Maria Cichosz is a rare mind. At once a novelist and literary theorist, her work across forms and registers engages everything from sensory experience and allegorical interpretation to revelatory drug trips and countercultural living. And while already very accomplished—she defended her dissertation at Stanford University and released her debut novel in the same year—it’s clear she’s only just getting started.
Her debut novel, Cam & Beau (Now or Never Publishing, October 2020), is a brainy, earnest love letter to Toronto, the city she calls home. Equal parts queer bromance, drug trip, and critical theory seminar, Cam & Beau is smart, psychedelic, and captivating. Shifting nimbly between the perspectives of the two title characters, the novel entwines devastating illness, millennial mysticism, queer becoming, and drug use to explore how relationships—acquaintanceships, friendships, romantic partnerships, family and kinship ties—so often hang on things unspoken.
I had a chance to speak with Maria via Zoom recently, which, for the two of us, was as much a buttoned-up interview as a welcome reconvening. (Maria and I have known one another for about seven years now.) During our conversation, she spoke with me about craft, genre, theory, embodiment, gender, sexuality, cheesy love songs, and friendship.
The Rumpus: Cam & Beau marks your debut as a literary novelist. What’s your book about?
Maria Cichosz: On a plot level, Cam & Beau is an unrequited love story. It’s about Cam, a shy graduate student studying critical theory who’s madly in love with his best friend and roommate, Beau, who’s not academic at all. Cam’s trying to figure out how to convey his feelings to Beau in a way that won’t damage their existing relationship. But this gets complicated when Beau becomes ill. That makes Beau dependent on Cam in a way he hasn’t been before, and it adds a whole layer of tension and negotiation to their friendship.
On a theme and form level, the novel works to put the Gonzo drug genre in conversation with the pulpy, mass-market paperback romance genre through the frame of critical theory—Foucault, Barthes, Bourdieu, etc.
Rumpus: So cool. Why the drug bender and the romance genres, specifically? How do love and drugs come together conceptually for you?
Cichosz: There’s this cliché that love is like a drug, right? Which, on some level, is literally true, in the sense that the same chemicals flood our brains and pleasure centers when we’re in love. Oxytocin, adrenaline, endorphins—all these are the same for intense love experiences as for intense drug experiences. So, I was asking myself, “What can I do with the fact that these same chemicals can be linked to extreme pleasure and pain?”
And after having read so much drug writing as an academic and having thought about the structures and genres that fit with drug narratives, I realized that there are really only two major forms. One is the addiction narrative or the addiction memoir, and the other one is the party, cut-loose, post-modern Fear and Loathing–type story. I wanted to find a different way of incorporating drugs into narrative—something that wasn’t only about addiction or partying.
So, that’s how the love and drugs come together. In the book, drugs are used excessively, and for me, this rhymes with the way that love is often characterized—often to the point of melodrama. Thinking about blurring those lines got me closer to the truth of the clichés. Someone who would abuse a drug might also abuse themselves psychologically when it came to being in love or trying to relate to someone. It’s all connected.
Rumpus: Absolutely. It also brings to mind the ways you use language in the novel to attend to embodied sensations and experiences—being fucked up, being physically near someone you have a crush on, being attacked internally by a debilitating illness, being suffocated by an open secret. The body unites the book.
Cichosz: Oh, thank you! It’s cool you would say that about a novel so concerned with critical theory, which on the surface is so antithetical to embodiment. Ultimately, I think there are always gaps there, between words and embodied experiences—between language and those affects or sensations that are very powerful and yet not immediately available to our descriptions. As I was writing, I often found myself slowing down and asking, “What would it actually feel like to be nauseated? What would it feel like to be too high? What would it be like to feel so anxious that you’re going to be sick?” I wanted to find some language for those intense sensations.
Rumpus: That reminds me a little of a passage I think you quote in the novel from Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: “What I hide by my language my body utters.”
Cichosz: Ha! Wow, good for me. Yeah, as much as we would like words to be totalizing, our bodies are always doing things and saying things that we don’t really even understand.
Rumpus: Absolutely. Now, sticking with A Lover’s Discourse for a second: there’s an entry in that book, “Novels/Drama,” which distinguishes between lived experiences of love and love stories. Thinking back to your point a moment ago about genre and romance: what were you trying to do with the love story in Cam & Beau?
Cichosz: An oblique way of getting at this would actually be through love songs. I drive a lot and am always tuned into the radio, and I’ve always listened to a lot of super corny love songs. And I’ve thought, Wow, the feelings and expressions here are so intense and real to me, but, at the same time, so very cliché. So, yes, with A Lover’s Discourse, part of what Barthes is talking about are the tensions between certain formal features that love stories are “supposed” to have, as well as how these features come together as commercial narratives.
And you still see this often with romance novels: if you’re pitching one to a publisher, you have to straight-up say, “This is a ‘Happily Ever After.’” Or, “This is a ‘Happily For Now.’” The endings are written already. The formulas are predetermined, and yet the lived experiences these stories reference are in reality so unpredictable and intense. With Cam & Beau, I was asking: “Where do the lived experiences and narrative formulas overlap, and where do they not?” How romantic is it to get so fucked up over someone that you’re making yourself sick? How romantic is it to have someone show up at your house to declare their love without you asking them to be there? These things are glossed over in contemporary romance narratives, but they’re relevant to our lives, so I wanted to find a way to narrativize them.
Cichosz: Yeah, it’s about asking: “What makes my love special? What makes my life special?” Focusing on that tension between human specialness and the inevitability of genre conventions is something that’s definitely been on my mind.
Rumpus: Keeping with that idea of specificity and troubling boundaries: can you tell me about the queerness of this novel? Specifically, about its approach to gender and sexuality?
Cichosz: Of course. Just like with the love story angle, I wanted to measure the distance between narrative tropes and lived experiences. And, I wanted to come up with something different as a result. Specifically, I wanted to take advantage of the fantasy space of the novel to consider a romantic relationship in terms of its situational dynamics and the personalities involved, not through scripted gender and sexuality roles, or the form of a coming-out narrative. If I were framing this story as, first of all, “about” gay men, and second of all, as a coming-out narrative, the novel would have been very different than it is.
Relatedly, I’ve had this very weird experience with regard to the marketing of the book. When a novel is published, it gets categorized via certain market and genre tags. And one of the tags that Cam & Beau is categorized under is gay literature—specifically, “gay men literature.” But that’s not really a good descriptive label, because the book is on many levels trying to get away from these very terms, and to do so in a queer way.
All that said: I think gender, specifically, is a huge constraint in this story—it’s a set of processes that the characters are shaped against. Gender determines a lot of who has permission to flirt with whom, or who can say what about whom. I think, again, the tension between wanting to have the space where these things just would be able to go unsaid and the space where certain things do have to be declared in specific ways was definitely a formal and thematic consideration.
Rumpus: Right, and you definitely see that through what one of the novel’s “minor” characters, Stacey, says and does. There’s a directness about her speech and manner that provides some of that internal commentary.
Cichosz: For sure.
Rumpus: Another thing I’ve been wanting to talk with you about is, maybe tellingly, friendship. Cam & Beau, as much as it’s concerned with romantic love, is also concerned with friendship and interpretation, as well as about the power of words to make new worlds. You and I have ourselves been friends for about seven years, so reading the novel was delightfully meta—friendship became a frame around the triad of writer, reader, and text. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think friendship names a critical sensibility?
Cichosz: Wow, I love this idea! I’ve never considered it before… But it’s really making me think about the intimacy involved in writing a book and putting it out into the world. You put so much time and blood into a novel, and putting it out there is an act of intimacy and trust, but then when the receiver is somebody who actually knows you well, and has known you over time and seen you change, there’s this added layer of disclosure that’s really intense. There’s more trust at stake there; there’s a negotiation between one’s flesh-and-blood personhood and one’s textual personhood, which overlap, but also stem from different times and contexts. I’ve always had this nightmare image of an academic advisor reading this, and them only previously knowing me through conversations about theory and philosophy. And then, suddenly, here’s this novel with people getting wasted, fucking up, trying to survive.
Rumpus: Yes! A concern over those different personhoods comes through in the book itself in so many ways. Fundamentally, there’s this concern, through Cam and Beau’s relationship, over having really private portions of one’s inner life revealed to someone else through language and thus changing the nature of the relationship. So, as true for the characters as reader and writer, in this case.
Cichosz: It’s so true, yeah. It’s that desire to control how your language will reveal you versus what it actually does in the world—that’s so key to the project. And not to get all Derrida about it, but I really do see a book as a conversation. A book is one of the most intimate discourses you can have with another person. So, maybe thinking about a book as a medium for friendship might involve fostering a certain kind of commitment, openness, and trust, on both ends, writer and reader.
Rumpus: That’s beautiful. Looking ahead now: what did you learn from writing Cam & Beau that you’ve carried into your subsequent projects?
Cichosz: That’s a great question. In my new works in progress, I’m still experimenting with ways to convey intensity. Cam & Beau provides some of that by way of an extreme psychological backdrop and a constrained scale, but there are of course other approaches, and I’m always trying new things. I carried some of this into the sequel to Cam & Beau, Middlemen, which is already written, actually. I’m also carrying it into what I think is going to be a very long book about black ops and US government projects. There’s an eco-critical angle, a border angle. I feel more prepared to go into these larger-scale projects now, particularly with this experience producing emotionally intense writing.
Photograph of Maria Cichosz by Ash Naylor.