15 November 2007
What Rocks Cris Mazza’s World (and Other Stuff She Won’t Tell Just Anybody)
Hey, look at me, I'm proxy-blogging!
Kat Meads recently sent me this interview she'd done with Cris Mazza. It appears here for the first time. Thanks, folks. - TP
CRIS MAZZA, director of the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, published her ninth novel, Waterbaby (Soft Skull Press), this fall. She is also the author of four short fiction collections, a collection of personal essays and the co-editor of two anthologies of women’s fiction, Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction and Chick-Lit 2 (No Chick Vics), both from FC2. A Southern California native, her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award, judged by Studs Terkel and Grace Paley. She has lived outside Chicago since 1993.
KAT MEADS’s most recent novel is The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan Benedict Roberts Duncan (Chiasmus Press).
KAT MEADS: Labels. Over the course of your career, your work has been called experimental, alternative, post-modern, feminist, postfeminist, and more. Labels. A good thing or a bad thing?
CRIS MAZZA: It’s chic, hip, the writerly vogue to be anti-label. And yet it distresses me when doctors and CPAs write crime novels in their “spare time” and call themselves novelists. Next time someone says this to me, I’ll say I’ve been performing some brain surgery in my spare time.
KM: So you’re not entirely anti-label.
CM: Already, as a novelist, I’ve been labeled and accepted a label. It’s the word before writer that exasperates. I could easily say: “I’m not a postmodern writer, and all the real postmodern writers will agree with me that I’m not.” But would I be putting a lot of other people into the boat I just got out of? No one wants to be known as a mystery writer, a historical fiction writer, or a young adult lit writer, any more than an actor wants to be known by only one role he or she played, like Batman, Superman, or one of the Brady Bunch. Why not just categorize the fiction? Why not just say: “I wrote an alternative collection of stories,” or “I wrote a novel with a historical component,” or “This novel has a feminist sensibility.”
KM: Woman writer. I forgot that one.
CM: There’s no parallel man writer. It even sounds stupid. Even those labels that might seem harmless at first, experimental or alternative, mark you as untouchable to a whole world of editors and as unreadable to a whole world of readers. They’re exclusionary (“intended only for smart, offbeat intellectuals”). The same is true for feminist writer (“boys keep out’) and postmodern writer (“you’d better have a PhD”). The postmodern label was the most difficult for me because I don’t understand Derrida, Foucault, and the other boys-of-theory and have decided to leave it that way. I’m not really interested in “the heady fun of learning deconstructive theory,” as one former student expressed it on a blog. So how could I wear the postmodern label proudly?
KM: So if Cris Mazza were labeling Cris Mazza….
CM: “You don’t have to be a student of an era to be the product of it.” That’s my label.
KM: After co-editing two Chick-Lit anthologies back in the mid-1990s, you seem to have become the ‘go-to’ commentator on how that genre has evolved (or devolved). Anything you haven’t said on that topic?
CM: How about that it was originally Clit-Lit and Jeffrey DeShell, the co-editor, and I were laughing so hard neither of us took either title seriously. We both thought the publisher would change Chick-Lit. When that didn’t happen, we were a little worried, but decided to remain audacious. That’s how we viewed the pieces inside, the attitude the anthology radiated. But the rationalization that the new commercial chick-lit “at least gets more people to read”??? Before the advent of personal VHS players in the early 80s, pornography got more people to read.
KM: At 27, you won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for your first novel in manuscript, later published as How to Leave a Country. What did (or didn’t) that award do for your career?
CM: It didn’t do what the award was designed to do: discover an unpublished novelist and introduce his/her work to the world and NY publishers. It felt like every editor in NY asked to see the manuscript, but they all had the same response: not commercial enough. My “major-award winning manuscript” took eight years to find a publisher—an established independent, not-for-profit press.
KM: Which was a different kind of success story.
