Female protagonists populate U-M MFA graduate Sara Schaff's new collection of short stories
What you have. What you want. What you hang on to. What you give up.
Jeans. A house. A spouse. Drawings. Places. Jobs. A fantasy.
Sara Schaff’s second collection of short stories, The Invention of Love, invests in these questions of possession and ownership, of affiliation and surprising loss. The best way to understand the characters’ distinct circumstances and the fine lines between one version of their life or another that they choose, or that gets chosen for them, is by looking at the plots themselves. For example, two half-sisters lose their mother, and both covet her pair of jeans used for dancing in “Our Lady of Guazá.” In another story called “Noreen O’Malley at the Sunset Pool,” Noreen must let go of the narratives about her friends and lovers that she hoped for as she cares for her new baby.
Still, a character may make a delightful discovery amidst a seemingly unbearable situation, such as a woman eventually becoming enthralled by Anna Karenina despite the fact that her ex-husband’s new wife (and their family friend) had been the one who recommended the book. These observant views of these women show their realizations and complicated hardships as they navigate life and its turns.
Schaff will speak with Greg Schutz, writer and lecturer at the University of Michigan, in an At Home with Literati virtual event on Tuesday, July 21, at 7 pm. Schaff and Schutz are friends and fellow graduates of the MFA program at the University of Michigan. Information to join via Zoom is on the event webpage. We corresponded via email beforehand, and here are my questions and Schaff’s responses.
Q: All of the stories in your new collection, The Invention of Love, have a female protagonist. Tell us about how these stories coalesced.
A: I started writing the earliest two stories in the collection, “Our Lady of Guazá” and “House Hunting,” in graduate school, between 2007 and 2009. I wrote most of the rest after my daughter was born in 2012. By then my writing process and themes had shifted: I had to write in the few minutes a day when my hands were free, and I was writing a lot about parenthood -- and how that changes a woman’s sense of herself and the person she is now allowed to be. The stories didn’t coalesce in my mind as a collection until I wrote the title story. It was there that I could see similar threads of self-invention and reflection running through the work I’d already been doing.
Q: You earned your Master of Fine Arts (MFA) at the University of Michigan. In the story called “The End of the Workshop,” a student says, “Who knows where we’ll be when we graduate from here, what our writing will look like, who our favorite writers will be?” I wonder if you relate to the transformation that the character imagines. Tell us about your journey as a writer before and after grad school.
A: Before graduate school, I wanted to write, and after graduate school, I actually wrote. I learned to revise in graduate school, and I learned to read like a writer. I learned to see a story through to its true end, and I learned just to finish work, period. Before grad school, I had started writing so many things but finished very few of them.
To be honest, it took several more years after completing my MFA to feel I’d really learned to write in a way that I wanted to. Graduate school in creative writing -- perhaps in any of the arts -- can be emotionally complicated and draining. Two years goes by so quickly, and if you finish those two years the way most writers do -- without a fancy book deal, agent, or heaps of awards -- it can feel deceptively like a reneged promise rather than just the way things normally work.
Just half a year after completing my MFA, after two semesters of adjuncting, I was let go from teaching, and I was suddenly unemployed, which I’d never been before. I had to really reexamine what I was doing and why. I’d been a teacher for most of my professional life, but it seemed at the time as if graduate school had not actually prepared me to do the thing I planned to do, which was teach at the college level. From this place of uncertainty and vulnerability, I started to finally write what I cared about, what felt necessary and deeply satisfying to write. I also got a job in advertising for a couple of years, and the break from academia was excellent for my mental health and for my writing.
Q: Right now, more businesses are open, but activities are limited due to COVID-19. Dreaming about going out and about is safer than doing so. So, could you tell us about your memories of being in the Ann Arbor area?
A: Oh, so many Ann Arbor memories! I was supposed to be there this month, and I’m so sad not to be. Ann Arbor’s where my daughter was born and where many dear friends still live. A big part of my heart still belongs to West Washington Street, where my husband and I lived for eight years, the longest we’ve lived anywhere together, and from which I could easily walk to my favorite places: the farmer’s market, the Y, the public library, the Michigan Theater, Literati Bookstore. I miss all of it.
Q: Your first short story collection, Say Something Nice About Me, was published during the 2016 election, and you mentioned that you are “becoming accustomed to publishing under circumstances that inspire anxiety and dread.” What have you learned from publishing in challenging times?
A: My first book came out just days before Trump was elected, and I immediately went into political action mode. I didn’t know how to promote a small-press debut, and I didn’t know much about political organizing. I was also on the job market, teaching three classes, and raising a child. I couldn’t do everything, so I leaned into organizing. By putting my energies there, I could wake up every day with a shred of hope. But I also felt sad about putting my art last.
