Rebecca Scherm's new suspense novel, UNBECOMING, was called "startlingly inventive" by the New York Times, and is available in stores and on Kindle now.
Thanks for answering some questions about your new book, Rebecca.
First of all, the title is great. It goes to the heart of the main character’s issue with an unraveling identity, but it also suggests pretense and the adopting of false, “unbecoming” personas. Did you think of the title before you wrote the book?
No, the title came late! I tried quite a few titles, some okay and some terrible (awful puns with ‘gilt’). My husband thought of “Unbecoming” one night. It just popped out of his mouth, and that was it.
You live in Michigan, but the parts of the book set in New York made it seem that you knew it well. Have you ever lived there? And have you, like your character, ever lived in Paris?
I lived in New York for seven years, but I’ve never lived in Paris. I was incredibly fortunate to get a research grant to visit for research, though, for five days in 2011. My plan was to stake out Grace’s places—the neighborhood where she works, where she lives, etc.—and to finally experience Clignancourt, which I’d been reading about for years, for myself. Nothing was what I expected, and I was able to channel that loneliness and disorientation into Grace’s experience.
There's the power of place and setting, and a lesson to writers to experience their settings firsthand.
Grace, the main character, is quite young, but the narration makes her seem older. Was this a way of emphasizing her otherness? Did her isolation bring a forced maturity?
The close-third person point of view allowed me access to her thoughts, but still gave me enough distance to occasionally see around her a little. The span of time covered in the novel also afforded me narrative distance. I think you’re right that her loneliness as a child and her observational, evaluative habits make her feel separate from the people around her, and we feel that in the tone of the narration.
Grace is adept at restoring antiques, and you provided fascinating, in-depth detail about this art. How did you go about researching the valuing and refurbishing of lovely things?
I read and I imagined! I read books about antiques restoration, jewelry making and repair, and antiques identification. Often, I made up methods—the dental tools swabbed in cotton, for instance, may not be accurate, but they are evocative. I spent many hours on websites like 1stdibs trying to understand the way antiques are bought and sold, and of course I spent valuable time in Clignancourt.
Grace falls under the spell of not just her boyfriend Riley, but of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Graham, and their perfect house. In fact, the Graham House looms over her actions and her consciousness like a modern Manderley, and through her narration it has a similar brooding feeling. Are you a Daphne du Maurier fan?
Oh, yes, and Rebecca is both a conscious and unconscious influence. For instance, I realized Grace shouldn’t have a last name—the absence of which implies that she has no family- when I was rereading Rebecca. I’m so glad you mentioned her!
You did a good job evoking the du Maurier mood, especially with the ending, I thought.
Grace decides when she is very young that she is a “bad apple,” but it’s never clear whether it is nature or nurture that makes her see a badness in herself, something that she needs to conceal. There is a continual tension between what Grace believes about herself and what the audience must try to determine about her. Was this the most difficult part of writing this book?
I see it as a continuous feedback loop—the coldness from her mother makes her see her regular childhood transgressions as “bad,” which makes her sure that she’s bad, which gives her this sense of shame and sense of permission to do worse things. Keeping that line of tension was very difficult, and I teased her back and forth many, many times over the years. I had some very good reader friends helping me get that right. But the hardest parts of the book to write were about Grace and Mrs. Graham. I never wanted to make the importance of that relationship explicit, but I found some of the scenes between them very painful to write-- the scene where Mrs. Graham confronts her about the money, especially.
Your book is compelling and very difficult to put down. Did you find that you wrote whole scenes at one time to maintain this sense of tension?
I do write in whole scenes, and often it takes me days to gear up for a “big” scene—I edit, I shuffle things around, I obsess over small word choices while I’m getting ready for something that will be emotionally difficult to write, but that I know I’ll have to write all at once. I wrote the Berlin hotel scene from the passenger seat of our ancient Corolla on a road trip. I’d been thinking about that scene for days, and when I was ready, I had to do it, despite the fact that we were barreling down I-75 at the time.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
In fiction, I have deep love and admiration for Kate Atkinson, Susanna Moore, Charles Baxter, Elena Ferrante, Lydia Davis—I really could go on forever. Some of my favorite books from the last couple of years have been Jaime Quatro’s I Want to Show You More and We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo.
My website, rebeccascherm.com, has events, press, and other updates, and I also post on a Facebook author page. I tweet from @chezscherm.
Thanks for sharing, Rebecca, and for the great read.