The Writer Who Talks to Strangers

Narratively contributor Jason Schwartzman on how interactions with unknown people can be more meaningful than you expect.

The Writer Who Talks to Strangers

Most of us have had limited interactions with new people during the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes Narratively contributor Jason Schwartzman’s debut book, No One You Know: Strangers and the Stories We Tell, all the more timely. Through a compilation of short anecdotal stories, Schwartzman reminds readers how swiftly strangers can become familiar and reveals the illusions behind human kinship. 

What inspired you to write No One You Know?

It was born in this lonely, isolated time in my life. I was going through this hard breakup, it felt like I was being estranged from someone. But at the same time, I was having all these interactions with strangers [just in the course of everyday life]. I started wondering about people and what it means to know someone. 

Jason Schwartzman

What’s your favorite encounter from the book? The one that you’ll never forget?

It has to be the one with Riley, where I had this very intense day-long encounter with a total stranger, who found me and just let me swim into his life by telling me all his secrets and guiding me around this casino. It just became almost a parable of knowing someone in some way. I think there was something almost mythological about it. It was just such an intense adventure within an interaction, and it made me think a lot. 

Were you writing these encounters down as they occurred, or did you dig back into your memory when writing?  

I’m a notebook person. So for almost all of the stories in the book, I wrote down some version of what happened afterward. It wasn’t the stylized story that you see in the book, but little notes. Once I found that form of what I guess is flash nonfiction or vignettes, I became really energized. It was during a depressing time when I was feeling isolated, so writing was a lightning bolt. I started waking up really early, which I never do, to write. Throughout the day and into the night, I was writing, moving the stories around, and seeing which ones should be next to each other and how they would fall with the structure. I’ve never been someone who’s been able to write every day, but it was this kind of productive flow that helped me gallop toward completing the book. 

How did your work as an editor at True.Ink shaped the way you approached writing this? 

The way that it came into play was in trying to be a carpenter with respect to the structure of the book. A lot of the stories are anecdotes that I’ve deepened in some way. But I think my editorial background really helped me with that carpentry of telling a meta-story, through the stories. I didn’t want it to just be a collection, like a smattering of stories. I wanted it to follow an arc of knowing someone or meeting a stranger, and then maybe considering that they’re not exactly who you thought they were. Maybe you get close. Maybe you get more distant, but then you come back to them. The book is loosely modeled to follow that progression and the journey of knowing me, the author, a little bit. I’m one of the strangers in my mind. So I think the editorial lens came through when I was doing a lot of that, that shaping and planning.

What other projects do you have in store?

I’m curious to know, also! In the last few months, I caught some fire working on a similar style of stories, but more oriented towards memory, the different versions of people, and how they change and shift. But then I was also feeling like it might be time to take a mini-vacation from the memoir, nonfiction realm. So, I’ve been writing some fiction lately, and that’s felt good. But this has been a six-year voyage, so I definitely want to take at least five minutes to air out and just see what the heck happens.

To spotlight all the exciting book projects out there by Narratively contributors, including Jason Schwartzman’s book No One You Know: Strangers and the Stories We Tell we created The Narratively Bookshop. When you buy any book from the Narratively Bookshop, 10% of the purchase price goes to Narratively, helping us publish lots more great stories, and another 10% goes to supporting independent bookstores.

If you live outside of the United States or the United Kingdom, you can purchase No One You Know on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.