An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Rebecca Scherm
Author of Unbecoming: A Novel (Viking, 22 January 2015)
Columnist Anna Roins
The New York Times Book Review called it, “Startlingly inventive…As for Grace herself, she’s a real work of art — even if she is a fake.” Genius author, Kate Atkinson, said it was, “A sheer delight to read…I had no idea what was going to happen from one page to the next.”
by Rebecca Scherm
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Rebecca Scherm’s, Unbecoming: A Novel has fast become the most revered psychological best-seller on everyone’s lips. It’s about anti-heroine, Grace, who carves herself a double life in Paris after she was involved in an art heist in America, and about the people whom she loves and later betrays. It has also been nominated for an Edgar Award.
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Scherm, thank you for your time today. It’s wonderful you were nominated for an Edgar Award! Unbecoming is a terrific read and an insightful observation of human nature and the layers which exist in us all. What was the hardest aspect of writing this book? What was the easiest?
“The most difficult thing was to really understand Grace, but understanding her was the reason I set out to write to book . . .“
SCHERM: The most difficult thing was to really understand Grace, but understanding her was the reason I set out to write to book in the first place. Keeping all the threads—past/present, Garland/New York/Paris—untangled required an enormous chart over my desk. The easiest part was losing myself in the research—it’s crucial to the work, yes, but I would immerse myself in Grace’s “projects” and find that days had passed without my writing a word.
AUTHORLINK: We’d love to see that chart! Unbecoming is, in a way, a psychological love story. Grace avoids her true self throughout the novel, and this makes her an unreliable narrator. You once said, ”It took me three years to feel like I’d cracked Grace open, and then I had to rewrite the book yet again with that new understanding.” What was your ‘a-ha!’ moment about Grace where she (and you) finally saw her for what she was? How was her work as an antique restorer a ‘’mirror to her consciousness’’?
SCHERM: That scene with Mrs. Graham and Grace alone—anyone who’s read the book will know what I mean, but I can’t say more without spoiling—was the moment I heard the key in the lock. I’d been working toward that understanding for so long.
Grace restores and repairs (and forges, to some extent) antiques because she would like to fix her own mistakes, make amends in her own life, but can’t, nor can she plainly admit what exactly she needs to erase. Her work was a way for her to communicate her feelings without stating them, which she could never do honestly.
|“For Grace, lovability and charm is currency: to find somewhere she can belong, she has to be wanted there . . .”|
AUTHORLINK: That’s fascinating. Yes, of course – it’s like a curtain being raised over Grace in that scene. It’s fantastic how much you have delved into the inner layers of her character. It has been said Grace is ‘unlikeable,’ (not that we agree). Certainly, we’re made curious early on about why she felt compelled to lie. You said this interesting comment once, ”…the idea that the quality young girls should work hardest to cultivate is lovability. No one says it outright, but I see that message coded everywhere. ” Can you elaborate on this? How important are the actions of your female characters to be driven by how likable they are?
SCHERM: For Grace, lovability and charm is currency: to find somewhere she can belong, she has to be wanted there, and to feel wanted there, she has to mold herself to exactly what is wanted. Other female characters in the book, like Hanna and even Lana and Kendi, are not contorting themselves to please, and Grace envies them for their ability to be themselves. She doesn’t know how. The freedom to be oneself isn’t available to her. She lies, but she also performs, which is a different: she often pretends to be who she wants to be, which we all do to some extent.
I grew up in the South, where more emphasis, I suspect, is placed on a girl being lovable or charming. I wanted to push that idea to its extreme and imagine how the desire to please others might curdle into something less sweet.
AUTHORLINK: The concept that woman ‘mold themselves to exactly what others want’ is as contentious now as it was 100 years ago. Why do you think most ‘femme fatale’ characters are coerced to either being reformed or being punished by the end of a story? How did you manage to achieve a balance with your ending (without giving too much away)?
|“I knew that the book was about how Grace came to be, and that “caught” can mean a lot more than handcuffs or a big confrontation.”|
SCHERM: Some people are uncomfortable when art seems to reward a woman’s bad behavior, even if “reward” just means “not explicitly punish or scold.” And because the femme fatale uses sex or desire to get what she wants, she deserves extra scolding or punishment. Many people want women to be only motherly or daughterly despite accepting male characters who show no nurturing behavior whatsoever. The femme fatale typically has to reform or be punished so that the man can be a hero. But Grace is the true anti-heroine of her own story.
I knew that the book was about how Grace came to be, and that “caught” can mean a lot more than handcuffs or a big confrontation. “Caught” can mean you catch yourself. I don’t think I can say more than that.
