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.