued to query agents and send out my manuscript, I started querying publishers. Agents told me never to do this; the reason they gave was that if I did get an agent, the publishers would not revisit my manuscript if they had already rejected it. I decided this would not influence me; there are many publishers, and, even within the big publishing houses, there are many sub-houses and different editors to whom one may submit. I decided to submit to a very few highly reputable publishers not within the big five houses (Penguin-Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Harper-Collins, Macmillan). On my third try, I was accepted by The Permanent Press.
Finally, I will disclose something that I found out: not all agents in the initial stages of your encounter—whether they ask for your manuscript or not—will read your submission. Often, they are busy and/or they have an assistant read what you’ve written. They may just scan it or read the beginning and the end of the book. I believe that if they eventually take your book, they do read the whole thing. Reading an entire book is a difficult task for many agents, and not all of them love reading as much as they might although they do love books. The best agents to query are those who love to read and do it easily. How you find this subgroup is a mystery, but since a writer only needs one agent, you must keep on trying until you find “the one.”
When you look back at writing The Serpent Papers, what was the most difficult part of the experience? The most enjoyable? The most satisfying?
For me, the most difficult parts of the experience of writing a novel are the pain of repeated rejection and finding the determination to pick myself up again and continue the process despite the emotional bruising. One must be like moth in the old fable, “The Moth and the Star.” Do you know it? One must love the process to keep going; it is a marathon that never ends, and failure is a necessary part of the process.
You are giving a talk at a high school to students who are interested in becoming writers. What do you tell them?
I would tell them that they should begin life with a career that can pay the bills and feed the kids. One cannot give up all responsibility just to write novels unless one is independently wealthy or has someone else who is paying the bills. If these students want to write, they must love it, and if they love it, they will write anyway, regardless of what I or anyone else tells them. Those who love writing will always find time to write—their love will make sure that they do.
Read Sandra Fluck’s review of The Serpent Papers.