“The Writer’s Heart”: A Conversation between Liesl Schillinger and Andrea Scrima

Liesl Schillinger and Andrea Scrima are two of the authors in Strange Attractors, an anthology that’s just come out with University of Massachusetts Press, edited by Edie Meidav and Emmalie Dropkin. The thirty-five pieces in the collection explore unsettling experiences of magnetism and unanticipated encounter irresistible enough to change or derail the course of a life. In chaos theory, “strange attractor” is the term given to the fractal variety of attractor that arises out of a dynamic system; its defining unpredictability makes this mathematical concept an apt metaphor for the twists of fate that send us reeling, but can sometimes feel oddly inevitable in hindsight. In her piece for the anthology, “Children and All That Jazz,” Liesl Schillinger weaves the music and heartache of Joan Baez into the lives and longings of a family in the American Midwest in the 1970s; in Andrea Scrima’s excerpt “all about love, nearly,” the narrator explores the dimensions of a world transfigured, and then dissembled, by passion.

A.S.: Liesl, I love the part in your story where a pack of kids is playing “Murder in the Dark” and the young narrator’s crush, who plays the part of the killer, draws near her in the dark yard: “I didn’t try to back away, I thought maybe he was going to kiss me, but then he killed me which was so predictable.”

L.S.: It’s funny, as a child, my belief in the importance of love—fed by the nineteenth-century novels I devoured—from Louisa May Alcott to Dickens and Austen and Stendhal—was unshakeable. I was always waiting for the coup de foudre. But that was paired with an instinctive pessimism, or maybe resignation. My mother gave me a reading list, I was expected to read a book a week, and didn’t consider not doing that. But I also read the twentieth-century novels on my parents’ bedroom shelves. John Irving, Shirley Hazzard, V.S. Naipaul, and Graham Greene did a lot to temper my romantic idealism. Or maybe to undermine it. I hoped for love to work out, but didn’t expect it to; and was somehow always relieved, I think (eventually), when one of my castles in the air collapsed, and I was back on solid ground.

A.S.: I guess my piece in the anthology covers the other, unhealthier side of things: when love makes you lose your footing and even your hold on reality: “my crazy, exalted, euphoric collusion in my own demise.”

L.S.: There’s a conversation between (Shakespeare’s) Antony and Cleopatra that I’ve never forgotten, though this is a paraphrase—Cleopatra says something to the effect of: “I will not have love as my master.” Antony responds, “Then you will not have love.” I’ve had a long and occasionally turbulent romantic history, and Antony and Cleopatra’s exchange reflects my experience.

I know of no love that exists with moderation, at least on my side. The older I get, the busier I am, and the more engrossing my social life becomes, the warier I grow of submitting to the powerlessness of being in a love affair in which the heart is truly engaged. There’s a Kenneth Koch poem posted on the wall behind my computer that explains why. It says, “You want a social life, with friends/ A passionate love life and as well/ To work hard every day. What’s true/ Is of these three you may have two.” When love comes in the door, my work and social life seem to fly out the window. Yet every now and then… even though I know how disruptive it is, I succumb, and all balance is lost.

A.S.: We had a conversation recently about the problems of writing about family history. I’ve just finished a novel I’ve been trying to write for twenty years; it’s structured as a diptych, and although a good deal is pure fiction, the first part is very much about my late mother, the second part about my late father. I don’t think I could have finished this book while they were alive. What, to your mind, are the dangers of memoir writing? What keeps us from committing what we feel and know to the page? In your case, it’s far clearer: your parents are alive, they’re highly literate, and you don’t want to hurt anyone. In my case, I can be fairly sure that no one in my family is interested in reading my books. And yet the difficulties feel just as real, and have been just as inhibiting.

