The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #190: R.L. Maizes
When tiny ripples of jealousy become tidal waves, when subtle irritations become suffocating resentments, when quirks become dysfunctions—these are the moments that overtake R.L. Maizes’s characters in her debut short story collection, We Love Anderson Cooper. Maizes’s heavily flawed characters are often funny, sometimes tragic, and always starkly real.
Both a fiction writer and a personal essayist, Maizes’s work has been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and has aired on NPR. We Love Anderson Cooper is published by Celadon Books and was released in July. Maizes is currently working on a novel, also to be published with Celadon.
I met Maizes through AWP’s Writer to Writer mentor program where we were both mentees in the same cohort. As we built our own writing community, we shared stories, writing, and pictures of our cats. Recently, we discussed the craft of writing, religion, and feeling like an outsider.
The Rumpus: Each of your stories is so unique. Can you tell me a little about your process for idea development?
R.L. Maizes: Stories are everywhere. My mother was a therapist, and I inherited the couch from her practice. I imagined all of her clients had wept on it, and I couldn’t bear to have it around. After giving it away on Craigslist, I wrote the story in the collection titled “Couch,” about a therapist’s couch that keeps clients emotionally stuck. To create the main character, I drew on the many therapists I’ve had over the years, good and bad, but especially bad. The idea for another of the stories came to me when I saw a pizza delivery sign on top of a BMW. It was during the Great Recession, and I imagined the owner of the car had suffered a financial setback, perhaps a change in class and social status. I wondered what if instead of being unhappy about those changes, the owner of the car was pleased and relieved. That turned into the story “Better Homes and Gardens.”
Rumpus: Many of your characters are painfully flawed. They may want to do the right thing (or they may not), but they frequently don’t. Did you find it challenging to write these characters?
Maizes: I don’t find it difficult to write flawed characters because I’m flawed and everyone I know is flawed. We all fail to do the right thing some of the time. The conflicts we face between right and wrong or—and this can be harder—between morally ambiguous choices, are inherent to being human. Characters who don’t have moral failings are not only unrealistic, they’re boring. I enjoy writing a terribly flawed protagonist and seeing if I can get readers to recognize aspects of themselves in the character.
Rumpus: Pets play an important role in many of these stories. Your characters sometimes prefer to interact with animals over humans. So, I have to ask, what role do pets have in your life and how did they affect the writing of this collection?
Maizes: Animals enrich my life in all kinds of ways. My husband, Steve, and I live with a dog, Rosie, and a cat, Arie, both rescues. They’re such loving creatures, and they never complain about their unchanging menus. On the contrary, meal times so excite Rosie you’d think she won the lottery, and maybe she understands that being warm and dry and fed, she has. There are definitely ways in which I prefer animals. I’ve never known one to have a hidden agenda.
After my first husband and I got divorced, a different pair of dogs, Tilly and Chance, took care of me. Tilly comforted me when I was lonely, laying her head on my abdomen where it rose and fell with my breath. Chance, who was protective, made me feel safe. I had dog-proofed the condo, putting baby locks on the cabinets because Tilly would eat anything. But after the dogs and I moved in with Steve, in the throes of new love and attraction, I failed to dog-proof Steve’s house. Tilly got into some pet medication and nearly died. I felt horribly guilty. Years later, after Tilly and Chance passed, they haunted me, opening and closing a dog door that no longer existed. In an attempt to banish their spirits, I wrote the story “Ghost Dogs.”
In another story in the collection, “The Infidelity of Judah Maccabee,” the main character is jealous when his cat falls for his girlfriend. After Steve and I began living together, Tilly shifted her affections to him. It infuriated me, and I nearly broke up with him. I thought changing the animal in the story to a cat and the jealous protagonist to a man would keep Steve from recognizing that I was writing about our relationship. I was mistaken.
Rumpus: Judaism also plays a role in some of these stories. How has Judaism affected your own writing or your perception of yourself as a writer?
Maizes: I grew up in a male-dominated Orthodox Jewish community. The sexism drove me from religion and is the reason you’ll find feminist themes in my work. As a child, I went to Jewish schools, ate kosher food, and observed a different Sabbath and different holidays than most people. I was aware that not everyone welcomed Jews. When I was in high school, friends of mine who were wearing yarmulkes were beat up outside of Madison Square Garden. Not realizing I was Jewish, a client in my law practice used the phrase “Jew you down” to describe a negotiation. Experiencing anti-Semitism has heightened my awareness of prejudices of all kinds. As a result, people who are considered outsiders because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or simply because of how they look have found their way into my work. I’m interested in the challenges outsiders face and how they handle them.
Rumpus: How did you go about selecting which stories to include in this collection?
Maizes: The protagonists in many of my stories are outsiders. The pain we all feel at being excluded and our tremendous desire to belong is one of my preoccupations. I thought readers would relate to characters who are outsiders and would welcome a collection about them because of what’s going on in our country and because each of us has had the experience of being excluded. I shoehorned in a few stories I thought readers would enjoy even if I had to stretch the concept of outsider a bit.
Rumpus: Writing can be a solitary endeavor, especially for someone without a built-in writing community of an MFA program. How have you gone about developing your literary community?
Maizes: I’ve taken workshops at Bread Loaf, Sewanee, Tin House, and at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, and have met wonderful writers in all of those places. I was part of a cohort of writers that were mentored in an AWP program—you and I met that way—and I’m still in touch with many of the participants. Twitter and Facebook groups geared toward writers have helped me be part of a literary community. When I attend literary conferences, I try to get together with writers I’ve only met online, and I also pick up the phone to rescue online relationships from the unpredictability of social media algorithms. Meeting someone face to face or hearing their voice improves the quality of the relationship. I live in a relatively small town in Colorado and social media can be great for creating community and for learning about books. It can also be a terrible time suck. Use wisely.
Rumpus: Who are your favorite contemporary writers? What are you currently reading?
Maizes: I’m constantly falling in love with new writers. This year, a friend introduced me to Susan Perabo’s work and I read two of her collections, Who I Was Supposed To Be and Why They Run the Way They Do. I adored both. They’re quirky and full of heart. The story “Retirement,” in the former collection, is told from the point of view of Batman’s butler, Alfred. It’s fantastic. I just finished Kent Haruf’s last novel, Our Souls at Night. There’s a gentleness about his books that I love. I find them a tonic for the roughness of life. I’m currently reading This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love., a powerful collection by Jennifer Wortman, recently released by Split Lip Press. Everyone should run out and pick up a copy. I also recently read Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door and have been recommending it widely. It’s funny and moving and painful.
Rumpus: Can you tell me about the novel you’re writing? What stage is it in now and how do you approach writing a novel as opposed to writing a short story?
Maizes: The novel, Other People’s Pets, is about an animal empath who was raised to be a burglar. It will be out in July 2020, and I’m doing final edits on it now. When I write stories, I’m an avowed pantser. I follow the characters wherever they want to go. I tried to do that with this novel and found that it was impossible. I did a first draft that way and ended up with a mess. I had to create an outline to keep track of all the plots and subplots, and to make sure I didn’t describe it snowing in August. I often strayed from the outline, but it helped me remember where each character was and where he or she was headed. The size of the novel also presented new challenges for me. From one draft to the next, and even from one section of the book to the next, I would forget what I had written and risk repeating myself. At one point I had three characters named Sam in the book, minor characters in different sections, but still.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the process of revision. How frequently do you revise a story before you feel like it’s ready?
Maizes: It’s different for each story, but it’s always extensive. After I’ve been working on a story for a while, the words and the structure become too familiar. I can’t imagine changing them. That’s when I put the story aside, or send it to a trusted colleague for feedback. I also use developmental editors to critique my work. I don’t have an MFA, and the feedback I’ve received from developmental editors, in workshops, and from fellow writers, has taught me much of what I know about writing. There’s a fear when you begin to revise that you’ll make the story worse. And that can happen. You can over-revise a story and lose some of the liveliness of an earlier draft. The original impetus for the story can get lost. But we live in the age of computers. So you can always go back to a prior draft. And if you don’t revise, you lose the opportunity to deepen the work. We’re trained to want instant gratification and that works against revision. Writers want to see a story published before it’s as good as it could be or as good as they could make it. I often think about something Antonya Nelson said in a workshop, which is that whatever story you’re working on, you’re only going to write that particular story once, so make it as good as you can.
Rumpus: You’ve also had nonfiction published in the Washington Post and other publications. How does the process of writing nonfiction differ from fiction?
Maizes: I’m predominantly a fiction writer. When I write a personal essay, I have to remind myself I’m not allowed to make things up. I have to ask myself at several points in the drafting, Did this really happen? Do I really know that? How? Sometimes the answer is no, it didn’t really happen or at least I don’t know that it did, and I search my memory for what I actually do know and I research to fill the gaps. I find writing personal essays, which often plum painful memories or trauma, harder than writing fiction, because in fiction you can change or disguise painful experiences, and in that way get distance from them. There’s also the issue of disclosure. In nonfiction, you risk disclosing the personal lives of others. Now, one might have the right to do that, but fiction offers the opportunity to write about things that happened while changing details to avoid embarrassing others. Fiction and nonfiction get at different truths. Nonfiction examines what happened and its meaning. Fiction explores the truth that arises from selecting among countless stories one could invent, and numerous versions of each, the ultimate selection being the artist’s vision of what’s true.
Photograph of R.L. Maizes by Adrianne Mathiowetz.