David Winters: For me, one of the most striking qualities of your writing is its musicality; its attention to cadence and acoustics. Lately I’ve been thinking about something William Gass said in an old interview—no doubt you know it:
Contemporary fiction is divided between those who are still writing performatively and those who are not. Writing for voice, in which you imagine a performance in the auditory sense going on, is traditional and old-fashioned and dying. The new mode is not performative and not auditory. It’s destined for the printed page, and you are really supposed to read it the way they teach you to read in speed-reading. You are supposed to crisscross the page with your eye . . . and not sound it in the head.
Gass goes on to declare that he wishes to write “by the mouth, for the ear”—a phrase that might also apply to aspects of your writing. Would you agree? If so, what attracts you to writing for the ear, rather than the eye alone?
Christine Schutt: “By the mouth, for the ear”—is there any other way in which to write? For me, banging together unlikely words so that the sentence might sound as it means is the fun part of writing. Hearing story is part of reading’s pleasure: “(S)he swore in faith ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange; ‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful./ She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished/ That heaven had made her such a man.” Why should we wonder at Desdemona’s “downright violence, and storm of fortunes” to wed the Moor and “with a greedy ear/Devour up (his) discourse”? Shakespeare gives a writer license to be extravagant with sound.
But ear alone can’t be all. Eyes (in the sense of image) and mind (capturing a scene) must be appealed to. Take the first sentence from an early story of mine, “The Summer After Barbara Claffey”: “I once saw a man hook a walking stick around a woman’s neck.” Sound, yes, but something is happening in the sentence that is meant to captivate from both a visual and plot standpoint. My stories may be musically arranged but there is also event, there is also action.
DW: It’s an extraordinary story. Re-reading it, I’m struck by the subtlety with which it engages, as you say, the eyes and the mind—the questions it raises, again and again, concerning the seen and the known. A neighboring boy is described as “ready for a girl . . . if he knew what to do with one.” The mother asks of Barbara Claffey, “does she know how to kiss?” And then there’s the sense of a knowledge shared between mother and daughter; something we glimpse, perhaps, when the daughter’s gaze returns to the mother at the end.
Whatever this “knowledge” is, though, it isn’t directly articulated. It’s as if it can only be got at obliquely, with words that cling to things’ surfaces. Your writing is often described as “elliptical”—what role might mystery and unknowing play in your work?
CS: “’Reality,’ of course, is man’s most powerful illusion; but while he attends to this world, it must outbalance the total enigma of being in it at all.” So says Erik H. Erikson, but reality does not for me “outbalance” the bewildering experience of being in the world. Add the scrim of memory and incessant excursions into the past, and the most I can do to construct a world is to stitch together sensations of it. I do not want an impenetrable style but prize compression and music. I abhor quotidian easy speak, psychobabble, brands, news and slogans—a “writner’s prose” as Gordon Lish once described it. Mine calls for close, hard readers of fiction. This year in reviews of Prosperous Friends, I was bumped up from being a writer’s writer to being a writer’s writer’s writer; either way, it cautions challenging prose ahead. A lot is left unsaid and must be inferred simply because I want to avoid the dulling effect of belated language.
DW: One link between your early fictions and those of other students of Lish seems to lie in their shared intimations of incest—although that’s too literal a term, somehow, for describing these stories’ twisting and torqueing of family ties. But reading “You Drive” alongside, say, Yannick Murphy’s “Ball and Socket” (“At first I thought it was safe to dance with my father, that he would not push his leg between mine . . .”) or Dawn Raffel’s “Something is Missing of Yours” (“She is of the impression that sooner or later the father slips himself into her bed . . .”) one senses a certain convergence. Of course, in each of these examples, the quality of attention brought to the story is such that it could only have been written by that particular writer. Nonetheless, did Lish’s classes play a part in encouraging you to explore this sort of terrain?
CS: The first version of “You Drive” was written in the spring of 1976 at Columbia University. The opening paragraph might have been the only successful part of the story, which quickly lapsed into sort-of and so-so fiction as soon as I tried to animate the characters, move my father and me in space, take us through a meal, talk. What serendipitous forces brought me into Gordon’s company then, I thank god. I am blessed to have heard him talk. He gave license to a high-mindedness about literature, made it churchy–“I bore my chalice through a throng of foes”–a life-saving event, crucial, worth all and everything, and those of us who hoped to be as a new Adam in the morning had to be brave enough to tell whatever we had most loved and lost, betrayed, belittled, stolen from, dismissed. All the base business of being alive, appalled by ourselves as slippery observers not to be trusted, plunderers, mercenaries, ugliness had to be admitted. When I met Gordon, I felt dirty and, I confess, with good reason. I don’t know how Yannick or Raffel felt, but I was in their company when we were writing our fevered stories, and I know that Gordon inspired, said go close, use your ears. He alluded to Emerson: “(S)peak your latent conviction and it shall be universal sense.” He said desire and desire was all on many, many, many occasions of incantatory provocation. You had to desire—More life!–if you were to write the stories that lay patient as snakes under your bed.