CM: A different kind of publicity story. “Award-winning novel takes eight years to find a publisher.” Because of that twist I enjoyed some exposure in Publisher’s Weekly, NYTBR, and other industry-favorites. Not too many years thereafter, the PEN/Nelson Algren Award was discontinued. Nobody ever told me why, but I assumed it had to do with the basic malfunction in its mission: the award was meant to discover new, interesting writers, and the respected-writer judges chose winners based on what they thought to be artistic quality. But the publishing industry wasn’t interested in the manuscripts of the “discovered.” This is no reflection on individual editors. In fact one editor who loved the book voluntarily sent the MS to other editors, essentially acting as my agent. I’ve never forgotten that small act of literary passion in the midst of a commercial enterprise.
KM: By any standard, you’re prolific: eight novels and another forthcoming, four short story collections, a collection of personal essays. A totally unfair question, but do you have favorites among your brood?
CM: As soon as I say I like one book over another, I feel sorry for the one(s) I put lower on the list. I have a certain fondness for each of my books, based on different aspects of their characteristics and personalities, each kept in a different place in my mind, based on nostalgia for the era in which they were written. At least one book and several stories I would very much like to revise because I know they can be better. Someone once told me a book is never finished, the writer just gives up. On at least one book I gave up too soon.
KM: An after-the-fact judgment.
CM: Of course. Typically, I think the book I’m working on is my best yet. Which is a fortunate outlook. To think, this is the best I’ve done, while I’m writing, whether it’s true or not, certainly is preferable to, wow, I used to be better than this. That would be reason enough to shitcan that particular project.
KM: A sentence from your published work that makes you think: yeah!
CM: “I’d been assigned to him, not at all by accident, to do my practice teaching in his classes, under his supervision, before I was granted the secondary teaching credential I never used—put away the day it arrived in the mail, with only wry thoughts of Mr. Wood and what I had hoped to learn but, ultimately, hadn’t.” Oh, you said published work. It’s not a true sentence, but I kind of like this one from Disability: “Hotdogs & mashed potatoes & wet carpet & industrial disinfectant & plastic toys & usually pee & sometimes poop.” And a short one that, for me, summed up an era: “They were, by then, fearless and nonchalant.” And from the ‘who needs first person to know the character’s voice?’ file: “Wannabes and pervs, didn’t it seem like that was all she’d ever worked for?”
KM: If someone locked you in a room and said you couldn’t come out until you’d written something, would or wouldn’t that faze you?
CM: If the “something” was a sentence, maybe a paragraph, that would be OK. But I’m the one who already IS locking me in a room—at least until I escape too often to get coffee or change a sprinkler in the garden.
KM: Do you maintain a ‘writing schedule’ per se?
CM: I almost always feel that I must be lazy, that I have no discipline, because I don’t often work on a novel past noon. Or feel guilty if I work on other kinds of things during my “novel working” time in the morning—preparing stories or excerpts to be sent out, researching lit mags, or answering interview questions like this, which I am doing at 9:30 in the morning when I should be working on the end of a novel-nearing-completion. I used to get out of bed, eat, have coffee and sit right down at the computer, not even change out of my sweats. But recently I’ve started taking a dog to field training two or three days a week, which means I meet with my master trainer at 7 a.m. somewhere—a pond, a cow pasture, a hayfield, a forest preserve to toss dead frozen ducks for the dog to retrieve. After that, I come home, get my second cup of coffee and try to settle in at the keyboard by 9, which is what I did this morning. I’m already needing a nap, but striving for self motivation.
KM: Dog training and novel writing—any similarities?
CM: Even if a dog has the instinct, the drive, to herd sheep, you can’t explain to a dog why he’s wrong when he scatters the flock instead of gathering, and how to do it right the next time, the way a good editor/reader helps with a MS-in-progress. Dogs learn initially through shaping: the trainer shapes their behavior by way of repetition, treat “bribes” and behavioral “corrections.” Eventually the dog (1) learns what a command means, (2) learns to obey the command without a food bribe and (3) learns no matter what else is going on, when it hears the command, it better do the behavior. Can you imagine that applied to writing a novel? What would the shaping be? I will shape the behavior of your mind to think of an interesting idea by … what? Hypnosis?
KM: Food bribes?
CM: The hypnotic suggestion of food. Every time you get a good idea, you smell chocolate, something like that. And if the idea you come up with is stupid, there’d be an electronic collar and you’d get a shock correction.
