Suspend Your Disbelief

Character, Then World, Then Plot: An Interview with Alexander Maksik

"I will never choose my subjects based on the criteria of some invisible critic."

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Character, Then World, Then Plot: An Interview with Alexander Maksik

"I heard Marilynne Robinson say once that “we can never escape the landscape of our preoccupations.” I was struck by that phrase and I think of it all the time, the landscape of our preoccupations. I feel liberated by it."

Alexander Maksik is the author of the novels You Deserve Nothing (Europa Editions, 2011) and A Marker to Measure Drift (Knopf, 2013), which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2013. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper’s, Tin House, Harvard Review, Condé Nast Traveler (where he is a contributing editor), The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Salon, and Narrative Magazine, and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has received a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the Truman Capote Literary Trust and The Corporation of Yaddo.

I first read Alexander Maksik’s work when I was assigned his second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, to review for the San Francisco Chronicle. The novel, the story of a Liberian woman who finds herself on the Greek island of Santorini, escaping Charles Taylor’s atrocities, blew me away, and my tremendous admiration for the work led me to his highly lauded first novel, You Deserve Nothing, and several of his short stories and essays. A few months later, I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Iowa City Literary Festival, where we were both participants. And here we continue our conversation.


Natalie Bakopoulos: First things first: How did you come to be a writer, and who were some of your greatest influences?

Alexander Maksik: The simplest response is to say that I wanted to write more than I wanted to do anything else, which is the truth. But why that’s the case, and why I’m capable of it, are questions more difficult to answer. I think it must have to do with some combination of being an only child and spending so much time alone, with having an odd mind, with growing up among so many books, with my parents being such devoted and passionate readers. In our house, books were sacred. And I knew they were sacred well before I knew what they were for. The same was true of libraries, and bookshops. So in that sense it was my parents who were my first great influences. They read constantly, with real joy, and they read to me long before I could understand a word of it. They taught me to read and to love to read, and they gave me novels as fast as I could read them.

As for the writers I read that mattered early on, when I was very young, I had an insatiable appetite for the Nancy Drew novels. I read every single one of them. I was crazy about her. Who knows how that happens? But I inhaled those, and loved seeing them all in a row on my bookshelf. I have a clear memory of reading them, one right after the other, though no memory at all of their stories. As for the writing that influenced me as I got older, there were The Nick Adams Stories, and As I Lay Dying, and Invisible Man. There was Mavis Gallant, Jamaica Kincaid, Sharon Olds, W. S.  Merwin, Richard Hugo, and J. M. Coetzee. Camus’s lyrical essays. Chekhov’s stories. It goes on and on, of course.

Absolutely. Is there a moment that felt like a breakthrough for you in your writing, either while working on something specific, or simply in general? 

“It is so much easier to move to Prague, or Berlin, or Paris, or Brooklyn­—or wherever we’re supposed to live and dress the part—than it is to write anything of quality.”

Yes, it came when I rid myself of the notion that to be a writer, I had to live in a certain way. All that life of the writer bullshit. The costumes and the parties. The silly myth of the poète maudit. The notion that to be a writer I had to live in the right neighborhood, in the right apartment. It is so much easier to move to Prague, or Berlin, or Paris, or Brooklyn­—or wherever we’re supposed to live and dress the part—than it is to write anything of quality. When I was just starting out and imagined becoming a writer, I didn’t think much about the act of writing itself. I imagined instead a certain kind of life, a certain romance. I’m reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt [published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan], and just today I read this line, “He talked like any of the people one saw in Village bars, young people who were supposed to be writers or actors, and who usually did nothing.” You see those people everywhere. And for too long, I was one of them. So, to answer your question, the breakthrough was simple. I realized that to be a writer, I would have to finish something. I began to treat writing like a job. I woke at the same time each morning. I wrote a thousand words a day. I tried my best to live a quieter life. Essentially, I understood what everyone who has ever done anything has understood: You either do the work, or you don’t.

In an essay entitled “Four Homes,” published in the Canadian National Post, you beautifully describe places you’ve lived and how you grew to become a writer in each. It seems in many ways “home” is not so much one physical place for you but any place that has fed and shaped your imagination. Paul Theroux has written: “I was an outsider before I was a traveler; I was a traveler before I was a writer. I think one led to the other.” What do you think?

