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

by Ruth Graham

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.

She also wrote a gossip column for the local paper? Have you been able to read those columns?

I’ve read the one or two that were saved. They were the most boring columns imaginable, obviously the gossip of a very small town, all about who had their “coming out” cotillion and what citizens were traveling where, but written in this fun, breezy, chatty voice, in the guise of “Betty LaBette,” of LaBette County.

And she would write children’s books for her children and grandchildren.

Yes, dozens of them! I was the oldest grandchild, so these books started off concerning the adventures of a mischievous sprite from the Michigan woods called Jack Frost who would fly in and urge baby Amy to join him on his adventures, or else would cause mixups little Amy had to fix, usually with the help of woodland creatures. Rereading these books with my kids now it occurs to me how clearly she understood childhood, and how she was telling us this with these books. Little Amy in the early books is often almost part-creature herself, and more in collusion with squirrels and sprites than her dull old human parents.

Later we had more say in the books. I remember talking to my grandmother on the phone and ordering up a new volume. “Hm, I’d like two best friends, and a circus elephant…maybe a magic tree?” Soon a handmade, hand-illustrated book would appear in the mail. It was like the best mail-order book service of all times.

Was there something bittersweet for you about this project? Peggy was never published in her lifetime, and now here’s this beautiful book that she never got to hold in her hands.

Yes. I was explaining the project to my daughter, who’s 5. She thought for a minute and then said, “Well, I bet she really would be happier about that if she were alive!” It’s heartbreaking to me that Peggy never had the pleasure of knowing how much people love her writing.

I think there’s a risk when we hear stories like Peggy’s to think, Oh, what a shame, this talented, creative woman who wasted her life on the drudgery of raising children. But it’s never so simple.

I got chills when I read Martha Gellhorn’s novella The Rise and Fall of Mrs. Hapgood: “Did people ever give up what they really wanted? Those numberless women who had rejected careers as concert pianists in favor of wifehood and never forgot their sacrifice were more apt to be cowards than concert pianists… You threw away security for hope.” It’s a defensive posture, written by someone who chose art and ambition over an ordinary life as a wife and mother, and I know she couldn’t really have been writing about Peggy though here is a chime there. But I was struck by the starkness of options — either security or hope. Although contemporary writer/mothers (including me) talk about how hard it is to balance both, at least now it’s an option.

Do you think she was happy?

It’s really hard to say. She always struck me as the happiest person I’d ever known, but I probably only ever knew her in a superficial way. When we saw her, she was always beaming, truly full of light. She had this characteristic whoop of laughter, and just thought everything you did was completely amazing.

Let’s talk about the story itself, which is funny and gripping and sweet, and offers this glimpse of a New Deal housing project in St. Louis in the charmed little window between the Depression and World War 2. Why is that setting so important to the story?

The setting really IS the story. My grandparents lived in the Neighborhood Gardens in the late 30s and early 40s, at the beginning of their marriage, and for them, as for the country, it was a time of great hope. The Gardens itself was one of the first federally funded housing projects, Roosevelt’s administration saying in effect, “Hey, even if you’re poor you should have access to a beautiful, clean, safe home and a decent life.” And for my grandmother it was a rather bohemian and thrilling chapter of her life — the playwright William Inge was one of their neighbors in the Gardens, and I gather there were boozy, late nights discussing art and politics.

Most of the women in the story are the mothers of young children, a stage of life that Peggy writes about with warmth that’s somehow unsentimental. (“We loved kids in The Gardens but we had too many to view them with awe.”) Did that resonate for you as the mother of two very young kids? Is it a challenge to write about motherhood without the sticky-sweetness?

Yes, it’s tricky! On one hand, you love your kids with a sticky-sweetness that is gross to everyone else. On the other hand, there’s a lot about life with kids that is just, well, as Peggy puts it, hard to view with awe. But if you talk about the complexities of motherhood, or treat it with any ambivalence at all, there is often this horrified response. I was trying to do this with my novel The Mermaid of Brooklyn, to write honestly, lovingly but unsentimentally, about motherhood,and found that the response from certain corners was “what a terrible mother this character is,” as if there were no room for anything but the most facile and one-dimensional feelings about one’s children and motherhood. It becomes a sort of an ouroboros — you talk about the hard parts but then feel judged so maybe you stop and then the hard parts are even harder because you can’t talk about them. I think this is true in writing and also in social interactions between parents.

That said, I love the way she writes about family life and parenting in this book. I love how the parents have their own lives and the kids wander around and bring them cold beers occasionally. I read and reread the scene where Betty and Dan come home from a night on the town and find that the neighbor watching little baby Danny left once he fell asleep, leaving behind a note saying you’re welcome for babysitting. It’s like a dispatch from another universe.

I keep thinking about Esther McQuinn, the presumably infertile woman who experiences a phantom pregnancy while waiting to adopt. What do you think was going on with Esther?

I have been trying to figure this out for years, actually. … Esther wants so desperately to be a mother that she transforms herself into one. There’s a wickedly sly undercurrent here too, as all the men in the story scratch their heads and try to figure out why she’s acting so darn hysterical; the women on the other hand are compassionate and practical and work to help her snap out of her state.

Tell me about the process of bringing the book to publication. There’s a long way from “manuscript in a garbage bag” to “illustrated chapbook.”

Well, it wasn’t until last year, after the publication and publicity efforts for my own second novel had quieted down, that I found myself with the time and mental space to really devote to this project. … I sent queries to a couple small presses that publish chapbooks, but it took a while to find the right fit. Most chapbooks are poetry, so many of the presses just didn’t know what to do with a novella. The novella really is an odd form — too long to be a short story, but too short to be a novel — and not much in vogue these days. A couple small presses liked what they read of the book, but conceded that they just couldn’t figure out how they would market a book by a dead author, which I completely understand.

Finally Éireann Lorsung, a poet/artist friend who runs her own gorgeous small press Miel, told me that while the book wasn’t right for her press she thought she might know just the right one, and she sent me to Amanda Mays at Anchor & Plume. … I love the thought of my daughter being able to have a copy of this book, and having in the back of her mind that this is what families do; they make things and support each other creatively.

Had you and your mom worked together like this before?

Yes and no; my parents have both always been rather game about getting involved in their children’s creative endeavors. (As I recall, they both submitted work for my seminal 1995 photocopied zine, The Inner Crouton.) My mom made a wonderful woodcut print of a scene from my first novel that hangs above my writing desk. And now we are working together on a chapter book for my kids, based on the stories they tell us. We’ve been going one chapter at a time: I write it up, my mom illustrates, my husband does layout design and makes the booklet, the kids read each chapter with delight and then demand another one and ask what’s taking so long. We’re trying to keep my grandmother’s tradition of books alive!

Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in rural New Hampshire. Find her on Twitter at @publicroad.