An Interview with Christine Schutt
Christine Schutt is the author of two short story collections, A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer and Nightwork. She is also the author of two novels: All Souls, which was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, and Florida, a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award. With Diane Williams, she edits the literary journal NOON. Her new novel, Prosperous Friends, will be published by Grove Press on November 6.
Michelle Y. Burke is the author of Horse Loquela, winner of the 2007 Red Mountain Review Chapbook Series Award. She lives in Cincinnati.
Burke: One of the things I admire most about your writing is how it sounds. Your sentences are so rich and lyrical. To what extent are you thinking about sound when you’re writing?
Schutt: I do think about sound. What I want to do is wed sound to scene. What comes first is a picture. I’m thinking of the way my new book, Prosperous Friends, begins. I had this idea that there would be a couple in their mid-thirties outside of London, maybe in the Fens, near a priory or a church. I was remembering my own experience at that age, being in those sorts of churches, and the stones, and the moss on the stones, and the coldness of it. I thought about that a lot, and I thought about what the couple was doing. They’re alone. He wants to surprise her and be sexually risky. I wanted to get a sound that would call up or be right for those stones and that place.
Burke: Is that how you start a new novel or story—an image catches your attention and you find the sound from there?
Schutt: Sometimes there’s an image, yes, and the language comes so fast on it. I look at something for a long time and roll over words right to the occasion.
Burke: Is that also true when you’re creating a character? Does the character come from an imagined scene or image?
Schutt: When I was creating one of the characters in Prosperous Friends, I looked at a postcard picture of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I bought it at the National Portrait Gallery. Then there was this quality my younger son had when his hair was long, and then there was someone I was making up: a handsome young man with a side-part. I liked this character so well I gave him some success.
There’s a terrible character in Prosperous Friends, a simply horrible man, and I don’t have trouble coming up with horrible men. I’ve known some horrible men. I saw this character very clearly—his great height, his full lips. He looked a little like Oscar Wilde.
Burke: Your characters are often grappling with difficult issues—infidelity, illness, addiction. What do you see as the value of digging around in those dark places?
Schutt: It’s not difficult to write about happier topics. It may be harder to inject drama into them. I have written at least one story about a woman who had everything. It was my version of Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss.” It was really great fun to write. Mostly, though, I go to uncomfortable places. There are several stories I’ve written that have been apologies. And there’s at least one more of those that I’ve been thinking about for a while. One day I’ll figure out how to tell it.
As far as the value of digging around in those experiences, my grandmother would certainly have had an answer. She used to tell me, “You can smell the shit, or you can smell the daisies, and I prefer to smell the daisies.”
When I’m writing, though, I’m not necessarily thinking about the value of the final product or how it will improve anyone’s life. I should probably think about that, but I don’t.
Burke: Your story collections are like catalogues of compelling first sentences. The first sentence of “Teachers” in Nightwork—“She told her daughter as she might a love such things her lover said were best kept secret from a girl”—does amazing work at the syntactical level. What do you expect from a good first sentence, and how do you move forward from there?
Schutt: When I was an MFA student at Columbia, I was in class with people who even then were able to tell a story. I could not. What I could do, and what I was praised for doing, was write a great sentence. It was my only pride. When I tried to write a story, I thought what I was good at had to be put aside in favor of advancing the narrative. I would have a nice, rich opening, and then suddenly, I’d think about how I had to move the character across the room. The character had to say something, do something. Dreaded dialogue. I still have to work hard on it. Now I often take out every other line of dialogue. Then it actually sounds like human speech. Then you get something interesting.
Any success I had early on had to do with the fact that people would say, “Wow, you can really write a sentence.” Gordon Lish taught me how to use what I was good at to tell a story.
Burke: You worked with Lish when he was an editor at Knopf?
Schutt: Yes. That must have been fifteen years after Columbia, and I had been writing all that time—not successfully, but writing—and raising children and teaching, and doing a lot of living. He was the first to tell me all a writer had to have was one good sentence. His simply pointing that out made all the difference in the world. I didn’t have to know where I was going; I didn’t need a plan. Gordon pointed out that if you had one good sentence, and you looked at it long and hard and took from it what term was most charged for the next sentence, this was a legitimate way to proceed. In many ways, it was easy, because I’d been writing sentences and laboring over opening sentences for years. My starts were great, but once finished with the opening sentence, I looked ahead instead of behind me to find and take up the most provocative terms in the first sentence.
Burke: Is that still your process?
Schutt: Yes, it is, and it’s very slow. It’s part of the reason the novels are short, the chapters are short. It is often hard to sustain a highly lyrical level of prose, and I don’t want to be a purely descriptive writer.
