Photographer: James Hamilton
Here’s my official bio:
Cathleen Schine is the author of the internationally best-selling novels The Love Letter (1995), which was made into a movie starring Kate Capshaw, and Rameau’s Niece (1993), which was also made into a movie (The Misadventures of Margaret), starring Parker Posey. Schine’s other novels are Alice in Bed (1983), To the Bird House (1990), The Evolution of Jane (1999), She is Me (2003), The New Yorkers (2006) and, most recently, The Three Weissmanns of Westport (2010). In addition to novels she has written articles for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review, among other publications. She grew up in Westport, Ct.
Here’s my moderately amusing other official bio:
As a child, Cathleen Schine dreamed of growing up to become a graduate student. Years later, her childhood ambitions were realized when she entered the University of Chicago’s graduate program in medieval history. There, it was noticed that she had no memory for names, dates or abstract ideas, and she was thus forced, tragically, to abandon her life-long dream. Before this disappointment, however, while on a fellowship studying paleography in Italy, Schine made an important discovery: she liked to buy shoes. So when the welcome of academia was rescinded, Schine was able to pursue a career in this area which was rewarding but short-lived, as she could not get a job. In debt and increasingly desperate, Schine turned to the lucrative world of free-lance writing. Having failed as an intellectual, she discovered her calling as a pseudo-intellectual and went on to write for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and Family Circle. She has also written seven novels: Alice in Bed, To the Birdhouse, Rameau’s Niece, The Love Letter, The Evolution of Jane and She is Me, The New Yorkers and The Three Weissmanns of Westport. She lives in New York City and Venice, California.
Talking with Cathleen Schine, author of
SHE IS ME
(Little, Brown and Company; 2003)
In SHE IS ME you write about the secrets, dramas, emotional hurdles, and comic dilemmas that wind through the everyday relationships among three generations of women in a family.
Right. I like to look at the ways in which people take the unforeseen and incorporate it into their daily lives. To me, there is nothing more comic, more touching, more human. SHE IS ME was a particularly satisfying book to write because all these subjects’ marriage, adultery, illness, family rose up and joined together and came banging on my door. One day I was walking along Columbus Avenue trying to understand what the book was really about. And then I thought: Oh! Love. All kinds of love – between a husband and wife, between illicit lovers, between a mother and daughter.
Did something specific suggest the plot to you?
Some years ago, my grandmother, who was in her nineties, became very ill. I watched my mother, who was very close to her, struggle to take care of her and continue her normal life. Then my mother became ill, and I was running back and forth between them, and this new family dance began. We were all trying to protect each other, and suddenly, we were all lying to each other. It took on the shape of a drawing-room comedy, all of us covering up and hemming and hawing and making lame excuses. We could just as well have been having illicit affairs. That’s when I realized that this absurd situation, which so many people go through, was the starting point of a novel. A romantic comedy, actually.
Where’s the romance?
Just where it always is – where you least expect it. SHE IS ME is about what happens when passion blooms not, say, in the secluded moment of a summer romance, but in the chaos and tension of a family crisis, like a flower pushing up through a crack in the pavement.
And the comedy?
Families are funny and adultery is funny; families are tragic and adultery is tragic. Love just complicates everything that much more. Elizabeth, Greta and Lotte’s family has no boundaries – only secrets, the meat and potatoes of comedy and of passion. A secret romance is surely the most romantic of all. But there is a decidedly comic element when you’re daydreaming about undressing your secret lover while you’re pulling up your grandmother’s corset.
Each person’s life has so many different sides – the mother side and the daughter side and the career side and the romantic, sexual side. We’re like these weird octagonal cells floating around, colliding. One of the most comic elements of family life occurs when those roles come crashing up against one another, when need and desire and tribal responsibility crash. That’s one of the joys of writing about families.
SHE IS ME is a work of fiction, but readers often wonder just how much of the author is in their characters. To what degree do you mine your personal life in your writing?
SHE IS ME includes certain events that parallel events in my life. My grandmother died of skin cancer. My mother survived colon cancer. I was married and now live with a woman. I had a dog who chased waves and bit. But unlike, say, my first novel, Alice in Bed, SHE IS ME is not autobiographical at all. For me, the real story is always in the characters, and Elizabeth and Greta and their husbands and lovers are not disguised real people. Not only are they unlike me or my family, they are like themselves. To me they’re very real and very fictional characters.
Sometimes the connection to real life is just serendipitous: when I was writing The Love Letter, not sure of anything but Helen’s seductive personality, I received an anonymous letter that had clearly been sent to me by mistake. Of course I used it, but, like anything I absorb into a novel, it showed up there transformed, distorted, and new. Another writer, I can’t remember whom, said, "Do not trust a writer. She is not your friend." I gather up bits and pieces from the lives of everyone I know, and from the lives of those I don’t know. I’m an equal opportunity scavenger.
