Cathleen Schine, THE GRAMMARIANS

Cathleen Schine, THE GRAMMARIANS

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Cathleen Schine who’s the author of the internationally best-selling novels The Three Weissmanns of Westport, The Love Letter, and The New Yorkers as well as award-winning They May Not Mean To, But They Do and other novels. Two of her books have been made into films. Her latest novel is The Grammarians. She’s the winner of the Ferro Grumley Award and is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. A graduate of Barnard and a former New Yorker, she currently lives in Venice, California, with her partner.

Welcome, Cathy. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Cathleen Schine: Thank you. I’m happy to be here. Also, I love the name, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Moms don’t have time to do anything.

Zibby: It’s true. You can make the time if you really try.

Cathy: That’s what you have to do.

Zibby: Hopefully moms have time to listen to podcasts about books. At least there’s that. At least then they can save some time trying to figure out what to read.

Cathy: They can multitask.

Zibby: Yes, exactly. You are the author of several books including this new one, The Grammarians, which was so good. The dictionary in this book and all of these things are so real to me still, having put it down two weeks ago. Tell me what inspired you to write The Grammarians, which has been called “an enchanting comic love letter to sibling rivalry and the English language.”

Cathy: What usually happens — inspiration is a very strange thing. I don’t even think it’s the right word. I always feel like I’m wandering around banging my head against things and one of them turns out to be a door that opens. I’ve written eleven books. After every book, I think, okay, I’ve had eleven ideas. I’m not going to have a twelfth. One of these days, it’s going to be true. I’m not going to have an idea for the next book. So far, I bang my head around enough and an idea comes. This, I really wanted to write about two people having a feud about language. I wasn’t sure what shape that was going to take. At first, it was going to be about translation. The only language I know is English, so that didn’t seem very practical.

Then someone reminded of Ann Landers and Dear Abby who were identical twins and had a long, long feud. They each had warring advice columns. I first thought, no, I don’t want to write about twins. It’s too difficult. I don’t understand them. I’m not a twin. I don’t even know any twins very well. Then once that idea got in my head, the twins kept at me. I thought, this is it. This is what I have to write about. Then I was given, as a gift to cheer me up — I was having a lot of trouble of writing. I was in a post-election funk. Someone gave me a book called English as She is Spoke, which is a hilarious book that was a viral — it was a sensation in the nineteenth century. Supposedly, it was a phrase book for Portuguese travelers in England. Every phrase was insane. It didn’t make any sense. It became a comic sensation. Mark Twain wrote an introduction to it. It was so funny. It made me realize I could write about one of my passions, which is language and linguistics and words.

Zibby: Did you have a dictionary like the one you write about in this book?

Cathy: I didn’t. I was not a dictionary fiend. We did have The Book of Knowledge, which was about thirty volumes. It was an encyclopedia that I loved and used to sit and read. My favorite word book, even more than the dictionary which I do love now, is the thesaurus. I keep it by my bed. I use it all the time, especially as I’ve aged and the words are farther and farther afield and I’m desperately searching for the right word. I just love reading it. Dictionaries and a thesaurus open up all the possibilities, not just of plot or narrative, but of every single word. A word can then lead you to the next word, which then leads you to, “Oh, this is what the story’s about.” At the beginning of each chapter of this book there’s a dictionary definition of a word from Dr. Johnson’s dictionary, which was the first really important comprehensive dictionary in English. I did that after I had finished the book. With each chapter, I then looked for a word in Dr. Johnson’s dictionary that would work at the beginning of that chapter. A lot of times what happened was after I found the word, that’s when I understood what the chapter was really about and what it was doing. It works both ways. Words can open up ideas. They can also encapsulate an idea that you weren’t even sure you had.

Zibby: Wow, that’s really interesting, words like that.

Cathy: It was fun too, that part. That was the best part.

Zibby: That’s a good challenge for anyone writing a book, to pick one word to sum up a chapter.