KM: Like a bad review.
CM: Like a really bad review. The kind that makes you think you never again want to write anything in the same vein as what got blasted.
KM: But when you do screw up your courage and take another shot at this thing called a “novel,” what’s the start-up process like for you? Do you (generally) begin with a visual? A sentence? A vicious conflict?
CM: Once a novel’s well under way, and particularly once I’m revising it, and especially when it’s finished, I can’t remember what I started with. There was one, Girl Beside Him, probably the only one, that I started with an image, and a stolen image at that: the helicopter bursting from over the jungle cover in Apocalypse Now. Except I substituted a lone sharpshooter aiming at coyotes in the grasslands of the West. Other ways to start: a character has recurrent memories, begins to question “what might have really happened,” and the novel develops from there. A revisit to my past can also start me off. Pretty much anything can incite me to spiral into the past, and while many of my characters share this emotional defect, usually their pasts are more interesting then mine.
KM: That comment is going to open you up to charges of Mazza is her character and her character is Mazza. Care to launch a preemptive defense?
CM: I’d actually be flattered if anyone thought that. My characters seem to have richer, more evocative experiences that I do. Of course, that’s one difference between real life and novels—few of us live dense, braided, comprehensive, complex dramas, and those “dramas” we do experience aren’t often related to each other nor as meaningful as what we find in novels. That’s why we read them, isn’t it, to have more heightened sensations, emotions, profundity, and drama than our own pitiful lives can provide? That said, when I do use my own experiences, it is often a vicarious reliving and revision of a situation, with a more complicated character—more useful for the drama at hand. By the way, that helicopter image had nothing to do with my past—probably the reason it’s the only novel that germinated out of a picture. I get too airsick to ever ride in a helicopter, so never will, except in writing.
KM: Why are your short stories short stories and your novels novels? Do you know? Do you care?
CM: I always tell students a piece needs to be as long as it needs to be. Sometimes it’s in the no-man’s-land length of novella or long story, and if so, so-be-it. I’ve never started a story that ended up a novel, nor started a novel that ended up a story. So there must be something different about my approach or mind-set, a rhythm I get into. Two years ago I wrote five stories to join five much older stories and create a complete collection. But I didn’t feel any difficulty turning the ideas into stories instead of novels. Perhaps the real answer is that some of my stories have played with formal qualities—like a story I created out of a timeline, or stories that used imbedded boxed text, or two columns, or a faux playscript. That kind of thing—called a gimmick by those who are irked by it—really can’t be sustained through a whole novel. (That would irk me too.) A story can be a testing ground, a place to showcase how an alternate form or narrative approach works. But you pretty much know how it works, what it produces, in the span of a short story. Why extend it 300 pages?
KM: The bulk of your work is fiction, but in 2003 you broke wide with a collection of autobiographical essays, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian. Why a nonfiction approach to that particular material?
CM: I had an agent who wanted me to write a nonfiction book. (Don’t they all?)
KM: But you published many of those essays, individually, in the San Diego Reader before they became a collection.
CM: The features editor of the San Diego Reader was one of those editors who could evoke work out of a reluctant writer. She asked me if I had any essay ideas for the Reader about San Diego. I said no, I didn’t really, that my life had been fairly uninteresting. She started asking questions: what did my parents do, how did they meet, what did our family do for recreation, what were my hobbies as I got older, and in answering her, I realized that as unspectacular as I’d thought my life had been (compared to the child-abuse, incest, addiction memoirs that were coming out then) there was something I could write about.
KM: Many readers of Indigenous were amazed that your childhood in Southern California came off so rural.
CM: Our family entertainment activities in San Diego County all involved hunting and gathering: hunting, fishing, gardening, even scavenging.
KM: Was disabusing assumptions about “the California experience” a motivation?
CM. For some of the essays, yes. When I had enough essays to make a book, I had to look for a way to unite them, so the subtitle, Growing Up Californian, did that for me after-the-fact. Not every essay is directly involved with “California-ness,” but all are part of “growing up,” or finally becoming adult, which can be a longer, more drawn-out journey for those of us who have chosen not to have children.
