The Rumpus Interview with Rebecca Schiff

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There are so many ways a bed can move: between rooms, between states, beneath lovers; it can move you, emotionally; and, finally, it can move as in advance, make progress, in the same way person can, metonymically. This playful dexterity with words—exemplified in the title of Rebecca Schiff’s debut collection The Bed Movedis typical of her stories, which are dense in the same way LINDOR truffles are dense: delightfully, deliciously so. Schiff’s prose, which returns, obsessively, to sex and the (always female) narrator’s relationship to her dead father, dislocates, disconcerts, disarms, and disorders. It’s also funny. Like, really, really funny.

Schiff and I spoke over Skype. I edited out most of the [laughing] for the sake of clarity, but, trust me, there was a lot.

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The Rumpus: One of the things I love about your fiction, as a poet, was that I felt I could trace how the words themselves—rather than plot—were pushing it forward. For instance, in the title story, you write, about CDs given to you by men, “I was careful not to smudge them, scratch them. (Scratch that, I wasn’t careful.)” I love that play—you do that often—the leap where the word changes meaning or takes on a new valence in a sentence. Can you talk about wordplay in your work? And also about your process?

Rebecca Schiff: I’m glad somebody noticed! That kind of wordplay isn’t every fiction writer’s concern, but I’m really interested in the way the words can play off each other. I like to bring it out in both the writing and the editing process. Once I gave myself permission to write from the language, to trust that stories could grow from it—because it’s not always clear whether they can—well, that was a big deal for me, to realize it was “okay” to write that way. Then I started reading a lot of fiction writers who also use language as their engine: Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Leonard Michaels, and Sam Lipsyte. Lipsyte, who was my teacher at Columbia, taught us that language can provide movement to a story. It was a good lesson.

Rumpus: I was thinking a lot about Lydia Davis with your stories as well, especially with the very short ones—there’s one that’s under a page long. Is the writing process different for these smaller stories than for a longer, more plotted one?

Schiff: I just read an interview with Lydia Davis, where she was talking about being less interested in plot and characters than in thoughts and language. That’s not me. Once the story has moving parts, I keep paying attention to language, but I’m focused on the other parts as well and hoping they can work together. And yet, language is primary in that all the other parts grow from that.

Rumpus: Do you have a “writing practice”?

Schiff: Yes. I try a lot of things until something takes hold, which means I have a lot of beginnings in my computer. I don’t know exactly how it works, but if something keeps me interested, then I’ll stick with it.

In general, I try to write every day. If I don’t have enough time then I’ll just check in with a story I’m working on. Sometimes I end up working on it when I do that, but, if not, I’ll at least try to make a little edit or two so that it stays fresh. Usually I also rotate between stories. I’ll hit a wall with one so I’ll work on another and come back to the first one later.

Rumpus: Which story was the most difficult for you to write?

9781101875414 copySchiff: Well, some of them took a really long time—up to eight years of writing and rewriting—because I was learning how to write on them. So, in that way, they were more difficult. The one that has a title that’s a website—that one changed a lot because I was learning things while I was writing it. I would go off on long tangents about things that didn’t have much to do with the heart of the story. That story taught me that in order to be merciless about cutting, you have to trust that you have more good writing inside of you.

They’re all difficult, though. In hindsight, there are a few that seem to have come right out, but they all went through extensive revision. There’s one called “Rate Me” in which the narrator sends off body parts to be rated and that one was really difficult because I’d never strayed from reality much before and I didn’t quite understand how to do it. It was out of my wheelhouse.

Rumpus: That one did feel separate from the others for that reason. I found myself wondering what the real world analog for this rating service would be.

Schiff: The idea came from this site—I don’t know if it exists anymore, but it had a moment—called “Am I Hot or Not?.” People would upload pictures of themselves and others would, well, rate them. That was the “real” site, but I didn’t want my character to be putting herself on the internet to be rated. I thought it would be funnier if instead it as the actual body parts that were being sent off and rated. So that was made up. [Laughing] You can’t actually do that. You can’t send your body parts off to be rated.

Rumpus: Do you see more of your stories taking a surreal turn in the future?

Schiff: No, I don’t. I’m not as interested in the surreal. I like making things up within certain reality. There’s that old saying, “Make the familiar strange and the strange familiar.” I’m more interested in making the familiar strange and I think “make the strange familiar” is the challenge of writing surreal stuff. I want to think about what’s strange about going to a funeral, rather than what’s normal about sending your body parts in to be rated.

Rumpus: Would you say these stories exist in the early 2000s?

Schiff: Some of them go back to the 90s, when the narrator’s a teenager—there’s a landline, you know. I’d say the most recent story probably takes place in 2014, but no later. When I did reference technology and social media, I was pretty careful not to name specific sites or devices, because things change. I was even thinking about whether I should use the word “text” as a verb. I don’t know if I was worried about dating it, because it’s going to be dated no matter what, but our relationship to the technology keeps changing. But when you read a story from the 50s and someone picks up the phone, it’s okay. It’s okay to have some references to the time period. I was reading Austen’s Northanger Abbey and there’s this boorish guy bragging about how fast his buggy went and it tickled me to realize that, without having ridden in a buggy, I could still learn something about that guy. He was bragging about his buggy in the same way guys now brag about their cars.

Rumpus: Many of your stories are told by a nameless first-person narrator, and many of these narrators have overlapping biographies: she’s usually a youngish, liberal, Jewish woman with a dead father. I found myself wondering about that decision, whether that was a way of tacitly making Rebecca Schiff the narrator.

Schiff: I need a story to be based in what I know in order to make things up. Other writers might need more of a distance between themselves and the narrator or, if they’re a woman, they might be able put their emotions into a male character more easily than I can. For some reason, I need the narrator to be a young liberal Jewish woman in order to write, but I also need it to be fiction. I’ve actually tried to write personal essays and it’s terrible. I don’t like writing about myself. There’s something about making things up from within a known place—that’s the magic formula for me. The narrators are similar out of necessity.

Rumpus: And did you see distinctions between the narrators as you were writing?

Schiff: Two of them do have names—there’s Lilah and then Rebecca. At some point, [my editor and I] wondered if we should make her introduce herself as Lilah more often. But it felt a little forced, so we kept her nameless. And even though the narrators are so similar, I still thought of each story as a contained world, though I didn’t mind if the narrators resembled each other. The father’s name does come up in two separate stories and it is the same name. That was an element we introduced later, to loosely connect them. I’m not sure if when you read those two stories, you see that father as the same character, and think “oh, now he’s dead,” or if you’re seeing them still as individual stories. What did you think?

Rumpus: Well, since the book wasn’t presented to me as a linked story collection, I guess I saw them as distinct stories in distinct worlds, and yet there was this obvious overlap, which had a slightly surreal effect. There are all these narrators running around who are just slightly different.

Schiff: Right, you get whiplash, like, “OMG, there are so many of these girls.” I wonder what it’ll be like if I write a novel, where I have to stay within the same character. Or if I eventually wind up writing stories with narrators whose experiences vary from each other more. I’m not sure which direction it’s going to go—maybe both.

Rumpus: There’s a thread of social critique and satire running throughout the book—both on a really subtle language level (“she promoted him to boyfriend”) and on a thematic level. In the story “Men Against Violence,” you talk about non-violent protest and Martin Luther King gets name-checked there as well as in another story. Do you see yourself as a political or satirical writer?

Schiff: I’m not interested in writing a story that can be read as direct political allegory, but since I think and care about politics, it makes its way into the work. I most want to write about people and emotions, but of course politics affect people, too. What’s interesting about the “Men Against Violence” story is that I went to college a while ago—I finished in ’01—but my college was way ahead of its time in terms of “safe spaces” and more contemporary discussions about consent and trigger warnings and all that stuff. What’s complicated about “Men Against Violence” is that—even though I do mock the language of “safe spaces” and “violation”—something really bad does happen and I am curious about how violence against women works. Can these subtle microagressions add up to a real crime?

Sometimes I wonder whether being a feminist and being a fiction writer, whether these two things are in conflict, whether some things about being a fiction writer are in conflict with progressive politics. If you’re tapping into something emotional—even if you’re really left-wing, like I am—you might wind up finding a conservative streak in you. And, as a fiction writer, if I feel like if that’s an important part of the character, I need to let that out, even if it’s not what I “officially” believe. I want my characters to be flawed. One of the flaws might be that a narrator thinks she has certain political beliefs, but might not understand where they come from or what they really mean.

Rumpus: You write a lot about sex and about characters that could be called “slutty.” I’m curious as to whether you’ve had many negative reactions from readers to that subject matter specifically.

Schiff: My mother has implied that it’s a little too much for some of her friends. She says—she’s Brazilian, so—she’s like [mimicking accent], “For the liberals, it’s okay. For people who are more conservative… they’re having a harder time.” I’m not reading Goodreads or Amazon reviews anymore, but one of the first ones I read did say there was too much sex. I accepted it; different people want to read about different things. But mostly the reactions have been pretty positive.

Like politics, sex is just something I’m interested in, so it comes up a lot. I don’t want it to be “the writer who writes about sex,” but I do think I’m more willing to write about it than some other writers. I don’t know if I just lack boundaries or what. I do find it fun to write about. It’s probably also related to the time in my life when I was writing these stories. Sex was still exciting—you know—OMG, I’m having sex. I was blown away by it continually.

Rumpus: When I first got to Iowa, I was writing a lot of poems about sex and I did have a couple of friends I’d send work to outside of the community, and one of those friends said she liked reading my work but also wasn’t super comfortable with the content and wanted to know why I wrote so much about sex.

Schiff: Well, the beautiful thing about writing is that if somebody picks up a book and their religious beliefs or just their personality says “this is too much sex for me” or “I don’t want to read this,” they can just put it down. It’s not the writer’s job to write about sex less just to make it palatable to that reader, because there are going to be readers who want to read about it. I’m curious what it would be like to write a story about a relationship where sex is never mentioned. It’d be an interesting challenge.

Rumpus: The final story in the collection is called “Write What You Know.” We’ve talked a bit about the role personal experience plays in your fiction. What about imagination?

Schiff: If I went back through each story to pick out what’s made up and what’s true, I think I’d find I’m more excited about the parts that are made up. Those parts where the imagination kicked in are more shaped. There are scenes that I wish had happened, or scenes I’m scared could happen, where people are much meaner than they are in real life. I chose this form because that invention is really important to me. On the far end of the spectrum, you’ve got your sci-fi/fantasy writer, and then, on the others side, you’ve got your naturalist fiction writers, who use material from their life but everyone has different names or the main character is married even though the author isn’t in real life or whatever. My inventions are a little smaller. In one story, I made up a fundraiser, using things I knew from other experiences I’d had. I don’t know—is that invention? I think it is.

Rumpus: Can you talk more about how being Jewish influences your writing?

Schiff: I didn’t realize how Jewish I was until later in life, because I grew up on Long Island where half the people are Jewish, so it was normalized to me. Then I went to college and became more aware of it as an identity. There is a Jewish worldview, even though among Jews, there’s variety, too.

In terms of writing: I mentioned Paley and Roth above and, though they’re very different writers, they feel familiar to me as Jewish writers. Maybe more so than Jewish writers closer to my age do, because Paley and Roth were distilling it for the first time. They’re both funny and—this is cliché—but there’s also an earthiness to their writing. Paley’s sentences are really beautiful, but she’s still very grounded on the Lower East Side and the moms on the playground and that kind of neighborhood sensibility and there’s something pretty Jewish about that to me. And then Roth—he’s more explicitly confronting and addressing that aspect of his identity. I don’t know if we’re still at the stage where we need to confront Jewish identity in the same way.

Rumpus: What is your bed like?

Schiff: Right now it’s unmade. Even though I’m really messy, I don’t like the mess to go on the bed. The mess is all on the floor. The bed’s a little bit sacred. It’s very comfortable—I have a memory foam mattress pad. It was my first adult bed.

Rumpus: It’s the bed that moved.

Schiff: Yes! It moved, it moved a lot. I got it when I was a college senior. I moved to an apartment off-campus and thought, I’m going to get a double bed. It was a big step. Once it was the title, I did “find word” in an MS document and realized the word bed actually came up in a lot of stories. I hadn’t realized until then. I was like, am I really lazy? Why I am so focused on the bed? Do I just like the word?

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Author photograph © Michael Lionstar.


Emma Winsor Wood, deputy interviews editor for The Rumpus, is also the editor of Stone Soup, the magazine for kids by kids. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA and tweets @emmawinsorwood. More from this author →