I would say that for me, and for many other writers, the relationship between my life and my books is intimate, inescapable, and usually irrelevant.
One surprising twist in the book is Greta’s decision to leave her husband for another woman. It would seem that a decision like that would take a tremendous amount of courage. Where does Greta get hers?
When I was twenty, I was in the hospital for a year and I was in a lot of pain. People would say, "Cathy, you’re so brave." I tried to explain to them that it wasn’t bravery. It was reality. If I could have run away from the hospital and the pain, I would have. I think Greta is in a similar situation. She’s married and relatively content. That has been her reality. But her reality changes. It’s frightening, it’s painful, but unlike my hospital stay, it is also a door opening to her future. At first, that door seems like the door of an airplane at 38,000 feet. Greta feels like she’s being sucked into the sky without a parachute. But she lands on her feet.
Greta’s family is ultimately very accepting of her life change. Where does their understanding come from?
Do they really understand her? Or are they relieved that they still recognize her? Both, I think. They discover that they are still a family, although their family shape is now a little lumpy. Elizabeth and her brother need to the chance to remember that they want to keep loving their mother. Greta’s husband is furious and hurt, but he is also strong enough to accept the reality of their past together and the reality of their future apart. As for Lotte, well! Thank God she didn’t live to see this day, what goes on in this world, it’s enough to kill you, but as long they’re happy, although how they could be don’t ask, they should live and be well.
The title, SHE IS ME, is both ungrammatical and intriguing. How did you happen to choose it?
It is a poor translation of something Flaubert said: Madame Bovary, c’est moi. The youngest of my three heroines, Elizabeth, is trying to write a modern adaptation of Madame Bovary for the movies, so Flaubert was much on my mind. Flaubert was identifying himself with the baffled, tragic and romantic character of Emma Bovary. I found the phrase particularly suggestive for this story because my heroines are not only bound to Madame Bovary by their own passionate confusion; they are bound to one another other. I think mothers and daughters can sometimes be so close, so intimate, that they have to struggle in order not to lose themselves entirely. That struggle is part of what SHE IS ME is about.
It is difficult for Elizabeth to write the screenplay. Why?
I think Elizabeth’s struggle is about how to authentically translate at least some of the meaning of Madame Bovary into a contemporary cinematic form. Flaubert was obsessed with cliche and with the romance novels that Emma Bovary was constantly reading. She was seduced by banality. Elizabeth has to find a modern equivalent. For her – Mrs. B. – banality resides in the modern world’s obsession with brand names and celebrity.
You’ve had two of your novels (The Love Letter and Rameau’s Niece) adapted into feature films. To what degree were you involved in that process and what was it like?
The two experiences were very different. Rameau’s Niece was made into a movie called "The Misadventures of Margaret." The director/screenwriter and producer were two young British guys, and it was their first feature film. They were so excited that they called every time anything remotely promising happened. "The Love Letter" was a DreamWorks film and had a much smoother journey to the screen. The people involved were wonderful and friendly, but the process was far removed from me.
I know many writers complain about adaptations of their books, about changes from the original material. I’ve always felt that in order to be faithful to a book, a movie has to stray and find its own way of telling that story. Watching a character you created grow and change in someone else’s hands was weird, like bumping into someone you haven’t seen in forty years. They’re the same, but’they’re not. It made me want to go back and re-meet all my characters in that way, see what they’ve been up to since I last wrote about them.
In the novel, love pops up in unexpected places, and not just for Greta. Lotte bonds with her male Japanese housekeeper; a stray dog jumps into Elizabeth’s car and into her heart. What did you want to say about the nature of love?
Love, as Flaubert showed us, is a cliche, a powerful cliche. We’re all Emma Bovary in all her anguished banality. That’s why it’s so hard to find any original language to use to describe love. It’s all been used. And yet, when you’re in love, you long for those words. That’s why Greta can lie on a hotel-room bed and read the Psalms while waiting for her lover and see her own situation reflected in those ancient words. Because this banal, universal cliche is always completely fresh and doesn’t follow the rules. There’s a line from a Yeats poem (which I used for the epigraph for The Love Letter): "O love is the crooked thing." I like that.
Barnes and Noble MEET THE WRITERS
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer — and why?
