It’s one of the most anticipated books of 2015. It will keep you up way past your bedtime. And it was written in Ann Arbor coffee shops by University of Michigan MFA grad Rebecca Scherm, in between the freshmen writing classes she teaches at the university.
Scherm’s debut novel, Unbecoming, may soon be everywhere. It’s a Gone Girl-esque psychological thriller about what happens when a young woman’s perfect performance of Southern, girl-next-door femininity shatters and a crime she commits sends her on the run and both her husband and her lover to prison.
But unlike Gillian Flynn or Patricia Highsmith (of The Talented Mr. Ripley,) Scherm’s anti-heroine, Grace, isn’t a psychopath. She’s much more interesting than that.
One day before the novel comes out, Scherm talks with Michigan Radio about liars, sex and why publicists seem to believe women won’t read books about “unlikeable” women.
You’ve said that your inspiration for this came from watching Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock movies as a kid and being fascinated with her, not wanting her to leave the screen. How did ‘Unbecoming’ come out of that?
When I was a little kid I would watch those three films Grace Kelly made with Alfred Hitchcock. What captivated me – and I didn’t really have a way to articulate it as a kid – was that the actress was the same as the character was the same as the person.
She has this way of perfuming femininity that’s consistent from role to role. She’s not a realistic actress. And as a little girl who’s steeped in princess and wedding cakes, I saw it as a feminine ideal that you could become if you tried hard enough.
And then as I grew up and became a little more awkward and prickly and passionate, I started to realize, I’m never going to be that woman. And it started to seem suspicious to me, that feminine performance. I’m from the south and I noticed women were raised to be lovely and lovable and poised and sort of decorative.
And I felt more and more rebellious as I thought about that. Then somewhere along the line my interest in Grace Kelly and that sort of performance collided with my interest in noir fiction and heist stories and the way we romanticize heist stories. Which is interesting, we don’t really romanticize any other kinds of crimes. We don’t romanticize insurance fraud, whereas heists take on this kind of sparkle.
These ideas collided for me: the false sparkle of Grace Kelly films and the heist story and the titillating false sparkle of noir. It all came together in this one big psychological knot that I felt like I had to untangle.
One of the first things I was told about this book before I read it is that your heroine, Grace, is that she’s unlikable. And that kept getting repeated: ‘She’s unlikeable! Watch out!’
And I kept waiting for a Ripley [from Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley,] like, well when is she going to club someone to death in a boat? And that just never happens. She lies and she steals and she cheats, but she never frames her husband for murder in hopes he’ll be executed by the state [like in ‘Gone Girl.’]
It made me wonder, do we focus too much on likability for female characters? Do we somehow think women can’t read books about other women who have unlikable tendencies but are still a person?
I think probably. I hate that it’s necessary. I think a lot of readers need the warning. If you go into it expecting she’s going to be your best friend or she’s going to be cuddly, then you might feel slapped around a bit.
But the first line tells you Grace is a liar. And if you go in with open eyes, then you slip into this place that might be more interesting, where you’re rooting for her even as she’s making these decisions that you find upsetting.
And the book has that very Hitchcock feel of dread that bad things are going to happen. But she’s not a sociopath, and you’ve given every one of her decisions an honest emotional context, and even made her decisions (other than maybe international jewel theft which is just not something that comes up often for most of us) the kind of thing you could see yourself doing.
I think that’s one of the things that makes Grace so interesting, and so threatening to readers in a good way! In the way you want fiction to unsettle you. I love a lot of novels about sociopaths, I love Patricia Highsmith, and she’s definitely an influence.
But I think with a sociopath, there’s a way of excusing the character. You can root for them because you understand they don’t have a conscience. But if you take someone with a conscience and then they’re making these horrible decisions and they’re hurting people, then we’re sort of complicit. Then we’re stuck emotionally with the character.
And that’s where the real suspense in the novel I think is. There’s a sort of emotional suspense, because the stakes are so high.
The way you depict her and [her husband] Riley’s relationship and marriage, there is clearly real love there.
But there’s also an element of Grace performing, throughout this long-term relationship, to be who Riley wants, and the kind of lies that come up.
And it was really unsettling. It made me think about my own relationship, and all the tiny little lies and performances, even dumb stuff like oh I told him I don’t know where the Tupperware is but I do, it’s in my desk and I was too lazy to bring it home.
Something that was motivating me was we have this false perception of truth and lies. And I think a lot of life is in the middle. Even honestly, even in love, a lot of what we do in love is performing.
My husband is a sociologist and we were talking about when you say ‘I do’ at a wedding, like, that’s legally binding. Something has happened because you’ve said something. And I think you can think of it the same way for ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I forgive you,’ how you might perform something into truth.
I think there are three love stories in the book. They are all real. But one of them is performative.
Let’s talk about the mom relationship [between Grace and her mother-in-law, Mrs. Graham.] It’s a central relationship but it’s not a Jodi Picoult book or some novel that’s explicitly like “the mom-daughter dynamic will drive this story,” because you put in what could otherwise be seen as a caper or a romance or a bad-girl novel. But you made the mother relationship a prime motivator. Why?
