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What People Do When No One Is Watching: Rachel Sherman

What People Do When No One Is Watching: Rachel ShermanRachel Sherman’s short stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Open City, Post Road, Conjunctions, n+1, and Story Quarterly, among other publications. Her book of short stories, THE FIRST HURT (Open City Books) was short listed for The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and was named one of the 25 Books to Remember from 2006 by the New York Public Library. Her first novel, LIVING ROOM is just out—and it is a funny, beautiful, and quietly moving novel about three generations of women in one family.

Michael Kimball: I’m curious to know where LIVING ROOM started. Did you have the idea that it would be about all three women – Abby, her mother, and her grandmother? Or did you just have one of the women, so that the stories of the other two grew out of that narrative? Or was it something else entirely?

Rachel Sherman: LIVING ROOM has really evolved. Originally it was about a granddaughter and a grandmother. I had the idea early on to write about an old woman getting a computer before she died, and how she might type emails to her granddaughter. Much of my previous work has taken place inside the heads of adolescent girls, so the idea of writing from an old woman’s perspective was a real change. Headie, the grandmother, was fun to write because she is such a tough character. In the book, I go back in time to show her as a young person as well, but she is a very different kind of girl than Abby, her granddaughter, is.

Writing the three characters — Headie, Livia (the mother) and Abby – and making them work together, felt like a puzzle. It was satisfying as the book took shape, to find all the places where their lives intertwined and also reflected each other’s. Each woman has their own pain, but they all deal with it in different ways.

Kimball: Let’s talk about the narration. Why did you choose to go with third person limited for each character rather than, say, first person?

What People Do When No One Is Watching: Rachel ShermanSherman: Third person limited allowed me to both be inside my characters’ heads as well as show a bit more of what was going on outside their thoughts. For Livia, the point of view allowed me to show her obsessiveness with food, appearance and motherhood without having to show her obsessive thoughts incessantly; for Headie, it allowed me to go into her dementia and trace her thought patterns in and out of the past; and for Abby, it allowed me to keep enough distance from her trials with love and adolescence while still making her sympathetic. Each of my characters are extremely caught up in their own world, so I think that first person would have ended up being too claustrophobic.

Kimball: LIVING ROOM is about being alone and about loneliness, among other things, and each of the three main characters enacts that loneliness with their own particular behaviors. Could you talk about the loneliness that pervades the novel and how you found ways to depict it without being sentimental or mawkish?

Sherman: I am interested in what people do when no one is watching. Each woman in my book spends a lot of time physically alone, but also inside her own head. Their emotions often become so big that they come out in physical ways. I am very interested in psychosomatics, how the body reacts to ones problems when they are too much for the mind to bear. I am also interested in vices. These are things that come out most when people are alone. Being a writer, I obviously spend a lot of time alone, so I think about this often. Many people keep busy so that they do not have time for these kinds of obsessions, but when you are a writer, in some ways, it’s your job.

Kimball: In one of the mother’s chapters, when she is at the hospital with her daughter who is sleeping after having had her stomach pumped, there is a single line of description that I loved: “Her skin is beautiful, flushed.” Where did that come from?

Sherman: The line you are talking about is from a scene where Livia is looking at her daughter, Abby’s, face, after Abby has almost died. In many ways, motherhood does not come naturally to Livia; she is overwhelmed with herself and does not pay much attention to her daughter. This is the first time that Abby has made herself a problem to Livia, has called attention to herself and scared her mother. In some ways, this is the first time Livia is really “seeing” her daughter. It is like the threat of death has woken her up. So I wanted Livia to see her daughter as both a real person – separate from herself – as well as someone that might have something she does not. I imagined her skin to be warm from sleeping, and for Livia’s vision of her to be glazed with relief.

Kimball: That’s beautiful and it makes me think of that great riff you have on hands and touching at the end of the novel, which makes me think of the great comfort that can be exchanged between two people. Could you talk about some of those moments of connection in the novel-Abby and Jenna or Chess, Livia and Jeffrey or Simone, Headie and either of her two husbands?

Sherman: It’s always interesting to me what sustains peoples’ love for each other, and also how love can morph over time; how relationships are indefinite, whether in memory or in actuality. For the three women in my book, all of the relationships – to both each other, and to the people around them – evolve in some way.

One of the most important connections in the book is between mothers and their children. But friendship and love are also sources of comfort.

I think that my characters have a longing for connection, but it is fleeting, and comes, as you said, at moments, so that these times seem especially important.

Another physical moment of connection comes when Abby and Chess are at the park and he touches her cheek. It is soft and subtle and confusing to Abby, but also concrete in a way that his words aren’t. I am interested in the complexities of physical expression, and fascinated with the moment that one realizes how little or how much a touch can mean.

What People Do When No One Is Watching: Rachel Sherman

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