When I left graduate school after a gruesome attempt to become a medieval historian, I crawled into bed and read Our Mutual Friend. It was, unbelievably, the first Dickens I had ever read, the first novel I’d read in years, and one of the first books not in or translated from Latin I’d read in years. It was a startling, liberating, exhilarating moment that reminded me what English can be, what characters can be, what humor can be. I of course read all of Dickens after that and then started on Trollope who taught me the invaluable lesson that character is fate, and that fate is not always a neat narrative arc. But I always hesitate to claim the influence of any author: it seems presumptuous. I want to be influenced by Dickens and Trollope. I long to be influenced by Jane Austen, too, and Barbara Pym and Alice Munro. I aspire to be influenced by Randall Jarrell’s brilliant novel, Pictures From An Institution. And I read Muriel Spark when I feel myself becoming soft and sentimental, as a kind of tonic.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Emma by Jane Austin
The Little House at Allington by Anthony Trollope
David Copperfield By Charles Dickens
Everything that Barbara Pym ever wrote
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanazaki
War and Peace by Tolstoy
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell
Cheri by Colette
Pictures From an Institution by Randall Jarrell
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I’m a movie fan and there are so many I love, but here are a few that come immediately to mind:
The World of Henry Orient
Laurence of Arabia
Lovely and Amazing
What types of music do like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you’re writing?
I like what my sons refer to as whiny chick music, like Lucinda Williams and Cesaria Evora. But I also love Medieval and Renaissance music, which I listen to when I write. And the contemporary composer Arvo Part. I listen to Arvo Part all the time.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading — and why?
Probably Alice Munro. There are also some younger writers I am very interested in at the moment: Andrea Lee, whose amazing book of short stories is called Interesting Women; A.J. Verdelle whose first novel, The Good Negress, is one of my favorite books; Lois-Ann Yamanaka, who has written a bunch of books about real life in Hawaii, among them my favorite: Heads by Harry, and Akhil Sharma, who wrote the brilliant first novel, The Obedient Father.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give — and get — as gifts?
Big, fat history books like Gotham. Or biographies, like Janet Brown’s books about Darwin.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you’re writing?
I work on a lap top and can work anywhere, but I usually sit at my desk. I like having a nice clean desk when I start a book, but it doesn’t last very long. Right now my desk is cluttered with piles of unpaid bills, piles of paid bills, insurance statements, a 20-year-old stuffed animal that belongs to one of my sons (why is that here?), a dog brush, a squeaky dog toy, a calculator, a dirty plate, a pair of broken reading glasses, a telephone that is out of batteries. a post card from a Japanese ryokan, an empty tube of Biomains moisturizer, some pens, a thesaurus and an airport.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a piece about the year I became obsessed with an abused and abusive dog. His name was Buster. The dog in She is Me was inspired by him.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I try not to think about "where I am today," and just keep writing, just as I tried not to think about where I was when I wasn’t anywhere. Too much consciousness of a writing "career" or lack thereof is paralyzing for me. Trollope, who woke up and wrote his quota each morning, is my model in this, as in so much else.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be — and why?
I’ve recently read a novel called The Crossley Baby by Jacqueline Carey. I had read her first novel, The Other Family, and had admired it tremendously, and I was desperate to read the next. I wasn’t disappointed. I think she is one of the most skilled and interesting young writers in the country. And she’s funny. Deeply funny. She has all the intelligence and distance and prose of a great British comic writer, but there is also a freshness and a tenderness that is clearly American. Her books are dry and moving at the same time, an amazing combination.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
The obvious: keep writing.
Tell us about your first job, the inspiration for your writing, or any fun details…
I tried to be a medieval historian, but I have no memory for facts, dates, or abstract ideas, so that was a bust. When I came back to New York, I tried to be a buyer at Bloomingdales because I loved shopping. I had a interview, but they never called me back. I really had no choice. I had to be a writer. I could not get a job. After doing some bits of freelance journalism at The Village Voice, I did finally get a job as a copy-editor at Newsweek. My grammar was good, but I can’t spell, so it was a challenge. My boss was very nice and indulgent, though, and I wrote Alice in Bed on scraps of paper during slow hours. I didn’t have a regular job again until I wrote The Love Letter.
The Love Letter was about a bookseller, so I worked in a bookstore in an attempt to understand the art of bookselling. I discovered that selling books is an interdisciplinary activity, the disciplines being: literary critic, psychologist and stevedore. I was fired immediately for total incompetence and chaos and told to sit in the back and observe, no talking, no touching.
What else would you like your readers to know? Consider here your likes and dislikes, your interests and hobbies, your favorite ways to unwind — whatever comes to mind.
What an alarming question! I dislike humidity and vomit, I guess. My interests and hobbies are too expensive or too physically taxing to actually pursue. I like to take naps. I go shopping to unwind. I love to shop. Even if it’s for Q-tips or Post-its.