I think that family envy is something we experience in a lighter way when we’re younger. You think your friend’s mom is really cool or everybody wants to hang out at this house that’s mysteriously fun all the time.
And I was thinking about my first boyfriend long ago, when I was 16. And it wasn’t a meaningful relationship, but when we broke up I was just really bummed I wasn’t going to see his mom anymore. She was so cool! He had this great mom, and this great dog.
And so much of what I write about in fiction is about taking everyday feelings and then taking them to extremes. Finding a little flicker of light and then burning the place down with it.
And I thought this love story that’s unconventional in the way it motivates the character, I think that Grace’s love for Mrs. Graham is overwhelming to her. It’s primal and desperate. I wanted to explore this idea to the most extreme.
That moment where Mrs. Graham confronts her [for stealing money from the family] is the bloody, beating heart of the book.
It’s a mother daughter thing. Grace has such a desire for a bond that she’s never going to be able to replicate. The thread will always be a little too thin. It will never quite hold.
The whole idea going into this was looking at this type of the femme fatal, which is very two dimensional…I wanted to see how she got that way. What if it’s a flesh and blood woman and there’s a long history of how she got that way?
In heist movies, we never forget that we are not the criminal. The screen is between us. We are watching someone else do bad things and we can enjoy it because it’s not us. But when you’re reading and if it sucks you in, then you feel a little bit like it’s you.
Especially since this caper is the least sexy caper that’s ever been written. It’s a robbery of a small town historical estate, it goes wrong very quickly and everyone gets caught. And yet the whole book centers around this crime.
This is embarrassing, but I didn’t know that that first caper was going to be a failure. But I am not a criminal mastermind! I have never planned an elaborate heist before! I don’t know what I’m doing.
And a friend of mine was saying about Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, ‘You know, with Ripley, you know he’s going to pull it off, because he has such an elegant mind.’ And I thought, Grace isn’t going to pull this off! She’s a beginner. We need to see her fail at this point.
And I really wanted to take a lot of these stories heist and caper stories we like so much and force them into reality in this awkward and clumsy mistake.
You talk about the un-knowableness of Grace. And maybe that’s part of why people keep describing this book as about an “unlikeable” character. Which, side note, men write books all the time about “unknowable” men – I mean, The Old Man the Sea, for goodness sakes.
But to me that made her much more relatable. Because when we are in our own minds, we don’t suddenly realize ‘oh you know I think this issue goes back to my mother.’ Tell me about writing the unknowable woman.
I didn’t always know that she was going to be so unknowable. But if her strength is kind of her chameleon power, then of course she’s never going to let me get that close. Of course I’m never going to be able to solve for x.
In the early drafts I was writing in first person. And she would not tolerate that as a character. It would not work. It was trying too hard to solve for something.
And I think that I was very interested in the psychology of liar, of really trying to understand. And in order to do that you have to make peace with unknowability.
Especially with someone this young [as Grace.] You know, how many 18-24 year olds are going to completely know and have made peace with themselves? And I like that she didn’t have to be some therapist’s dream of a fully realized and resolved person, even at the end.
The expectation of a redemption narrative drive me nuts. It’s something I get a little prickly about. The idea that especially with a quote-unquote bad protagonist, we’re trained to expect reformation, that she’ll settle down and open an art gallery like the end of American Hustle, or that she’ll be deeply punished for her misdeeds.
I think those are crappy choices. I think what’s more realistic is that people just go on. Maybe someday she’ll reform. I kind of doubt it. I think that what interests me more is that way the psychologically we’re punished for our own acts. That seems inescapable. But the idea that she might escape? That’s important.
I keep bringing this back to gender, but male characters are never expected to be punished for doing crazy stuff or cheating on someone or being a liar. That’s what makes them so quote-unquote interesting.
This is a discussion that we only have about books written about women by women.
Alright, last question, Rebecca, I warned you we were going to ask you this: who are your five favorite literary heroines?
Well, I refuse. I’m going to give you four favorite anti-heroines.
Number one: Bridget O’Shaugnessy from The Maltese Falcon. And I have to include her first because when we talk about femme fatales we always talk about her. And people have written about this and this is so important about the femme fatale, but the femme fatale is always through the male gaze. Like if man feels seduced by a woman who’s doing bad deeds, she’s a femme fatale. Like, he gets to declare this because he got a hard on. Who says she’s curling her eyelashes at him? He gets to decide.
Second, Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice. That was a really important book for me when I was writing this book, thinking about love stories and affairs where people were doing bad things for each other and to be together and it just gets really swampy.
Rebecca in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, the anti-heroine we never meet. She’s an all-powerful ghost.
And finally, lesser known, Eunice Parchman, who is the murder in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgment in Stone which is the greatest inspiration for Unbecoming. The first line of the book is Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’ And the rest of the book is about how she became that person.