Clifford Garstang Interviews Christine Schutt
Christine Schutt is the author of two short story collections, A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer (Triquarterly, 2005) and Nightwork (Knopf, 1996). She has also written two novels: All Souls (Harcourt, 2008), a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize; and Florida (Mariner, 2005), a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award. Her fiction has appeared in NOON, The Kenyon Review, Post Road, and other literary magazines. Schutt has won two O. Henry Prizes and a Pushcart Prize and was the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship for 2008. Her work has been anthologized in the The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (Anchor, 2004) and KGB Bar Reader (Quill/William Morrow, 1998). She lives and teaches in New York City.
Cliff Garstang: This isn't going to look much like a normal interview. I asked the questions I wanted to ask--mostly about the two novels, Florida and All Souls--but the questions only seem to get in the way of the beautiful, lyrical answers I got back. In some ways, Christine's response is like her fiction--elliptical, spare, and mesmerizing. And so I present the answers without the questions--the result is a fascinating discourse on writing.
Christine Schutt: You ask how my life has changed since the publication of Nightwork in 1996. The gifts are these: more teaching opportunities, occasional requests for stories, more editors inclined to read a story through to the end. More pertinent to writer-readers of your magazine is the fact that language is as intractable as ever; stories wilt; confidence is shaky at best. I once asked Elizabeth Hardwick what she thought most needful in the making of a writer, and she said character. She was right about character and the well-known secret that every writer has at least one novel in a drawer.
At eighteen I began reading biographies of writers: where had they gone to school? Were they married, childless, published before age thirty? Were they mad, alcoholic, suicidal, dead at forty? I was not so unhappy growing up that I did not fear the loneliness that seemed to come with being a writer; many of my favorite writers had dispiriting lives, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to suffer if that is what it took, but I did want to write. Suffering comes in many different styles, of course; mine involved years of writing and rewriting paragraphs—typing, deleting, typing again and again before giving in to a watery glue of dialogue. (Writing dialogue most often makes me cringe. Recently, I discovered that verisimilitude or interest can be had in columns of dialogue if every other line is crossed out.) To be embarrassed by a story of one’s own making that dissolves after the first wrought gesture is one way of suffering.
In my early twenties I read and re-read all of John Updike’s stories—all the stories he had written up to 1975—and gloried in his sentences. And some of his stories, “The Lifeguard,” for instance, were meditations that should have been doable, but my imitations failed. Not until I encountered two stories, both published in the ’70s in The New Yorker, “Brownstone,” by Renata Adler and “Story in an Almost Classical Mode,” by Harold Brodkey did I conceive of writing lyrical, excessive, elliptical stories, hardly tidy or concluded. In Brodkey and Adler were failed, neurotic, self-flagellating narrators—not just the intoning wise or existential voices, and I thought yes, I have heard this sound before. I spent the next few years at Columbia trying to write the Brodkey story.
At my MFA thesis conference, my teacher Frank MacShane said I had an unusual way with words and that my sentences were surprising, musical, poetic. The other teacher present on this occasion, Hannah Green, agreed about the sentences but said, quite bluntly, “You may not figure out how to write a story for another twenty years.” I was appalled but she was right. One story from my MFA thesis was published; the story won a Pushcart and that was the end of my publishing career for the next ten years—encouraging rejections but I never followed up. This is where Hardwick’s character ingredient was called for, but I could only dedicate myself to writing a small part of every day—through motherhood and teaching, through divorce and abusive rebound. These fragmented days account in part for the way my fiction is fitted together in pieces, mostly short. In years I now wish I could have enjoyed, I often felt quite desperate; my consolation was the material being gathered in simply living. At forty, the cruelties receded. I lived with my sons, taught, and wrote. By then, publishing, or who was in and who was out, did not matter quite so much; I had an identity as a mother and teacher; the man who had wished me dead was dead. Everything had been said; nothing would ever stun me in quite the same way—and hasn’t, frankly. At forty, I was up for whatever any editor might say; I had spent a long time fashioning pretty sentences. Gordon Lish taught me how to use those sentences.
The stories in Nightwork come out of my experience with Gordon Lish as teacher and editor. In no other book is my prose quite as consistently ornate—I indulged every fancy of the ear and heart. For the subsequent books, the novels, Florida and All Souls, as well as the second story collection, A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer, Diane Williams has been my most important reader and editor. What would I do without Diane Williams?
This remarkable writer has read the last forty pages of a novel I have been at work on for too long to feel confident about it, except that Diane Williams has read the book with what she insists is a clearer eye for what is there and what is not. She says I am close, close, close to being finished. So to your penultimate question is anything new about to happen? I hope.
To your last question, how to break into publishing? Better ask how to break into a story.
Clifford Garstang is the Editor of Prime Number Magazine.