I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Fiona Maazel is the author of the novels Last Last Chance (2008) and Woke Up Lonely (2013). Her work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, This American Life, this magazine, and many more besides. She was the managing editor of theParis Review (2003–2005), received a Lannan Residency, was a 2008 National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree, and won the Bard Fiction Prize.
I fell in love with Last Last Chance when I read it, and praised it highly in Slate in 2008. That same year, I met Maazel herself at a reading, and though I don’t remember what I said to her, it was so emphatic (without, I hope, being off-putting, though there’s probably a reason I forgot the particulars) that she signed her book to me with the inscription “My first fan.” It wasn’t true then and is still less true now, but it was nice of her to say so and moreover was emblematic of two of Maazel’s signature traits: first, a quick wit, and second, an outsized sense of modesty. Maazel is a prodigious talent and a true original. Her new book, Woke Up Lonely —about a cult leader, his ex-wife, some incompetent government spies, a North Korean weapons plot, and plenty more besides—is as thrilling, dynamic, and unique a novel as I’ve encountered in some years. It’s a brain rearranger and goddamn funny too.
— Justin Taylor
Justin Taylor One of the first things I noticed about Woke Up Lonely is how different it is—structurally, plot-wise, character-wise—from Last Last Chance. And yet at the same time there are some truly striking similarities—apocalyptic loomings, obviously, but on a more fundamental level, the prodigal protagonist, the yearning for family.
Fiona Maazel I’ve been told that you can feel my stamp (I have a stamp!) on both novels. That aesthetically, they have a lot in common. And, yes, I suppose the first novel is also about loneliness, though it’s less pronounced. Of course, now I’m worried all my novels will be about loneliness and everyone will think I’m just depressed. But to answer your question: I was not conscious of treading the same ground at all. I don’t think the apocalyptic persecution of the first novel makes a showing in Woke Up Lonely; things are dire but the world is not ending. No one is dying except, you know, everyone’s soul. But that was happening before the book starts. Which is really the point, I suppose. We’re dying of emotional isolation and despair. Is that apocalyptic? I guess it is.
One thing I was acutely aware of while writing Woke Up Lonely was how much more it kept with the kind of novel I’ve always wanted to write. I wrote a novel before Last Last Chancecalled “Agent Blue.” No one wanted to publish it, and I was heartbroken. “Agent Blue” had multiple narrators; it was sweeping and a little weird. Last Last Chance is a first-person narrative that’s linear in design (barring all the reincarnated people). So it was kind of reactionary. And though I enjoyed working on it, and I worked really hard on it, it still wasn’t exactly the novel I wanted to write. But after I got it published, I felt like I could return to what I was trying to make happen in “Agent Blue,” only this time with more tools and experience. I still went hog wild on the thing, but perhaps with a better sense of how to keep it all together.
JT So were you worried something like what happened to “Agent Blue” might happen withWoke Up Lonely?
FM I think “Agent Blue” didn’t get published because it wasn’t ready. But, yes, I worried aboutWoke Up Lonely. You know, there’s that stupid distinction people make between books that win prizes and books that people actually read—between “prestige” books for a house and the popular fiction that keeps the house afloat financially. I hate that distinction. I’m not going to pretend that easier, less challenging novels don’t win the day when it comes to sales, but I still find the distinction between high and low belittling to readers and reductive. I can’t remember why I’m going on like this … Oh, right, because I worried my novel wouldn’t even fall into either category, stupid as they are. Woke Up Lonely is probably not the easiest read, but it’s not Gaddis either. It’s not the most experimental fiction by a long shot, but it is weird. Or so people keep telling me. Anyway, it’s all moot now because team Graywolf stepped in and did for me what it is doing so incredibly well these days, which is to take a risk and then get behind it 1,000 percent.
JT I’ve been trying to describe the novel’s structure and I keep coming up with words and phrases that I’m worried sound pejorative, even though I mean them as high praise—“crazy quilt,” for example, and especially “cantilevered,” since I love the way that some of the sections project out from the main “building” of the novel and hang over open space as if defying gravity. To start with, there’s Thurlow Dan, the cult leader, and his ex-wife Esme, a freelance secret agent charged with helping to bring him down, and their relationship is the prime motive force in the novel. Then there’s Esme’s spy team—a.k.a. Thurlow’s hostages—a group of four misfits who in another novel might be used in aggregate as a prop or plot device, but in this book are given the chance not only to individuate but to share each of their backstories, desires, and lonelinesses, and (eventually) to follow their own trajectories. How did you come to find this form for the book?
