E.J. Schwartz on A24 films, advice for aspiring writers and her new book ‘Before We Were Blue’

Alison Fennell, Contributing Writer

UNC Wilmington’s creative writing program develops many successful writers, the latest being a recent graduate that just released her first novel. E.J. Schwartz, originally from New Jersey, graduated from UNCW’s MFA program this year. A competitive gymnast and all-star cheerleader turned author, her novel “Before We Were Blue” was published on Sept. 14. 

“Before We Were Blue” by E.J. Schwartz. (E.J. Schwartz/ North Star Editions)

The book has been described as Netflix’s Cheer meeting “Girl, Interrupted.” Two teenage girls cling to each other in an eating disorder center in this compelling, obsessive story. Cheer superstar Shoshana wonders how she got to a position where she was losing control of her life. She wants to know if she can regain it to continue her old routine of six-hour gym sessions, reality tv shows and world championships. While rough-around-the-edges, Rowan sees herself as too broken to get better and latches on to Shoshana like she’s a lifeline.

“Before We Were Blue” is a story filled to the brim with dark humor, messy relationships, unbreakable love and unflinching truth as these two girls must figure out what it is they want. What struck me the most about “Before We Were Blue” is the question Schwartz poses in her synopsis, “will they get healthy on their own- or stay sick together?”

I had the opportunity to sit down via Zoom with an up-and-coming author and UNCW alumni E.J. Schwartz to discuss her new novel.

When I read your book, it made a lot of sense when you said you liked A24 movies, particularly your use of dark humor and how you describe Rowan. I see movies like “Lady Bird” and “Eighth Grade.” I wanted to know which A24 film was your favorite.

“That totally makes my day. Of course, I love “Ladybird.” “Hereditary” was so good, “Mid-90s” I loved. It might be “The Florida Project,” honestly, it’s between that and “Eighth Grade.” But I think it’s “The Florida Project.” The setting is fascinating to me, and I appreciated that, sort of like the child-like lens. I liked “Lady Bird” too, and “Eighth Grade” was just great. Yeah, that was so good, but Bo Burnham is a genius.”

Regarding the trigger warning at the beginning of your book, do you think more authors and filmmakers should include it at the beginning of their works in the age of social media and film, or is it a personal choice?

“I think it’s a personal choice for every artist, and for me, it felt like I couldn’t write the book without a trigger warning because there are multiple triggers in it. And I’m not going to say that everybody should, but I’m always going to err on the side of people can skip over it or flip the page and not read it, but there’s going to be a lot of people out there that will read it, and it will give them insight into the book. I don’t think for my book that it’s any sort of spoiler alert; I think the trigger warnings are spoilers, which might indicate an issue in the story itself. It’s hard to speak to what every single artist should do.”

Was there any specific reason you wrote Shoshana’s chapters from third-person and Rowan’s from a second-person point of view?

“I know a lot of great books that address another person or reader. And, I think I felt like the connection between the girls is quite uneven and imbalanced. I wanted to show that the characters are obsessed with each other in different ways. Rowan is hyper-fixated on Shoshana because she escapes through her, and Shoshana escapes through Rowan as well. But I think Shoshana’s worldview is larger. She has a larger support system than Rowan does. With Rowan addressing Shoshana, it felt like it was getting the point across as their different perspectives, in a stronger way than anything else I had tried.”

What are three words you would use to describe Rowan and Shoshana’s relationship from beginning to end?

“Tethered, frayed, free.”

How do you separate writing for work versus writing for pleasure?

“I’m an English teacher for elementary kids, so technically, that’s my career, but it does feel like my writing has become a combination of work and pleasure. I think how you separate it is by who you’re writing it for and what your intentions are in writing it. I feel that if I’m writing something without the intention of other people seeing it, or I’m writing it simply because I want to and not because I want it to be published. That’s how I would know it’s for pleasure versus thinking what the audience is going to think about this and how the reader is going to be interacting with these characters. It could be your story, your memoir, or a poem, but if you’re writing it simply because your brain wants to put it on the page for you, then I think it’s, that’s how I know it’s for pleasure.”

Do you have any advice for college students and aspiring writers?

I wrote “Before We Were Blue” between my junior and senior year of college, and then I just revised for another year after that before the book got picked up. I personally get the most writing done when I’m alone or when I’m isolated and forced to spend time with just myself; I know that’s hard for people these days. We’re always on our phones, and we’re always trying to interact with people. But the more silent you can make it, the louder the voices in your head become, and those are the voices you can tap into to write and create new stories.”

Who is your favorite author?

“At the moment it’s Fredrik Backman. He’s a Swedish writer. I read a book by him called “Anxious People,” and it blew me away. Now I’m obsessed with him and trying to read every one of his books. “Anxious People” is a straightforward comedy, but it’s extremely empathetic and is told from several different points of view. I admire his writing so much.”

Would you ever consider making a sequel for the book?

“Never say never. I’ll say that, but I’m fairly confident that Rowan and Shoshanna’s story feels complete where the book ends.”