During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cathleen Schine sat lounging in her glorious, sweet-smelling Los Angeles garden, feeling miserably stuck. She knew she wanted to write about Jewish German exiles in Hollywood during World War II but feared that a strictly historical novel might become “a pit of phony insertions of detail,” a quagmire-ridden quest for historical accuracy.
Make no mistake, Schine’s novels are always fine-tuned, fascinating and funny. She’s been compared to Nora Ephron and Jane Austen. Her books include Alice in Bed, about a suburban teenager with a mysterious disease (inspired by Schine’s own strange illness as a young woman), and more recently, The Grammarians, about identical twin girls obsessed with language and battling for custody of their family dictionary.
Thankfully, revelation struck and opened the creative floodgates Schine needed to pen her latest novel, Kϋnstlers in Paradise. Speaking by phone, she recalls, “I was sitting there with my notebook closed and the cap on my pen, staring at all this beautiful jasmine, unable to go anywhere or do anything. And I thought, ‘This is a kind of exile, too, because I’m sitting here in all this beauty, and all my friends are back in New York, locked in, terrified.’” Her friends’ parents were dying, and Schine’s own mother, in her 90s, was also housebound, sick and, as it turns out, nearing the end of her life. “At that moment,” the author says, “New York was a horrible, terrifying nightmare, and here I was in this beautiful garden, basically in paradise.”
The result of Schine’s magical moment is a multigenerational family drama about exile, guilt, aging, storytelling and love, all told with a hefty helping of humor. Ninety-three-year-old Mamie Kϋnstler has lived in Venice Beach, California, since emigrating as a girl from Vienna, Austria, in 1939 with her parents and grandfather. After Mamie fractures her wrist, her grandson Julian, a wannabe screenwriter who can no longer afford his rent in New York City, arrives to help out.
Then COVID-19 strikes, and Julian is less than thrilled to find himself quarantined with his grandmother, her housekeeper and a Saint Bernard named Prince Jan. Julian might not love it, but readers absolutely will. Imagine, for instance: “Julian and his grandmother were stretched out in two chaise longues, side by side like an old couple by a Miami pool.”
Eventually, however, Julian finds himself intrigued and even transformed by Mamie’s marvelous tales of Vienna and old Hollywood. Their time together reads like a love letter to not only Los Angeles but also the relationship between grandparent and grandchild—a theme further echoed in Mamie’s tender relationship with her own grandfather.
Schine initially became intrigued by these Hollywood exiles (many of whom called themselves émigrés, she explains, “as if they weren’t ‘regular’ immigrants like the Russian Jews”) after reading a biography about composer and socialite Alma Mahler, and another about actor, screenwriter and activist Salka Viertel. Schine even named Mamie after Viertel; both women share the given name “Salomea.” Viertel appears in the novel, along with many other well-known figures, including writers Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann; composer Arnold Schoenberg, who teaches Mamie to play tennis; and actor Greta Garbo, who is a major character.
“I just became obsessed with these people,” Schine admits. “I read a million memoirs of the period. And by a million, I mean a million.” She wondered what it would be like to be a high-cultured person who suddenly found themselves in LA in 1939, a time when the city was culturally barren in comparison to, say, Vienna. “They came over here and had to exist in this beautiful place while their world was being completely destroyed, and that whole notion really captured my imagination,” Schine says.
Although Kϋnstlers in Paradise is far from autobiographical (Schine says her own immigrant ancestors were far less “exalted” than these characters), she notes that “almost all of my older women characters are modeled to some extent on my mother, and also my grandmother,” both of whom had great senses of humor. Like Schine’s mother did, Mamie dyes her hair “a much brighter red than nature could have provided,” although Schine notes that Mamie is still “really very much her own person.”
In contrast to Mamie’s swift development, Schine says, “It took a long time for Julian . . . to become a real character, not just a name that I kept putting in so that Mamie could say something. . . . I wanted him to be in some ways innocent and in some ways entitled. He hasn’t really done anything with his life yet, but on the other hand, he isn’t a complete narcissistic dumbbell. He’s just a kid. Getting that right was very difficult.”
Like Julian, Schine was just getting to know Los Angeles during the pandemic—even though she’s lived there for over 10 years. COVID-19 put a stop to Schine’s monthly visits to New York City to see her mother, giving her more time in LA “to walk around and get accustomed to the neighborhood and the way the light changes and the seasons, which exist, but they’re so different,” she says. “I was a real New York snob.” She had lived in New York for decades, raising her two sons there with New Yorker film critic David Denby. After their divorce, she moved to California with her wife, filmmaker Janet Meyers. “I realized that the part of New York that I had come to love the most was Central Park,” she says, “and I thought, ‘If New York for you is Central Park, then you could live in Los Angeles.’ I just got to the point where I wanted a quiet, peaceful place to live.”
Another trait that Schine shares with Julian is the fact that her own career emerged, shall we say, slowly. She enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College, hoping to become a poet. “I’d never been to a place like that, where everyone was dressed in such a fabulous, interesting way and was so smart and charismatic. And I thought, ‘I am not letting these people read my poems. Are you kidding?’” She quickly transferred to Barnard College, changed her major to medieval studies and then went to graduate school at the University of Chicago, only to become “a failed medievalist.” Next, she landed a job at The Village Voice with help from her mother’s best friend, who later encouraged Schine to transform one of her articles into a novel.
During this time, Schine felt like “a depressed lump,” living with her mother and sleeping on top of her bed so that when her mother walked in, “I could just sit up and the bed was made.” She eventually began writing a novel secretly, “pretending like I was making a shoe,” which allowed her to avoid the “baggage that it had to be the great American novel.”
Looking back, Schine recognizes that her success was “a combination of great luck, connections and, I have to think, some talent. When that happens, and the luck is there, it’s amazing.” In contrast to writers who begin with outlines, Schine experiences her own writing process like “being en plein air in a city, strolling through your book, observing things as you go.” She tends to structure a novel after most of it has been written; in the case of Kϋnstlers in Paradise, because it is full of Mamie’s stories, it ended up being “about stories and what they mean, and where they fit into your own life—and into the lives of the people you tell them to. And how stories change, and also change people.”
Schine has previously said that she doesn’t want to write her own life story, but today she says, “You know what? I think I want to, actually.” However, as she begins to discuss the genre, she quickly backtracks. “It’s funny. I want to write a memoir, but I don’t really want it to be very personal,” she says. “Somehow writing about myself seems so self-indulgent without the protection of a novel to make it more interesting and, in some ways, more real for other people. On the other hand, I love reading memoirs. Go figure.”
Photo of Schine by Karen Tapia.