Midway through Rebecca Scherm’s debut novel Unbecoming, Grace, a Tennessee raised, New York educated, and now in-hiding antiques restorer finds herself at her co-worker Hanna’s studio in Paris on the edge of a confession. Back in Garland, her home town, two men—including her husband—have just been paroled for a crime Grace planned down to the last detail. Grace has been going by “Julie” in Paris, caught in a gradation of many consciously and unconsciously chosen identities. And though Grace has fled America in part because of the failed heist, she has also fled for reasons I can’t reveal. It is not that I’m afraid of spoiling the plot, it’s that even now, two reads in, the “why” is something I am still thinking about.
Unbecoming is a novel expertly in control of its characters fraught and tenuous identities, all while moving forward and backward through time and across continents. The heist Grace planned, its total collapse, is central to the story, and makes for a Grade-A thriller, but the heist is a macrocosm—it is the enticing, familiar escapism we sometimes seek out in fiction, perhaps to be reminded of people who can’t possibly be like us, who can’t possibly be what we end up finding in Unbecoming: characters who serve as deep inquiry into that which we cannot grasp about ourselves. Any unknowable fork can place us in a predicament like Grace’s, who Scherm slowly reveals to be only as untrustworthy as we may already be in the tiniest ways, every day, to ourselves.
Rebecca Scherm lives and works in Ann Arbor. Before her book tour got underway, I had the chance to ask her a few questions.
Among other things, Unbecoming is rich in detail. How do you decide what to keep in your process, what details are dispensable and what details are indispensible?
The impulse to collect details, especially people’s minute emotional responses, to try to see the unseen or the unnoticed—that is the reason I write fiction. There’s a satisfaction that comes with having the currency of noticing things, a feeling like “oh yeah, I saw that, I saw that look you just gave, I’m going to file that away.” To me, that’s a kind of power. As for the physical details, the physical work of antique restoration, that’s there—not that is something I knew that I was doing in the beginning, it’s something that emerged and became important to me—because I’m dealing with what Charles Baxter once called “the reticent confessor” in Grace, a person unwilling to disclose everything. She won’t tolerate it, and she won’t tolerate me probing too deeply. So when she would not confess something, or she could not explain how her mind was working, I would work that out with the details of her restoration, allow her to disclose through those physical actions.
Grace is a character that is destined to stay with readers. But I know you’re also working on a second novel. How do you move on from her?
Well, I’ve been living with Grace for four years. But I don’t think you “solve” a character like Grace, when you’re writing her. I think you can make peace with her, with what she is. I think in the beginning I thought I would solve her, and that would be how I knew I was done. And then I realized I had been building this insoluble character, that’s the mystery that was compelling me. It was when I made peace with Grace as a chameleon, that I thought that I was done and that I was ready to move on. But there’s an artistic answer to this question and then there’s the real answer.
What’s the real answer?
The real answer is that I think it’s very lovely if you get up every morning and you are motivated by perfecting your art, which I am, but a good half of my days on this book were motivated by a terminal disease of student debt that was, like, rumpelstiltskin and the velicoraptors from Jurassic Park after me, together, in my living nightmares. So I often felt the urgency of the character—she’s trying to run—while I’m thinking “I gotta pay this debt.” So that’s how I finished it!
What about the process of completing and publishing your first novel has surprised you?
How emotionally hard it was. Grace isn’t anything like me, and I thought it would protect me, that because I wasn’t exorcising my own past, that I would be “safe.” When I was writing short stories they would be more autobiographical, I couldn’t help it, so I know what grinding through your past feels like. But Unbecoming was all so deeply fictional that I did not think it would hurt. There were some dark times when I was just stuck in Grace’s head for weeks. I experience that with other writer’s works, I did not expect to experience it with mine. That was weird.
Pick up Rebecca Scherm’s debut novel, Unbecoming, at Literati Bookstore, 124 East Washington Street, Ann Arbor,
(734) 585-5567 or Nicola’s Books, Westgate Shopping Center, 2513 Jackson Avenue, Ann Arbor, (734) 662-0600.