August 25th, 2010
Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but I rarely laugh out loud anymore. I mean, I often think things are funny, and can find great enjoyment in reading cartoons and humorous writing. It’s just that, I don’t know, maybe I’m too busy analyzing why something is funny, studying the word choices, the timing.
That all changed during my recent trip to the Gulf Coast when I read Rachel Shukert’s new memoir, “Everything is Going to Be Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour.” Page after page, Ms. Shukert’s writing took me by surprise. I found myself doing the unexpected, especially when on a crowded airplane: I let go, bursting into laughter.
Q. “Everything is Going to Be Great” is one of the funniest memoirs I’ve read in a long time. Although you live in New York, and most of your memoir is set in Europe, you grew up in Omaha which makes several cameos throughout your book. Do you think of yourself first as a New Yorker, or as an Omahan living in New York and traveling abroad?
Well, I was born and raised in Omaha, and moved to New York when I was 18. I’ve been in New York for twelve years now. So I’ve really lived in New York almost exactly the same amount of time that I really, lucidly remember living in Omaha, and maybe because of that, I think I’m sort of at a point where I think of myself as this sort of hybrid. The childhood and teenage side of me–which is still pretty dominant, I have to say–is from Omaha, but as an adult, I’m a New Yorker. Maybe it’s a bit schizophrenic, but it’s not like they’re antithetical or anything. The person I am today is very much of both places. In conversation, I find myself referring to both places as “home.” I don’t know if that will ever really change.
Is there something about Midwestern sensibilities that lends itself to humorous writing?
I certainly don’t think everyone from the Midwest is funny–some of the most unfunny people in the world live right in Omaha, Nebraska, and I know because I’ve spent time in their administrative offices waiting while they called my mother–but I think if you’re humorously inclined, the culture gives you a good foundation. Comedy is first and foremost about clarity, about the shock of having something described to you the way it actually is, instead of the way we’re societally trained to skirt around the truth. And Midwesterners are pretty straightforward that way, pretty matter-of-fact. We call things the way we see them, and that can actually be pretty subversive. I also think Midwesterners are pretty hard to impress (which at times can be infuriating, for example, when they are your family members), but the flip side of that is that they don’t take themselves or anything else too seriously, which is essential for humor. You have to have a certain kind of fearlessness to be funny. You can’t allow yourself to be intimidated. You’ve got to have a little of that pioneer spirit, maybe.
You left Omaha for NYU and eventually headed to Europe to pursue your dream of becoming an actress. How has acting, and theater, shaped your writing?
The first creative writing I ever did was for the theater. In acting school, I started to get really bored of performing and hearing the same five scenes and monologues over and over again, so I started to write my own. At first, I didn’t really even want anyone to know I’d written them. If anyone asked I’d just say they were from some old, out-of-print print play I’d found someplace, but then people started to respond positively to them, and then I started writing whole plays, and it kind of snowballed into the strange little career you see before you today. So everything goes back to that; if I had never been an actor, I’m not entirely sure I’d have found my way to writing, or it might have taken a lot longer to get here. At the very least, it provided a really good map.
The training I received as an actor is still really evident, even intrinsic, to my writing process. It’s a different medium of expression, but you use a lot of the same tools to create a character or a scene on the page as you do on the stage–a kind of emotional intelligence, being present in the moment, analyzing the dynamics of a scene or a conversation, figuring out what motivates people to behave as they do. Memoir writing, especially I think, is very related to acting. Actors are all obsessed with the sum of their personal experience, and it’s not just narcissism (or at least, not entirely.) It’s actually really useful as an actor to be able to look analytically at things that happened to you and what they felt like, to really boil it down into very specific parts in order to access those feelings later. The difference is that an actor physicalizes that information, while a writer verbalizes it, and a writer also has to shift the perspective outwards, to be able to retain that minute attention to detail but also look at the big picture. Actually, that was always what I felt was my weakness as an actor, that I couldn’t stay focused enough, that my attention was always being drawn to other things–themes, ideas, the connectivity of the characters. My perspective was too intellectualized to be effective; the performance would get bogged down in all these ideas. And as a writer, that can be a great strength, although it’s still a delicate balance. But they are definitely very overlapping talents. A lot of actors are great writers, and a lot of writers can be pretty good actors.
I love that you tried to pass off as an old play something you had written. Can you recall any of that early work? Were any of those first monologues and plays autobiographical?
No, mostly they weren’t. There was one where I was a feral orphan who was impregnated by a Tour de France rider who had lost his way in my forest home. That one eventually was incorporated into a play I wrote with my friend Neal, but I used it as an audition monologue for years, to almost universal bafflement. And there was another one where I was this sort of bad seed figure skating champion from Switzerland, I think. Then I eventually invented this character that was this incredibly elderly socialite with a string of disastrous marriages and a schizophrenic son. I wrote lots and lots of monologues in her voice, which I eventually turned into one of the very first plays I ever wrote, called “Soiled Linens.” I actually performed some of those monologues in Amsterdam, around the time when the book was set. My dear friend directed them into a little twenty minute piece. People seemed to respond pretty well, except part of the character’s voice was that she spoke very quickly, learned that when you’re performing for an audience whose first language isn’t English, even if they speak it well, you have to speak relatively slowly for them catch everything.
When writing about your relationships with family and friends, and especially when documenting your personal mishaps, you certainly don’t hold back. Are there any boundaries for you, things that even you won’t write about?
