Today Nina Schuyler, author of THE TRANSLATOR, takes us into the world of fiction vs. women’s fiction, sympathetic vs. empathetic characters, and chocolate vs. cake. Nina really made me think about the book I’m writing because the main character makes some bad choices, but through it all she exhibits fierce love for her child and unwavering loyalty to her elderly next-door-neighbor. I’m working hard on making sure this character is able to be understood, even if she makes readers shake their heads. I want her to be empathetic, not pathetic.
Nina also mentions wishing for more female characters in fiction “who experience anger, raw ambition, intellect, sexual hunger, arrogance, a solid ego, authority, power.”
To me, that sounds like many of the women I know in real life—so I think Nina is onto something.
Please welcome Nina Schuyler to Women’s Fiction Writers.
A Thought-Provoking Interview With Nina Schuyler, Author Of THE TRANSLATOR: Annoying Characters, The Hierarchy Of Fiction, And Rewards For Reaching Goals
Nina: Thank you so much for interviewing me! I was flipping through an issue of The New Yorker, when I found an article by David Remnick, “The Translation Wars.” Richard Pevear, an English speaker, and his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, a Russian émigré, were re-translating all the great Russian novels into English. Finally, what Nabokov called a “complete disaster” and “the dry shit” of Constance Garnett who had first translated Russian literature into English could be set aside.
As a girl, I fell in love with Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pasternak. I remember one summer when I was twelve, I carried Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago every day to the pool. Back then, I didn’t even consider that the stories were first written in Russian—what Thomas Mann calls, “the muddy, barbaric, boneless tongue from the East.” What I thought about was snow, sleigh rides, passion, betrayal, revolution, peasants, czars, love.
I hurried to my book shelf. All my Russian novels—all translated by Garnett! I felt betrayed. I’d read a watered-down, corrupted Russian translation, soaked in a heavy dose of English custom and sensibility.
It was November 2005. Rain, I remember rain that night. I stayed up late, writing, thinking about what constitutes a good translation? To whom or what should a translator be loyal? How does one translate fiction, with all its nuances and subtext? What if a translator thinks she does a good job, but, in fact, makes egregious errors? I was transfixed by the complexities that exhausted easy explanations. I was caught up and imagined willingly being caught up for years. The more I explored, the larger the pile of questions. I had, to my delight, the beginning of a novel.
Amy: In your Rumpus interview you discuss the buzz about women writing unlikable characters. For me, it’s more about understanding or wanting to understand a character than liking her. (But I do like to like characters.) Do you think there’s a difference in the perception of how characters *should* be based on the type of book a reader thinks he or she has picked up? I have found that even with my own reading, expectations play a part in how I feel about the book. (Therefore, I try to have no expectations and often read books I know nothing about.)
Nina: I agree the issue is not sympathy, but empathy for the protagonist. The first chapter of a novel should do a lot of work to align readers’ expectations for the type of book that will unfold. Promises are made in that first chapter: here is the main character(s), the conflict, or at least hints of the conflict, themes, subject matter, tone and style, point of view, setting, and, importantly, pathways for a reader to emotional engage with the character. So, for instance, in The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud, a reader meets Nora on the first page who says, “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” Messud prepares us for an honest, sometimes uncomfortable-making narrator. In the first chapter of my new novel, The Translator, the reader sees Hanne’s monomaniacal focus on her work and also hears Hanne say in a matter-of-fact tone that she hasn’t heard from her daughter in six years. A not-so-subtle hint that Hanne has fundamental flaws and huge blind spots.
Sometimes these promises are made explicit on the cover. Other times on the back of the book. I’m thinking of Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout: “At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher…” The reader knows Olive isn’t going to be a passive pushover.
As an aside, I’d love to read more novels with female characters that shake up and out of the stereotype. More females who experience anger, raw ambition, intellect, sexual hunger, arrogance, a solid ego, authority, power.
Amy: Would you share with us how you started writing and the steps you took to get your first and second novel published?
Nina: I first faced the blank page (the blank screen) as a reporter for a legal newspaper. I covered criminal courts, employment law, women and the law, and anything else that came up. I put my start line there, because as I gathered stories for the paper, so much was left on the cutting floor, so to speak. A newspaper article uses a specific form that delivers information efficiently and concisely to the reader. Yet I met so many fascinating characters, characters in the true sense of the word. So at night I began taking fiction classes. At some point, I got the courage to apply to San Francisco State University’s graduate creative writing program. When I was accepted, I got enough validation to keep writing.
Nina: My first novel, The Painting, was my thesis (revised many times). That novel had a speedy entrance into the world—in a matter of weeks, I got an agent, and she sold it quickly. Nine years later, (there’s an unsold novel, another baby, an editor who retires, an agent who leaves her agency, my mother passing, teaching on Tuesday and Wednesday nights) my second novel, The Translator, was ready to move out of the house. But who would help? Who would believe? Love it? Twenty query letters later, I found a new agent, who was enthusiastic and smart and savvy and lovely. Thankfully, she sold it.
Amy: Can you tell us what you have in the works now?
Nina: A new novel is taking shape. The Painting was sparked by an image—Japanese artwork floating in the air, finding its way to Paris. The Translator was inspired by ideas. This new one is loosely (very loosely) based on someone I know. A reminder, I suppose, that a novel can come from many different sources.
Amy: We talk a lot about women’s fiction here (obviously). The label doesn’t bother me because I realize that the bulk of my readership is female, and that works for me. Women’s fiction evokes the notion of a story that’s how a woman gets through something and to the other side, whatever that something may be and wherever that other side may be. Does the term women’s fiction bother you? And either way, how would you define it?
Nina: My first response: so if I write a novel about a man who gets through something and to the other side, have I created “men’s fiction”? In fact, my work-in-progress novel has two male point-of-view characters and one female. What should that be called?
On a more serious note, the term creates a hierarchy. There is fiction and then there is so-called ‘women’s fiction.’ When you add that seemingly benign adjective, you suggest there is a norm or standard, which is fiction. Everything that isn’t fiction, or the standard, is a subset. The not-so-subtle undertone is that “women’s fiction” is not as good, serious or important as “fiction.”
Now is probably a good time to mention the VIDA report (www.vidaweb.org), which tracks books written by men that get reviewed versus books by women. Prepare yourself. In 2012, Harper’s reviewed 54 books written by men and only 11 written by women. At the London Review of Books, 203 written by men, only 74 by women. New Republic, 80 to 16. The Nation, 92 to 27.
I don’t have hard numbers, but my guess is that women predominately write “women’s fiction.” If “women’s fiction” is subpar to “fiction,” then these books won’t be reviewed as often as books written by men.
The arc you describe—how a woman gets through something and to the other side—is true of all fiction, regardless of gender. A reader spends anywhere from eight to ten hours, reading a novel. If there is no crescendo, no epiphany, no change, the reader’s expectations will have not been met, and you’ll have a pretty angry reader.
So how would I define fiction written by women? Fiction. (Love it, Nina. Big time LOVE.)
Amy: What’s the best advice for aspiring authors (or someone like me, working on #2) of women’s fiction. I think there’s a fine line between an unlikeable character and annoying character. Do you have any specific advice for writing a character that just might get under the reader’s skin?
Nina: Many writers like to romanticize writing, but in truth, it’s hard work. It requires the seemingly out-of-vogue word, discipline. You must be your own taskmaster. I teach creative writing at a university and tell my students to set up a writing schedule. Each week, set a goal. For instance, ‘I will write Monday, Wednesday and Friday, two hours each day.’ If you meet your goal, reward yourself. Chocolate is good. So is cake.
To me, an annoying character is one for whom the reader has no understanding or empathy. It means you, as writer, have yet to capture the complexities of human psychology. My husband’s Aunt Liddie, who died at the age of 90, was an iron horse of a woman. Things had to be done a certain way and done on her time schedule. She was strict, unforgiving of mistakes, quick to judge. “No! It must be done this way,” she’d say, her favorite refrain. Do you find her annoying?
Let me go on: As a young woman in Germany, she fell in love with an American soldier. She married him, went to America, and not long after, they divorced. Alone, without an income, she worked as a nanny and studied to become a nurse. When she married again, she continued working, not willing to be dependent on another man. When her younger sister was in the hospital for two months, Aunt Liddie, at age eighty-six, went every day to care for her. Do you still find her annoying?
I’m telling you this story so you experience one way to create empathy for a character (or a human being, for that matter). That is, provide a history that makes a reader revise her understanding of a character. I did exactly this for my character, Hanne. I also stole a technique from Marilyn Robinson in her novel, Gilead. There, the first person narrator is a pastor who doesn’t like one of the characters in the book. Each time he treats this other character poorly, though, he regrets it and promises to do better. In The Translator, as Hanne is remembering how she treated her daughter, she experiences regret, remorse, and often imagines another way she could have handled the situation.
Finally, when a character shows love—love of anything, a dog, a child, a beloved coin collection—the reader is more likely to emotionally engage with the character. Yes, she may be unlikeable, but she is also vulnerable and human and has a heart.
Thank you so much!
Nina Schuyler’s first novel, The Painting, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and named a “Best Book of the Year” by the San Francisco Chronicle. She was nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize and teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco.
Visit the author at www.ninaschuyler.com.