Camille Guthrie on Writing FictionBy Staci Kleinmaier, Assistant Editor • April 18, 2023
Camille Guthrie sent her short story “Dating Profile” to The Sun in response to a submission call for humorous writing. “Make us laugh,” we said, and she certainly did. I was tired and grumpy when I first read “Dating Profile.” Even in that compromised state, I couldn’t help myself. I fell into the story, laughing as the narrator poked fun at small-town life, dating, and parenthood. She won me over because she threw just as many zingers back at herself as she doled out. The narrator didn’t take herself too seriously. Neither does Guthrie, but make no mistake, the story is fiction. “I’m totally willing to make a fool of myself,” Guthrie says, “but not in the way that the narrator does.” This is her first short story publication.
When we spoke by video call, it was a beautiful spring day for me in North Carolina. Guthrie was buried in eighteen inches of snow in Vermont, and her kids were out of school. She was itching to work on her novel-in-progress, which “Dating Profile” is part of, and she was thinking about the classes she’s teaching this semester at Bennington College: one on Shakespeare’s sonnets and one on monsters in literature. She’s busy, but she seems excited about her opportunities rather than overwhelmed by her obligations. We talked about books, TV shows, and the challenges of writing humor, and she even offered a small preview of what’s next for the narrator of “Dating Profile.”
You and the narrator of “Dating Profile” share some traits. Is this story based on your life?
I moved to rural Vermont from Brooklyn fourteen years ago, when I was married and pregnant with my second child. I had never lived in the country before, so I had a lot to learn. And I’m faculty at Bennington College. But outside of that, it’s entirely fictional.
The Shepherdess character in the story is a composite of my badass friends. When I went through my midlife crisis, suddenly all these women appeared to give me advice and help me figure out what to do next. I’m so grateful to my girlfriends, and I also wrote about them in a poem called “Wise Women” in my poetry collection Diamonds.
In poetry most people assume you’re speaking from personal experience. Even if you are, everything gets transformed once you start writing the poem. It becomes hyperbolic. It’s no longer simply you. Poems are also about words. The writer ends up making a lot of choices to fit a form or to create sound.
In fiction everything is focused on narrative. Because of my experience writing poetry, my first draft of this story was full of images, metaphors, and feelings. Three years into writing the book I realized, Oh, something has to happen. I had to push myself to think, What trouble can I get the narrator up to? because I didn’t do the things she did.
Many Sun readers, thinking that the story is an essay, have written to me, hoping that I have found love and companionship, and I’m happy to say that I have.
I love hearing about women who stepped up to support you, because there’s a stereotype — and sometimes it feels like a true stereotype — of women backstabbing each other. I have two young girls, and I’m trying to teach them that women should build each other up.
Absolutely. My girlfriends, old friends and new ones in Vermont, rescued me during my divorce. Even their casual comments helped me to see my life in a new way. There are many wise women in Vermont. It’s also taken me a long time to accept that not everyone will like you, and it’s OK not to be a pleaser as a woman. It’s OK to say no, or to decide, You know, I really don’t like that person.
What were your inspirations for this story?
A few years after moving to Bennington, my marriage ended, and my girlfriends suggested that I try online dating. A friend showed me the dating sites, but it was too much for me. I’m a shy, introverted nerd, and I like to be home on a weekend night reading a long novel. The men near me were holding fish and dead deer in their profile pictures. Some of them had very different politics than I do or different expectations of dating. I just cried. I was so upset. There must have been some great guys on those sites, but I just didn’t see them that first night. I was grieving the end of my marriage and anxious about what was to come.
I wrote a few drafts of my own dating profile and showed them to a friend. She said they were “hostile.” I enjoyed that so much, and it gave me the idea to keep writing them as a kind of self-portrait. And then a character developed in my mind, and the profiles turned into a novel.
As a poet, dialogue doesn’t come naturally to me, so I studied films and TV shows by women who write comedy: Tina Fey, Emma Thompson, Nida Manzoor, Billie Piper, and Greta Gerwig. I love Mean Girls, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and all the Jane Austen adaptations.
I make my life teaching literature. I especially appreciate Shirley Jackson, who also lived in Bennington. Her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle is an absolute masterpiece. She also wrote two books about her family: Raising Demons and Life among the Savages. They are hilarious, and her observations about small-town life and being a parent and a wife inspired me.
What is the hardest part about writing humor?
I think the hardest part is editing. When I write I come up with two or three ideas, but timing is everything in comedy. You need the setup, the build, and the punch line, yet in a short story, the setup might be quite long or appear at another moment. When you’re writing alone, it’s hard to know if things are funny.
When I sent “Dating Profile” to The Sun, I was on the verge of giving up on the book. I had been working on it for six years, and at times I had doubted my ability to write fiction. I didn’t have any objectivity about it. Working with Sun editors was miraculous for me, because you could tell me which parts were not working.
Did working on this story change the novel?
You and the other editors gave me a class on how to edit. I learned so much from your suggestions. When you first told me that you would like to cut a third of the story, I thought, That’s a lot. All those things are important. But when I saw the edits, I realized that it was about pacing and that I had too many jokes. I just needed one. It was a fantastically generous process.
When I’m working on the manuscript now, I keep that in mind and ask myself: Is this working for the narrative? Are the jokes swift? Do I leave enough room for the reader? The book has changed and improved.
What other adventures does the narrator have? Can you give us a preview?
She goes on a series of dates with guys she meets online, and they are increasingly screwball and disastrous. There is a dance fight. She has a meltdown in a water park. And there’s a scene with a bear.
Does she ever catch a break?
Yes, she will catch a break — several nice breaks. She learns more about what she wants, and she falls in love.
Guthrie finished her novel since we spoke and is seeking an agent and publisher. Her most recent book of poetry, Diamonds, also takes a humorous look at motherhood, gender, and contemporary life. You can learn more about it on Guthrie’s website.
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