blackbirdonline journalFall 2020  Vol. 19 No. 2
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A Conversation with Emily Nemens & Christine Schutt

On February 13, 2020, Emily Nemens received the 2019 Rebecca Mitchell Tarumoto Short Fiction Prize at a reading honoring her winning story “After Incus,” which was published in Blackbird v17n1. Christine Schutt also read at the event which took place at the James Branch Cabell Library at Virginia Commonwealth University. The prize recognizes the best story published in Blackbird over a two-year period. The morning of February 14, 2020, Emily Nemens, joined by Christine Schutt, visited the Blackbird staff on the VCU campus for an informal conversation about their work. They answered questions about writing and the writer’s life from student interns and editors. Both spoke to questions of influences, process, and revision. An edited and condensed transcript of this discussion appears below. Editors are named; other questioners appear generically as “audience.”


Caitlin Wilson: Thank you all for being here this morning. We are so glad to have Emily Nemens and Christine Schutt visiting with us at Blackbird in conjunction with the 2019 Rebecca Mitchell Tarumoto Short Fiction Prize reading.

Christine Schutt read a selection from her story collection, Pure Hollywood, and Emily Nemens read from her winning story.

I’m going to begin with a question for our 2019 Tarumoto Prize Winner, Emily Nemens, and then open the floor up to questions from the Blackbird staff.

Emily, you mentioned at the reading that you spent a year writing “After Incus.” Could you tell us a little more about the process of writing the story, and whether it’s a typical one, or if “After Incus” is a special piece.

Emily Nemens: I don’t remember saying a year, because it took four or five to get it right. In the same year that I moved to Louisiana, my mother moved to Pittsburgh, and we were both discovering new places. I visited her, and we went to the Carnegie Institute, Carnegie Museums, including the Natural History Museum. In their hall of extinct animals, they had a passenger pigeon, stuffed, and talked about the end of that species. Their information noted that the last surviving pigeon had resided at the Cincinnati Zoo.

A few birds down, there was a Carolina Parakeet, and again the museum noted that the last survivor in captivity had been at the Cincinnati Zoo. That seemed remarkable and devastating. The stewardship that the zoo was able to offer, but ultimately failed at, stuck in my mind and inspired the story. I worked on it on and off and on and off and finally settled on an ending that worked (in a scene at a dining room table).

CW: Is that typical for you, spending that long?

EN: Sometimes I finish something in six months. That’s probably the fastest. But often I will get a strong draft and put it away, go and make a magazine or write another story, and then come back and think “is this really working?” “This felt right when I finished it last time.” “Is this actually the ending that I need?” I’m very iterative that way; my writing process is always getting-to-the-end and then starting again.

CW: I’ll extend this to Christine: What’s your process for writing your stories? Similar timelines? Longer, shorter?

Christine Schutt: Longer. Once in a blue moon six months, but I’d have to say that’s happened once.

EN: Me too.

CW: “Pure Hollywood,” the title story in your collection, leads off the book and is one of the best stories I’ve read all decade. How long did that take?

CS: Well, it took a long while. I know they bill it as a novella, on the cover.

I wanted to write a perfect novella—that was my ambition. I think I know what a perfect novella is, but probably I don’t. I’d been working on it and working on it, and these other stories were getting older and older, and so I thought “well, poets do this all the time.” Robert Lowell did this all the time—he takes his old poems and brings them back, reworks them, puts them out in a new book. I consoled myself with this idea, that I would take up “Pure Hollywood,” and I would make it into a new book or maybe a perfect novella.

Audience: Shouldn’t writers be allowed greatest hits, the way musicians are?

CS: I like to think we should be allowed everything.

M.A. Keller: May I ask if either of you have done that before? Is there an earlier piece that you did rework or make into a longer project—something that had been seen in print but that had a new life later?

