You may be checking out at the grocery store, strolling with a friend, or waiting in line for the ATM. You’re talking to the people around you or just staring at the clouds. Caution: Heidi Jon Schmidt is watching and listening.
Schmidt has written five widely praised novels, and they’re all about you and everyone around you on the Outer Cape — the way you talk, walk, and go about living.
“If someone will one day call me a regional writer, I’ll be very grateful,” she says. “I’ve come to understand why writers like Austen and Faulkner mapped and populated their own imaginary towns, drawing on the places they knew intimately to shed light on universal truths.”
“Schmidt expertly explores the complexities of domestic life,” the novelist Elizabeth Strout wrote, “and plays it out against the subtly drawn realities of class in a small seaside town.”
Schmidt watches you, but she’s generous with her own story as well, writing in a New York Times essay in 2010: “I first kissed the man who would become my husband on the end of the wharf here in Provincetown. Our daughter is 16 now and a full-fledged local. When she was three, she looked into an empty swimming pool and pronounced, ‘Low tide.’ ”
Her daughter, now nearly 30, is a public defender in Tennessee. Her husband, the novelist Roger Skillings, died in 2020. Everything changes all the time. Convincingly and seamlessly, Schmidt reflects those unavoidable journeys and where they take her characters.
Her daughter once asked why Schmidt didn’t write fantasy, like J.K. Rowling. Schmidt says that, for her, it’s not about flying on brooms or stirring magic potions, it’s about the down-to-earth (or under the sand) character. It’s you, waiting to pick up your prescription at the pharmacy.
With Schmidt’s big gray cat, Cream Puff, yawning and winding endlessly under the dining room table, we recently sat and talked about her world and her work.
Sharon Basco: You wish to be thought of as a regional writer, a term that some authors might reject. In The House on Oyster Creek, you describe in minute detail a place and an atmosphere and lifestyle.
Heidi Jon Schmidt: William Faulkner supposedly said that if one wants to know the world, one must first know a place like Yoknapatawpha County. Jane Austen writes about a small town. George Eliot writes about a small town. Tolstoy is great enough that he can write about Moscow as his town. I came to think that within my own small town I knew everybody.
I knew people who were just barely making it as well as people who were very wealthy and trying to blend in. I knew people who ran the bait shop and who fished. I knew their daughters and sons. And I saw what happened with all of us. I’ve lived here for 43 years.
We’re huddled around a cold harbor in the middle of the winter. There’s been an influx of people who weren’t welcome in their own homes and who’ve made homes here. This place is home as almost no other place is home, and it’s a good place to write about.
SB: When you’re in line at a store and you hear a wonderful exchange between a mother and child, do you take notes?
HJS: I’m blushing now, because I don’t take notes. When it’s something I love, I remember it like it was a dart that hit something. But then I do get it on paper as soon as I get home. I just sit down with a notebook page on the computer and keep it there.
People claim to recognize themselves or other people in my characters. The best ever was artist Paul Resika, who said to me, “So is that me, the ebullient lecher patterned after Matisse in every way, including the girth and hat?”
And I said, “Well, not the girth, Paul.” And he said, “I thought it was a great portrait.”
What I do is make a composite character and think, “This reminds me a lot of my uncle.” But it’s also kind of based on that father that I know slightly from pickup time at school. You’re starting to put them together and imagining what they would say in a conversation.
SB: You’re known for writing terrific dialogue. How do you do it? Do you just hear these conversations?
HJS: It’s like you’re in this deep meditation where you’re thinking about the character. “Oh, but he’d say that,” you think. “And then she, of course, would say that.” And then you suddenly have 10 pages of pretty good dialogue, and that will determine what’s happening next.
I definitely do hear them. I am in a zone. I’m on a quest to have some psychic connection, like in a seance, almost, with these imaginary people.
People do say things that are so full of meaning without even thinking about it.
SB: You write about community tensions around environmental issues and town politics and the characters involved.
HJS: The House on Oyster Creek is my ecological novel because it’s about what we’re doing to the environment. The harbormaster in Wellfleet said to me, “Fishermen are like pirates. They’re gamblers. They sleep, and then they wake up and they pull all their strength together and they go out with the hope of an amazing haul. And then they come back, and they just fall apart.”
But aquaculturists are farmers. They go out and tend their herd every day. They’re out there morning, noon, and night. They can’t take a walkabout of three days. They can’t go on a binge. So, it was a terrible mix to try to push fishermen into this job. It didn’t work that well.
But a whole new group of people, including my sister, came here and became aquaculturists. That’s been amazing and heartbreaking. It’s like all farming. The weather’s wrong, the parasites are suddenly there, the diseases are brand new, everything goes wrong.
SB: Your husband died in January 2020, two months before the pandemic. It was an isolating time for everyone. How did you cope?
HJS: Roger had been so ill for so long. His illness had become my little world. And long marriage is its own world. So, my structure came down pretty hard and there was no way to even begin to rebuild it. I barely dared let myself feel grief. It was a long wintry time, and when light finally came back, the grief was waiting. And I was ready to welcome it, honestly.
The loss, regret, recognition, memory, all of it was frozen while I soldiered through the pandemic. Like a lot of people, I was very alone. And then, it began to melt. I listened to music that I couldn’t bear to before. I thought of Leonard Cohen’s “Love is not some kind of victory march… no,/ It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”
People were kind to me, and that kindness allowed me to dare feel more. I looked back over all those years and what Roger’s integrity had meant to me.
SB: Your middle name, Jon, is from your Aunt Jonne. That’s a very Southern custom — the double name, Heidi Jon. But you didn’t grow up in the South, did you?
HJS: I grew up in an absolutely wild, rural place. It was northwestern Connecticut, but where we lived was in the dairy days before Meryl Streep came. We couldn’t go back there now. We didn’t generally have a car. We were five kids. We could get the school bus to school; we couldn’t do much anywhere else.
But we had 50 acres. We were on this land. I think place just became a huge part of me. And then my parents lost that place. And for a long time, everybody drifted. Until I was lucky enough to end up here.
And now I feel about this place the way I felt about that place. I’ve grown into the soil and you’re not going to pull me out.