Author Q&A with New York Author Lizz Schumer
If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
I’d like to make homemade pasta for Joan Didion. I can see her influence in my meandering sentences, my sense of place, and the way I want my readers to feel my words as much as read them. I don’t know if she likes pasta, but the alchemy of making dough out of flour, oil, and egg, then the meditative repetition of rolling and cutting it is the sort of zen prep work that would feel appropriate for the moment. I’d serve it in a cacio e pepe style with a big, bold red wine because everything’s better with a glass of assertive Bordeaux.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
Like many authors, the blank page is my biggest enemy. Getting started is always the hardest part for me, especially when I don’t have an external deadline to hit. My writing group is a great antidote to that. For the past three years or so, a group of five women and I have met every other week (virtually, lately) to read and critique each other’s work. The impetus to have something to share with them gets me past that blank page barrier, and their supportive feedback keeps me going.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
This changes constantly! It seems that every time I read a new book, I fall briefly in love with that author and those characters. But one writer I’ve admired since grad school is Lidia Yuknavitch. Her book, The Chronology of Water, was the first non-traditional narrative I’d ever read and I immediately felt at home there. Before I read her work, I was pursuing a poetry concentration, but reading Yuknavitch showed me that there didn’t have to be firm lines, or any lines at all, between poetry and prose. It broke open those false boundaries in my own work, and it’s never been the same.
What books are on your nightstand?
Ask me on any given week and that’ll change! Because I cover books for Good Housekeeping, I’m always reading something new and exciting. But these are my 2020 favorites (so far!):
“Every Bone A Prayer” by Ashley Bloom
“The Death of Vivek Oji” by Akwaeke Emezi
“Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman
“Deacon King Kong” by James McBride
“True Story” by Kate Reed Petty”
“Memorial” by Bryan Washington
“Luster” by Raven Leilani
“The Disaster Tourist” by Yun Ko-eun
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
I love the em dash. I tend to write very long, meandering sentences and I daisy chain clauses together in precisely the way that would drive my high school English teacher up a wall sideways. The em dash lets me write like I think: circuitously.
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
I was a big nerd in high school (still am!) and would never have skipped a reading assignment. I went to a very small Catholic all-girls high school, and there weren’t many options for different classes. My senior year, I actually took both AP and regular English, because I just couldn’t get enough. That said, I absolutely hated A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. I did read it, because we had to, but I could never think of anything incisive to say about it because I couldn’t get my brain into it. I tried to read it again a few years ago, and still can’t.
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
I’d thank the field behind my parents’ house, as it existed in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, before the developers came and started building cul de sacs there. Back then, you could look out from the little concrete patio and stare all the way to the treeline, easily a half-mile away. That field was my oasis as a child. I spent weeks of hours wandering through the buttercups that seemed to grow shoulder-high, picking Queen Anne’s lace flowers and coming home coated in pollen that made my eyes swell into golf balls. When I think of solitude, I remember how I could escape my child-sized problems, the ones that took over my entire insular world, by losing myself in a place where I never saw anyone but me.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
The same quote I have on one of my favorite notebooks, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” So many of us are stymied by fear, and we only create our best work when we push past it or work through it.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Both! I tend to do my creative work in spurts; I won’t write for ages and ages, and then it all pours out of me at once. That burst is like its own adrenaline, but I’m always completely spent when it’s over. I liken it to mania: You’re on top of the world while it’s happening, but the crash from that height is a hard one.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
I think a lot of starting writers misinterpret the old adage, “Write what you know.” Because of the way our education system is structured, most of us are only exposed to a very narrow canon, and it’s overwhelmingly white, cis, straight, and male. I think that’s beginning to change, but it wasn’t until my MFA that I began to read more widely and deeply about experiences that weren’t my own and that led me to think more broadly about what my writing could be, and could tackle. That lack of exposure leads to a lot of early writers’ books being very homogenous, with characters, narrative structures, settings, and even plot points that don’t step outside the realm of the expected.
