Schmidt Is Back
Louis Begley: How I Write
The Polish-born writer, whose new novel is Memories of a Marriage, talks about WWII and what he thought of the movie version of About Schmidt.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in 1933 in a town called Stryj in the eastern part of Poland which is now Ukraine, and lived there until I was 7 and a half. During the rest of WWII, and until the fall of 1946, I lived successively in Lwów, Warsaw, and Kraków, with a spell between Warsaw and Kraków in the Mazowsze, a remote Polish countryside. My first novel, Wartime Lies, draws on memories of my life in that period. In March 1947, I arrived with my parents in New York City and did the rest of my “growing up” there.
If you would, please tell us three sense-memories (sights, smells, sounds, tastes) that you recall from your time as a child during the Second World War.
Dead bodies. Smell of burning and decay. Thunder of bombs and artillery shells, and odious commands shouted in German, Ukrainian and Polish. Taste of potatoes baked in the ashes of a fire I made in a field where I was herding cows.
Describe your morning routine.
I have breakfast (fresh squeezed orange juice, Swiss low fat yoghurt, fresh fruit and coffee) and read the NYT. Then I take care of my correspondence. Afterward, I take a bath and perform related tasks, and either go to the gym or sit down at my work table and write.
Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.
I usually start shortly before lunch or shortly after lunch, and continue until seven or later. There are no rituals, no shamanistic dances.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
I think a great deal about the book, its characters and its plot, and to this day have always known exactly how the book is going to end. And I keep thinking as I write.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?
I have two relatively small but comfortable studies. One in our New York City apartment, and one at our house in the East End of Long Island. On my desk you will find my laptop and family photographs.
Describe your evening routine.
I take a bath, change my clothes, and either my wife and I go out, or we have drinks and dinner at home. We seldom go to bed before midnight.
What is your favorite item of clothing?
An old (30 years plus) tweed jacket.
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
I often walk with my hands clasped behind my back. In part this is an affectation. In part I do it because I think it helps with my chronic lower back pain.
Please recommend three books by Ukranian or Polish authors to your readers, and tell us why you like them.
Ferdydurke, by Witold Gombrowicz. Gombrowicz is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Whether Ferdydurke or Transatlantic is his masterpiece is a close call. I prefer Ferdydurke, a haunting humorous and terrifying nightmare about how society forces us into immaturity. Whoever hasn’t read it should drop all other occupations and plunge into it.
Przedwiośnie (Seedtime in English translation), by Stefan Żeromski. Żeromski was a great realist writer and brilliant stylist. This novel, published in 1925, traces the coming of age of a brilliant young man, at a time that corresponds to Poland’s regaining its independence after WW I, and his subsequent disillusionment. It was my favorite novel when I was twelve and thirteen.
What was your initial reaction when you learned that About Schmidt was going to be made into a film? Do you recall where you were, what you did to celebrate, and your thoughts at the time? Did the movie satisfy you?
I was thrilled, because I am an unconditional Jack Nicholson fan. I think I was in my office when the producer called to say that he and his colleagues were exercising the option. I do not believe that my wife and I celebrated. In my opinion, About Schmidt is an excellent film, even though it bears almost no resemblance to my novel. Nicholson may have given in it the best performance of his career.
Tell me about the creation of your character, Schmidt. How much of the character came all at once, how much was mapped out prior to writing the first novel.
Schmidtie came into my mind almost fully formed, in the course of many walks on the beach we go to when we’re in Sagaponack. I don’t map out books, but I think about them deeply before I start to write and obviously continue to do so as I write.
Did your work as a lawyer influence your writing, and if so how?
It exposed me to a great many people of all sorts, to bizarre situations and problems, and to places most—I think I’m right about that—my novelist colleagues haven’t been to. Those experiences have furnished me material I would not have otherwise acquired, certainly not if I had spent my time teaching creative writing somewhere or other.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
My wife’s jokes.
What is guaranteed to make you cry?
People’s unexpected goodness.
Do you have any superstitions?
Lots. Don’t go back into the house to get something you wanted to take with you but forgot, don’t make predictions such as I think there won’t be too much traffic on the LIE, don’t walk under open ladders. And on and on.
What is something you always carry with you?
A pocket handkerchief.
If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
Respect for the opinion of mankind should make me say my mother, but I won’t. She’d be 103, if she were alive, and she wouldn’t like it. So I would bring back my wife’s younger sister, who died too young, who brought my wife and me together, whose laughter and talent (she was a very good painter) were a constant delight, and whom I miss with all my heart.
What is your favorite snack?
What phrase do you over-use?
“With great pleasure.”
What is the story behind the publication of your first book?
Although I had an agent—Georges Borchardt, who is still my agent—it was a wonderful writer, the late Gregor von Rezzori, who carried it to Elisabeth Sifton. She was then an editor at Knopf. She read the manuscript of Wartime Lies and bought it, and that was it.
What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
Typically, I write between 1,000 and 1,200 words.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Do something else!
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
My name, date of birth and date of death, followed by “lawyer and writer.”
What is your next project?
I’ve just finished a new novel, and plan to give myself a vacation devoted to reading.
This interview has been edited and condensed.