'To Have and to Shine'

'To Have and to Shine'

Christina Schwarz talks about her new book, All Is Vanity—a dark comedy about the search for society's approval

All Is Vanity

All Is Vanity
by Christina Schwarz
368 pages, $24.95

Who among us has not secretly wished to impress the world with our accomplishments? And who (among women at least) has not dreamed about acquiring the perfect house, with the perfect kitchen—preferably equipped with stainless-steel appliances? In her new book, All Is Vanity, Christina Schwarz takes these two desires—"the wish to have and to shine" (from an epigraph by William Dean Howells at the beginning of the book)—and examines what happens when they are stretched to extremes in contemporary New York and Los Angeles.

Schwarz's two main characters, Letty and Margaret, have been best friends since before they can remember. Near the beginning of the book, Margaret, a recent arrival in New York City, describes herself this way: "I, as an English teacher in her mid-thirties from bourgeois Glendale, California, by way of the suburbs of northern Virginia, was a half-witted, earnest, gray lump in a land of scintillating intellectuals. And that I could not stand." Her solution is to quit her teaching job and write a novel that will display to the world the brilliance and creativity she knows she harbors within. The problem is, she has no idea what she wants to write about. After frittering away much of her allotted year working on a plotless novel about a dull Vietnam veteran, Margaret begins to realize that the story emerging from her friend Letty's breezily descriptive e-mails about life as a harried housewife aspiring to join L.A.'s upper-middle class is a lot more interesting than her own.

Soon Margaret finds herself snatching chunks of Letty's e-mails to write the parallel story of Lexie Langtree Smith—a "parable of American consumerism." And Margaret can't help nudging along her friend's desire to buy those things that Letty feels she "deserves" to have—things that she believes will somehow change the way people regard her. Letty giddily recounts her family's material transformation, fueled by her husband's new, high-paying job at a glamorous L.A. art museum. They buy a Spanish-style house in a fashionable neighborhood, and immediately begin work on a master suite with a balcony and antiqued vanity; a new kitchen with birch beadboard cupboards and appliances fit for a restaurant; and a landscaped backyard with a swimming pool and an orchard of mature fruit trees. They trade in their junky old Honda and Toyota for a new Saab and Ford Explorer. They enroll their kids in private school, soccer camp, and "toning for tots." Letty's materialism would be insufferable, were it not for the hilarity she imparts to her descriptions of herself and others, and her ability to lightly mock the world she has entered. Here, for instance, she describes her discovery of the "chair du jour" (soon after, Margaret persuades her that she needs two of them for her living room):

Club chairs. Where are all these clubs? Who belongs to them? Why do they all have the same chair?... Right now, you cannot be wrong, you cannot be gauche, you cannot even be particularly snobby, if you buy one of these.... These chairs are not cheap, of course. But nor are they too expensive, and that is part of what makes them the ticket to decoratal correctness.... If you own one, it will effortlessly testify to your membership in the vast club of those who know better; the tasteful, not the show-offs, the progressive, not the radical (don't forget the leather).

Margaret knows that the more Letty's debts pile up, the more exciting the story of Lexie Langtree Smith. Yet she also slowly begins to recognize that in their dual quest for the world's respect, she and Letty have left themselves vulnerable to humiliation.

Schwarz has a keen eye for detail, and her riffs on the accoutrements of modern society, whether she's describing the interior of a stylish house or a typical New York literary agent, are both pointed and amusing. All Is Vanity can be read as a darkly comic look at what society values, and as an examination of the bond between women, including the ways that friendship can bleed into betrayal. This is to some extent familiar territory for Schwarz, whose first book, Drowning Ruth, also centered on complicated, deeply flawed relationships between women—in this case between sisters and a mother and daughter. Drowning Ruth, a mystery set in Wisconsin during the first half of the twentieth century, was an Oprah book club pick and became both a commercial and a critical success.

For the past several years Schwarz has been a frequent contributor to The Atlantic. She and her husband, Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic's Literary Editor, live in New Hampshire with their son, Nicholas. We spoke by phone on October 8.

—Katie Bacon

Christina Schwarz
Christina Schwarz   

Both of your books have focused on relationships between women. What is it about the relationship between women that fascinates you? Do you think you'll keep on delving into it from different angles?

Other people have pointed out to me that the women characters in Drowning Ruth are more substantial than the male characters. And I do think I've felt more confident writing about women. I have a fear that people will read something and think, No, no, no, that can't be. If I'm writing about women, I feel much more that I can say, "I know that could be." It's less that I've been shying away from men, and more that I feel like I know women so intimately that they seem like perfect material for me. However, the book I'm working on now does have, at least so far, a major male character.

There were so many layers to the female relationships in both of the books, so many emotions—envy and love and competition.