CS: It hasn’t seen a new life. I think the thing that is most disconcerting is when you’re going to read somewhere, read from a novel or a short story, and you’re thinking about how many minutes you have to read and what the occasion is. You start to read your story aloud and figure it out, and then you realize you really didn’t need that one at all, that whole paragraph—that was really self-indulgent. You cross that out, and you cross other things out, and you’re thinking, “Why? Why did I end up looking at the world this way?”

Then you fantasize about someday, if you write enough of them, then you get to do them all over again. You can put them in a collection, and the greatest hits would be made better.

EN: Chapter Two of my novel Cactus League was published in the Iowa Review and was about 3,000 words longer and had a different ending. I was proud of it when it came out, of course, but in revising for the book, I saw all of these lines that I wanted to cut out. I found a more elegant way to close the story. I loved the first version. I’m just happier with the second.

Audience: How is your relationship with reading during the process of writing a new story? Do you continue to read as you do for fun or leisure, or, do you read for specific reference? Do you go to specific books, maybe something you’ve read in the past that has shaped those stories?

EN: When I decided to write a sports novel I spent a year just reading sports books. I missed all the National Book Award finalists, et al. I had my head down, and it was helpful to orient myself toward what’s been done, what’s conventional, what’s ambitious, what’s successful. Because I have to read so much at work, I’m pretty good at segmenting, siloing, work-brain reading, and my personal stuff.

That being said, we (The Paris Review) gave Deborah Eisenberg a prize last year, so I was rereading her stories, and she’s a master of dialogue. I am not a master of dialogue, and it’s really challenging for me, so at that point, I was “oh boy, I have a really big rewrite to do.” Basically every scene where there’s a conversation, I sat there and wondered, “what would Debbie do?” I’m not to her level, to any means, but it was a helpful guide.

CS: What were you doing with your dialogue?

EN: I shy away from dialogue. It’s hard for me, and, therefore, I end up having very quiet characters. Now I’m having people say something surprising, or oblique or more interesting. I feel that the first draft of my dialogue is always the most obvious conversation.

CS: I sympathize. I’m not very comfortable with dialogue. Although one of the tricks I did learn was that if you write a whole string of speech—let’s say between two people—you take out every other line, and you get this very natural flow. It works actually, not all the time, but it’s helpful.

EN: There are gonna be some continuity errors or two!

CS: Yes, but if people don’t really talk to each other—they’re not talking about the same things—it helps you to do that.

Audience: You both mentioned earlier that you cut things out of your stories. How do you determine what should be cut from your piece? I know a lot of people say that you should write for an audience, but I don’t think that’s the case all the time. So, when you cut those things out, who or what do you have in mind?

CS: Some of the things that you cut out—if you’re giving a reading that is—make the story sluggish. It’s descriptive. As a writer, you might have enjoyed writing the description, but it actually isn’t needed. In those cases, that’s how the cuts are made and some of the cuts seem to make a lot of sense. And that’s when you feel stupid, why didn’t you see that earlier? But you didn’t. Another thing is, when you’re writing a story, very often you live with certain things for a long time. For instance, your opening—you’re pretty sure this is the way it’s going to open. You can live with that a year, or longer, and then one day you say, “There’s something really wrong with this. What’s wrong with this?”

And you look, and you think, “My God, it doesn’t really start there at all.” I’m a big believer that most first-draft stories don’t start where you think they do. They usually start at the bottom of the page or a couple of pages in. But, to discover something that you’ve lived with a long time . . . you get bowled over by that. But you take it out, and you don’t have to throw it away. That’s the nice thing with computers: you take it and you move it way down, and if you ever run into it again then you know it wasn’t so bad. Maybe you could do something with it.

Audience: On average, how many drafts do you go through before you know the piece is done, and how do you know when a piece is done?

