Naomi J. Williams Interviews Erica Lorraine Scheidt
Erica Lorraine Scheidt was born in Portland, Oregon, but makes the Bay Area her home today. She has a master’s in Creative Writing from UC Davis, which is where we met six years ago as fellow grad students. Right away I was struck—and charmed—by Erica’s personal and artistic openness. Her writing is unflinching, surprising, and so full of love—love of language, love for her characters, love of possibility. I’m thrilled that her debut YA novel, Uses for Boys, has met with acclaim from places like Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, but even more thrilled that so many readers—especially younger readers—now get to participate in Erica’s generous vision.
Erica and I recently completed an e-mail conversation about Uses for Boys. Here’s how it went:
I have to tell you that I got my copy of Uses for Boys yesterday and read the entire book before dinner. I had to force myself to put it down once and do some of the things on my to-do list before finishing it. What do you think contributes to that un-put-downable quality in a book, and were you conscious during the writing or revision process of trying to create something that has that quality?
Naomi, really? That’s wonderful. I’m thrilled you had that experience. I marvel at writers who have the ability to tell unputdownable stories and wish that I’d done it on purpose. I read this great post recently about suspense by Lee Child (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/a-simple-way-to-create-suspense/) and have been thinking a lot about it. Child talks about asking a question and then making the reader wait for the answer. In Uses for Boys, I think we’re waiting for Anna to turn her experiences into insight. And she always seems to be just on the cusp of it. That’s what propels us through her story.
That’s a great insight from Lee Child, and I think you’re right that the reader is propelled through Anna’s story by that sense of waiting. Let’s talk about structure for a second, because I think that’s part of what makes the experience of “waiting” one’s way through Uses for Boys so pleasurable and so fast. You’ve got lots of short chapters, some of them very short, all of them headed by these great, pithy, revealing titles—“I belong here,” “the next morning,” “a real family,” et cetera. Did the manuscript start out with this structure—the short chapters and their awesome titles, presented in a pretty straightforwardly chronological way—or did that evolve through writing and revision?
No, not at all. I was very influenced by The Lover by Marguerite Duras and was trying to write the book elliptically, the way that The Lover circles around a central memory. Of course it was Duras’s third time writing that story and my first time writing Anna’s. I was so lost. Time was all knotted up and incomprehensible. I was in my second year at UC Davis, studying with Lynn Freed, and she said, you know in that direct way she has, to tell the story chronologically. Oh! Yes. In order. And that made everything better.
I always had the short chapters (and I worry a bit about that, because both manuscripts I’m working on now also have short chapters), but they were numbered until the last or near-to-last draft. Then I went back and named them. That helped the story snap into focus for me, but I’m not sure why.
I wouldn’t worry about a proclivity for short chapters. One could do much worse than having a style marked by the lyrical economy on display in Uses for Boys. Another thing you demonstrate is a real willingness to put your characters through the wringer. Anna goes through a lot at a very young age. What was the balancing act for you between throwing hardships her way (like her mother’s almost complete absence from her life) and allowing those surprising moments of grace (like the trip to Goodwill where she finds, not only new wingtips, but a new friend)?
I love your questions, Naomi. And I love that you assume a kind of skillfulness on my part that would be better described as a happy accident.
What’s tough in thinking about it as a balance is that what I believed was a moment of grace, like Anna watching the skaters under the Burnside Bridge and hearing some guy she just met say he knows how she feels, would not be for a lot of readers. They would look at that moment and think, “oh no, there she goes again.”
And it’s because I’m empathizing with Anna, but the reader can see through her.
We can, and yet….One of the things I loved was how these two things we tend to think of as occupying opposite poles—grace and trouble—were never that far apart in the story. The most remarkable moment in that regard is the one that culminates in that unlikely, beautiful, and moving line: “How the abortion makes us a family.” That one brought tears to my eyes.
That’s a very generous reading, thank you.
Let’s switch tacks a bit. For years you were engaged in the mostly quiet and solitary business of crafting Anna’s story. Now it’s out in the world, you’re getting lots of great press, and you’re busy doing author appearances. What can you tell us about the experience of having the book out there and going from writer-in-the-garret to writer-at-the-podium or writer-subjected-to-book-reviews?
Yes, it’s strange. Until about two months ago, only a handful of people had ever read the book. And then the publisher sent out hundreds of copies to reviewers and book bloggers and suddenly people were reading the book and talking about it and talking among themselves and having this relationship with the story that had nothing to do with me. It’s so different. And it’s hard not to want to listen in. But at the same time, I’m writing another novel that’s its own beast and I don’t want to write against readers’ complaints about Uses for Boys or into what they love about it.
On the other hand, I care about Anna’s story and I’m gratified by the discussions young women are having around the book—whether they liked it or not—about loneliness and sex and family. So, it’s a hard question to answer, because it’s strange and heady, but also it’s a gift.
So you’ll be the featured reader at Sacramento’s Stories-on-Stage on Friday, January 25. (It’s SoS’s third anniversary, by the way!) It’s your second appearance there, so you know the drill, where a local actor reads your work to a live audience. Can you talk about the experience of listening to someone else read your work and being part of its audience?
I have to say, Stories on Stage impressed the hell out of me last time I participated. I had so much fun. I’m a huge fan of Selected Shorts on PRI, so the first time I was invited I jumped at it. I had no idea it was such a well-attended, well-produced event. Gay Cooper read my story and she read it so differently than I do, I felt like I got to hear what other people do when they read it. I loved it. You know, Valerie has created an amazing community with Stories on Stage. Sacramento is lucky to have her.
It’s true. We’re very lucky to have Valerie.
In a sort-of related vein, Uses for Boys takes place in Portland, OR, and its environs, of course, but you’ve been in the Bay Area for a while: Do you have a sense of yourself as a Bay Area writer, or, to extend eastward our way a bit, as a northern California writer?
I don’t know. I’m hugely influenced by some Bay Area writers, like Daniel Handler. And am very inspired by the community some writers have created, like Dave Eggers with 826 Valencia and Voice of Witness or Stephen Elliott with The Rumpus. I’m fortunate to be working in close proximity with those folks. But I’m not sure that’s much of an answer. I will say this, my new novel is set in San Francisco.
Naomi J. Williams is a fiction writer and English prof based in Davis, California. Her short stories have appeared in places like One Story, Ninth Letter, A Public Space, and Gettysburg Review. She’s been nominated five times for a Pushcart Prize and was lucky enough to win one year. These days, she’s completing a collection of linked stories about the 18th-century La Pérouse expedition; she occasionally blogs at naomijwilliams.wordpress.com.