“All Activism is a Romance”: An Interview with Maryse Meijer

Maryse Meijer

I first met Maryse Meijer on a book tour where she was kind enough to read with Tobias Caroll and myself at the very fine Volumes Bookstore in Chicago, Illinois. We exchanged copies of our books and I quickly devoured Heartbreaker, all too happy to add it the following semester to my students’ reading lists. Her prose is sharp, focused, sometimes musical and possesses an undeniable kinetic energy. Her characters, filled with the burning embers of desire, are often longing for things that will tear the asunder, lead them into situations that give the reader pause, that ask us to consider the power of desire, that fill us, in the safety of our reading chairs, with a sense of danger. Bleak and uncomfortable but never disappointing, her stories unearth the best and worst in human nature. Her latest, The Seventh Mansion, centers on a disenfranchised young man, Xie, who discovers love in the bones of a saint, and through this love finds power to stand in the face of extraordinary odds and fight for what he believes in. A novel that is as much a love story as it is a literary call to arms, Maryse manages to create a book that I wish I’d read my entire life and only now have had the pleasure. When FSG Originals announced the release of The Seventh Mansion, I contacted Maryse for this interview. Always gracious, Maryse agreed and the follow conversation was conducted via email over several weeks this autumn. 

Environmental activism is central to this text. Whereas your shorter works often simmered with political ideas, it’s a little more pronounced in your latest novel. Was this an intentional choice when you began or did the story come to you first in some other way? 

I didn’t set out to write a book about the environment, but about a boy falling in love with a skeleton. It just turned out that when Xie showed up on the page he was all these things—a vegan, an anarchist, a lover of trees as well as a lover of bones. I share a lot of Xie’s politics, but the book was never conceived as a political tract about the environment or animal rights—those things kept coming to the fore because of who Xie turned out to be. I usually write about people obsessed with something, and it just happened that this time around I was writing about someone obsessed with environmentalism and activism, and for the book to make sense I had to let it really be “about” those things as well. I didn’t know how the romance would connect to the environment stuff, but then it became kind of obvious—all activism is a romance. 

I love this notion of obsession driving stories. I’m reminded of the way in which Franz Kafka’s obsession with exactitude found its way to the core of his stories, giving us characters who are obsessed with logic and truth. What is it about obsession that intrigues you? 

I’m interested in the kinds of shapes that obsession gives to people’s lives, how it forms or warps their experiences, gestures, ideas, feelings. It gives structure to otherwise mundane experiences and encounters, and it’s that structure that I want to investigate; it involves a lot of repetition, but within that repetition is a kind of music, a tension, this weird thing that happens when desire tries to explode the shape of its own container. And I’m nosy and I like to poke around in other people’s secret lives and writing about obsessions is a good way to work out that voyeuristic impulse. 

There is very much a kind of minor chord to the music in your prose. It’s in your shorter work and I was pleased to see it in your latest book. What was it about this story demanded a longer format? 

I never know how to answer questions of form. I just know right away if something needs a lot of space or a little bit—I mean I know as soon as I write the first line. It has nothing to do with content or plot or character because I rarely know what I’m going to do before I do it; but there is always that sense of, okay, this needs a lot of space or this just needs a little.  Kind of mysterious, since I don’t know what’s going to go into that space; maybe it’s like walking into an empty room. You know the size of the room immediately, before you know what’s going to go in it. 

Did this story first come to you as a sentence? Is this the way things normally come to you or is it always a different scenario?

It came to me as a feeling, primarily. Xiu Xiu’s “Botanica de Los Angeles” was playing at the end of Creep 2 and I knew immediately that the idea I’d had for years about a boy in love with a dead body would somehow fit into the feeling of that song. And that’s usually how stories come to me, through other people’s art. I just want to copy these feelings other people are so good at expressing in different mediums. 

I feel I know exactly what you’re talking about. That moment when you watch/hear/see someone else’s creation and an idea is born. It happened to me when I watched Moon and I teetered on my seat for fear the idea would desert me before I could get out of the theater. On this subject of ideas, I once listened to a Tom Waits interview, where he described the coming of ideas and those moments where he forgets them. He says they return to the world for someone else to discover, and I always loved that notion for its optimism. Have you ever let an idea slip and found it existing later in some other work of art? 

I do love that idea of things being forgotten but found by someone else! Gosh, yes, this happens all the time, where I come across something that someone made and think, well, they did a billion times better with that idea than I ever would have. I just read Alfred Chester’s Exquisite Corpse, which was written at least 60 years ago, and there was a scene I felt like I’ve tried to write a dozen times in there, already existing in a perfect state, and it kind of made me feel like, okay, well, the reason why I couldn’t get that right was because someone had already done it perfectly! And it’s beautiful to see that. 

