In quick succession, Kathryn Schulz found her life partner and lost her beloved father. Her memoir, “Lost & Found,” explores all three of those words — yes, including the conjunction.
Seattleites are probably most familiar with Schulz’s work from her Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker piece, “The Really Big One,” illuminating the terrifying earthquake risk in the Northwest. Her memoir further showcases a wondrous ability to crystallize feelings that most people experience but never translate into words. The research backing Schulz’s work never weighs it down; she makes it look as if her senses operate on an extra frequency, or she’s got a magic decoder ring for interpreting the world.
We spoke by phone recently from the home she shares with her wife and infant daughter on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; a condensed, edited version of our conversation is below.
You don’t have a beat, per se, but is there a kind of story you feel is your kind of story?
I certainly love the natural world and science, and so some of my stories tend in that direction. But no, I think it’s just the great gift of my job that when something really interests me, I’m free to pursue it. And sometimes that is an earthquake and sometimes it’s like, “Why are there all these things lost in the house all of a sudden?”, sometimes it’s “Where did the Muslim population of Wyoming even come from?” and I do have the liberty to pull on a thread once it catches my eye. I’m not sure that there’s any real through line to it, although I love history as well.
What do you hope readers will get from “Lost & Found”?
I hope that they will get a little shiver of awe — not at me, obviously. At life, at existence, because I think that’s probably the most consistent thing I felt while writing it and felt most compelled to get on the page. Obviously some of this book is sad. It’s about the death of my father. But I think of this book as fundamentally a book about love and about amazement at what the world offers us, even if it then ultimately takes it away. It’s a book … that I hope will connect them to all the many forms that love takes in their own lives.
You kind of proved wrong that Tolstoy idea that happy families are boring.
Certainly when you look around the landscape of contemporary memoir, a lot of it is focused on trauma or dysfunction, or exceptional illness of one kind or another. And to be clear, I don’t mean to sound dismissive about any of that. I love a lot of those memoirs, and I also think it’s incredibly important that we have space in our culture now to write about difficult or traumatic things, and that there’s an audience for it. But of course, that’s not my story, so it couldn’t be the story that I would write. The other thing this memoir is fundamentally about is ordinariness. I’m writing about the death of my father in his 70s, after an incredibly rich life, and about falling in love. This is the stuff of completely commonplace life, until it’s happening to you. To me, it felt as worthy of our attention as the extraordinary.
How do you handle knowing the people you love will read what you say about them?
It’s a great question, but not one that troubled me very much writing this book. Partly that’s because of what you brought up earlier — this is a memoir about a happy family. Actually, it’s a memoir about several happy families: my family of origin, the family I made with my partner and her family of origin. There was not a lot in the way of anything that felt to me like it might be fraught. [Though] my partner is a more private person than I am, and there is absolutely nothing in my writerly past to indicate I was ever going to go write a memoir, so it is greatly to her credit that from the first moment she’s been terrific about it.
You called your father by his full name, but why was your partner just her initial, “C”?
It’s not to cultivate a mystery around it. Her name is in the acknowledgments, it’s readily available on the internet. The very first scene I ever wrote with her, which was the scene where we meet, there was no name at all, it was just a pronoun. It was just “she,” you know, “her,” which honestly felt like a wonderful way to write it in that moment. But then, very quickly, that was completely untenable grammatically. [Also] I think calling her “C” was a kind of private acknowledgment of the fact that any character you meet in a work of nonfiction is — of course they’re a real person … [but] people read a memoir and they think they are meeting the whole person, but you get this little tip of her … but I get all the rest and she gets all the rest.
There’s a scene in the “Found” section — I want to say this without ruining it for people — where I felt like everything snapped into place and the universe suddenly made sense. Did you structure the book around that moment?
That’s exactly what I was aiming for. The great gift of this book was that I knew the structure from the get-go. The structure is the scariest thing about writing anything, in my mind. I did know before I ever put pen on paper how the “Found” section was going to open, with a story of a little boy finding a meteorite … and how it was going to close. I mean, talk about gifts to writers, that [the story] has the virtue of being absolutely true and totally mind-blowing as a true story, but also you couldn’t ask for anything more figuratively perfect in a book that is about the wonders that the cosmos rains down on our heads.
I was surprised by how universal some of your experiences felt. Maybe happy families really are all alike and they’re just interesting?
One take on that is happy families are all alike, but the other take, which I think is the one I would side with, is actually in a really wonderful way human beings just have a lot in common, however different our lives might be.