FM I won’t lie to you: Putting this novel together was a small nightmare. I knew I wanted to start and end the book with four short stories and to stuff a love story in between them. That was my basic structure. I had ideas about how this structure would disport the same themes in play throughout the novel: fracture, schism, and so forth. Our stories are often more similar than they are empathic, and from this idea I decided to narrate the plight of the four hostages as four short stories that dovetail but do not actually overlap in a meaningful way. Then I was thinking about that Thomas Mann quote: A man “lives not only his personal life as an individual, but also, consciously or subconsciously, the lives of his epoch and his contemporaries … If the times, themselves, despite all their hustle and bustle, provide him with neither hopes nor prospects … the situation will have a crippling effect.” In other words: a man lives the lives of his epoch but if he doesn’t—if the universe never gives him a chance to rise up and out of himself—we are doomed. I think that’s an amazing sentiment—it’s fromThe Magic Mountain—and it was essentially a cornerstone of the novel. To me, “the lives of an epoch” were like solos or arias in a great score, and so I decided to voice two such arias and present them as first-person accounts that star-cross the book into a love story. So that was the plan.
But here are two crazy things. One: I’d written that Mann quote down in a journal years ago and decided, after my novel was written, to go track it down in The Magic Mountain. So I did, only to find out that I’d botched the quote entirely and misunderstood its context and meaning. So I’d based my novel on an idea I imposed on Thomas Mann, and not the other way around. Two: No matter what I did, I could not make the novel work if it opened with the four hostages. And I was furious. Because I wanted my sandwich. But no one else did. That love story refused to be contained, so in the end, I had to relent and begin with my cult leader and his ex and segue into the four hostages, though I did manage to keep to my original plan for the second half of the book. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t go through about 40 drafts ofWoke Up Lonely. I turned it upside down and inside out. The hearing, which is in the middle, got moved around a lot. Thurlow and Esme’s sections got moved around a lot. In fact everything moved but the last 70 pages. Ironically enough, the final version looks almost exactly like the original, except the first 60 pages or so.
JT Did that process result in many “outtakes” or “lost episodes”? I felt like any character in this book had the potential to step forward at any point and become a main character. It was really interesting to see who did (and who didn’t).
FM Oh, yeah. I had to cut about 200 pages. Structurally, the book didn’t change much from my original design, but I cut out a ton of vignettes and side stories. I hated doing it. I wanted to write about everyone but it just wouldn’t work. I had to create an emotional hierarchy. I could not treat the girl who holds up the Bible during the congressional hearing with the same care as I did Martin or Vickie, though I wanted to. I had to cut out lots of backstory on Thurlow and Esme and the hostages. I guess all that material just weighed things down. I remember Jim Shepard reading my first draft and going, “Great ending, but how’s anyone going to get there?” A sobering response, to say the least. I just have so much fun doing this, I kind of can’t stop. And since I was writing in third person, the temptation to animate everyone was enormous. But in the end, the book’s about six people and it feels fairly tight to me, so I guess all that cutting was a good call. Even so, I’m working on a new book now—also with multiple narrators, three to be exact—but this time I’m attempting to be much more disciplined from the start.
JT Woke Up Lonely really feels like it could be endless, which I think is a good feeling for a book to have, though of course it might not be so good if it actually attempted to achieve endlessness: “Woke Up Balzac.”
FM “Woke Up Unpublished.”
JT Is any of the material cut from Woke Up Lonely salvageable as a short story, perhaps? I’m asking in part because I’m genuinely interested in reading about that girl with the Bible, but also because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Fiona Maazel short story. Do such things exist?