Cathy: It’s very hard when people say, “What is your book about?” I always stumble and bumble. I’m not sure what to say. For the author in the particular, I think it’s hardest to know what the book is about, for me anyway, because I don’t start out with a theme. I start out with some characters and some kind of conflict or some kind of dynamic that I want to explore. Then when someone says, “What is the book about?” I say, “Uh, well, uh, it’s about twins and words and family and relationships.”

Zibby: It’s about life. It’s a coming of age.

Cathy: Yes, it is. It’s a funny coming-of-age novel in a way. In some ways, you could say it’s about a kind of authoritarianism versus anarchy on the two most extreme ends of language. There were a lot of things going on in my mind or in my subconscious as I was writing it. Mostly, it’s about words and twins and sisters trying to differentiate themselves from each other when they look exactly the same.

Zibby: I feel like the point of the book at which they really differentiate is when they have children and they decide to handle that in very different ways. Up until then, they’ve been running similar courses in life. Yet, one decides to be a stay-at-home mom. She’s a teacher and says, “I love it. I don’t want to miss a single word that my baby says.” The other one has a child much later and doesn’t want to give up the rat race, in a way. I have some quote. Daphne, one of the twins, says, “Having so much work to do was essential, she thought, because babies distort the mind. They tire you out and hypnotize you and trick you into superhuman efforts and sleep deprivation that wear you down even more until you are completely under their tiny thumbs and praying to remain there.” Laurel, on the other hand, is the one who doesn’t want to miss a minute. I was wondering, for you, did you identify more as a Daphne, this high-achieving columnist, or more as a Laurel who wanted to give it up to stay home, or some sort of mixture?

Cathy: First of all, I think both of them are under the tiny thumb and want to stay there to a certain extent. The question is how much? For me personally, I was very lucky. What I do, my work, I can do at home. That’s already a huge privilege. Let’s put it this way. My first book took me one year to write. My second book took me seven years to write. That’s because I had two little children. As I was sitting and working, I would hear the children playing with the babysitter. I’d think, no, this is wrong. Why is she having all this fun with my children that I want to have fun with? My deathless prose, the world can wait a few years for my next book. This, I will never be able to see again. That’s a huge privilege. That was a blessing for me. Not everyone has that opportunity. I know so many people who would love to stay home with their children but can’t. I know other people who have enough of that when they get home from work. It’s a balance for each person, if economically you can pull it off. Those two things are a real conflict in the real world. Daphne and Laurel manage to inch their way over to the amount of time that they need with their children. Don’t forget, both of them work at home. It makes a huge difference. It also means you’re never done with your work. It means procrastination is everywhere, opportunities for procrastination. Suddenly, you’re doing the laundry which you hate to do, but it’s better than writing. There are pitfalls to that as well. You know what? It’s hard to be a mother and, again, a privilege.

Zibby: I could talk all day. I’m not even going to pick up that ball and run with it because I want to hear more about you. Yes, I would agree with that. It’s funny. When you talk about the twins’ own mother, you say, “Sally was a dominating mother when she could be, but it was all in self-defense, which was something the twins clearly understood.” I loved that line, thinking that as a parent, you’re just trying to protect yourself. It’s so funny.

Cathy: I was thinking about that question last night. I was thinking, maybe that’s one I don’t really want to go into. I don’t have that much to say about it.

Zibby: We can skip it. I’m sorry, we can skip it.

Cathy: No, as I was thinking about it, it made me laugh. As soon as I read it, the visual that came to me, the image was of me running around the house chasing both children, screaming at them, doors slamming. I thought, is that defensive or offensive? Unlike Sally, the mother in this book, I did not feel excluded. My children did not have that kind of — the twins in this book have such a tight relationship. Sally is baffled by them and feels a little bit excluded. That changes. I don’t want to give away the end of the book. By the end of the book, she’s understood certain things that make that less painful. When I finished the book, I thought one of the things maybe I was unconsciously doing in this book was making a statement to my own children, which was, “You boys better be friends with each other after I die or I will come back and haunt you.”

Zibby: Have you let them know that?

Cathy: I’ve said it.

Zibby: What’d they have to say about that?

Cathy: They say what they always say, “Oh, Mom.”

Zibby: Are they friends now?

Cathy: They’re friends.

Zibby: Enough?

