If you are one of those folks who has a vast array of interests that are oftentimes viewed as not-necessarily-mutually-exclusive (some of mine include the Romanov dynasty, cult psychology, culinary history, and unusual diseases), there is often a certain craving to see all these ideas merge into written form. Fictional form. As such, I was elated to read Fiona Maazel’s Last Last Chance and her more recent novel, Woke Up Lonely (which was just released in paperback). Fiona has a gift for taking the unlikely, the unexpected, and the inventive—throwing in a dose of dark humor for good measure—and concocting literary brews with bubble and bite.
I was jazzed to be able to talk to Fiona about some of her writing processes, as well as her reflections and life musings, for The Rumpus.
The Rumpus: In Last Last Chance, Lucy deals with the release of her father’s superplague, and in Woke Up Lonely, agent/spy Esme tracks down her ex-husband, Thurlow Dan, a cult leader and hostage-taker. I was intrigued that both books addressed the theme of women attempting to pick up the pieces of literal man-made destruction. How do you think Lucy and Esme’s intentions and frustrations compare to those of Lucy’s father and Thurlow Dan?
Fiona Maazel: It’s funny how as an author, I rarely notice what seems so obvious to other people: that I have obsessions and will write about them endlessly. Sad, lonely, self-loathing guy? Mid-20th and 21st century literature loves to write about that guy, and so do I. Reckless, self-aggrandizing, narcissist man? I like to write about him, too, though of course they are the same person. A person whose energy compels people to orbit him—family, friends, underlings, women.
In Last Last Chance, the dad doesn’t get much treatment because he dies before the novel begins. But he exerts his influence from the wings. His wife and daughter are left to deal with the mess he created, though to be fair, both women are themselves so self-destructive, it’s no surprise that catastrophe visits them with impunity. The same applies to Esme in Woke Up Lonely. An incredibly self-abnegating woman who’s out to protect her ex-husband from himself. But it’s not like she’s an innocent. Or any less egomaniacal than he is. It’s just that the price and fallout of her narcissism aren’t as widespread as his. Same goes for Lucy and her father. Probably there’s some sexism here in terms of rendering a man’s failures nationally and a woman’s domestically, though I am so appalled by this idea, I feel like renouncing both novels right now. Nice work, Naomi.
Rumpus: Oh dear, please don’t renounce! I think, in fact, that brings me to my fascination with cults and the people who both join them and lead them—falling right into the “price and fallout of narcissism.” And of course, most cult leaders are male. I have to confess here that I am a little obsessed with cults, and I was wondering how you went about bringing the Helix to life. Did you research various accounts of cult life while writing Woke Up Lonely? Obviously the Helix has got an element of pop-psychology self-help going on there as well (which can have a cultish following in and of itself).
Maazel: I did a ton of research. I started reading up on the famous cults—the Branch Davidians, Jonestown—even though I wasn’t much interested in religious orthodoxy of any kind. Then I got into political cults and therapeutic communities. I couldn’t quite find an analog for my cult in the real world—though RC came pretty close—but I was able to get a general sense of how a cult recruits and appeals to people you might not think would be susceptible to joining up.
Take me. I was pretty sure I couldn’t get caught up in this kind of thing. Then again, I’d probably be psyched to go to a meeting that addresses how I can reduce my carbon footprint. And, yeah, I’d probably take off my shoes and leave them by the door like everyone else. After, I might join some of the other people there for dinner. I might even go back the following week. And the week after. I might start distributing pamphlets or sending out e-mails to my friends. I might start donating to the organization that sponsors the meetings. Etc., etc. No one starts out thinking she’s joining a cult. It’s just that what often starts out like activism or camaraderie among strangers, apropos of a shared interest, can turn into cult behavior if given enough time. And if the cult exerts enough appeal. In Woke Up Lonely, the Helix promises a way out of emotional isolation. Who’d say no to that? Not me. Sign me up.
Rumpus: That’s a really good point. I often wonder how people get into cults when they seem to be intelligent, or well-rounded, but it’s true. It’s just so easy. How can you say no to the end of isolation? I thought a lot about how each of the characters go through their own “journeys of loneliness,” so to speak, and it was great how you played around with that. Because in the end, the recruited spies are supposed to be tracking down Thurlow—to interfere with his anti-loneliness cult—but they’re each dealing with their own kettle of fish. (Sorry to use that comparison, but I feel like a kettle of dead fish is an evocative image of loneliness.)
