If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
The author on writing about the swell before a war, factual inaccuracy as surrealism, and taking a jab at our own heedlessness.
I first read Courtney Maum’s name in 2013, when she won a short story contest at Hobart. I was astonished by her story, “The Bashful Yeti Tree Sculpture, Guarder of the Pond.” I still keep a PDF of it on Google Drive to share (selectively) with people who ask me for short fiction recommendations. Since then, Maum has published three novels: the well-lauded I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, the underrated Touch, and her latest, Costalegre (Tin House). It’s a curious little book, both effervescent and cynical, its sense of impending doom equal to its hopefulness. Its charm lies less in its summarizable qualities (a semi-historical novel in diary form about a Guggenheim heiress just prior to World War II) than in Maum’s superb balance between humor and grief, and her talent for saying just enough, never too much. For years, I’ve been wanting to connect with Maum in a more meaningful way than just reading her books and liking her tweets. I jumped at the chance to interview her. Unsurprisingly, she was well-spoken and a pleasure to talk to, conveying both conscience and wit.
Katharine Coldiron Costalegre is a departure from your first two novels. What made you turn from standard realist fiction to a fictionalized diary about real people?
Courtney Maum The structure is a departure, that’s for sure, but the exploration of art-making, the creative process, and the effect of material wealth on the psyche are certainly explored in Costalegre and my other books. What happened with this book specifically is that I felt an incredibly strong need to go back to private art-making after the publication of Touch. I had tremendous support from my publisher for that book—they sent me on a pre-pub tour, a hardcover tour, a paperback tour—they put a great deal of faith and resources into that novel, and it underperformed.
KC That blows my mind. I loved Touch.
CM Thank you! I love it too. Listen: The commercial literary novel-thing is a wild ride. I felt like I needed to rejuvenate my creative forces and my belief in myself when I was done touring. I needed to work on something deeply private that nobody had paid me for, that nobody was waiting on. Even my agent had no idea what I was doing. But I will say that I was able to give myself that privacy and isolation thanks to my first two books. I’m really grateful to my first editor for allowing me to be in a position where I could contemplate taking a creative risk. I mean, this is the ideal, right? Not to feel rushed, not to feel pressured, to feel like you can experiment, to write like no one is watching. This is how I felt when I was writing Costalegre. It was a magic time.
KC Did you have a preexisting interest in any of the figures you wrote about, or did you discover them in research? Did you start with affection for one figure and end up liking another one better?
CM It’s funny, I got really into Surrealist artists when I was a teenager. I think teenagehood is a time where we are searching for iconoclasts to look up to, and rather than fetishize a certain rockstar or something, I was into modernist artists. In college—I have no idea why, I think it was from discovering the poetry of Tristan Tzara—I became fascinated by Dadaism. I didn’t study art history, but in the back of my mind, as I got older, I felt that Dadaism was an interesting approach and appropriate response to capitalism and to war.
Certainly, in the research for this project, I ended up learning a lot more about all types of artists: Symbolists, Dadaists, Surrealists … and I gained respect for some and lost respect for others. I have a crush on Constantin Brâncuși—who inspired one of the characters—and my heart was always with Lara, of course, who is based on the erstwhile artist Pegeen Guggenheim. This isn’t to say that I liked her art the most, but I felt her yearning the hardest.
KC This is the second of your novels that’s been significantly wrapped up with fine art. What’s your background in art?
CM I don’t really have one. Except for things I do with my five-year-old, I don’t paint anymore. I live nowhere near museums, so my exposure to art is mostly tangential at this point, or social.
KCIt seems like it’s something that you know an enormous amount about, as if you’d been an art history major and then dropped it.
CM No, I definitely wasn’t an art history major! I really don’t know how much I know. I was a comparative literature major, and the beauty of comp lit is that it allowed me to know a decent amount about a bunch of different things. I don’t know if I know a lot about art, but I have curiosity, and I think that makes up for whatever knowledge I lack.
