David Schulman: Conversation

David Schulman, a writer and novelist who grew up in Sylva, in Western North Carolina, is the creator of the Gritz Goldberg books. I came to know David and his work through Tommy Hays’s Advanced Creative Prose Workshop at The Great Smokies Writing Program. As I read the pages of the novel-in-progress that David brought to the workshop—“The Late Gatsby,” a second Gritz Goldberg book—I fell in love with Gritz, a therapist turned part-time sleuth, and a thoroughly lovable and unique character. I had to know more about him so I acquired the first Gritz, “The Past Is Never Dead.” It was a delightful mystery, as entertaining as the pages I was reading in workshop. In his books, David combines humor and Asheville history, adds a dash of mayhem, a ghost (or two or more), various eccentric characters, and turns out a well-crafted novel that is a joy to read. I became curious about how the character of Gritz evolved and how David came up with the plots of his novels, and decided to ask him.

Genève Bacon: David, I know your family ran a retail clothing store and that after you were graduated from college you went into business for yourself, at the age of twenty-three, and opened your own retail clothing store. You built a highly successful chain of six stores—David’s and Boo-Boos Outlets—in Western North Carolina, which you sold in the early 1990s. How did you evolve from retailer to writer?

David Schulman: From 1971 to 1991, I wrote some radio spots for my stores and a few letters to the editor. After I went out of retailing I took some one-day workshops to get acquainted with the writing process. Then I discovered, in the early 1990s, that the University of Iowa granted degrees totally off- campus/online—the only state institution in the country to do so. I took writing classes with them for eight years, many of which were taught by MFA students at the Iowa Writers Workshop. It was during this time that I began working with Gritz and even took a screenplay course with the Gritz character. I took so many classes during those years I found out that if I combined my other credits from Western Carolina State University, I could get a new degree. The result was that in 1999, at the age of 50, I graduated U of I with a BLS degree. I followed up with more writing workshops.

At the same time (the mid-1990s), I began to write a monthly column, called “Roaming the Past,” for a magazine underwritten by the Blumenthal Foundation in Charlotte. I interviewed mostly elderly Jewish citizens across the state about their lives and about notable historical events in North Carolina’s Jewish history. For two years in a row, 1994 and 1995, I won the annual N.C. Press Club’s prize for best personal columnist. The column was noticed by the Center for Jewish Studies at UNC-Asheville and I was hired by them to do a number of oral histories of Jewish citizens of Asheville and Western North Carolina.

GB: What led you to come up with the idea of the Gritz Goldberg character—a Jewish therapist and amateur detective ?

DS: Gritz was a vehicle for telling my story of being Jewish in the South during the 1950s and ’60s. It was a totally different experience from what other metropolitan Jews experienced, even very different from that of the Southern Jewish experience of today.

GB: How did you find the historical context of the Southern Jewish experience?

DS: During the tapings I did for UNC-A, many of the interviewees told me they had moved to Asheville in the 1920s and 1930s. Curious about what it would have been like in Asheville and Western North Carolina in those days, I visited Pack Library [in Asheville, the main branch of the library]. I searched through the microfilm issues of the local newspaper, “The Citizen,” now called the “Asheville Citizen Times.” Going day-by-day, I came across a 1936 murder at the Battery Park Hotel, one of Asheville’s premier hotels. The story fascinated me because the hotel itself was part of my own history. My Bar Mitzvah celebration had been held there and, as a kid, my father would take me out of school to go with him to the hotel to see the traveling salesmen who set up to sell merchandise for the stores in the area, including my family’s store. The story of that murder sparked the idea for the plot of my first Gritz novel, “The Past Is Never Dead.” I had gotten the start I needed.

At the same time, one of the people I taped for the UNC-A project, Leo Finkelstein of Finkelstein’s Pawn Shop, opened a closet to show me memorabilia he had collected on Asheville history in general and Jewish history in particular. What caught my eye was a Wanted Poster of William Dudley Pelley that Leo said he had taken directly off a telephone pole. When I asked Leo what the poster was all about, Leo said, “Oh, you wouldn’t be interested in that!” Oh, but I was.

I did further research and found that Pelley, a nationally known figure who had run for president, was a fanatical Nazi supporter with a wildly interesting, nutty and dangerous past. His followers, for example, had attacked the San Diego naval base in a rowpoat. Pelly arrived in Asheville in the 1930s and set up a hate-mail-production operation—without much success, I might add. He also went around holding some séances. And I had another strand to weave into my novel.

Then one day in the late 1990s, in pursuit of more information about Asheville history, I went out to my father’s store in Sylva (which he ran until he was 91) to talk with one of his cronies, John Parris. John was a well-known, long-time journalist and columnist for the “Citizen Times.” He asked what I’d been doing since selling my stores and I told him I was thinking about writing a mystery based on the murder at the Battery Park Hotel. And John said, “Oh, I covered that for the ‘Citizen’ and spent the night next to Martin Moore [the Negro convicted of the crime] in Central Prison before he was executed. Would you like my notes? I save everything. . . .” As they say, the rest is history.

GB: What was the next step after you had a finished manuscript of “The Past Is Never Dead”?

DS: I took the usual route of sending it out to agents.

GB: How long did it take before you got an agent?

DS: It was something like two to three years. Let me tell you, it was a lonely and debilitating journey for a writer to receive so little affirmation for his writing. But in the end, I found a fantastic agent who was enthusiastic about the book. He presented it to 13 publishers in all. We both thought the major New York publishers would “eat up” the uniqueness of Southern Jewish history being told in a mystery setting. Boy, were we surprised. They didn’t get the book and were not excited by the idea, except for one major editor who did love it. He took it to committee where it did not get through. Twelve major publishers rejected the book; the 13th was a regional publisher that did get it!

GB: It’s been some five years since the first Gritz appeared. What did you do in the interim between Gritz 1 and the start of Gritz 2?

DS: After “The Past Is Never Dead” was published, I toyed with two other novels: one was a second Gritz, the other a non-Gritz novel. After about 60 pages of each, I realized they weren’t working. The plots seemed to vaporize and I lost interest in them.

GB: How, then, did you find Gritz 2?

DS: I kept remembering one of the things people commented on during my two-week book tour across five states in 2004. They pointed out the fact that Zelda Fitzgerald had a long history at Highland Hospital in Asheville where she died, and that F. Scott Fitzgerald had a history with Asheville as well. I researched almost all the books written on the two and fell in love with their dynamic as a couple. I envisioned Scott and Zelda appearing to Gritz to ask him to solve a problem, and bingo! Plot and characters clicked into place. And that’s how “The Late Gatsby” was born.

GB: How close are you to finishing Gritz 2?

DS: I was putting the finishing touches on it and close to sending it off to my agent when I got a letter from him saying that he had closed up shop—a victim of the downturn in the publishing business. So now I have to start the process of finding an agent all over again.

GB: Will you being working on a third Gritz while you make the rounds with Gritz 2?

DS: I certainly hope to continue the series, although I have not decided on the plot of Gritz 3.

GB: Thanks, David, for sharing your and Gritz’s history with us. I wish you luck with “The Late Gatsby.”

Check out David’s website: www.thedavidschulman.com. David’s first Gritz, “The Past Is Never Dead,” may be obtained through amazon.com.

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