Yes, I’ve experienced this too. This desire to tell a story but a kind of inability to land it on the page in the exact same way I see or sense it in my head, which kind of leads me to a question I’d been meaning to ask you on the subject of desire. Your fiction often takes on subjects of desire that many might consider taboo. When I have taught your work, my students often use the word “unsettling,” as your stories seem to occupy a space of becoming rather than coming into a final state of being. What is it about this space that attracts you as a writer?

I think desire is an unsettled thing, and to feel it is in some ways to be quite unsettled. I’m interested in the way that desire works between people and objects, how it shapes or instigates actions. Desire moves us towards something; historically I’ve focused on the negative ways desire works, or on how desire pushed people into situations that are dangerous to the self and others. With Mansion I wanted something more hopeful—still fraught, still high-stakes, but ultimately positive. But I’m always interested in marginal spaces, marginal people, marginal situations, things that get lost. Some of those things might be considered taboo, but I don’t think in those terms, I just think in terms of what is both most scary and most dear to the people I write about. 

In what ways do you see negative or hopeful working? Are they two separate journeys that arrive in the same destination or do they end up in different locations for the purpose of the story? 

I think the negative prevents people from connecting to each other—that so often the desire to connect causes people to act in ways that make connection impossible or damaging. But I feel the potential for connection and for community is always around us, in us—I think being-together is our most natural state, something we are made for. So that’s the hopeful part, and my work always strives to get there, I think—but ultimately the stories do what they want, they serve their own purposes, which may have very little to do with my own intentions. 

One of the things I really enjoy about your work, is how sharp the sentences are. They have a tightness to them that carry a good deal of energy moving forward. I’m curious what your sentence writing looks like. Do you find your sentences are very close to what you want as you write them or do you find that you like to revisit them and revise?

99.9% of my writing is revision. And I never get where I want. But in a way that’s what’s nice about language—that it has the desire to evolve, to constantly escape the speaker/writer’s attempts to control it. I always feel a sentence could be better, sharper, more beautiful; but I also try to undermine my own conception of what constitutes a beautiful sentence. Maybe something awkward or heavy or ugly or weird, something messy, unfinished, unmusical might serve a story better, and it’s only my attachment to certain conventions that prevent me from discovering a better language, a more interesting kind of storytelling. I think a big part of revision is knowing when to trust the unconscious, to reign in that impulse to torture a sentence into a pleasing shape. But the tightness you’re talking about comes from tension, and being able to control tension is a great asset for a writer—but then again you can overdo it, I think I overdo it sometimes. I’d like to get a little less strict in the future, let my narratives fatten up a bit, get a little slack. There’s so much yet to do and explore in terms of effects that language can have; I feel I am just getting started. 

I’m always impressed by authors who write books where the language feels organic, created just for that world where the author’s voice isn’t on the page at every turn, but who do so without coming across as a pastiche. Are there any writers you admire for their ability to embrace new ways of writing (sentences, form, or content) with various projects? 

This is something I really aspire to—to approach every project with the goal of destroying some aspect of my “voice” or style used in previous books. The writing has to serve the work. I think this is especially true for writers who, like myself, have a limited set of themes—if you’re not going to play wildly with content, which I don’t, you have to challenge yourself in other areas. I think early Knut Hamsun was good at this, Anne Carson is of course a master at playing with form and voice, and Dennis Cooper is great at attacking similar material from different angles. People always shit on Joyce Carol Oates because she writes so many books, and much of her work is “mainstream,” whatever that means, but we forget that she’s written, like, 40 books that are actually kind of crazy, full of violence and sex and wild inner monologues, books that totally disregard plot and all kinds of conventions. So, she was a big influence on me for sure—she seemed like the kind of writer who truly wrote whatever the heck she wanted, how she wanted, without agonizing over whether or not people would like it. The fact that she has the reputation as this kind of boring old lady is just astounding to me, but if you dig through her oeuvre from the 60’s-80’s you’ll find some real gems, especially the short story collections. I read so much contemporary fiction that people call “edgy” and “daring” and I think there’s a kind of hidden debt many of us have to her that goes completely unacknowledged by writers of my generation. I think in my own work I’m always pointing to other books I’ve loved, writers I admire—I don’t like things to get lost. If a book can serve as a key to another book, or another piece of art, either already written or yet to be written—what can be more beautiful than that? 


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