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literature : interview

Fiona Maazel

by Tracy O'Neill

"Comedy is a great vehicle for spreading the bad news about who we are. It's also a mercy killing of the resistance that springs up whenever we're forced to look at ourselves."

A Little More Human (Graywolf, April 2017) is Fiona Maazel's third novel, and there is nothing little about it. Maazel's big, brazen voice and extravagant plotting were already evident in her earlier novels, Last Last Chance and Woke Up Lonely. In her latest, Maazel dives into the moral complexities at the interstice between man, medicine, and machine, which is to say, on some level, between life and death. Improbably, and wonderfully, she does so with a mindreading cosplayer, an ailing marriage, a financially-motivated seduction scheme, a blackout involving some sore genitalia, and a shiny institute for sometimes creepy medicine, the Sarah Snyder Center for Enhancement Technology, known mostly as the SCET.

The joy of reading A Little More Human lies in the play between kooky humor and melancholic characters. Maazel's energetic prose is juxtaposed with the terrifying questions she asks us to confront: Is it possible to really know ourselves or another? What are the dangers of seeking knowledge, and when does that knowledge stop resembling wisdom? Does being human mean hurting those we love most? The inability to answer these questions hurls Maazel's characters into tragic and comedic outcomes. In the end, the question of how to live a life is probably best addressed by the character who tells his daughter, "Don't be so hard. Not every problem can be fixed. Just stay."

Tracy O'Neill The world you create in A Little More Human is brilliant partly because the SCET works as a gathering device for your characters, and partly because it's a place that mirrors your style. It houses wild technical feats, buoyant sentences layered over dark themes, and a heady conflation of ideas lit onto a human milieu. Did you start with the world?

Fiona Maazel Insofar as that's the world I seem to live in my head: yes. But in terms of narrative strategy: no. I started with a guy who wakes up on the back of a horse with no memory of what happened to him the night before. I actually overheard someone say that: "I woke up this morning on the back of a horse." And I never forgot it. I just filed it away and some years later, there it was, the first sentence of something. The SCET sort of grew out of what became preoccupying for me as the novel went along. A center for the ominous, where everything is internalized. Sometimes, in fiction, the argument with ourselves needs a venue. The SCET seemed to fit the bill.

TO Does a book usually start with a sentence for you?

FM No! This was a first. Normally I start with an idea. Something that feels complicated and urgent for me that I want to work through in some fashion. And then I begin to think about how best to send the problem I'm wrestling with out into the world. But this time I had the added pleasure of having a sentence in mind. The kind of sentence I normally reject, if I'm being honest. I generally like to start big and hone in. The first sentence of my last novel was, "They were together." Thematically, that sentence put many things in play. "He came to on the back of a horse" does a lot less work in that regard, though of course it does gesture at the kind of dislocation the novel wants to explore.

TO You return to the idea that to be of two minds can be painful. Phil has a boner for a woman who isn't his wife and probably also loves his wife but can't figure out what exactly he feels since "he had never learned how to sustain more than one feeling at once." I'm curious if this doubling of the mind and the self is the big, generative idea you mentioned you need at the beginning of a novel.

FM It was certainly one of them. But I was interested less in the kind of doubling we all experience to some degree—contradictory feelings and thoughts—than in real estrangement from self, and in what happens when we are emotionally incoherent to ourselves. Want to know where all this began for me? You will laugh.

TO I'm ready. Hit me.

FM Football. Brett Favre. From 2008 to 2010, this guy must have come in and out of retirement four or five times. Everyone was making fun of him, but as some point I really started to fixate on this man's dilemma. Okay, sure, probably he just couldn't walk away from all that money. But I got to thinking maybe he just had no idea what he wanted. Do I want to play ball or don't I? That's not indecision. That's just what happens when we are impenetrable to ourselves because there is no one self to be penetrated. Sure, we contain multitudes. Sure, the Unconscious. But what about this notion that we are biologically rent from within? As I was thinking about Favre, I was also reading some books about the brain. And in one of them, I came across the same split-brain study I write about in the novel. About the patient whose half heads managed to articulate desires completely at odds with each other.

TO Two-Way!

