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Correspondence with Christine Schutt

[WRITER]
“NOVELS DO NOT GET EASIER TO WRITE.”
Adjectives that sound and look great on the page:
Lurid
Rapid
Garish
Grouped
by Deb Olin Unferth
Illustration by Charles Burns
header-image

Correspondence with Christine Schutt

[WRITER]
“NOVELS DO NOT GET EASIER TO WRITE.”
Adjectives that sound and look great on the page:
Lurid
Rapid
Garish
Grouped
by Deb Olin Unferth
Illustration by Charles Burns

Correspondence with Christine Schutt

Deb Olin Unferth
14 Snaps

Born and raised in Wisconsin, Christine Schutt came to New York over thirty years ago to write, first as an MFA student at Columbia and then on her own. She met Diane Williams in a Gordon Lish class, from which they emerged the best of friends. They talked NOON into existence. Schutt gave the literary annual its name, the word being one of Emily Dickinson’s favorites, and Dickinson, the poet, one of Schutt’s favorites.

Schutt is the author of two books of stories, A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer and Nightwork, and two novels, the recently published All Souls and Florida, a finalist for a National Book Award in a controversial year: five novels by largely unknown women writers, all from New York, and only one in her thirties.

What characterizes her work for me—the way that I immediately know a Christine Schutt sentence—is the striking repetition of sounds, both vowels and consonants, and the prominent rhythms that make the prose seem as though it is being sung. On the face it sounds “pretty,” and she indeed uses many pretty words, but underneath there is a tremendous amount of dark energy: “Jean had lifted the wisps of hair from off their baby scalps, marked as the moon, with their stitched plates of bone yet visible, the boys; how often she had thought to break them.”

Depending on the book, the emotion that fuels this darkness shifts between anger, fear, scorn, shame, and rebellious independence: “I was dumbed to saying nothing, to calling him nothing but a cock, a very big cock. What else could you call that red trumpeting thing he slapped across my face?” This work springs from a woman who will dare to disobey any law and violate any custom, in fiction if not outside of it.

This conversation was conducted by many lengthy email exchanges while Schutt was living in Virginia as a writer-in-residence at Hollins University.

—Deb Olin Unferth

I. “YOU MUST BE DESPERATE OR SOMETHING.”

DEB OLIN UNFERTH: It’s impossible for me to ignore the sound of your sentences. Sometimes I feel as if the entire thrust of the story is based on an exploration of a set of phonemes, or as if you allow sound to determine the direction of the sentence and the story, the content even. Is that true? How do you do that? Why do you do that?

CHRISTINE SCHUTT: I was taught to read poetry this way in high school: to consider the sounds the poet was making and how those sounds could inform us of what the poem was about. “Snake,” a D. H. Lawrence poem, was the lesson at the time, and it made a big impression on me. Sound has its own weather, and I respond to it. One night I saw these preposterously large cherry blossoms outside our bedroom window. This happens every spring, of course, the blossoms, but on this night they seemed lit up from below and floating, an absurd efflorescence, and the sentence in response to what I saw and felt about the spring show came out like this: “The preposterous blossoms, candy pink and stupidly profuse, were in the night light strangely come as from another planet.” So many p’s—the stupidness of it all. That sentence has a mood; it was my mood at the time. Absurd efflorescence makes a different sound, has a different mood, different weather; in a story such a phrase would direct me. I am generally uncertain of purpose and have few opinions, no ideas. But sound.

I read poetry this way: I hear meaning long before I decode it. As a writer, I find that sound can give me meaning, narrative direction. Produce a sentence with any sound and respond to it.

DOU: Do you think your interest in narrative is primarily sound and secondarily story? What I mean is, do you feel more like you have a noise to make than a story to tell? And was it always that way for you or did your idea of narrative shift at some point? (It must have been long ago, if it did, since your first book shows a lot of interest in sound.) I guess I’m asking how you became the writer you are.

CS: I like story; I want story. I have characters but they are dimly perceived and what they will do is a mystery to me. I once wrote a version of a John Cheever story in which an attractive young couple who would seem to possess all are yet unhappily married, and then a greater sorrow befalls them while on vacation. This story, “The Hedges,” is the only story I have ever written with a plot and the luxury of knowing the plot beforehand; all the others have come forward on sounds and sensations, memories and exaggerations.