KC Why did you choose to tell this particular story about World War II? Or maybe you didn’t see it as a World War II story at all.
CM I definitely see it as a World War II story. I write satire a lot, and to me this is partly a satire of the apathy that the cultural elite in America showed to the rise of Trump. Snoozing leftists share a lot of the blame in his election. Just to sideline to a personal anecdote—and this is something I’ve written about—I was the only one in my social circle a year before Trump actually came to power who was convinced that he was going to win. Not just that he had a chance, but I really thought he was going to win. People made fun of me. I had a falling-out with a friend because he told me I was nuts and that I needed to seek mental counsel.
KC That’s horrible.
CM It was really bad. I did start to feel like I was going mad. But all I saw—and of course this links back to Touch—was my intelligent, overeducated, well-off friends who were getting all of their information from their cell phones, which were using algorithms to show them only what they wanted to see. My family, for better or for worse, were Trump supporters. They live in Florida and Tennessee. Whenever I was there, I could sense that a lot of the country was not feeling the way my liberal friends felt, nor were they reading the things my friends were reading. It was like these people were in a submarine underneath what was already war.
But back to Lara: Readers might be disappointed if they go to Costalegre expecting to find a politically active narrator. She’s fifteen and this is not the digital era. It’s hard to get any information in 1930s Mexico. Lara—who is based on Pegeen Guggenheim—is a product of the way she was raised, and of course of her time period as well. She wasn’t raised to be concerned with politics. To me, it makes absolute sense that what she’s wondering about in her diary is whether or not the boat with her mother’s art collection will sink. She wants it to sink! The way I understood her and the way I wrote her was that she would prefer to live without material comforts than to have this mother who is constantly distracted by art and famous artists. She’s been dragged all around the world by her mother, who is not a political person. In fact, Peggy Guggenheim was very slow to wake to the fact that war was coming. She made no bones about why she was saving some Jewish artists from Europe. She just wanted their art. It really didn’t have to do with them being Jewish.
There’s a story in Peggy Guggenheim’s memoir that she writes off as a funny anecdote, but it’s horrifying. At the time, she was trying to build a museum in Paris. She has a stonemason in her townhouse who is doing some flourishes to the mantle—he was putting cupids or something frivolous into the mantelpiece. At some point, he puts down his carving tools and said, “Lady, I can fucking hear the tanks coming in. I’m done.” Paris is in the midst of the occupation and she was putting up this museum. I mean, she had her head in the sand at this particular moment. That being said, it’s a political act to be a woman collecting art in the 1930s. So perhaps it’s not a fair statement to say that she was apolitical.
KCI saw a review of Costalegre that called Lara a “poor little rich girl.” It was a positive review, but characterizing her that way seems unfair.
CM I mean, it’s fine. Okay, so she is a rich girl. Is she a poor little rich girl? Wealth and emotional deprivation tend to go hand in hand. I think that everyone can relate—regardless of status, class, race—to the way it feels to be totally neglected by someone whose love you want. To me that’s what this story is about. On another level it’s about that indulgent, naive period before something awful takes place on a geopolitical scale. You’re allowed in your diary to be concerned with things like whether you’re pretty or not, especially at fifteen. If we all think back to the pre-Trump era, and the things we used to concern ourselves with—and still do, of course, you have to live your life—it would seem completely superficial now. Meanwhile, this huge monster was coming out of the lake and we all had our heads down. So, to me, Costalegre is a little bit of a jab at our own heedlessness.
KC What was the most challenging aspect of writing this as a diary?
CM I felt a lack of challenges writing in the diary format. I felt empowered. To me it was very freeing—mostly because I didn’t have to kill myself to come up with a formal plot. The challenges came in during the editing. That is where things got rough. I tend to overuse italics and things like that. My editor, Masie Cochran, who is a very sensitive, intelligent reader, said things like “You can’t have italics in your diary.” It’s very semiotic but we had a lot of discussions, really spent hours on the phone talking through things like formatting, because there are excerpts from an actual botany book and there are letters Lara wrote that are clearly not being sent. We’d go through the existential questions of “Did she rip out the letter? Were the letters sent and all this was stuffed back in the diary, or is she just sketching out letters? Is the diary found after her death?” The off-the-books material that’s in the diary—coming up with a reason for it being there—was really challenging.
