Good to Know
In our interview, Schine revealed some fascinating facts about herself:
"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 Bloomingdale's because I loved shopping. I had an 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."
"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."
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In the fall of 2003, Cathleen Schine 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 -- 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?Emma by Jane Austen
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 Leo Tolstoy
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell
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
Lawrence of Arabia
Lovely and Amazing
What types of music do you 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 Pärt -- I listen to Arvo Pärt 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 laptop 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 postcard from a Japanese ryokan, an empty tube of Biomains moisturizer, some pens, and a thesaurus.
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.
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