It’s the tiny acts of treachery that speak volumes about our deepest fears and insecurities, and Sara Schaff uses this doctrine to great effect in her debut story collection, Say Something Nice About Me. Characters betray their friends and loved ones in small but meaningful ways: in “Faces at the Window,” a young girl buries her mother’s robe in the forest, an act she later remembers with regret; in “Ports of Call,” a woman steals her ailing father’s journal as a means of hiding a family secret. By and large the characters in Say Something are deeply decent — at least in that they possess enough emotional intelligence to frown upon their own bad habits — and yet, like the rest of us, they are only human. Sometimes an affair must be carried on with the neighbor; sometimes a rabbit hutch must be vandalized and set aflame. Schaff’s characters teem with humanity and longing — they swing toward epiphany, always with a light touch.
Schaff’s stories and essays have been featured in Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Hunger Mountain, and The Rumpus, among other publications. She is a graduate of Brown University and the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, and she is currently a visiting assistant professor of fiction at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.
I had the pleasure of corresponding with Schaff over email about craft, inspiration, and what common chords thrum at the heart of each story in Say Something, out this month from Augury Books.
What’s the spark that gets you writing a story, in terms of laying down the initial lines?
Usually I begin with an image — a situation between two or three characters, some conflict I can just begin to see the outlines of and want to explore. Often I’ll also have some kind of lingering sadness or regret or anger about some long ago interaction. Sometimes this old feeling will have led me to that initial image; sometimes the image comes first. I’m not really writing about my own life in my fiction, but a story doesn’t take off for me until I can both picture a scene and feel the underlying emotional tenor of that scene. I have sometimes described this impulse to students as a kind of method acting for writers: inhabiting a strong and familiar feeling while exploring the unknown.
I’m curious about the structure of one story in particular: In “Shelter,” we follow four main characters in the orbit of an extramarital affair. How did you decide how to order their narratives, and why did you make the choice to exclude the voice of Nancy?
This story started with Margaret and her beloved rabbits and built sequentially from there. I knew she was waiting to go to the races with her father and his new girlfriend. I knew her mother was planning to run off with the neighbor for the weekend. While the affair is at the center of the plot, Margaret always felt like the focus of the story for me, so the next character, Alice, is primarily concerned with Margaret, and then Riley, the other child in the story, though consumed initially with herself, makes a decision at the end of her scene that will ultimately have the most impact on Margaret. And it’s why Helen’s is the last voice we hear from; she’s not thinking of romance anymore, or even what her neighbors will say about her, but what her daughter will think of her when she gets home.
After finishing a draft of the story, I considered writing a scene for Nancy, but I didn’t feel that hearing from her would reinforce the focus of the story. While I was writing I wasn’t really conscious of making that decision though, only that I liked what I knew about Nancy as a more peripheral figure—”apart from other people but not sad about it,” is how Margaret sees her. Which is also how Margaret sees herself.
This is, of course, a geeky craft question, but what stories from Say Something would you say went through the most drastic revisions? To that end, what would you consider the murdered darlings of the book?
Oh, I love geeky craft questions. “The Condominium” used to have a completely different middle section, as well as a different ending — a pretty terrible one at a hospital, very soap-opera-y. “Ports of Call” went through even more revisions — dozens of drafts. It used to be from a different point of view somewhere along the way. Third person. “Ports” is one of just three stories in the collection that I wrote in graduate school. I revised more intensely back then; I think because I was really just learning to write, even though I’d seen myself as a writer for years. So the stories felt wobblier as I was constructing them, and I had to labor more in the revision process.
Those years learning to write and revise made it much easier to get used to the idea of trashing entire stories that weren’t working. I don’t pine for former drafts or paragraphs. I don’t miss any darlings; I pretty much forget about them as soon as I hit the delete key.
I love the moment from “Ph.D.” when the narrator says of her ex’s new lover, “I find Miriam’s lack of vanity almost grotesque.” Many of the stories in Say Something bring a kind of jealousy into focus, which in itself becomes the grotesque thing. How would you say the act of looking informs the moral dilemmas at the heart of your stories?
I hate the consuming nature of envy in my life, but I find it so useful in fiction because of what it does both physically and emotionally to a character. Jealousy requires an “act of looking” as you suggest, and my characters spend a lot of time looking at what others have — or anyway, what they think others have — and sometimes making not-so-great decisions based on that misguided idea. Jealousy is so consuming that it makes a terrible lens. It’s blinding. And I like the dramatic potential inherent in a character who can’t see clearly but is certain of her vision nonetheless.
Say Something has been aptly described as being inhabited by characters who “take risks — or create illusions — in the face of the unknown.” In your own bird’s eye vision of the collection, what’s the organizing principle holding these stories together?
In part it’s that idea of obscured looking that connects these stories. In a way they’re all “coming of age” stories, even the ones that aren’t about young people, and part of the characters’ struggle and growth is about grappling with their own previous illusions regarding the people on which they once fixed their admiration or resentment. Sometimes their vision clears up by the end of their stories. Sometimes one illusion is replaced by another.
What I hope though is that the biggest unifying thread here is an aesthetic one. I remember Michael Byers, who was my thesis advisor at Michigan, saying something along the lines of the author’s particular voice being the central organizing principle of a collection—the thing that truly holds a work together. Now, that’s maybe not a publisher’s dream tagline for marketing purposes, but I hope that these stories, read together, sound like me. I’d read any collection by Alice Munro or Deborah Eisenberg — not because of where the stories take place or what themes connect each story within the collection, but because of how wonderfully Munro and Eisenberg write.
Here’s a little diatribe to set up the next thing I’m itching to ask you: I loathe the rather lazy question asked of women writers, “How has motherhood informed your work?” — if only because male authors are not often enough quizzed on how fatherhood informs their work — and yet Louise Erdrich told The Paris Review something years ago that’s been stuck in my craw. She said, on the difficulty of being a writer and mother:
“You’re fighting sentimentality all of the time because being a mother alerts you in such a primal way. You are alerted to any danger to your child, and by extension you become afraid of anybody getting hurt. This becomes the most powerful thing to you; it’s instinctual.”
Would you, as a writer and a mother, agree with Erdrich? Do you find much thematic difference between the stories you wrote when just starting out versus the stories you’re working on now?
Louise Erdrich is one of my favorite writers of all time, and I am still waiting for her to be awarded the Nobel Prize. But this commentary about parenthood and writing doesn’t entirely ring true for me. She seems to be suggesting that there’s a danger of going too easy on your characters once you become a parent. Since becoming a mother, I haven’t written as many stories with young children as protagonists, but I tend to think that’s because I worked out some of my parental issues in the stories I wrote pre-parenthood, not because I’m suddenly afraid of putting my characters into trouble.
Thematically speaking, I don’t see a clear border between the writer I am now and the writer I was before becoming a parent. Being a mother has definitely influenced my fiction, but so has my job. So have my relationships and current events and the books I’ve read.
In terms of inspiration, what are some short works of fiction you hold most dear?
My two most dog-eared collections are Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage and Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes. I also love Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City, The Stories of John Cheever, and The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy — a novel in stories. I could go on! Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners, Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories. Right now I am reading and loving Helen Oyeyemi’s What is Not Yours is Not Yours.
Can you reveal what you’re working on at present?
Mostly job applications, to be honest. It’s that time of year in the academic cycle for a visiting professor! But I’m also working on a novel — very slowly — and a couple of essays. Also a new story set in an office that’s too cheery for its own good and will surely see its downfall because of that. I love workplace comedies — as long as they come with a little dose of tragedy, too.