Maazel: I had a lot of fun writing the four spies-turned-hostages. They gave me the chance to think about four kinds of loneliness (Richard Yates has a great collection of stories called Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, so he’s way ahead of me), and what each character might do to negotiate his/her way through them. After all, loneliness doesn’t operate the same way for everyone. For some people, it’s circumstantial: I am alone for Christmas, therefore I am lonely. For other people, it’s existential: I am with everyone I love for Christmas, therefore I am lonely. Of course, loneliness can also proceed from ego. Narcissism, egomania, solipsism—they are all of a piece for me, and what I continue to write about in book after book. There’s no one more compelling or destructive than a narcissist, which makes him/her so interesting to render on the page. Two of the hostages have giant egos—Bruce and Olgo—and are largely responsible for the trauma of their lives. The third has been saddled with incredibly bad luck, and the fourth is just confused.
My goal was to march all of them along various paths towards or away from estrangement so that from their travels might emerge a kind of map you could see if you zoomed out far enough. When I was thinking of cover ideas for the novel, I initially had in mind a map of the country marked with Helix insignia and throughways. But no one was into that, except me.
Rumpus: Perhaps, in their own way, cult leaders and even someone like the former dictator of North Korea process loneliness in its most outward manner—in a way that is typically viewed as the opposite of loneliness. But power and control are isolating, as Thurlow Dan learns the hard way. How did Kim Jong-Il get involved in the story, by the way? What inspired North Korea to show up? (Again, my cult interest extends to North Korea, so I’m wildly curious.)
Maazel: I got interested in North Korea because of a spot I saw on 60 Minutes about an American soldier who crossed the DMZ in 1962. He was pissed-off because his wife had just left him and he was about to get court-marshaled. So he just bailed on his unit and crossed a minefield to get to North Korea. Eventually, he met three other defected soldiers there who ended up starring in propaganda films about the the United States and its colonizing evil.
All of this struck me as completely bonkers—so much so that I nearly decided to ditch my cult book and just write about the soldiers. But in the end, I realized North Korea and its potentate interested me more, especially as a way to think about isolation in terms of its political ramifications. North Korea is the Hermit Kingdom, and at its helm—at least while I was writing the novel—was Kim Jong-Il, who was an extraordinary cult leader, both beloved and despised in equal measure by his people, who had no choice but to fall in line. Somehow it made sense to send my cult leader to North Korea so that he might breach—or attempt to breach—the other cult leader’s commitment to isolation as a cultural ethos. Isolation as a brand of Exceptionalism—we stand alone because we are better.
Which brings me back to all that stuff about ego. People have egos, nations have egos—there’s really no gesture that isn’t political. Or that doesn’t resound miles away. I figured that having a look at North Korea might advance that argument, though I’m certainly not the first to make it.
Rumpus: I kind of liked the initially “stark” contrast between North Korea and Cincinnati. I was actually thinking about the way you deal with location and place in both your books, whether it’s Pyongyang, Norway, or the Texan desert. How does it feel for you to write about place? I personally always love to read things that take place in locations I feel either very familiar with or, on the flip side, where I feel like I have no sense of the place whatsoever.
Maazel: I’m actually not as invested in “place” as my fiction probably suggests. Of course North Korea is a huge part of Woke Up Lonely and I loved trying to get a sense of what the place—its geography—is like based on what little information I could find. Google Earth was an amazing resource for me in this regard. Likewise, all the books I read. But even so, I was more interested in North Korea for its politics and thematic contribution to the polemics of the novel.
In Last Last Chance, I set a good deal of it in the Texas desert, but it could just as easily have been Wyoming or Arizona. I just happened to be in Texas—in Marfa—when I got to that part of the novel. I was taking daily walks out into the desert and began to imagine what a rehab might look like out there. I imagined a city girl being sent to this place and how she might see the landscape, without nuance or regard for its beauty. “Texas is brown” is the line I came up with at the time, and so I just went from there.
I’m working on a new book now that’s set in Staten Island, though there’s one chapter in Denmark. I was in Denmark a few years ago, in Copenhagen, and was struck by what a good locale it’d make for the kind of novel I had in mind. Same went for Staten Island, which felt exotic to me when I first started visiting, even though I’ve lived in New York for years. I guess what I’m trying to say is that for me, ideas for a novel tend to come before its setting, though of course they have to work together once the book gets going. When you choose a place to write about, you might as well mine that place for its history and culture and put it to work—overtly or subtly, either way.
