Q&A with Amy Shearn: A Grandmother’s Trashed Novella Comes Back To Life

Amy Shearn’s grandmother, Frances “Peggy” Schutze, was always writing: She worked for awhile as a gossip columnist in Kansas, she wrote radio plays, and she hand-made dozens of picture books for her children and grandchildren. “Everyone who knew her understood that she had missed her true calling,” Amy writes of her grandmother. “She was meant to be a writer.” Although Peggy submitted many short stories to women’s magazines, her fiction was never published in her lifetime. She died in 2002.

At some point in her life — no one is sure when — Peggy wrote a funny, energetic novella set in a St. Louis New Deal public housing project in the 1940s; the plot features a phantom pregnancy and some wild political intrigue, and she titled it “The Little Bastard.” Amy recently assembled the scattered pages, added an introduction, and her own mother designed the cover and contributed an illustration. “The Little Bastard” will be published as a chapbook this fall by the Louisiana small press Anchor & Plume. (You can pre-order it now.)

Amy is the author of two novels, “How Far Is the Ocean From Here,” about a surrogate mother on the lam, and “The Mermaid of Brooklyn,” in which a mythological figure disrupts a young mother’s life in Park Slope. She and I worked together at Domino magazine in the late ‘00s, and we chatted recently about the novella, writing about motherhood without being nauseating, and her grandmother’s genius tricks for faking the appearance of housekeeping.

Amy! Can you start by telling me how the manuscript was discovered? It’s an amazing story.

It really is! After my grandmother died, 12 years ago, my aunt was cleaning out her room at the nursing home and realized that my grandfather had dumped tons of papers, photos, letters, even just emptied drawers into these 30-gallon Hefty bags. My grandfather himself was ill (and not known for being sentimental) and my aunt guessed it was all too much to cope with at the time. She peeked into the bags and realized that the pages of typed onionskin paper were Peggy’s writing, thought, “How sad,” and pulled them out. But so much was happening that no one sorted through or read them right away. … It wasn’t until pretty recently that I found myself with the patience to retype the whole thing into a single Word doc, which I think was when I realized how really, really great it is.

So, your grandmother sounds fascinating: She went to journalism school, she eloped, she rode her bike barefoot. She was also a lifelong correspondent of fabulous international journalist and Hemingway wife Martha Gellhorn, which you have written about. In your introduction, you quote your uncle saying she was “crazy but also shrewd and ruthless in a Kansas kind of way.” What do think he meant?

Just the title “The Little Bastard” reveals how she liked to shock people. She really was an artist at heart, and had her own, slightly detached-from-reality way of experiencing the world. But she was also very practical, and I think that’s what my uncle means by calling her “shrewd and ruthless.” … I think the family consensus is that while she was always on the surface almost bizarrely self-deprecating and deferential to her husband, she knew how to get what she wanted. She wanted time to write during the day but also wanted it to look like she’d been doing housework, so she’d sauté onions to make it smell like cooking, and then before my grandfather got home she’d quickly run the vacuum over the rug so it left stripes.

Overheard at a Women-Only Charity Event

“So many wedges.”

“Turn it down for what!”

“When my milk came in, I had like, porn star boobs.”

“Look at all that pasta.”

“This 50 Cent song is all for you.”

“There’s a little pregnant lady dancing. You go girl!”

“She shouldn’t have worn cream to your wedding.”

“Why isn’t this an all-woman band?”

“Why isn’t the DJ a woman?”

“Where the fuck do you smoke?”

“I know that I need to not smoke but I still need it, ya know?”

Why I Have To Be So “Rude”

“Rude” is the #1 song in America; “Rude” is a strong contender for the worst song I have ever heard. For the lucky uninitiated, I can only explain “Rude” like this: it’s the aural equivalent of a man listening to reggae for the first time in his racecar bed, slowly fucking the hole in a Kidz Bop CD.

Here, take a dip, the water’s absolutely disgusting!

Ostensibly, the success of Magic!’s “Rude” can at least partially be explained by the history of American top 40′s irregular dabbles in reggae, which have tended to appear in the form of one-offs rather than any tangible wave: “I Can See Clearly Now” in 1973, “Red Red Wine” in 1984, Shaggy in 2000. But “Rude” is a reggae song the way a gas station taquito is a formal expression of Mexican cuisine, and I think, if we’re going to situate the song in some larger context, “Rude” is most interesting as an artifact in the realm of ideas. “Rude” is like a Dorito bag that got stuck on a spike of the crown of the Statue of Liberty: it’s a pop object with no content and only as much form as is necessary to deliver brief chemical gratification, which, through an unlikely ascension, becomes newly visible as a pure expression of tragedy, degradation and American garbage. “Rude” is utterly embarrassing and radically unselfconscious, a derpfaced college sophomore defensively grunting FML as he waddles to the closet for toilet paper because he ran out mid-wipe.