L.S.: This question preoccupies me very much lately. I feel that the writer’s responsibility is to relay vivid, strong impression and shareable insight that awaken associations and memories in others. The content of the decades we’ve lived remains encrypted, hidden, if we don’t as writers tease it out and share it. Showing the meaning of a personal history, in all its “infinite particulars” (Jane Austen’s term), is the writer’s task. The meaning of the era in which we have lived is lost if we leave no emotional record. That is the unique and shocking achievement of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” sextet. He has shown that—to get a little Biblical—just as “every hair on your head is numbered,” the meaning of every individual life, every interaction, every physical detail, retains its power if you can remember it and write it down. But there comes, for me, a question of fairness, in a moral sense, which constricts my desire to write, or even to remember, incidents from my childhood that shaped me, if I think that writing about them would hurt the feelings of the people who love me. Anne Tyler is so excellent at writing novels that show love for the people who loved her. The older I get, the more awe I feel for the consistent, affirming love and support that my parents brought to raising me and my siblings, and the theater of home they created for us, with a level of imagination and effort that exceeds what most parents, even those, like mine, with two careers, are able to dream up. Recently I read Jenny Zhang’s brilliant and disturbing book “Sour Heart”—linked stories about young Chinese immigrant people in New York, whose family dynamics are mined with the harsh economic and political realities their parents and grandparents endured in China, and still endure today. Zhang was not afraid to be unsparing. I envy her daring, but she made me understand the gratitude I should feel for the circumstances of my own upbringing. Long ago I went to a talk called “The Monster in the House,” given by Martin Amis, Amy Tan, Hanif Kureishi, and Dave Eggers. I thought they would talk about difficult and deforming relatives whose personalities and actions upset family harmony. But the “monster” was the writer child, who grows up to tell on everyone, uncharitably, unflinchingly, exposingly. I don’t want to be that monster. Does that mean I can’t be a novelist? Maybe.

A.S. You sent me a poem you wrote about a writer you were once in love with; you suspected he was feigning emotions he didn’t actually feel. The line that struck me was: “I do not know you well, so I am unfair to project—but these traits of yours are mine as well, so how can I not suspect (…).” The title you gave the poem is “The Writer’s Heart.” Do you think the act of writing is a kind of removal from life; a way of harvesting it for material in lieu of living it?

Liesl Schillinger

L.S.: I think writers often live too much in their heads, detached or at a remove from the people they live among, less interested in actual experience than in their own impressions. Many, I suppose, would deny that. I think writers can’t help but objectify others, because their reflex is to assess, pinpoint, categorize, and contextualize the behaviors and personalities of others. I think it’s difficult for writers to ever fully emerge from the locked vaults they construct for themselves, the storehouses of their memories. That can make it hard for a writer to form an enduring romantic relationship with another writer. At the same time, it can be hard for a writer to form a meaningful bond with someone who doesn’t analyze their own interactions in a similarly many-sided way. Mind to mind is the comfortable rapport; body to body can last for a while; it’s heart to heart that’s the challenge, with such armored souls.

A.S.: As a book critic, would you hazard a statement on the general state of literature in America today?

L.S.: Stendhal called the novel a mirror that walks along the highway, reflecting society. Our literature today not only walks along the highway, it floats in the internet ether, flies with airplanes to and from other countries, rolls along the interstate on the sides of moving vans. The profound changes in American culture over the last century—the spread of technology, the increase in travel and global consciousness (in the nineteenth century, most people stayed within ten miles of where they were born their entire lives), the shrinking of extended families, and the transformation in gender roles—cannot help but be reflected in our literature. The American novels I read today are different than the novels I grew up reading, but I don’t say that to knock them. They reflect the simultaneous fragmentation and enlargement of our society and our assumptions. In putting these fragments together, writers show us the cohesion of the picture we are living. I find it reassuring, and sometimes thrilling, in an age of clicks and speed and distraction, to receive an image of the concerted inclusive whole in the pages of a book. I love the writing of contemporary American novelists (both hyphenated and not) like George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, Mohsin Hamid, Miriam Toews (who is Canadian), Jesmyn Ward, and so many others. Memoirs also draw me, keeping the vanished twentieth century alive—Rick Bass, Frederic Tuten. And we are in an extremely rich moment for short stories. I like them because they are like poems; because of their brevity they are more pregnant with meaning, more concentrated in their power. But I also read a lot of political histories, biographies, and non-fiction. The current political moment is Shakespearean in its dramas and outrages, as the difference between fact and fiction has been deliberately blurred. Reading non-fiction helps you focus your lens on the twenty-first-century American highway. But continuing to read fiction (and non-fiction) from the twentieth, nineteenth, and other centuries is just as important to understand our living context.

