JUNE 30, 2016
REBECCA SCHIFF IS THE KIND OF WOMAN — witty, unsentimental — I’d want to get a drink with at my neighborhood dive bar to swap stories about our latest conquests. She would wryly point out the oddities and surprises of our encounters, sexual and otherwise, sharing her own tales with a nonchalance that I would envy. She would make me feel a little less crazy, a little less needy, a little less emotionally stunted. Or more likely, she’d just tell me it’s okay, normal, even funny, to be flawed.
The women in Schiff’s stories are confident in the small ways they are crazy, needy, or emotionally stunted. They are, for the most part, self-assured, brainy, and just self-deprecating enough. One narrator says, referring to her long-distance boyfriend who is a penniless pot grower, “I sent pictures of myself in a bikini, chaste for our era, but I had a thing about keeping my actual boobs a surprise.”
Schiff’s discerning observational eye and knack for brisk, rhythmic sentences make the 23 stories in her debut collection, The Bed Moved, an effortless read. She invites the reader in graciously, but like any smart comedian, keeps us at arm’s length with her stubbornly spare prose and purposeful lack of schmaltz. While covering all the emotional bases — family, grief, sex, friendship, childhood, adulthood, womanhood — The Bed Moved still manages to be what a book mostly about young women having casual sex should be: fun.
ELEANOR DUKE: People make a big fuss about first lines, but I’m usually even more impressed by great last lines, because I find them harder to write. I loved one of yours in The Bed Moved. An older man, a musician whose claim to fame is an alleged affair with Madonna, asks the narrator: “Is this what women are like now?” It’s hilarious, but it also feels like a pretty pointed statement about one woman standing for all women. That’s something that female writers are faced with, too: being asked to represent women as a whole.
REBECCA SCHIFF: It’s funny, because that story used to go on for a couple more lines, but I thought the question was a better ending. Before, it continued with her saying, “I don’t know, I’m only one woman!” The challenge is that you hope your characters will feel universal, like human beings. You don’t want to say, “I stand for all women,” because that’s somehow more pressure.
For example, I have a certain way of approaching dating or sex, and I’ve learned from my friends, or just from talking to other women, that something I take as a given might be completely different for someone else. Hopefully they can still identify with what I write, even though they might approach things differently — but my stories are definitely not a how-to guide for all women.
In the story “Little Girl,” the narrator is called “little girl” by her colleague, an anthropology professor, while they’re having sex, and she is totally unfazed. When you are, inevitably, faced with moments like this one, are you able to react with such calm? Or is part of the motivation of creating such a levelheaded character a reaction to your own outrage, a place to put that outrage?
I think it’s funnier if she’s calm, so that was part of the motivation. She just takes it in stride; she’s like, “Actually, we’re old.” It’s funnier than if she got mad at him. It’s also more of a sexual thing in this particular situation, and I don’t know if I can say how I would react to that. Being condescended to in a nonsexual situation would make me really angry, but in that story, the narrator is actually dealing with the guy’s kink, which is different. Not that there isn’t sexism in the bedroom, but we have this weird doublethink about it, where certain things that you might totally accept there would be unacceptable somewhere else.
Professionally, I get upset if I’m condescended to or not taken seriously. I’ve always been short, so that’s another level of people thinking I’m young. I’m definitely not as cool about that, or about other things, as the narrator is. She gets to be cooler than I am.
The last story in the collection, “Write What You Know,” is a kind of enumeration of everything you supposedly know. Is this piece an expression of your frustration about that stock advice?
I was frustrated by it at first. I thought, “I don’t have that much knowledge.” I felt like there was a limit to my experience. I think a lot of writers feel that way, especially when they’re young. “What am I going to say? What’s actually happened to me? What do I know about?” So I addressed the limits of that directive, and from there, it became a story. It was almost like writing a journal entry.
You can really write about anything, if you find the right way in, the lens to see it with. I think a lot of writers feel pressure, like they have to have been in a war, or something like that.
Do you find it difficult to have relationships, romantic or otherwise, with people who aren’t funny or don’t get your humor?
