Please help me welcome my guest today to the interview hot seat! Patricia Schultheis has written a collection of stories set in my home town of Baltimore, Maryland. Let’s get to know more about her and then dive into the interview to find out about her inspiration and writing process.
Patricia Schultheis grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the middle of three daughters in a Polish-American family. Struck by polio when she was six years old, she became an introspective, moody child who found great solace in reading. After graduating from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven in 1965, she moved to Baltimore, where she taught school, got married, began a family and had a career in public relations.
After having had several dozen free-lance articles published while working full time, she turned to writing fiction in her mid-fifties following the death of her beloved older sister. Her observations about Baltimore’s deeply inscribed cultural moirés became the foundation for her award-winning short story collection, St. Bart’s Way, published by Washington Writers’ Publishing House in 2015. Schultheis also is the author of Baltimore’s Lexington Market, published by Arcadia Publishing in 2007, and of A Balanced Life, a memoir published by All Things That Matter Press in 2018. She now divides her focus between fiction and lyrical nonfiction, and book reviews.
A widow, she continues to live in Baltimore, a city whose slow adaptation to change and sometimes quirky outlook reflects her own. She is the mother of two grown sons and five grandsons.
Betty: What inspired you to write the story you’re sharing with us today?
Patricia: “The Haint,” as I describe below, was inspired by an installation at a museum and a rumor, but the whole collection of St. Bart’s Way came about almost by accident. I was new to writing fiction, so sometimes I would write a story about upper middle-class white people in Baltimore and situate them on St. Bart’s Way. At other times I would write about people living somewhere else like 19th century Richmond, or upstate New York. I never set out to write a collection, but then I saw an ad for the Washington Writers Publishing House contest and realized that enough of my St. Bart’s Ways stories had been published individually to makeup a collection. So I submitted and won.
Betty: Which character arrived fully or mostly developed?
Patricia: That’s an easy one: Henri in “The Haint.” I had a vague idea of the story I wanted to write, but, then, one evening, I was reading Had a Good Time, Robert Olen Butler’s collection of short stories based on postcards, which also are included in his book. One postcard featured an old Black man standing by a picket fence, his face contorted with righteous rage, and I knew Henri immediately. I know his anger and voice. I literally got off my couch, went to my computer and began writing because I didn’t want to lose the sound of Henri’s voice in my head.
Betty: Which story element sparked the idea for this story: setting, situation, character, or something else?
Patricia: Two things sparked the idea for “The Haint,” the first story in St. Bart’s Way. In Baltimore’s Visionary Art Museum, I read a reference to a haint in the text accompanying an installation and jotted it down in my writing journal. Then, my husband became the archivist for the restored old mill town where we lived in West Baltimore, and he told me of a Black man who killed himself when he was dispossessed of his property so the mills could expand. My husband was never able to verify whether or not that story was true, but I fused that rumor with what I had learned about haints at the museum. The other stories in St. Bart’s Way came from simply observing my fellow Baltimoreans.
Betty: Which character(s) were the hardest to get to know? Why do you think?
People intrigue me, so I apprehend most of my characters fairly easily. On the other hand, the architecture of a story really devils me. But to your point, as I look through St. Bart’s Way, I think Paul Maggio in “Other Men’s Sons” seems more of a vehicle for exploring divorce, disappointment in a child, and mortality rather than a fully developed character. I read where Edward Albee once advised writers to put characters in unlikely situations and then notice how they respond. If a writer can’t say what their character would do if suddenly confronted with a flat tire on a two-way road in the Upper Peninsula or a diagnosis of cancer, then that writer has more work to do.
Betty: What kind of research did you need to do to write this story?
Patricia: Except for searches on Google, for example to find out about the Nazi occupation of Hungary, which was critical to “The Assembly,” I didn’t have to do much research. I’m fortunate to have been able to observe Baltimore’s white middle class for several years. Most of them are devoted to their families, work hard, and take their civic responsibilities seriously. And, for the most part, they are not prejudiced, at least not overtly. However, like many white Americans, they are unaware of the nation’s foundational sin in regard to Black Americans. That’s why “The Haint” is the first story in St, Bart’s Way. I wanted to show that eventually history, whether personal or national, demands a reckoning.
Betty: How many drafts of the story did you write before you felt the story was complete?
Patricia: For short stories, I don’t do “drafts” as such. Rather, I have a strange approach, which I’m happy to share. I always sense the emotional plain on which I want a story to end. Not necessarily the final action, but the emotional place where I want the character and, by extension, the reader to have reached. So, every day, I begin at the beginning, fiddling with the language, the imagery, the sentence structure, but also delving deeper into the story’s emotional truth. By the time I reach the end of whatever I’ve written previously, I’m immersed in my story and ready to move ahead, maybe just a few paragraphs. But they’re good paragraphs. This isn’t to say that I don’t revise at all. I do, but not in the sense of a totally new “draft.” I also like to set the story aside before submitting it, and maybe send it to a few friends to see what they think.
Betty: How long did it take for you to write the story you’re sharing with us? Is that a typical length of time for you? Why or why not?
Patricia: I’m a slow writer, and, for me, writing is work. I have friends who can write for hours, but I’m done at about three. So, a story can take me two or three months. That said, I don’t have very many unpublished stories laying around. I have some, but not many. Book reviews and essays are another matter. They generally come faster, and that’s good because those genres emit and engage the reader in a different kind of energy than fiction does.
