Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, RIP

We are heartbroken this morning to learn from the New York Times that the extraordinarily versatile and compelling novelist, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, has passed away. She was our friend and mentor and teacher, the most generous writer we've ever known, who taught us so much that we could have never repaid her in a thousand years.

Our diary book Spring in Brooklyn is dedicated to her. It takes place in the spring of 1975, the second semester of our (and everyone's) MFA program in Creative Writing at Brooklyn College, when we had a Fiction Tutorial with Susan. We had to fight to get assigned to her; the director of the fiction program favored metafiction, as did the other fiction writing professors, and Susan taught mostly in the poetry program.

But having read her first novel Falling and fallen in love with it, we knew we wanted to learn from someone who wrote more realistic fiction. Susan was an excellent critic and gave us practical knowledge about submitting (she said Gordon Lish at Esquire might write "Feh!" on a manuscript he disliked; she told us to send our stories with young female protagonists to women's magazines using our initials rather than our first name) and the details of the writer's life.

We have read with enormous pleasure nearly one of her incredibly varied books. The Times obituary by William Grimes gets that right:
Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, a novelist with a gift for evoking complex characters in the grip of extreme psychological stress and physical suffering, notably in “The Madness of a Seduced Woman” and the Vietnam War novel “Buffalo Afternoon,” died on Friday in Chicago. She was 71.

The cause was complications of a stroke, her husband, Neil J. Schaeffer, said.

Ms. Schaeffer made a strong debut with the semiautobiographical novel “Falling,” published in 1973, which captivated critics with its brisk, entertaining stroll through very familiar fictional territory: middle-class Jewish life in Brooklyn, psychoanalysis, the struggle for self-discovery and fulfillment.

Quickly, Ms. Schaeffer broadened her scope, deepened her sympathies and staked out more ambitious fictional ground. Her second novel, “Anya” (1974), a reimagining of wartime Poland and the experiences of a young woman who makes a new but unhappy life in New York, signaled another direction, confirmed in the expansive family novels “Time in Its Flight” (1978), set in 19th-century Vermont, and “Love” (1981), about two Jewish immigrant families whose story extends from the turn of the century to the late 1970s.

“The Madness of a Seduced Woman” (1983) reaffirmed Ms. Schaeffer’s talent for imagining the lives of women on the brink, in this case a transplanted farm girl in 19th-century Vermont whose obsessive love for a stonecutter leads her to commit murder and attempt suicide. Her trial is more than a judicial proceeding: it raises questions of choice, instinct, destiny and female identity.

Confounding readers and critics who regarded combat as the exclusive reserve of male writers, she turned to Vietnam for her eighth novel, “Buffalo Afternoon,” for which she conducted extensive interviews with veterans of the war. The story begins in Brooklyn, where an Italian-American teenager, Pete Bravado, enlists in the Army to escape an unhappy family life. He lands in hell when he is shipped off to Vietnam, and a second hell when he returns, prey to inexplicable rages and unexpungeable memories.

Almost unanimously, critics praised Ms. Schaeffer for the immediacy and conviction of her combat scenes and the psychology of men under fire. In a review for The New York Times Book Review, Nicholas Proffitt, a former Vietnam bureau chief for Newsweek, called it “one of the best treatments of the Vietnam War to date, and all the more impressive for the fact that its author never heard a shot fired in anger or set foot in that country.”

Ms. Schaeffer seemed somewhat surprised at the surprise.

“I did not find it difficult to write about men in war,” she wrote in a statement for her publisher, W. W. Norton. “Everyone believed it could not be done by a woman — as if men would somehow be alien beings to a member of the opposite sex. I have never understood that attitude.”

Susan Fromberg was born on March 25, 1940, in Brooklyn and grew up in Rockville Centre on Long Island. She studied literature at the University of Chicago, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1961, a master’s degree in 1963 and a doctorate in 1966, writing her dissertation on the novels of Vladimir Nabokov.

In 1967 she took a teaching position at Brooklyn College, where her future husband was a colleague in the English department and her students included Ramona Lofton, a poet whom she encouraged to write a novel. “Push,” published in 1996 under Ms. Lofton’s pen name, Sapphire, became a literary event and the basis of the 2009 motion picture “Precious.”

Ms. Schaeffer, who returned to the University of Chicago in 2002 to teach English and creative writing, published several poetry collections, including “The Rhymes and Runes of the Toad’ (1975) and “Alphabet for the Lost Years” (1976), and two children’s books, “The Dragons of North Chittendon” (1986) and “The Four Hoods and Great Dog” (1988). She was also a frequent contributor to the Book Review in the 1980s and ’90s.

In addition to her husband, Ms. Schaeffer, who lived in Chicago and South Newfane, Vt., is survived by two children, Benjamin, of San Francisco, and May Brown, of Colorado Springs; a brother, Jeffrey, of Los Angeles; and two grandchildren.

In her later novels, Ms. Schaeffer pursued what she liked to call “the autobiography of the imagination.” She treated subjects as various as Greta Garbo, explored through a fictional double in “First Nights” (1993), and the conflicted love of twin sisters for each other in “The Golden Rope” (1996). Her penultimate novel, “The Snow Fox” (2004), took her to medieval Japan, where female passions confront cruel circumstance — a constant in the author’s imaginative world.

We were just getting to know Susan in the spring of 1975, but after that semester, we continued to seek out her advice and guidance. She helped us get more than one teaching position and publication, and we corresponded for decades afterward. In 1978 we wrote a "cameo of the poet," a little profile of her for the Buffalo-based poetry magazine Buckle. Her versatility and her encouragement to reach past our comfort level as a writer made her an inspiration.
From Spring in Brooklyn:
April 14, 1975
Today I went to see Susan Schaeffer give a lecture in SUBO. I really admire her, for she seems to be “together.” She says her dream is to stay in the Neponsit Home for the Aged for a few weeks and to be waited on and not have to do anything, as she’s been teaching full-time since she was 23.

Susan appears to be such a “regular” person despite her recent success. “You go to another city and people make a fuss over you like you were something special,” she said. “And then you go home and your family still thinks you’re lazy and your kids think you’re stupid or whatever.”

Wednesday April 23, 1975
Susan Schaeffer liked “Alice Keppel” a lot, the other stories less so. She said I should send it out and not worry about rejection notices; she’s gotten as many as 300 a year. She let Prof. Mayer read the story and he thought it was good.

Susan seems to be really interested in me as a writer; usually, she’s really tight with just the Poetry people. And she doesn’t seem spoiled by her success and didn’t seem perturbed about not winning the National Book Award, but of course she’s had a week to regain composure – although I doubt that she needed to.

The hour tutorial went so fast; it’s a pity we have only more tutorial left, for she’s taking a leave of absence next year.

We know that many other friends, readers and former students of Susan's are feeling as bad as we do at the moment. Our deepest sympathies go out to Neil, who was our boss once, and to her children and other family members.

Susan said, "You never know how a story ends until you read the last page." We're devastated that we can never hear from Susan again, but we will reread some of her books to the last page and keep her in our hearts.

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