Burke: I believe that in Florida, there’s a chapter that’s just two sentences. Do you see your work as formally experimental? Maud Casey, in her review of All Souls, said she was pleased to see you continuing to push the boundaries of fiction.
Schutt: Yes, I was delighted that Maud Casey saw that, but I wasn’t thinking of pushing any boundaries with All Souls. I had written my first novel, Florida, in very short chapters, and each one had a title, so maybe that was unusual.
Burke: All Souls does seem experimental in that there’s not a clear main character. There are all these chapters from different points of view—teachers, students, parents. It’s almost as if the school itself was the main character. What led you to structure the novel that way?
Schutt: Yes, the school is a character; I also think of the book as a New York novel, the New York of privilege for the most part but also the New York of Central Park and New York Hospital. New York in wintry weather, New York on the subway, coffee shops and smaller streets. I wanted to get the whole school in, top to bottom, K through 12. Since the book’s been published, I’ve had a few moments when I’ve thought, ah, that is a school-type I did not include. And if I were to write the book again, I would include that person.
Burke: Like who?
Schutt: Well, there’s a very pretty woman at our school who is often seen watering flowers; she is part of the maintenance staff. I have early elevator duty on Friday mornings. It’s a nightmare. I really need to sign up for some other duty. Very often, I’m late to the job, but this woman, my friend, has already begun to take aggressive gangs of middle school girls to the sixth floor. If I had the book to write again, I would include Kornelia.
Burke: Your story collections are filled with struggling parents and children. Was an exploration of the school environment a natural transition?
Schutt: The teacher-student relationship can be as fraught as the parent-child relationship. There is the possibility of transgression in both, too. Parents sometimes fail at making boundaries, as do teachers. There is bodily interference in teaching—the level rises, I think, the lower the grade.
Burke: In Florida, you wrote that if Jane Eyre were born in a different century, she wouldn’t marry but would write. Many of your wayward characters are drawn to literature. What does literature offer them?
Schutt: I think the right book can save you. When I was young, my English teacher gave me W.D. Snodgrass’s book of poetry, Heart’s Needle. I later attended a summer high school writing program, and Snodgrass was there. I saw him and heard him, but that didn’t make as much of an impression as the poems themselves, particularly the “Heart’s Needle” section of the book addressed to his daughter. It was an enormous comfort to me. I was glad to know a man might suffer over his daughter’s absence.
Burke: Your work is filled with absent fathers—and horrible fathers—but All Souls has this incredibly kind portrait of a father, Mr. Dell.
Schutt: I’ve met some of the most astonishing fathers through teaching. The missing father is a part of my own childhood. It wasn’t until age twenty-five, when I began teaching, that I realized fathers could be otherwise, could be very present in their daughters’ lives. The advantage to being a writer with a missing father is how easy it is to imagine any kind you had or worse or, with luck, the kind you wished you had had.
Burke: Mr. Dell is a widower. Why that narrative choice?
Schutt: These wonderful fathers usually come from wonderful families, and the wives are just as wonderful and compassionate and bright—too much wonderful. I didn’t want to spend time with two such gifted parents, and I wanted to spend time with the father more.
Burke: The teenage years are so difficult, but you write such convincing teenage characters. They’re difficult and contradictory but also incredibly likable and engaging.
Schutt: Oh, yes, I’m around teenagers a lot. I often find myself sliding down the wall to sit on the floor with a girl to talk about her essay. It’s easy to get involved with them on all levels at all levels—skin, hair, rings. I’m constantly struck by them, the steamy way girls are, the things they write about and do.
They are easy to talk to, too. You can talk about serious things. I have one student who wants to get together and talk about Faulkner. Such intensity makes for great company. I don’t have that relationship with many adults, but then we’ve not spent several weeks together reading the same book at the same time and taking it apart, loving it.
Burke: For the student, it’s new.
Schutt: Yes, so you feel very powerful. I introduced them to Faulkner. I have made my mark. They will never pick up Faulkner without thinking of me.
Burke: As a writer and a teacher, do you think the physical object of the book will go away? Will it be replaced by the digital book?
Schutt: I don’t think the book as object is going to go away, particularly for teaching. Maybe they’re going to fix all these iPads and Kindles and things so that you can actually write efficiently in the margin and make the text your own, but right now you can’t; the reading experience is different. The books I love and have on Kindle, I also have them physically, and that’s where I go. Unless I am traveling, I go to the book itself. There I can find my place. I can write notes, underline what I consider significant. They haven’t perfected the online readers yet. Most of my colleagues, even the younger ones, feel a great attachment to physical books, so I don’t think books will go away.