I’ve had a couple of times when I felt not-gotten in a romantic situation, and it was definitely frustrating. My mom is really funny, and my parents were pretty jokey with each other, so I think I saw that model for a way to make relationships work. Humor can be an engine for a relationship, or at least, something that makes it easier. I think it makes all of life easier to have a sense of humor.
Casual sex is often portrayed as depressing or empty, and also as dangerous, given the risk of pregnancy, STIs, or sexual violence. Your characters are so self-assured, so casual, that all the sex really just seems silly and light. How much did the other parts — the dark parts — weigh on you while you wrote these stories?
The dark parts were present, but they didn’t weigh on me, exactly. You know, I was such a nerdy teenager, and I just didn’t have those experiences when I was young. By the time I did, I was old enough to handle them. A lot of people are really young when they’re experiencing these things for the first time.
I think there can be a lot of joy, actually, in casual sex; you get to meet people you wouldn’t normally meet, you get to interact with a lot of interesting people. As a writer, I find people interesting. So it’s a chance to get to talk to people and skip the small talk — you’ve gone to bed together, so you get to really find out what they’re about.
There was a time, when the pill first came out, that everyone was talking about sexual freedom, but we don’t really talk about that anymore. I think people can be a bit paternalistic in worrying about young women. Obviously you can still get raped or hurt, and that’s present in my brain, but I do think we’re safer now than we’ve ever been.
Young women can sleep with lots of guys and not be ruined. We can still get married. We have really good birth control, abortion is mostly safe and legal — we’ve got to keep it that way — and the morning-after pill has changed certain things. So the dangers involved, in some ways, are a lot less. And you know, it’s fiction; so whatever my politics are, my goal is to have a character who is compelling. Maybe they have some sadness too, but it’s kind of all mixed together, their feelings about what they’re doing.
It comes down to the question one of your narrators asks herself: “Was it fun?” Do you think that’s an important question?
I do, actually. I don’t think the answer is always simply yes or no. Sometimes you can have a lot of fun in a relationship and it can still be the wrong relationship, or you can think something should be fun, and it’s not at all. I’m a pretty neurotic person, so I’m more aware if I’m enjoying myself. I’m like, “Oh my god, I’m having fun! I’m so excited!” But sometimes, people look from afar like they’re having a good time, and I don’t always know if they really are.
One narrator, Lilah, says of her boyfriend, “He was officially good, and I enjoyed berating myself for not appreciating his goodness.” The expectation of how she should enjoy him doesn’t match up with the reality.
Right. There’s always pressure, if someone’s a good guy. Now I am going to speak for all women: a lot of women feel pressure when they’re with a good guy, a nice guy. I remember my grandmother once told me, “Just marry somebody nice.” I guess that’s what her father told her. It’s confusing — someone can be perfectly nice, and still not be the right person for you. People sometimes say, “But he’s so nice,” and it’s almost sadistic. It’s that, “What’s wrong with me, I can’t be with a good guy” thing.
At this point in my life, I feel like it’s okay, you can’t like every person. I think that Lilah is still feeling a bit conflicted, which is why she’s there visiting her boyfriend in the first place, even though she’s over the relationship.
In “Longviewers,” a middle school-aged girl says, “Every last Friday of the month, we’re herded into the bleachers to disrespect dancers from politically unstable lands.” How are you able to write from the perspective of a child about terribly adult things, while still feeling like you’re in the head of a kid?
She’s about 12 or 13 there. It’s hard to remember exactly what was going on in my head at that age. I think I was starting to get some sort of political consciousness, and was able to get a sense when something strange was going on. Like in this story, the fact that her parents are engaged in this heated battle about something that’s kind of suburban and minor. So I think the feeling from that time might be real, but I’m giving it language that I only have now as an adult, as a writer. I try to get into the headspace of a kid or a teenager. I don’t know if I succeed or not.
I think you definitely succeed — but it’s a really hard thing to do, getting on a kid’s level.