DOU: Cheever’s stories have a sort of old-fashioned wordiness. Backgrounds are explained. Backdrops are drawn. It is so unlike the spare style of so many of our contemporaries. His work is very sad and feels, to me, urgent, even. I feel like he was writing to save his life. Many of your stories feel that way too. Was that what it was like when you wrote your first book of stories, Nightwork? I remember you told me once that during that time you felt that if you could write one sentence a day you would stay alive. What was that about? Why would writing a sentence save you? Did it feel the same way to write your later books or did the experience change? Do you believe fiction can save or change lives? And I love the way you said, “I hear meaning long before I decode it.” What on earth does that mean? I know what you are saying, I think. But how does a sound contain meaning? What does meaning mean in this case?

CS: “An awe came on the trinket.” What does that mean? When you first encounter Dickinson you have to decode a lot, but a way to enjoy her in the beginning is to enjoy the sounds she makes and often from these you can extract meaning. I trust in the ear to detect feeling before struggling over why the voice sounds so. I should also add that I am charmed by symmetrical sentences and catalog sentences and sentences with bunched-up groups of adjectives that sound great and look great on the page: “lurid, rapid, garish, grouped.” Robert Lowell is famous for gathering adjectives that are visually pleasing as well as full of sound and apt. His late wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, was also deft when it came to adjectives. She wrote prose, of course, but Hardwick’s sentences are as worked as a poet’s. I happen to be teaching her very great novel, Sleepless Nights, and so have it here before me. Hardwick has a gift for catalog sentences: “Old English wallpaper, carpets, Venetian mirrors, decorated vases, marble mantelpieces, buzzers under the rug around the dining-room table, needlepoint seats: Alex was making an inventory of Sarah’s Philadelphia house before her mother died.” Simply to write this sentence—forget the labor of over a hundred pages of them—must have been a strain, but finishing only one such sentence was surely bracing.

I’m trying to clarify whatever it was I said to you about the lifesaving properties of a sentence a day. Certainly the idea of its sufficiency has consoled. There is a Ray Carver story, “Why Don’t You Dance,” that explains how I felt when I was writing Nightwork. You know the story: a man has arranged all of the furniture from inside his house on the front lawn; everything on the lawn looks just as it did inside—bed, bedside tables. “His side, her side.” A boy and a girl come along and think it’s a yard sale. The crucial sentences are toward the end when the man, having sold the young couple some of the furniture, dances in his driveway with the girl. “They thought they’d seen everything over here,” he says, and she answers, “but they haven’t seen this.” Then, in the story’s only tender moment, the girl whispers, “You must be desperate or something.” Well, I felt that man’s kind of desperation when I was writing Nightwork. I was beyond caring what other people thought of me. The first story in the book, about a daughter’s failed seduction of her father, was one I had tried to write since graduate school. Now, when it seemed I was ready to put everything out on the lawn, when I had hit on how to, I was beset by difficult, crowded days; often there was only time to write one sentence. Most of Nightwork was written, as have been so many books, when everyone else was asleep. When was Hardwick writing Sleepless Nights, I wonder?

II. “SORE AFRAID OF THE DARK PRINCE”

DOU: What was it like for you to write your novels, Florida and All Souls? The two books seem to me to be so different from each other. What was the essential element in each of them that made you able to visualize the book? Was it a sound like the “preposterous blossoms” that inspired the whole concept? Or an idea? Or a little piece of story line?

CS: Jane Eyre, a novel I have read many times, inspired the way Florida is put together. In an orphan’s novel the ambition is always to find a home: the orphan moves outward from house to house. With the new novel, All Souls, I had in mind David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon, where in the first chapter, Gemmy Fairley, an English castaway raised by aborigines, suddenly appears in his countrymen’s settlement in Queensland, Australia. Is Gemmy a white man or a black man? This is the community’s question, and the rest of the novel is spent tracking their responses to the frightening half-and-half figure of Gemmy. Everyone is changed by this character, some for the better, some for the worse.

All Souls comes straight out of teaching at an all-girls’ private school in Manhattan and my wonderment at the ways in which such a school community works. I wrote the first half of All Souls several years ago, put it aside because it was too easy to write, then took the manuscript up again while a visiting writer at U.C. Irvine. I wanted to prove that given enough free time I could finish a novel in short order—and I did. I have been working on another novel since 1998. Stories have provided respite from the messy, longer work, which has been balked by the characters themselves. They keep changing and other minor figures enter the scene and distract me. Novels do not get easier to write.

