Caitlin Flanagan and Christina Schwarz have been friends for more than ten years and have been critiquing each other’s writing for nearly that long. Caitlin is a contributing editor at
The Atlantic Monthly and her review essays on domestic life appear regularly in that magazine. Her book on the perils and pleasures of the modern housewife–
Housewife Heaven–will be published in 2004.
Caitlin Flanagan: Tina, we always said that once we were published writers we would tell people about “the seminar.” This is our chance.
Christina Schwarz: We began as part of a writing group, the other members of which dropped out as they decided they had much better things to do than write and discuss and rewrite pages of what to any reasonable person were obviously never-to-be-finished novels and short stories. Caitlin and I, however, stubbornly kept at it. Year after year–yes, year after year–we met every week or two for three hours or so, either in my wind-buffeted, freezing apartment on hard wooden chairs or in her stuffy apartment on a comfy sofa, painstakingly going over the notes we’d marked on one another’s pages, dissecting characters, plotting plots and laughing; pacing, moaning and laughing (me); drawing up to-do lists, highlighting passages and laughing (Caitlin). There was also much snacking.
People often ask whether I recommend joining a writing group. Yes, but only if you find someone to work with who believes in you so strongly that they’re willing to tell you the bad as well as the good, and whose opinions about writing you respect. The combination is tough to come by. Caitlin and I have had that in each other, plus, as a bonus, unfettered hilarity. I honestly wrote a lot of All Is Vanity simply to make Caitlin laugh, and she’s the real comedian of the two of us, so if you find the novel at all amusing, imagine the sort of entertainment I’m treated to.
“The seminar” has been without question the best aspect of my writing career, and, ironically, we’ve met far less often since we’ve become published writers. In large part, this is because we’ve been living on opposite coasts, but sadly, I fear it may also be because now that we’re writing “seriously”–in other words, for money–we feel that less of our work time can be devoted to laughing and snacking.
CF: Because I live in Los Angeles, have small children and am your friend, several people have assumed that I am the inspiration for Letty. This is frustrating because I think it’s apparent that I am, in fact, the inspiration for Margaret, the blocked and unsuccessful novelist. Could you please clear this up?
CS: Are these people who know you? I mean, I love the way you’re (slowly) decorating your house, but, I repeat, are these people who know you? Aside from the fact that Letty is self-deprecating and has a sense of humor, you two have very little in common. You do share Margaret’s eye for the ridiculous and perhaps her penchant for color-coding (see aforementioned “to-do” lists and highlighting); all significant similarity, however, ends there, as you well know.
Someone at a reading asked me if I was “still friends with that girl.” I suppose she assumed that I was Margaret and had stolen a friend’s material–yours, I guess–to make this book. I think this confusion comes from my use of the first person–I know I often have to remind myself when reading a novel in first person that this is not the author’s voice, but the character’s.
All that having been said, you did provide the germ for the whole story. I remember quite distinctly working in my bedroom/dining room/office right after moving to New York and feeling like my life had pinched in to four walls and a sharply sloping ceiling, while your life was literally burgeoning–you were pregnant with twins. And I wrote to you that the idea of a would-be writer stealing the material in her friend’s letters–we were still letter writers then–for the plot of her novel might make a good book.
CF: One thing I love about All Is Vanity is the juxtaposition of Margaret’s frugality with Letty’s wastrel ways. Clearly, Letty’s abandon with money leads, in part, to her downfall. I’ve always wondered: does Margaret’s thrift in any way contribute to her — and Letty’s - ruin?
CS: Oh, I wish it did. I remember a time in the early years of working on my first book, Drowning Ruth, when I thought every detail had to forward or echo the themes of the novel. In theory, I might still believe that this is necessary for a truly excellent book–I’m not sure–I haven’t thought about it enough. In practice, however, there’s no way I can keep the universe of a novel so tight.
Margaret’s frugality is mostly a reflection of Ted’s, and his came about because I needed some tension other than public humiliation–can you believe that isn’t enough?–to make Margaret worry about the time passing without a novel being produced. Ted’s concern about income–a realistic one, obviously–provided that. Once I’d set Ted on his path, though, I admit he became a little extreme. I’d had the idea of the ledger in which he records all their expenses when I was writing my first book, because my great grandfather apparently kept such a thing on his wedding trip, and I always found that interesting, really just because it was old. I never found a place to put it in that novel, but it must still have been on my mind because it somehow fell right into Ted’s lap. The scenes in which he and Margaret argue about money were some of the most fun to write.
Also, it seemed important that Margaret and Ted’s attitudes form a clear contrast to Letty and Michael’s. And finally, I didn’t want Margaret’s desire for the world’s respect to be clouded by a wish or need for money. She’s not writing to get rich, and because of the way she lives, she doesn’t care about making much money until Letty needs it.
