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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