The Sweetest Debut: Clare Beams on Winona Ryder, Veep and Finding Inspiration in Museums


Welcome to the Sweetest Debut, a regular column in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors, working with presses of all sizes, and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

Clare Beams’ We Show What We Have Learned, a book of short stories, was called “a richly imagined and impeccably crafted debut” by Kirkus and “a powerful collection about what we need from others and, in turn, what we can offer others of ourselves” by Publishers Weekly. She talked to us about her writing process, visiting the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia for inspiration, and her Winona Ryder fascination.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

We Show What We Have Learned is a collection about the costs and limits of transformation, and the strangeness of being human — set in worlds both fantastical and recognizable, spanning from the 17th century to the present.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

People changing themselves and others around them, sometimes in very strange ways.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

The earliest story in the collection — the title story — dates from 2009. I think a year or two after that, once a few more of the stories had taken shape, I began to realize I was writing a book, and not just a set of unrelated stories. The book deal didn’t happen until August of 2015.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

I can see its importance, but I found The Faerie Queen a slog (and this is coming from somebody who thinks reading Milton is actually really fun).

What’s a book you’ve read more than two times?

Pride and Prejudice — and I find something new there every time.

Is there a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

There’s probably a separate list of books to credit as inspiration for each story in the collection. But in terms of the overall feeling I wanted to create — sometime around when I began to think of these stories as a connected book, I went to the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia. You can get right up next to the paintings there (the museum has moved since I was there, but I think this is still true even in its new location), and they’re all very close to each other in patterns Barnes himself decreed, and there was something about that close encounter with Henri Rousseau’s paintings that stuck in my brain. That kind of luminous strangeness — that was what I wanted to try for in these stories.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

I find Veep viciously fun. I love that I don’t have to care enough about any of the characters to get too nervous about their fates.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Don’t Think Twice, Mike Birbiglia’s movie about improv comedians trying to make their dreams happen. It made me cry — though I’m very pregnant and many things these days are making me cry.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

Not while I’m writing, no — I do best when it’s quiet.

Who is your fashion icon?

How I wish I had a good answer to this! I have a three-year-old, and I feel like these days my fashion icon is anybody who doesn’t have stains and stickers all over his/her clothing.

Do you prefer writing in a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

I love the idea of the buzzing coffee shop, but when I go there I end up eavesdropping instead of writing, or wishing they’d turn the music down. So, silent library it is.

Are you more of a morning writing or late-night writing type?

Either — whatever I can manage! — but I seem to get more done in less time in the morning.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

I hew as closely as possible to the “one big messy draft” school—first drafts are the hardest part for me, and the sooner I can get through them the better. But sometimes I go so wrong that I really have to fix things before I can go any farther.

If you could write fan-fiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?

Hmm. Maybe Winona Ryder? When I was a kid she embodied cool, for me — and then recently, along with the rest of the world, I got totally sucked into Stranger Things. It’s interesting to think about what it must have been like for her (after her fall from grace, period of relative obscurity, etc.) to be part of that show, set back at the start of her heyday, but as the mom character this time.

Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?

Winona looked around the set. This, she thought, was like coming home. She brushed back her feathered hair. Home, but with differences.