Interviewed by Andi
My regard for Cathleen Schine's new novel, The New Yorkers, prompted me to seek her out and ask for an interview. Much to my delight Cathleen agreed, and I can't tell you how wonderful it has been corresponding with her. She is just as warm and friendly as her work is intriguing.
AM: Your new novel, The New Yorkers, chronicles the daily lives of a number of quirky characters who live on a single Manhattan block. Ultimately, they come together by the hand of fate and the help of dogs (love that). Would you mind explaining to our readers a bit about the inspiration for the novel?
CS: In 2001, my girlfriend Janet and I got a little rescue dog named Buster. It was a heartbreaking experience, which I wrote about in The New Yorker. But when I finished that piece, I realized I still had so much more I wanted to write about: about what I had discovered about New York since getting a dog. I have lived here for over 30 years, I never imagined living anywhere else when I was growing up in Connecticut, I loved New York, but I don’t think I ever really knew the city until I got a dog. And after September 11th, I felt so protective of New York. There’s something that Barbara Pym wrote to her sister when she was working on an early novel—the first one, I think—and she was describing the characters and then said something like, “There ought to be something there to provide comfort for someone.” I found that idea weirdly inspiring.
AM: The New Yorkers is a delightfully intricate, character-driven work, and the individual characters are some of the most lovingly fleshed-out that I have read in a very long time. How did the characters come to you? Are they rooted in reality at all?
CS: First of all, thank you. As to the characters being rooted in reality, not really. Not the main characters. I did notice among my aquaintances a number of very, very close brothers and sisters in their twenties, and I found that relationship very compelling and wanted to write about it. That’s where Polly and George came from. But the others just grew out of that fictional street, which in turn grew out of a real street that we lived on for a few years. And a number of the minor characters were friendly nods at people I know from that street and from walking the dog. I started to think of my block as if it were an village in a 19th century English novel. And I wanted something daily from these characters, not the oversized kind of lives associated with fiction about new York. But I always use some things from real people, behavior or language that strikes me. One is a scavenger first and foremost. There was one thing I wanted to use in the book but just couldn’t find a place for. We went to the Metropolitan Museum and the volunteer at the desk , a very well dressed East Side lady of around seventy, had on a beautiful Lalique ring, which I admired. She said, “Oh, thank you so much. I have a lot of them. Well, you know, I’m constantly breaking them… Applauding.” Oh, it was beautiful. A detail that said so much about her life. I wanted to kiss her! I still may use it somewhere.
AM: How long does it generally take you to write a novel? Is it tough for you to get into the swing of writing a new piece?
CS: It varies with every book. For the first book, Alice in Bed, I wrote a page a day. Every day. No matter what. It was less intimidating that way. It took a year. It was 365 pages—and rather episodic. The second, To The Birdhouse, took seven years. I had babies then, and whenever I tried to work, I got jealous of the babysitter and joined her. Since then, between two and five years, I think, depending on personal drama, apartment fires etc. It is hard to start something new, but it’s such a relief, too, because the instant I hand in a manuscript, and usually well before that, I start worrying that I’ll never have another idea for a book ever again.
AM: In addition to your work as a novelist, you are also an accomplished journalist with publications in The New Yorker and The New York Times, to name just a few. What is your favorite non-fiction piece you have written and why?
CS: Undoubtedly the piece about Buster, our poor departed little dog. For one thing, it is objectively the best piece of nonfiction writing I’ve done. For another, the actual writing of it meant a lot to me personally. I also like a humor piece I did many many years ago for the New Yorker about roving bus herds in Manhattan. And the column I did in the Times Mag was fun—sort of proto-faux-blogging.
AM: What is your writing process like? Do you have any rituals? Unbreakable habits?
CS: I’m very undisciplined, which is bad. But I’m flexible, which is good. I have fantasies of getting up early and working for five hours or so, taking a walk, working a little more, taking a nap, working…But really I usually get up later than I meant to, drink coffee and read the paper and go online, realize I have to walk the dog, realize it’s time for lunch, go to the coffee shop, get home, sulk because I haven’t worked or gone to the gym, realize it’s time to walk the dog again, write for two hours and then, Gosh! It’s cocktail time.
AM: How do you know when a work is finished? Do you have trouble walking away from a piece, or are you looking ahead to the next one?
CS: Some poet, I can’t remember who, said, "You never finish a poem, you just abandon it." An editor said that to me, and I’ve always remembered it. You know when you’ve gotten to the end of the narrative, but a book is really never finished--there’s always more you want to do to the beginning, the middle and then…you’re back at the end, and you see that the end needs work too. I could do that forever I think. The only time I get tired of the book I’ve just written is when I have to read from it on a book tour. You hear every mistake, every repetition, every dead passage. I hate each book for about two years after that, really hate them, find them humiliating. Then for whatever reason, I am forced to look at them again after two years or three, and I think, Hey, not so bad. Not so bad at all, although this new one…now this really sucks… I refused to go on a book tour with The New Yorkers. So I still like it.
AM: Do you allow anyone to read your work in progress?
CS: I do. I beg people to read it. Certain people. Certain gifted people, and I’m lucky in my friends that they are gifted editors and readers.
AM: You are an author who has embraced blogging (much to the delight of publications like Estella's Revenge). What is it that attracts you to blogging? Do you have any favorite author blogs that you read regularly?
CS: I resisted blogging at first because it was hard for me to wrap my brain around the concept of writing without even the hope of getting paid. I started as a journalist, and I cling to that craftsman attitude. It keeps my raging vanity in check. Trollope is my idol. And I hate writing letters, I don’t keep a journal, so I thought I wouldn’t like blogging. But I spend so much time poking around on line. And I began to understand the community aspect of the whole thing, which I like very much. I look at book blogs like yours, but mostly I go to design blogs like Design Sponge and One Good Bumble Bee (which is also a literary blog; she’s a poet). I also like stuff. There’s a lot of stuff on line. That’s why I decided to make my blog about stuff. Of course, most of the stuff is books. There are also things that are not quite big enough for a published piece, but that I would love to have a place to put. So I’ll use the blog for that too. It’s a comfort blog, for when it’s too late at night and you don’t want to get riled up by the injustice of the world by reading The Huffington Post. And it’s a place where I can just say—This is good. I like this. It’s called The Enthusiast. It’s a relief to be able to say: “I love Elizabeth Strout’s book Abide by Me. It’s brilliant. Buy it! Read it!” and, because it’s my blog and I get to do whatever I want, I don’t have to write a whole review. It’s like talking to a friend, which is what it’s supposed to be like, I guess. But I didn’t realize that until I started. And by the way, I love Elizabeth Strout’s book Abide With Me! Buy it! Read it!
AM: You state in your alternative "official" bio that you once dreamed of being an intellectual and attended the University of Chicago as a graduate student in medieval history, eventually giving up the dream and freelancing. As one who has recently walked away from academia, I have to ask: What were the most challenging parts of adjusting from an academic setting to freelance writing and eventually work as a novelist and journalist?
CS: Earning a living? That was a difficult concept that grad school protected me from. But other than that little snag, I ask you, would you rather be in Chicago sitting in a class on hermeneutics and not understanding anything, or would you like to be in Greenwich Village hanging around the Village Voice, when it was really good, pretending to work there? Much more fun at the Voice, which is where I started. And now I can still, and do, read about scholarly subjects, but I don’t have to remember anything. Very liberating. I have a horrible memory.
AM: Do you often have the opportunity to read for pleasure? What are you reading now?
CS: I always read at night. I feel too guilty reading during the day, because reading is such a pleasure, and the daytime is for work or procrastinating. I read a lot at night because I have insomnia. I just finished an authobiography written in 1789 by a slave named Olaudah Equiano. It was remarkable, a tragic slave narrative, and an exciting adventure tale—beautifully written, a lot of stuff about the African village he was kidnapped from, about African customs, and then the hideous passage, and then plantation work, and then life trading and having battles on board various ships, when it becomes a kind of sea-faring adventure story. I just started a book called Color by Victoria Finlay. It’s a history of color and paint. It’s fascinating. And I’m going to read a biography of Goya by Evan S. Connell, (one of the best living writers in the United States, I think,) because we’re going to Spain and I like to read about places I’m going to and I found this book in our bookcase. God knows when I bought it. I read a lot of non-fiction. (I like your nonfiction posts on Estella’s Revenge, by the way). Although, I have also just gone through a delightful E.F. Benson phase. Oh, and I just read A.N. Wilson’s Eminent Victorians. I read a lot about Victorian England. He’s a wonderful novelist, also. I don’t read enough contemporary fiction.
AM: What advice would you give to a budding, unpublished author?
CS: Don’t think about being published. Don’t think about your readers. Don’t think about yourself. Don’t think about “writing.” Don’t think about writing great art. All of that is paralyzing, and it’s irrelevant. Think about the work itself. Do the work. That’s where the joy is, that’s where the art is hiding, that’s why readers will read it, that’s why a publisher will publish it. Wow…that sounds so pompous. But I really believe that.
AM: Do you have any projects on the horizon with which to tempt our readers?
CS: Well, I hope it’s tempting. It’s certainly odd, for me. But I’m very excited about it: I’m writing a mystery. I wanted to work within a very specific form, and to force myself to pay attention to the aspects of narrative, the essential aspects, of plot and suspense. After I started, The New York Times Magazine called and asked if I would write a serialized novel. Normally I would have had to say no, because the restrictions would have made what I do impossible. I could never have written The New Yorkers like that. It needed time to meander. But part of the fun and pleasure of writing this particular novel, of writing a mystery, is doing it within certain boundaries, like writing a sonnet or a haiku, all proportions kept. And I am a Trollope maniac, so the idea of a serialized novel has always intrigued me. Perfect timing for me. I think it will appear after Labor Day. And it turns out to be very suspenseful, indeed, for me, anyway: Will I… finish by the deadline?
My extreme thanks to Cathleen Schine for her time and thoughtful answers. Visit her web site (including her blog) HERE.