The first time I heard “Rude” I thought it was a 1-800-411-PAIN ad, because Detroit radio is currently running one that sounds sort of like a more palatable version of “Rude.” The next couple of times I had the sort of physical reaction I associate with suddenly coming in contact with bees; before my mind could process what was happening, I pawed at my radio dial quickly, ahhh, get it away!

Ask a Fancy Person: First Parties, Working for Free, and What to Do When Your Gym Is Crawling with Children

Dear Fancy,

I recently started working out at a new gym at a new time (lunch time), and apparently this is when oblivious parents exercise with their children in tow. There’s a staffed day-care room for them to use, but often, there are just children wandering through the gym: an 11-year-old who messes with the rowing machine while his mom treadmills, kids that keep running away from dad on the way out, gaggles of children toddling in everyone’s way. Is this just my child-averse, selfish need to focus at the gym or should I talk to gym management?

Related: what’s your take on leaving a group exercise class early? I think it’s rude and want to tell other people to stop doing it until I’m that jerk who’s on a tight schedule and doesn’t have time to stretch out or savasana.

I guess what I’m trying to ask is, what are the infractions that really count at the gym? I know I just need to get over my issues with people who jump-rope in a minorly crowded gym, but, for example, is it worth saying something if the super sweaty guy ahead of you neglects to wipe down a machine?

-Sweaty & Steamed

Dear Sweaty,

The gym, along with public transportation and movie theatres, is among the most lawless spaces in the civilized world. Between all the grunting and the lack of sanitary procedures, it’s practically the Wild West, with Pitbull dance remixes instead of player pianos. Frankly, I’m surprised we’ve all survived this long going to them, which is why I recommend staying put in your air-conditioned living room in a maribou-trimmed bed jacket, eating bonbons. But, necessary evils, no? We’d all enjoy our time in that hellhole six percent more if everyone would adhere to four basic rules of order at Planet Swoll. I’m going to number them for ease of use. Print them out and wave them about in the faces of offenders if you like.

An Important Conversation about Choices and Business

Meredith: Yay, a chat!

Michelle: I think this is a really great idea for our first day!

Meredith: Heartily cosign. The world needs more us talking to each other.

Michelle: Seriously. So we just had a really important business meeting last Wednesday to discuss big editorial things for this week…and I’m trying to remember everything we talked about because rosé…

Meredith: We definitely talked a bunch of rosé, but I’m pretty sure we also touched on important business topics, like boys, what the problem with boys was, how we could fix the problem with boys…

Michelle: Yeah, I’m really surprised more hot babes weren’t hitting on us at the Belgian wine bar/small plates bistro we met at while discussing Millennial dudes and their emotions

Meredith: I don’t remember our waiter or waitress but I am pretty sure he and or she found us delightful? It was probably the screeching that clinched it. And the lying about how we would order food but then just ordering rosé and taking up a table. But I know at one point I said, “that’s a good idea, write that down!” and then drunkenly spilled some wine.

Michelle: OMG yes we wrote things down!! Ok [opens up iphone notes]…Ok. I wrote down “Reality Bites – Meredith doesn’t like Ethan Hawke, but I feel weird for liking Ben Stiller cause I love that he plays the reggae version of “Baby, I Love Your Way” as make out music.” Also I wrote down “Summer turtlenecks” ??!!

Taking a Bite Out of Networking Events: A Guide for Beginners

Hello, recent graduate. As you begin to progress in your career, you will likely begin to be invited to various “networking” and “schmoozing” events. Some will occur after film screenings, book launches, or discussion panels. Others will be designated “networking cocktail hours” for “young professionals.” Whatever the context, such events are very important for your launch into the wider world, and your own upward trajectory! So how do you maximize your time at these shindigs? How do you “work the room”? I’m happy to say that after 10 years of attending such events in person, I can offer you some hard-earned advice that will help you really get every crumb and morsel of worthwhile interaction out of these events. So get your pen or your iPhone ready, and be prepared to memorize a simple checklist for networking success.

1. When you enter the space, scan the room.

Ask yourself two questions: The first is whom do I know here, and the second is where is the cheese table? Good. Now combine these two questions: whom do I know here who is closest to the cheese table? After you approach that person and begin to chit-chat, slowly position yourself, shifting your angle while you talk, until you’re within arm’s range of the cheese. Then put that arm to work. Eating cheese.

“What’s In Your Handbag?” Submission Rejects

What’s in your handbag, Freyja, Norse goddess of love, sexuality, beauty, fertility, gold, seiðr, war, and death?

Gold eyeliner that a friend gave me because she’s a mortal and she wasn’t sure she could pull it off, empty containers of skyr, that strained Icelandic yogurt that I’m super addicted to, an overdue Comcast bill, Garnier bb cream and SO many treats for the nine magical grey cats who pull my chariot, (gluten-free ones for Helga who has a sensitive tummy). I love these creatures, but they’re useless when they have low blood sugar.

What’s in your handbag, Louka, female Tapir recently relocated to a French wildlife park to pair up with male Tapir Thakeray?