These relationships are interesting to me because these characters are so tightly bound together, and yet they're still different people with different needs and different desires that will inevitably cross each other. And obviously, whenever you look carefully at a close relationship you're bound to uncover lots of different, and sometimes conflicting emotions.

I found there to be something very House of Mirth-ish about All Is Vanity (though your ending isn't quite so grim)—the idea of women's own faults being exacerbated by the society in which they live, so that their downfalls come to seem inevitable. Would you say that modern-day society is as important a "character" in your book as Gilded Age society was in Wharton's?

Well, I'm really flattered to have you make the comparison, because Edith Wharton is one of the writers I most admire. In fact, there is one minor, minor thing that I directly pulled from The House of Mirth, when Margaret notices a pinkish light when she's having breakfast in a fancy hotel. And I do hope that in reading All is Vanity people experience the same frustration about society that I experienced reading The House Of Mirth. Both are really about the insidiousness of society's pressures: what would make Lily and Margaret and Letty happy if they lived on a desert island will not make them happy given that they live in a world that will look down on them unless they acquire certain things. Now that you've made me think about this, I realize it's alarming how little people have changed since the Gilded Age, although I suppose that's to be expected and even, from a novelist's point of view, reassuring.

From the archives:

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "A Kinder, Gentler Overclass" (June 15, 2000)
A conversation with David Brooks, the author of Bobos in Paradise.

"A New Social Type Is Born" (June 2000)
In this work of "comic sociology" David Brooks presents a conceptual key to American society. By Thomas Mallon

Your book also reminded me both of David Brooks's Bobos in Paradise and of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities—each book captured its time by describing in merciless detail the consumption habits and lifestyles of certain well-known types. It seems to me that All Is Vanity is written in a different spirit, but were you seeking, like Brooks and Wolfe, to make a comment on the culture of the time?

I didn't intend to when I started, so I'm kind of surprised that somehow it turned out that way. My original idea for the book was much more intimate and personal. It was not about the culture at large, but about the idea of someone stealing something valuable from a friend to advance herself, which had nothing to do with where or when the book took place. But as I started working on it, it began to seem important that the friend, too, be doing something that she shouldn't be doing. I remember walking and talking to Ben, my husband, about the ideas, and I think the sense of the Los Angeles world and Letty's specific behavior emerged from those conversations.

The Howells quotation that I used as an epigraph, about people wanting to have and to shine, because that's what society holds up to them as important, helped clarify the plot. I know that that's what the writing character had in mind—that she would shine by writing a book. And then I kept asking myself—and Ben—"What does society value?" Letty, who wants "to have," came naturally out of that.

Margaret at one point comments that "we were really striving for the world's respect"—she seeks to be a part of intellectual New York by writing her novel, and Letty wants to join upper-middle-class L.A. society by acquiring its accoutrements. How much were you banking on readers' being sympathetic to your characters because they had felt (if not acted on) those same desires?

I'm banking on that entirely. It's crucial that people recognize themselves in these characters. Otherwise, I don't think they'll find them sympathetic or interesting. Because this is a comedy, Letty and Margaret are extreme cases. Certainly I don't expect anyone to say, "I did exactly that." But I think few people can honestly claim not to care at all what others think of them, and that's really at the heart of Margaret's and Letty's desires.

I thought the Letty character was interesting that way. She's obviously being unwise by getting herself into deeper and deeper economic trouble. But at the same time she's so funny, and I liked her character so much, that it surprised me how far down this road she went. I wanted her to be a good character throughout.

I had a lot of trouble with her for exactly that reason. I wanted her to be someone whom you really like, and it worried me that a lot of people would feel they couldn't ever identify with someone who would go that far for material things. To counteract that I felt like I had to work hard to make her very likeable, and to make her a person who wasn't just interested in material things. Also, if people are honest, I think they'll admit that they don't disdain many of the particular things Letty is after. When I've described her to friends, they've said, "I see what happens to her, but these subzeroes are really nice." These are the things that people have decided signify that you are a progressive person of good taste. Letty isn't interested in the goods for the sake of the goods. She wants them as a sort of uniform to identify her as a certain kind of person. I think people will understand what's driving her, even though they would never go so far themselves.

Did you find yourself favoring either Letty or Margaret as you were writing? I got the sense that writing the part of Letty must have been a lot of fun—especially the early part, with its hilarious send-up of L.A. consumerism.

They were both really fun. I have to say, when I started, Margaret was much more vivid. I wrote the first five chapters on Margaret, because I was so caught up in her voice, and ended up having to cut reams of it. It was harder for me to get Letty's voice, partly because Letty is less odd. I wanted her to be a person that many more people could identify with, and it was hard to come up with an interesting yet normal voice for her. But once I did, yes, she was so much fun, especially early on, when she had her stay-at-home mother perspective.

Many of the threads in All Is Vanity resemble aspects of your own life—you've lived in both L.A. and New York; you used to teach at a private school but left to write a novel. How much of the book springs from your own experience?

