As many of you know, I loved Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm. Her debut novel ponders on love, identity and what it all means when you are a young woman. So, I contacted Rebecca and she kindly agreed to answer some questions for me. Plus, Annie Harris from Penguin has allowed me to share this beautiful Book Club Kit with you all – click here to download it. I hope you enjoy it.
1. We could say Unbecoming is an identity thriller, because Grace’s identity becomes the main mystery in the plot. Where did the idea come from?
I grew up watching Hitchcock films and reading noir fiction, and I held in my mind these two feminine types: Grace Kelly as the Hitchcock blond, virtuous and poised, helpful and well-behaved, well brought-up; and the noir femme fatale, who is really more of a plot device than a person. Her motivations are always very simple. And as I got older, I began to rebel against these types, and I started to wonder about the possibility of the Hitchcock heroine and the femme fatale being one very complicated, very real woman. How did she become who she is?
2. Grace is one of the most complex and most realistic characters I have encountered, and certainly a very interesting one. She has ambition, she has passion, she’s a sexual being, but she’s also confused, lost and angry at times. How did you negotiate both sides of her while –at the same time – making her inspiring for readers?
Untangling the psychological knot of a character’s identity is what compels me to write fiction. It would be much easier, sure, to write someone less at war with herself, but that wouldn’t hold my attention! I was always trying to understand her: as a writer, my ambition is to empathize with people or characters who are very, very different from me. There are moments in the book when I’m rooting for Grace and moments that I’m just livid with her, as there will be for most readers. And all our moments will be different, I expect, depending on how we see the world and what we ourselves have experienced.
3. Love and the desire to be loved play a key role in the narrative. Why did you choose to write such a story around emotional wants and needs?
Our lives are defined in moments where our emotional wants and needs are in conflict with each other or with our practical wants and needs. These are the moments where we make big, life-altering decisions—to break up, to move, to change jobs, to quit, to lie, to buy something, to make a promise. Unbecoming is very much propelled by those intersections and conflicts, which don’t always make sense to the people around us. But that’s just because they can’t really read our whole stories, not like we can—and that’s where fiction comes in. Mary Gaitskill said in a talk once that reading fiction is the closest you can get to living inside another person for a while—I call it “zipping on someone else’s human suit” to my students—and that emotional experience, both as a reader and writer, is what interests me.
4. Eventually, Grace highlights we are all in charge of our identities, and we can actively construct them. It is a hopeful and very open-minded to approach life. Tells us more about where this philosophy comes from.
Well, I think we do construct our identities, consciously or not—and our failures to control our identities are part of that. Think about how you present yourself in a job interview as opposed to how you present yourself (ha!) on a Friday night with very old friends. Grace’s identity has more public-vs-private friction than most of us have, but we all know what it feels like to transform yourself for a specific audience or environment, even if it’s just a little tweak on social media, at a party, at work.
5.Learning what makes you happy rather than what you thought would make you happy seems to be Grace’s happy ending. But, it is a process, and reading Unbecoming reflects that process of learning and the acceptance that comes from self-knowledge. How did you achieve this?
Ah, yes, we say “be true to yourself,” but what if the “yourself” in question is someone dangerous? Without giving too much away, I was railing against our expectations of a classic “redemption” narrative, where bad acts are punished or the doer-of-bad-deeds repents, settles down, vows to be good from now on. Well, Grace vows to be good often in the book, and we see how that goes. For me, a realistic “redemption” for this character meant that we catch her in a moment where she sees herself clearly. And for a character so hard to pin down, who resists revelation about herself, that glimpse can only last a moment. But I was always trying to catch her there. It wasn’t easy.
Thank you very much to both Annie Harris and Rebecca Scherm for collaborating with Books & Reviews. Unbecoming was published in the US on 22nd January 2015.