Fatherville: Let’s start with your latest book, Small Things Considered–tell us a little bit about the vision behind this book.
Joel Schwartzberg: The essays always come before the books, so there’s a natural order and chronology to my writing. While “The 40-Year-Old Version” covered how I scrambled to adjust to my new life as a divorced father, “Small Things Considered” is more about my life as the remarried dad of a teenager and two tweens. Given how life doesn’t brake for parenthood, I also explore what it means to be a man, to be Jewish, and to have a virtual stranger parent my children much more often than I do.
As always, most everything is viewed through a sarcastic comic lens, because humor is my language of choice. I like to think of these short essays as postcards from my personal highway journey. Some capture big, intended destinations; others muse on shiny objects in the road or crashes in the other lane. Some postcards say “you are here”; others, “you wish you were.”
Fatherville: How long did it take for you to write Small Things Considered–from concept to being published? What obstacles did you face during the process?
JS: I started writing these essays shortly after the publication of “The 40-Year-Old Version” in 2009. I follow my own best advice for writers: “Writers write.” It takes me a while because I have a full-time job and a full-time life – not to mention watching Game of Thrones religiously – so I do about 95% of my writing on my daily New Jersey Transit train commute to and from Manhattan.
Around 2012, I realized I had enough material to start considering a book, and in 2013 I put myself in the home stretch of reaching roughly 30,000 words. Once I had a first draft, I edited and edited and edited. When I felt satisfied, I edited some more. Then I had the book proofread. Twice. Then, naturally, more editing. I would still be tinkering with it today if I didn’t have to stop to publish the thing.
I still didn’t catch everything, as I discovered when I did the audio book. Which brings me to my second best piece of advice for writers: Read it aloud before you turn it in.
In late 2013, I sent the final draft to my publisher, so she could release it around Father’s Day 2014. I’m pleased it was recently named a finalist in the Humor and Essays categories of 2014 IndieFab Book of the Year Awards
Fatherville: What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing this book?
JS: One of the things I worked through was my feelings about the kids’ new stepfather and the extent to which his presence made me feel threatened. As a result of coming clean with myself – which the essay “Dad to the Bone” required – I’m more relaxed and secure in my fatherhood.
I learned that while the kids may have many parental figures in their lives, they have only one dad. I learned how important I am in their lives, regardless of how much time I spend with them.
Fatherville: How did you decide on the title for your book–Small Things Considered: Moments from Manliness to Manilow. Were there other possible titles?
JS: We went through a lot of titles, including “Yes, I Want a Medal” and “How to Swim” (Because, like fatherhood, you can’t really learn how to swim from a book). But in the end, I went with a joke I heard when I worked at Nickelodeon. Someone said an NPR news program for kids should be called “Small Things Considered” versus “All Things Considered” and the joke struck with me. Ultimately my essays are tiny obsessions and observations about modern life, so I thought the title was very apt. Also, I like continuing with puns in my titles.
Regarding Barry, I’m just a fan.
Fatherville: What is the most difficult challenge Joel Schwartzberg has had to face as a father?
JS: When my son came into my life, I felt happy and proud, but also suddenly robbed of the life I had. This brought on a serious depression, which I wrote about in my first book. That was doubly difficult because men aren’t supposed to have depression – certainly not about fatherhood. We’re supposed to “man up.”
If I could go back and do it differently, I would have put less pressure on myself to be a perfect dad all the time, to keep my kids’ mother happy, and to always be happy myself. I would have allowed myself to admit how stressful early parenthood is, even to be totally bummed out by it. I think that would have mitigated a lot of the surprising loss I felt as a new father.
Fatherville: Many of the visitors to our site are divorced fathers–what are some of the unique challenges you face being a divorced/remarried father?
JS: It’s easy for non-custodial divorced fathers to feel as if they divorced their kids as well as their spouses, that their parenting roles have somehow been diminished — especially if there’s a new stepfather. But it’s very important for these dads to recognize that they’re dads no matter what. No one can take that role, that honor, and that responsibility away from them, unless they give it away. So they shouldn’t fret about making mistakes, earning their kids’ approval, or being usurped by other parental figures. Each father has a lifetime membership in this exclusive club of one, and should work hard at being the most authentic dad he can be.
