[Pushcart and O. Henry Prize-winning short story author Christine Schutt discusses her novel Florida with curledup.com's Luan Gaines]
Interviewer Luan Gaines: Your writing broke my heart, but I couldn't stop reading. How was it possible to condense such a powerful story into this compact book??
Christine Schutt: I am delighted that you could not stop reading. The compact quality of this book can be most easily explained: I have a short attention span and a fear of being tedious.
Were you ever afraid to write like this, with such raw honesty?
I am more afraid of being uninteresting.
The mother-daughter connection is critical. How can a girl without a mother navigate successfully in the world?
Not very well. It is difficult. Age and experience might bring some self-knowledge and easy mobility.
Memory fades as time passes. As Alice grows into her teens, does she lose hope or develop ambivalence about her mother's eventual return?
Alice is ambivalent. The Big House is comfortable and orderly.
Arthur is Alice's only friend, but even he cannot replace what she has lost. What emotional gift does Arthur bring to Alice's lonely days?
Arthur is her only adult male friend, a kind of father really. She believes, too, "a child's conceit," that she can make him happy or happier.
How does bearing the same name as her mother, Alice Fivey, brand Alice?
Ultimately, the same name is a burden to be borne lightly, if possible.
Alice becomes preoccupied with time and leaving. Can you speak to this need to know?
In the move-around life, Alice, like many in such circumstances, is keenly aware of departures and arrivals.
Alice carries her story with her everywhere, as she calls it "my hobo's bindle". Doesn't this show a desperate need to be important, not to be forgotten?
Absolutely. The story is her way of opening doors, entering rooms, making friends.
At one point, you write: "No one was ever as happy or as sad as she was, my mother, who might have come home to claim me, but she didn't." How could a girl, even at fifteen, live with this knowledge?
How does the state of Florida describe a particular condition, a longing for contentment?
Like so many other balmy states, Florida represents a paradise, particularly to those bound in the cold middle states with their long, pitiless winters.
Alice says books are the orphan's consolation. But books are often the beginning of a new world, are they not?
Consolation can come dressed as hope for something new, a beginning, a different world.
When Alice grows up, is it her survival instinct that draws her ever farther from her family?
The older men in Alice's life become father-substitutes; Alice even chooses an older man for a significant, if deeply flawed, relationship. Is she doomed always to seek her father in men?
For a time, it seems, she does repeat, but age and experience might work their magic.
How pivotal is Mr. Early, Alice's teacher, in her life?
Mr. Early likes her just the way she is; moreover, he offers her direction. He is a most important figure in her life. Everyone should have a Mr. Early.
While her mother is living in California and accessible, Alice ruminates obsessively about her father, his short life and how he died. Does she have the freedom to consider these questions because she now has contact with her mother?
Her mother is the only one witness to her father's life who might explain the mysterious father and his even more mysterious death.
Even when Alice visits her mother during the California summers, there is an element of unhealthiness to the relationship. Does the mother's mental instability and drinking further inhibit any chance Alice might have for expressing her rage? Does Alice realize this when she enables the drinking?
The relationship is unhealthy, but Alice is muddled and unaware, imitative and sad and afraid. She is mean to her mother on occasion, which might count as rage--no?
Life experience softens Alice's harsh judgment of her mother, although she still views everything with an exquisitely critical eye. Is this way of looking at the world a by-product of Alice's childhood?
Probably. While she would like to refrain from passing judgments, she is her mother's daughter and wobbly, uncertain, critical.
Although she has regrets, Alice is able to appreciate her aunt and uncle's flaws, not expecting more than they have been capable of providing psychologically. How does she come to this wisdom?
Age and experience.
As her mother is less able to care for herself, Alice moves her into a care facility. What does this cost Alice emotionally?
The cost is great, especially as Alice nears the decision not to return again to visit a woman so worn away and speechless, she may or may not be Alice's mother. No telling.
Does she ever consider caring for her mother herself or is Alice's self-preservation sufficient to how dangerous this act would be?
Orphan novels are narrated by characters with strong self-preserving instincts. Alice is no exception.
The more her mother becomes like Nonna, the more Alice is able to forgive, or at least feel compassion. What is the process that allows this change in Alice?
Age, experience, distance.
Florida begins with such loss, ends so richly compassionate and understanding. How did you manage to avoid the obvious pitfalls and attain this difficult balance?
I am glad you found the novel balanced and compassionate; I wanted to open my arms at the end of the book and did, I think, after months of turning my back to the mother.
Do you attribute the grace and beauty of this extraordinary novel to your innate love of words and their power? Or something else?
I am glad, too, that you find the novel graceful and beautiful; certainly, I believe in the magic of language to shape and comfort and sometimes illuminate.
Is there anything in particular about Florida that I have missed and you would like to speak to?
Nothing more than to thank you for taking the time to read Florida with such care and consideration. I am grateful for your attentions.
Are you working on another novel?
Yes, I am working on another novel and stories. A second collection of stories (the first, Nightwork, is in paperback with Dalkey Archive Press) entitled, A Day, a Night, Another Day, Summer, is to be published by Northwestern University Press in spring 2005.
Do you have any advice for would be writers?
The advertisers of tennis shoes have it right: just do it. A real writer has no choice but to do it, regardless of publication.
CHRISTINE SCHUTT is the author of the short-story collection Nightwork.
Her work, which has garnered an O. Henry Prize and a Pushcart Prize, is
published widely in literary journals. Schutt lives and teaches in New
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines interviewed Christine Schutt, author of Florida (see accompanying review), about his book via email for curledup.com. Luan Gaines/2005.