FM: Exactly. That guy exists. Half his brain wanted to be a draftsman. The other half wanted to be a race car driver. Doesn't that freak you out? The only way this guy knew that half his head felt differently from his dominant half is because he had his brain split. Because half his brain had been emancipated. So what does that mean for us? That was the big idea I wanted to explore here.

TO It absolutely is terrifying, for both ourselves and our relationships. In your book, both terror and humor are advanced by this inability to know the self.

FM Which makes sense, right? People bumbling in the dark either run into an axe murderer or a tree. Sometimes both. What I'm trying to say is just that I got very caught up in this—to me—new way of thinking about the bifurcated self. And of how it seems pointless to consider "knowledge of others" as a threshold for intimacy if we can't know ourselves first. So I took this notion to an extreme and decided to have some fun with it.

TO At one point, Phil, dressed as Brainstorm, is supposed to read his friend's mind to defeat him. But he decides not to because he learned that "the more you know someone, the less they like you." I'm impressed with how you sow these themes throughout in seemingly casual near-afterthoughts. Then, wonderfully, they manifest in elaborate set pieces. Can you talk about these winding scenes that instantiate a central idea?

FM I approach them with caution. I don't ever want my fiction to feel polemical—to read like a vehicle for my grand ideas. So, I suppose I'm always thinking through how to ensure it always feels like character is fate. That whatever happens proceeds from the mighty forces within and the thematic payoff feels secondary.

TO I think much of the reason why these scenes work is that you invest them with intricate detail. This book is set in not-quite this world, but there are various points at which you incorporate, say, a fascinating fact about Upton Sinclair. What was your research process like?

FM That Sinclair bit is weird, right? I was stunned to find out he's written a book about telepathy and that he thought his wife was telepathic. I read a ton for this book, as I have for all my books. Stuff about fMRI and neuroscience. About Staten Island. Romance scams. Heart transplants. The Singularity. I also read quite a bit about Watergate and polygraph machines because I thought all this was going to play a much bigger role in things. Likewise the way some companies are using fMRI technology in lieu of the polygraph. It's a new frontier for lie detection.

TO I noticed that note about Watergate in the acknowledgments! What did you scrap?

FM I mostly scrapped ideas. I didn't know where the novel was going or its plot, which is ridiculous when writing a "whodunit" of sorts, so I spent a lot of time just sketching out character motives and plot points and then deleting them all. I had all kinds of ideas that just never got off the ground. My last novel, I probably cut at least 200 pages. I had to do less pruning for this one because once I had the plot square in my head, it was already pretty lean. I don't ever really throw anything away. I just create Ejecta Folders with all the pages I worked so hard on. This makes me feel better about having to cut so much because I tell myself I can always repurpose the material later. But I never do.

TO One of the subplots in the book revolves around Lisa's decision to pursue pregnancy via ART, assisted reproductive technology. Phil views it as a betrayal that has chagrined him. Even Doc reacts badly to it. I'm wondering if their reactions skew more toward fears around the mastery of nature or a gendered critique. Are they partially freaked because ART removes the requirement of a particular configuration of male-female relations?

FM They are freaked for different reasons. Phil, obviously, is devastated because the baby isn't his. The sperm isn't his! It's not so much the ART that appalls him as the betrayal. But his father has a problem with it for some of the reasons you describe. His work at the SCET was all about enhancement technologies that begin to question where the line is between what's human and what's not. ART is a testing ground for those arguments. So of course it makes him uncomfortable, in large measure because he is uncomfortable with what the SCET does.

TO Toward the end of the book, Phil is confronted with the moral dilemma of the scientist: whether he should he or should not change nature.

FM Yes. Though his dilemma is less grand in a way because it's not like he has the putative well-being of millions on the one hand and Pandora's Box on the other. What he has is his ego and narcissism and the dread of isolation versus some dim sense that it's wrong to mess with other people to get what you want. But he is litigating his conscience in that moment, which is always going to be a big deal. I don't want to diminish his dilemma for suggesting we all know what he should do. I'm just saying it's fraught in a different way.

TO The calculus is different on the scale of real scientist or medicine.

FM There's something more dire about the choice he has to make, if only because it's so familiar. Do we choose ourselves or the people we love?