Also, divorced dads often find themselves having to establish behavioral rules for the first time. This may be intimidating at first, but it’s also liberating when Dad can apply his own standards, rules, and expectations without regard or deference to anyone else’s (like Mommy’s).
Fatherville: In your opinion what are some of the biggest challenges that parents, in general, face today?
JS: To me, it isn’t about sex, drugs, peer pressure or anything external. It’s ourselves. Specifically, the temptation to do too much: To cut the kids’ food for them for too long, to shield them from responsibility and accountability, or to interfere too much in their affairs and lives as they grow older. What begins as a hyper-awareness of their constant presence eventually transforms into a panic over never quite knowing where they are.
Parents have to cope with this, adapt to it, and make crucial decisions about it constantly, all in real time. Fortunately, kids are more resilient than we tend to give them credit for.
Fatherville: Growing up–who were your childhood heroes?
JS: The first answer that comes to mind is Superman. I wasn’t really into sports and I watched a lot of television, so it was either Captain Kirk or Superman, thus a no-brainer. Superman was strong, handsome, moral, conscientious, and successful. What more could you aspire to be?
Fatherville: Who are your heroes today? Who do you admire?
JS: I admire people who are consistent in their convictions, push the creative envelope, challenge society imaginatively, and behave (mostly) appropriately, which includes Bill Moyers, Jon Stewart, Jon Oliver, Amy Schumer, Matt Damon, Richard Linklater, Billy Eichner, Michelle Obama, David Sedaris, and less than a handful of politicians.
I’ll add my Dad because I believe that’s the law when answering this question, but also because he would do absolutely anything for his children.
Fatherville: Joel, would you say you are living your dream? Did you always want to be a writer?
JS: I always tell my kids – and anyone who’ll listen, really — to aim for the intersection of what they love, what they do best, and what they most enjoy doing. I know, because I’m there now. I have writings about which I’m very proud, I have a career that plays to my strengths and passion, I help save animal lives every day – at home and at work, and I have three children who are among the nicest, funniest, and brightest people I know.
I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I never thought seriously about publishing my work until I boldly proposed to the editor of our local newspaper one day that I write a weekly humor column (for free, naturally) about local politics, garage sales, coffee shop openings, and anything in the community that struck me as funny. About a year in, one of the town residents who read my column asked me to write a Mother’s Day piece for New Jersey Monthly. That’s when I realized this kind of writing life – at least as a fulfilling hobby – might not be such a pipe dream. It was confirmed a year later when I published an essay in The New York Times Magazine, probably the biggest publish of my life so far.
Fatherville: Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
JS: Once in a while, a father will reach out and say I’ve captured his unique experience in a way he hasn’t read before – which I appreciate because when I was a new father and got divorced, I was looking for such experiences, and all I got from Google was a chorus of: “Really bad idea, dude!”
I hear a lot more from stepmoms, who pass along my articles and buy the books for their husbands. I now write a monthly column for StepMom Magazine.
Fatherville: Tell us a little bit more about yourself. Your passions, hobbies, and goals for the future. What do you like to do when you are not writing?
JS: The only major endeavor of my life besides my work as a full-time speechwriter, my personal writing life, dadhood, watching television, playing with my cats, and being a good husband, is teaching public speaking. I was involved in competitive public speaking from 6th grade through my senior year in college, later coaching for a number of colleges and being inducted into the National Forensic Association Hall of Fame in 2002. When I was finally done, I leveraged that training to teach public speaking, which I’ve been doing for the last seven years in New York City for Mediabistro.com as well as for private clients including American Express and Comedy Central.
I’m currently writing an eBook about the proper way to make a point, a skill less simple than it sounds.
Fatherville: Joel, Thank you so much for you time.
A former Nickelodeon Online producer/head writer and doomed Wheel-of-Fortune contestant, Joel Schwartzberg is now an author, essayist, public speaking coach, and speechwriter for a major nonprofit organization.
You can find out more about Joel on his websiteTweet