Christine Schutt


in correspondence with

Deb Olin Unferth


Adjectives that sound and look great on the page:

Born and raised in Wisconsin, Christine Schutt came to New York over thirty years ago to write, first as an MFA student at Columbia and then on her own. She met Diane Williams in a Gordon Lish class, from which they emerged the best of friends. They talked NOON into existence. Schutt gave the literary annual its name, the word being one of Emily Dickinson’s favorites, and Dickinson, the poet, one of Schutt’s favorites.

Schutt is the author of two books of stories, A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer and Nightwork, and two novels, the recently published All Souls and Florida, a finalist for a National Book Award in a controversial year: five novels by largely unknown women writers, all from New York, and only one in her thirties.

What characterizes her work for me—the way that I immediately know a Christine Schutt sentence—is the striking repetition of sounds, both vowels and consonants, and the prominent rhythms that make the prose seem as though it is being sung. On the face it sounds “pretty,” and she indeed uses many pretty words, but underneath there is a tremendous amount of dark energy: “Jean had lifted the wisps of hair from off their baby scalps, marked as the moon, with their stitched plates of bone yet visible, the boys; how often she had thought to break them.”

Depending on the book, the emotion that fuels this darkness shifts between anger, fear, scorn, shame, and rebellious independence: “I was dumbed to saying nothing, to calling him nothing but a cock, a very big cock. What else could you call that red trumpeting thing he slapped across my face?” This work springs from a woman who will dare to disobey any law and violate any custom, in fiction if not outside of it.

This conversation was conducted by many lengthy email exchanges while Schutt was living in Virginia as a writer-in-residence at Hollins University.

—Deb Olin Unferth


DEB OLIN UNFERTH: It’s impossible for me to ignore the sound of your sentences. Sometimes I feel as if the entire thrust of the story is based on an exploration of a set of phonemes, or as if you allow sound to determine the direction of the sentence and the story, the content even. Is that true? How do you do that? Why do you do that?

CHRISTINE SCHUTT: I was taught to read poetry this way in high school: to consider the sounds the poet was making and how those sounds could inform us of what the poem was about. “Snake,” a D. H. Lawrence poem, was the lesson at the time, and it made a big impression on me. Sound has its own weather, and I respond to it. One night I saw these preposterously large cherry blossoms outside our bedroom window. This happens every spring, of course, the blossoms, but on this night they seemed lit up from below and floating, an absurd efflorescence, and the sentence in response to what I saw and felt about the spring show came out like this: “The preposterous blossoms, candy pink and stupidly profuse, were in the night light strangely come as from another planet.” So many p’s—the stupidness of it all. That sentence has a mood; it was my mood at the time. Absurd efflorescence makes a different sound, has a different mood, different weather; in a story such a phrase would direct me. I am generally uncertain of purpose and have few opinions, no ideas. But sound.

I read poetry this way: I hear meaning long before I decode it. As a writer, I find that sound can give me meaning, narrative direction. Produce a sentence with any sound and respond to it.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Deb Olin Unferth is the author of Minor Robberies and Vacation, both from McSweeney’s.

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