CS: You are drafting all the time. You are drafting every day. It depends on where you start in your story, how far back you go and move along as you make those changes. And if you’re really, really lucky, what happens is that you don’t usually start where you think you start, and you don’t usually end where you think you end. Most often you write beyond the ending. A really nifty trick for when you think you have exhausted things is: you just take your hand—you do this both ways, at the start and at the end—you put your hand over the fiction, you start moving upward and very, very often you’ll find that’s where you should end. When that happens, that’s very thrilling. You just feel so happy about it. When you think you’re finished, then just start to play around with it, and if it just doesn’t have that same pop, you know it. I find myself thinking of endings that I have just adored, just lifted me up, and the one I’m thinking about is “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson. The last sentence. My God. And I want that. That’s what I'm looking for. I know stories that end that way and I want to aim for that sound, that movement.

Audience: Going back, when you are working on a piece, you can sit with something for so long you start not to see the issues with it. Is there one person you have, or a couple of people you have, who read or reread your pieces to help point out what’s not working in the story?

EN: I don’t really have that reader. My agent is helpful sometimes, but not always. For me, putting it down and coming back to it provides a certain objectivity. If I haven’t read the story for a month, I can look at it anew, in that same way. But, I think I’m pretty private about drafts, so I don’t have that reader. Christine, do you?

CS: I do, but I don’t give it to this particular reader until I’m absolutely sure I’ve exhausted everything, because my reader is Diane Williams, and she is wicked.

EN: My boyfriend reads things, too. But he’s more of a cheerleader than a copy editor.

CS: Diane is not a cheerleader. But she can be enormously liberating if you’re really overburdened thinking, “This isn’t working, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Once I had a whole idea for a novel, and I even knew what the character was going to do—a dramatic kind of suicide—I saw it all in my head. I was having lunch with Diane and she said to me, “Quit with the suicide. You don’t know why this person is going to kill themselves. You don’t know anything.” And I was crushed.

But that was wonderful after a while. Because that’s what I was trying to do, I was trying to figure out what in this character’s daily life would explain what he’s eventually going to do, and I didn’t really know what that was. And she said, “just stop it, just let things happen.” He didn’t end up with a dramatic suicide, and it was a far more satisfying writing experience, and it helped. But I don’t give her things until I’ve really exhausted them, because she will cut to an extent that very often will change the whole thing, and I have to rethink it. But that has helped.

Audience: What is the process of starting to write a new story for you? Or, how do you know when you’re ready to start writing a new story?

EN: I’m still figuring it out. I’ve been working on The Cactus League since 2011, so I have been logging stories so I could focus on that manuscript, but none of them have been new for three or four years. I mean, I feel ready now. It’s an itch for me; when I have to walk the dog. I think about it a lot. I think about it on the train. I think about it when I wake up. For me, all of this thought aims to that point of brimming, and then I sit down. I know other people, more diligent writers, do that work on the page earlier. But for me, I have to turn it over for a long time.

CS: Something strikes your fancy, you hear something, and you have a lot of these little bits on the page that you’ve taken up. You think you know where you’re going, and then you write an opening, and you come back to it the next day. My hope is that when you come back to it the next day, maybe there will be one thing that is salvageable. Maybe more. But that’s what I’m looking for, something that is still going to be intriguing to me. It doesn’t make it fun so much. It is fun on occasion, but you just need that one thing. You don’t really know where it’s going, and that’s it.

I have many things that I’ve started that way, and sometimes when I’m really blocked somewhere, I’ll go back to those and I’ll look at them: “Was that anything? Did I really have anything going? Could it now be resurrected?” That’s a consolation to not finishing stories. If you haven’t finished anything—you can’t finish the one that you really think is so great—then you go back to the others that you once thought were so great, and maybe . . . I think it’s wonderful to have something in the morning, or in the afternoon, or in the evening, or whenever it is that you do it.

Audience: How does place influence your work, or not—where you’re living or where you find yourself—because I think you both live in New York, and how does that influence your writing? Do you have to go away somewhere to write or do you get blocked up in certain physical places?

