“Most of My Work Unsettles Me”: An Interview With Maryse Meijer

Two years ago, the Midwestern book tour I was on with duncan b. barlow concluded on a rainy Chicago night with a reading at Volumes Bookcafe headlined by Maryse Meijer. Hearing Meijer read from her debut collection, Heartbreaker, left me floored; since then, I’ve eagerly read her subsequent books, the novella Northwood and the new collection Rag. Meijer’s fiction is haunting in a host of ways, some of them literal: she brings the reader to the border of the uncanny and primal, while also tapping into something deeply modern and urgent. I spoke with her following the release of her latest book about her short fiction, the role of horror in her work, and titles, among other topics.

The stories in both Heartbreaker and Rag deal with human connections, but in very different ways. How do you see the two collections differing from one another?

Heartbreaker was about human relationships in mostly romantic terms; Rag is a bit less sentimental, dealing with loneliness and desire in more varied contexts.

I noticed Kathe Koja’s name in the acknowledgements of both of your collections. As someone whose head was twisted around by The Cipher and Bad Brains (as well as many other books published by Dell Abyss) many years ago, I wanted to ask about her influence on your work. And, as someone whose fiction certainly has horrific elements, do you consider what you’re writing to be horror?

Kathe was a huge influence on me as a young writer; Strange Angels and The Cipher changed my life, not just as an artist, but as a human being. Her work is dark but compassionate; she pushes her readers into uncomfortable territory, but never betrays your trust–she’s not out to shock, but to show, to instruct. Her work is so brave, so defiant, so stylistically unique…and she can also, you know, tell a really good story. She also happens to be a dear friend, and we exchange work in the draft process, so her influence on me has evolved over time.

In terms of horror as a classification, I think Kathe and I both agree that horror isn’t limited to genre…real life is full of scary shit. Her Dell books were classified as horror, but I, as a rabid horror fan growing up, knew instinctively that the term didn’t quite fit what she was doing. All the labels for fiction are pretty much trash, anyway–they’re about marketing, not really about writing. I don’t consider my work as “horror” in the sense that it belongs to a particular genre; but, yes, it is occasionally horrific, much like life. But science fiction and horror and romance are all really good temperature-takers of cultural problems, ideas, movements…if you want to understand an era, look at the horror stories it produces. One could say the same about sci-fi; the politics are all there. Of course, what people really mean when they use labels like these to describe fiction is that a story isn’t “literature”; i.e., it isn’t ultimately serious or artistically valuable. More and more, writers are challenging these categories, but critics keep coming up with new ones: “speculative fiction,” “autofiction,” etc. None of that is interesting to me, because I fear that categories always seek to contain what in uncontainable–life as reflected by art in all its impossible, irreducible forms. If we label a book as horror, then we don’t have to consider that the horrors it depicts are present and politically relevant; and in that way the label becomes an act of violence against the voices struggling to be heard in the work.

Some of the stories in Rag have a sense of alienation that borders on the supernatural; others, like “The Rainbow Baby,” seem to cross over into it. Where does that line exist for you, and how do you decide just how realistic (or not) a story will be?

I don’t think of any element in my work as supernatural. I don’t write from the perspective of the metaphor; nothing is standing in for something else. I’m as literal as its possible to be–a fox is a fox, a rag is a rag, a talking dead baby brother is a talking dead baby brother. Which is not to say that there aren’t multiple possible interpretations of something, or layers of meaning, or whatever–I just think that all those interpretations and layers are inherent within things themselves, always and already, as Derrida would say. I think magic and strangeness and the impossible are woven into our daily experiences of being alive on this planet–people who hallucinate, for example, are having a real experience, in the sense that the material world is presenting itself to the individual in a way that is sensorily relevant. Stories are hallucinations you share with the author. Maybe I’m being silly in the way I think about words like horror and supernatural and realistic–but I’d describe myself as a realist, not a fabulist. If a character tells me something, I believe it; I think all my narrators are more or less reliable. When someone asks me if this or that thing “really happened” in a story all I can say is…yeah. Because obviously none of it really happened but at the same time…it happened. You know? And this is why I’ve never done drugs–because reading and writing is, I imagine, a lot like being on drugs, and I don’t need to get any more confused about reality than I already am.

