Beth Gutcheon grew up in western Pennsylvania. She attended the Sewickley Academy, Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut, and Harvard College, where she took an honors B.A. in English literature. She has spent most of her adult life in New York City, except for sojourns in San Francisco and on the coast of Maine. In 1978, she wrote the narration for a feature-length documentary on the Kirov ballet school, The Children of Theatre Street, which was nominated for an Academy Award, and she has made her living as a full-time storyteller (novels and occasional screenplays) since then. Gutcheon's novels have been translated into 14 languages (if you count the pirated Chinese edition of Still Missing), plus large-print and audio formats. Still Missing was made into a feature film called Without a Trace and was also published in a Reader's Digest Condensed version, which particularly pleased the author's mother.
Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.
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Gutcheon shared some fun and fascinating anecdotes in our interview:
"When my second novel was in manuscript, a subsidiary rights guy at my publisher secretly sent a copy of it to a friend who was working in Hollywood with the producer Stanley Jaffe, who had made Goodbye Columbus, The Bad News Bears, and Kramer v. Kramer, run Paramount Pictures before he was 30, and met the queen of England. My agent had an auction set up for the film rights of Still Missing for the following Friday, with some very heavy-hitter producers and such, which was exciting enough. Two days before the auction, Stanley Jaffe walked into my agent's office in New York and said, ‘I want to make a pre-emptive bid for Beth Gutcheon's novel.'
‘But you haven't read it,' says Wendy.
‘Nevertheless,' says Stanley.
‘Well, I have this auction set up. You're going to have to pay a lot to have me call it off,' says Wendy.
‘I understand that,' says Stanley.
Wendy named a number.
Stanley said, ‘Done,' or words to that effect.
To this day, remembering Wendy's next phone call to me causes me something resembling a heart attack.
When, several weeks later, Stanley called and asked me if I had an interest in writing the screenplay of the movie that became Without a Trace, I said, ‘No.'
He quite rightly hung up on me.
I then spent twenty minutes in a quiet room wondering what I had done. A man with a shelf full of Oscars, on cozy terms with Lizzie Windsor, had just offered me film school for one, all expenses paid by Twentieth Century Fox. He knew I didn't know how to write screenplays. He wasn't offering to hire me because he wanted to see me fail. Who cares that all I ever wanted to see on my tombstone was ‘She Wrote a Good Book?' The chance to learn something new that was both hard and really interesting was not resistible. I spent the rest of the weekend tracking him from airport to airport until I could get him back on the phone. (This was before we all had cell phones.)
I was sitting in my bleak office on a wet gray day, on which my newly teenaged son had shaved his head and I had just realized I'd lost my American Express card, when the phone rang. ‘Is this Beth Gutcheon?' asked a voice that made my hair stand on end. I said it was. ‘This is Paul Newman,' said the voice.
It was, too. The fine Italian hand of Stanley Jaffe again, he'd recommended me to work on a script Paul was developing. Paul invited me to dinner to talk about it. My son said, ‘For heaven's sake, Mother, don't be early and don't be tall.' I was both. We did end up writing a script together; it was eventually made for television with Christine Lahti, and fabulous Terry O'Quinn in the Paul Newman part, called The Good Fight."
"I read all the time. My husband claims I take baths instead of showers because I can't figure out how to read in the shower, and he's right."
"I started buying poetry for the first time since college after 9/11, but wasn't reading it until a friend mentioned that she and her husband read poetry in the morning before they have breakfast. She is right -- a pot of tea and a quiet table in morning sunlight is exactly the right time for poetry. I read The New York Times Book Review in the bath and on subways because it is light and foldable. I listen to audiobooks through earphones while I take my constitutionals or do housework. I read physical books for a couple of hours every night after everyone else is in bed -- usually two books alternately, one novel and one biography or book of letters."
"I have a dog named Daisy Buchanan. She ran for president last fall; her slogan was ‘No Wavering, No Flip-flopping, No pants.' She doesn't know yet that she didn't win, so if you meet her, please don't tell her."
