Indianapolis Author Elizabeth Schulte Martin and the Empathy of Writing

 In Culture, Feature

When you hear that Elizabeth Schulte Martin’s novel, “Everything You Came to See,” is about a boy named Henry who runs away from home to join the circus and become a clown, you might be thinking it’s a fairy tale. A magical children’s adventure, full of trumpeting elephants, Spandex-clad gymnasts soaring through the air from high platforms and trapeze. Our young protagonist arrives one evening, wide-eyed and mute with wonder at the spectacle. Maybe there’s a lion tamer. Maybe there’s a little monkey that sits on the ringleader’s shoulder, bangs cymbals and wears a tiny hat!

This is not that book.

This circus is not a sparkling fairy tale drifting atop cotton candy clouds. No, this circus is a bit more grown up. There are books to be balanced, payroll checks to be signed and middle managers. Caleb Baratucci, the manager of the St. Louis-based circus, worries about the precarious finances from falling ticket sales while trying to be supportive of his ailing wife, Adrienne, a retired giantess. Some of the circus personnel are clique-y—they’re like family to some yet openly bristle at the notion of working with others. In short, Schulte Martin’s story is filled with the sorts of things most people deal with at one time or another.

Yet despite being reflective of more or less any banal workplace, the book has plenty of magic to go around. Of course, that depends on your definition of “magic.” There’s nothing of the supernatural here, no spirits or fairies, no talking animals. No, the magic is certainly of the more terrestrial variety. But it’s dazzling all the same.

Without the aid of the supernatural, Schulte Martin does pull off a sort of trick, something of an en masse conjuring. Out of more or less thin air, the first-time novelist has peopled a circus full of characters who are exceptionally vivid in their authenticity. This is not to say that there isn’t drama around the circus itself, but the personalities are the real show.

“I was formulating the characters before I formulated the circumstances,” she says, recalling the book’s origins. “I think that’s where I start creatively.”

Indianapolis Author Elizabeth Schulte Martin and the Empathy of Writing

The tricky thing about character-driven books is that they sometimes fall somewhere on one the extremes of a spectrum of real and, well, not real. Either can work in the right kind of story, but a novel grounded in realism feels flat if the characters aren’t compelling. Lazy storytelling might have characters taking the most dramatic possible actions at every opportunity, ratcheting up the tension and straining suspension of disbelief.

The characters in “Everything You Came to See” are deeper than their assigned “roles” in the narrative—if they could even be said to have them. “Real” characters in a nuanced story require no suspension. Even if they aren’t similar to us in many ways (maybe because they work at a circus as clowns, for example), we can still view their humanity. And with this, the lines between protagonist and antagonist break down and we’re simply left with people. People who do things for their own reasons, who act against their better judgement, who are selfish but act in the interest of loved ones without pause. Because that is how people often act.

“I can’t stop obsessing about why people are the way that they are … why does somebody run away and join the circus to become a clown?” Schulte Martin muses. In the case of the clown, Henry, it’s part natural gift, part artistic drive and part escape. In other words, circumstance, predilection and motivation.

While Henry is certainly the focus of the story, he is hardly a hero. He makes mistakes, doesn’t understand social cues and is generally awkward with virtually every other character in the book. Meanwhile, Henry’s father, the closest approximation to a villain, is rendered in a sympathetic manor that’s truly moving.

“You don’t really want villains. That’s frustrating,” Schulte Martin cautions, sounding like the university teacher that she is at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “Villains are flat, they’re one-dimensional. And you don’t want someone who’s doing bad shit just to do bad shit.”

True to her word, Schule Martin imbues even minor characters who have almost no dialog or apparent consequence to the story with multiple facets to their personalities (a case in point: Adrienne’s ex-husband). They get to be people instead of plot twists or strings to tie together disparate threads of narrative. By having their own motivations, even the minor characters read as something greater that tentpoles for plot.

Indianapolis Author Elizabeth Schulte Martin and the Empathy of Writing

Image courtesy of Chris Petty.

Schulte Martin says it’s her inclination to “inhabit the character and imagine how they are thinking through the things that are happening to them.

“Writing should be always an act of empathy,” she says. As a tool, empathy offers writers the capacity to displace readers’ perspective on an experience—but also to see the limitations and control for them. The best literature out there is identified largely through its characters because those characters and stories make the best use of empathy and cause us to exercise it at the same time.

“Everything You Came to See” may not be the whimsical circus story one expects, but Schulte Martin pulls off a deeply affecting novel—not through spectacle, but through those often quiet moments of empathy between characters. You will feel it too.

Featured image courtesy of Michael Elliott.

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