Cathy: They’re getting over childhood — what shall I call them?

Zibby: Mishegas?

Cathy: Mishegas, that is the right word.

Zibby: In the book, you say a line that I loved, “This is what words do, Laurel realizes. They call out from the page and force you to listen. No, they allow you listen.” Tell me about that a little bit.

Cathy: Words are very powerful. They’re powerful as you say them or write them. They’re also powerful as you hear them or read them. I think it is for most people. I think readers are involved in the same kind of creative act that writers are involved in. You’re bringing everything you have to it and making of it what you will or what you can or what you need to. What she’s saying there is that if you can open yourself up to words, they have a tremendous amount that you’re not even expecting, to give you and to show you. They open up a whole world. Words, worlds, either one.

Zibby: People have called you a modern-day Jewish Jane Austen. Thoughts on this?

Cathy: I am Jewish. That part’s right. Don’t forget, I’ve been doing this for thirty years. Things have changed a little bit. That quote is from quite a long time ago, twenty-five years ago. There was a period when, if you were a woman and you wrote a funny comedy of manners and it was good, you were compared to Jane Austen. That was the signal that this is an intelligent book. It’s funny. It’s okay for you to read it. Of course, I’m immensely flattered to have had that said about me. There was only one Jane Austen. There will always be only one Jane Austen. Anyone who has ever written a book that is funny and about a family and has any insights at all owes everything to Jane Austen. I’ll take it.

Zibby: Can I delve into your personal life here for a little bit?

Cathy: Sure.

Zibby: When you were younger, you were in a horrible car accident. You almost died at age sixteen.

Cathy: I broke my neck when I was sixteen.

Zibby: What happened?

Cathy: We went to the movies, some friends and I. I’d already seen the movie. That’s the part that still gets me. I didn’t really want to see the movie.

Zibby: Oh, no. What movie? Now I put you on the spot.

Cathy: It was Goodbye, Columbus. I’d seen it. It was good. That was great. I went just to hang out with my friends. Then on the way back, my boyfriend was driving. He was driving very fast. We weren’t drunk. We weren’t high. We were just having a good time and laughing. He was driving too fast. He hit a stone wall. I went through the windshield and then back again. By the way, I’ve never really written about this particular incident. I’ve written around it. There’s been a car accident. There have been things happening in different books. It’s not something I’ve ever used directly. It’s just too traumatic. I don’t know. Or maybe not enough traumatic enough to use. I’m not sure.

My favorite part is — I wanted to go to Woodstock. It was 1969. I had to go to Woodstock. I was in the hospital. I was in traction. I had things screwed into my head. The doctor said, “No, you cannot go to Woodstock.” I said, “Yes, I have to go to Woodstock. Put me in a body cast. My friends will put me in the back of their van. We’ll go to Woodstock.” He said, “You cannot go to Woodstock. You have a broken neck.” I said, “No, I don’t. I just broke C1 and C2.” He said, “That is your neck.” That combination of ignorance and arrogance, to me, embodies what adolescence and being a teenager is all about. I often think about that. I think, wow, you were an arrogant little thing, weren’t you? I didn’t go to Woodstock, which I still regret. Although, it did rain. It was muddy.

Zibby: You would’ve ruined your shoes.

Cathy: I was so upset. I was in the emergency room. My mother was there. I said, “Make sure they save my belt. It’s my favorite belt.” She was looking at me. My face was all cut up. She just said, “Mm-hmm,” and didn’t say, “Dear, you’re about to die from loss of blood. I’m not worried about your belt.” She just said, “Yes, mm-hmm.” She was a good mother. She was in shock. Anyway, I survived.

Zibby: You survived. Then you had another whole traumatic thing. You were taking prednisone to combat Crohn’s disease. You ended up in the hospital for eight months when you were only age twenty because of some side effect with your hips or something.

Cathy: It’s called aseptic necrosis of the hips. I was in the hospital and in rehab in a wheelchair for a total of a year, which is a hugely long time when you’re that age, or any age.

Zibby: A day is a long time to be in a hospital. A year is…

Cathy: It’s true. It was horrible. I did get to watch the Watergate hearings which were at that time.