I think for people who have lived in many different places, there’s a point after which the notion of home is forever changed. It becomes far more difficult to fix yourself to a particular place, to associate a sense of calm and safety with a given town, or house. I’ve found that what provides me those feelings of order is my work, and the routines of that work. The writing becomes the constant, the refuge, and it, instead of a place, provides the illusion of security. Of course, we’re all outsiders, like it or not. And maybe writers are aware of that fact sooner. Whatever the case, I probably have a greater than normal capacity for being alone, and that capacity has provided me the confidence and desire to travel on my own. And as far as learning to write fiction, few experiences have been as formative as traveling by myself and living abroad for so long.

You recently published a beautiful essay in Harper’s called “The Origin of Stories,” where you note of writing fiction: “The truth is that I’m thrilled by the mystery of the whole endeavor: the origin of fiction, the act of writing, the alchemy of invention and experience. I feel sometimes that a single story encompasses my entire life, and that strikes me as wondrous.” Can you talk a bit about how you find your way into your novels and stories?

I begin with character. Character, then world, then plot. As with the way a friendship, or a love affair, evolves. I meet a woman, and slowly come to know her. Both our story together and her story alone are slowly created and slowly revealed. That’s how I approach fiction. For example, I’ve been thinking about a short story for years now. I’ve only written the first sentence, and yet I feel closer and closer to writing the whole thing. Lately the man at the center of it is rapidly becoming clear, and with that clarity comes a stronger sense of plot. That’s the way it seems to work. Once I know the people, everything else follows. I can’t imagine working in the other direction—hashing out a plot, and then only later injecting it with characters. The way most screenplays are written. It’s just not the way my mind works. The more I know someone, the easier it is to know what she’ll do. Writing a novel is such an intimate experience, spending all those years with those people. I need to make sure they’re interesting enough, mysterious enough, surprising enough to sustain me. Again, it’s like entering into any other relationship. I think we divorce for the same reasons we give up writing novels.

Marker to Measure DriftWell, they’re certainly interesting enough, and there’s a great intimacy in your work. Early in Marker, Jacqueline recalls saying to her younger sister: “We are our bodies, and we are memory. That’s it.” We’re so much a part of Jacqueline’s physical world, particularly at first, before we really enter her interior landscape. You said that you come to know a character as you write: character, world, plot. Would you say that in the case of Jacqueline, the sharp attention to the physical, both her external world and her own physicality, and how she perceives it, helped you find her story, or the memories that she was trying not to confront? 

Yes, absolutely. It was something I knew about her early on. She would focus as much of her attention on the present physical experience as was possible, and she would use that focus as a way to mitigate pain. It would be a kind of experiment for her, and an attitude, and philosophy born of necessity. Of course, she would fail. The creep of memory is too powerful. But her struggle to do this, the constant battle between present and past experience, allowed me access to her story, and more, to Jacqueline herself.

Memory in Marker is front and center, but it also plays a role in your other work. In a story entitled “Trim Palace,” which appeared in Tin House and just won a Pushcart Prize, memory and the past are so palpable yet their details are unexplained; in your first novel, You Deserve Nothing, the narrator’s past is touched upon but also not explored. That is, we’re not bogged down by backstory but we are aware of how it might shape the present. It never overwhelms the momentum of the story. Do you find you have to write the backstory anyway, to know it, and then later edit it out? Or do you allow it to remain still somewhat a mystery to you yourself as you write?

This goes back to your question about finding my way into a story. As I said, when I begin writing, I have only a vague sense of a character. The way for that sense, that feeling, to crystallize, to become something sharp, is through the daily act of writing. It is very much like memory itself. The way someone I’ve not seen for years exists only as a kind of sensation, a blurry image. But if I focus my attention on him, slowly he comes back to me. As with recalling the dead or the missing, writing requires a similar kind of conjuring. As I do that early work, which is always full of inconsistencies—red hair on one page, brown on another —I’m trying to bring my characters to the surface, to clarity. I’m confronted by various questions I hadn’t considered when I first began. Those early drafts are for discovery and experimentation. It’s a very slow and difficult process at first, but then I reach a point where everything seems to snap into place, and all at once I find that I’ve answered the important questions. And that’s when it’s the most fun for me. That’s when I stop dreading it, and I find that I look forward to going to work. It seems to happen at about fifty-thousand words. I come around some corner and for a while writing becomes pleasurable again.

