Pulitzer Prize-finalist Christine Schutt returns to the short story form that launched her career with Pure Hollywood (And Other Stories, paperback £8.99, Kindle £7) and opens up private worlds of longing and danger with what one critic has called her “exquisitely weird writing”. In the title story a widowed actor drives to the desert to find her roots but witnesses extreme violence, sparingly told. A newlywed couple fall in with a misanthropic painter, who is scarred by love. Another young couple go on holiday with the toddler the mother struggles to love.
Do you approach writing your novels and short stories in different ways, and what are the virtues of writing each?
The approach to writing a novel is an ambition that when actualised has turned into what it will. I had hoped to make Pure Hollywood a novel, but it turned into a novella broadly defined as a novel with story-like economy or a long story with novel-like scope. Stories simply strike: any experience serves as trip wire. I am happy when either novel or story has my full attention.
The Hollywood of the title story is not the blank, affectless place described in some fiction but a tumultuous, emotional one, while your novel Florida isn’t set in Florida. Are you looking to upend conventional expectations of the relationship between landscape and narrative?
The character determines the landscape; the landscape shapes the character. Florida in the eponymous novel stands for “good health all the time”. Florida is that imagined landscape where the family will be forever healed and healthy. They will never reach the state. Hollywood in the eponymous novella – Southern California, really – is variously landscaped and I went to those places that were one and the same with the characters, as here in the desert the brother and sister sit out their mother’s depression. “Their mother made a face… turned away. On the baked stone she sat, barrel-like and spined in fishhook spines too fine to see, yet they knew enough not to brush against their mother.”
You once wrote that “banging together unlikely words so that the sentence might sound as it means is the fun part of writing”. Does the banging together come easily or do you have to search hard for the unlikely?
I don’t have to search out the unlikely. Sound is borne out of circumstances; once I know the circumstances, I will find the right sound in which to express the action. Describing a common object or action uncommonly often requires long consideration.
In The Hedges, The Swimmer, a woman acquainted with loss points out Lolly Hedges might in time be thankful for the story her loss would give her. Is suffering a gift to writers?
I think many people naturally incline to making something out of suffering; certainly, I have encouraged other writers who have had such experience to make good use of their wounds – it has been psychologically helpful to me to do as much.
Many characters throughout this collection have superficial concerns such as money, youth and good looks and have seemingly charmed lives but are nevertheless unhappy. Yet Mimi insists she loved her husband. Is happiness found in unlikely places and with unlikely people?
“Is happiness found in unlikely places and with unlikely people?” It might seem that way from some of my fictions, but as a phenomenon of experience I have always been drawn to privileged characters who yet self-destruct.
A recurring image in a few of the stories is of world events unfolding in the background, on a muted TV, on a radio that get’s switched off when news is too gruesome, or in hardback books about “some crisis” or other. Are normal people more affected by the minutiae of daily life rather than events that affect us as a society, and is that a bad thing?
“The muted news that flickers on the flat-screen: gaudy mayhem” is a commonplace background of every day and news of a “flamboyant infanticide accomplished with duct tape” is overheard and reacted to. The characters in Pure Hollywood are alert to the larger world’s atrocities, and they do react to the news as a reminder of what could easily befall us. To get through the day requires small leaps of quotidian faith or sobering self-chastisement: “Stand up! Quit blubbering! Raise your arms! You’re alive! You’re well. Think of the war-ravaged poor rocking in a boat in the middle of a black sea, desperate: you’re not one of those.”
Images of smoke, hands and fire, and gardens and gardeners recur. What do they mean to you?
I can’t account for smoke and hands and fire, but gardens, and especially the garden my husband has made for us in Maine over the past 20 years, have long been a part of my life, and my husband’s gift at turning an empty yard into a secret garden (our own inspired by English garden books – Penelope Hobhouse, Gertrude Jekyll, Josephine Verey) has only heightened my interest in the way they are made.