What is the question you are asked most frequently about your writing?
If it’s autobiographical. I understand the impulse. As a reader, when I feel deeply and see vividly, when I feel the capital-T Truth in a work of fiction, all while staring at something as plain as a piece of paper, I can’t help but believe it must exist in the real world. I want it to. And the only real world to pin it to is the author’s. On top of that, believing a story is from an author’s life allows us that same small green delight we get from gossip, from hearing a secret.
As for The Unfortunates, I’m sorry to say none of the characters or scenes are true, save a few anecdotes I borrowed and warped. (Including an insane story about duck-murder from Errol Flynn’s autobiography.) And yet, all my book’s concerns are autobiographical. We write about what we care about. We ask what we have to ask. So, while you won’t glean anything factual about my life from The Unfortunates, what you know of me is more meaningful than circumstance—you know what keeps me up at night, what I love, what I’m mad about, what I notice. You know my blind spots and points of ignorance better than I do. That’s a deeper kind of knowing than, say, whether I’ve ever been inside a house like my main character’s. (I haven’t.)
The desire for fiction to be autobiographical also has something to do with how imagination and lying are so close. When we read fiction we volunteer to be tricked. But we don’t want to feel too tricked. And so we undermine the power of imaginative invention, both the reader’s and the writer’s, by saying no, no, this must be true. Women writers hear this more than male writers, still. There is so much autonomy in invention! But look at what we’ve made—penicillin, airplanes, the Internet. It’s strange we have a hard time believing in the invention of something as simple as a story.
Is there a book you consider an ancestor of The Unfortunates?
I happened upon Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill” after recovering from a long illness. I could not admit to myself that I needed to read or think about illness; I’d spend a year trying not to. I told myself I’d only picked up the essay by coincidence and that I would write a short response simply as an hour’s exercise, an experiment with language. I took Woolf’s suggestion, that prose is inadequate at capturing the experience of illness, as a challenge. Woolf says illness can’t be written? I can do it. What youthful arrogance! I wrote a woman lying in a bed, looking out a window. I failed to convey any of what illness is like—to be taken out of the world yet feel the world more vividly, to be taken out of the body yet be nothing but body, to fall away from the mind and into the mind, all at once. Woolf was right. (Of course Woolf was right.) But I kept trying, and ten years went by. A novel emerged. I had no plan to write a book, and no idea that one evening with Woolf would lead to this very moment, and really to a whole life I wasn’t expecting to lead.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
If a book is going to makes me cry, it’s usually on the second-to-last page. But Making Nice by Matthew Sumell did it on page seventeen. It was only last week—I was on a crowded New York City subway, holding the bar with one hand and the book with the other, making that awful keep-the-tears-in face up at the train ceiling. Three pages later I was laughing. If every New York subway car has its designated nut, that morning it was me.
Who is your favorite literary character? Why?
Every day, a different answer. Antoinette from Wide Sargasso Sea. David Copperfield. Austerlitz from W.G. Sebald’s book of the same name. King Lear, Richard the Second, Henry V. Lilly Bart; Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God; All of Isaac Babel’s narrators. Hedda Gabler. Obviously, I must read more contemporary works. I am a painfully slow and distracted reader—I am always jumping away from books, even when I love them. Especially when I love them, because they work me into a delightful tangle of ideas.
What is the first book you ever remember reading (or having read to you)?
I remember both reading and eating Pat the Bunny. The eating was better. But my conversion experience—discovering the power and beauty of a book, falling in love forever, feeling that the world would never be the same again—was reading A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. That trilogy is a great work of literature, no matter what age the reader.
Can you send us a photo of your bookshelf? Which of its books are most meaningful to you?
I’m nostalgic, looking at this photo. It’s from summer of 2012 and my last days in an old apartment. I was deep in writing The Unfortunates. The romantic note above the desk about buying vacuum bags means this might have been the night before we moved. Who vacuums late at night, except when the truck is coming in the morning? I write standing up, and this desk was nothing but a slab of wood on some tall saw horses, in a narrow little room. Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is on top of this stack—that makes sense, as The Unfortunates owes a big turn of plot and theme to that novel. The House of Mirth showed me it’s possible to write about class in America through the psychological poison particular to privilege, and how that ripples outward and affects us all. Just out of the frame of this photo a quote from Wharton is pinned on to the wall: “A frivolous society is significant only in what its frivolity destroys.”
St. Aubyn’s collected novels are there too. As you might imagine, I devoured them. Below St. Aubyn is Alice Munro: like many writers, I feel Munro’s stories are the master classes we learn from again and again. Just beneath Munro is Anna Karenina and War and Peace. I must have had A Big Ambitious Summer Reading Plan. I confess, I still haven’t read either. The fat green hardcover on the right is the Complete Works of Shakespeare I’ve had since college. It’s the book I’d take to a desert island, if you made me chose. What else is there? Ah, Problogger, which is cool to have on record here, and by cool I mean totally humiliating, as I’ve never blogged anything ever. Isaac Singer—just drop everything and go read him. Great American Short Stories was assigned to me by Christine Schutt in 9th grade. She gave us all the good stuff and the racy stuff, and I probably wouldn’t be a writer without her class. Cheever’s diaries are incredible. Last, my grandmothers typewriter, not sleek like the typewriters of the 1960s, but an ugly brown Royal, a 1940s clunker. There’s a post card of some flowers in it. I loved my grandmother and miss her—she was a great reader and could recite long jags of poetry. She wrote poetry, too. She wrote her college thesis on Gilbert and Sullivan, around 1930. Isn’t that great? She had arthritis for many years and could not type, but I have the paper that was in the typewriter when it came to me. It is my mother, who typed on it, I know, because it says, “Hello, Ma?” and only my mother called my grandmother Ma, and only my mother would have written something so nice and so heartbreaking as “hello, Ma?” to cheer and connect to someone who is old and unwell and can’t type any more. The postcard, a sweet-nothing smear of flowers, shows up in the very last pages of my book, but in the form of a photograph.
Sophie McManus was born in New York City and is a graduate of Vassar College and Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program. She is a recipient of fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Saltonstall Foundation, and the Jentel Foundation. Her work has appeared in American Short Fiction and Tin House, among other publications. The Unfortunates is her first book.
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