I’ve tried to give The Invention of Love more of my attention. I still have a responsibility to stay civically active, but being politically and artistically engaged can’t be mutually exclusive anymore. I made something I feel proud of, and I want to share it. I have more energy to engage with the world when I’m also reaching out to readers and other writers and honoring the work we do.
Q: A thread throughout all of the stories in The Invention of Love is what characters keep or don’t keep -- or don’t get to keep. Sometimes the choice is in the character’s hands, such as Diane with her mother’s house. Other times, the choice is outside of their control, like Noreen longing for James. How did you consider these decisions and tipping points as you wrote?
A: I love this way of seeing the stories, and I hadn’t quite articulated it that way to myself. But it’s spot on. Sometimes what the characters don’t get to keep is a person or an object, sometimes it’s an idea of themselves or a way they’d hoped to be. And for a lot of the characters, part of their narrative progression is realizing that the person or idea or thing they longed for is a kind of illusion anyway.
The writing I love to read, and that I end up writing, tends to be concerned with the internal shifts in a character’s motivations and desires. Those shifts create action, tension, and, in turn, reaction and change. When my writing is going well, it feels organic, like watching great actors work by reacting to each other.
The tipping point, as you say, comes less from that steady and traditional rising action we associate with Freytag’s Triangle and every fiction class we’ve ever taken, but out of this series of actions and reactions, with the characters leading the way. The world around and inside my characters changes as a story progresses, and I find that by the end, the world looks very different than at the start, even though the biggest change is usually within the characters themselves.
This feels true to life for me. The things we want and need drive us to make all kinds of choices, large and small, and these choices have their own consequences. What is also true is that what we want and hope for are often not attainable -- making a living off of writing books, for example! Or simply being financially secure in a country without universal healthcare, well-funded public schools, or a stable living wage.
Q: You’ve taught at several places domestically and abroad, currently at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. What classes do you teach, and what do you enjoy about doing so?
A: I currently teach fiction, screenwriting, and an introductory course on film and literature. Until I arrived at SUNY Plattsburgh, I also taught a lot of creative nonfiction, which I really miss. Teaching creative writing is the best job in the world. (For which, let’s be clear, I should still be paid far more.) I get to talk about what I love most with people I find immensely interesting. As a professor, it’s thrilling to watch and assist another person’s artistic growth. I feel lucky that I get to do that.
I was recently talking with Nafissa Thompson-Spires at a virtual book event we did with Buffalo Street Books (in Ithaca, New York), and we touched on that aspect of teaching, as well as the toxic potential of the workshop. This idea runs through “The End of the Workshop,” which you mentioned earlier. While teaching is a great joy, it’s also a huge responsibility. And the professor at the center of that story doesn’t see it that way; for him, it’s more of a platform for his narcissism. That kind of “teaching” does real harm.
Q: As a short story writer, I imagine that you read a lot of them. What are your favorite sources of stories? What’s on your nightstand to read next in general?
A: The most recent collections I read and loved were Florida by Lauren Groff and Catapult by Emily Fridlund. My absolute favorite short-story collections are Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People, Edward P. Jones’ Lost in the City, Alice Munro’s Open Secrets and Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, and Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes. I’ve re-read Eisenberg’s stories many times for reassurance and inspiration.
Q: Your virtual reading at Literati is coming up. Have you done virtual readings before? How might it differ from in-person events in terms of how you prepare and interact with people?
A: I’ve done three virtual events since the pandemic hit, and I’ve attended a bunch. What I miss about in-person events is the feeling of being in a room together and the mingling afterward. What I do not miss is waiting to see if anyone is going to buy my book.
What I love most about online readings is being able to talk with people from all over. And it’s fantastic how these events are bringing small-press writers into conversation with big-press writers. Most of the publishing world has been married to New York City forever, but there’s a wonderful decentralizing going on that I hope will last after the pandemic is over.
Q: This might be a tough question right now: How is writing going amidst the pandemic? What are you working on next?
A: Can we just fill this last section with laugh-sobbing emojis? I’m planning my fall classes, taking an online-training course, and trying to keep my eight-year-old from watching too many YouTube videos. I’m not writing much.
But when I do write, what I’m working on is a novel that started as a mysterious, ghostly scene in an old English manor house. I wrote it while still living in Ann Arbor. That was over six years ago! I’d really like to figure out what happens, finally.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.
Sara Schaff talks about "The Invention of Love" at an At Home with Literati event on Tuesday, July 21, at 7 pm. Information to join via Zoom is on the event webpage.