by Marie-Hélène Westgate
September 19, 2013
Emily Schultz is a Canadian-American writer of fiction and poetry whose debut short story collection, Black Coffee Night, was nominated for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award in 2002. Schultz’s first novel, Joyland, followed in 2005, then the poetry collection Songs for the Dancing Chicken, inspired by the films of Werner Herzog. Songs was nominated for the Trillium award. Then came her second novel, Heaven Is Small, published by House of Anansi Press. In 2012, Doubleday published Schultz’s third novel, The Blondes, in Canada. The Blondes is slated for U.S. release in the fall of 2014, but has already garnered a great deal of critical acclaim around the world. When Emily Schultz isn’t writing a novel or collection, she runs the literary website Joyland: A hub for short fiction. In this interview, Emily talks about her struggles as a writer and reflects on how far she’s come since her early days working as a night-shift proofreader for Harlequin Enterprises, battling depression, and living in a converted garage in Brooklyn.
Marie-Hélène Westgate: How did the concept for the book originate?
Emily Schultz: I was on a plane from Toronto to New York and found a Vanity Fair magazine. I opened it up to a Gucci clothing ad spread — a gang of blonde women in safari wear with heavy eyeliner that almost made them appear vampiric. They were beautiful and terrifying. For me, that moment was the beginning of The Blondes, which is about a rabies-like virus that makes blonde women rage out. At the time I was also contemplating whether to become a mother before time ran out and feeling both drawn to the idea and apprehensive. So the story of the lead character Hazel’s pregnancy overlaps with the idea of the illness, and her body changing and morphing just as society as she knows it is also changing and morphing into something unrecognizable. The final draft was done while I was actually pregnant so I think those ideas became even more pronounced.
MW: What inspired the choice of New York as a setting?
ES: New York is my home now and the other setting is a cabin and I did spend some time in a cabin in California—I actually finished the novel there—so these places being important to me personally ended up being important narratively. The vast difference in scale gave me a chance to explore the differences in how disease, information, and paranoia are expressed from the city to the country.
MW: How did you approach structuring the story in terms of plot?
ES: Hazel, who is a young woman pregnant with her married thesis advisor’s child, narrates the entire book to the unborn. Writing in the first person was new to me, but once I realized it was going to be a very spoken, talky book, I got excited. Hazel is looking back over the entirety of her pregnancy, which also coincides with the arc of the virus, nicknamed the Blond Fury.
MW: What changed after the publication of your first book?
ES: Nothing. It was with a small press and I was largely unknown. I respected myself more, I suppose, and that leads to the confidence to write another book, and another. But I know what it’s like, when you build it and they don’t come…and that was my reality for my first books. More changed with The Blondes than with any other book I’ve written. The Blondes had readers – readers I don’t know personally – and that’s a whole new dynamic.
MW: What did you want to be when you grew up?
ES: A writer. But I also wrote little songs on a Casio keyboard and wanted to be… Madonna, but with dark hair? Until 1989 when she went back to dark hair for Like a Prayer. Maybe there’s something there that plays into The Blondes — how changeable we can be.
MW: When you were starting out as a writer, did you ever lose faith or feel you wanted to give up writing?
ES: I wrote my first collection of short stories when I was in my mid-twenties, almost 15 years ago now. At that time I think I just wanted to finish—it was a struggle. Three novels and a collection of poems later, my fears are now more about what will happen to the work in terms of the business of publishing than about whether I’ll finish. But I also work in publishing, so maybe that affects it!
MW: How would you describe your writing process?
ES: It changes depending on the project. For The Blondes I wrote the first draft largely in bulk in a few weeks. As I said earlier, half of it was written in a cabin in the Mohave Desert outside of Joshua Tree. My husband and I would get up every day at 6 a.m. and by 8 we’d be working and would put in a full day. I went there hoping for a sense of isolation that I wanted to convey for the passages in my novel where the character Hazel is trapped alone, hiding out, uncertain what is happening in the world regarding the blond rabies virus that chased her out of New York and across the country. The cabin section of the novel takes place in winter, but the desert definitely delivered the isolation! I had no internet connection and had to drive for 30 miles to get one.
ES: I’m glad I did this type of “method writing” for The Blondes because with the baby now, the idea of being able to travel and to devote so many uninterrupted hours to a novel feels like a real impossibility. I’ll have to find a new method for whatever I write next, one where I can write in two-hour blocks.
MW: How does your life change when you’re being highly productive as compared to when you’re in a creative lull?
ES: I don’t want to think that I’m ever in a creative lull. I do sometimes work more slowly, but I’m always juggling projects so I don’t ever really feel like I have any time off.
MW: What do you envision for yourself in the next five years?
ES: I don’t know. But when I think back to five years ago and where I am now I am amazed. Five years ago I was living in a converted garage/art gallery next to a biker clubhouse. Now I live with my family in a quiet neighborhood in Brooklyn.
MW: What do emerging writers need to know?
ES: Don’t be discouraged by other people’s success. It’s hard for everyone.
MW: What’s your greatest struggle as a writer?
ES: Money. Or time. They seem the same.
Marie-Hélène Westgate is a writer and editor of nonfiction, fiction, and romance. She started out as Freerange Nonfiction’s senior editor, then discovered her passion for asking nosy questions, and became the interviews editor. She is at work on a novel, as well as a collection of essays, and writes a secret column for The Huffington Post. Besides Freerange, Marie-Hélène’s work has appeared in Tin House, The Rumpus, Lumina, and One Cool Word. There’s more to come in Guernica, and Shameless Magazine.