Issue 4

An Interview with Christine Schutt

 · Nonfiction

By Alyssa Songsiridej

Christine SchuttChristine Schutt is the author of two collections of stories, Nightwork
and A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer, and three novels, Florida,
a National Book Award finalist, and All Souls, a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Her most recent book, a novel, is Prosperous Friends. She lives and
teaches in New York.

t the end of an interview you did with Prime Number, you answered the question about how to break into publishing with the response “Better ask how to break into a story.” I am going to turn this question back to you. How would you recommend that a young writer break into a story?

Probably the easiest way to break into a story I learned from Gordon Lish — writer, editor, teacher — is to start with the last thing you would ever want anyone to know, a remembered action that is troubling (there are many such) and start writing about it. Experience, so long held so close, will keep you on the edge of your seat because the story must be told carefully; moreover, it is unlikely you will tire of the story simply because you have lugged it around for a while. The other lovely element of rooting around in your own bag of horrors for fiction is this: Who is to know if you are telling the truth?

Though you’ve also published two short story collections, your last two books, All Souls and Prosperous Friends, have been novels. What aspects of long prose attract you — or short prose, for that matter.

For some reason, the novel or longer form — not the novella, which has only recently been embraced as a legitimately worthy endeavor — has been considered the serious and ambitious writer’s goal, and most writers try to write novels. The novel is a coat with many pockets; the story is a hat; the former item of clothing allows for digression, which may mean the relief of entertaining another set of characters. My ambition now is to write a perfect novella, a form as demanding as a story and yet not without a few pockets.

I’ve noticed that your style has sort of shifted from the surprising, revealing fragments of Nightwork into a more detached, kaleidoscopic voice in your later novels. Could you talk a bit about how you feel your writing has evolved over time, about how much of that change was intentional and how much was a surprise?

No writer, I think, wants to be repetitive; the writer wants range of style and subject: surprise. Of course, the same interests, or should I say obsessions, will be there in the fiction no matter the stylistic changes.

In the same Prime Number interview, you mentioned that you dislike writing dialogue, referring to it as “watery glue.” I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit more about what it is about writing dialogue that you dislike.

The challenge of dialogue is how to make it sound real and yet at the same time interesting; the challenge is to avoid the trap of using talk to provide exposition. The trick I’ve employed in the last five years is to have characters chatter away and then in the next draft take out every other line. Oddly enough, the speech has more life, more surprise.

You’ve talked before about how your relationship with publishing has changed as time has passed, that the “who’s in and who’s out” aspect has stopped mattering so much to you. In what other ways has your relationship to publishing changed, and how have these changes influenced your writing?

Publishing and reviewing, the “who’s in and who’s out” game, is a distraction. This is not to say I don’t read reviews — I do — and I do stew on occasion, which is a terrible waste of time. A writer friend of mine, Joan Silber, recently reminded me that we are in it for the long haul. Why didn’t I remind myself, except that it is easy to get caught up in the petty game of careerism.

At the reading you gave at Temple University, I was struck by the rhythms and sounds of the excerpt you read from your most recent novel, Prosperous Friends. In an interview you did with Believer, you said that sound can give you “meaning, narrative direction,” and I was wondering what sounds directed this particular book.

No one sound directs a story or a novel; rather, sound directs the sentence that is in service of scene-making. If the sounds are harsh, hard, the scene may turn in that direction; likewise, soft, sibilant sounds may take the writer into a gentler place.

Also at the reading, you talked a bit about writer’s block, which one of the main characters of Prosperous Friends suffers from. I was wondering if you could discuss how to manage writer’s block.

Again, a lesson from Gordon Lish, whose method is to write one sentence strong enough to live by, and then to query this same sentence for its most powerful or interesting or provocative word. In the next sentence you either embrace the word or reject that same term, and so then you move on, sentence by sentence.

You have also mentioned in other interviews the authors and short stories that influenced you when you were in the M.F.A. program at Columbia. How much do you think young authors should attach themselves to and allow other writers to influence their own style?

If you are a writer, you are also a reader and have at least two or three writers who have given solace that no other can provide. Their sounds, like music, come back to you from time to time and you try to harmonize. It is not a matter of how much; after a while, your own voice will discover its melody.

You are also the senior editor of NOON, which has been described as having a strong sense of community among its writers. How do you form and maintain a magazine with such a particular editorial personality, maintaining connections with authors that you have published while also finding new voices and creating new connections?

Diane Williams is NOON’s Most Senior Editor and her decisions are ultimately the final decisions; the magazine’s personality is hers. We share a love of many of the same writers and agree and can agree to disagree on edits, although Williams has final say. She always hopes to discover a new voice.

How do you see NOON developing in light of the increasing push towards online content?

For as long as Williams has the stamina for the work involved in putting out a literary annual whose packaging equals its contents for beauty and originality, NOON will exist, unmuffled by online publications.

My final question is about your role as a teacher. You’ve taught at many different programs, both graduate and undergraduate, and I wanted to know what you think about the fact that teaching has become the main way that writers fund themselves. How compatible do you think the two careers are?

Teaching and writing are compatible insofar as the teaching involves reading; a teacher learns from teaching a story. She is obliged to figure out, for the sake of her students, how the story is made, how its effects are made. In this way the employment serves the writer. Teaching also drains — especially when it involves workshops because the teacher has to think long and hard on the student work as to how it might be made better. A friend of mine recently talked about having two wells from which to draw, the teacher-well and the writer-well, but most of us who write and teach find ourselves drawing from the same well, which is to say that by the end of the school year, the writer has drained the well and is parched.


Read the Prologue from her book Prosperous Friends in this issue.

Return to Issue 4