FM They do! Just not in abundance. Since 1999, I think I’ve published five short stories, though it is a big ambition of mine to write more short fiction or, more precisely, to write good short fiction. For now, I still don’t feel comfortable with the form. Can I say a lot in a short space? Can I say enough? As you’ve gathered, I like to go on and on. Even the last four short stories that close out Woke Up Lonely depend on the first four stories and those on the whole novel—not just to make sense plotwise but to ring out thematically what’s at stake for these people. As for outtakes, none of them is a set piece, no. They are more like asides, digressions, backstories, and play. But you’re right—I could take any one of these asides and develop it into something new, though since this is me we’re talking about, I’d end up writing a novel about the Bible holder. And, who knows, maybe I will.
One thing I can say about my relationship to short fiction is that I try to hold myself to the same standards when I’m writing a novel as I do when I’m writing a short story. I remember reading Geraldine Brooks say in the introduction to some anthology—Best American, I believe—that in a novel you might get a away with a loose line or two, a saggy paragraph or chapter, and thinking, You cannot or at least you shouldn’t ever get away with that stuff just because you are writing an extended text. No, no, no. Every line has to be magic, has to aspire to magic, even if the line is, “He wet his pants.”
JT When I wrote about Woke Up Lonely for Bookforum, I speculated that Esme’s name might have come from Salinger but also maybe from Gaddis’s Recognitions and that “Thurlow Dan” has what I took to be a purposefully Pynchonian ring to it. I also thought that Esme and Thurlow’s relationship had a touch of Hawthorne’s “Wakefield.” Were there specific books or authors you were consciously “in conversation with” in writing Woke Up Lonely?
FM This probably sounds obnoxious, but no, not really. At least not consciously.
JT “Not consciously” of course being code for “don’t feel too bad about being wrong.” But that’s okay; I can live with being wrong. Critics get things wrong all the time, though maybewrong is the wrong word in this case. I mean when you’re writing about a book, you’re trying to see what the author put in there, but you’re also trying to see how it fits into the literary world as you-the-critic sees it. Anyway, two things I’m sure of: one, the character Ned Hammerstein flies a plane with the original cover art for Cat’s Cradle painted on its side and two, Kim Jong-il’s On the Art of Cinema comes to play an almost I Ching–like role in the novel.
FM The Cat’s Cradle bit began as a bit of an insider joke because a reviewer said Last Last Chance was obviously and heavily influenced by Kurt Vonnegut, when, in fact, I’d never read him. Not one word. So I decided, for fun, to read Cat’s Cradle and got interested in ice-nine and found out that Vonnegut’s brother, Bernard, was essentially the father of cloud seeding—that he figured out how to use silver iodide to nucleate the clouds—which seemed fortuitous, since I’d already been reading about cloud seeding and had gotten interested in what it means in terms of our hubris as a species. So, next I knew, one of the characters in the book was obsessed with cloud seeding and calling his plane The Bernard. The fun part is: if anyone ever says I am clearly influenced by Vonnegut again, this time they’ll be right! But in terms of real dialogue with other novels, I love Thomas Hardy and have always wanted to write novels with the same sweep and drama—albeit without the melodrama. If you know Tess of the d’Urbervilles, you’ll notice that I modeled the last scene between Esme and Thurlow on what happens with Tess and Angel.
It’s true, though, that I got really invested in Kim Jong-il’s book on cinema. Who wouldn’t? Can you believe a North Korean dictator wrote a book on how to make great movies? It is so disturbing. The book is full of all these austere commandments, which, taken out of context, suddenly seem rather poignant, which is why they end up naming the last five sections in my novel. Those are direct quotes. I wanted it to feel like Kim was actually addressing his advice to the hostages. A perverse idea, but there you go.
I’m not much into symbols or allusions, though. Most of the time, in my work, a rock is just a rock. True, Thurlow is named after Thurlow Weed, who was a big player in American politics alongside Seward and Lincoln. But Esme is just Esme. Of course, maybe I was thinking of The Recognitions and just don’t know it. Maybe I was thinking of Pynchon, too. These are writers I certainly admire. But when I sit down to write, no other books exist for me except the one I’m writing. I don’t mean that in a solipsistic kind of way, but more that I just tune out the universe. I don’t dialogue with my peers or forebears, though they might well be influencing what I do, anyway. Enter Harold Bloom.
