Bernie Schein

Bernie and Maggie Schein write very different works of fiction

By Kevin Madigankmadigan@atljewishtimes.com

The two recent books by former Atlanta residents Bernie Schein and his daughter, Maggie, could not be more different.
Maggie Schein’s “Lost Cantos of the Ouroboros Caves” is a collection of mystical fables that author Pat Conroy describes in the book’s foreword as an “oddball, perverse work of genius.” Conroy, famous for such best-selling books as “The Prince of Tides” and “The Great Santini,” is editor-at-large for the University of South Carolina’s Story River Books, which specializes in regional, original fiction.
“Famous All Over Town,” her father’s first novel, is a raucous account of the inhabitants’ messy lives in the fictional Southern burg of Somerset, standing in for Beaufort, S.C., where father and daughter now live.

“The town is a central character,” Bernie Schein said during a telephone interview. “Gays, straights, whores, politicians, journalists, the mayor, whatever. What you had there was a confluence of race, religion, lost culture, a few Catholics and Jews, some hybrids, and of course the Marines.”
A Marine is one of the first characters we meet, the unstable Sgt. Jack McGowan, who leads his platoon of young recruits into a creek, whereupon some perish. The story is based on a real incident in 1956 on Parris Island, S.C.

“It was a national scandal. It entirely changed basic training for recruits forever,” Bernie said. “I’m re-creating a world, but that world was there. I would say it’s probably an autobiographical novel, certainly inspired by real stuff.”

Conroy himself makes a cameo in the story, and Bernie likewise has shown up in some of Conroy’s books. “He’s a tough critic. Pretty picky,” Bernie said of Conroy, adding that he has become a better writer through his association with Conroy.

Maggie, an Atlanta native, said her father, “a bit of a firecracker,” has taught her a lot about trusting herself when writing. “We’re extremely different writers. He’s allowed me to be myself.”

The two lived in Atlanta for many years while Bernie taught writing, literature, drama and social studies at the Paideia School, an experience he recounted in his previous book, “If Holden Caulfield Were in My Classroom.”
Despite the presence of humor, his new novel tackles hard issues such as child abuse, incest, personality disorders and racial inequality. While he was growing up in the South during the 1950s, Bernie said, “race was always a big deal because, in the Bible Belt, a black guy stepped off the curb to let a white guy walk by.”

As a young Jew, Bernie felt he was an anomaly. “I was a popular kid, was well liked, class clown, I was really funny,” he said. “But things were not really discussed directly; nobody talked about Jewishness.”

Maggie’s book, which Bernie calls “radiant,” is being reissued as a limited collector’s edition with a CD of stories narrated by singer Janis Ian. “I’m super-excited,” she said. “What’s cool is that it comes with physical CDs.”

Her inspiration comes from classics such as “The Little Prince” and “The Old Man and the Sea.” As an undergraduate, she referred to herself as a “Nietzsche head.” “I’ve read everything he’s written that’s been translated into English. I read as medicine. For me, books are like an apothecary.”

Reaction to her ethereal stories from readers has been “really fascinating,” Maggie said. “No matter what our convictions are and no matter how strongly we approach them, we all still have secret questions about life and death and stuff that happens in between. That’s been so touching for me. Whether they’re enjoying [the book] or not, it’s still a connection. One of the most beautiful things about responses to me has been the amount of those questions they feel comfortable sharing.”