Zibby: You’re like the Forrest Gump of the hospital.

Cathy: This is how I date things. That operation, that I have written about. My first book was about that. It’s a novel, but it’s very autobiographical. Again, it’s about an arrogant, privileged young person who is hit with this horrible thing and somehow maintains her dignity by remaining an incredibly arrogant, privileged young person throughout the whole thing. That’s a kind of strength. It can also be a weakness. In this case, that’s how she hung onto life.

Zibby: During those stretches of time, did you turn to reading? Were you able to read? Did you learn to see things through a new — clearly, this must have affected how you saw the world. I can’t imagine. Despite how arrogant you may think you were, I’m sure these experiences give you a unique lens on what happens in life.

Cathy: The perspective was literally different because I was horizontal or I was low, down in a wheelchair. That taught me a lot about perspective in life, not just for writing. I had wanted to be a poet when I was in high school. I got scared off by how fabulous everyone was when I went to Sarah Lawrence. I thought, I’m not letting these fabulous people see my poems. Get me out of here. Then I went to Barnard and studied medieval history. I learned about different perspectives. I learned that one person can be suddenly in a completely different space and at a different level, literally, which also changes the way you’re treated. When you’re horizontal, it doesn’t matter how old you are, you’re considered this sick person with no dignity and no agency. When you’re young on top of that, it was horrendous. It did teach me about that. It was interesting in that way. It was awful. Looking back, I learned a lot about different kinds of people. I was in a rehab. I was at the Rusk Institute with all these old people who had had strokes — that was very interesting — and people from all over the country. I was exposed to a lot of different lives and perspectives. That was important to me. At the same time, I learned that you can maintain your own identity, whatever it is, even while you’re navigating all these different people and other people’s perspectives. It was an interesting time.

Zibby: Do you feel like you left with a seize-the-day, life-is-short mentality? Was it more just getting through that experience?

Cathy: Yes, to a certain extent. In a way, it made me almost more arrogant.

Zibby: No, I don’t believe you.

Cathy: I’m both arrogant and very — I have no self-confidence. Those things sometimes go together. I don’t think I consciously thought, but I felt like I am a superior person because I have survived this and you have no idea what this is like. All of these things give you a certain amount of strength. At the same time, it has to be tempered. As you get older, you start to realize that you are not a superior person. You’re just a person like everybody else. Age has tempered a lot of the arrogance. The arrogance of youth is a really interesting topic. Young people are both arrogant and horribly painfully without self-confidence. That combination is so poignant and interesting. It made me think about things like that.

Zibby: If we were to do a little timeline and put all your books on the little timeline of your life and then put your life stories on top of it — you started off married to man. You have two sons. At some point, you get divorced. Now you’re married to a woman. When did all that happen? Put that on a little graph for me. Between which books?

Cathy: Somewhere between Rameau’s Niece and She is Me, that all took place.

Zibby: Tell me about that time of your life.

Cathy: It was hard. It was very difficult. I’m very lucky in that my friends and my family were wonderful. My kids were amazing. My ex-husband is the most wonderful person. We’re very close still. Compared to what a lot of people go through, it was a piece of cake, but it was hell. You grow up thinking, this is what I want. I am so lucky I have this. I lived in a wonderful place with a wonderful husband. I had these wonderful kids. Now I’m throwing this away. It was torture. I wasn’t throwing it away. I was just changing. Both David and I and Janet, my wife now, worked very, very hard together to make things work. Since we’re all good, decent people, it did work. It was kind of a miracle. Nora Ephron once said — I was not close friends with her, but friends with her. We both had sons named Max. I got a lot of hand-me-downs.

Zibby: I have some friends with sons named Max. If you continue this trend, just let me know. cute little bin.

Cathy: I have the cutest little sweater. David and I were divorced, but we went to a party together for someone that we both knew. Nora laughed and said, “You guys have the best divorce.” I thought, wow, coming from you, that’s a compliment. I’ll take that. We do. It was very hard. It was the most painful thing, including everything that’s ever happened to me. It’s so difficult with your kids. You’re disappointing people. Look, any divorce is the end of a dream that you have when you first get married. It’s a kind of death. No matter how well you handle it, it’s very, very sad. There’s a lot of mourning that goes on. I’m very happy now, and so is David. The kids are great.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I love that. What do you have coming next for you? I loved your little preview. We were talking in my kitchen earlier about some idea that Cathy had a new book.