DOU: What do you think the writer’s obligation is to the literary community? George Saunders comes to mind. I have seen that man stand before a crowd and say, without a trace of irony, that writing can change the world. His writing probably does change the world. What do you think is important for the writer to do? What do you think is the job of fiction? Why do you write?

CS: I make modest donations to writer-good causes; otherwise, I horde what time there is to write when I am not teaching. Writers who give over time to support writers around the world, who call attention to writers in peril, who believe and promote worthy writers not yet recognized or translated, such writers are heroic. As to what is important to do as a writer, I’d say most importantly, do the very best work you can, then if there is more of you to spare, help other writers any way you can. The niftiest answer I ever heard to the question “Why do you write” was “Why not?” Why not? This may be the only possible way to answer why anyone would elect to sit for hours, sometimes blankly, to write a few hundred words that most often do not hold up under scrutiny for longer than twenty-four hours.

DOU: You teach a lot. How do you balance teaching and writing? What does your day look like when you’re teaching? How about when you’re not teaching?

CS: I read your question “What does your day look like when you’re teaching” as “What does your work look like when you’re teaching?” And I thought it looked pitifully small—unreal, really. I don’t dare look at any fiction in progress while sitting on the floor of the upper school. The outdoors in general is dangerous for reading, but it must be done: new work printed out, eyed in full sun. But what does the day look like when I am sitting on that floor? Legs, skirts, girls up close of all ages, some old girls, too, stooped and so long at the school they’re known by initials. Miss B! Family!

A starker presentation is every day beginning at 8:15, four classes. Three different preparations. A Tuesday might be Emily Dickinson to seniors, Macbeth in the tenth grade, and for the writers in eleventh, Harold Brodkey, “Verona: a Young Woman Speaks.” I am free to choose whatever fiction or poetry interests me. The only demand now is for more nonfiction, but the choice is still mine. Last year students read Charles d’Ambrosio’s essay “Orphans.” Then again, a lot of high-school reading has not changed for decades. George Orwell’s 1931 essay “A Hanging” is yet read—for style as well as subject: “When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.” Simplicity and moral authority at once. Yearly reencounters with such literature as I have loved and learned from is no hardship, but like many teachers at every level, I feel beset with committees, meetings, small duties, new goals, and too often I wake up angry at having to go to school at all.

DOU: I find that as a fiction writer I teach differently than many of my colleagues who studied English literature and criticism. I am interested in different things than they are. Do you find that to be the case as well? What do you emphasize in teaching literature and writing?

CS: I like to take the story or novel or poem apart to see how it is made—consider the work as bone art, now skeletal. The writer’s body (freakish) is in every part of the book. Whitman’s long-armed, wide-open lines bespeak the man himself and how he felt about the world, but his insistent optimism about mortality—“to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier”— suggests he was sore afraid of the dark prince. Dickinson’s short, gnomic lines and all those dashes are as hesitant as much as musical and reveal the woman herself or at least as she was reported: a figure often out of sight but listening in at the top of the stairs, an almost- invisible at the second-floor window sending down a sweet in a basket to little children. I fail at providing much historical context when teaching literature except to note the Civil War and its appearance or absence in the work of the aforementioned poets. That conflict, that “World’s Departure from a Hinge… ’Twas not so large” as to distract Miss Dickinson from doing her work.

III. “LET THE PERFORMANCE BE INSANE.”

DOU: Do you feel that there is anything significant about the fact that the editor and associate editor of NOON are women? That is, do you ever feel as though you are working in a male-dominated sphere, that female writers have a harder road than men? I ask because I have heard you make reference to this in the past and I think it’s important.

CS: If you go by some numbers for prizes and reviews, the men win, hands down. Since its inception, the PEN/ Faulkner has been awarded to a man twenty- four times and to a woman, four. Susan Stamberg, a founder of the PEN/Faulkner, explains the imbalance as the consequences of women deferring to men in judging contests. Stamberg spoke at Word of Mouth, an all-women writers’ group, which, as its name suggests, serves to spread word of new books and readings and anything to do with writing by its membership. Katha Pollitt, a hero of mine, was in attendance at my first meeting with Word of Mouth. Would she were here to eloquently articulate my conviction that men have the last word on most literary matters. Ironically, most of the best reviews of my work have been written by men: John Ashbery, Brian Evenson, Ben Lytal, Irving Malin, Bryan Scott Wilson.

DOU: If you could choose an ideal life for yourself, what would it include? You may imagine anything you like: that you are independently wealthy, that you have skills you don’t in fact have, that you can fly. What would you like to do best and what from your current life would you retain?