EN: When I moved back to New York, we splurged on a second bedroom that is an office for my partner and me. We have a room that’s dedicated to writing. He’s an academic, so it’s really nice to have that writing space. I’ve worked and written at residencies, which is really generative for me as well—being out-of-your-normal routine. I also started making a writing nest—in terms of the feeling, like a very strong home base.

CS: I certainly brood about place. And I think that has to do with whether things are working or not. I don’t have another room. I have a bed, and you just turn around and there’s the desk, which I’ve railed against and thought, “This is so damaging, this is not right.” They say you’re not supposed to work in your bedroom, it’s bad for your other life, and maybe it is, or has been. Anyway, that’s where it is. Just turn around and you do it. I’ve certainly carried on about needing space.

We have a house in Maine, and we’re very lucky. It’s an old house that has lots of room. And unlike New York, it has sunshine. It’s so different to work in a room with the sun. But I still find myself moving from room to room, in hopes of finding the ideal room. You’ll agonize over that the rest of your life: “Will it be better if I work here? Will I get more out if I sit in that chair?” It’s a very superstitious business we’re in, I think. And space is part of the superstition.

Audience: How do you deal with writer’s block?

CS: I had a friend who told me there was no way you can have a writer’s block if you write one sentence and you look long and hard at it, and you find the one word that’s big in that sentence, or the one place you can take it, and you take it to that, and you do the same with the second sentence. “How have I advanced, and have I turned my back on the first sentence, or have I embraced it?”

This person said “one sentence.” You just look at the word and think, “What would be the word I want next to that?” That way you will never have writer’s block. You have to believe that, which we do sometimes.

EN: That’s a good answer. I really admire writing the next sentence. I think that’s a brilliant idea, but I also find a lot of inspiration and education by looking at something else. If I’m stuck, I usually go to a book. If I’m really stuck for the day I’ll either pick up a book, go to a museum, or do something else that feels good and tingly.

CS: Poetry helps a lot. That is another place you can go. Particularly if you’re reading a poet—a work you’re very attached to—you’ll remember that was the music that put you in the place that made you want write this in the first place.

Audience: Who are the poets that make you feel that way?

CS: Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Glück. It’s sad to say, but you end up going back to the same ones. The other person is Elizabeth Hardwick—her “Sleepless Nights.” If I’m looking for a really highly pitched business and remarkable sentences, I’ll go there. And that will do it.

Audience: Emily, regarding “After Incus,” was anything revealed to you in the actual writing process, in the crafting of the story, about those historical events or that time that could have only been revealed through writing, and not necessarily historical research?

EN: I did a lot of research. I really loved getting to know the Cincinnati Zoo, looking at its landmarks or looking at all these historical documents from the state of Ohio about the architecture there, reading about World War I. I think figuring out the voice and the cadence—I mean it’s strange, because English is not Dr. Hadžić’s first language. He is sort of Victorian but stuck in the modern moment. I was exploring what that voice could be. So that was very much a writing exercise. Once I had historical research, thinking about the voice only came through the process.

Audience: When you all first started writing, did you know which genre of literature that you wanted to focus on or did you maybe start in poetry or nonfiction?

CS: I wanted to be a poet, and I thought poets were perfect. I still think they’re up there. They beat the prose writers. They beat everybody. And I thought they were perfect and I thought they knew things that I didn’t know. I thought that they were very intelligent. Also I couldn’t scan very well. I thought that was probably not a good thing if you wanted to be a poet. I love poetry, and then when I was out of, not the MFA, I started graduate school, and I had a Master’s and I realized all the graduate students—for them it was all over. Everything had already been written. And I really didn’t feel that way, so I wasn’t a very good graduate student in that regard. And I thought, ‘I’m going to try my hand at fiction,’ so I read a lot of fiction and I wrote a lot of imitations of Harold Brodkey, of Renata Adler and then John Updike. Just four sentences. I did that for a while, and I learned how to write sentences that way. I think that I didn’t learn how to write a story for a long time.