Many of my students also just don’t know where to start. It’s daunting, first getting started in the literary world and the way the system works just isn’t taught. That leads to a lot of confusion and a lot of missteps, especially for writers who don’t come from traditional MFA or creative writing education backgrounds.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
That little voice inside my head that says, “You shouldn’t be sharing this.” I write a lot of deeply personal narratives, and share a lot of very intimate details that can be scary to put out into the world. If I think too much about what my readers will think, I can’t get as honest or as raw as that sort of story requires. I have to cast off my natural inclination toward shame and realize that my story is as worthy of stepping into the sunlight as anyone else’s.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
If you mean have I ever had a hard time reading, I have not. There are times when I’m only inclined to read memoir, or fiction, or certain genres. But because reading is part of my job, I don’t have the luxury of not being able to read. Even if I’m having a hard time getting into a book, I owe it to the author and to my own readers to push through it and interrogate why I’m having that experience and whether it’s a fault in the writing itself or an internal problem.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
Yes, of course. I think anyone can be a writer who wants to be. I’m not in the business of gatekeeping who has “what it takes” to be a writer. If you’re inclined to write, you’re a writer. Period. I know lots of writers who consider themselves highly emotive people, and I know writers who are deeply pragmatic, logic-driven people who would consider themselves more thinkers than feelers. I think those who are more logic-driven than emotive write different kinds of books than those of us who are deeply in our feelings, but I think the only “requirement” for being a writer, if there is such a thing, is the drive to do so.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I have so many writer friends, and like all of my friends, they all challenge me to be the best version of myself, both on and off the page. Kira Jane Buxton, Lisa Konoplisky, and Rebecca Wallwork are three amazing women who I met at Vortext, a writing retreat at Hedgebrook. They challenge me to think outside the box and write fearlessly. Keisha Thorpe, Brianna Johnson, Adina Zerwig, Jess Jarin, and Lisa Lutwyche were members of my MFA cohort at Goddard College who helped lift me up as I established my voice, and continue to be vital parts of my support system. Megan Giller, Elizabeth Michaelson, Kate Knowles, and Julia Evanczuk are my writing group warriors who keep me honest and accountable to my writing, even when I’m inclined to let it take a backseat. And Kenny Fries, Reiko Rizzuto, Douglas Martin, and Nicola Morris all helped me develop and refine my first book when it was in its infancy at Goddard College, and I’m forever grateful for their guidance, as well. There are so many others, but those are the ones that come most readily to mind.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
I think each of my books, and my creative work that’s appeared elsewhere, all live independently, but that readers can get a more cohesive picture of who I am as a writer by reading more of it. There are common themes that emerge within all of my creative work, like the impact of organized religion, family dynamics, geography and culture, and socioeconomic strictures on a person’s development, as well as body politics, mental health, and the unreliability of memory. I do think much of my work has a lot in common stylistically, as well, but everything I write more or less stands alone.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I wouldn’t say publishing it changed the process of writing, but it did open my eyes to how the business of publishing works and what I wanted out of my publishing team. I think I approached the pitching process more intentionally with my second book, and looked for different things in my second publisher than I did with my first. That’s not to say that publishing my first book was a bad experience, far from it. But now that I cover books and the publishing industry as a journalist, my eyes were more open about my options than they were when I had less information to work with. This time, I wanted a more collaborative, mission-driven process and I think I was more cognizant of the type of publisher that would best serve a book of this style, now that I know more about the avenues I could have taken.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
I started bullet journaling a couple of years ago, and it’s been a game-changer for my workflow and organization. I’ve always been a big list-maker, but bullet journaling helps me keep track of tasks, events, and notes in a way that’s really effective for the way my brain works. I’m a very competitive person, even with myself, so having a method to track my progress in everything from writing, to reading, to exercising and meditating, keeps me on track.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
I don’t know that I’ve ever disliked an author, whole-cloth. I will say, it took me some time to appreciate deep fantasy and sci-fi, since I naturally gravitate more toward realism and literary fiction. But the more I read genre fiction, the more I appreciated it.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I was bullied a lot as a kid, and some of the words the “mean girls” tossed off at me have seared themselves into my brain and significantly influenced the way I move through the world, even as an adult. Kids can be unspeakably cruel because they don’t yet have the ability to grasp just how much of an impact their words can have, so they don’t temper themselves the same way adults do (or should). I was a very shy, very anxious kid, and I both yearned to be seen and considered by my peers and to disappear into the background entirely. So when bullies showed me that not only did they see me, but they took issue with it, that made an indelible mark. I remember one incident in particular, in which I overheard a gaggle of my fellow cheerleaders whispering about me. I remember pacing the hallway afterward, my heart in my throat, thinking to myself, “I’ll never be able to forget this.” It felt like something had irrevocably changed, not only in my relationship with these girls, but in the way I thought about myself.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Aren’t most of them? I think “Every Bone a Prayer” by Ashley Bloom deserves more buzz than it’s getting, at least at the time I’m writing this. Her language is so searing and her story so imaginative and, at the same time, disturbingly familiar that it’s stuck with me even months after reading it. Sarah Manguso’s “The Two Kinds of Decay” also broke me open when I first read it in 2011, and helped me recognize aberrations in my own body and tendencies in my writing that I hadn’t previously been able to name, so hers is another one that I think should be more universally beloved.