Burke: Let’s return to your new book, Prosperous Friends. You mentioned a romantic relationship. Could you talk about that?
Schutt: Yes, the book is largely interested in an older and a younger couple; the younger couple is particularly self-destructive even though they are healthy, attractive, financially secure, and—in the case of the young man—talented. The young woman is not so sure of herself. Yet they are cruel to each other. Youth is so unyouthful. You have all of this good fortune, and you put a match to it. So that was something I was interested in—the way people smash up their lives. That’s what I wanted to examine.
And I wanted an older couple so I could have their point of view. Prosperous Friends is about marriage in a way that the other fiction has not been—what keeps a marriage afloat, particularly marriages between artists. The older woman, her name is Dinah, is a poet. Her husband is a painter, and he’s very selfish. He must have full sway. But she has some level of success herself. So the way they manage that dynamic is interesting to me—the marriage, what she’s given up to be with him, what she’s gained.
Burke: What you’re describing between Dinah and her husband reminds me of Astra and Car in All Souls. Astra is so stable, whereas Car, her smart, wealthy best friend, is self-destructive. What draws you toward that kind of friction?
Schutt: I’m interested in the ways people cope. Dinah drinks. She has some control over the habit, but she realizes the necessity of it. Her husband is not a philanderer, but he’s certainly not monogamous. Dinah knows about Clive’s infidelities, and she’s managed to come to terms with them in ways that I find very interesting. I admire her. I admire the Astras who put up with the Cars of the world. I’m trying to figure out how they do it.
Burke: Does Prosperous Friends proceed in the same way as All Souls and Florida—sentence by sentence, short chapters?
Schutt: No, not exactly. The chapters are longer. The first chapter has a title, “Post-doc London,” and a date, so you know exactly where you are. And then you stay there for a while. Prosperous Friends is focused on the same people throughout, so the cast is smaller than All Souls’.
Burke: Has your writing changed on the sentence level?
Schutt: Yes. I’m not packing every sentence anymore. I’m not indulging that tendency as much. When I was writing Nightwork, I loaded the sentences because I could; I hyphenated a lot to make adjectives, very self-indulgent. I did that to a lesser degree in the second collection of stories, Day and Night. I have been looking for other sources of interest, along with interest in language and finding different ways of getting drama. So, yes, Prosperous Friends is different. I mean, there are descriptions of houses and barns I am proud of. I love dying barns. I love to look at them, but the characters and their movement take precedence; the exchanges between characters are sharper.
I was very confident about Prosperous Friends for a long time. I went around bragging about it, saying this is it, this is the best thing I’ve done. I surprised myself by saying such things. I’m a little superstitious. I thought I should stop bragging. The first time I turned it in, my agent said the novel was too difficult, too elliptical. Who are these people? How old are they? Where are they? The kinds of questions I’ve always been asked.
Then I had a younger reader weigh in on the sexual dysfunctions the book explores. She said, no, these kinds of dysfunctions don’t exist anymore. They’ve gone away. I was devastated when she said that. I thought, my god, they’ve really advanced, but I decided to keep all of the sexual dysfunction in, because they can’t be all cleared up, right? Not for everyone. It really threw me for a loop. Here I was writing about people in their late 30s and 40s, and I suddenly thought that perhaps I really missed the boat. Perhaps young people today are entirely liberated, at ease with their sexuality, and women are having orgasms left and right. In the end, I decided that can’t be the case, but it really caused me to have a crisis of confidence. A real crisis.
I wrote a new beginning to the book at one point. It was very clunky, but it came very easily, and I thought, all right, maybe this is the way to go, but I ended up throwing it out. When I came back from teaching in California, I got rid of it. But I inserted other things, clarifying things, and the book is finished, but I have not felt that initial certainty of its worth.
Burke: Do you think of your work as challenging? Difficult?
Schutt: No, I don’t. I haven’t. That’s why it unsettled me to have what I’d thought was finished returned with questions. My agent said all of the things that people said when I was doing my MFA: The writing is great, but where are we? How old are these characters? In the last draft of Prosperous Friends I changed the chapter titles to place names and the year.
Overall, I don’t think my work is difficult. I don’t write jolly stories, so maybe that’s hard for some readers.
Burke: I want to ask you about your National Book Award nomination. That year, 2004, the five finalists were all women, all experimental and not widely known. There was, as might be expected, some fuss in the literary world. Do you think that novels by women, or more specifically, novels by women that prioritize relationships over action, face particular kinds of hurdles in terms of reception?