But seriously, both times I’ve had to answer author questionnaires, I’ve always gotten stuck on the “influences” question. I always write: I don’t know. I know what books I love, but does loving a book mean it’s influenced your own? Most likely, yes, but in ways entirely too subtle to quantify. So if I’m not alluding to other novels or addressing them explicitly with my own, then influence is either unconscious or it doesn’t exist. So I suspect 90 percent of influence operates on an unconscious level. Which means you’re off the hook, my friend.
JT Woke Up Lonely is set against the backdrop of the middle-late Bush years, and the DPRK is a crucial setting; the country itself is described in the book as “lonely.” What got you interested in North Korea and how did you manage to write with such a sure hand about a place that so (relatively) few people know anything about?
FM Oh, I’m so glad you were convinced by those sections. I spent a few months reading up on North Korea. Dissident accounts of what’s going on over there. A ton of videos. But still, I researched just enough to fake more knowledge than I had, which is what you do, I think, when you’re researching for a novel. You want to give people the impression that what they’re getting is just the tip of the iceberg when in fact, the tip is all you’ve got.
I got interested in North Korea after seeing a spot on 60 Minutes in 2007 about Joe Dresnok, an American soldier who crossed the Korean DMZ in 1962. He had no family. His wife had just left him and he was about to be court-martialed. So he just ditched his unit and walked through a minefield to North Korea. After a while over there, he met three other defected soldiers, all of whom would end up starring in propaganda films about how evil the United States is. Two of the soldiers died there, one—Charles Jenkins—managed to get out, but Dresnok stayed. Isn’t that a crazy story?
JT That is a crazy story.
FM I remember being totally flabbergasted by it. Four Americans who had willingly crossed the border? Who’d been living in North Korea ever since? Jim Frederick did a book with Charles Jenkins—The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea—that offers up a really harrowing account of Jenkins’s time there. Dresnok’s account in the documentary about him—Crossing the Line—is much more sanguine, though it’s impossible to know how much of his enthusiasm derives from wanting the North Korean government to keep protecting him and how much of it is real. Regardless, I started to obsess about these four guys. I knew I wanted to write about them, but I also knew that what attracted me to their stories was really the overlap and tension between the kind of emotional isolation that pitches you across the DMZ and the kind that can become the sustaining ethos of a nation. North Korea is one of the most isolated places on earth. They have a policy of exceptionalism that turned into a terrible situation for the citizens. Also, the cult of personality that grows up around whoever’s leading the country seemed to map nicely on what I was trying to accomplish with Thurlow. The way I see it: North Korea’s biggest export is counterfeit US dollars and methamphetamine, which are, respectively, what Esme and Thurlow are about. Disguise and mind control. So finding a place in the novel for North Korea made sense to me.
JT You mentioned that Jim Shepard read an early draft of the book. When I said earlier that there were some striking similarities between your novels, I was actually thinking about him—the way his stories are all so different from each other in terms of subject matter, but if you peel away enough layers you almost always come back to a few crucial tropes: a flailing relationship, rivalrous brothers, an overwhelming awe of the physical world. Both your novels are really, at a certain level, about families: all the ways in which they can be formed or fabricated or lost or found. Every time I read Last Last Chance—and I teach it, so I’ve read it a bunch—I always forget that last chapter is coming, and then when it arrives it just guts me. So it was a major shock to get to the end of Woke Up Lonely and find what felt to me like another version of that same closing image. I don’t know if this is a question.
FM Ha. You made me go back and read the last chapter of Last Last Chance to see what I was up to there. I had not looked at it in six or seven years and forgot it completely, so I was a little surprised to see that it absolutely has the same feel as the ending of Woke Up Lonely. Bittersweet. Optimistic, but devastated. And I have no idea why I keep putting people in the air, one way or another. I guess it’s a no-brainer at this point to say that I’m preoccupied with the ways in which families come apart, with how people struggle to communicate and how those problems map onto or perhaps just generate bigger problems on a larger scale. How big a step is genocide from a quarrel at the dinner table? Depends on the quarrel, but not really. Fascism starts somewhere. It starts with the misunderstood, nerdy kid who wants to belong. So it’s all of a piece. Also, I suspect both these novels are just me trying to contend with my own feelings on the topic of loneliness and intimacy. Am I an optimist? Do I believe? Or is my outlook unequivocally bleak? Much of the time, I’m not sure.