KM: Because of your indie rep, do you feel under obligation to produce a particular kind of “risky,” non-commercial book?
CM: The only thing that makes a novel successfully commercial, as opposed to being designated non-commercial, is a substantial print run, a publicity campaign that lets the general reader know the book exists, and the availability of the book in a majority of bookstores at an easy-to-find location. And it wouldn’t matter how “risky” the book was, all that readers would have to do is be able to find it, and hear that it’s worth reading, and they’ll read it. I believe that. So I don’t use the term “non-commercial.” I understand that some of my novels don’t conform to standards of traditional realism, but that doesn’t mean the experiences they depict can’t be vicariously experienced by the reader as realistic. As far as my subject matter being seen as “taking risks,” there’s been some applause but there’s also been some eyebrow raising at things I did but never with any thought that they were “risky.”
KM: For example?
CM: For example to develop a female character who’s weak, who is the source of her own weakness, and instead of having her overcome and end up “victorious” at a manifested place of individual strength and independence, she only comes as far as self-knowledge. Doing something with her new awareness is up to her outside the covers of the book. It’s this kind of “not-happy” ending that may be the real essence of “non-commercial.”
KM: How did we arrive at the presumptive “happy ending”? Literature is rife with unhappy endings.
CM: Past and present. Look at Susan Minot’s Evening. No happy ending. Not really done in “straight” narrative storytelling fashion. And no one said: “This isn’t commercial.” The book was available, and people read it. Tim O’Brien, Mary Gaitskill, A.M. Holmes, Annie Proulx, Jeffrey Eugenides, I can see types of “risks” in all of their work. Readers are adaptable and flexible; there just aren’t enough of them. If people who read know about a book, and the book is widely available, it will get bought. Getting bought (and hopefully read) is what makes a book commercial.
KM: For your new novel, Waterbaby, you have a new editor (Richard Nash) and publisher (Soft Skull). Will Soft Skull broaden the Cris Mazza audience?
CM: The whole atmosphere at Soft Skull is never-say-never. There’s so much shit piled up here … there must be a pony somewhere! Every optimism-first, rid-yourself-of-negative-vibes cliché you’ve ever heard can be applied to Soft Skull Press. So I’m catching that optimism. Trying to catch it.
KM: Waterbaby has a ‘historical’ component. That’s new terrain for you, isn’t it?
CM: Historical component with a familiar Mazza riff. A character who isn’t interested in doing “real” archival research to discover whether or not a 19th century family legend is true instead invents, and lives vicariously, an extended story she constructs starting from the legend. In “real life,” she’s also trapped in a “real memory” cycle. She’s a character disabled by a past that she feels has impaired her life, when it’s only her obsession with that past that hurts her. Whew, those three-sentence summaries are difficult!
KM: But that 19th century Maine legend intertwines with your own family history, correct?
CM: Yes. My maternal ancestry comes down from lighthouse keepers in Maine. My great grandfather and great-great grandfather, and several of each of their brothers, were lightkeepers. My great-grandfather and great-great grandfather were keepers of the same light for a combined 54 years. Therefore the legend, the story of “Seaborn, the shipwrecked baby” starred my great-great grandfather as the lightkeeper who supposedly rescued a baby who washed to shore bundled between two featherbeds after being tossed overboard from a sinking ship. The story qualifies as legend because no one knows what became of the baby. Like most legends, it was repeated by those who heard it from somewhere else.
KM: Any other plot secrets you’d care to divulge, pre-publication?
CM: There’s stuff involving the main character’s semi-estrangement from her immediate family, her history as a young competitive swimmer, a love affair she abandoned because of her interfering, bi-polar brother. And then, in what I call the “current” story, she finds a baby (I won’t say where), then “rescues” it, then hides with it in—where else?—a lighthouse. Sounds like a mess, but I did (and do) feel completely in control of it.
