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Plum & Jaggers
Susan Richards Shreve
Farrar Strauss & Giroux
192 pp.

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The Wag Chats with
Susan Richards Shreve

Novelist Susan Richards Shreve discusses the problems facing writers today as well as telling us why she continues to write.

Having taught writing for so many years and knowing that most of your students won't go on to have writing careers, what's your perspective on the value of those programs?

Shreve: I have very mixed feelings about those programs. On the one hand, I think we have a much more literary culture than we had before we had writing programs. I don't think it has to do with writing programs, necessarily. I think what writing programs create are a lot of better writers. They're certainly not going to create the writers that make the difference.

My problem with it is that there is a kind of uniformity (which George Mason does a pretty good job of avoiding) and self-congratulation and clubbiness. All things that are very much against what the writing profession is really about, which is the individual who can only write the story he can write, and nobody else can write that story that way. I think it tends to create a kind of fraternity.

At the same time—in a very difficult fiction climate particularly, and also serious non-fiction climate, and certainly poetry climate—without the group to push itself forward, it's very difficult to find a little corner of the universe where you can exist at all.

I didn't go to a writing program. It would have been a total disaster for me. I would have been the kind of writer, as I sometimes am, who would have been ridiculed for the kind of writing I do. I think it would have been a disaster for someone like Toni Morrison too, who would have been told the same kind of thing.

When my son said to me, "I want to go to a writing program," I said, "God, don't do it, it's just ruinous." But it turned out to be a very, very good thing for him.

I think you need to have a lot of confidence to go into them. Not confidence so much in your own writing, but personal confidence in what it is you have to say in any way, even at dinner.

WAG: You did study with Peter Taylor. Looking back, what do you think is the most valuable thing you learned under him?

Shreve: He didn't read our work. He would much prefer to read Chekhov instead. That was really extremely important. There were two things that he did. One was that he was not awfully interested in our work. And the other was that he told his wife that I had talent. And his wife met my mother in the beauty parlor and told her that he said I had talent. Now, he never would have said that to me. So he must have read a little bit.

He was a wonderful teacher because he knew what he thought was important. And it was also very true that endless—and this I also don't believe in—going over student work in class is not fascinating. It takes a very long time to become a good writer. And he did it by teaching Chekhov instead of us. That wasn't a bad thing. It gave us a very realistic sense of what it would be to write.

I had him for a year. He was the first real writer I ever knew, and to have a real writer of that caliber and that temperament and that real capacity to tell stories was incredibly important. And then in the old-fashioned way, which still exists a little bit but not with a lot of writers, he lent his name to my work, which, when that work went out for the first time, meant all the difference. He said, "You can use my name in sending this to my editor," and he was a narrative writer of character, which is the kind of corner that I fit into. And so I used his name, and as a result of using his name, his editor read the book. If I just sent the book in, his editor would have set the book aside.

WAG: What are you pursuing in your fiction? What is the thing you want to explore or wrestle with or get to the bottom of?

Shreve: My real interest is character, and how a person, whoever he is, can make a life in a world that can make it very difficult to have a life. In which you can find some sense of integrity. I think that I'm an optimistic fiction writer in that sense—though my books are not full of light, they are really after how a person can make the most of what happens to him, to make a life when bad things happen, to survive with a cheer instead of a sense of darkness.

WAG: You have managed a prolific writing and teaching career while raising four children. How?

Shreve: I am not a perfectionist. I have more and more realized I am not a perfectionist as I've done this. I really could take a lot of chaos and work in it. If dinner wasn't delicious and certainly if the house wasn't clean, I could deal with that.

I do have a sense of order and disorder—I am disciplined. But also I think that in some ways it's a fabulous career for a mother. Your children come first—that's quite clear, and if it's not clear, they make it quite clear. Having a child brings up your own childhood constantly, because as they get older again and again you find who you were at that point surfacing—a perfect sensibility for writing.

To say it is easy is certainly not true. I cannot imagine any better combination of two things to do. And always when you were a failure in one you could depend on the other. One of the hardest things right now is my children are grown up, so if I have a book crash, I can't go and invade their lives and say, "Let me teach you how to do this a little better." I have to just deal with the crashing book. When the children were little, I could have these two opportunities to be about work, and a chance of one working out pretty well during the day.

WAG: You've written books for children as well as for adults. Is there a significant difference in the way you approach writing a children's book as compared to the way you write an adult book? Or are you interested in the same kinds of things?