I haven't used specific events that have happened to me, but I definitely used the settings. I really drew on my experiences of both those places. Were people skeptical when you quit your job, as they were when Margaret quit hers?

People weren't skeptical to my face when I quit my job, but after Drowning Ruth was successful, the sense that people had been dismissing me before that became really clear. I can't tell you the number of people who said either to Ben or to me, "I knew you were writing a book, but I never thought anything would ever come of it." "Aren't you done with that yet?" was the response I got most often while I was writing Drowning Ruth. I couldn't use that for Margaret, since I knew it would be death to the pacing of All Is Vanity to have Margaret's book drag on for as many excruciating years as Drowning Ruth took me.

Have you ever felt yourself to be stuck in a rut, as Margaret was, searching about for a plot and developing deadly dull (or otherwise misguided) characters like the Vietnam veteran Robert Martin? If so, how did you get yourself out of it?

Definitely early in Drowning Ruth, and when I say early, I mean the first three years I was working on it. I had this sort of snobbish sense that I didn't want to write a book that had a lot of plot. I wanted to write something high-brow and literary, and to me that meant a book in which nothing happens. I actually love to read books where nothing much happens, and people just shuffle around probing at their psyches. So I would fight against having anything happen, and I did kind of get stuck with people getting into a buggy and driving along, and minute things happening—like the wind shifting direction—that were supposed to be very telling but were actually really boring. I think I got out of it because I got bored with it myself.

It's funny that you were saying you were trying to write without plot, because to me both of the books have very strong plots—I had a hard time resisting the urge to page ahead to find out what happened.

I'm really pleased to hear that, exactly because I think plot is my weakest point. And I do love a good plot when I'm reading, but I often feel it's like my love of Kraft Thousand Island dressing, something I'd rather not always admit to, something unrefined. But I think I should get over that.

How important is plot to you as you conceive of a story? Was it different for each book?

It was really different for each book. In some ways I like the way it worked with Drowning Ruth better, because it was sort of organic. When I started, I knew that something bad had happened, but I didn't know what it was. I just had to keep testing and pushing things and rewriting them until I came up with what had in fact happened. In a way, that was really satisfying when it was done. However, it took five years. At least. For the next one, I knew I just didn't have time for that. I had a two-book contract with Drowning Ruth, so the second book was due within two years. Also, I got paid to deliver an outline, so I wrote an outline.

Are there other reasons why you think that All Is Vanity went faster than Drowning Ruth?

Yes, good and bad reasons. I wrote at least a third of it in a daze just after my son, Nicky, was born, and I was really, really tired! I was quite miserable. I felt as if I was just pushing, pushing, pushing, trying to finish it, and not being able to luxuriate in the details. So I'm sort of surprised when I look back and see, Oh, there are a lot of details and backstory and things like that that I almost wasn't aware of. But nevertheless, it's certainly not as intricate as Drowning Ruth, which allowed this book to go faster. Also, and I think this is for the better, it's just a breezier story. You don't have to wallow in anything in this book. You feel like it should move, partly because of all the comic elements, and partly because the way it ends, it gets to be this wheel that has to go faster and faster and faster, which somehow made the writing itself faster.

I know that both All Is Vanity and Drowning Ruth are set in worlds that you're to some extent familiar with, but the details seem so choice and exact (the food that is brought over after the parents die in Drowning Ruth; Letty's patio in All Is Vanity, made of tiles from "a family of potters in Guadalajara"). How much research do you tend to do for your books in order to come up with the appropriate period details?

Not very much. I'm really not very good at research; I don't enjoy it. I know a lot of writers love to do the research, but every time I start doing it I get impatient, and I'd rather just be making it up and then maybe checking it later. The details you mention, for instance, are entirely imagined. For me to be able to make a scene vivid on the page, I first have to be able to see it vividly in my mind, and, unfortunately, I don't often get that from research. Although in some cases, I feel like I should have done a little more checking. At one point I talk about Letty making petit fours with sweet pea blossoms on top. Just before the book went to press, I was looking through a baby book and discovered that sweet peas are poisonous. I don't even know if they managed to change this in the final version.

Well, I don't think anyone's going to be copying Letty's recipe. I hope not. Don't try this at home!

Could we talk a bit about the way All Is Vanity is narrated? Your picture of Letty is mainly through the letters she writes, which may or may not reveal her true thoughts. How much should we trust what she reveals about herself in those letters?

I did use a few passages, particularly at the end, in which Letty speaks directly to the reader, rather than to Margaret in letter form, because you're right, her letter-writing persona isn't strictly honest. She's trying to be entertaining. I used to write a lot of letters, and I'm well aware that what I said and how I said it depended entirely on how I wanted to appear to the recipient and what I thought would interest her or him. Letty writes her letters with Margaret in mind. She is, in a sense, making a character of herself in a story for Margaret—in fact, in an early plan for the novel, I thought of having it turn out that Letty had made everything up. I'm still attracted to that idea.

