“You’re fully overestimating how famous I am.”
Dana Schwartz says this with a laugh as we sip our coffee at Café Grumpy in Manhattan’s FiDi. She’s taken her lunch break from her day job at the New York Observer to come chat with me about how she parlayed Twitter notoriety—three handles that average 75,000 followers each—into a book deal. Her debut novel, And We’re Off, hit wide release earlier this month. She’s probably right that I’m hyping her up a bit in our conversation, but her accomplishments thus far are nothing to scoff at. And this isn’t quite a standard interview.
The last time I had seen Schwartz in person was in Washington, D.C. in June 2011. We were both U.S. Presidential Scholars from Illinois—basically this honorific thing for graduating high school seniors who are supposedly going to make outstanding contributions to the country. Barack Obama couldn’t make the event, so we got then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as keynote speaker instead. What a rip-off, right?
I set off to Vanderbilt to major in philosophy and ended up in law school. Schwartz enrolled at Brown to major in public policy (with pre-med) and ended up publishing a young adult novel about a 17-year-old girl traveling through Europe with her overbearing mother. One of those paths is rather unconventional.
“I think I could apply to med school now,” Schwartz tells me. “The thing about Brown is that we don’t really have majors, so I was technically a public policy major who met the pre-med requirements.”
Brown’s flexible schedule is what allowed Schwartz to take a lot of creative writing classes as she moved through her college years. And without those creative writing classes, she never would have found the inspiration for Guy In Your MFA, her first satirical Twitter project to go viral. Guy In Your MFA doesn’t tweet so often anymore—Schwartz mostly uses her personal handle nowadays—but in his heyday, he was blowing up the internet to the point of receiving his own Buzzfeed feature. He even had an interaction with Neil Gaiman (incidentally, Schwartz has now interviewed Gaiman for the Observer).
“I had decided I didn’t wanna be a doctor, and I wanted to really try to be a writer, and I thought that meant giving it everything I had,” Schwartz says. “So I was freelancing for MentalFloss, and that’s also where Guy In Your MFA came from, this desire to make work and put it out into the world.”
That idea of desire, of passion, is pretty nebulous among creative folks; there’s no easy way to convey the subjective feeling of compulsion to create. When I ask what drives her, Schwartz can only go so far as to say that she “like[s] making fun of things” when she tweets, a trait that has birthed not only Guy In Your MFA but also Dystopian YA, a Twitter handle that told a Kirkland-brand version of the Hunger Games-esque novels whose bubble was just starting to burst in early 2015. “It’s easier to make fun of things than it is to write things,” Schwartz admits. “So I make it very clear that it’s a parody with love. Someone like [Divergent author] Veronica Roth, who creates an entire world, that is far more difficult than what I do.”
Whether creative passion turns into a career, though, depends upon a confluence of talent, determination and a little bit of luck. The “luck” part of that equation has definitely grown easier in the online world, where millions of potential eyes exist waiting to be caught. Among the tens of thousands of people who followed Guy In Your MFA and Dystopian YA were Dan Mandel, her current agent, and Penguin’s Razorbill imprint, which published And We’re Off.
“[T]hey had seen Dystopian YA and thought it was funny,” Schwartz recalls. “And they said, ‘Do you wanna try your hand at writing a YA novel?’ I took the train to New York from Providence, I met with them, we talked about ideas for what that book would look like, I wrote a few sample chapters for them, and they signed me.”
That expedited process is far from the norm. Typically, authors write an entire manuscript for their novels and send the work into their agent, who then plays a game of editing ping-pong with the writer until the book is ready to be shopped around to publishers. But with her Twitter presence as an example of her wit and writing capabilities—and especially given the nature of Dystopian YA, which approximated a tweet-by-tweet novel with all the requisite structure and character development—Schwartz was approaching a door that had been held open for her.
Of course, she had to deliver once given the chance. “Every opportunity I’ve had, it’s because people have seen my work, usually online,” Schwartz says. “But you have to have the work in the first place, and then be able to follow that.”
In that regard, Schwartz using Twitter to get a book deal (actually, two book deals; she’s currently working on a memoir of her early 20s) is not all that different from the way things work today in the music industry. Will Toledo self-released a dozen Car Seat Headrest albums on BandCamp before Matador Records signed him, and by that point, he had built up the talent and enough of a fan base to earn the label’s trust from the get-go. The result: Teens of Denial, one of Paste’s favorite albums of 2016. Schwartz didn’t have quite the same carte blanche for And We’re Off—“they gave me the sort of YA they wanted, and I had never written a book before, so that made sense,” she says—but she still feels total ownership of her finished work. The book takes its inspiration from the trip she took to Europe after her college graduation, and its protagonist, Nora, follows Schwartz through many of the same locations: Ireland, Scotland, Belgium and Italy, to name a few.
I ask Schwartz which city was her favorite stop on her own trip. “Oh god, I’m obsessed with Edinburgh,” she tells me. “If I could move to Edinburgh tomorrow, I would. But I have a job and a boyfriend and a lease.”
J.K. Rowling loves Edinburgh, too. Not that Schwartz is at Rowling’s level of celebrity, of course. But no matter how hard I try to convince her that she’s at least achieved some level of fame, she downplays it. “I don’t consider myself an online celebrity,” she says.
Followed by the wit that’s carried her from social media to bookshelves: “More people should hit on me and compliment me and try to be my friend.”
Zach Blumenfeld took the conventional route and went to law school, where he is set to fail all his finals. Follow him on Twitter.