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An Interview with Maud Casey

Conducted by Mark Schofield

Maud Casey and I have exchanged numerous e-mails, though we
haven’t met. In the jacket photos of her, I see a quirky beauty
that is very appealing. Also notable from those jackets is the
fact that a host of established authors praise her work in
superlative terms. If you haven’t read her, you should.

Her debut novel, The Shape of Things to Come, was a New York
Times Notable Book of the Year, and her story collection,
Drastic, published last year, has also met with critical and
popular success. On a recent Sunday morning, I drew a bath,
uncorked the Frexinet, and gave her a call.

Fiction Forum: Maud, are you aware there’s a malevolent deity
who rains chaos on our lives? How do you guard against this?

MC: I’m glad to hear there’s a malevolent deity raining chaos on
other peoples’ lives as well as my own. I was aware of my
own. But I guess in terms of guarding against it, I try to
invite that malevolent deity into my writing.

FF: So you’re able to make that productive?

MC: To some extent. In my writing, I do try to face my demons.
But it’s an endless struggle to face the demons and fend them
off-if that’s not too abstract.

FF: Do your work habits involve superstitions, about foods,
music, dress, time? Maybe you start each session doing
chin-ups in the attic wearing your aunt’s straw hat.

MC: Well, I don’t have an attic, and I’m working on my biceps.
But there is a two-to-three hour period in the morning that works
best for me. It’s just getting myself into the desk chair before
that moment’s gone, because later in the day, it’s not there. I
wake up, I have coffee, and then I move quickly from the coffee
to the chair.

FF: So you don’t have a backwards day? You’re not an incorrigible
night owl?

MC: I’m a very nerdy writer. I go to bed quite early.

FF: How long did it take to write The Shape of Things to Come and
Drastic, respectively?

MC: Shape took six years, door to door, involving a year when
[my job] took up most of my time. The sense of myself as a
morning writer has only recently emerged, because it wasn’t much
of an option. Drastic started as my MFA thesis, which I put
aside and returned to many years later and completely tore apart
and razed and rebuilt. It was about two years creating that
skeletal structure which I then tore apart, and about a year
rebuilding it. Shape happened much more chronologically.

FF: A great warm humor is lurking in your work, in spite of the
essential despair of the characters’ lives. Does that spring
from an instinctual resilience that you’ve applied in your own
life?

MC: I’m thrilled to hear you’ve found this great warm humor
because I do think of my writing as an attempt to describe
despair in a not despairing way. I do think of myself as a kind
of sad but funny person. I try to work with those two qualities
because I can’t shake either one.

FF: How closely does gender inform your work? Could a man have
written Shape?

MC: It’s an interesting question. I think absolutely a man could
have written Shape. I believe very strongly that writers can
inhabit any character, really. Now having said that, I realize
that in both Shape and Drastic I inhabit mostly female
characters, so it appears that until now that’s where I’ve been
most comfortable.

The novel I’m working on now is actually told from the
perspective of about six different characters, two or three of
whom are men, and I’m enjoying it quite a bit. So I think
writers can and should do anything, in terms of trying on
different personas and characters. But I’ve stuck pretty
closely to female characters. I don’t know whether they’re
necessarily representative of all females.

FF: You’ve recently left New York. To the misguided who
sometimes think this city’s energy is indispensable to their
writing, how important would you say is geographical location as
a motivating force in your process?

MC: I resisted New York for many many many years, fearing that
its tense energy would deplete my own energy or distract me from
my own writing. So I have a perception of the city as being an
energy drainer and a distraction. The thing I’ve noticed about
place in my fiction is that I need to be away from the place that
I’m writing about.

I’ve only written a couple of stories set in New York and perhaps
now that I’m away, that sense of New York as a place will emerge.
The midwest is a place that I lived in only briefly, but when I
left it, it became very vivid in my consciousness.

FF: The Beach Boys supposedly used cheeseburgers to coax music
from Brian Wilson when he had writer’s block. Even if that’s
apocryphal, it makes a point. How do you transcend writer’s
block?

MC: I wish I could remember because I’m sort of in a period of
writer’s block myself. I’m a big list maker. So I will take
notes I have on a character, rewrite the notes, and thinking it
out by writing it down helps me. Actually, one other thing I’ve
been able to do now, since my current novel will be based on a
fair amount of research, is that I can say to myself,
“Well, I can read up on this right now.”

FF: Writers are people driven by demons, often their own desires.
What ought you to avoid that you simply can’t keep away from?

MC: It’s a tough question. As I said, I’m kind of a nerdy
writer. I think the main thing that I need to keep away from is
the self-loathing and perfectionism that causes me to think what
I’m working on is no good. I have to fight through that to get
to the end of whatever I’m working on.

FF: The effect of personal turmoil on the quality of a writer’s
output is debated endlessly. Are you more creative in times of
emotional upheaval or relative calm?

MC: Absolutely: relative calm. I think there’s the myth of the
hard-drinking late-night writer, and along with that, that
madness, terror, and emotional upheaval begets creativity. For
me it’s the absolute opposite. You know, I draw on the difficult
times in life that have happened in the past, but I definitely
have to feel a kind of centeredness in order to write.

FF: What’s been disappointing about your success thus far?
After you sign your first deal, is it all a little
anti-climactic?

MC: After I signed my first deal, it was so exciting for so long,
that feeling of waking up every morning and you can’t believe it
happened. That said, once you’ve published, there’s always a
feeling you need to do more, you’re on to the next thing, and
those books are behind you. There’s a feeling you have to do
better. Those books were the best I could do at the time, and
now I want to do something bigger, different, and more complex.

FF: What would a beginning novelist find most surprising about
the importance of marketing and publicity as she embarks on a
writing career?

MC: Well, it’s no surprise that if you’re not a best seller, your
publishing house is probably not going to get that excited about
you.

But what was more unnerving was that you, the writer, who has
been involved in this very private activity, suddenly you’re
expected to be this very public person. I mean, it’s all
relative, it’s not as though I was on an international book tour.
But even just suddenly having to change out of your bathrobe and
put on some decent clothes and go out in front of a crowd and
perform, there’s a way in which you’re not quite prepared for
that. For me, performance is not something I sought out. When
my first book came out, I thought “I can’t do it. I’m not going
to do this.” But I managed to find a little bit of inner ham.

FF: In your published work, can you see nagging missteps in
characterization or plotting that you’d love the chance to
correct?

MC: There’s a way in which, I think, in my novel the focus is
a little narrow, and I can see how I might have opened it up a
bit. But looking back, I am able to say it’s the best book I
could write at the time, and I have a lot of pride in that.

And certainly in the story collection, which just came out,
there are stories that I see could have used more work, and there
are some stories that I felt more solid about. There’s something
kind of false about the notion of publication being the final
draft. It’s a superimposed, artificial sense of finality.

FF: Who are some actors or musicians that you’d say are providing
a healthy and sane model for women today?

MC: Lauren Ambrose, from ‘Six Feet Under,’ Susan Sarandon, Edie
Falco, my friend Julia Greenberg, a singer/songwriter who
co-wrote a fabulous rock opera called ‘People Are Wrong, Ani DeFranco,
certainly, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Gwen Stefani.

FF: Two language questions: what’s a word you adore and need to
restrain yourself from overusing in your prose?

MC: Bone. There’s something stark and stripped down and lovely
about it.

FF: What’s a word you deplore the sight and sound of, that you
never use and wish nobody would?

MC: Snot. Something about that word. The sound of it, the
actual sound of it, is horrifying.

Maud Casey is at her desk with a cup of coffee, working hard on
her next novel, tentatively titled Genealogy.

Copyright 2003, Mark Schofield.

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