JT Besides the Cat’s Cradle thing, how closely do you follow what’s written about your work? When I read your BOMB interview with Heidi Julavits, she talked about writing The Vanisherspartly in response to something a critic wrote about her previous novel. I found that fascinating, and somewhat astonishing.
FM I want to act like I’m above reading my reviews, but I’m not. I read them. And if they’re smart, I think about them. Joshua Henkin reviewed Last Last Chance for the New York Times Book Review and though it was generally complimentary, he did make the point that some of the stuff happening in the novel didn’t feel urgent. That some of my choices felt arbitrary. And I thought about that a lot and then tried not to make that mistake again with Woke Up Lonely. Because I agreed with him; I actually hadn’t thought through some of my choices hard enough. The new book—some people will gripe about the city under Cincinnati (spoiler alert!) and say it’s just random; some people will gripe about North Korea, but that’s fine. I know I included certain things in the novel for a reason, but I’m not sure I would have been so attuned to this part of putting a book together if Josh hadn’t mentioned it in his review.
The bottom line is that I always want to be getting better at this. So if a reviewer can provoke my interest and, from that provocation, new work develops, great. That’s what criticism can do at its best. At its worst, it’s just petty, stupid, and easily dismissed.
JT You yourself review books sometimes, and for a few years in the early aughts you were the managing editor of the Paris Review; now you teach creative writing at a number of schools—Brooklyn College, NYU, Princeton, Columbia. (I’m not sure that “full disclosure” is required here, but fun fact: we are colleagues at Columbia and NYU.) How do these activities relate to your own writing? Do you try to keep each activity in its own little box, or do they inform (or infect) one another?
FM I don’t get any work done at all when I’m teaching. I can’t seem to carve out the time or headspace for it. So mostly I try to spend the semester working on my skills as a reader. Diagnosing problems in student fiction has never helped me with my own work, but it does help me clarify certain general ideas I have about fiction that might have been unknown to me before then. Which is sobering, if nothing else. But mostly there’s no relationship for me between teaching and writing except that one is detrimental to the other. This is what I mean about carving out the headspace. You know that phenomenon in grad school where you’ve learned so much about technique and craft that your work gets terrible for a while because you are so self-conscious about it? And how it takes a while for you to absorb what you’ve learned, which is by way of forgetting, consciously, what you have learned, which is what allows you to write again?
FM I feel that way about teaching. It gets me thinking explicitly about everything I’m doing on the page, which isn’t liberating in the least. Once school is out, I try to forget everything we talked about and once I do, I can get started again. I’m not saying the lessons are bad—on the contrary, they are crucial—but that they work best when operating quietly and in secret. Sure, I am aware of what I’m attempting on the page and I am making decisions and consciously deploying techniques, but I’m not hung up on them, which is what can happen to me as I teach. But that’s okay. I don’t teach for me. I teach with a mind toward helping my students become better thinkers and readers. They can’t become better writers without those skills. The nice thing is that even if they all go on to become investment bankers, the stuff they’ve learned in class will still be formative and crucial. I won’t have taught them how to make a dime in this great culture of ours, but I will have taught them how to think at a higher level. At least I hope so.
JT Before I let you go, I want to go back to something we talked about earlier, how “Agent Blue” had trouble in “the market” and so Last Last Chance was written in reaction to that experience. I had—or am having—the almost opposite experience. My novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, was a challenging book in certain ways. I felt lucky to find an editor who would let it out into the world. So now, working on my second novel, I want to challenge myself to write a totally different kind of novel—something that will maybe feel to me the way Last Last Chancedid for you. Do you have any advice for me?
FM If the question is how to ignore your instincts and force yourself to write something you’re not interested in on a gut level but want to attempt just for the sake of novelty, then my advice is: don’t do it! But if you’re asking how to force yourself to take a risk, I think you have to start by being curious about your resistance and fear. What seems threatening to you about the kind of project you want to attempt next and why? Start to answer those questions—start to poke around in there and draw blood—and I expect the little vampire in you will take over. The part that will cannibalize you and everyone around you to get the job done.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee