Midwestern Gothic staffer Jamie Monville talked with author Rebecca Scherm about about the inspiration for her novel Unbecoming, her reading habits, writing advice, and more.
Jamie Monville: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Rebecca Scherm: I moved to Michigan in 2010, when I was 25, for graduate school. Before that I’d lived in the south and in New York City, and I’d never spent any time in the Midwest at all! Now it is my home.
JM: You have worked in various different writing modes/genres from short fiction, essays, interview, criticism, and most recently, novel. What is your process for working on/with so many different forms – do you focus on one for a while and then move onto another or are you constantly switching back and forth?
RS: For me, working on a novel structures the rest of my writing time. It’s the boulder everything else must flow around. When I’ve finished a novel draft, whether the very first draft or the seventh, I take a proportional break (sixty days after the first draft, a week after the seventh) to work on other writing, and I do not look at the novel at all during that time. But a first novel draft is a such a long, hard process that I work on other writing when I need to “get away” or when I have an idea that won’t wait around for years! Few ideas will.
JM: Your debut novel Unbecoming, is a heist story deeply entangled with questions about constructing identity, and the beauty and terror of deceit. What is it about these questions that draws you in as a writer?
RS: Well, everything. I was interested in huge, borderless question I had about the ways people interpret “truth” and “lie” and “real” and “fake” very differently, often very flexibly. So much of what people say and do and believe falls somewhere between those two poles, and that gray area is dangerous and fascinating to me. I wanted to understand this character by looking at the way she—someone very flexible with the idea of “truth”—sees herself, the world.
JM: What was the inspiration for Unbecoming? At the beginning was one aspect, character, situation, etc. pulling you forward and the rest developed alongside or after that initial preoccupation? Or was it more of a simultaneous collage of ideas that you arranged and rearranged while continuing to develop?
RS: I had several ideas that I realized all at once fit together in a strange, unsettling, irresistible way. One was about the “femme fatale” type I knew well from reading and watching noir as a teenager, and my dissatisfaction with the limits of that type. Another was about feminine performance, my childhood obsession with Grace Kelly, and my sense that girls in the South, where I grew up, are raised with an emphasis on charm and lovability in a way that I find constricting, sad, and in the case of Grace, dangerous. The third was my interest in heist news stories and my consistent, irrational rooting for the perpetrators of those crimes, as though I confused reality with a caper movie. I wanted to investigate that, to push myself and the reader to test the limits of our sympathy. All these ideas kind of bonded together as I worked out the characters and the story.
JM: You’ve written that your main character Grace and you are so different and that while writing it was very important to remember that she was not you. What goes into creating a character that makes decisions or choices that you never would make. How do resist the urge to as the old adage says ‘write what you know’?
RS: I think it helps to ask yourself what you would do in a situation, what you would advise the character to do, and then ask how she is different! I had to do that a lot in the beginning, until she became fully real to me.
I find “write what you know’ simplistic and unhelpful. I write to learn, to find out what I don’t know.
JM: Do you have a favorite genre to read? And how does that influence what you write?
RS: No, I read widely, but when I’m starting a new novel, I tend to read other books that I think are in conversation with the one I’m working on. In the beginning of Unbecoming, I reread Hammet, Highsmith, and Ruth Rendell, but also less obvious choices—novels that deal with long-held secrets, with persuasion, with deceit in families and relationships, with romantic obsession, with women’s ideas of femininity. I’m happy to absorb influence, but I’m also reading to argue, to push back on the ideas I encounter. Those private arguments a reader has with a writer help me later, as a writer, refine my own ideas and arguments.
JM: What’s one thing you wished you’d known when you first began writing?
RS: I’m glad I knew as little as I did! No writer needs to hear how many pages she’s going to throw out, how many drafts it’s going to take. I guess I would like to tell myself that I will always find a way out of the woods, for those moments, and I know I’ll have plenty more of them—when you just sink to your knees and think ‘I am lost, and this will never work.’ It will work. You will find your way out.
JM: What’s next for you?
RS: I’m working on my second novel, Beta, which is set in the near future, about an American family who goes to live on an experimental private station with other scientists and entrepreneurs and people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing.
Rebecca Scherm is the author of Unbecoming (2015, Viking). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Jezebel, The Toast, and elsewhere. She lives in Michigan.