It’s hard to remember at what age they start to know what. You’ll guess that they’re more mature than they are, or sometimes you’ll underestimate how mature they are.
That age in particular, around 12 years old, is tricky. You’re so close to being a real person, at school you act like an adult, but then you go home and throw tantrums and depend on your parents for everything. It’s an interesting time.
Right! I was teaching these kids who were around 13, and they were talking in this very mature way, and then one of them said, “My mom’s coming to pick me up!” And I was like, “Oh, right, your mom is still taking care of you.”
What are the best books or stories or writers about sex that you have read, or have gone to for inspiration?
Mary Gaitskill is really amazing about sex. She’ll go to some really dark places, but also treat sex like it’s a very natural thing. She just has a really good, interesting way of writing about it.
Rick Moody writes about sex in a really good way. Purple America has a sex scene where a couple is starting to hook up, and the guy takes off the woman’s top and it’s a built-in-bra tank top. I thought that was such a good detail. It stays with you because it’s different.
You wrote a piece for The Center for Fiction about how to write a sex scene, and I loved your list of words not to use: throb, member, splay, among others.
Right, you know, there’s a whole world of erotica that wins prizes and stuff, too. We have to be aware of clichés whenever we’re writing, and there’s a whole extra set of clichés that come with writing about sex. You have to have an ear for them, and if they make their way in, you have to edit them out.
When writing about sex, you’ve got to just approach it the way you would writing about anything else. Just make sure that the language is interesting to read. In some stories it’s graphic, but usually, like in “Little Girl,” you don’t really get detailed experiences, it’s just part of everything else. The challenge is trying to describe sex in a new way.
In “What We Bought,” the narrator can’t bear to keep the gifts men give her, so she leaves them in the vestibule of her apartment building. What’s going on there? Is it because they’re reminders of bad experiences? Is it because it’s too vulnerable, too personal? Is it because she already has enough stuff, damn it, and if she wants a vase she’ll buy one herself?
I think she’s cleaning out some clutter — objects that had some weight. At some point in my life I made a decision to get rid of everything that exes had given me. There were small things, like cards, and some letters, which I regret throwing away — I think letters are different from stuff.
In the story, it’s supposed to give the sense that she’s going through a lot of breakups quickly. She’s getting rid of stuff, and watching it progress through different stages: from the vestibule in the lobby, then taken out of the lobby. There’s the one thing that doesn’t get removed and she eventually has to deal with it. I think objects, in novels, but particularly in short fiction, can do a lot of work. So I’m interested in objects.
The characters in your stories are usually nameless, but when they are given names, you repeat them often — one obvious example is in the story “Phyllis.” You’ve said that you’re not interested in describing scenery or describing faces, but you are interested in character’s names. So, what’s in a name?
Watch the next thing I write have a lot of scenery. I’m not anti-scenery …
I think I’m drawn to names because they can have such strange, interesting sounds. Like Phyllis: It’s old fashioned, it sounds kind of like phallus, it’s a man name — Phil — that they sort of feminized, it’s just funny to me. And once I get into a name, I kind of become obsessed with using it. When I teach writing, if a student writes a character who has just any old name, I always ask, “Do they need to be named that?” I want them to push their names a little more, especially if it’s a main character, because the name is going to come up so many times, and interact with so many other words in the sentence. It should be something that has good payoff.
“Phyllis” is about a woman who is grieving her husband’s death, and there are a few other stories about grief in this collection. Is writing part of your own grieving process?
I think so. The grieving process is sort of strange, because you don’t exactly know what will help. In some ways, nothing helps. In hindsight, I think some of these stories did help me grieve, but that wasn’t why I wrote them originally. I just felt compelled to write stories about grief, because that was what was on my mind.
My mother’s always saying writing is therapeutic. And I sort of resist that, I’m like, “No, no, no, it’s not for therapy; therapy is for therapy.” I can’t remember who said this, but even if you’re writing about something depressing, just the act of writing is a hopeful act. There’s some truth in that. It’s a way to make sense of things, and give words to things that are really hard to talk about or say.