Traditionally, children’s voices haven’t been given a lot of import in historical fiction. If we were to trust much of the work out there, we could be led to believe that history was only experienced by adults. This is a shame, because children’s innate hopefulness and naivety makes them fascinating travel companions through experiences both good and bad. Readers lucky enough to have met Jim Shepard’s Aron in The Book of Aron will never forget the impetuous, clever, naughty and utterly heartbreaking eight-year-old narrator who takes us through his ill-fated life in the Jewish quarter of an occupied Poland.
Although Courtney’s third novel, Costalegre, takes place during the same time period as The Book of Aaron, circumstances are quite different for Lara Calaway, who has been shipped to a remote part of western Mexico in 1937 with a bunch of surrealists by her art-collecting mother, Leonora, out of Hitler’s Europe. Though Lara yearns to be an artist herself, she just can’t seem to keep the attention—or affection—of her distracted heiress mother. What ensues is the story of a child forced to mother herself in an environment that is unforgiving both literally and metaphorically, while also navigating her relationship to her own sexuality and the financial power that might one day be hers.
An exciting new voice in both historical and young people’s literature, I was eager to speak with Courtney about how she crafted the voice of Lara Calaway, who is based on Pegeen Guggenheim, the only daughter of the famed art collector Peggy Guggenheim.
The Rumpus: This book is a small book, but a big book. You’re covering so much so I’m very curious to hear how you, as the author, describe this book.
Courtney Maum: I say that it’s a fictionalized diary from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old based on Peggy Guggenheim’s—the heiress and art collector—daughter, Pegeen. It’s the story of a young woman who has modern art as a rival for her mother’s love, and it takes place at a point in time where the real Peggy Guggenheim was helping, financially and somewhat physically, Surrealist artists and intellectuals get out of Europe before Hitler could imprison them. Instead of going to New York, which is where they actually went, they go to the jungle in western Mexico and you read about what’s happening, if you choose to believe the narrator, from the young girl’s diary.
Rumpus: That’s interesting, “if you choose to believe the narrator.” Do you think she’s an unreliable narrator? Of all the people to tell this story, you have it coming from Lara’s perspective, this naive young girl, and yet the world is changing so rapidly around her. Not just her world, but the world. I’m curious, why this fifteen-year-old girl?
Maum: I originally started this project because I was looking into Peggy Guggenheim for a project that ended up not seeing the light of day, and I started noticing this erasure, this total erasure of her daughter. Peggy Guggenheim talked a little bit about having a son and she didn’t deny having a daughter, but when Pegeen was referenced, she was honestly spoken about like a funny accessory that Peggy would sometimes bring places, like a hat that she would wear sometimes. She was referred to with that much frivolity and superficiality, so I started trying to find Pegeen, writings by her, traces of her, and I saw that same sort of erasure everywhere.
But Pegeen existed and was an artist and I thought, “Well, where’s her story? What would that have been like?” You want to be an artist and you want to be a good artist. You’re surrounded by the best, the most groundbreaking artists of modern times, at a time period where their very safety is in danger, their lives are in danger. This is the thing you’re yearning for and your mother, who has the power to make or break you, doesn’t really care about you. What does that feel like?
I wanted to tell Pegeen’s story because I couldn’t find it.
Rumpus: That’s interesting because it has to be fictionalized at this point. She’s passed away, there’s no one else to tell her story—
Maum: Well, some of her sons are alive.
Rumpus: Have they spoken about her?
Maum: I didn’t find very much. Passing comments but not enough to go on. And also, I should say that once I engaged in writing it from her point of view, I didn’t want to kill the spirit of the book with too much research. I researched up to the point where I felt inspired and not burdened by the research.
Rumpus: At the end of the day, it’s a fictional book. You’re not writing her biography.
Maum: Exactly. And for your last question, why would one question Lara’s reliability, I certainly don’t. To me, she’s a reliable narrator. In an interview the other day, the interviewer asked me, “Should we trust her?” It’s a diary. In my own experience, I find that most people are honest in their diaries.
Rumpus: Especially young girls, I think. That’s where you can really be yourself, that’s where you can say what you feel and what you need.
Maum: One would hope. In the book, the “Pegeen” character, Lara talks about how there are no doors to her room. There are entries in the diary that feel a little vaulted or where the language has more flair or artistry, and to me that was her messing around with her own creativity and voice. But possibly she was imagining, “Well, what if someone comes in and reads my diary?”
Rumpus: I think the sad thing is that no wants to, or no one did. At the end of the day, what’s worse: Someone reading it or someone not wanting to?
Maum: Lara is with some incredibly self-centered people so you’re right, nobody’s really taking the time to read her diary. They would want to see her artwork. That’s the semiotic language that makes sense to them. No one’s busting down her door to read—well, there’s no door to bust down, actually. [Laughs]
Rumpus: I was impressed by how you managed to get so much of the world in 1937 into a fairly short novel. How did you do the research and when did you know how to stop? Again, this isn’t a nonfiction book, this is fiction, so at what point does the research become too much or impede the creative process?
Maum: I think you have to want to write the book quite badly. If you have fear around the writing of a project that you’re researching and researching, maybe it means that it’s not the right book. I think you should have an itch to start writing.
Partly, I knew it was time to write because you couldn’t hold me back anymore, but I had an incredibly Draconian approach to the research. I had all these notebooks and as I was reading or watching films, I would take notes in the notebook and when the notebook was filled, I would go back with this very specific Muji yellow pencil and I would highlight what was going to survive from that notebook. I would do that again and again until I had however many notebooks and once I felt like I had everything I needed, then I got these giant pieces of thick watercolor paper and I would transcribe all the highlighted notes by hand, in very small handwriting, onto these giant pieces of paper. Then I would do the same thing with my yellow pencil and highlight from there, and on and on until I basically had the book.
That sort of transcribing, highlighting, and filtration took long enough by the time my yellow pencil had cracked, I had memorized everything to a point where it felt like my own life. That’s when I knew that I was able to not just write the book, but write the diary. It’s sort of tempting to hit people over the head with how much research you did, or all the funny things you found out.
Rumpus: There’s so much to explore about the relationships between mothers and daughters. We see Leonora in terrible relationships with the men in her life, and yet Lara’s dad is completely absent. For Lara, it feels like she’s been abandoned by both of her parents, and in such different ways.
Maum: We’re still in a very gendered society and women are socialized in certain ways, so it might be shocking to a reader who doesn’t really know Peggy Guggenheim to see the extent to which this young woman—her daughter— is left to fend for herself. There’s a huge geographical separation between Lara and her father. He’s in Switzerland with her brother, so she’s separated from the male relatives in her life.
With Lara, this is a young person whose mother is a very powerful woman. She’s an heiress, has a lot of money, has extreme influence in the art world, so there’s a lot of people looking up to her, including influential men, but her mother is someone who kowtows to men and gets into both physically and emotionally abusive relationships that she doesn’t really hide from her kids. She almost seems to flaunt the aggression. So what are you learning there, as a young person? Women are powerful and creative and their opinions matter, but what matters most is whether you’re desirable and pliant?
Another reason I wanted to write the book was to grapple with what a fifteen-year-old woman who’s coming into her sexuality and sense of her body, what opinion would she start to form of herself in that moment? Is she going to decide to pursue men herself? Will she go toward women? What would you do? And especially in situations that the real Pegeen was in, where there was a lot of untoward behavior and predatory males around her all the time, and no one protecting her. What does that look like and feel like?
Rumpus: Another thing I wanted to ask, especially with the character of Leonora, is the idea of power, especially in this pre-war world. In the book, they escape to Mexico. She has brought all these artists over to Mexico, she’s literally been saving lives. At one point, she marries Konrad to get him out of a concentration camp. That, to me, is such a huge way to wield your power and yet it doesn’t ever feel respected. I feel like so much of the work that women do is not looked at the same way it would be if men did it.
Maum: Something that is very interesting to me about the real Peggy Guggenheim is the extent to which many people lacked respect for her, and that she pretty much had no respect for herself. It’s true, certainly, that she did have a number of prominent advisors in her life, all men, who did often whisper in her ear about what she should buy, but it’s also true that she had a really good eye and a lot of courage.
To put things in perspective: Before World War II, Peggy Guggenheim took her art collection to the Louvre in Paris and said, “It does seem like war is coming. If you’ll house this collection for me, then at the end of the war we’ll do a little exchange and I’ll leave you some art.” And they wrote her a letter back that said, “We would never house such trash.”
This is wild now when you look back and think about the value of the pieces that she had. It’s one thing for a man to say, “Hey, lady, I think you should buy that painting,” but Peggy made a lot of decisions on her own. I think she was talked in to thinking of herself as a very silly young woman who knew nothing about anything, but she knew that she had money. To what extent was the affection from the people in her circle bought or genuine? It’s hard to tell. How do you know that someone is actually a friend and that they’re not just there for the cash?
Rumpus: I also wanted to ask you about location. I know that originally, Peggy had taken the artists to New York, so I’m curious why you set it in western Mexico.
Maum: It goes back to around 2010 or so. There’s a place in Mexico called Costa Careyes and my husband has family there. It’s a place owned by this New Age, I don’t know how to describe him, this sensualist. I was so taken with this area that it became like a muse, so in 2010 I wrote a chapbook called Notes from Mexico that’s based in that same place, Careyes, and I always wanted to expand it into a novel.
This project seemed like the perfect partner for that desire because Mexico, especially this part of Mexico, made sense for so many reasons. Mexico was a pilgrimage sort of destination for many Surrealists at the time—they considered the magical realism, the importance of dreams, they considered the country itself surrealist. I also needed the characters to be completely isolated from any potential communication channels, so the jungle in 1937 Mexico worked pretty well for that. And finally, the potentially lethal aspect of water is crucial because the real Peggy—as well as Leonora’s in the book—her father went down on the Titanic.
Rumpus: I feel like the world is immolating around them, the world is ending, and yet they’re all at this little retreat. I know that’s not what it is, but they’re treating it that way. How did you decide which artists would be involved, and how did you create each character?
Maum: I started with who was actually in Peggy Guggenheim’s inner circle. I looked at the actual artists who were expatriated from Europe by the Emergency Rescue Committee, which was founded by Varian Fry and was the relief effort that Peggy joined in order to get artists out of Hitler’s Europe.
I think that most creatives are imbued with a sixth sense or heightened sensitivity, and the way artists respond to periods of great trauma and tragedy, as well as the kind of art that these people were making before World War I or before World War II, to me seemed worthy of attention and revisitation. I think a lot of these people need to be remembered, but I didn’t want the story to be too crowded, so I would take a little of this person and that person. I wanted an homage to Constantin Brancusi, for example, so I put maybe forty percent of Constantin into Jack, and thirty percent of him is Paul Nash, who was an English World War I war artist who went to the front lines, and the rest of him is based on a man I know in Mexico. They’re sort of cocktails of affection and inspiration and worth.
As for the Dadaists, it surprises me that nobody’s talking about Dadaism right now because it was an anti-establishment movement that cropped up before World War I. I wanted to bring some Dadaists back to life because we could use them in our culture right now, fighting and resisting.
The book was also sort of my response to Trump and the apathy that I saw from leftists as he was rising to power, back when they just didn’t believe that “it” could happen. I partly wanted to capture a period of time where wealthy, influential people allowed themselves to think, “Everything’s fine, it’s never going to happen, we’re fine and we’ll always be fine.” The reason I picked 1937 is because the adults in the book are flirting around the idea of danger and what might come to pass, but nobody has any idea how bad it’s about to get. It’s about to get really, really bad and that period reminds me of 2015, 2016. If you paid attention, it was pretty clear that Trump was on a rocket up to the White House, but people chose to believe their own fictions.
Photograph of Courtney Maum by Colin Lane.