I’m pretty careful writing about my husband. I don’t write about certain things that have to do with him–his family, or things pertaining to his career, or our really intimate moments. I don’t feel like those are things I have jurisdiction over, so to speak. [pullquote]If writing a biography is like painting a portrait, then a memoir is like making a sculpture out of found objects…[/pullquote]When I do write about him, I usually let him read what I’ve written before it’s final. Generally, he’s a pretty good sport, and I try to be fair. If there’s something he has a problem with that I feel is really essential to what I’m trying to get across, I’ll make a case for it and he’s usually receptive to that. But I try to pick my battles. If changing a little throwaway detail makes him more comfortable, it’s worth it to me. But I get final cut.
I also really try not to be cruel, or to pass judgment on other people about things that don’t concern me. It’s not up to me to divulge my thoughts on why someone else’s relationship failed, or what kind of pornography they watch. The only secrets I have a right to expose are my own. I’m not writing exposés of people, or trying to humiliate them; I find that really distasteful. If I do have something not so nice to say, I try very hard to change enough superficial details that the person won’t be recognizable to others, and if I’m a bit ruthless about something, I make sure I’m twice as critical of myself. I have a real problem in memoir when authors are extremely critical of the people around them but don’t hold themselves to the same standard of accountability. It makes for dishonest work that is insulting to the reader–it presumes they’ll just be still and believe what they’re told and won’t be able to see through it.
I have a few family members who have explicitly asked me never to pop up in one of my books. They’re proud of me, they like my work, but they just don’t want to be a part of it. They’re like the missing Osborne daughter, the one who didn’t want to be on the show. I respect that, so I won’t write about them. At least not until they’re dead.
Your memoir is not only humorous, but it’s poignant and touching. You also manage to write in a way that seamlessly weaves in details from the past without necessarily telling the story chronologically. It’s like magic. Do you have a general sense of what connections you will be making, what personal truths you will reveal, before you write or does the whole process happen organically?
The great challenge of memoir is assembling a compelling, meaningful narrative out of only things that actually happened to you. You can embellish, you can tweak a detail here and there, but it’s mostly made out of finite parts that you somehow have to make dynamic. If writing a biography is like painting a portrait, then a memoir is like making a sculpture out of found objects–you have all these things, and you have to order them in a way that transcends the sum of their parts and takes on a new meaning. This is maybe kind of a cliched example, but I always think of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” sculpture–it’s a urinal, but it stops being just a urinal because of its context as art. In memoir, a stupid thing that happened to you one time transforms into literature because you put it into its proper place.
When I started writing Everything Is Going To Be Great, I had an idea of the narrative arc of the story. It’s takes place within a very contained period of time, and it’s a period that I always felt had a very clear beginning, middle and end. At the time, I often felt like I was sort of living in a novel–since everything was new, which of course is the other meaning of “novel”–and so I wanted it to have a novelistic feeling, to make it more of a satisfying story than a disjointed series of events. So I tried to make sure that the stories I chose served that purpose.
I remember reading something once about this guy who was a memory savant. He literally, to the word, every conversation he had ever had, everything that had ever happened on every day, had total recall of his entire life. And I thought, that guy could never write anything, because if you don’t forget the unimportant stuff, how can you separate the wheat from the chaff? Our most vivid memories, even the ones that seem trivial–a person we saw on a train platform, a red sweater we loved as a kid–are often the most compelling, in literature and in life. They’re like ancient artifacts in a museum, they’re valuable simply because of the great mass of stuff, they survived. Your own memory can be the greatest editor you ever have.
Regarding your memory as an editor, and with the assumption that you will write many more books in the future, do you ever find yourself trying to sort out the significant from the unimportant, in the heat of the moment?
Sometimes I have a moment where I think: “I am going to remember this forever.” It’s something I’ve done since I was a little kid–make these little mental notes of something and file them away for later. But I think most of its subconscious. No memory is ever really lost forever. You’ll find it when you need it.
I’d been a huge fan of Gary’s, but I’d thought of a blurb from him as a total pipe dream–I didn’t know him, and I knew he was really busy with his own amazing new book. But then we were both invited to be a part of this big event in San Francisco, and we really hit it off and he and my husband and my friend Jesse and I spent some pretty hilarious nights out on the town together, and he said to me once “I think your book is the only new one this year I haven’t given a blurb yet, I can’t believe it,” and I was like, “Please, be my guest!” So I gave him the book when we all got back in town and was so relieved that he didn’t immediately take back his offer to blurb it once he actually read it.
Diablo Cody was on my publisher’s dream list of blurbs, and of course, I was also a huge fan of her work as well. I figured it was a long shot, but she’s actually a good friend of a friend of mine, so I asked my friend if she thought Diablo might be open to taking a look at the book, which she was! She and I have emailed a bit, after she read the book, and she’s really such a lovely, generous person. I’m so honored to have had the support of them both–it’s really like a dream.
Are you working on the screenplay version for either of your books?
I’m not exactly at liberty to say right now, but there has been quite a bit of interest in that direction. So we’ll see! I don’t want to jinx anything. : )
For those in the Omaha area, Ms. Shukert will be signing copies of Everything is Going to Be Great at Omaha’s only full-service indie bookstore, The Bookworm, Saturday, August 28, 2 p.m.
A portion of this interview previously appeared in The Omaha World-Herald.