EN: I think I always was interested in fiction. I started with oral history as an undergrad, and then my first jobs were storytelling in that way. I was interested in long-form reporting, John McPhee, the kind of world building that happens in the best New Yorker profile, but I didn’t want to be a reporter. I didn’t like the idea that everything had to be true and fact-checked—the constraints of that. Also I’m an introvert, and the idea of having to go out and report was daunting. I’m doing all the same work in terms of research, but it’s on my own terms. So, I was working with those two but I think always pointing towards fiction.

Audience: You both talked about writing stories that are quite different lengths. When you do get that first idea, do you know pretty quickly how long the story will be is it more a process of discovering the story to find out, “this is a novel” or “this is going to be a short story”?

CS: If you’re making it a short story, the sentences pitched are a bit higher in the opening of a story than in the opening of a novel, and your next sentence is a rejection of it—the faster you make your turns. So, a six-page story, when you really take it apart, or a three-page story, make those turns really quickly.

It’s hard to sustain that speed, and it’ll be shorter, and then you know you’re in a short story. But if you start out in a more leisurely manner, or decide that the opening of the novel will be “I’m gonna walk you through the neighborhood,” right? That’s a gentler pace and you know the piece is going to be longer.

A story that is a great example of why it’s a story—it makes its turns quickly—is Leonard Michaels’s story “Murderers.” That story opens underground with the subject of death. We learn that the narrator doesn’t want to wait for it to come to him. He will go out and find it. He will go on the subway and go everywhere. This is the opening paragraph. The very next paragraph, he’s met his friends, and they say the rabbi’s nearby, and that the rabbi and his wife have left for their house which means they’re going to have sex, and the boys get excited. They’ve done this before. And they make a beeline for their roof, for a tin roof, where they will be de-realized in brilliance, where they will be as angels, the title is “Murderers.” I’m in the second paragraph, I’m already an angel and I’m on a tin roof and I’ve come from the subway.

There’s a sentence in that opening paragraph, “I wanted proximity to darkness, strangeness.” Now—dark and strange, underground and the grave—that’s pretty obvious, but dark and strange on a tin roof watching people couple, that’s another kind of darkness if you’re thirteen, twelve. They call this the primal scene. So, Michaels moves around and around, and it’s very fast, so it’s a short story. So that’s how you know, you can look at your own work and know you’re going to be moving away from your opening statement. At least I’ve found that to be true.

Audience: Seeing where you are now in your careers, what do you wish you would have encouraged your younger self to do more of as emerging writers?

CS: Read. I’ve looked back at some of my early rejections, and if I saw them now I would send another story. I’m appalled that I just backed away from these things. So I wish I had had that kind of steadiness. I wish I had had faith in myself when I was in graduate school, getting my MFA. One woman, one of the readers of my thesis, said you really write a wonderful sentence but it might take you twenty years to figure out how to tell a story. Well, as far as I was concerned, that was a kiss of death. Twenty years seemed horrible. I wish I had a different sense of that time. I wish I’d been more “OK, 20 years, well maybe I’ll make it 10” and I’ll surprise you.

Ann Beattie was writing a lot of stories when I was graduating in my MFA and I thought, “Well, I’m going to write an Ann Beattie story.” Well I couldn’t write an Ann Beattie story at all. I tried. I so wish I hadn’t done that. Have more faith in yourself, really. In the fact that it does take a while. Well, what’s time to me? I’ve got time. And, yes, not being distracted by the latest “it” piece and thinking I suddenly have to change my whole agenda. If everybody is writing auto-fiction, well, I should be writing auto-fiction, too, that kind of thing. When I was young and in my twenties and thirties I’d like to tell myself, “stop.”

EN: I agree with all of that, reading more—being more rigorous with just plowing through books. I’m doing that work now, but I look back and I wish I had started ten years earlier. I am very proud of The Cactus League and “After Incus” and I don’t regret the time spent but I wish I had more things to show at this point. It takes time, and being patient I think is probably the double bar for anyone.  

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