What if your life suddenly appeared in a magazine that all your best friends read—and you didn’t like the way it looked at all? That’s the premise of the smart Shebook novella, Sextet, about love and betrayal on New York City’s Upper West Side. Peek inside the mind of Sextet author Christine Benvenuto in this exclusive Shebooks Q&A.
What prompted you to write Sextet?
Sextet is the second in a series of interconnected short stories that I am at work on. The first sprang to life one night at dinner with two couples who seemed to me to live charmed lives, yet fret endlessly and unnecessarily about minutiae. It suddenly occurred to me: These people are characters in a Laurie Colwin story! (For any reader not familiar with Colwin’s fiction, her characters are affluent New Yorkers who, like mine, fret endlessly and unnecessarily about minutiae.) The real people who inspired my characters were not New Yorkers, and that is just one of many ways in which my characters and their situations departed entirely from the people who suggested them to my imagination. By the time I published that first story, I was hooked on this collection of characters, and an entire book-length project had begun to take shape in my mind. I have no idea how it occurred to me that in the second story in the series, Sextet, it would turn out that the original story was in fact, a short story written by one of the characters. That was the gift that set the overall project in motion.
How did you dream up the setting for this story? Is it based on a real place? A composite of real places?
New York City, where Sextet is set, is real! These characters’ milieu is also real, in the sense that I know many people live in buildings and apartments like this one, and so on. I see my characters’ interiors, their apartments, the medical research lab and offices they work in, so clearly, even though I don’t think I’ve ever visited any places they look like or were based upon. I see the huge floral sofa in the living room where the first scene is set, and where one of the first two characters to be introduced curls up during their conversation—though I don’t think I ever describe it as floral in the narrative.
How do you think your own racial/ethnic identity has influenced this story?
In this story and in the series it is a part of, my dual identities as a Jewish woman and an Italian-American woman have come very much into play. Though I have written about this in some respects in my first nonfiction book, it is terrain I’ve never entered in my fiction before, and I’m excited to explore it now. Fiction is the medium that seems to me best suited to delve deeply and widely into questions of identity, and it is also the medium in which I give myself the most freedom to employ a favorite element: humor!
Do you worry about not having the authority to write about situations that you don’t know firsthand?
I think that dilemma probably gives most writers pause from time to time, and it should. It’s a catalyst for careful research and thoughtful exploration. That said, fiction is a work of the imagination. Navigating the terrain of her own imagination, a writer is the authority. We seize that authority and run with it. If we didn’t, a female writer couldn’t create male characters and vice versa; historical fiction couldn’t be written at all—a great deal of fiction could never be written.
What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?
Some readers think the memoir I wrote is risky, and I’ve been told I was “brave” to write it. While I don’t feel brave, I understand where that comment is coming from and appreciate it very much. On a creative level, fiction feels riskier now, at this point in my development as a writer. The task in fiction is to create people, situations, worlds, which move readers to self-recognition and, when most successful, to visions of themselves and their own worlds just very slightly different from anything they’ve ever been before.
Have you ever written anything personal that upset people you were close to?
Yes! My most recent book, a memoir, stirred up some people, though not anyone I was still close to when it was published. I carefully thought through everything I wrote and asked permission of some of the people who figured in my story and might be affected by its publication. In the end I chose to tell the story I had to tell.
Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?
In answer to the first question, being a mother. In answer to the second question, being a mother. I’m sorry, but really, nothing tops making human beings.
What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?
Despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m not a cynic; I’m a dreadful romantic.
What is your favorite word right now?
Panache. The word slides off the tongue and mind like a break-dancer executing an almost-but-not-quite-impossible move.
Are you or have you ever been a member of a book club? What does/did that experience offer you?
I loved being part of a book club: great conversation, the opportunity to hear insights I would never have come up with myself about books I might never have read on my own. Additionally, I have twice been invited to the meetings of other book clubs when a book of mine was being discussed. The experience was every writer’s dream, having a book treated to serious, thoughtful consideration by highly intelligent people, getting amazing feedback from the people we write for—readers! Book clubs are one of the great innovations of our time: creating community, encouraging engaged reading and vibrant dialogue.
Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now? When do you like to read on a device?
I use my iPhone to e-read and love doing this while traveling. On family trips, I seem to spend a lot of time sitting on playground or amusement park benches, where I can surreptitiously whip out my phone and sneak a little read between enthusiastic shouts of encouragement. I’ve reread all the late great Nora Ephron’s work this way since her death.
What or who inspires you most?
To be boringly honest: life. My family, my friends, the daily news, and a walk down the street. The more I encounter the world, the wackier—and more likely to spark the creative process—life becomes.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I am working on a book-length series of connecting stories exploring the characters in Sextet, and the crisscrossing, complicated web of relationships among them. The working title for the book is Fragment of an Angel.
Read Christine Benvenuto’s short novel Sextet, only at Shebooks!