Cathy: I’m playing around with an idea. From reading a book by Emma Gray, screenwriter in the 1930s who wrote a lot of the screenplays for Greta Garbo, from reading a memoir by her, and also talking to a poet in rather tipsy conversation about Auden and the idea of being minor, of a minor writer, I’m piecing together, I think, maybe — you see how I’m qualifying? You got it? I’m fooling around with an idea about writing something set in Pacific Palisades where the émigré community lived — many of them ended up involved with Hollywood — and writing about a fictional person in that milieu with all of these very brilliant people, but someone who isn’t as brilliant.

Zibby: Sorry for these sirens, by the way. I’m sure in your Pacific Palisades book there would not be the same level of…

Cathy: No, but at my mother’s apartment on 96th, yeah, we’ve got the sirens.

Zibby: My apologies. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Cathy: Yes. Don’t take yourself too seriously. If you see yourself as an artist as you start out, you will immediately start thinking you’re a failed artist, unless you’re a jerk. It’s good to keep perspective and just say, “I am putting some words on paper. Either they’ll work out or they won’t. I’m going to write them. When I’m done, then I will go back and make them really good.” People get very hung up on their first draft or first sentence or first chapter and keep rewriting and feel bad about themselves. For me, I feel like you have to write what you have to say. Then you go back and you edit and make it really good. Also, read a lot. Read a lot of good books, not necessarily popular books, not even necessarily books that you like, but books that open up different worlds and different ways of thinking, not necessarily different kinds of prose, but just different ways of thinking. That’s the best I can do. My first book, I wrote one page a day, period, no matter what, not two pages, not half a page. That was the way I controlled my fear and my ego. I’m doing this. This is my job. It is a job. That’s the other thing that people really — if you wait around for inspiration, good luck to you. Inspiration comes, but you have to be sitting there doing your job for inspiration to bother to visit you.

Zibby: Somebody just said there’s no such thing as plumber’s block. You can’t get writer’s block.

Cathy: For the first time in my life after over thirty years of writing books, after 2016, I had writer’s block. I was so upset and so anxious and so distracted that anything I wrote seemed irrelevant to the world and stupid. Why would anyone be bothered writing this much? and certainly not reading it. The way I conquered that — it took a long time. First of all, I went to New Orleans and visited some friends. Being in New Orleans, which is a place where death is so pervasive and being there when people are having parades about death, I thought, if they can do this and have art and love and fun in the midst of all of this disaster, maybe I can do that too. That was very inspiring.

Then I sat myself down every day instead of sitting in the morning — usually, what I do is eventually I get to my work. I sit down — or lie down in my case, I write in bed — and start writing or get distracted, and then two hours later think, oh, my god, I haven’t written anything, that whole procrastination thing. Instead of that, at four o’clock in the afternoon, I sat down on the couch with a little pad that I picked up and a pencil that I hate which you can hardly read because it’s got such a hard lead, and just wrote for about forty minutes with a glass of bourbon on the side. I didn’t look at it. I couldn’t read it because it was so difficult to read. I did that for about a week just to get something down without overthinking it and without judging it. By the end of week, I had a really good chapter, which is actually in the book. Sometimes you have to trick yourself. There is no plumber’s block, but plumbers don’t have to imagine a whole new set of pipes and what they’re made out of, all new materials and different shapes, every single time.

Zibby: I didn’t come up with that.

Cathy: I know. I’ve heard that before. I’ve always thought that because I’ve never had this problem before. Now I get it. Now I understand it. Also, now I know how to get around it. Write with invisible ink while you’re drinking bourbon.

Zibby: Perfect formula. Thank you so much for sharing everything with “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Cathy: Thank you so much for doing this. It’s great.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure.

Cathleen Schine, THE GRAMMARIANS