The Beatrice Interview

Libby Schmais

"I'm always envious of those writers who can get up at 5 A.M. and write for two hours."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

I first met Libby Schmais at a reading she gave for her debut novel, The Perfect Elizabeth, at the Astor Place Barnes and Noble. She read from a section where Eliza, the book's main character, attends a reception for her sister Bette's graduate school department--a section which neatly encapsulated the book's main elements of sisters and romantic comedy. A few days after that, I met her in the lobby of the midtown office tower where she works as a research librarian and we chatted about her novel at a nearby sushi restaurant.

RH: When did you first realize you wanted to write a novel?

LS: When I was in graduate school at Brooklyn College. They only let us write short stories, but I realized that all my stories had the same character. My first instinct was to write a novel, but starting the short stories in that writing workshop was less daunting. I'd always wanted to be a writer. I just didn't have the confidence, really.

RH: So what inspired you to take the plunge and enter the workshop?

LS: I did it for the discipline. I'm not very disciplined, and if you're in the writing program, you have to hand something in. That's why I liked being in a writing group, afterwards. If you don't have something to show every month, you just look foolish. I'm not in the group anymore, but there were about four or five of us. It's nice to get all the different opinions, though sometimes you get swayed by the group opinion. Now I want to see what I'll come up with on my own, without any structure, any group, any feedback. I want to do it that way right now. It's a little scary, but it's good.

RH: All those short stories you were working on at Brooklyn College with the same character...was she Eliza?

LS: No, it was a different character, named Eloise, but she was similar. And I had one of those stories, the only one I really tried to get published, in Glimmer Train. After I finished all of them, though, I didn't think they were that great, and I just wanted to do the novel.

RH: What drew you to Eliza's story?

LS: It started out kind of autobiographical. I was sitting with my sister, talking about our names,which are also both diminuatives of Elizabeth, and it just struck me. I'd always known it, but it just struck me then in a certain way, the idea that if we were put together, we'd be one perfect person, but everybody ultimately has to be imperfect. But the book veered into total fiction towards the very end. It was just easier for me to start out with things based on my life and take off from there.

RH: How did you find the time to write the novel around your day job?

LS: I actually find it easiest to write when I'm not supposed to be writing. On the subway, waiting for things...I'm not that good at sitting at my desk at home. I'm always envious of those writers who can get up at 5 A.M. and write for two hours. I write a lot on the run, or in cafés, with a lot of noise and people around.

RH: What are you working on now?

LS: Living Well With Cancer is coming out next year; I'm co-writing that. That book I can actually just sit down and work on, in a more disciplined way, because I know what I have to do for each subject. My friend is an oncology nurse practicioner, and she came up with an idea for a book about how to treat the symptoms of cancer treatment--the side effects--using both conventional and alternative medicine. It's not a cure book, more of a book about how to live through treatment and deal with the things that you'll experience. It's a lot of work, but I've enjoyed it.

RH: And you've got the second novel underway.

LS: I'm taking a break from it right now, but I've given myself until the end of the summer, and then I have to get back into it. It's...well, it's sort of like my life again, but in a different way. The main character's a librarian who's into alternative medicine. Her whole family situation and her personality are very different from me, though. She's a little more the shy librarian.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Anna Maxted | Complete Interview Index | Tess Collins

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan