No One’s Suffering is Banal: Cathleen Schine on the Intricacy of Writing Trauma
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Cathleen Schine about her new novel, Künstlers in Paradise.
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!
From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: There’s a moment in the novel where your main character, Mamie, is telling a story to her grandson, and he later relays it to a friend. In the retelling, which has its own lifeline and energy, he recounts Mamie saying, “One’s trauma becomes banal when it’s trotted out too many times.” Do you remember writing that line, and can you talk about it?
Cathleen Schine: I do remember writing that, and I remember it very well because I had shied away, until I got to the end of the book, from writing about specific instances of Nazi aggression in Vienna of things that Mamie would have seen. I thought, really, you’re going to write one more time about an old lady having to scrub the sidewalk while people jeered at her? And I just couldn’t do it. It’s something that shouldn’t just be thrown into a novel because it’s a terrible thing that happened, and how do you treat it with the horrified awe that it deserves, without it becoming a kind of pornography?
And so, it was very hard for me to get to the point where I could write about that. I mean, very hard. And finally I just thought, well, then write about that. Mamie understands that, but she also knows it’s very, very important to tell these stories, and the fact that they’ve been sort of co-opted by pop culture, but it doesn’t lessen the fact that they happened, and stories—and telling stories—is a way of passing down history and tradition. It’s a very important one, and you can’t shy away from it.
I just didn’t know if I was up to it. So, it was something I really, really tried not to have to do. But you can’t write a novel that has any truth to it at all about someone leaving Vienna in 1939 for the United States, a Jewish girl, without mentioning what was happening in Vienna and why they had to leave. And so finally, I incorporated my concerns into Mamie as a character and her concerns and talking about how nothing is banal. Even if it happens over and over, even if we read about it over and over again, it’s not banal to the person to whom it happened. And that’s why I had to write those passages.
Cathleen Schine is the author of the 12 novels including The Love Letter and Rameau’s Niece, The Three Weissmanns of Westport, and The Grammarians. Her new novel is called Künstlers in Paradise. In addition to novels, she has written articles for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review, among other publications. She grew up in Westport, Ct. And lives in Venice, California.