Christine Schutt is the author of two short 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 third novel, Prosperous Friends, was published last fall. Among other honors, Schutt has twice won the O.Henry Short Story Prize. She is the recipient of the New York Foundation of the Arts and Guggenheim Fellowships. Schutt is a senior editor of NOON, a literary annual, and lives and teaches in New York.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Monica Petersen. She said of the process, “Christine Schutt's books were unlike anything I had previously read. Her distinctive style and original subjects define her novels and stories. I enjoyed talking to her about her minimalist process and style and how life influences her work.” In this interview, she discusses writing uncomfortable situations, crafting the perfect beginning, and teaching at a preparatory school.
Superstition Review: The first paragraph of your novel All Souls is so clearly crafted. Within the two sentences, the reader can sense that the scene takes place in a hospital, which sets the stage for the novel. What is your process for crafting great first lines?
Christine Schutt: After you have lived with the opening to any fiction for a while—a while might be a day or a month or a year—you often discover the story starts at the bottom of the page or two or three pages into the fiction. This was true for All Souls. The novel starts on what was once the start of the second chapter; the entire first chapter was lopped off.
SR: Prep school novels have been popular recently, for both adults and young adults. Why did you choose to write about a preparatory school? How did you provide a different approach to this kind of story? Was there anything you intentionally did differently?
CS: I have had a lot of experience teaching at a private all girls' school and wanted to write a novel that would contradict certain cliches common to the Gossip Girl series, the most obvious being the portrayal of a girl from such a school: not all are wealthy; most of them study very hard and most are very ambitious; a few are—true enough—feckless, but just as many are quite accomplished and hardly playing it fast and loose with the boys at the boys' schools. What distinguishes my approach here from other prep school novels is the decision to write about the school as a small town, so to write from different points of view and at a distance to include its teachers and parents, lower school and upper school and middle school students. The book is made to show how a community reacts to the threat such unfairly meted-out fates as Astra's represent.
SR: Through all the juxtaposing narrators, the central character, Astra, brings the characters together even though she is in the hospital and removed from them. Why did you choose Astra to be the central character? What is so significant about her and her disease?
CS: The previous answer applies here, too. There is nothing significant about her disease beyond the fact of Astra's ambush, which seems monumentally unfair, not only because of her own youth and promise but because she has already experienced God as a sniper with her mother's death in a freak taxi accident.
SR: The relationships between the girls in All Souls are characterized by cruelty, ferocity, and deceit. What was your approach to making these girls this way? How do these unconventional relationships expose greater meaning in the novel?
CS: I hope these relationships did not seem unconventional. Girls do treat each other in all manner of ways cruel and loving.
SR: Which was your favorite character/perspective to write in All Souls? Which personality was the most challenging to manage?
CS: Frankly, I often enjoyed writing from the feckless girls' point of view. Suki and Alex are a type in privileged schools. They are self-knowing and funny. I think they are made at such schools; the security and solidity these institutions represent often corrupt weak or lazy students, whose parents are themselves firmly ensconced in the cushioned life; hence, the Sukis and Alexes of the world have every reason to believe that without much work, they, too, will arrive at a privileged college, and from there, a privileged life.
SR: In your newest novel, Prosperous Friends, one of the more telling quotes comes from Isabel's perspective: “Writing was hard. Ned had been the best of the writers in their year. Writing couples, how did they do it?” How does Ned's profession as a writer (and Isabel's desire to write) affect their relationship? Was there anything in particular you were trying to expose about writing couples?
CS: How do they do it, those writing couples? Those painters and musicians whose careers take them to different cities and expose them to different reviews, how do they manage to stay cheerful and together, rather than competitive and apart? I am married to a school teacher. He is a good writer and fully appreciates good writing—reads Wordsworth and Shakespeare in the summer—but he is not a fiction writer; I do not have to compete with him and inwardly rage should it seem he has more time in which to write than do I. All I was trying to do was figure out how two artists could live together, and it seemed to me that Dinah knew best how to do it with grace.
SR: You lived with your first husband in London and then moved to New York as part of your “deal” together: you would live in London for his career and then live in New York for yours. Did your experiences in London and New York influence Prosperous Friends? If so, how?
CS: Not experiences so much as remembered landscapes found their way into Prosperous Friends. The Highgate Cemetery was visited but never did a dwarf appear, and the scene from the London Zoo with the stalker was made-up, although I went to the London Zoo as a young woman often and loved the Bird House. While writing Prosperous Friends, I kept a scrapbook of lofts advertised in The New York Times, and I looked at the pictures when thinking of Isabel and Ned and the blind shih-tzu in the White Street loft.