Schutt: I can think of many that have been warmly received. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, for example. Everyone adores that novel, and that novel certainly has a small cast, and they’re not traveling all over the place. So, no, I think that people receive these novels warmly. It may be that there are fewer women writers taking on the other kind of novel, the novel with the big canvas. Claire Messud and Jennifer Egan and Nicole Krauss all have these big canvases; the big novel, on the face of it, seems a more ambitious project, a more serious undertaking and worthy of serious attention.
As a writer, though, I think you have to take up what you’re most comfortable with. Lily Tuck won the year I was nominated. She recently published I Married You for Happiness. A woman holds her dead husband’s hand throughout the night and remembers their marriage; the memories allow for change of scenery and time; the real action is in the recounting of the memories. Critics have been very receptive to this book that is interested in a relationship rather than a plot—and it is a very short book.
Burke: If the big novel, the novel with the large canvas, seems more overtly ambitious, how is the small novel, the more focused novel, also ambitious? Is it ambitious in a different way?
Schutt: The small novel is ambitious and in a different way, I think. It’s to do with style. The small novel strives for a sustained, consistently high level of prose style, for originality of expression, wrought sentences, which is as ambitious an endeavor as writing a longer novel where scope often overrides style. For the big novel, long novel, whatever we’re calling it, the bar is necessarily lower because sustaining a highly wrought prose style is exhausting—and four hundred pages of such style! Originality of expression is more easily achieved and sustained in the smaller novel. Cormac McCarthy accomplishes as much in Child of God, and Elizabeth Hardwick, too, writes originally in Sleepless Nights; simple language used lyrically, as in Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams, with its train-long, smoothly moving sentences, makes for a dream just as Joan Didion’s more abrupt rhythms work in her slender Hollywood novel, Play It as It Lays.
Burke: Could you talk about your work on the literary journal NOON? You work with Diane Williams?
Schutt: Yes, Diane Williams is a fantastic writer, and she has a new book out with McSweeney’s, Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty. It’s a wonderful book.
Burke: It’s a great title.
Schutt: It is a great title. It’s a wonderful book of short stories. They’re just great. They’re poems really. Anyway, she and I are very close. She’s always my first and last reader. We came up with NOON because The Quarterly was no longer in the world. We feared for the writers we loved. We wanted to put together a magazine where Gary Lutz and Deb Olin Unferth might be found. Of course, Diane was publishing in Conjunctions and other magazines, but I was worried about my work, too. Stories of mine that went on to do very well in prize anthologies couldn’t find a home anywhere and were first published in NOON.
We started it together in 2000, and it just got bigger. It’s always been beautiful. Diane is the one who makes all of the aesthetic decisions. Size, font, flaps. There was a young woman named Susan Carroll who designed book jackets for Knopf. She had done Diane’s there, so Diane wanted Susan to design NOON covers. She agreed, and they’re magnificent.
Diane is in no way impressed by cover letters. She doesn’t care where a person went to school or which prizes they’ve won. She just wants to find voices she can approve of and champion. I read with her, and I’ve helped. I’m still involved, but she has a lot of smart young interns now who help. I’m very proud of NOON and my attachment to it. And I think that for both of us, it was a wonderful way to stay connected to other writers; with NOON we don’t feel as cut off or alone.
Burke: In your work, you mention Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, and Charlotte Brontë. Which writers—past or present, living or dead—do you feel connected to? Who do you go to so as not to feel alone?
Schutt: I read and teach Emily Dickinson every year and am lifted by all the air around the words. Don’t ask me to explain what I mean by “air around the words,” just visualize a few of her favorites: noon, awe, zero, snow. So Emily Dickinson is a lift, and Robert Lowell is a source of language. Every summer I read poems from History and Day by Day. The other summer ritual is listening to a reading he gave at the 92nd Street Y in December of 1976. I was in the audience at the time, and I sometimes think I can hear myself in the audience, laughing. By September of 1977, he was dead, but on this night, he was very much alive and told amusing stories when setting up each poem. And some of the poems themselves are funny. He read two to his first wife, and one of these, “Jean Stafford, a Letter,” begins “Towmahss Mahnn: that’s how you said it. . ./ ‘That’s how Mann must say it,’ I thought.” The sound of Lowell’s voice in the summer in Maine and usually in the company of my husband, who by this time in the summer has Lowell-like long, white hair, is restorative.
Burke: You were also friends with Barry Hannah. Could you talk a little about that friendship?
Schutt: I miss him very much. I have a cigarette lighter of his given to me by Jamie Quatro, who was given it by Barry’s son, at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. I met Barry there. We taught together and had a fine time. We never saw each other again, but we had a loving correspondence over the last few years of his life. I had his blessing as a writer, so what more could I want? But his company—I miss all of the man, and thank god he wrote his fiction. There’s comfort.