A.S.: Liesl, what drew me to you like a magnet was the article you wrote for The New York Review of Books, in which you talk about the journalism class you teach at the New School: “Facts/Alternative Facts: Media in America from Tocqueville to Trump.” For someone who worked for fourteen years as fact-checker for The New Yorker, your alarm bells went off at Kelly-Anne Conway’s coinage of the term “alternative facts.” By the time, a month later, Trump called the press the “Enemy of the People,” you’d already decided to propose the course, which you describe as “a boot camp in corrective democracy.” One of the exercises you’ve given your students is “Tweeting Nietzsche,” in which you have them distill the essence of the philosopher’s short essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” to teach them an essential lesson: that “to speak of facts is to speak of language.”

L.S.: I wanted the students to understand that before we address the nature of truth—of facts, and “alternative facts”—we must first speak of language. Anything, true or false, that is said or written, is contained in language. Nietzsche’s wonderful and manipulative essay compares words to coins, which have an image on them—say, an eagle, a relief of Jefferson, a money value. The image on that coin can be blurred or effaced, or an entirely different image can be stamped on it by someone who has the power to mint the meaning of language. So the word “wall” can be blotted out on the coin by President Trump, and replaced with the word “slats” or “fear.” We need to watch when meanings are elided, when individuals annex the power of naming. The value of our words and laws can be emptied and changed, if we’re not vigilant. This idea, actually, comes up in a long travel essay I wrote about journeying alone to Ghana. I had a nightmare at the end of my first day in Accra, in which my bag of Cedis (the Ghanaian currency) had been tampered with. All the bills were still there, but the corners, which held the worth of each note, had been cut off, and replaced with dummies. It was terrifying; I realized something could look much the same, but its value could be depleted.

A.S.: It’s extraordinary how directly the dream speaks to the Nietzsche essay: “What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms (…) worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”

L.S.: Exactly. But again, through writing, I was able to restore those pictures and sensuous power, to revive those Ghanaian Cedis and to assert the worth and value they had for me. That is what writing is for: to preserve and guarantee the meaning and value of experience.

A.S.: What also strikes me about “Hunting a Mythical Monster in Ghana” (apart from the SpaghettiOs the narrator lugs around in her backpack) is that it’s essentially a monument to the artistic process. You travel to Africa to write about Ghanaian women; you pitch a story about the Fish Queens of the Gold Coast to Harper’s. But you quickly realize that you’ve become fascinated by something else entirely.

L.S.: One of the reasons I’ve never written a novel (well, published one, I do have one in a drawer) is that something in me profoundly objects to creating an outline before I set to work. I don’t want to know what I think before I start writing. I want to be surprised by the directions my thoughts take as my fingers touch the keys. This also makes “pitching” stories difficult for me, as a freelance writer! I don’t want a story to feel congealed before I start molding it. I want the whole larder at my disposal, the dough unmade, before I decide what pie to make. And I never know what a story is, when I sit down to my computer; I find out what it is as I write it. I think in the Ghana story, readers can sense that the journey of discovery they’re reading about is one that I really made only when I wrote it down for them, belatedly unpacking and untangling the relics and resonance of the expedition.