SR: In an interview with HTMLGIANT, you say you “go to uncomfortable places” in your writing. This is clearly evident in the tense sexual scenes in Prosperous Friends. As a writer, how do you approach these uncomfortable places without overdramatizing them? When writing these uncomfortable scenes, do you approach each with a specific theme in mind you want to expose?
CS: Not with a theme in mind; rather, I approach the scenes with a problem. Isabel's problem is her inability to have an orgasm; my problem was to write about it without using the word orgasm. I approach the uncomfortable places gingerly, carefully, mincing past the obvious and/or ugly words for sex or sexual action. To avoid sentimentality (or overdramatization) I remind myself of the rule that if something cannot happen in nature (“to feel one's heart in one's throat,” for instance) then it should not happen on the page.
SR: You have been a finalist for the National Book Award as well as the Pulitzer Prize. Has the recognition from these honors changed the way you write? How do you approach a new book after your previous one has gained such a reputable honor?
CS: I want to do whatever I didn't do in the last book: that's the ambition and the fear is failing to meet that challenge. “Fail better,” Beckett said. That's what it is I am about when I embark on the next book. No writer looks back or most are superstitious enough to know better than to moon over what might seem a text on fire from an earlier, more impassioned time.
SR: Several critics have described your writing as stripped to the barest essentials. Only enough words exist on the page to continue the story while most of the meaning is left to the interpretation of the reader. Why do you take this approach to your writing? What does your process look like when creating this minimalist style?
CS: The minimalist style is borne of my determination to avoid received, worn, cliched language in order to write originally. This means many sentences are struck out for being dull, for being in service of no more than moving a character like a chair, for saying the obvious in the same old, obvious way. “She froze.” To talk about somebody freezing as a way of suggesting surprise or horror or shock seems to me the laziest of practices.
SR: What are the differences between your approach to writing novels versus short stories? Do have a preference?
CS: I have no preferences only desire. I try “to stay open for business,” which is to say receptive, ready, on the lookout for story. Once a sentence is made, I am on my way, but whether to story or novel, I am not always sure.
SR: You teach at the Nightingale-Bamford School, an independent all-female university-preparatory school. What led you to work at this school after being a professor at Columbia University, Barnard College, Syracuse University, and Sarah Lawrence College?
CS: The teaching history is reversed: I taught at the prep school first, then moved on to teach at Columbia, Barnard, Syracuse, and so forth. Working at the college level left me a little more time—not a lot, but enough to make it attractive to continue working at the universities.
SR: Did your experiences at Nightingale-Bamford influence All Souls? If so, how? Did you model any characters after people you know?
CS: Yes, my experiences at Nightingale-Bamford influenced All Souls. The characters are composite characters, which is to say made up of this girl's aptitude for math and that girl's hair color.
SR: How has your relationship with teaching and your students impacted the way that you write? Has it changed what you write about?
CS: Teaching literature, more than my relationships with students, has had the greatest impact on the way I write. To teach a story is to come to know it intimately; to learn from its successes and mistakes. My relationships with students have brought happiness and humility. The students are, for the most part, unimaginably loving and talented in ways they don't fully appreciate, but I have read their fictions and have been impressed by their skills. Year after year, the students stay young, and I age, so the fact that I should write about age and aging could be attributable to my profession, which involves forever being buffeted by the dewy and supple.
SR: Can you discuss your work with the literary magazine, NOON? Do you have a clear, specific vision of the works you want the magazine to publish?
CS: Diane Williams is the editor and founder and chief-everything of NOON. I am her friend and have supported the idea of the magazine as much as the magazine itself. NOON's editorial policies are to find new voices; writers who strive to write original, authentic prose.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
CS: Ah! The space most used is the desk in my bedroom, which is to say I do a kind of sickly rolling out of bed every morning and into a chair to face a wall on which is hung an old print of “The Life of Woman.” Stages of a woman's life from the cradle to the grave: infant; girl; ripe beauty; bride; mother; volunteer; household quilter; devout parishioner; dispenser of wisdom; hoary head; until finally the seated crone. “The body sinks and wastes away/ The spirit cannot/know decay.” Bookcases, floor to ceiling on either side of the desk remind me to make the most of whatever stage in woman's life I am in.