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An Interview with M.J. Schwartz


M.J. Schwartz lives in Longmeadow, MA, with their wife, Jena, and bulldog, Chalupa Jane Schwartz, Esq. They are a graduate of Smith College, with a B.A. in psychology. Their essays have appeared in The Hong Kong Review and Ghost Girls. M.J. was the 2023 recipient of the Gertrude Posner Spencer Prize for Excellence in Nonfiction Writing, as well as the Gertrude Posner Spencer Prize for Excellence in Fiction Writing, through the English department at Smith College, and the 2024 recipient of the Tryon Prize in Writing through the Smith College Art Museum.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

This book started as a longform journalism story in a course I was taking with Professor Russ Rymer at Smith College. At the beginning of the semester, we were encouraged to scour the news and brainstorm ideas for a story we wanted to work on for the entirety of the semester. A local young woman, Jana Abromowitz, had just been stabbed to death by her roommate a couple of months prior. Northampton averages between zero and two homicides a year, so her death stood out in the local news landscape. After I learned that this person, who had died so tragically at the age of 21, had been adopted and brought to the U.S. from a Bulgarian orphanage at the age of 14, I knew that the manner of her death was just the tip of the iceberg in this story. At the end of the semester, the story still felt incomplete to me, so I signed up for another course with Russ Rymer, and wrote a second story about her the following semester. And when that semester ended, and the story still did not feel complete, I knew that I needed to write a book. Professor Rymer invited me to do a special studies project that would culminate in having the first 60 pages of the book complete by the time I graduated.

Tell us the story of your book’s current title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

In the spirit of full transparency, I did not come up with the title (Death by Institution) for my book! I was brainstorming with Russ Rymer, and he blurted it out, and I knew in an instant that this was my working title.

Describe your dream book cover.

My dream book cover would be simple. A photograph of Jana Abromowitz smiling and playing guitar.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

“Electric Love” by Borns

“Knowing Me, Knowing You” by Abba

“Habibi” by Azis

“Anything” by Taraf De Haidouks or other Romani music

“Walking on a String” by Matt Berninger and Phoebe Bridgers

“Jesus, Etc.” by Bill Fay

What books are you reading (for research or comfort) as you continue the writing process?

The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcom

We Are the Romani People by Ian Hancock

With Gypsies in Bulgaria by Robert Andrew Scott Macfie

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I used to work as a doula, childbirth educator, and homebirth midwife. Currently, I work as a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor alongside my writing.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I have wanted to write for as long as I can remember. My mother had paranoid schizophrenia. She also had an incredible book collection, of which I was granted free rein from the moment I could sound out a handful of words. Growing up as the only child of a single parent with severe mental illness, I used reading and writing as an escape hatch and a safety valve. Dozens upon dozens of writers have influenced me. A handful of standouts include Janet Malcom, Joan Didion, Susan Faludi, Russ Rymer, Richard Brautigan, Leonard Cohen, and Charles Bukowski.

Where is your favorite place to write?

My sunporch is my preferred writing spot. I also like to change it up and write in coffee shops.

Do you have any writing rituals?

If I am writing in a place with a lot of distractions, I listen to white or brown noise through headphones. I also like to drink iced tea and have a stash of Jolly Ranchers on hand while I write.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

One thing that I hope my readers will take away from this book is the unknowable depths of complexity and nuance that every human being holds within themselves. I envision the perfect reader of my work to be someone who is insatiably curious about human nature, someone who is open to contradictions and nuance, and able to hold compassion for the predicaments of humanity.

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