Author Interview: Rebecca Scherm

The author of Unbecoming on the novel as a zipper, literary influence, and what’s next

Rebecca Scherm is the real thing. She’s brilliant, generous, and direct, is incisively, huntingly curious, plainly dissatisfied with dull conclusions, and is also very funny. These qualities are all in her writing, and Tana French agrees with me, blurbing Rebecca Scherm’s debut novel, Unbecoming, as follows:

From the first page, you know Rebecca Scherm is the real thing. Unbecoming is an assured exploration of the intricate, intense, risky processes that go into creating identity — and into dismantling it.

If you haven’t yet read Unbecoming, you’re in luck, because it’s recently out in paperback.

In the meantime, enjoy this conversation I had with Rebecca about Unbecoming, her writing process, her favorite books of the year, and her forthcoming novel, Beta.

Q: Unbecoming’s charming dissembler of a protagonist, Grace, has been compared to Hitchcock’s femme fatales by many reviewers and fans. Did you have any cinematic moments in mind during the writing of this book?

Oh, yes, though for me it Hitchcock’s heroines– blond, virtuous, accommodating, in peril– and the femme fatales I knew from noir. I wanted to look at someone deeply duplicitous using these two cinema types as inspiration for one very complicated, very human character. Movie heists and capers were an influence in the same way– I was inspired to write a heist (fumbling, inelegant, full of mistakes) that was different from the sharp and glittering movie heists I loved. Many aspects of this book originated as rebuttals to movies and books that I loved in my youth, such as To Catch a Thief, How to Steal a Million, and The Maltese Falcon, that began to seem suspicious and incomplete to me as I got older.

Q: You’ve described the structure of Unbecoming as a “zipper” to me before, and the image seems so apt; like a zipper, the novel is a precisely calibrated machine. Where in the writing process did you arrive at this shape? Is there a chronological ghost-draft or two floating around the old hard drive?

Well, I can’t tell a story from beginning to end even if I want to. I don’t think that’s how life is lived, really! Every choice we make is informed by our memories, by something that happened (or didn’t happen), and getting inside the head of a character requires so many brief digressions into that muck. With Unbecoming, I wrote each part of the story when I knew it and then began trying to understand how they fit together, how each part illuminated or changed the effect of the other parts. At some point, probably 3/4 of the way through my first draft, I had the idea about the zipper– that the past in the novel would be the left set of teeth, the present the right side, and that the story of how Grace became who she is could only be told by zipping those two sides together.

3.) You have a background in visual arts, and there are so many sensual and visual pleasures in Unbecoming–the palpable, correct joy Grace feels when she sets a stone just so in Paris, the perfection of the leather boots she buys in New York, the dissatisfaction Grace experiences when she looks at Riley’s competent but uninteresting paintings–how does your work in the visual arts inform this book?

I spent many years looking at things as a visual artist, but my art was always telling some kind of story. I could never just let a thing be. I remember one piece I made– a human-sized cocoon, woven out of old white undershirts and suspended from the ceiling. The idea was that you could crawl into this cocoon and when you came out, you would have transformed, you would be different. I guess that might be yet another early inspiration– really, I’ve always been interested in people trying and failing to transform.

But unlike Riley and Hanna, for instance, I was all ideas, lousy execution. I did not have technical skill! You know, I didn’t used to care very much about precision– I just wanted to make my idea understood, get it out there. But as a writer, I strive to be precise, and I find precision very compelling as a virtue. I adore people and characters with an expertise that requires precision, probably because one of my fears for myself is sloppiness. So I think a lot of the finer details about art and antiques in Unbecoming are wedding my love of the visual metaphor with a fetish for precision.

Q: What have you been reading lately? What are you favorite books of 2015? And who remain the old favorites–writers and books you return to again and again to inspire and inform?

2015 in reading is, for me, the year I read Middlemarch and Elena Ferrante. I’ve read many wonderful, memorable books this year, but both Middlemarch and Ferrante’s novels have their own richly-appointed quarters in my brain. I also loved Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days(and my goodness, look at that– the first two are women transforming, the third about expertise!).

The greatest literary influences on Unbecoming were A Judgment in Stone, by Ruth Rendell, and Endless Love, by Scott Spencer. Both of these books look simpler than they are, and I tend to make it my mission to get them into the hands of more readers. The idea that a book might look as if it belonged soundly to one genre and then really screw around with every expectation of that genre, just blow it all to hell– that idea became very important to how I approach my writing. If we ever accidentally stumble into talking about them at a party, watch out. You will not get away!

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about Beta, the novel that you are currently working on?

My second book is about a family a few short years from now who move to a space station, thinking, as many of us do, that they need a different stage to become the people they were meant to be, and that if they just travel far enough, their problems cannot possibly go with them. Wrong! It’s about being a guinea pig in someone else’s grand experiment– the Beta version– and about people trying to be grand themselves, to “matter.”

Q: How does the process of writing your second novel compare to the process of writing Unbecoming?

In one way, it’s easier: I have proof that I can write a novel, so that particular doubt isn’t nipping at my heels. But the conditions are very different this time around. With Unbecoming, I was part of tight writing community– friends reading drafts, etc.–and this one I’m writing as a new mother with far fewer hours in the day. As far as just knowing what to do, knowing what happens next and how to say it– that is not one whit easier the second time around. Oh, I wish it were.

Thank you, as always, for dazzling me, Rebecca Scherm!


Originally published at on January 4, 2016.

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