It’s hard to say what’s under-appreciated, because I suspect the book-loving circles I move in are talking about books and authors that the wider world wouldn’t recognize. We’re all so siloed in our own little echo chambers, that it’s almost impossible to break out of our own and into others’.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
I think I’d be a fox; a little wiley, rather shy, and more comfortable scampering through the underbrush than strutting out in the open air. I’m a bit of scavenger, often a redhead, and only occasionally domesticated.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
Insight into the human condition, I think. Every person in my life, and person I’ve come across even briefly, for that matter, has taught me something about how people live and breathe and move through the world. I’m constantly observing others for what drives them, what breaks them, what makes them cry or laugh, what makes them tick. What they’re hungry for, and what happens they don’t get it. I find mannerisms, physical and mental quirks, personality aberrations, even storylines in the people I come across, like we all do. We all create the world for one another, and I wouldn’t be able to turn that into story without them.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
More than I can count! Every year, I participate in National Novel-Writing Month, and have for the past 10 years. So right there, that’s at least 10 manuscripts I’ve powered through and (for the most part) never looked at again. I always take November as a chance to experiment on the page, with genres, forms, and styles that I wouldn’t normally attempt. Because those novels aren’t necessarily aiming for publication, there isn’t as much pressure to make them, well, readable. But I am about ⅔ of the way through my third book that I do want to publish eventually, and I probably have at least 50 pieces in various draft stages, too.
What does literary success look like to you?
Success is a marker that’s always moving, and one I’ve actively tried to stop measuring for myself. It’s such a false idol for me, because I’ve found that every time I achieve a new career milestone, there’s another one right over the next crest. I could say that I want to write a book that appears on the NYT bestseller list, that I’d like a starred Kirkus review, or an excerpt in the New Yorker, but would I be satisfied if I hit those goals? Probably not. For right now, continuing to produce creative work that finds a home on someone’s shelf is success to me.
What’s the best way to market your books?
My work is generally a hybrid of poetry and personal essay, so I think readers who enjoy memoir and disjointed poetic narratives will likely find something to resonate in my work, too. The most recent comp authors would probably be Carmen Maria Machado, Juliana Spahr, Jeannie Vanasco, and perhaps Sophie Mackintosh.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
I think writing any character who has lived experience that’s different from my own is challenging, because it requires me to step outside my own skin and imagine what it must feel like in someone else’s. I don’t believe that gender is a binary, and I think there are very few aspects of a character that are necessarily tied to their gender. I try to approach all characters with two central questions: What do they want and what do they need? Once I find those, I try to stay very honest to those motivations, regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum.
What did you edit out of this book?
Typos, I hope! This book came together in fits and starts, and those weren’t at all linear. It was sort of like putting together a puzzle, where I had all of the pieces there on the floor and had to determine where they fit best. And because it was a nonlinear process, there were a few times where character descriptions, anecdotes, or inconsistencies appeared that had to be resolved.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
I ask myself that question all the time, given the instability of media. I’d always be a writer, since it’s both my career and my hobby, but I’m also an educator. I spent some time as a full-time professor at Canisius College and currently teach as an adjunct professor at New York University’s School of Professional Studies, and teaching innervates my writing in a way that nothing else does. Seeing my students’ work evolve, sharing the ins and outs of the media and writing world with them, and talking about writing and reporting gives me such life. It feels like a responsibility in a way, as someone who has found some degree of success in it, to pass on the lessons I’ve learned to those who will come after me. I’d love to get back to teaching full-time someday.
Comments are closed.
We Support Indie Bookshops