In Maryse Meijer’s debut collection, Heartbreaker, there is no unnecessary adornment, nothing to detract from the dark torrents that move the stories forward. Taboo, sex, gendered power, and violence are deftly explored, and the writing is fresh and surprising. If this book were an animal, it would be one of those reticulated pythons that swims away from the familiar shore to colonize small islands.
Kelly Link has said that the unreal requires the real. Here, both abound. Some stories contain gothic and fantastical elements. Others are realistic, strictly speaking, but contain an eerie sheen. The ways in which Meijer deftly handles the relationships between her characters and the emotions involved makes these stories feel very real indeed. The prose may be harsh and spare, but Meijer clearly respects the misfits populating these pages, like the girl at fat camp who has a sexual relationship with a fox, or the guy with a hump on his back who begins having unusual sex with a woman with a deformed leg.
Maryse Meijer’s work has appeared in or at Meridian, St. Ann’s Review, Reunion: The Dallas Review, the Portland Review, Joyland, actual paper, 580 Split, and elsewhere. Heartbreaker was published with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux this July. Meijer lives in Chicago.
I spoke with Meijer through email about the new book, the revision process, creating tension in her stories, and life as a twin.
The Rumpus: Can you talk about how this collection came together? Which stories came first? Was there a central question you were asking?
Maryse Meijer: The stories in Heartbreaker were written over a period of about eight years. The collection begins with the oldest, “Home,” and ends with the most recent, “The Cheat,” though otherwise the collection is not arranged chronologically. Of course, there were many stories that didn’t make it into this collection, and I didn’t have a clear sense of what unified these particular pieces until I looked at the final manuscript. One thing I see now is how often the stories deal with power, raising questions about who has it and why and what they want to do with it. If someone thinks they have the upper hand in a story, they’re usually wrong—which is not to say that whoever does have the power uses it to any positive end. Perhaps this has something to do with feminism, and a desire to examine how our Western constructions of romance and sexuality do all kinds of violence to everyone living under patriarchy, including men, of course, and young people and animals and even nature. That makes the collection sound more overtly political than I think it reads, but the politics are certainly there.
When I sit down to write, I try not to think about anything—I just follow a very specific image, or try to create an atmosphere that interests me, and then I see what happens. It all feels very mystical and impersonal at the time, but when you put a collection together I think you realize that what you thought of as some distant and disinterested muse churning out these supremely individual gems is really just your own obsessive brain beating the same horse with different sticks.
Rumpus: Are you a ritualistic person? Do you have any writing habits you observe, or do they shift?
Meijer: I don’t have any rituals, really. Because I have a four-year-old daughter, I work at night, but I only work when I want to. I don’t force it. Things go in waves—there are times, like now, when I can work a lot and feel quite productive. But there are times when I’m only editing, or times when I need to read more than I need to write. Sometimes I’m overcome with such an intense craving to just read and read and read—it’s physical. I imagine myself eating books. Or I want to watch a lot of movies, or listen to music, things that inspire me. So I do those things and don’t worry about how many hours I spend at my desk. But I love to write—it’s never a chore—and so it feels simple. Writing is a supreme pleasure, and I’m lucky to have the time and space to do it.
Rumpus: I love this strategy. And I can feel that the work isn’t forced, that these stories were pleasurable to write. It comes through when a writer’s struggling, I think. One of my favorite stories was “Fugue.” I love the twist, when you realize this girl is not a Laura, is not like any girl these boys have met before. What was the process of writing this story? Where did you begin?
Meijer: On one of many long distance road trips I stopped and bought some snacks from a young woman who seemed to be working the nightshift alone at one of those 24-hour truck stops. She appeared quite confident and cheerful, but the idea of working the night shift at a place like that really terrified me. For a couple of years I knew I wanted to write something about a similar sort of place, but it wasn’t until my twin sister came up with an idea involving fugue states that the story came together.
I think in some ways that girl is like many girls those boys have met—they just don’t realize it. They don’t realize that this thing they do, their shtick or whatever, is a part of a larger tapestry of violence that our culture would like us to believe is harmless. Her experiences aren’t singular or special or particularly rare, and yet somehow she becomes monstrous, and the question of what makes her appear that way is what interests me. There’s something about the way she forces us to look at her that is uncomfortable—that seems, somehow, unfair, even violent. For a split second I sympathized with those boys, and that’s when I realized I’d written a horror story.
