Writer Sophie McManus
Sophie McManus had no plan to write a novel. Her debut novel, The Unfortunates, began as eight pages for a short story workshop based on Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill.” A decade later, those pages have blossomed into a 386-page exploration of social class, love, and mortality shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. McManus has drawn comparisons to Edith Wharton, and The Unfortunates has been praised for the immense empathy given to its upper-class characters. Prior to The Unfortunates, McManus published her short fiction in Memorious, American Short Fiction, and Tin House. Currently, she teaches writing at Purchase College.
In September, McManus came to Bennington to read an excerpt of The Unfortunates in the Franklin common room, where we hold weekly Literature Evenings. Over email, she discussed the theme of class in fiction, the origin of The Unfortunates, and her delicate plans for a second novel.
Literary Bennington: You told the Observer “A lot of my favorite books are English books that deal with class.” Can you name a few of these books? Why does the theme of class interest you?
Sophie McManus: Great Expectations, Howard’s End, Heart of Darkness, and Mrs. Dalloway come to mind. I will burrow into anything considered a “social novel.” Although, that category puzzles me—what novel isn’t concerned with how societies work? Narrative art contends with the passage of time. Causality follows. It seems then that the project is unavoidably a moral one, whatever that might mean from book to book or era to era. Moral projects are hard-pressed to exist without considering the mores of their time and place. Morals and mores have the same Latin root, the word for custom. That’s all a bit broad and fusty, but I’m gonna stick to it.
LB: The Unfortunates has been referred to as a social satire, despite the immense empathy given to its upper-class characters. Did you ever intend on making it a pure, early-Evelyn-Waugh type social satire?
SM: I was not aware I was writing satire. If satire is “the use of humor or irony to expose social or political vices,” as well as “people’s stupidity,” as the dictionary so delightfully puts it, fine with me. Your question points to the trickiness of where empathy and satire work together. I don’t try to write funny. Often, the truth of being human just is funny. And heartbreaking. We’re all idiots and blind to ourselves. Dramatic irony, that’s one of the novel’s best gigs.
LB: Which character in The Unfortunates was the hardest to write? Why?
SM: Iris had seven different names. If you don’t know a character’s name, you usually don’t have a handle on the character. Everybody says that, and everybody’s right. When the book begins, Iris has floated passively through her own life, not able to be curious about who she is or where she belongs. She’s in low expectations, emotional zombie mode. I got to the last name Somner by way of somnambulation, and that would include Iris. How do you vividly write someone who is not vivid to themselves, who survives through invisibility and willed naiveté, who is lost, but quietly, complacently so? She’s a nice person. Flameouts, narcissists, charmers, and villains: they make such a describable mess. They’re dying to talk. They’re easier to track across the page. And Iris grew up poor, which I did not. At one point, she remembers where her parents worked, at “The Camden Bag and Paper Factory.” A wise friend of mine read this in draft, looked at me pointedly and said, “She’d think of it only as ‘Camden Bag and Paper.’” It’s good to know what you don’t know. Then you can get help as great as that.
LB: What was your original concept for The Unfortunates? How has it changed over time? What influenced these changes?
SM: “Original concept” gives organizational credit where none is due. I had no plan to write a novel. Entertaining such an ambitious plan would have terrified me. But, I had eight pages due for a short story workshop. I’d avoided them up to the night before. My response to literary panic is literary thievery, which I passionately endorse, because I feel that writing is a call and response, that you write for and with all the books you have read and that this is one of the deepest, most beautiful and sustaining parts of the writing experience. Anyway, I wrote a scene based on what I happened to be reading: Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill.” Then I muddled around for a decade and here we are. The book’s concerns never changed, but how I got at them did, so many ways I can’t give you a number. The changes usually came about through the slow building of complexity in the characters. Once you really know a character, what they desire and how they respond to the requests made upon them (which is to say, plot) is all suddenly, wonderfully limited. Its inevitability is upon you. It can take a long time to get to this point. It’s really exciting when you do.
The book cover for The Unfortunates
LB: Booklist wrote, “McManus uncovers the humanity of a group that rarely receives our empathy.” Why do you think wealthy characters in fiction are usually treated with such contempt?
SM: Well, rich people are generally awful. Oh, I should not say so! A reductive statement like that is counter to the entire project that is literature. I recently had a racist and misogynistic student in workshop. His stories did not present awful ideas from, say, the perspective of a particular character. His stories simply assumed all manner of stereotypes and untruths as objective fact, woven right through the world. The student was clueless and affable and had, in addition to harboring lots of banal evils, a yearning to connect with others and a genuine passion for literature. He was a generous reader and listener. He was such a bucket of contradictions and he was so pained about how his writing failed. Most students in workshop can say, ah, ‘this bit of writing might improve by way of x or y.’ But this student could not understand why his work wasn’t working. It wasn’t a question of style or structure. It was because literature is about human complexity and human specificity, the opposite of any impulse that reduces any persons or groups to types, and all his characters were dimensionless–stick figures instead of people. It was an authorial worldview problem, outside the text, too big for him to see.
So, rich people, like all people, are not generally anything. But, one of capitalism’s more tragic ironies is that the more money people have, the less empathic they become. The more power a person has to do good in the world, the less likely they are to do it. Isn’t that the worst? Worthy of contempt. Unconsciously, I think, I set out to write empathically about rich people because assuming their generalized cartoon villainousness was my particular prejudice, to be challenged. Maybe that pained, racist man from my class will teach himself and save himself by reading literature. I don’t know.
LB: You describe the intricate “old rules” CeCe follows while choosing shoes for a yacht party – no heels or dark soles on a boat. Where did you come across this rule and others described in the novel?
SM: Hello, Internet! I Googled my way to those white shoe soles, I don’t remember how. I read a manual for servants of large estates. I read memoirs and biographies of a few wealthy industrialists. I was Easter egg hunting; those books were littered with all the objects and rituals I could ask for. Gloria Vanderbilt’s memoirs are great. Vanity Fair magazine (which I once heard hilariously referred to as Ghost Monthly for all the covers featuring dead Hollywood stars and Kennedys) is obsessed with wealthy New York past. I owe a debt to VF for a thousand-page article on where socialites ate lunch in the 1960s. Who was that article written for, besides me? I can’t imagine. I have met but don’t know anyone as wealthy as the Somners. It’s possible that someone in the 1% could read my book and throw it down for all its inaccuracies. It’s a bit of a free cheat. Who’s to know how well or poorly I faked it, including me? Only those one-percenters, and they are busy thinking about other things.
LB: Do you believe your characters are truly unfortunate? Why or why not?
SM: A line from Richard II that kills me: “I wasted time/and now doth time waste me.” I guess that’s a way of saying yeah, I do. But their misfortune is of a lower order. It is of their own design and cowardice. They are not laid into by the world. They are not refugees.
LB: Which character came to you first?
SM: CeCe. She arrived whole cloth. The year after I graduated from college I was diagnosed with a genetic disorder and thought for a little while I might die. My treatment was a walk in the park compared to, say, chemo, but it made me tired and weak and blue for eight months or so. When I thought I might die, I was so scared I became angry, just like Kubler-Ross suggests. I’d not experienced love and I’d never made anything of meaning with my life, and to die before I had a chance at these made me furious. That’s CeCe.
LB: How did you first start to write? How old were you? What sorts of things did you write as a beginner?
SM: As a young person, I read voraciously, but I only wrote for school. Whenever I tried to write a story or a poem, it was not as good as what I was reading and I became dejected and ashamed. Not even the privacy of a diary could withstand my propensity for shame. I started writing in earnest in my mid-twenties, only after I learned to see what a miraculous discovery rough work, first work, is, and to stop judging in such a shallow and crushing way.
LB: Can you tell us what your next novel is about? If so, what? What are your hopes for it?
SM: I have no idea. Well, I have an idea. It is the lamppost glowing so far off, through some trees. Now is the part where the idea is wordless and I have to read and read my way to it.