Cathleen Schine on The Grammarians, the Word “Other,” and Her Favorite Dictionary

Cathleen Schine on The Grammarians, the Word “Other,” and Her Favorite Dictionary

Cathleen Schine

Who doesn’t love wordplay? Cathleen Schine’s latest novel The Grammarians is the story of two twins, Daphne and Laurel Wolfe, and their shifting relationships with each other and the English language. Here, Schine chats with Bookish about letting the twins take the narrative reins, her favorite books filled with wordplay, and her love of dictionaries.

Bookish: If you had to pick three words to describe this novel, what would they be?

Cathleen Schine: Twins, love, words.

Bookish: How did you decide to write about a pair of twins? 

CS: It was not exactly a decision. It was a command from the book as I was writing it. “We are twins! We are identical twins! Wake up and see the twins, Cath!” I knew I wanted the two main characters to be very close and to have a feud about language, about grammar, about words and usage. Should they be a couple? A father and son? Sisters? Someone reminded me that Dear Abby and Ann Landers, identical twin advice columnists, did not speak to each other for decades, and I said, “No thanks! Twins? Twins are too rarified, too particular, ixnay on the twins.” But then, the two little girls, Daphne and Laurel, came for me. They appeared on the page (the computer screen page) and swept me up and made me do their bidding. I’m so glad they did. Identical twins are intimate but separate, exactly the same but completely different people. 

Bookish: Laurel and Daphne love unusual words. Do you have a favorite word from this novel?

CS: I became quite enamored of the word “other,” and so did the girls. People are always pointing one of the girls out as “the other one.” The word “other” seems like an ordinary word, but in fact it is an adverb, a conjunction, a noun, a pronoun that takes a pronoun, and it has not one but two obsolete meanings, one of which is “left” as in your left hand. Now, that is a treasure of a word: such riches in a plain package. And its common meaning is so powerful, so politically, psychologically, socially, racially charged: the Other. It’s quite a little word.

Bookish: Do you consider yourself more like Laurel or more like Daphne?

CS: You know, I think I consider myself more like their mother! I mean, they’re fascinating but difficult, they mystify me sometimes, I can’t always get them to do what I want them to, and I love them beyond reason. 

Bookish: Virtually every major character in The Grammarians has a double or counterpart. Why did you decide to structure the novel in this way?

CS: The novel is about kinship and intimacy—about what that means and what it doesn’t mean, so I was exploring that in different ways. And I’ve recently been listening to Tegan and Sara, who are identical twins and a very cool band, and their music made me think about how much popular music as well as opera, and literature, too, are about how we are pulled away from each other or pulled toward each other. That need for intimacy as well as independence, for closeness and distance—that’s what animates characters and their counterparts. That’s what animates this whole novel, I think. 

Bookish: The dynamic between Laurel and Daphne is fascinating and ever-changing in this novel. Did you know what course their relationship would take when you began writing? How did you plot out their interactions?

CS: Once I realized the book was about Laurel and Daphne, I really just had to let them loose. Siblings, families in general, are such rich subjects because there they are, stuck in the world together, no choice, just… proximity. They might as well be strangers stuck in an elevator together. Or, in the case of the Wolfe twins, a uterus. They have to jostle for a little elbow room of their own. One of the ways Daphne and Laurel express that is through language. Both of them are fascinated with words and language. We generally tend to take language for granted. We flop around in it as if it were a pair of old sneakers. For writers and readers there is much joy in those old sneakers. Then, there is the academic perspective of the grammarian or the linguist, sneaker-heads of completely different tastes. And that’s where there is always passionate confrontation. There is, for example, a long-standing argument between the prescriptivists, people who want to apply strict rules to language to preserve what is traditionally considered proper language and what is not, and the descriptivists who see language more as a record of how people speak at any given moment or in any given place and believe that since language changes and has always changed, the obligation of a student of language is to record and understand the change, not try to stop it. As Laurel and Daphne grew older in the book, I found them each leaning toward a different side of the argument, then throwing themselves headlong along divergent linguistic paths and away from each other. For a long time I wasn’t sure exactly where they would end up, but I was very pleased when I did at last find the ending. I stumbled into it and recognized it and knew it was right.

Bookish: Do you have a favorite dictionary? If so, what do you like about it?

CS: I love all dictionaries. Dictionaries are endlessly fascinating. But my favorite is Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, A Dictionary of the English Language. It’s like a postmodern novel, but more fun.

Bookish: There’s so much fun wordplay in this novel. What other books would you recommend to readers who love The Grammarians

CS: The best wordplay books are children’s books. Alice in Wonderland. The Phantom Tollbooth. But I also love these nonfiction books about language: Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer, which is brilliant, brilliantly entertaining, and brilliantly eccentric in all the ways a book should be. Word by Word, Kory Stamper’s wonderful, unputdownable book about working at Merriam-Webster. There is also a great history of the switch from the very starchy Merriam-Webster’s Second Edition to the swinging sixties’ third edition called The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner. Mary Norris’ delightful Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen is, of course, a must. And there is always Fowler’s Modern English Usage–and, if there is any justice in the world, there always will be. 

 

Cathleen Schine is the author of They May Not Mean To, But They Do, The Three Weissmanns of Westport, and The Love Letter, among other novels. She has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review. She lives in Los Angeles.

Elizabeth Rowe
Elizabeth is Bookish's Senior Editor and a graduate of Columbia University's MFA program in Nonfiction Writing. She is based in San Francisco and can frequently be found at Philz with her nose in a book. Her current obsession is the My Struggle series by Karl Ove Knausgaard, and she thoroughly embarrassed herself when she met him shortly after the release of volume four (and she has the photos to prove it).

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