Now that I’ve written all this, it occurs to me that I’m glad her frugality doesn’t contribute to her downfall. There may already be too many parallels between Margaret and Letty as it is. A novel shouldn’t be symmetrical.
CF: I’ve taken a lot of advice from you in my life, and you’ve always given me sound counsel. I’m confident that you’ve never orchestrated anyone’s demise, but have you ever been tempted to nudge a friend toward something unwise, just for the thrill of seeing what happens?
CS: No, and that’s why, back when I was trying to avoid becoming a writer, I performed miserably at my initial interview at the CIA. “Tell me about a time,” the interviewer said, “when you manipulated someone to do something you knew wasn’t in his or her best interest.” I couldn’t think of a single instance, and the whole idea so threw me that I couldn’t even fake it. They offered me a job as an analyst, but they wouldn’t let me become a spy.
Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve never manipulated anyone, I’ve never done so deliberately, or even consciously. Wait–I take it back. My brother and I did try to convince our little sister that the middle seat in the car was the plum when we wanted the windows--does that count? Nudging a friend to do something I thought unwise would make me feel sick, not thrilled. I realize that dooms me to the world of the earnest, rather than to that of the clever, but it can’t be helped.
CF: Drowning Ruth took you a hundred and twenty-seven years to finish (or whatever you’re telling people), but I think you finished All Is Vanity in less than two. I’ve always worried that because we didn’t re-convene the seminar for your second novel, you were able to shave your production time, but I think you have some other reasons for the speed-up?
CS: The main reason is my fear of authority. I signed a contract to deliver a book in two years and I was scared to ask for more time. I was also paid to deliver an outline before I began, so I wrote one, which helped a lot, even though I didn’t follow it faithfully. The plot in All Is Vanity is much more straightforward than that in Drowning Ruth. It has many fewer characters and it takes place over the course of a year and a half, rather than fifty years, all of which made speedier writing possible. Also, I wasted a lot of time while working on Drowning Ruth worrying about whether I was kidding myself when I thought I could write a novel. With All Is Vanity, I figured since I’d written one, I didn’t have any excuse not to do another. And finally, I know that with Drowning Ruth I taught myself (with much help from you) to write at a very fundamental level. If not for the seminar, that book would have taken five times as long, if it had ever been finished at all, what with the pesky problems of plots that refused to gel and characters that kept changing roles. People say you should write your first novel and put it in a drawer–I wrote my first three novels trying to get through that one.
CF: During our long tenure as unemployed and unpublished writers, we were often encouraged to stop lollygagging and just submit our manuscripts, but we had a good reason for holding on to them: they weren’t very good. Or so we told ourselves. But now — at least as far as Drowning Ruth is concerned — I have to wonder: was it self-doubt or accurate literary and commercial judgment that kept you from sending out your novel a year or two earlier?
CS: I think we were absolutely right on two counts. First, that we didn’t write anything worth publishing for a long time, and second, that someday, if we just kept working on it, we would. That editor who imagined you were somehow writing these terrific pieces in national magazines from the first moment you put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard has no notion of the years of seminar work in which we privately honed our craft (in between the laughing and the snacking).
CF: Has motherhood made you a better writer, or simply a more harassed one?
CS: This is a superb question. Since I’m not very far into motherhood yet, I’m hoping my answer may change someday, because so far I would have to say that motherhood has not only made me a more harassed writer but also a worse one. I am more efficient–I even think more efficiently–when I can think, but I can’t think very often or for very long, and very seldom is all of my brain focused on my work, even when someone else is taking care of my son. And I can’t even turn the computer on when Nicky is awake anymore because he wants to push the buttons. It upsets women when I say this, but I’m pretty certain that over the course of my career I’ll write fewer novels than I would have if I’d never had a child and those that I do write will be less good than they could have been. But I don’t care. I am more than happy to pay that price.
CF: Your two novels are so different in every way: in mode, style, setting, period. Why not stick to what worked the first time around?
CS: Much as I loved the world of Drowning Ruth, the idea of having to climb back into it immediately after finishing that novel enervated me. I knew I couldn’t write another book like that well, at least not right away. So, in a sense, this book is a reaction to the first. I could do all sorts of things in All Is Vanity--express irony, for instance–that I couldn’t in Drowning Ruth. Also, in a way, the character of Margaret is responsible for this novel. Her voice sprang into my head full-blown very early on, as Amanda’s did in Drowning Ruth, and it certainly dictated the tone. I actually didn’t intend All Is Vanity to be funny when I began it–that’s all Margaret’s work.
CF: Some people have complained that your characters aren’t admirable. What do you say to them?
CS: A good person behaving well or an evil person behaving badly isn’t interesting. But a good person behaving badly–now that’s a compelling story. If people are honest, I think they have to admit that they don’t always do what they know to be right either. That’s what makes humans fascinating. Some readers want characters they can look up to, but to me that’s not the point of fiction.