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Meet the WritersImage of Susan Fromberg Schaeffer
Susan Fromberg Schaeffer
Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's previous novels include Anya, Buffalo Afternoon, and The Madness of a Seduced Woman. She lives in Chicago and Vermont and teaches at the University of Chicago.

Author biography courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company.

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Good to Know
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Schaeffer:

"I am a very reclusive person. This is absolutely true. I can spend weeks at a time in the house and I don't mind at all. When I'm working, I become the world's worst correspondent, don't answer letters and barely make phone calls. I begin to think of the world outside as hermetically sealed, unreachable. This is hard on my friends who think I have either died or forgotten about them entirely. When I finish working for the day, I think about this and am swamped by guilt, but I've never been able to change my ways."

"My first job was horrible, and it was a good thing it was the only job I could get at the time. I worked in Boston for a publisher in the medical order department. By ten-thirty in the morning, I was finished with the day's work, and I had to spend the rest of the day appearing to be busy. After that, I was determined to finish my degrees and never have to have such a job again -- although I did have one such job after I finished my Ph.D."

"My mother insisted I work during the summer before I began working at Brooklyn College, and I ended up at a religious T.V. station where scripts had to be typed scrupulously so that the minister did not find himself reading, ‘And the minister pauses here for an advertisement.' The T.V. station was very pleased with me, but I had a headache the entire time I was there. Since then, what headaches I've had were brought on only by me."

"I love old things -- people, furniture, photographs. Old people know so much. Old artifacts appear to be trying to tell the stories of their lives and often inspire stories, if not novels, of their own. Time In Its Flight began when I found a picture of a child who was in his bed but who had been photographed by a photographer standing outside of the house who took the picture through a window."

"When I asked why anyone would have photographed a sleeping child while standing outside, the man who owned the picture said that was a ‘mourning picture.' The child had died, was probably contagious, and could only safely be photographed from a distance. I was struck by the difference in the nineteenth century's attitude toward death and my own. ‘There are a lot of pictures of dead children,' the owner told me, ‘and a lot of people who collect them. People took hair from someone who died and wove the hair into flowers and wreaths. People collect those, too.' I still have the first mourning picture I saw. It grew directly into Time In Its Flight."

"I collect far too many things because each one always seems as if it's about to tell me a story. There must be an incredible cacophony in my house that I no longer notice because by now, I've grown used to it."

"I love dolls' houses. When I first began writing novels, I would invariably begin work on another dolls' house. My third novel, Time In Its Flight, must be one of the longest novels in the world, and during the time I worked on it, I created two dolls' houses and populated them with tiny dolls, each wearing Victorian costumes. When I look at the dolls, I still can't believe I had the patience. But there is something about creating a little world as you create a dolls' house. The making of a dolls' house involves enormous concentration and I would work out how I needed to write a novel while I was constructing it."

"I hate deadlines. I'm always sure I'm going to miss them and am convinced that if I miss so much as one deadline, I will never meet another one again. This is because I believe myself to be a basically lazy person. Instead of missing deadlines, I finish everything early and then fume when other people don't tell me what they think of my work at once."

"Life often seems impossible (I can't be the only person who often thinks this), and at such times, the solution is weather. If it is raining or snowing, I watch the rain or the snow fall. If I am stuck when writing, I get out of the house and go to The Point and watch the waves in Lake Michigan. Sometimes simply standing on the back porch and feeling the cold air sting my skin is enough. Weather is a remarkable thing. It is always there and it is always different."

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In the spring of 2005, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer took some time out to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and interests.

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
It's almost impossible for me to cite a single book as the one that most influenced me. Powerful influences are subterranean and probably some of the most decisive are not known to us. In the end, all the books I have read have become one immense book and all of them flicker in the back of my mind as I think and write. Still, when I think back, there are some books that seem to belong to a certain time in my life, and because they are still so present, I think of them as the books that most affected me, at least at the time I wrote them.

When I was three, I could not persuade my mother and grandmother to read Bluebeard to me frequently enough, and so I learned to read in order to read that story as often as I wanted to. I soon went on to other stories by the Brothers Grimm. At that time, Grimm's Fairy Tales was the book that most influenced me. In the fifth grade, I came upon The Other Side of Green Hills, by John Keir Cross.

In this novel, the characters discovered an entire world that existed in between the material objects of the world we usually see. I read this book again and again. Even when I was in college, I would come home and take the book out of the library and reread it. I bought a used copy a few years ago.

My grandfather used to give me beautiful copies of novels, often illustrated by ominous and mysterious woodcuts. Two of them were Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I return to these books again and again, but it is Wuthering Heights that had the greatest impact. Undoubtedly it influenced my ideas of what a "great" love should be, and when I found it, it was as disastrous as the great love described in the novel. Between Bluebeard and Wuthering Heights, I was clearly in for trouble. And of course it would be a mistake not to mention Gone with the Wind, a novel I read again and again when I was about twelve. The books that had a very strong effect in college were Mrs. Dalloway, whose style and structure struck me as miraculous, The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford, a perfect novel which can make a would-be writer despair of ever writing a book so beautifully written and constructed, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, a beautiful book that exploded my ideas of conventional forms and made me want to write a novel as original as Nabokov's, so that this still remains an unrealized dream, and recently, Yasunuri Kawabata's The House of Sleeping Beauties, another perfect and despairing book. There is not another one like it. I am waiting for the next perfect book, the one that will be perfect for this time in my life.

What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

  • Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov -- A brilliant, heartbreaking and cautionary novel.

  • Ariel by Sylvia Plath -- Beautiful poems. If there is anyone who had (or has) a greater talent for imagery, I don't know who it is.

  • The Murderer by Roy Heath -- A disturbing and remarkable novel about what can happen when the veneer of civilization cracks and a man is left at the mercy of irrational and unconscious forces. This book was, for me, very disturbing and illuminating, and its story is somehow always in the back of my mind.

  • The House of Sleeping Beauties by Yasunuri Kawabata -- No one wants to believe he will become old, but there is no novel I know of that teaches bitter truth about what aging bodies to do people's emotions.

  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf -- Simply a miraculous novel and a voyage into another consciousness evoked so intensely it temporarily obliterates my own world.

  • The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford – A great (and comical) indictment of how a life can be ruined by denial and hypocrisy. I always bracket this novel and Henry James novella The Beast In the Jungle together.

  • Grimm's Fairy Tales by the brothers Grimm -- These are mysterious and frightening stories, the stuff of dreams, most often, of nightmares. They are about what lies beneath the surface of our lives but while we read these tales, we are completely entertained. Then the reverberations begin.

  • The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens -- I love these poems for their imagery and their themes. "Sunday Morning" is one of the truly splendid poems in the English language.

  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville -- When I first read this novel in college, I don't think I understood it at all. When I read it again, it was a revelation. It is a great novel about how impossible it is to penetrate the mystery at the heart of existence.

  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll -- This book has countless virtues, but to me its greatest is how endlessly surprising the world becomes in Lewis Carroll's novel. Alice in Wonderland never struck me as creating an alien or extravagant existence. In fact, life, as Carroll describes it in Alice, seemed -- to me -- very true to life.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them special to you?
    All films interest me, and it is probably true to say that I will watch anything that flickers, but I am particularly fond of silent films. Silent films are repositories of remarkable images, and those images seem to go directly into the bloodstream. Time and time again, when I reread my own writing, I find a description that probably grew out of an instant in a silent film.

    One of the greatest (and hardest to find) silent films is Maurice Stiller's Sir Arne's Treasure. A morally complex film about several men who commit murder in an isolated town, this film is unforgettable for both its imagery and its view of human nature. It is impossible for me to forget the women in black making their way over the glaring white snow.

    Other silent films I go back to again and again are The Wind, The Crowd, Anna Karelia, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky. It would be difficult to list all the silent films I find to be special to me.

    Then there are films that are not silent, but in retrospect often seem to be. I think I must have an enormous appetite for visual imagery. Among the films that satisfy that appetite are M, Citizen Cane, Kagemusha, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, 2001, Dr. Strangelove. Again, this list is endless, and it would certainly include The Godfather, The Way We Were and The Long Kiss Goodnight.

    I would watch any film of Bette Davis, any film of Humphrey Bogart (particularly The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon), and any film of Meryl Streep's. All my life I've wondered how actors can impersonate other characters in their own bodies. I cannot imagine having such freedom to do that without dying of embarrassment -- even though creating a character in fiction must be a very similar process. But to be uninhibited enough to act out and create another character -- that is entirely beyond me.

    What kinds of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    The older I get, the narrower my taste in music appears to become, and now baroque music is what I like best. But when I am working, what I listen to incessantly is Alfred Deller singing old English folk songs -- almost anything recorded by Alfred Deller. As soon as I go up to my study and turn on the computer, I begin listening to one of his discs. Eventually, I settle on one particular disc (O Ravishing Delight; Songs for Awhile), and that becomes the music I play again and again while I write. Each time I begin a book, I also choose one particular piece of music and play it again and again.

    If you had a book club, what would you be reading?
    I would have everyone reading novels by Anne Patchett. Her books are magical and completely absorbing, somehow poised on a boundary between the realistic novel and the parable. I do not think of her as writing books of magical realism. She captures the magic of real life, an extraordinary thing.

    One of my belated discoveries is the work of Brian Morton. I particularly liked Starting Out In the Evening. He captures, as few people could hope to do, the difficulties of a life in art. Jennifer Haigh's Baker Towers is next on my list, and although I've only begun reading it, I'm sure my reading group would be reading it. And I would certainly have everyone reading Sapphire's stunning book, Push, and certainly Roy Heath's The Murderer.

    And again, The House of Sleeping Beauties and The Good Soldier. In the end, both these books brilliantly illuminate aspects of life too often hidden from us. Both are memorable and both changed my way of looking at the world.

    What are your favorite books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    Aside from loving to receive or give good novels, I most like giving and getting collections of photographs. I still remember how happy I was to discover Wisconsin Death Trip (I tend to rather grim things), and last year, one of my favorite gifts was Writers' Houses. Wright Morris' works, combining photographs and what I consider prose poems about the pictures he took, are some of my favorite books in the world. When we were traveling, I would seek them out and at one point, I had a set of all of his books of photography in each place I lived. The Home Place is, for me, a touchstone book.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    My writing rituals are always the same. First, I argue myself into getting to my study and beginning to work. Part of this ritual involves bribing myself: if I work for a certain number of hours I can (1) go to a movie, (2) go for a walk, (3) call a friend in England, (4) watch a perfectly useless program on television. The bribes vary, but the need to bribe myself remains constant.

    Once in the study, I turn on the Music for the Current Book. This music turns me into Pavlov's dog because as soon as I hear it, I open the file and look over what I've written so far and I begin. (I have three of four discs of that music, because, after all, who knows what might happen to it and I'm convinced I can't write without that music playing.)

    After about an hour, I go downstairs and get what I call my Writer's Suit out of the dryer. If I didn't have to leave the house while I was working on any given book, I would wear the same thing day in and day out. When I'm finished for the night, I put The Suit into the washer and in the morning, put it in the dryer.

    I promised myself that my office and my desk would remain uncluttered, because, among other reasons, I have six windows in my office and believe it should be enough simply to look out through them. For a while, I had a woven bracelet on top of my printer, and I began to think that looking at it as often as I did had influenced the forms I was creating in my novels. At that point, I decided to rid my office of material objects. I cannot say I succeeded. I think my office and desk are uncluttered, but right now there is a snow globe on my desk, and three ivory statues of Japanese women, two of whom have each lost an arm. A beaded lizard sits on top of an art nouveau tile.

    Writing can be a lonely business, and in my mind refuses to believe that there are such things as inanimate objects, so having things in the office means I have company. I cannot do without things no matter how I try. So much for the lack of clutter. I cannot put the three women away. When the work is not going well, I tilt down the computer screen and look at those ivory ladies. At times, they appear disapproving, at other times, not at all. But the third one has had her head repaired (by me) and stares up at the ceiling as if she expected to see something remarkable. Watching her, how can you not believe that something remarkable will not happen?

    And then there is the snow globe with its desolate winter scene and the sound it makes -- the sound of a loon invisible in the distance. A snow fanatic, I can spend days watching snow fall and marveling at how snow transforms the look of the world. That globe is very busy when I run into difficulties, especially in the summer. I hate hot weather, and this globe reminds me that winter will return, and probably so will my ability to solve whatever dilemma I've gotten myself into.

    What are you working on now?
    Anyone observing me would certainly conclude I am not doing anything, although I've always believed that writers or painters or musicians are forever working on something, whether they know it or not. I like to think this is true and not a form of rationalizing. In my case, I don't begin to write until the shape of the entire book manifests itself, and I don't begin until I'm sure that I more or less understand what I'm writing about.

    Right now, I'm going through this strange, subterranean process ("But how can you say you're working on something when you haven't written down one word?") with a novel about a family that experiences a great scandal which then pursues them through the generations. This book will be called Poison. But there are two books competing with it: one a memoir about my family, and another about a very oddly matched married couple. Poison will, I think, get written. I myself can't guess which of the other two I'm likely to begin after that.

    And I'm writing several stories. Stories are my happy playpen. I begin as soon as one particular sentence gets attention -- before that, there were many sentences flying about like a flock of crows, but then all the other birds flew off and this sentence was left alone -- and then I follow a little red thread until the story is finished. I know very little about the story I am working on now, only that it begins with a woman taking a walk on a very hot day. I'm sure the story will teach me something. Short story writing, in my case, seems to have little to do with rationality.

    Many writers are hardly "overnight" success stories. How long did it take you to get where you are today? Any rejection slip horrors or inspirational anecdotes?
    A writer spends his life getting to where he is today. When I was eight, I submitted my first story to The Ladies' Home Journal. It was a story about wanting to be an orphan, and it was promptly rejected. The rejection note, however, was beautiful and to this day, I am still partially inoculated against rejection letters.

    I always revered writers, and consequently thought I could never become one even though I continued to write until some time in college when I realized that what I wrote was incomprehensible to everyone else, and finally was incomprehensible even to me. I didn't write again for eight years, largely because I had nothing I was willing to say. And then one day, I started and didn't stop.

    I carefully prepared myself for rejection. I wrote one hundred poems I liked before I was willing to send one out. I thought that if I wrote one hundred poems, I would not stop no matter how often the poems were rejected, so I was, indeed, throughly prepared to be hit on the head by many hammers. But I was not prepared to have poems accepted. I've seen this many times. Success can be, at least for a while, more frightening than failure. I went into a kind of shock and then that passed and I resumed submitting poems.

    I wonder if I would have begun writing fiction when I did if another writer hadn't encouraged me as strongly as he did. That sort of encouragement can mean everything, and in my case, it did. There are times when you do not have the strength to begin a difficult or frightening undertaking, and then you need to borrow someone else's strength, and that may be all you need. In my case, it was. I was astounded when my first novel was accepted, and again went into a kind of shock. I soon realized that I would have to give readings and interviews, and I found this difficult. I begun publishing as The Cult of Personality was getting underway and the privacy of the writer was less and less tolerated. No matter what happened, I kept on writing, and I got to where I am today -- wherever that is.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
    If I could choose only one writer to be "discovered," it would have to be Roy Heath. I have gone back to his novels again and again. The Murderer is, for me, one of the rare perfect books. Roy Heath is not a new writer, but he would be new to all the people who have yet to discover him.

    But of course there are others I would like to see "discovered" or "rediscovered." I would discover Sapphire all over again. I love Push and American Dreams. Many, many writers should be "discovered" every three years. We are all too forgetful. When someone asks me what books I like best, I hate to think how many books I've read and loved but don't think of mentioning. Instead, my mind goes blank. The mind is a very irritating thing.

    I wish everyone would hurry up and discover Alane Rolling's poetry. Her newest book, To Be In That Number, is remarkable, but so are all of her volumes of poetry. I keep her books in all of my rooms and pick them up and read them whenever I have time. These are beautiful, strange poems about what it is to be alive and what it is to be a woman.

    The sad thing is that I rarely discover a new novel. Someone else usually has to discover it for me. When I was writing The Snow Fox I read Japanese literature for almost five years. After finishing that novel, I began catching up on what the rest of the literary world had been doing. I teach creative writing and so I discover many "undiscovered" writers, but they are also unpublished, so even were I to mention them, who would know who they are? How could anyone read what they had written? I cross my fingers and hope these genuinely undiscovered writers will, in fact, be discovered.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still waiting to be discovered?
    Don't give up. An unpublished novel may eventually be published, but an unwritten manuscript never will be. The world is a confusing and utterly unpredictable place. When I first began publishing, I wrote only poetry, and it seemed to me that I was going to build a reputation on my least favorite work, so quickly were the poems of which I was least fond, accepted. When I finally began to write fiction (after seven years of writing only poetry), I was often told not to write about the Holocaust ("There are too many books about the Holocaust"), and not to write another book set in nineteenth-century New England ("You've already done that"), and not to write about Vietnam ("Everyone is tired of Vietnam"), yet those books are the ones of which I'm proudest.

    I'm happy to have written Anya and Madness of a Seduced Woman and Buffalo Afternoon. Wait until you discover a subject that interests you passionately. Your own passion is better than a flu shot. It will insulate you against the many diseases writers suffer from -- discouragement and despair the worst of them. And don't try too hard to write to your audience, whoever you think that is. Write for yourself and try to create the audience you wish you had. Of course, this is easier said than done.

    And when you begin envying another writer, ask yourself if you really would like to have written the enviable book. If you answer Yes, you've read a book that can teach you a good deal. If you answer No, get over being envious as soon as possible.

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