DW: Reviewing All Souls, Carla Blumenkranz suggests that your “later books tell a story of evolving away from . . . the Lish method.” I suppose such a story could concern the differing ways in which Lish’s compositional principles apply to the short and the long form—the latter seeming a little less suited to what Gary Lutz calls “isolative attentions to the sentence.” Yet what you’ve said about Lish shows that you learned much more than a “method.” It would be interesting to hear your side of this story: how would you characterize the continuities and the discontinuities between the way you wrote in those classes, and the way you write now?
CS: I began All Souls for sure relief, for a once-in-a-writing experience that came with the wondrous frustration of not typing fast enough. I always intended on writing my own school book, having taught at such a school, all-girls, private, and believing the institution had not been well served in fiction. My own version of school then was inspired by a passage from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse:
How then . . . did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive . . . haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people.
In writing this school novel, I broke a cardinal Lish rule: I took up a story knowing exactly where I was going, which is to say I looked forward and merrily typed ahead rather than looked backward at the last line to query it for the next right word that might deliver me to a better place. For my own part, I dared to write dialogue—some of it overheard and copied, which nevertheless did not always make it sound truer. Finished with All Souls, I went back to Prosperous Friends and whenever that novel faltered, I wrote stories. “The Duchess of Albany,” an O.Henry Prize story for 2007, is from this period.
I came into Lish’s class already honed as a poet but waylaid as a storyteller by normative fiction’s clunky requirements; I came into the class with nails and wood of my own. Gordon gave me a hammer and showed me how I might build a house to last with what I had in hand. The architectural plans, the building’s situation and square footage, have always been of my own devising. With All Souls, I threw away the hammer, set the nails aside and stacked wood. All the other books have been painstakingly made and written from the same dark vantage though my ambition is more light.
DW: All Souls and Prosperous Friends each explore what most would call “privileged” milieux—materially privileged, at least. Yet unlike more predictable fictions, yours don’t pin their descriptions of privilege to an overpowering purpose—a didactic kind of satire, for instance, or, contrarily, an uncritical romance of class. You seem to see your characters from a more humane perspective; one which clears sufficient space for both criticism and compassion. I’m struggling to articulate it, since it’s quite a rare quality; personally I’m reminded of the films of Joanna Hogg, but that’s by the by. What are your thoughts on the place of privilege in your writing—are there any particular problems or prospects that it opens up?
CS: No problems, only prospects. “The Life of the Palm and the Breast” is a winter to winter account of a lovely young woman’s married life “afloat above the park,” Central Park, that is, in “a building secure as a banker in his snug, plush coat.” The story is rosy with having all and everything, but shouldn’t she be afraid she might lose it?
For a time in my life I was comfortable but insecurely so, which is to say, my side of the family did not have money, but I lived for a while with the side that did. With shifting fortunes comes shame, but shame, as Elizabeth Hardwick notes, is instructive: “From shame I have paid attention to clothes, shoes, rings. . . .” I have shoved together the privileged and less-advantaged in all of my fictions. I find it sensually pleasurable to write about expensive settings but entering barren houses with their mud floors or ruined rugs is just as arousing for being uncomfortable. As to the characters, beyond their surroundings, all are capable of being tender or cruel, fascinated by the other or repulsed. All struggle for the more elusive privileges of happiness and love.
I have no interest in casting stones at the rich. In all of their iterations, the privileged, like the less fortunate, are a source of wonder and grief.
DW: Shifting fortunes appear to play a part in “Pure Hollywood”, the piece you published in NOON this year—in which we meet Mimi, drinking alone in a “priceless” but dilapidated house, having “learned what she already knew: nothing was hers.” This is described as an “excerpt from a novel in progress.” Is there anything you’d like to say about that project, or about your other forthcoming work?
CS: “Pure Hollywood” inches forward and am I casting around for new stories to complete a collection. One of the new stories, “Oh, the Obvious,” is in the forthcoming issue of NOON 2014.
Christine Schutt is the author of two story collections and three novels. Her first novel, Florida, was a National Book Award finalist; her second novel, All Souls, a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. A recipient of the Guggenheim and New York foundation of the Arts fellowships, Schutt has twice won the O.Henry prize, among other honors. She lives and teaches in New York. David Winters has written on fiction, criticism and philosophy for various publications, including the Times Literary Supplement, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Guardian and The Independent. He is coeditor in chief of 3:AM Magazine. Links to his work are collected at whynotburnbooks.com.
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