Interview: Amy Schutzer Author of Spheres of Disturbance

Told from the point of view of nine different characters, Spheres of Disturbance explores both life and end-of-life issues with depth and beauty. Schutzer writes with such empathy that she even convincingly evokes the thoughts of a pig. 

Shelf Unbound: Tell us about the acenter of your novel, Helen, who is dying.

Amy Schutzer: Helen is in transit from the solidly corporeal body to losing that solidity, physically and mentally, from the cancer that has taken over. Her character allowed me to go along on that ride where we become diminished from what we were. Helen is not an extraordinary person, and from her daughter’s point of view, Helen has been stable, not the least bit reckless. But just like most of us, Helen does extraordinary things throughout her life. And one of those things is her decision to forego any more treatment for the cancer. Dying and death are still incredibly difficult for most of us to talk about. This process that will touch each of our lives, yet how to make sense of it? I’m not sure we can. Helen’s character gave me an in to the many questions that accompany her dying.

Shelf Unbound: You tell the story from the point of view of nine different characters, including (and wonderfully so) a pregnant Vietnamese pot-bellied pig named Charlotta. How did you go about finding and creating them?

Schutzer: When I begin a novel, it is a response to either an image coming to me, or a character or a sliver of the plot, or a combination of these things. I had been thinking about Niagara Falls—the people who went over the falls, the power of the water, roiling whirlpools, the scores of people who visit—and this led me to back up the view from those images to a house on a river many miles before the river goes over Niagara Falls. And that’s where the novel starts: in a backyard on the river on a particular morning. A fast, churning river, and what was in it, floating along—branches, milk carton, etc.  Who was watching the river? That’s when Charlotta arrived, the pot-bellied pig. A pig? Who would own a pig? And so Avery was next to show up. I am not an outline type of writer. I begin writing and the story unfolds. The story also dictated how it wanted to be told, in this case, from the various characters’ points of view. They revolve around and intersect with Helen: family, friends, daughters, lovers, and animals. Each character was the center of and an orbiting part of a constellation. 

Shelf Unbound: Helen being at the very end of her life brings up conflicting reactions from the other characters: Her daughter, Sammy, is in denial; Sammy’s lover Avery, a poet, is shocked that Helen is planning to end her own life. Helen’s friend Joe, who she has enlisted to help her, wonders about his father’s rumored suicide. What drew you to explore these end-of-life issues?

Schutzer: End-of-life: who wants to deal with that? But each of the characters has to in their own way. That’s what was so engaging about writing this —the spectrum of reaction: from the very selfish—Helen’s sister Maureen—to Darla, a teenager who runs right up to the spookiness of Helen’s dying and sees what she is able to see from her 15-year-old vantage point, then retreats into the chaos of adolescence. Then there’s Sammy, Helen’s daughter, whose denial is massive, and she is doing everything she can to keep it going and to keep anyone, including her lover Avery, from bringing the truth into the light. 

The other aspect for me in writing this was the decision Helen makes about her own end of life. She gets to that point where the treatment for the cancer is more compromising to her than not treating. I had witnessed this with my own family members and friends and seen the varying decisions each made. What choices do we really have with how we enter the process of dying? Who gets to make those decisions? And all the while this enormous event is looming, there’s life just carrying on in all its lovely complexity.

Shelf Unbound: Why did you set the novel in 1985 as opposed to today?

Schutzer: In 1985, not a lot of women were so open about their breast cancer, nor was it so vividly in the public eye. That was beginning to change. But we were still years away from the Race for the Cure that drew tens of thousands of participants, and more targeted treatments. Cancer was not yet the big business it is today with pink ribbons everywhere. I wanted to set the novel before that turn so that I could explore the difficulty a woman had on a societal level of going against the medical opinion of treatment and nothing but more treatment. Not that that doesn’t happen today. But 1985 didn’t have the public realm attached to one woman’s decision. No twittering or posting countless updates, diets, etc.—everything we have become used to in the present day deluge of public sharing. It allowed me to bring the story and the question of end-of-life back down to their essential struggles, which is ultimately a very personal, individual process.

Politically, 1985 was rife with Ronald Reagan’s decisions, which in this author’s view did more to irreparably harm our economics and thus create the unstoppable trajectory of über wealthy at the expense of everything and everyone  else. While not an explicitly political book, most of my characters are left leaning, and in 1985, trying to carve an alternative to the corporate and consumerist mandate that was stacking the deck in its favor. 

Shelf Unbound: You begin the novel with the point of view of Charlotta the pig. I’m fascinated by the way you wrote her as a thinking character without really anthropomorphizing her—she is very much a pig. How did you approach writing her?

Schutzer: Charlotta, what a wonderful pig she is, she is. I wanted her just to be an animal, and allow her animal being to interpret each situation. She experienced the world through her senses. Even though she was connected strongly with Avery, it still was through smell, touch; or when Avery read a poem to Charlotta, she floated in the sound, not the meaning.  I used clipped language, some repetition for Charlotta and more immediate reaction to try to approximate how a pig might respond to her surroundings.

Shelf Unbound: Do you have a favorite character in the novel?

Schutzer: No absolute favorites as that shifts with where I’m at in my life on any given day. But I’ll say this about the characters: Avery kept me grounded, more sure of where I was going with the story; Sammy, for all she tried to keep emotion bottled up, allowed a deep eddy of feeling to emerge. I love Frances, such a bad girl. And Marjorie, who comes under her influence, and teeters between duty and abandon. The teenagers, Darla and Ruth, were in that stage where everything is up in the air and possible—what’s not to like? While Helen wasn’t easy to write, she was the most compelling to get inside of to understand what we will all be faced with; she was also the hardest to let go of. And, yes, I adored Charlotta from start to finish. 

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