Author Cathleen Schine visited the Scarsdale Public Library on Saturday to discuss her latest book, The Three Weissmanns of Westport. With the Scarsdale literary community, Schine shared her process behind writing her recent book, and her past success with her other novels that have won her international acclaim.
Standing at the podium, Schine opened with her life before she became a writer. She originally majored in poetry at Sarah Lawrence College, until she realized, “this is a terrible mistake, my poetry is bad.” Somehow medieval history seemed like a better fit.
She transferred to Barnard College to major in medieval history. Schine continued her medieval history studies at the University of Chicago. While there, it dawned on her that the subject was also not for her. Schine had a knack for forgetting names and dates, both being essential skills for historians.
Schine then abandoned her medieval history studies, and returned home to New York to figure out what she should do next. “I moved into my mom’s guestroom,” said Schine. “And I stayed there. And I stayed there.”
Eventually, Schine recalled her love for shoes. It was a passion she discovered during her fellowship in Italy as she studied paleography. Schine thought to herself, “I’ll be a buyer.” Unfortunately, she was unable to find a job in the industry.
With poetry, medieval history and a career as a buyer not working out, Schine felt hopeless and out of options. Schine decided to resign to a life restricted to her mom’s guestroom. Her mother, on the other hand, would bring Schine the New York Times every morning with job and apartment listings circled in bold red.
Then there was finally a break in the clouds for Schine. She said, “A great piece of wonderful luck, which sometimes happens to people, happen to me.” Her mother’s best friend was an editor for the Village Voice. The editor instructed Schine to write a piece about her time in the hospital.
At 20 years old, Schine was treated for Crohn’s disease. She spent eight months in the hospital and the rest of the year in rehab at the Rusk Institute. She credited the experience as interesting, yet grim. She was confined to a bed, and her closest friends were people over 70.
The editor looked over Schine’s hospital piece and discarded the material she believed Schine should save for her book. “By the end of this, I said ‘Hey, I guess I’m writing a novel.’” This led to her first novel, Alice in Bed.
Schine noted, “That’s the wonderful thing about being a writer, there’s a little part of my brain that says ‘oooh, material.’” whenever encountering boring or bad experiences.
When it came time to write her eighth novel The Three Weissmanns of Westport, Schine decided to do something different. “I really wanted to write a book about middle aged people in love. You rarely read about it” said Schine.
She added, “You come to a relationship with so much history, and the two of you must find a way to reconcile this baggage.”
In the passage Schine selected to read, it focused on the main characters Joe and Betty Weissmann. The two had been married for 48 years, and suddenly the husband wanted a divorce. At 75, Betty was at a loss. Irreconcilable differences were expected in a marriage but did not understand its relation to divorce. For Joe, 78, “their history was history to him.”
Cathleen Schine is best known for best-selling novels The Love Letter (1995) and Rameau’s Niece (1993). Both of those novels were adapted for the big screen. Actors Tom Selleck and Kate Capshaw starred in The Love Letter adaptation and actress Parker Posey played Margaret Nathan in “The Misadventures of Margaret” (the adaptation of Rameau’s Niece).