A.S.: You did publish a book, though…

L.S.: Oh, yes, that’s right. But it’s not a novel, or memoir, or non-fiction book about some fascinating under-explored subject. It’s a collection of 200 neologisms for the twenty-first century called Wordbirds, which grew out of a Tumblr I started in 2009, after attending the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas. Before SXSWi, I had thought blogging was frivolous, and thought this new thing called Twitter was a flash in the pan. I was strictly in the “Old Media” camp. But in Austin I met scores of panicked editors and reporters who spoke of being scooped by Tweets, bloggers, and “citizen journalists.” They said they had to scramble to build their social media presence to save their jobs. So once I got back to Manhattan I jumped on the blogging bandwagon, so as not to be left behind, and created a neologisms Tumblr. Every few days I’d mint a new word and post it. I accompanied each one with a funny photo of a bird (I plucked the images from the web) that evoked the word’s meaning, on the assumption that visual interest would draw more readers. After a few years, that blog became the Wordbirds book. A tremendously gifted artist, Elizabeth Zechel, drew 150 beautiful illustrations to accompany the definitions—a bird per word. Some of my favorite Wordbirds are CANCELLELATION (the joy you feel when something gets canceled that you hadn’t wanted to go to, anyway) and POLTERGUY (an ex-boyfriend who haunts you).

A.S.: I love it—

L.S.: And then there’s MUMBLENYM (a word you pronounce wrong because you’ve only read it, never heard it said), SCHADENFROLIC (a party for someone who’s been laid off or for a publication or other business that has folded), and DROIDIAN SLIP (like when you answer the TV remote instead of the cellphone). Wordbirds came out in 2013, in hardcover, and then in paperback last May. I still have the Tumblr, but I hardly ever add new Wordbirds these days, which makes me feel guilty, because people still visit the site. Occasionally Facebook (which is linked to my Tumblr) sends me emails chiding that I have not added to the blog in 100, 200, 300 days, which makes me E-QUAIL, so I scroll down and forget about it.

A.S.: Which brings us back to the corruption of language in political discourse. I was in New York when Masha Gessen gave the Arthur Miller Lecture at Cooper Union in 2017; the essay adapted from this, “The Autocrat’s Language,” was published a week later, also in The New York Review of Books. Gessen compares the erosion of language in Russia—the Orwellian hollowing out of words such as “free expression of citizen will” in a country where elections are mandatory and ballots pre-filled with a single name—with the new distortions language has been undergoing in the age of Trump.

L.S.: Yes, Masha Gessen is a standard-bearer of this kind of watchfulness. On Nov. 10, 2016, right after the shocking U.S. presidential election, she published a visionary essay in the NYRB titled “Autocracy, Rules for Survival.” She had firsthand knowledge of living under autocracy because she had lived and worked in Putin’s Russia. The warnings she gave have all proved prophetic. I teach that essay in my class. She gave six rules; I ask the students to identify the things that have come to pass in this administration that exemplify her warnings. They pound a buzzer to declare each sign they’ve spotted. The examples keep multiplying, the buzzers sound and sound. In a different class week, we do the same thing with Orwell’s 1984, identifying examples of doublespeak and Oceanian oppressions that now infect our culture. I also reviewed Gessen’s 2017 book “The Future Is History,” which showed how Putin rose to power and rewrote Russian reality… with worldwide repercussions. A cautionary tale.

A.S.: And then there’s Timothy Snyder’s “Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century”: “When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. (…) Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.” And this: “Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does.”

L.S.: I teach Snyder in my class, in fact, it’s part of this week’s class, and especially relevant this week, after the opaque release of the Mueller Report, whose meaning is being swiftly emptied by the President’s adherents. This week’s class theme is “Dancing with Dictators.” Each student has chosen a different country in which autocracy, populism, xenophobia, and propaganda are on the rise. It’s important for them to see that these dark political forces are contagious, and they need to connect what is happening in this country with events and trends overseas.

A.S.: In my essay on patriotism for The Millions, I tried to draw parallels between the forces of the American national narrative and Hannah Arendt’s analysis of what happens to a society when it can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction. As an American who’s been living in Germany more than half her life, I somehow hoped that my disaffected, estranged view of the homeland might make some small contribution to the what-the-fuck-did-we-let-happen-here conversation, but when the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung gave it a full page in their Sunday edition, I realized that my criticism was feeding into a kind of latent anti-Americanism that had suddenly, in the Trump era, become socially acceptable again. It infuriated me; “I have the right to criticize my own country,” I thought, “but you don’t!” And discovered, to my surprise, my own conflicted form of emotional allegiance.

L.S.: Your essay in The Millions is brilliant. So fertile and wide-ranging. And of course I teach Arendt in my class, from her The Origins of Totalitarianism, concentrating on what she wrote about propaganda. I’m not surprised at the FAZ reaction to your piece. I first went to Germany in 1981, when I was 14. At every kind of gathering, at cafes, amusement parks, and restaurants, German kids would confront me with questions like, why was I putting ICBMs in Europe? I would protest, that’s not me, that’s Ronald Reagan. And then they would all start dancing, to American music, the guys twirling me around in some kind of improvised jitterbug. Every foreigner abroad is seen as a de facto ambassador. In the ’80s and ’90s, I traveled abroad a lot, mostly to France, Germany, and Russia, and was often exasperated by the knee-jerk reaction against America, which I thought came from jealousy of American influence and resentment of American hegemony. But now, as the post-World War II world order is crumbling, undermined by waves of war-led migration that foster fear of the “other,” and by a U.S. president who opposes NATO and is (at best) indifferent to preserving the protections of democracy, I mourn the global values that were still being propagated by this country in the 1980s and 1990s. You write in The Millions that identity—and I think you mean national identity—is a “construct based not in fact but on belief, and as such it has far more in common with religion than with reason.” It is also true, unfortunately—as Nietzsche showed us, and as cognitive neuroscientists like Tali Sharot have proved in the lab—that there is a faith component to facts. People believe what they want to believe, and resist absorbing evidence that challenges their instinctively held beliefs—some of which have more basis in provable fact than others. When you attack other people’s facts, or “alternative facts,” you attack their “identity.” That explains the violent collision of contradictory points of view in news and social media.

A.S.: You grew up in a very cool-sounding family of slavophiles with ties to an expanding coterie of intellectual Soviet émigrés—your parents were professors and spoke Russian fluently. Although my father was a Nixon man, I didn’t exactly grow up fearing mutual assured nuclear destruction, but I was deeply impressed the first time I met “real Russians,” which was in 1986, in Prague. We didn’t share a common language—I didn’t speak Russian, and they didn’t speak German or English—but we were irresistibly drawn to one another and understood each other immediately. After all, they were the other superpower! They commanded space, and they had that easy swagger that Americans abroad always used to have, talking loudly and enjoying the way they attracted attention as though it were the most natural thing in the world. There was this stunned moment of instinctive recognition, when I suddenly realized that we had far more in common that I could ever have with the people I’d met in Czechoslovakia or Poland, who spoke in hushed voices and tried not to stand out in any way, having learned what it means to live under another country’s hegemony.

L.S.: I grew up with a different attitude to Russians than you did; they were so present throughout my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s that they didn’t seem exotic to me. I recognized that they had a different dress code, and a different idea of what food tasted good (lots of salads with mayonnaise in them) than most Americans I knew; but these differences were superficial. They seemed different to me in the way that the hippie families of the era were different—the ones who ate granola and yogurt before it was normal, and carob instead of chocolate; who wore tie-dye, and looked tired all the time. But the Russians did not ever look tired; they were animated, and always up for social interaction. They also read a lot—fine nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, a value that made them feel familiar to me, because reading was so important in my family. They were earnest and gregarious, good talkers. Some had old-world manners that I admired, rather Ancien Régime. They praised me when I learned French; theirs was fluent. I remember warmly a lady named Valentina Aleksandrovna, who had sparkling blue eyes, a high white chignon, and musical laughter. I thought she seemed aristocratically gracious. When I was five and six, she came by often to give my mother Russian conversation lessons, and also gave her a recipe for poppy-seed cake, which became my father’s favorite cake. One Easter, Valentina Aleksandrovna gave me a cunning painted box shaped like a rabbit, big enough to hold my lunch; another year she gave me a teal- and white-enameled Russian Orthodox cross, sprigged with a delicate tracery of tiny roses.

When I traveled to Russia in the early 1990s, and was surrounded for the first time entirely by Russians, I became conscious, as you did in Prague, that the Russians regarded themselves as citizens of a separate and equal (at least) superpower. I can’t explain how that self-definition makes itself felt differently than Parisian self-regard, or British self-assurance, but I agree with you that it is distinct. Something about the way they hail each other with solidarity—“Rebyata!” (Guys!), or speak of “Nashi” (our guys); or in May, celebrate Den’ Pobedy—victory day, the surrender of the Nazis at the end of WWII—or the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call it—in 1945, a few months before America brought the war to a complete end after dropping atomic bombs on Japan. When I was an American in Moscow, in 1993, it was apparent that Russia’s superpower status had abruptly ended not long before, but the Russians didn’t recognize that yet. They were like Wile E. Coyote spinning his legs in the air, having zoomed off the cliff. The ruble was collapsing, wages were all but worthless, Muscovites were taking in boarders to make ends meet, physics professors were building tables for McDonalds to earn enough hard cash to feed their families. On the street, drunk men wove and bobbed across intersections as if they were balancing invisible hula-hoops; in the subway underpasses, grandmothers sold dried fish to survive; in the squares, rough kids scrapped—I hadn’t seen bare knuckles from fistfights until that Moscow winter. At the same time, there was an exhilarating sense of possibility in the air. There were opportunities for young and adaptable Russians, for risk-takers, for the tech-adept, and of course, as always, for the well-connected and sly. Foreigners were flooding Moscow, and Russians could mingle freely, unlike in the old Soviet, Intourist days. Businesses, clubs, restaurants, and joint ventures were popping up everywhere. This was nearly seven years before Putin came to power. In 1993, when I lived for a few months in Moscow (I returned several times for shorter visits in later years), I think everyone, both the lucky and the unlucky, did not recognize how dramatically the ground had shifted underneath their feet, and how permanent that shift would be. I realized then that established world-power hierarchies could change dramatically, almost overnight. It occurred to me that this kind of change, and the failure of the public to recognize it, could happen in any country, and that it could happen in America. And then it did happen here; it’s still happening.


Liesl Schillinger & Andrea Scrima will be reading from the anthology at McNally Jackson on May 15, Brooklyn, NY.

A full list of Strange Attractors Readings can be found here.


Author’s note:

This conversation marks my ninth month as a columnist for 3 Quarks Daily. I’ve talked to artist Joy Garnett about her famous Egyptian poet and beekeeping grandfather; David Krippendorff about his work on the subjects of home and identity; Patricia Thornley about the layers of American identity in her video installation work; German author Ally Klein about her literary debut, “Carter”; and my editor, Christopher Heil, about the German edition of “A Lesser Day,” “Wie viele Tage” (Droschl 2018). I’ve also written about reading and about the complex work of Alyssa DeLuccia and the balancing act it performs between photography, installation, and collage. There’s also a conversation with Myriam Naumann that explores the connecting points between my book “A Lesser Day” and an installation I exhibited several months back at the Berlin gallery Manière Noire, titled “The Ethnic Chinese Millionaire.”

The series can be found in its entirety here

My next 3Quarks conversation, which will appear on April 29, will be with Saskia Vogel. We’ll be talking about BDSM, pornography, #metoo, and her debut novel Permission.