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
RH: When did you first realize you wanted to write a
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,
RH: So what inspired you to take the plunge and enter
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
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