Copyediting was also hard because Lara has a syntax that is not always correct, with a lot of grammatical errors, and I had to work to defend them. It’s not like the copy editor was insisting on anything, but I had to make sure that they served a purpose, to defend my narrator much more forcibly than I’ve ever had to in the past. So much so, that I have an essay about the copyediting process in this month’s issue of Poets & Writers.
The first draft that I wrote was very organic and inspired. When it came time to look at the justifications for what was in the diary or what wasn’t, we started crossing things out. It was just a constant tango between Maisie and myself deciding how much feels authentic and how much would be a little over the top.
KCIt’s incredibly restrained, as a book. Part of that is because it’s short. But I had the sense that you could’ve written a novel twice this length that was not a diary.
CM Huh. Yeah. I did start out trying to write it as a more commercial novel, but it just seemed so overwhelming. I couldn’t get at how to create the atmosphere and vibration that I wanted via a large novel. I think it had to be this small, intimate thing, otherwise it was just too daunting.
KC I greatly appreciate the inaccuracy of this novel.
CM Thank you! My copy editor did not. It was a challenge, because like fifth query was something along the lines of, “This is incorrect.”
KC In terms of you working with real people, I knew who almost everybody was. I kept thinking, “But these ages are wrong, and Peggy’s marriage to Max Ernst happened later.” So I decided that it was kind of an Orient Express fantasy, where Einstein and Coco Chanel ate at the same table on the train.
CMI love how you phrased that—that you appreciated the inaccuracy. Once I grasped the story I wanted to tell I could see from my notes that it wasn’t going to work timeline-wise. Then I asked myself, “Does it matter?” and decided “No.”
Partly, Costalegre is an homage to how artists inspire other artists, and then partly I was thinking of my reader. I don’t think my ideal reader is the kind of person who’s going to care about the minutiae. So, there’s someone based on Salvador Dalí in the book but the timeline’s completely wrong. The Max Ernst marriage dates are off. But to me what matters is that Peggy Guggenheim did marry a famous artist to get him out of danger and he didn’t love her back. That’s what matters. That could have happened before, after, it’s happening today, it happens all the time. I tried to stick to universal themes and draw inspiration from the groundbreakers. A good number of these people were in Guggenheim’s crowd and there’s certainly a lot of references to art that actually existed.
I wanted something atmospheric. I wanted to build toward a swell coming before a war. I actually thought it would be a disservice to the narrative to be too accurate—especially because it’s from a fifteen-year-old’s point of view, and I don’t know how many fifteen-year-olds you’ve heard speak recently but they don’t get everything right. (laughter) Sometimes I fantasize about having all these people at a round table with me and I think that they would support the book’s inaccuracies because it’s surrealist to be inaccurate. The form matches the function.
KC Absolutely. Speaking of Surrealism, your portrayal of André Breton is savage.
CM Yeah, it’s not very nice, is it?
KC I think it’s probably correct. But—
CM I think I just ended up feeling like, “This man needs to shut up.”
KC Definitely. Breton’s important but in person I bet he was insufferable. And the other characters … I don’t know a lot about art, so I thought the character of Jack was Jackson Pollock but I wasn’t sure.
CM Oh, that’s so funny! I wonder if other people will think that. No, it’s not at all. It’s based partly off of a German friend of mine, a little bit off the war artist Paul Nash, and Constantin Brâncuși.
KC Ah, okay.
CM The clue in there is that Jack’s creating Bird in Space. Again, nobody needs to pick up on that. But, oh God, I hope people don’t think he’s Jackson Pollock.
KC I can put this in the interview and then people won’t think he’s Jackson Pollock.
CM Yeah, just put it in all caps. IT’S NOT JACKSON POLLOCK.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.