Shreve: Essentially, I am interested in the same kinds of things. I am interested in character, I'm interested in family, I'm interested in story. But a children's book, because it is written from the point of view of the child—however complex their minds may be, and their emotional dimensions may be—is nowhere near the complexity, in terms of language expression, as an adult's. And a children's book is linear, because children are not terribly interested in back story, because their sense of the world is very much what's happening today. It is easier—it's a lot easier. I think that it has to do with the fact that it's more graspable. That somehow you can get it completely in your mind.

WAG: Your son, Porter, now has his first book out (The Obituary Writer—and it came out at the same time as one of your books (Plum and Jaggers). How has that experience been?

Shreve: It's been a nightmare. There was nothing more fun than doing this, because we did talk back and forth and establish a relationship, and the idea that he would be doing the same sort of thing, and that we would be able to have these conversations is certainly something that is wonderful...particularly from the point of view of the parent, to be able to talk—at a real level of understanding—with your children.

What has been so difficult was that for a very long time he was terribly worried that his book was going to get lost in the fact that mine was the lead book of Farrar, Straus and that it was expected to do extremely well. I completely understood this.

As it turned out, his book did wonderfully well, and Plum and Jaggers got a killer review in the New York Times. It's doing fine, but it just didn't have that life. So suddenly there was this reversal, and he felt completely horrible that my book had not done as well as his.

And of course as a mother, you are much more interested in your children's success than you are in your own, so it didn't affect me in the same way. But it meant that there was a time—after having a completely open relationship—of great delicacy that has gone on. I'm sure it will change and we will never do this again. It was a terrible mistake and we didn't do it on purpose. We were both scheduled for the same month because I'm not a famous writer and he is a new writer, and June was a good month. I was not going to be competing with Philip Roth and all those people who came out in May and April. So there was an inevitability about it that we had no control over.

But finally, I think it is really wonderful to have a child of mine be in the same field, including teaching. He's very different. He is much more of a perfectionist and he is also much more of a scholar.

WAG: I would think the hard thing—knowing all the 'slings and arrows' that you run into in a writer's career—would be imagining your child going through those things and wanting to protect him from the downside of the writer's life.

Shreve: And he had the great good fortune of not having it happen—and of course it will happen, because it always happens—of not having it happen in the first go-round. And I think that's great, because if you go out and have it happen that way the first time, it certainly is hard to take the heart to go out again. I didn't and he hasn't, so I was very pleased with that.

WAG: You and your son have been editing a series together, which I think must be a very different experience of being writers together.

Shreve: It was a way we had of doing something together that brought two generations together on ideas. The first book was about Justice, and we did it equally. The second book was about Progress. This book is Education, and he has done it entirely himself. He turns out to be the tougher editor, and he's very good at this. I tend to be a little bit more the idea person—though he has become more the idea person too. It's been very fun to do; whether we'll do it again....The education book was really a lark, it was very fun.

WAG: When you are editing a book in this series, do you solicit the selections and then edit that work? What approach do you take?

Shreve: We began by trying to get all original work. We have come to getting a lot of original work and some that is not. When you are getting work that was not just written for the book, then you edit it in terms of how it works for the book.

Essentially, when we do these books, we think, "What is the subject, what fiction writers or creative non-fiction writers really resonate with this subject? Who would be able to write about this subject in a way that students—because in a lot of cases, these books are to be used in classrooms—that students would really connect with?" For example, when we were doing the Justice book, the first person that came to mind was John Edgar Wideman, who has a son in prison for life, for murder, and a brother who is also in prison. And who has dedicated a lot of his own thinking and life as an adult writer to justice in America, and he wrote a knock-out piece because the subject was one very close to his heart.

WAG: Some writers fantasize about when their books are turned into the big Hollywood movie. Your book Daughters of the New World was turned into the television miniseries, A Will of Their Own. Any reflections on that experience? Did you watch the miniseries?

Shreve: I did see it. I watched it. It was an interesting experience for me. I was able at that point to have a completely cavalier attitude about the fact that it was trashy.

It "flew" in the middle west. I went to a wedding shortly after that and people came rushing up to me when they heard that I had been the author of this thing called A Will of Their Own, but there was not a single line that I had written in the book, in the miniseries. And my students said, "You wrote like that?"

It was a very mixed feeling, but the reason I was cavalier about it was that my daughter was getting married and I had not a penny when she announced her engagement, and this was a case of taking the money and running.

Of course, it's always in your mind because the movies are the arbitrators of what people read today; they're very, very important in what people read. There are an awful lot of serious fiction writers who have their books made into movies. I do have one that has been under option since I wrote the book, which was published in 1989, called a Country of Strangers, which is about race in this country. I would not let go of artistic integrity on that one. I would not be able to bear having my name attached to something in which they did something minor or Hollywoody about race.

WAG: What always strikes me as a challenge in turning a book into a movie is that a book is based on the language within it, and when you make it into a movie you lose that language.