Oof, way too much, I always overpack when I travel! I mean, the usual fruit, berries, and leaves, particularly young, tender growth, since I eat like 40 kg of vegetation a day and I wasn’t sure what they’d have on offer here in France. Plus, some calcium chewables which are super important to keep my chisel-shaped incisors healthy so they can process all the leaves I eat. Also, a little Pantene pro-V since I tend to get split ends in hot weather—I leave it on while I’m checking email over coffee and then hop back in the shower to rinse it off. Works like a charm! 

How to Live With an Ex in Five Simple Steps

New York is a town with a double edge. It’s a city where you can cheap out and spend a day in The Met for a $1 (and almost feel good about it until you realize you should have given at least $5, why are you so cheap?), but then afterward, go for a walk in Central Park and not think twice about forking over $4 for a so-so cup of coffee.

It’s a city where you can have a negligible amount of money in your checking account and a non-existent savings, but when you walk around the West Village—and specifically West 10th Street—stalkily peering into the windows of the bottom floor apartments that forgot to shut the blinds (sorry not sorry, residents of West 10th Street) you say to yourself with absolute conviction, “I can’t wait to live here one day.”

It’s the type of metropolis where the cozy little corner you built with a significant other can quickly become a nightmare when you break up and neither wants to, or truthfully can afford to, move out. For several months. Okay, for like six months. Even if it seems obvious that one of you should go immediately because only one of you actually did the super hard work of even finding this kick-ass apartment to begin with. In this case, let’s call said person Lia.

This overall experience is weird and sad and hard for a number of reasons, but the good news is there are a few ways to get through it. Here are a few lessons I learned along the way.

Just to level set, the range of the spectrum for how bad this situation stinks—should you find yourself needing to measure against it—is terrible to horrible. The midpoint of the spectrum is the phrase “this is the worst.” But I lived through it and so can you.

Ask a Fancy Person: Occasionless Gifts, Chemo Baldness at the Office, The “Thanks For the Birthday Wishes” Anomie

Dear Fancy,

I am a woman in my 30′s undergoing chemotherapy. As a result, I’m bald. It hasn’t been so bad (well, the chemo sucks, but fashion-wise, I mean), because my friends have lent me many colorful headscarves to wear. I’m also fortunate to have a nice wig to wear for special occasions, but I prefer not to wear the wig all the time.

Sometimes, though, I’d just like to be bald, especially in the summer when it’s so hot outside. Do you think it would be unprofessional for me to go bald sometimes in the office if I still dress well and pay attention to my makeup? I’ve only done it a few times in public and I’ve liked it, but I’m worried about working in the office bald.

Thank you!

Baldie

Dear Baldie,

First, let me say on behalf of my real self, my alterego Fancy, and all the ‘Pinners, we’re rooting for you and are completely positive you’re going to deal cancer a humiliating loss, akin to the one the Mighty Ducks dealt Iceland in D2.

But you didn’t write me to give you Gordon Bombay-style pep talks via the internet, so onto your question. Feel completely and totally free to do whatever you want. It’s dandy if you want to wear colorful scarves and a wig, and it’s peachy to go without, too. Professionalism doesn’t even enter into that equation. Cancer aside, if you chose to buzz your hair, you’re still presentable in a business setting. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, that’s unacceptable and you can tell them I said that. There are some kinds of styles that aren’t appropriate in all settings, but this just ain’t one of them. Looking the part of the teacher/sandwich artist/graphic designer/nanny/lawyer you are is more about not distracting from your work with a Pikachu neck tat, not about the specifics of the length of your hair. Dress like you’re at work, put on a touch more makeup than you might otherwise to play up your best features, and wear some pretty earrings and people will forget that you aren’t choosing baldness as A Look.

This Is The Day Before 40

“July 18th” read the email that appeared a couple of weeks ago at the top of my inbox, so bold-faced and full of promise.

Ah, the day before my 40th birthday, I thought; Josh must have something fun planned for My Big Middle-Aged Moment. Dinner at State Bird? A weekend in Big Sur? Ooo, a Billy Joel concert?

Back when 40 sounded as far, far away as 50, I had all sorts of plans, too. Oh, by 40 I was supposed to have been a New Yorker staff writer; a Kenyan-level marathoner; an unselfish mother. (I mean, if a mother at all, which was not so much on my “To Accomplish List” as it was on my “To Put Off Until the Last Possible Moment and My Husband Makes Me List.”)

I was supposed to be the mature adult I’d always avoided being, but by the time I actually turned 40 presumed I’d just naturally, you know, be.

But now here I am, a day away from the birthday every female dreads—despite Tom Junod’s recent backhanded ode to women even two whole years older—and I’m 0 for 3:

The New Yorker once paid me $1,200 for a short piece, but then it never ran. I haven’t run 26.2 miles since the year 2000. And as for the unselfish mother thing… weeeell, I just took a two-week solo trip to Bhutan, the other happiest place on earth, and left my two little kids at home.

Which brings me to my less, shall we say, lofty goals. You know, the stuff I just expected to have gotten around to by the dawn of my fourth decade. Like, learn to ride a bike. (Yup, pathetic, I know. 0 for 4.)