Author Q&A: Will Schwalbe

We Should Not Be Friends, The Story of a Friendship by Will Schwalbe is a story of an improbable friendship that lasted decades. Beyond the fact that they just liked hanging out together, both men’s lives  were deeply broadened by their friendship, which at times wasn’t easy, but was always worth the effort. 

Can you tell us about the magic of that secret society you joined as a senior at Yale? It struck me that in today’s very polarized America, we should have secret societies scattered throughout the country. 

The magic of the particular secret society I joined at Yale came from the remarkable mission it set for itself: to bring together the fifteen most different kids at Yale. Like most of the other secret societies we had to have dinner together twice a week and share our life stories. But unlike the others, we were chosen not because we were alike but quite the opposite. That’s how I (out-gay AIDS activist and introverted classicist) wound up becoming friends with Chris Maxey (loud, extroverted jock determined to become a Navy SEAL). I do think our country would be much better if there were opportunities for very different people to meet and break bread together and share stories of their lives  – not as a one-off but again and again, over a long stretch of time. Maybe, then, friendships like Maxey’s and mine would result, and we could start building some bridges all across the country that would help us all. I do need to add that I don’t believe we can be friends with anyone; people need to share values if they are to grow close. 

But I do think a lot more people share our values than we might think, and that we dismiss far too many people based on bias and snap judgments. If it hadn’t been for the secret society, I would have steered a wide berth from Chris Maxey and my life would be much poorer because of that. We’ve now been friends for forty years and we learn things from each other every single time we get together. We also simply enjoy hanging out. 

Has writing this book made you a better friend? If so, how?

I think one of the biggest impediments to true friendship can be our insecurities. Did I do or say the right thing? Why didn’t a particular friend call when he came to town? Am I even worthy of friendship? Insecurities are like vampires; they hate being exposed to light. Writing down my insecurities with regard to my friendship with Maxey helped me put them in perspective. I now do that whenever I feel insecure about a friendship and it’s a huge help. Seeing my fears in print will often tell me if I am worrying about nothing, which is usually the case – or if there is a need to try to make amends. 

In one of the interviews I watched, you mentioned that you hoped your book could be a teaching tool on internal biases. What other books would you include in that class?

There’s a marvelous book I just edited and published as part of an imprint that Melinda French Gates created with Flatiron books; the line is called Moment of Lift and the book is RADICAL INCLUSION: Seven Steps to Help You Create a More Just Workplace, Home, and World. It’s by David Sengeh, who is now the Chief Minister of Sierra Leone. Sengeh points out that we will all be excluded at some point in our lives and he provides powerful stories from his own life when he was excluded and when he failed to include others who were on the margin. Throughout, he discusses internal biases and how to recognize and try to correct them. And he does all of this while telling the thrilling story of his efforts to gain access to education for pregnant girls in Sierra Leone. 

But I also think reading broadly helps, no matter what you read. When you read books (fiction or non-fiction) written by people who grew up very differently from the way you did, you often find your internal biases being challenged in ways that are fascinating and can also lead to growth. 

What was the hardest part about writing this memoir?

The most difficult thing was writing about friends who are dead. There is a finality to writing about the death of a friend that is terribly hard to bear. It’s like deleting dead friends from my address book; no matter how long they’ve been gone I can almost never bring myself to do that. Still, all the good memories of my dead friends mostly crowd out the sadness of losing them. And so I try very hard to make the lives of my dead friends more prominent on the page than their deaths.  

When you found an old photo of you and Maxey lounging on a lawn that senior year at college, (coincidentally also the cover of your book) it reminded you of a line from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. “The languor of Youth- how unique and quintessential it is!” Do you think, looking back from your much older perch, that languor belongs to the young? 

There’s a certain kind of languor that belongs to the young that’s different from the languor of later years. I think we recover and recharge differently when we are in our teens and twenties. We can exhaust ourselves completely at that age, and there’s a thrill to that. Because we know when we are young that we will recover our strength in short order, we can enjoy a kind of happy paralysis and ease without worrying that we have done any damage to ourselves, or that the languor is the harbinger of dire things t come. 

How has Maxey changed you? Besides insisting you only drink from paper straws…

Maxey has helped me learn that the best gift you can give a friend is allowing him (or her) to help you. That it’s not just okay to be vulnerable – it’s essential

And how do you think you have changed Maxey? 

I know I helped open up Maxey’s world to some vistas he hadn’t seen before because he has told me that! Another thing, too: Maxey is wicked smart and a huge reader, always has been. I think Maxey has become less shy about sharing this part of himself with the world, in part because of me. 

Phone versus email. Tell us why you’re a big fan of the former, even though you wrote a book (Send) on the latter? 

We all need to use email, of course. But we tend to use it too much and reflexively. Just because you get an email, doesn’t mean you need to respond by email. Sometimes it’s best to pick up the phone, especially when you get an email about something that’s complicated or you find yourself getting emotional. And, as I describe in WE SHOULD NOT BE FRIENDS, the phone is like theater. It’s live. Email is static. Also, the phone makes it easy to convey tone, whereas countless misunderstandings arise from email. “Why were you late to the meeting?” may be a sentence you utter out of deep concern. You can express that concern on the phone with the tone of your voice. On email, that question looks accusatory – especially if it comes from your boss.  

Tell us something surprising about yourself? 

I absolutely love watching golf on television. I don’t play golf at all but I find I can achieve a deep state of relaxation watching golfers and hearing the marvelous, soothing voices of the announcers. I don’t care even a little bit who wins – I just like watching and can happily spend an entire weekend that way. 

What are you reading?

I just minutes ago finished NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO PANIC by Kevin Wilson. Friends of mine have been raving about his novels for years, starting with THE FAMILY FANG, and I’d always meant to read one. This is his most recent; it’s a brilliant little novel that really packs a punch. At first, it seems like a charming, quirky tale of a friendship between two awkward teens that turns into a romance. But then it becomes much darker as Wilson introduces themes of moral panic, paranoia, and betrayal. I could go on and on! So much is packed into this little book and yet Wilson has a gentle touch throughout. 

– Interview by Elena Bowes

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