Shreve: That is why so often they don't use the language, they don't use the dialogue. The dialogue doesn't translate to film, because nobody talks well, nobody speaks as well as they do in a book. The dialogue is abstract in books.

WAG: Who do you think are the freshest, most promising voices in literature now?

Shreve: The writers today, the people who are making a difference today, tend to be from other cultures.

Without naming names, I think that in a country that is an immigrant country, in which we have for so long been dominated by white male literature, we are very susceptible to new voices. We love, as Americans, the new. So now we are in a time in which all of these immigrant voices, these first-generation Americans, are looking at the world with a fresh eye and are seeing it from an outsider's position. It's the perfect writer's position, to be outside, and to look at the world with a kind of innocent eye.

I don't have any question that the new voices from different cultures have that sense, that this sounds wonderful, this sounds new, this sounds fresh.

Who will rise like cream to the top? It's always a question.

When black voices first were heard in a general way, Toni Morrison was early in the black women's voices. She felt very new. Even though there is something quite Faulknerian in her work, she felt very new, and the magic and poetry and operatic range of her work also felt new.

Then years have passed, and there have been a number of African-American writers. But the first popular, really popular, big money-making but also popular voice, was Terry McMillan. And that was a sign that that particular new voice had settled into the populace. I think that is what tends to happen. There are new voices, and some last, and some fall away, and gradually those new voices have a large enough audience to create a mass.

WAG: It seems, however, that we are finally reaching a point at which these voices from different cultures are less often categorized as "black" writers or "Latino" writers but rather as writers, period.

Shreve: One of the things that was interesting to me was Jhumpa Lahiri—a very young writer, on a first book of stories, winning the Pulitzer among many other awards. She was not consciously Indian. And I think that was part of it. She was Indian, but it was much more stories about relationships, Indian or not.

I do think it is an interesting time. It's going to be harder and harder to find a place as a writer. Not necessarily getting published, but finding your audience. It will be interesting. The way that multiculturalism has divided rather than brought together. I think that it eventually will bring together. I think you have to go through these periods of division. What this will do to literature, it's hard to say. I always think that good stories will last, and the books get known. But not easily.

WAG: What do you think is the worst thing plaguing writing today? Is there one single threat or problem?

Shreve: It's a very long-term problem. The worst thing plaguing writing is the conglomerates, the fact that books have never made money.

It's a small audience for serious books. Most other books serve a purpose, to teach an audience how to cook, eat, have sex.

It's all about the bottom line now, so that the serious editors are not able to look around for the best books. It's hard to persuade the company that a book that sells only 10,000 copies is worth publishing. It's a serious problem.

My sense is that like everything else, it will shake out. I don't think the Internet is the worst thing, I think it could be helpful. I think that one of the things it's going to create is a longing for real connection. Books give you a better sense of connection than the screen does. I mean that the physical book does. You can take it someplace and imagine a world.

I do think the conglomerates are having the worst effect on the publishing industry. And that we are in a time when style supersedes substance.

WAG: Why do we write? Why do you write?

Shreve: I suppose I write because I love it. I think you write to make a connection. I think that is why you read, too, is to connect. It's the old E. M. Forster, 'only connect.' I'm never conscious of a reader when I'm writing, I'm really conscious of myself as my own reader. But when a book is out there, it gives me such enormous pleasure to feel that someone has not so much liked it, but gotten it. We all go through life feeling that nobody gets us; that teenage feeling that nobody understands you does continue. The sense of being understood and having an opportunity and creating a world that might be better understood is terrifically satisfying. Beyond which, it is pretty nice to wake up in the morning and say, "Well, this is what I wanted to do today," and do it.

There is no part of the process I don't like, except the publishing. The writing, the re-writing, the criticism—I really love it all.

One of the things about being a mother and a writer is that we have to be very economical about our time. And so a lot of work happens in our mind while we are doing other things. I remember when I watched Porter starting to write, I was appalled and embarrassed because it seemed to me that he was sitting at the desk all day. I never do it for more than two hours. And that's because he had the time to work all day. And I think that makes it—if I sat all day, and had a bad day, then I would hate writing.

—Interview conducted by Caroline Kettlewell

Posted October 1, 2000


Photo Credit: Gasper Tringale

Susan Richards Shreve is the author of twelve novels and numerous books for children. She is also the mother of four grown children. She has taught writing at George Washington University, Bennington College, Princeton and Columbia, and was the founder of the MFA program in creative writing at George Mason University, where she continues to teach. She has been the recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Award and a National Endowment for the Arts Award in Fiction, among other honors. She is the current president of the P.E.N. / Faulkner Foundation. Her latest novel is Plum & Jaggers.




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