You said that writing a novel is like entering into a relationship. And yet finishing one can make us feel bereft, as though we have suffered a loss, a break-up. But for me, in writing my second novel, I’m feeling, once again, that almost physical rush of getting to know someone. All that potential. It’s been a year since Marker has been published. Does Jacqueline feel distant for you now, assuming that you’re involved in the lives of new characters, new stories?

She does, yes. Increasingly so. If writing a novel is indeed like entering into a relationship, I think publishing is very much like ending one. Publishing is a bewildering and occasionally wonderful experience. But it has nothing at all to do with writing itself. To hold your book, the object, all those neatly bound pages, is to be reminded that the relationship has ended. You’ve spent however many years living with these characters and their stories. And then it ends. There’s the book with the price on the cover to remind you that the relationship is over.  If you’re to be a writer, you have to keep writing, and so you go off in search of the next story.

No one would ever accuse you of writing the same book over and over again; your settings and your characters are always new and fresh. Yet, like with most writers, there are certain themes and motifs that seem to recur, always in new ways, as part of your writerly DNA—memory, isolation, loneliness; a deep attention to the physical world. Do you see these things cropping up again in what you’re working on now?

Yes. I think part of the reason I’m so determined not to write the same book over and over again is that I know I will always write the same book over and over again. I heard Marilynne Robinson say once that “we can never escape the landscape of our preoccupations.” I was struck by that phrase and I think of it all the time, the landscape of our preoccupations. I feel liberated by it. I will forever write stories that deal with certain themes, certain subjects. I know what preoccupies me and I’m interested in exploring those subjects through fiction. I want always to push myself to write far beyond what is comfortable—in terms of subject, setting, form, structure, and even genre. But I have resigned myself to certain preoccupations. They are woven through everything I’ve written, and will, I suspect, forever be. This is what we should mean when, like robots, we repeat that tired maxim, write what you know.

It seems that you’ve been criticized for both writing what you know and writing what you don’t. The problem I find with either critique is the assumption that knowledge has anything to do with fiction, which is an act of the imagination. How do you respond to those who claim that fiction writers only have “rights” to certain material?

You Deserve Nothing PaperI’m a white man. My parents were teachers. I am the product of privilege. I have benefited from various systems, all of which privilege white men above other groups.  And there’s no question that “the literary world” favors white male writers. It is a system that has excluded and trivialized—and continues to exclude and trivialize—women writers and writers of color. The field has never been even. White male writers are taken more seriously, published more often, garner more prizes and the majority of review attention, and have been granted the lie of authority. I am acutely aware of these things and given all of this, I understand readers approaching certain aspects of my work with skepticism.

Nonetheless, I remain a writer. Writing is what I love above all other things, and I believe strongly that my loyalty should be to my work, and exclusively to my work. It’s something of a conflict for me, but finally I will never choose my subjects based on the criteria of some invisible critic. And honestly, I don’t understand the obsession with a writer’s personal experience, with whether or not a novel is a “debut,” or “true” or not “true.” I have no patience for it. As if we have to pass some background evaluation before we’re cleared to use our imaginations. A novel about the struggles of an alcoholic is not better or worse for being written by an alcoholic. How is it that ad hominem criticism remains so prevalent? I am stunned by how frequently reviewers spend paragraph after paragraph discussing the life of a novelist, rather than the novel itself—as if somehow having been a soldier, or a doctor, or a carpenter, makes the fiction better. Or having not been one of those things makes it worse. Why this desperate need to establish an artist’s “authority?” For the great majority of readers and writers the work is what matters. We are either swept away, or we’re not.  Which is, after all, how we fall in love with art in the first place. In Ian Parker’s recent New Yorker profile of Edward St. Aubyn, which is one of the finest profiles I’ve ever read, St. Aubyn says, “[t]he truth for me is the truth in the books. And the truth in the facts is a derelict ruin.” Many times I’ve read one or another version of this idea, but never have I read one better.


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