"Last little-known fact: When I was in high school I invented, by knitting one, a double-wide sweater with two turtlenecks for my brother and his girlfriend. It was called a Tweter and was even manufactured in college colors for a year or two. There was a double-paged color spread in Life magazine of models wearing Tweters and posing with the Jets football team. My proudest moment was the Charles Addams cartoon that ran in The New Yorker that year. It showed a Tweter in a store window, while outside, gazing at it in wonder, was a man with two heads."
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In the spring of 2005, Beth Gutcheon took some time out to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and influences.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Dickens often manages to be both dramatic and funny, while telling a thundering great story, but in Great Expectations, in spite of the unforgettable gargoyles like Miss Havisham and charming Wemmick with his Aged P, it's a very human story about the difference between how things look and how they really are. When Pip recognizes how he has fooled himself, and what he must accept about reality, you see that while Dickens has been amusing you with any number of major and minor melody lines that all seemed to be tripping along by themselves, he has in fact been in perfect control, building up to a major chord, every note right and every instrument contributing at just the right moment. I understood that to make a novel pay off like that, you have to know from the get-go what story you are telling, how it ends, what it means, and exactly what you want the reader to feel and know when it's over. It was the book that made me start thinking like a writer, not just as a passionate reader, about how stories are made.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
If we vault over all the Oz books, The Just So Stories, the Doctor Doolittle books, E. B. White, The Wind in the Willows, and Alice through the Looking Glass, it's still hard to limit the list to ten, but here goes:
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens -- Although David Copperfield is also a deep favorite (though less perfect than GE because of goopy ending.)
Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh -- It isn't as practiced as A Handful of Dust or the later comedies, or as deep and wide as Brideshead Revisited, but it is, to me, supremely funny. It may be I return to it because it's a school novel, of which I've written two, because school is a perfect size in which to create the moral universe every novel needs.
The Book of Ebenezer LePage by G. B. Edwards -- This is the only surviving novel by a master storyteller who apparently destroyed everything else he wrote. Like his creator, Ebenezer LePage lived on the Channel Island of Guernsey, a separate world floating between England and France. As with many island cultures, Guernsey has a landscape and diction and humor all its own, and the extraordinary literary achievement of the book is that it seems to have no literary quality at all; it seems to be the artless account of a long life of a quirky old man who never went anywhere or did anything except what island people have always done. But what a voice! What a story! I've read it on the page; I've read the whole thing aloud into a tape recorder for my husband in a year when he had a long auto commute. When he was finished, he gave the tapes to his mother, and even she read it twice. I think I'll read it again myself.
My Ántonia by Willa Cather -- For me, Cather's is the quintessential American voice, far more important than the great white American male writers of the 19th century, whose literary descendants are following different lines of country than those that interest me. I admire the utter simplicity of her language. She proves over and over that you can tell a moving story without milking it, that you can make art without using fancy materials or five-dollar words, and that stories worth deeply knowing are all around you.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- Fitzgerald could do anything, novels, short stories, even pretty good sophomore poetry, which is incredibly rare. But Gatsby is perfectly structured, perfectly made, and he's using a really difficult technique in telling the story in the voice of a person who is witnessing the action, but not an important player in it, though Nick Carraway's social attitudes do color his understanding, as they must. Edith Wharton tries the same thing with Ethan Frome, but even though it packs a punch, Ethan Frome is a fraud, in that Wharton doesn't play fair with Mattie Silver. Wharton doesn't give Mattie the real emotional baggage she would have had, given what she's been through before she reaches Starkfield. Also, with Gatsby, there's the extra layer of knowing so much about Fitzgerald -- such a fascinating train wreck of a person -- that adds to the interest of reading him.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen -- It's hard to choose among favorite Austens, but Pride and Prejudice is the first one I read, so a first love. Between readings it's easy to forget how funny Austen is, and she pretty much owns The Marriage Story (two people meet and hate each other, the reader sees they are perfect for each other just a little ahead of the characters themselves, they end up together against many odds). And the more you know about her life, the more you appreciate that for Austen there was much more at stake in that story, for her and her female characters, than marital happiness. Claire Tomalin's biography of Austen should really rank here as a companion favorite book.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -- For the sociology, for the unforgettable characters, for the love story, for the tragedy that still feels inevitable even though the social strictures that made up Anna's trap have ceased to form cages.
The Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy by Sigrid Undset -- I like sagas; I come from a big family and like stories with lots of characters and lots going on. When young, I loved the Jalna books, the Forsyte Saga, and then Trollope, but all of those are set in a known world. Undset sets a complicated life story in a medieval world that was simply unimaginable to me when I first came upon it and about which I had a huge curiosity. There seem to me to be no anachronisms in it, psychological or otherwise, which is a gift. So much historical fiction is ruined, or flawed anyway, by false diction, or psychologically modern characters in period dress. It's important that the word novel means new, in the sense of news, and was first used to distinguish a work that resembles reality from the older form of fiction, romance, which takes place in an alternate universe. The kind of fiction I love shows you something real about how life and the world actually work, or worked. I guess both the challenge of historical fiction and a fascination with Scandinavia started for me with Undset. There's a terrific new translation, too, by Tiina Nunnally.
The Once and Future King by T. H. White -- Again, the Middle Ages, but this time with magic. I don't care for modern magic realism, but this is something else; you know at the outset that it's a legend, with heroism, heartbreak and dragons, but for grown-ups. White makes the love triangle very moving, and he is often incredibly funny. It's a lifelong study (and pleasure) for me, how people like Dickens and Waugh and White manage to be funny without being light or shallow. One loves Mitford and Wodehouse very much too, but in a different way, since they're not aiming as high.
Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard -- It's like a beautifully cut diamond, brilliant, multifaceted, incredibly disciplined, and so moving. It's challenging work, not in that it's tricky or hard to follow but in that the language, every sentence, is so intricately beautiful that you have to bring to it the kind of focus one does to poetry, or you'll miss something, and everything in it is there for a reason. There are challenging novels that are dense like jungles, that overwhelm you with the number and amount of things going on, some of which matter, some of which don't. To be intense like a diamond is quite different, and stunning.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?The Seventh Seal -- Bergman -- dark medieval Scandinavia again. When it came out, I was baffled and haunted by it, if too young and literal to understand it. When I began to see how to parse it, and understood what a language visual symbols can be in a film, it was a revelation. Then of course, there is the pleasure of believing that that's what the Middle Ages looked like.
All About Eve -- Fabulous dialogue, great acting, a great story, and the theater for a setting. The screenplay reads as well as it plays; who wouldn't kill to have written "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night"?
Seconds -- A John Frankenheimer movie that almost no one seems to have seen, starring Rock Hudson, of all people. Absolutely hauntingly scary, though it's important to see it without having heard or read how it ends.
Sabrina -- The Sam Taylor-Billy Wilder-Audrey Hepburn one. Again, great dialogue, sweetly funny, wonderful to look at -- those clothes! Those eyes! -- with a wholly satisfying ending.
High Society -- The Grace Kelly, Celeste Holm, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong version of The Philadelphia Story -- Great dialogue, great music, great clothes, great story. Who could resist Grace Kelly on her wedding day, so hung over from drinking champagne with all the wrong people the night before that the sunlight nearly knocks her down when she steps onto the terrace, asking her family brightly, "Is everybody fiiiine?"
The Decalogue -- The series of ten hour-long films made by Krzysztof Kieslowski for Polish television, each one examining one of the Ten Commandments. He packs so much narrative information into each minute, with dialogue, costume, and visual metaphors all contributing meaning and all going by as fast as in life, that it takes you twice as long to unpack it from your brain and examine it all than it takes to watch it in the first place. It is brilliant filmmaking, and like Bergman's, it makes its points in ways that are unique to film, not like written fiction photographed.
