A Bit Contrived
features interviews with authors who exist about books that don't, with covers designed by people who do.
Please note: Zip and Unzip does not exist, nor will it ever (probably)—it's been improvised during the course of the interview. If you really want to read it, do yourself a favor and check out Julie's most recent novel, Dear Committee Members.
Release no. IV:
Zip and Unzip by Julie Schumacher
Julie Schumacher is a master of satire. And so when she asked to conduct our interview in Marcel’s Vintage Room, an upscale steakhouse in St. Paul, I had assumed the choice was ironic. This postulate was reinforced when I arrived, and saw she was wearing a three-piece suit and fedora, letting a cigar droop from her lips. And yet, every time she made a gesture to confirm the farce, she’d send a frozen stare, daring me to laugh, to admit to the comedy. She told the waiter we’d both like ‘hunks of red steak meat’ cooked ‘medium extraordinary’ and ate hers by picking up the entire piece at once with just her fork, ripping off bites with her teeth. At the end I shook her hand, looked her in the eye and said, ‘This whole thing, it’s sort of a…joke, right?’, to which she replied, with a twinkle in her eye, ‘Have a safe flight’. Below are excerpts of our conversation.
Julie, thanks so much for granting this interview. Without it, I'm afraid I may have gone completely insane. In the last two weeks, since I finished Zip and Unzip, I've been questioning. Questioning what? The act of questioning itself. As a fan of satire, I loved Dear Committee Members and was expecting something similar with your newest release. I wondered: would you turn your aim on the world of publishing? A hotter skewering of academia? Nay. Here we have a satire of satire, or as Miles Micanopy at The New Yorker put it: "a send-up of sending up itself". NPR's Brooke Eswaldo summed up my thoughts when she said, "[Zip and Unzip] is a Sontagian critique of critiques, except both Schumacher's weapon and her target is the same: the very idea of 'the hilarious novel'. What are we left with but the odd sensation that either nothing is funny or everything is?"
Where did the idea for Zip and Unzip come from? Did the book's meaning predate its content?
Nothing is funny. That's the essence of Zip and Unzip. The idea for the book came to me on a sub-zero afternoon when I was spending a few blissful, isolated hours in a snow cave: the white blindness is, I find, particularly inspiring. I wanted to write a comedy the humor of which would be completely opaque. That was my goal.
And to stunning effect. You have, quite honestly, ruined humor—shattered it. Dear Committee Members is an epistolary novel. I was half-expecting the same with this one. Not so. Were you equally inspired from that blankness in structuring Zip and Unzip?
Yes, of course. Each chapter of Zip and Unzip begins, in fact, with six blank pages -- white and pristine. For editorial as well as financial reasons, those blank pages were collapsed into a single line, with the result that the blank space has been compacted. Some readers may not notice it; the discerning, however, will sense the powerful absence of language compressed into a quarter of an inch of space.
Oh that is rich. Obviously in terms of typesetting it's (nearly) identical to the normal pushdown of a new chapter, but the reader is confronted by this blank spaces as if they contained a lot more; a lot of emptiness, a lot of fullness. I even found myself staring at a few of the spaces in the book (i.e. page 56 "couldn't, he"; page 214 "salami had") and thinking, you know, this is a space but isn't it a lot more. I often wondered if you hadn't placed encyclopedias of nothingness where less transcendental writers would have put "spaces".
Zip and Unzip has obviously thrown out the rulebook, but especially in terms of vulgarity. Would you expound on a couple of those scenes?
Zip and Unzip is not for the squeamish. In chapter 21, when Rolphe, in chaps, ties himself to the cross-beam in the barn with a grenade in his pocket -- well, that would be the moment for the faint of heart, those not ready to meet the challenge the novel poses, to walk away in favor of lighter fare. Such readers might turn to a Shirley Temple film. Or to a dramatic reading of The Runaway Bunny.
Indeed. An unchallenging novel is like a film with subtitles: if you wanted to be entertained like some giggling infant, why not buy yourself an Easy Bake Oven?
Rolphe, to me, is the (more) modern day Patrick Bateman—a hyperbolic yet somehow believable realization of society's ills. These ills, you submit, is our irony, our carelessness to defer to humor, our own giggles. In previous drafts of the work, did Rolphe suffer so much? Take me through the process of building this character's most salient traits.
Andrew, characters suffer. They have to suffer. Rolphe was designed to function as a sort of black hole or magnet for the reader's sins and deviations. The reader is reminded of his or her moral mis-steps, and Rolphe feels the lash.
That said, Rolphe's relationship to Clarissa -- you remember the scene in which he bakes her fingernail clippings into a pie -- offers him a shot at redemption. She is both sibling and parent to Rolphe, therapist and maiden aunt and dominatrix and muse.
Rolphe and Clarissa's relationship is one for the ages; character-focused writing workshops will discuss their sort of Oedipal-meets-atonement rapport until the dawn of fiction. I found their scenes the most difficult—I never knew whether to laugh or to cringe or to cry. Perhaps that was the point.
I imagine their series of tête-à-tête's is what the novel's title is abstractly painting? In Clarissa do we not have an undoing (and doing) of Rolphe?
Yes, precisely. But Zip and Unzip is also an abbreviation (for what, I can't tell you -- that will revealed in the sequel, Freud and Sangfroid).
Oh my—a sequel. I can only imagine the publishing house auction Freud and Sangfroid ignited! But of course it would be gauche to reference your newfound wealth. Even if you do now have excessive means, I wouldn't expect that to affect your commitment to your art. What's the teaser? What flavor of satire should we prepare ourselves for?
In Freud and Sangfroid, Clarissa -- working in tandem with necromancers of the first order -- will bring a Certain Viennese Neurologist back to life, in order to tamper with Rolphe's subconscious. But that's all the preview I'm willing to offer! My editors and financial advisers have prohibited any further disclosures.
That sounds too good to be true. It looks like we're done on time, so I have just one final question: Without giving anything away, the book's conclusion brings the opening scene full circle. It's a poignant image, and one that will stay with me long after this conversation. I don't want to misrepresent your art; how would you describe it?
Thank you. That image of the blind white rat -- Rolphe's beloved pet when he was a child -- is one that I hope infuses the book with meaning. The rat is Rolphe, and it is all of us. It is who we are.
Thanks for your words Julie; your words and your courage.
Cover by Emily Mahon. A Philadelphia native, Emily studied Graphic Design and Spanish at Penn State before making her way to New York. She became an Art Director at Doubleday in 2006. Emily’s work has been honored with awards from AIGA, The Type Director's Club, The Art Director’s Club and The New York Book Show. She has been published in Communication Arts, Graphisand Print, among others.
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