You once said that you surprised yourself by writing a black comedy, because you didn't know you could do anything funny. Yet I found the wit in your book to be both wicked and dead-on. Could you talk about the process of discovering that in fact you could write in a humorous vein? How did this characteristic of your writing evolve?

If I had started out saying, "I'm going to write a comic novel now," I wouldn't have gotten anywhere, because I would have had too many doubts about it. I think the humor started with Margaret's voice. Margaret was funny, at least to me, so it wasn't like me trying to make jokes, it was just that this character made me laugh with her tone and her obliviousness. I was surprised after I gave the manuscript to my editor that she said, "No, no, it's Letty who's funny, it's not Margaret." So I don't know if I have a good sense of what's funny and what's not. These characters in a way just did it for me, and I can't really explain how that happened. A friend of mine, to whom I used to write a lot, said that she loved reading this book, because she could hear my letters in it. So I must have been writing somewhat this way all along without realizing it.

One of the things that struck me about Margaret was her hilariously exact way of describing things (for instance, calling a writer next to her in the library an "ostentatious scribbler"). You get the sense that she is a wonderful observer and that maybe she could have been a writer if she had channeled the way she sees things and talks about things into her writing.

I guess I have two things to say about that. First of all, I'm glad you noticed that she's very precise, because to me that was one of her most important qualities. Especially early on when nothing much is happening to her, her observations would be excruciatingly boring if they weren't razor sharp.

The real reason she can't write a book, I think, is that her motivation is so faulty. Her book about Robert Martin is horrible because she's writing it not because she's interested in Robert Martin, but because she wants to have written a book. She's so distracted by how the book will be received and how that will change her life that she can't focus on the character or the story.

I think her book about Lexie may be perfectly good. But the way the world is, a lot of good books don't get published. I think she got unlucky with that one. I did want to have that element in there too—the idea of luck. Part of the point of the book is that you think you can make yourself into whatever you want to, but in fact you really can't. There's a lot of luck involved that you can't control.

Could you talk about the experience of having your first book chosen by Oprah? Did you feel any of the misgivings that Jonathan Franzen got himself in trouble for expressing?

No, I didn't at all. My experience with being picked by Oprah was a lot of screaming, "I can't believe this is happening!" I was really nervous about being on TV, but that's quite a different misgiving. In a couple of radio interviews people asked me, essentially, whether I was sorry that Oprah had picked my book because it slotted Drowning Ruth into this category of a "woman's book." I guess I had two reactions to that. First of all, I like having a lot of women readers, and if that makes my novel a women's book, I like having written one. And also, I have to admit, I do know people who would have snobbishly said, "I will not read an Oprah book" before my book became one. And then, if they were friends, of course, they said, "Oh, well, I must have been wrong." But clearly those people have very little sense of the books Oprah has chosen. Like anyone who's recommending books to people, she's picked some good ones and some not so good ones. I doubt anyone thinks less of Rohinton Mistry, for instance, because his book was an Oprah book, or of Joyce Carol Oates or Toni Morrison. I think people just assume what they want in order to support their prejudices. I watched Oprah a lot before, even aside from the book club, so I knew I was lucky.

What's it like for you to have an editor and critic in the house? You've said that Ben didn't read much of Drowning Ruth until it was almost finished, but that he gave you advice on All Is Vanity as you were writing it. Was the process of writing this book a lot different from writing your first?

As it turned out, it worked well both ways. With Drowning Ruth, the whole thing was just too emotionally fraught to have him read it as I went along. I would put pieces of the manuscript down and say, "Can you read this," and if he didn't pick it up within the next fifteen minutes I'd snatch it back and say, "All right, don't read it then." So when I had the whole thing done and he read it through, he had this great perspective on it. He told me that the last third was just awful and I had to redo it. In fact, I knew I had been rushing to get that part done, both because I just wanted to get it done, and because he had threatened to throw it away if I didn't. I knew it wasn't any good, so in some ways it was reassuring to have him say so. Also, I appreciated that he wouldn't let me get away with it just to make things nice at home. Things were not particularly nice at home for a few weeks, but I did redo it, and we're both happy with it now.

He was extremely helpful with the precision in All Is Vanity, because that's one of the things he's most focused on as an editor. He's always asking, "What do you mean to be saying?" and, "Are you really saying it?" Lots of times I'd give him a page and he'd say, "What do you mean by this?" or "That's not it at all," and I'd have to go back and rework and rework it. His ability to see when it's wrong and his willingness to say so make me trust when he finally says, "Yes, that's good. That's it exactly." Being able to rely on this opinion—and to call on it whenever I want it—has obviously made me a much better writer than I would be alone.