2023 COURAGE to WRITE Awardee Feature of the Week:
Caroline Schmidt, The Understudy (Novel), Phoenix, AZ
The Understudy, a bildungsroman, follows Norwegian teen Matty Johansen as he moves between cities and countries in an attempt to make sense of the suicide of his father, a botanist and stage magician.
“My work seeks to “imaginatively toil” outside of the veil of consensus reality, reorienting traditional narrative conventions and interrogating cultural images of melancholy and disability.
This is a story that’s been so close to my heart for so long– ever since the seed of an idea was planted years ago, when I was just beginning to parse out questions of melancholy and accessibility in my own life. Part of the way I began to navigate this new path was by exploring madness and melancholy as a form of shapeshifting– in the sense of fitting/misfitting our environment (to borrow language from Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, who has written about disability and “misfitting”). In my writing life, I became interested in characters whose stories could only be told through a kind of “shapeshifting” and “misfitting” of traditional narrative conventions. So that’s where Matty and Anders– my protagonist and his father– sort of came to life.
I began the composition stage of The Understudy more recently, though, and it’s been more complex than I ever imagined. The amount of research that’s necessary– both to render the setting (which includes New York’s stage magic scene) and to really reckon with the form of the novel, the telling of it– has seemed, at times, overwhelming. The generosity of the De Groot Foundation, however, has been absolutely transformative for my process. What a gift this is, to have someone else invested in the story that’s been caught in your head.”