All that said, I’m getting very interested in Cleveland in the ’70s, and suspect something will come of that in the next few years. So that might be my first project that starts with “place,” in which case I’ve just exposed one of the tenets of fiction writing or, more properly, of self-knowledge, which is that it can’t be had. Know thyself? I’m more likely to surprise myself. As you might have guessed, that’s what my new book is about. Self-knowledge. And neuroprosthetics.
Rumpus: Neuroprosthetics? Do tell.
Maazel: Oh, you know, like neural implants that can repair or augment brain functioning. I’m interesting in bioengineering in general, and in the Singularity, in particular, so there’s a small sci-fi component to the novel, though the line between what’s real or coming soon and what’s sci-fi is pretty flimsy in this context. Still, I don’t exactly know how I’ve ended up working on a novel like this—part crime novel, part domestic saga. But I’m learning a lot about the demands of a genre that’s always struck me as ingenious, albeit unwritable, as far as I’m concerned.
Rumpus: I’m enjoying hearing about how your interests spiral into your writing. When a topic intrigues you, do you usually brainstorm about how to incorporate it, or is it a bit more organic and just naturally finds its way into the story?
Maazel: Hard to say. Ideas tend to come to me before stories, but often they come at the same time. This new book—I knew I wanted to write about emotional incoherence. What happens when you are emotionally incoherent to yourself. You purport to want one thing—believe you want one thing—and then do whatever you can to sabotage yourself. For whatever reason, I’d been reading about split-brain patients and how some of them can communicate competing desires, depending on which half of their brains you address. Ask the right half what it wants to do professionally and it says: bank teller. Ask the left and it says: race car driver. But these words are coming out of the same guy’s mouth. So what does this whole person want? Who knows!
I read these studies and freaked out. I remember talking to a friend after, who said, “So what? We are estranged from our unconscious selves.” But I don’t think that’s what we’re dealing with here. The unconscious self is repressed and, well, unconscious. Here, with the split-brain guy, we have two conscious selves with agency—which seems paradigmatic for all kinds of emotional paralysis and confusion. So I knew I wanted to write about that. But how? No idea. I remember starting this novel at MacDowell about three years ago and just having the worst time ever. I couldn’t come up with anything. I’d write a page, throw it out. Write synopses and plot ideas and toss them. Borrring. Stuuupid. This went on for about three weeks. And then—wham!—I had an idea. A vague idea, but appetizing enough to keep me going. Then I had to bench the book for a long while. But now I’m back at it.
As for Last Last Chance, I don’t think I plotted it out before writing it, either. But for Woke Up Lonely, I knew exactly how I wanted the story to go, but only because I applied for a grant that required a proposal. I was forced to think through how things were going to go well before I wanted to.
Did I answer your question? I feel like I didn’t. Maybe I just don’t know, though if I had to guess, I’d say nothing comes naturally to me. I have to fight for everything. Does that sound vaguely self-pitying and, in turn, self-congratulatory? It sure does.
Rumpus: I’m always just curious, because some people seem to be very structured writers who can make outlines for every story and figure out the endings in advance. Was it weird to have to write in a more structured format for the grant proposal, or did it seem easier to write once you had the obligation to make a template?
Maazel: It was hard to write the proposal and harder to execute it, because I felt like I had to stick to it, no matter what. So I ended up having to write multiple drafts of the novel. I should have just ditched the structure I’d proposed and gone with what made sense, but I couldn’t let go of it. Not until very late in the game. Almost too late.
The problem with not planning, though, is that often things can start to feel arbitrary, which might have been the case with Last Last Chance. Like: I know, I’ll dump a rehab in Texas because I’m in Texas! That kind of thing doesn’t always work out. I remember reading Josh Henkin’s review of the book in the Times and being nettled by this very criticism—that not everything in the novel felt urgent and necessary. I never pay attention to my reviews, but once in a while someone says something that seems right, and that changes how you write and think going forward. So nowadays I try to make sure I plan without planning too much. This keeps me from writing about puppies one day and Mars the next, but without straitjacketing the work, either.
Featured image of Fiona Maazel © by Andreas Lamm.