Almost anything by Preston Sturges, (The Sin of Harold Diddlebock), and almost any Tracy-Hepburn movie. And the funniest movie I've ever seen, which is apparently utterly unavailable to rent or buy, is Jiri Menzel's The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. If anyone out there knows how we can get to see it again, please tell us all.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I couldn't possibly listen to music or anything else while I'm writing. I don't like background music -- if music is worth playing I want to listen to it. When we're doing something quiet in the house, like paying bills or washing dishes, we listen to opera. When I'm out and about, and not listening to audiobooks (for instance at the gym, when I have to count how many ghastly repetitions I've done) I listen to singer-songwriters. Rosanne Cash is a lifelong favorite. I'm on a Leonard Cohen binge at the moment, but I alternate him with Carolyn Mark and Caitlin Cary and Stephen Merritt in Magnetic Fields guise, or other. 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields also a life favorite.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Something by Siri Hustvedt -- probably The Enchantment of Lily Dahl. Hustvedt is doing something very dark and intense and pure in her novels that is utterly original. She writes better about the experience of art, of the arts in people's lives, than anyone I can think of, but she also does all the machinery of the novel perfectly, tight plotting, completely believable (yet unusual) characters, the mysterious, the frightening, the erotic -- she can do anything she wants, apparently.
Then A Glimpse of Scarlet -- short stories by Roxana Robinson. Short stories are a very a different discipline from novels, and often they feel underpopulated to me, or are looking through too confining a peephole, cutting out too much of the larger picture, to be telling a useful truth. But Robinson has a way of catching a character doing something so wickedly well observed, so revealing, that suddenly the whole life is before you. It would be fun to read a collection of really fine stories with a group, to see what could be learned about the art and the craft that make them work.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Cookbooks -- especially a cookbook from a good cook who knows that the recipes work. If they are also not too hard for me, that's a plus; if they are too hard, I enjoy just reading them and learning what I can.
I like to give novels, if I've read them and loved them and know the taste of the person I'm giving them to. Probably my favorite to give and to get are books of letters. I love biography, too, but letters are particularly wonderful because they give you a voice, correct to the period (obviously), and because they are meant to be read by at least an audience of one other. Often diaries are either too sloppy (because not meant to be read) or contrived (because they are pretending to be private but really have an eye to posterity). This year I've made the letters of James Thurber last as long as I could, followed by the totally wonderful letters of John Gielgud. I especially love collections of letters between two writers. The letters of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford are delicious; I loved the letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, which in fact sent me on a Sylvia Townsend Warner binge, and am at the moment reading the letters of Scott Fitzgerald and Maxwell Perkins. I have the six volumes of Virginia Woolf's letters on a shelf above me as I speak; I'm saving them against the day when I have to recover from something terrible, the way a saner person might stock pile quinine against malaria or Cipro in case of anthrax attack.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
No rituals, except silence and no interruptions unless one of the children calls from beside a distant highway with his car on fire. (This has happened, so I use an answering machine to monitor calls.) My desk is a complete mess of notes to myself, addresses and phone numbers to enter into Outlook, audiobooks to enter into my iPod, reference books, and empty water bottles I haven't carried to the recycling bin yet.
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 really don't have any rejection-slip stories, except that when I first got out of college I tried to write for children, under the truly misguided impression that that would be easier than writing for adults. No kind of writing is easy if you're unsuited for it, and writing for children isn't easy, period. But I published a couple of nonfiction books in my early twenties, which were easily sold because I knew things for which there was an audience, and I had the happy experience of having my first novel bid on by three publishers. The second was a big bestseller and a movie and so forth.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Jennifer Vanderbes. Her first novel, Easter Island, is unbelievably accomplished, beautiful and smart and complex and yet completely accessible. Why she isn't already the toast of the town I don't know, but I know she should be.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Read everything. Work with discipline, in as repetitive a pattern as possible, same time period, same place, at least five days a week, if you possibly can. Be sure you're working in the right form. Lots of writers who should be writing novels struggle with short stories because that's what can be taught in M.F.A. programs, and of course there are writers struggling with novels whose gifts are better suited to short stories, or novellas, or fiction that takes place in some wonderful alternate universe, as Gregory Maguire does so brilliantly.
Be very careful when you choose your first readers; be sure you understand their taste, their ability to express their reactions, and how truly they wish you success. There are plenty of people who love you who might be dismayed if you were really successful, and they don't even know it themselves. Be very careful about showing a work in progress to anybody, same caveats as above. Your agent is the most important professional relationship in your life. Find someone who likes you, believes in you, and can get her phone calls returned.
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