Local Arts

1 to Watch: Kathryn Schwille. Electrifying discovery set author on path to debut novel

Yes, it’s a cliché, but sometimes that’s how life happens: One door closes, another opens.

Thirty years ago, Kathryn Schwille, whose stunning debut novel, “What Luck, This Life,” due Sept. 18, was so ill she couldn’t lift a fork. To eat, she sat on the floor, her face level with the coffee table and shoveled food into her mouth.

Kathryn Schwille Courtesy of Kathryn Schwille

The disease, myalgic encephalomyelitis, once called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, weakened her muscles until she could barely stand. Exhaustion swamped her. She had been the Observer’s government editor, and she loved her work. Take a year’s leave, she says her doctor had told her in 1987. Do nothing. Rest.

One thing she could do was read. Schwille had wanted to write fiction since she was a girl. She plunged into novels and short stories, devouring everything she’d been too busy for.

But after a year of rest, she was worse. Schwille says her doctor believed the disease was bottoming out, and he worried he might lose her. He decided on a bold treatment: a drug used to treat Lyme disease. For reasons no one understands, it halted the downward spiral.

Slowly, Schwille improved. In 1990, she married Tom Lucas, now a retired UNCC math professor. That same year, she attended a writing workshop at Duke, parking close enough to manage the walk to the classroom.

She kept writing. At another conference, someone suggested she might apply to Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers.

“I knew this would be something I could pursue so that when I got better, I’d have something,” she says. “It was very challenging.” She enrolled in 1996 and got her degree in 1999.

A few years later, she spotted a story in the Observer about a diary that had been found in the East Texas woods a couple of months after the space shuttle Columbia went down. The diary had belonged to one of the astronauts.

Schwille’s brain was electrified. “What else was there?” she wondered. “What were they still finding?” She cut out the article and started Googling.

In 2006, on the third anniversary of the shuttle’s explosion, Schwille headed for East Texas. Her stay was “short and very intense.” Two women took her into the woods to where the shuttle’s nose cap had fallen. On that trip and later ones, she talked to people in various parts of East Texas.

“What happened to those people had never happened to people before – to have a space ship land in their midst – with the parts of bodies of heroes. They woke up one day, and there it was all around them, and they spent months picking it up. It was strange. It was bizarre. I knew there was something there for me.”

Now, 12 years later, after hundreds of hours at her computer, Schwille’s fictionalized tale of how the Columbia space shuttle disaster affected the people of a small Texas town will soon be out. The opening three pages will, as Emily Dickinson famously said, take the top of your head off.

Out of disease came new life and a career Kathryn Schwille loves.

“I’m not after fame,” she says. “I’m happier when I’m writing than when I’m not.”