AUTHORLINK: Caught and then exposed. Rich-kid, Greg was loved ‘’too much’’ in his childhood and Grace not loved enough, yet they both turned out to be troubled, young adults. Riley, Grace’s husband, is somewhere in the middle, yet insists they steal from the museum. What does this say about nurture versus nature, in your opinion?
SCHERM: I don’t think Greg was loved so much as coddled, materially spoiled. Greg and Riley are motivated by what they expect from the world and how they expect the world to treat them, and that’s all nurture. Grace wrestles with nature-vs-nurture, too, of course—she wants to believe that she can’t help how she is, because that makes it easier to do what she wants, to not check her impulses.
AUTHORLINK: Interesting. We love how you created a playlist for Unbecoming. Media platforms and playlists are part of publishing nowadays. How did it help you excavate the place, feeling, and mood of each scene of the story? Can you reproduce it here? Would you recommend your readers listen to it while they’re reading Unbecoming?
SCHERM: My playlist for Unbecoming is on the wonderful music and book blog Large Hearted Boy. Some of the music, Linda Perhacs for instance, I listened to while I was writing, but most of the songs there remind me of Grace—often songs about a woman who believes she’s a dangerous person in some way and is telling us so, like Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” I can only listen to music that I know really, really well while I read or write (anything new to me is too distracting) so I’d say the playlist is for thinking about the book after reading it—maybe for on the way to book club!
|“I would tell all aspiring authors to read both deeply and widely. Read everything by the author of a book you love . . .”|
AUTHORLINK: That’s terrific, thank you. How long have you been a writing teacher? How has it helped you become a better writer? What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
SCHERM: I taught my first class as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. When you have to clearly, cleanly articulate to your students what makes a sentence, paragraph, metaphor, or structure work, you are also articulating it to yourself. Teaching made me interrogate my own practices on a daily basis.
I would tell all aspiring authors to read both deeply and widely. Read everything by the author of a book you love—the less-famous books, the essays, the stories published in literary magazines. But also read books outside your immediate taste. Most of what I know about writing I learned by seeing the writer’s choices in action. I remember reading The Corrections when I was nineteen or so and having a light-bulb moment about how an author might intentionally structure a book, that the story didn’t just “happen” that way. I think you have to read widely and deeply to have those realizations about how writers make narrative work.
AUTHORLINK: How many books had you written before you released Unbecoming? How did you find your agent and was your book published soon after you met?
SCHERM: I had worked on another novel but not finished anything. I found my agent, Susan Golomb, by looking at the acknowledgements of recent books I’d loved, especially by female novelists, and making a list. I did the same thing with editors when Susan was getting ready to send the book out, and so I landed with both an agent and an editor, Carole De Santi, whose work I already knew and admired. Unbecoming was published about a year and a half after Susan and I found each other, which I think is pretty quick.
|“You can’t get away! If your problems don’t follow you, new ones will be waiting . . . .”|
AUTHORLINK: That’s fantastic. Your second book, ‘Beta’ is about a family who moves to a space station. They think if they travel far enough their problems will disappear. Can you tell us a bit more about your new novel and how you came up with the idea? When is it due for release?
SCHERM: This little refrain, often when some horrifying technological development threatens to ruin everything personal or private in our lives -“that’s it, we’re moving to New Zealand.” As though New Zealand is governed in perfect fairness and compassion and all of its citizens are kind and reasonable. But it raises the question of how far you’d have to go to get “away” from whatever was plaguing you. You can’t get away! If your problems don’t follow you, new ones will be waiting wherever you go, even if you leave Earth.
I don’t know when it will be released. I have to finish it first!
AUTHORLINK: Good luck with it! And one final ‘fun’ question, which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?
SCHERM: Hmm. I would love to spend some time with Shirley Jackson. I love all of her writing—her blood-chilling fiction and her very funny memoirs of family life, which I didn’t know about until a friend mailed me her copy of Life Among the Savages. We give writers such a hard time when they write in different styles, but that didn’t stop her.
AUTHORLINK: Wonderful, thank you for sharing that. Ms. Scherm, thank you for your time today. It was so enjoyable to talk to you about your debut novel Unbecoming. We wish your continued success in the future!
SCHERM: Thank you!
|About the Author:|
Rebecca Scherm is the author of Unbecoming: A novel. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she was also a postgraduate Zell Fellow. She lives in Michigan, where she is working on her second novel.
|About Anna Roins:|
Anna Roins is a lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist who writes about social and community issues and has edited dissertations, websites, and books.
She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London.
Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.
This post was written by Anna Roins