Rachel Sherman‘s debut story collection, 2006′s The First Hurt, was one of my favorite books of that year; her focus is on adolescence, and she has a knack for exposing people at their most fragile while remaining sympathetic to them. The list of living writers who can write both unflinchingly and well about suburban American lives seems like a relatively short one to me (Lorrie Moore, maybe Tom Perrotta, who else?), and the list of writers who botch it is long, but Sherman shows why these stories are still worth telling.
Her debut novel, Living Room, extends the themes of The First Hurt, focusing on three women: Abby, a teenager who’s suddenly receiving enough attention to be prone to emotional and physical manipulations; her mother, Livia, who’s attempting to force herself into a state of normalcy by alternately pursuing a career as an interior designer and shutting out the world around her; and Livia’s mother, Headie, whose increasing dementia is counterbalanced by lucid memories of the men in her life.
Sherman currently teaches writing at Rutgers and Columbia University, and she’s currently working on a TV script as well as a new novel. She answered a few questions about Living Room via e-mail.
How long have you been working on Living Room? Did you have a strong ambition to write a novel before you began writing short stories?
I worked on Living Room for about three years. Before writing my short story collection, though, I was less focused on writing a novel. After The First Hurt came out, though, I felt like it was something I wanted to try. It took a while for me to get the structure down, since novel writing was not familiar to me. Eventually, once I figured out the plot and the characters, the story took shape.
Much like the stories in The First Hurt, Living Room focuses on the inner emotional conflicts that tend to lurk behind polite exteriors. How difficult was it to transfer that sensibility into a longer narrative?
I’m not sure that the difficulty was so much transferring the sensibility, since I think that that is what I write, but making it larger, and into an interconnected plot, took me longer than it does for me when I write short stories.
You mentioned in one interview that you first conceived the novel by thinking about getting into the head of an elderly woman. Did you attempt to write an individual story about Headie before coming to make it about three women, or did you dive in knowing you would cover three generations?
Initially it was about two generations: a grandmother and a granddaughter. But it was a much different story. The granddaughter was not a teenager, but a twenty-five year old, getting ready to marry a much older man. As I wrote about her, I realized that the second generation (the mother) was also important. Eventually the story completely changed, but Headie stayed very close to what she was in the beginning.
What distinguishes you from many other writers who write about suburbia and families, in my opinion, is that you take an unflinching approach to the difficulties that your characters go through. As you approach these characters, how much are you revising and rethinking them to test how much you want them to withstand?
I’m not sure I’m thinking in terms of testing them (or at least not consciously). My writing process is dreamy, for lack of a better word. It feels less intellectual and more emotional. When I write, I feel like I lose track of time, and am totally engrossed in what I am doing. I am very in the moment, and rarely think about my characters as separate from myself. In order to know them I have to be inside their heads.
Given that “dreamy” quality you mention, how much revising do you end up doing?
I do do a lot of revising, but my process is pretty organic. Sometimes I don’t know what the story is about until it is done.
It seems that the kind of extremely interior, family-focused stories you write aren’t much in favor in contemporary fiction these days. As a writing teacher, do you find that your students have a strong interest in telling these stories? Do you use your own work to guide them?
No, I don’t teach my own work, but I do teach work that I like. My students seem interested in many of the books I teach, but there are some that I completely strike out with. I’ve been accused of assigning too many ‘sad’ books.
What books you do teach? Do you think the allegedly “sad” books are sad?
Yes, I do think they are sad. But that’s OK with me. I like sad. This semester I taught Revolutionary Road, The Gathering, Unaccustomed Earth, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Jernigan, and a number of short stories.