CS: There is a photograph of Elizabeth Hardwick supine on a long sofa. Behind her are bookshelves that extend to the top of a twelve-foot ceiling and the shelves are lined with books, and there are books stacked on a long table pressed against the back of the sofa, and on that same table is a bust of a young man, a Keatsian head, melancholy or sanguine expression. It’s Hardwick’s expression in the photograph. Her arm is gracefully outstretched; she holds a book. She is a lady of letters in a dark pleated skirt and violet sweater, a writer in a prewar city apartment. I would like to lie as she does on just such a sofa assured of my place in the world of letters. An idealized circumstance, surely, but to be a writer in anticipation of the day’s mail and inevitable good news—life’s lurid imperfections quite out of sight—would be my first choice for perfect life.

Failing this, I would like not to write at all, not to read with any more purpose than to know the ingredients to a recipe; I would like to be a successful small time farmer with a garden, horses, goats, sheep, chickens of all sorts, ducks, dogs, cats. My garden, too, would not be confined to produce but would include flowers, climbers especially, honeysuckle, and all varieties of clematis.

DOU: I find I can’t help but ask you to talk a little bit about working with Gordon Lish. Could you describe one class you had with him, one specific event—or two or three—that you feel might illuminate what it was like to work with him for those of us who never had the chance to?

CS: Those classes! They fell apart when Gordon’s wife died in the early ’90s and he left Knopf and lost funding for The Quarterly, but for two years the classes were held in my apartment. My apartment is very small, less than a thousand square feet, and yet we packed in upward of twenty-six adults when classes started in the fall of 1988. People sat on the floor or out of sight in the hallway or in the kitchen; some sat at Gordon’s feet; some were brave enough to sit near on the sofa although how could anyone approach him without fear of catching fire—he was a performer, a high priest, a sermonizer. Quoting James Joyce—“I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes”—he implored us to carry our stories aloft, to expect the marketplace’s jeers, and to write heedless of the marketplace, to resist its corrupting calculations and safeguard our work. It was all very high-minded and grand, and I found it inspiring. Once a week I heard new fiction or advances on new fiction from such writers as Katherine Arnoldi, Noy Holland, Sheila Kohler, Sam Michel, Yannick Murphy, Dawn Raffel, Victoria Redel, Pam Ryder, Lily Tuck, Rick Whitaker, and Diane Williams. Amy Hempel, Ben Marcus, Mark Richard, and Kate Walbert made appearances from time to time. Dana Spiotta worked at The Quarterly. Gary Lutz was talked about, and so were Will Eno and Timothy Liu. Quite simply a lot of what Gordon said about writing made immediate and complete sense to me, and my own interest in poetry, in sound, my arduous effort to compose so much as a sentence, meant I shared his aesthetic: a delight in language and an ambition to make something uncanny.

I value no one’s opinion more than Gordon’s when it comes to assessment of fiction and while in his class I took notes I have profited from reading again. I try to live by many of his phrases: Stay open for business. Be Emersonian: say what no one else has the courage to say and you will be embraced. Reveal what you would keep secret. You will stay awake when writing such a story; you will also write very, very carefully with so much at stake. Each sentence is extruded from the previous sentence; look behind you when writing, not ahead. Your obligation is to know your objects and to steadily, inexorably darken and deepen them. To be in Gordon’s company when he was talking about fiction was to be in full-out writer mode. Let the performance be insane!

DOU: Can you explain what you mean by “look behind you when writing, not ahead”?

CS: He meant this quite literally as a means of composition. Query the preceding sentence for what might most profitably be used in composing the next sentence. He contended that with this method no writer could ever again be legitimately blocked. The sentence that follows is always in response to the sentence that came before.

DOU: Does writing still have the initial urgency that it had when you were writing your first book? If yes, how do you think you manage to maintain that urgency? If not, what has replaced it to drive you to write—since you are more prolific now than at any other time in your life (or so it seems to me)?

CS: The constant has not been a sense of urgency, but the terrors felt with every composition: no you cannot; no you will not; no you should not. To be balked at every turn in the effort with never and no makes for slow composition, and it dismays me not to have more gift stories, more sentences that rise up alchemical and deserved. Composing for me is largely a dispiriting venture, and the urgency and flushed condition ascribed to the experience may be something I’ve imagined after the fact of publication, a fictive sentiment necessary to sustain myself as a writer.

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