TO And in this way, Lisa and Phil do mirror each other to an extent. You write, "She'd ruined their marriage in order to start a family."

FM Which is more than just a terrible irony and also a metaphor for how families operate, anyway. Every marriage dies when a child enters the picture. It falls apart and is rebuilt into something entirely different. Here we just have a more extreme version of that. It was, on a side note, important for me to make sure Lisa was not without sins of her own. She had to mirror Phil in some way to generate opportunities for us to care about his plight.

TO You have a real knack for activating these metaphors. I'm thinking also of the part in the book where you write,

He'd spent hours in bed honing in on his parents' thoughts when they fought at night. His mom believing the only way to save the species was to improve on its biology, his dad insisting evolution would take care of that, and wasn't it more pressing to treat people for the illnesses they already had, the argument familiar and chronic and a proxy for the central tension of their marriage, i.e. Can we just work on our problems? versus, Can't we strive for more?

What is that more?

FM What is it, indeed. It's the unknown. The thing we don't have. How do you improve on biology? Does anyone really know what that looks like? How do you improve on a marriage that's already working and is ripe with love? Questing for more is all about crossing those thresholds that might well be designed not to be crossed. One person in this marriage isn't interested in the prosaic business of their marriage. They love each other but what else is out there for them? She doesn't want to fixate on palliatives and cures for the menial business of him not flushing the toilet or her not being attentive enough to his needs. She's thinking big. But he just wants to solve problems he thinks can be solved. I'm starting to think that maybe you were asking something else, though.

TO I'm wondering if you think of the urge for more as part of the self or somehow exogenous.

FM I don't think anyone knows. Some people might put a recognizable face on more—that house, that car, that job—but I think most of us really don't know what "more" looks like. Phil certainly has no idea, and in some ways, this makes him more sophisticated than the rest of us who often feel pretty confident that if we just made more money a year, we'd be happy. I think that contentment in the moment is not a Western conceit, and that most of us are programmed to want and seek out "more." But that's cultural in many ways.

TO Your writing possesses a special wily humor, a little melancholic and marched on by panache. Do you have a theory of humor? What makes something funny? What attracts you to humor?

FM You'll be glad to know that I do not—not in terms of how I relate to comedy, in any case. I think comedy is a great vehicle for spreading the bad news about who we are. It's also a mercy killing of the kind of resistance that springs up whenever we're forced to look at ourselves. It can be a real ally in the project of getting at some very difficult material or a hindrance because it's a great deflecting mechanism against forays into the tough stuff. When I was younger, comedy was not my friend. It did not open up anything for me. I was defensive and ensured my fiction was well defended. As I got older, comedy began to pave the way for me to access the kind of pathos I'm interested in.

TO What are some of the other continuities and shifts you see in your career as a writer so far?

FM Well, I hope I'm getting better. I'm certainly more disciplined. I used to think I could stuff anything into a novel that I wanted and just make it work. Now? Not so much. I'm certainly less intent on brandishing my intelligence, which is the hallmark of a very young and ambitious writer. I also probably love the work more now than I used to, which is saying a lot since I have always loved it. But these days—maybe because I don't have all the time in the world and am also less preoccupied with publication than I was when I started—I absolutely relish the process. Of course, I retain the same dread of failure as always and the same despair when I cannot find my way forward, but I also get a massive high when things are working well. The whole world disappears. I have been told, though, that I have a somewhat recognizable sensibility that has not evolved that dramatically from book to book, but you'd be a better judge of that than I would. I finished my first novel in 2006. Now it's 2017. I hope, at the very least, my sentence-making has improved. Am I happy with the novel? Yes and no. Which feels right. And probably means the novel is okay but that I can improve on its shortcomings next time around. This is a good place for a writer to be.


Tracy O'Neill is the author of The Hopeful. In 2015, she was named a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan Prize, and was a Narrative Under 30 finalist. In 2012, she was awarded the Center for Fiction's Emerging Writers Fellowship. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, LitHub, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Literarian, New World Writing, Narrative, and Guernica. She has published nonfiction in The Atlantic, the New Yorker, Bookforum, Rolling Stone, Grantland, Vice, The Guardian, VQR, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her column "Body Language" appears in Catapult.