'Lost & Found': Kathryn Schulz talks about her memoir and upcoming visit to Lewes
A Pulitzer-prize winning Delmarva writer will be at Lewes Public Library in June to talk about her new memoir, “Lost & Found."
Kathryn Schulz is a writer for the New Yorker. In addition to “Lost & Found,” she is the author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.” Her article “The Really Big One,” an engrossing exploration of the future earthquake that will probably destroy the West Coast of the United States, won a Pulitzer and kept homeowners lying awake at night.
“Lost & Found” says “memoir” on the cover, and it is that, but as Schulz tells of her devastation on losing her father and the unexpected joy of finding her future wife, she launches an exploration of loss and finding and how they intermingle in our lives. She also pulls off the nifty trick of discussing the ampersand in a way that keeps people reading past the first sentence.
The book is based on her 2017 New Yorker article “When Things Go Missing.” You may not think a book expanding on an essay on losing things will draw you in, but Schulz is one of those writers who have a knack for putting into words those nebulous ideas you feel but can’t express, so that you think, “Yes that’s it, that describes it perfectly.”
It’s one of the most unapologetically joyful books I’ve read in a long time, which is an odd thing to say about a book that opens with an extended discussion of grief.
Schulz, who lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the Easton area, will be at the Lewes Library June 9 at 5 p.m. for a conversation about the book with a signing afterward. We spoke to her about “Lost and Found” and her upcoming visit. The interview is edited for length and clarity.
There are a lot of ways to frame a memoir. Why around “lost ampersand found”?
KS: Well, the truth of the matter is, I wasn't so much trying to frame a memoir as almost the opposite. I was interested in using these pivotal moments from my own life, losing my father and finding my partner, to explore these broader ideas that were really interesting to me. So I was very interested in this strange category of loss, and this question of why would we put our cellphones and our car keys and all of these trivial things into the same category that we put really momentous things like losing our faith or losing our minds or losing our loved ones. And I was interested in how loss and our relationship to it shapes our lives.
And then conversely, I was interested in this really delightful, but equally strange category of discovery. We discover all kinds of things; we find the car keys that we lost, and we find dinosaur fossils. And we find the vaccine for a global pandemic, and we find people we love and I was just very interested in how these things shape our lives. And then as you say, this kind of funny ampersand business at the end, I'm interested in emotional conjunction, and the fact that we wish sometimes that we could experience our strongest emotions and most important events entirely in isolation. But that's just not how life works. And I was interested in the sort of amalgamated quality that characterizes most of grownup life.
So it wasn't that I was looking for a frame to tell my own story, it was that I thought the most powerful way and the most intimate and interesting way to explore these ideas would be by having the emotional heart of them be these moments from my own experience.
What prompted you to turn it from a magazine article into a book?
KS: At the time that I wrote that article, I had no plans whatsoever to write a book. And, in fact, after it came out, several people asked me whether I would be interested in expanding it into something book length, and at the time I really wasn't interested. And that's because that article really was quite narrowly about what became the first part of the book. It's an elegy for my father, but it's a strange kind of elegy, because, of course, it mourns him in the context of thinking about loss and the capaciousness of that category, and how it shapes all of our lives.
And I didn't really want to spend two, three, four years doing nothing but thinking about grief and loss. And so much is written about grief, much of it really wonderful and beautiful, that it did feel like there was kind of a high bar to entry. And it was really only when the essays snapped into focus as a tiny piece, not of a larger book about loss and grief, but of a kind of tripartite book about loss and about discovery and about the way these two things are bound together in our lives, that it became interesting to me.
It seems like a book that people might really be able to connect with. How have readers responded?
KS: To be honest, it's been really gratifying and really interesting. It's by far the most personal thing I've ever written. And so I guess it isn't surprising that I hear very personal things in response from readers, but I've been very, very moved by the reader response. And certainly people have reached out to me to say “Thank you, I'm grieving my father (or my mother or my partner, or I lost my father 20 years ago), but I've never quite had words for it and you helped me find the language for it and feel some consolation for it.”
But even more than that, I have been pleased by how many people had a feeling like, I thought I was going into a book that was partly about grief. And of course it is. But actually, there's an enormous amount of joy in this book. And it's lovely to hear people tell me, “I got a copy of your book to give to someone who just got engaged,” or someone who just got married, or someone who is grieving. It's nice to feel like I have somehow gotten connected to all these other love stories and all these other personal stories and family stories. It's a new kind of experience for me, and it's very meaningful.
You don't use a lot of place names, and you call your wife “C” throughout. Why is that?
KS: I'll answer those separately. Although you're right to point out that they’re somewhat related. Well, I'll tell you why I don't call my wife “C.” It's not to be coy. It wasn't meant as a tease or a mystery for readers to solve. My wife (Casey Cep) is, first of all, named in the acknowledgments. And second of all, is a public figure, much like me. The fact that we're married is very much out there. So I wasn't trying to keep a secret.
The truth is, when I first sat down to write the “found” section, actually, the very first part of the book I wrote, because I didn't write in order, was the scene where we met. And there's a natural reason I started there, which was, it was the most fun thing to write. We all love to tell our love stories. And when I first wrote it, I actually did it without any name at all, I was literally just using pronouns, she and her, which felt intuitively right in the way that, when you fall in love there's only that person, right, that's all there is in the room. And then of course, after five or six paragraphs, it becomes grammatically completely impossible to not have anything but pronouns. Is the “she” in question your partner, or your mother in law, or the cat? You just have to specify at some point.
It did sort of feel appropriate to me, this use of “C.” I am mindful, my wife is a more private person than I am. And I also am just mindful that in any memoir, and especially one like this, where really I was only trying to write about these two moments of my life in service of these broader ideas, there's always a lot that you're not saying. There's just always a lot more story than whatever it is you have room and motive to tell. And as part of that, it felt to me like, you should meet this wonderful person who I married. I adore her. I think she's amazing. I'm thrilled to introduce you to her. I had this slightly selfish impulse, which was like, you get this part of her, you get what comes first, but I get to keep all the rest and she gets to keep all the rest, and her family gets to keep all the rest. There is a lot beyond the boundaries of the page.
It's an interesting question about place names and so forth. You know, there are a handful of them. But you're right, that there are not many. And I guess that's for the same reason as I started out by saying, which is, is this book a memoir? I mean, yes, absolutely. It really is about two of the most momentous events of my life. On the other hand, it certainly is not. It's not the kind of memoir that walks us through it chronologically. It's this selective use of stories from my life to illustrate other points. And so there just wasn't a whole lot of need for the endless pile-on of proper names, or details or what I studied in college, or where I met up with my friends in high school or where I first lived when I moved to New York.
Your book tour is going places like New York City, you're talking to Ira Glass. And then all of a sudden, Lewes. Why Lewes?
KS: I was so thrilled to be invited there. Casey, my partner, had this incredible book, “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.” And when that book came out, Lewes is host to this really fabulous and unique book festival (The History Book Festival). And so she was invited for that, and we just loved it. We thought it was a fabulous festival, it was incredibly well organized. It's a beautiful town, it was fun to get to be there, it was wonderfully attended.
And then, you know, out of the blue, I think probably a month after my book came out, I got this lovely note from a total stranger, who just said, “I live out in the Lewes area, and I love your book. And I've talked it up to everyone. And I don't know if you'd ever be interested in coming here. But I run a book club here, and I'm really connected to the literary community, and I'd love to host you.” And I was immediately excited because I had such warm feelings about Lewes and, of course, truly within minutes this resourceful person had connected me with the wonderful Browseabout Bookstore which is in Rehoboth and with the Lewes library, which hosts the festival and all kinds of other events throughout the year and was eager to host me.
I can't emphasize enough – do I love New York? Yes. Is it incredibly fun to get to talk to the likes of Ira Glass? Of course. But my real heart lies with readers, and the beautiful thing about readers is they're everywhere. And I will never stop being moved and amazed that people in Akron, Ohio and Lewes, Delaware want to meet up on a random Monday or a random Thursday or give up part of their weekend and come together and talk about books. To me, that actually is what it's all about. That's more important than critics.