Betty: What rituals or habits do you have while writing?
Patricia: I don’t have any rituals as such, although having coffee nearby helps. Also, and again I’m happy to share this with other writers, if my mind is especially preoccupied by something, I read poetry or the Bible to clear it. The distant, incantatory tone of the Bible can remove me from my dithering self and ready me to enter the realm of my story.
Betty: Every author has a tendency to overuse certain words or phrases in drafts, such as just, once, smile, nod, etc. What are yours?
Patricia: I overuse the word “And.” And I’ve capitalized that for a reason, because I tend to affix it to the beginning of my sentences to show continuation of a character’s interiority. And that’s usually unnecessary. And I’m grateful to those editors who catch me overusing it.
Betty: Do you have any role models? If so, why do you look up to them?
Patricia: I recently realized that I’m influenced by whichever writer I’m reading at the moment. Their rhythms simply get into my head. However, I’m enormously humbled by David Means, who elides time in his stories in a way that’s simply masterful. I also admire Stewart O’Nan, whose language is lyrical and who treats working-class characters with respect and empathy. I also have enormous respect for Hemingway. A few years ago, I was going to Paris and read his A Movable Feast in preparation. Now, A Movable Feast is about Hemingway’s early years as a writer in Paris, but he began it after he had won the Nobel Prize. Sadly, he never finished it, and what we have is a draft, which reveals a throughline from his earliest days to his last. From the beginning to the end, he made an enormous effort to get every word just right. A Movable Feast included pages showing Hemingway’s edits, and, just as he recalled doing when he was a struggling beginner, he continued to attend to every detail, every word choice, every bit of imagery, and punctuation mark. A Movable Feast showed me that great writers respect the medium they work in.
Betty: Do you have a special place to write? Revise? Read?
Patricia: Originally, my special place was a second-hand electric typewriter set on my dining room table. (My kitchen was too small for a table.) Now, I’m very fortunate because I have an “office,” as my dedicated place to write. When I moved out of my house after my husband died and went looking for condos, I was surprised by how many newer buildings lacked substantial walls on which to build a bookcase. As soon as I saw the unit where I live now, I knew exactly where my bookcase would go. The same for my desk. I keep a notebook in my car to jot down ideas as they come, but I “work” at my desk.
Betty: Many authors have a day job. Do you? If so, what is it and do you enjoy it?
Patricia: I no longer have a day job, but for many, many years I worked in various public relations jobs. I wanted to be a journalist back then and would run out on my lunchtime to interview someone for one article or another. I didn’t begin writing fiction until I was in my fifties, and by that time my children were through college, so the financial pressures eased. I was working then for a software firm, which was near my house, and I’d write a paragraph or two before going to work. That’s how it began. When I lost my job, and my beloved older sister died, I set journalism aside and began writing fiction in earnest.
Betty: As an author, what do you feel is your greatest achievement?
Patricia: To be honest, given that I grew up in an era when women from my socio-economic background aspired to be schoolteachers or nurses, it’s somewhat amazing that I’ve been published at all. I’ve always been attracted to language, but so were many others whose lives went in other directions. I believe that for me it was a matter of persistence, and enduring many rejections, which still come. Having said that, I believe my greatest achievement is still to come.
Betty: What other author would you like to sit down over dinner and talk to? Why?
Patricia: I really don’t know who that would be, and that’s probably good for them, whoever they may be, because I get stressed out preparing for dinner parties, and they’d probably have a miserable time. I do, however, find that the company of other writers is very beneficial. I belong to two groups on Zoom, one of them a critique group, and find that it helps me relax to be in the company of my fellow scribes. They also give great advice.
Betty: Success looks different to different people. It could be wealth, or fame, or an inner joy at reaching a certain level. How do you define success in terms of your writing career?
Patricia: That’s a very interesting question, because you climb one mountain, and guess what? There’s another mountain. So, yes, I’d love to have another book published. Writing is time consuming and hard work, so I take each new acceptance as a sign that I’m not wasting my time. The same goes for awards: each one tells me “You’ve got what it takes. Keep going.”
St. Bart’s Way is a fictional street in Baltimore developed after the First World War when streetcar lines were extended to the city’s leafy outer reaches. From its founding, the neighborhood surrounding St. Bart’s Way was the home of the city’s professional class who wanted gracious, comfortable houses in which to raise their families. Above all, however, these doctors, lawyers, and bankers wanted homes standing for permanence and lives lived to right purpose.
But at the root of the community lies a corrosive falsehood: the land surrounding the streetcar line was obtained fraudulently, and today that dishonesty continues to taint the lives of the families living in the community’s fine homes, families who mistakenly think their lovely houses with their multiple fireplaces and mullioned windows can provide sanctuary from a chaotic world.
In one way or another, the characters in this collection arrive at a point in their lives where they question the commitments they have made, the prices they have paid, and the lies they have told to others and themselves. They also discover that nothing can shelter them from the consequences of their choices. In that sense, these thirteen stories are linked thematically.
Sounds like some interesting stories in your collection, Patricia. Thanks so much for stopping in to share more about them with us.
Award-winning Author of Historical Fiction with Heart, and Haunting, Bewitching Love Stories
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