Rumpus: I also want to talk about “The Daddy.” This is a story about a married woman, with a family, who seeks a father-daughter relationship with a stranger. This is a beautiful story. What was most important to you to unearth here? Why did you write from the perspective of this woman?
Meijer: With “The Daddy,” I wanted to understand something about intimacy, maybe. I don’t remember where the idea came from, but as I was writing I was surprised by how normal the relationship between the two protagonists seemed to me—and how it felt like it was really working, until, of course, it didn’t. The roles of beloved daughter and worshipped father can feel very powerful, because we assume the child-parent relationship to be based on “unconditional” love. We assume it lasts in a way that other forms of romance rarely do. Which is bullshit—familial love isn’t unconditional, safe, or necessarily empowering or lasting—but the fiction is appealing, because there are so few outlets outside of marriage/physical relationships for intimacy, and this is one of them. It’s considered safer than relationships that involve sex, and more enduring than friendship or marriage. And it appears to us as “natural.” Not, of course, in the form that it takes in the story—then it appears to us as kinky, or crazy—but I admire the courage the characters in “The Daddy” possess, and I’m sympathetic with their desire to create an insular world in which accomplishments, age, looks, and money don’t matter. It’s a nice idea. And the way it fails interests me a great deal.
Rumpus: You do a great job of ramping up tension, something I struggle with.
Meijer: Tension—well, it’s nice to hear that you think it’s present in these stories, but I’m not sure how it works. When I’m writing I like to feel like the space I’m in in a story is a bit oppressive. If something feels too loose, too roomy—if I don’t feel contained, I guess—then I know that the tension isn’t there. I’ve probably written too much. Trimming the fat in a story is essential. And gesture is very important to me—how characters move, how they occupy space, how they use their faces, interact with objects—and I suspect that there’s some connection between the tension inside a character’s body and the tension we feel as readers. Tension is physical, so it’s important to show where it exists on a physical level in a narrative. It has so many sources and so many manifestations. Tension isn’t all about plot and conflict, I don’t think. The body seems essential, too.
Rumpus: I agree—tension can be so many things. And it’s wild what cutting excess can do to the writing. So, what is your revision process like?
Meijer: I revise a story for years—at least, I did. I’m trying to change my habits. When I started making changes to these stories after the final proofs had gone to the publisher I realized maybe I had a bit of a problem. It’s fear, probably. Over-editing is a kind of shield, a way to protect yourself from criticism by never letting the work go. If you can always excuse the deficiencies in your work by saying, “Oh, it’s just a draft, I’m not done…” then you’re being a dumbass. You’re not allowing the work itself to take the risk of being really read. Part of it may be that I’m afraid of someone else thinking that I think my work is really good, or perfect, or whatever, while they think it’s…not. It’s the Carrie scenario of “they’re all going to laugh at you”—silly girl, thinking you can write, when you used the same adjective twice in a paragraph!
Beckett was one of my childhood writing idols, and torture himself over every syllable. And it’s true that paying that kind of attention to language yields some rewards. It forces you to respect your own work, and the reader, by being ruthless with yourself, by being disciplined. I also genuinely love editing—not just my own work, but the work of other writers as well—and I’m comfortable in that space, wielding the red pen. I love to cut. I like to think about words. I like to stay in a story as long as I can, because I’m interested in these worlds and in these people. But now I’d like to be equally comfortable creating. I’d like to think that in two decades—I started writing seriously when I was about ten—I’ve learned something about making stories. I don’t need to second-guess every choice. And I now have an incredibly insightful agent and editor who, along with my twin, can spot the bullshit I can’t.
Rumpus: You have a twin? That’s interesting. What’s she (or he) like?
Meijer: Danielle is my muse, my best friend, my co-creator. Much like the Brontës, we created what some people call a “paracosm”—an intense imaginary world with scores of characters—starting when we were very young, and we still spend much of our time in that world today. We write back and forth through online chat programs, spinning out stories together, and many of the ideas and characters and dialogues that we create find their way into my work. Danielle is brilliant at dialogue, and she has a knack for comedy—something I lack. The boy in “Rapture” is based on one of her creations, and there are countless little bits of her ideas present in every text. My first novel was based almost entirely on a story we made up together. She basically ordered me to become a writer when we were growing up—the idea was that she’d conquer the science world (she’s now a philosophy professor and a very accomplished dancer), and I’d take care of the artistic side of things. She is the person I write for, my ideal reader, my first and best editor.
Rumpus: I adore the boy in “Rapture.” He felt so real to me. I liked not knowing much about him. One question that occurred to me while reading “Rapture” and others was, did you receive feedback on these stories that you chose to ignore?
Meijer: The main criticism I got in grad school was “where’s the backstory?” Some readers don’t feel that they connect with a story unless they can use psychology to make sense of a character’s motivation—and psychology seems to be all about backstory. I’m suspicious of psychology in general, and I don’t take pleasure, as a reader, in trying to contextualize a story in those terms. Which is not to say that I don’t like backstory—I have nothing against it, and I enjoy plenty of writing that employs it liberally. It just doesn’t seem to occur to me to dig around in people’s pasts when I’m writing. Part of that has to do with working on a small scale; my stories don’t unfold over long periods of time, there’s not a tremendous amount of action, and I focus on one or two characters at a time. There’s not a lot of room for backstory. I work a lot in present tense. The focus is usually incredibly narrow. These are just habits, and not a conscious veto of other methods—but they represent a worldview, a perspective, that feels right to me.
At one point a reader did want to know a bit more about Kathleen’s family in “The Daddy,” and I wrote a draft that attempted to prove, I guess, that her marriage was unsatisfying, but it didn’t work. Not everyone is going to take Kathleen’s word for it, and that’s fair, but—isn’t it pretty clear that she is, actually, unsatisfied? Her actions speak volumes. I don’t think most of us understand why we do all the things we do. And our answers to questions change; truth, motivation, personality—I feel like these things are unstable. And I know that in my experience as a reader that my sympathy with/understanding of a character happens pretty immediately—either I believe the voice of a story, or I don’t. I never get to a patch of backstory and think, “oh, yeah, now I get it.” Sympathy isn’t logical. It’s emotional. You can know something is true, and you can also feel that it’s true, and that feeling is what I’m always running after, not the knowing. So I try to get the emotions right and hopefully, for some readers, it works.
Rumpus: Kathleen’s dissatisfaction was clear to me. As a reader, I find I don’t really need much backstory. As I writer, it’s something that makes me nervous. I never know how much to put in. I can sense backstory in “The Daddy,” even though if it’s not there. Sometimes implied backstory is so much more satisfying—I get the picture. We know Kathleen can’t be satisfied from the first line. But I can understand people wanting that. What are some of your favorite short story collections? What do you like about them?
Meijer: Joyce Carol Oates is my one of my very favorite short-story writers, particularly the collections she published in the 1960s and 1970s (Wheel of Love, Marriages & Infidelities, The Goddess and Other Women are favorites). She’s done everything I ever tried to do, and she did it a billion times. There was a period where she was turning out these enormous 400-page collections back-to-back—one a year, in addition to all the novels, criticism, poetry, etc. she was also publishing at the time—and each story in each of those collections is absolutely brilliant. I mean brilliant! And so very strange and hysterical and sexy and grotesque and disorienting. Her writing about women and girls appeals to me. Her approach to sex and desire and youth and family and politics appeals to me. Her use of language, of mystery, of voice. She can do everything. I don’t think people are reading her backlist as much as it should be read. I don’t think she gets credit, among writers of my generation, for paving the way for the rest of us to write this kind of hallucinatory, surreal prose that we’re still calling, when we see it elsewhere, cutting-edge. There’s a story in Marriage & Infidelities titled “Did You Ever Slip on Red Blood?” which is just a nutty-ass title, and the story lives up to it. And it’s almost, what, fifty years old?
I also love George Saunders, because his stories are inventive and hilarious, yes, but also so incredibly sincere and humane and hopeful. He got us past irony, I think, and that’s a huge accomplishment. Miranda July‘s No One Belongs Here More Than You also displays a tenderness that appeals to me, and the stories relate to gender and sexuality in a way that rings absolutely true. Kathe Koja’s Extremities changed my life—her voice got inside my head early on in my writing life and I have to try very hard not to copy it every time I sit down to write. And Lindsay Hunter‘s Don’t Kiss Me is the best example of successful flash/short short fiction that I know—she can create a voice in a single sentence, and she understands how thin the line between hilarity and tragedy can be.
Rumpus: What’s on the horizon for you? New projects in the works?
Maryse: I am revising a first novel, finishing up a second story collection, and getting ready to put a book of poems out on submission. I like to have more than one project in the works at a time, so that I don’t get too broody about whatever’s not working with a particular piece.