The novella Northwood was published between your two collections, and it shows a very different side of you as a writer: longerform, laced with textual experiments, and personal in a very forward manner. How does it relate to the works in your two collections? Was it intended as a departure from them from the beginning, or did it evolve into it?

First, I just have to point out that people assume Northwood is more personal than my other work, even though it’s just as fiction-y as the stories–for reasons I can only assume that have to do with the use of “I” in a poetry-esque format. I’m not offended by the assumption, I just find it curious. Though, wait–there is one incident in NW that is based on my actual life, and seeing as there is 0% of my life in Heartbreaker, and .5% in Rag, it’s maybe statistically true that NW is more “personal,” though also statistically irrelevant. That being said, NW is stylistically different way from my other work, as you’ve pointed out, and I really did try to do something I hadn’t done before, that I had to learn to do, in a wholesale way, while I was writing it. Basically I wanted to write like Anne Carson, but she’s a genius and I’m…less of a genius, so it didn’t quite work out, but it was fun to try something new and it taught me a lot about my habits and lazinesses as a writer, and it encouraged me to really play with form and polyphony and all of that. Of course, it still has a lot in common with the other books–an obsession with violence, relationships, loneliness, sexuality, etc–but its more visibly experimental while at the same time more mundane, in a way, than the other work. I don’t know. I haven’t yet figured out a good way to talk about that book, obviously, maybe because I still don’t understand what it is or what it’s trying to do.

The structure that you used for “Good Girls” is particularly (and memorably) jarring. How did that approach for that story come about?

It just happened–the voice moved that way from the beginning and I just let it continue on that way, sort of breathless. I’m not a planner and I don’t “approach” things so much as I put something on the page and then edit out what is least appealing. This makes writing a lot of fun, but describing the process is usually pretty boring to other people, since it all starts without intention and I don’t have pithy little stories about the origins of things or ideas or whatever. I’m just like, well, there was this guy and he started talking about x and I listened till he got to y and then I went back and cut everything that sounded like bullshit, the end.

You now have three books out in the world, each one with a one-word title. Is that coincidence, or you like the concision of it all?

It’s certainly not part of a master plan, no. I just hate those titles that are like “the adjective of noun.” It’s been a fad for some time and I really think it’s almost always ridiculous. But I’m terrible at naming things, so I shouldn’t judge.

Have you ever written something that’s left you particularly unsettled?

Most of my work unsettles me. I have a very happy life, I’m an optimist, I like people and places and things, but when I write a lot of harsh shit comes out. Loneliness scares me, and I’ve never experienced it. I have experienced violence, but I don’t understand it. I want to understand things I’m scared of, so I write about them, I guess. Rag scared me so much every time I sat down to work on it. But at the same time, it’s the work I’m most proud of, because I really let it be unbearable. I didn’t try to find a way around the difficulty of the subject matter, which I had kind of done before, perhaps unconsciously. And I didn’t try to explain anything to myself, or to the reader. I just let it all sit, as uncomfortable as it needed to be, on the page. My day-to-day experience of life is very beautiful, very peaceful. But the context of my existence–the fact that I exist within a patriarchal, capitalist framework that is literally destroying the possibility not only of human life on this planet, but of 90% or so of all life–that is horrific. It is incredibly violent and stressful and worrying. It is, to put it mildly, unsettling. And so I process all of that through my work, maybe as a way to cheat, to face suffering without having to actually suffer very much at all. I don’t know. I don’t really understand why anyone should suffer, or be lonely, or why violence is the subtext to so many of our interactions. I’ve always found solace in books, like Koja’s, that take a hard look at darkness. I think you can be comforted by thoughtful, ethical depictions of scary or difficult or confusing situations. Maybe you and I won’t ever truly understand why things are the way they sometimes are, and maybe we won’t figure out, in time, what do about the challenges we face as human beings. But I believe there’s merit, through writing and reading and sharing and making and being, in trying.


Photo: Lewis McVey

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