KM: So when the Critic on the Shoulder sneers: What’s a California native doing writing a novel about Maine? your response is…
CM: I think I already took care of that critic when I wrote Girl Beside Him, set in Rawlins, Wyoming. I’ve handled the Maine novel the same way I handled the Wyoming novel, by having the main character not be a native of the novel’s setting—a stranger-in-a-strange-land. Because, believe me, it makes steam come out my ears when a California transplant tries to write a “California novel,” and either sets it in or dresses it up with beaches and fast cars, or the Hollywood/Sunset Strip drug culture, or the Valley high-school culture. It breaks my heart that California is becoming a caricature of its own clichés. There’s still a lot there that the popular media, as well as most transplants, and in fact a fair percentage of natives don’t see, or don’t want to see. But I realize the same is going to be true of Maine natives who don’t want yet another novel about the romantic life of Maine lighthouse keeper, or the mystery of a lighthouse ghost legend. I was pre-alerted to this attitude when the local newspaper in Boothbay Harbor ran a series of articles trying to debunk the lighthouse legend that involves my relatives. The writer-historian was insulted that tourists were so interested in legends; she wanted them to be interested in “real history” instead. I was interested in the “realness” of the fact that the legend refused to die.
KM: What kind of research did you do for the book?
CM: When I started in the late ’90s, I had only the legend—called a “complete fabrication by a Maine writer-historian—and a “genealogical list” of my family. I knew the shipwrecked baby, Seaborn, wasn’t on the genealogical list, but that didn’t mean that my great-great grandfather hadn’t, in fact, rescued her. I eventually discovered that family lore suggested he gave the baby to a local doctor. So the historian’s effort to prove the entire legend was false intrigued me to the point of wanting to go further into the material. My first “research”—and I use the word lightly because I can’t claim to have dived into-the-archives—was to compare the different recitations of the legend and note dates, shipwreck details, details about the lightkeeper’s family. And then the crucial ones: 1) the lightkeeper and his wife had recently lost a baby; 2) the lightkeeper and his wife had recently lost a first baby; 3) the lightkeeper and his wife adopted the rescued baby; and 4) the baby was the daughter of a Swedish land baron.
KM: The daughter of a Swedish land baron—that’s quite a detail.
CM: And preposterous. That one came from a potboiler novel, published around 1900, that had all the elements of the story of the shipwrecked baby, plus the Swedish heiress twist. My genealogical list told me that my great-great grandfather’s wife was born in Sweden. The writer-historian used the existence of the novel to prove that the story originated in a novel, and therefore was all false. But couldn’t a local novelist have heard elements of the story and facts about the characters and used this legend to write a novel? That is, after all, one way novelists work.
KM: Did you also go to Maine?
CM: I did. My most important research was to go to Southport Island, Maine, and visit the small cemetery where my descendants are buried. Right beside the stones for my great-great grandfather and his wife there sat a stone for one of their children who had died at four years old, and it was a name that did not appear on my genealogical list. So there was a dead child, and it was around the same time as the shipwreck. My research turned up another surprise: that the dead toddler had been the twin of a woman who was on the genealogical list. This started my imagination running as to what her life had been, after the death of her twin, and she became the principal person whose life my character co-opted, imagined, fabricated, and lived vicariously.
KM: So you got to play, as a novelist, with a “19th century voice”?
CM: Pseudo 19th century voice. “This is a fixed, sturdy, faithful place, a place seething with strength yet surrounded by uncertainty, violence.”
KM: Current writing projects?
CM: Back to California, back to the border where development meets backcountry. I had read about the sex slave trade in California and Arizona, where girls are abducted from Mexico, Central America, and farther south, brought to the U.S. and forced to be prostitutes, mostly for the migrant workers, but sometimes for rich gringos. When law enforcement started rousting them out of rented houses, they took the business outdoors and began offering the “services” of these girls in the chaparral just outside the border.
KM: Not quite the same kind of research you undertook for Waterbaby.
CM: No. One thing I felt I couldn’t do was track down the activity and see it up close, even interview one of the girls. The literal danger was too high. So I knew I couldn’t write a novel that starred an abducted victim or a pimp. So once again, I gave the experience of discovering this activity “in her own backyard” to a character whose particular past makes watching and reacting to this particular horrific situation, more consequential than a simple journalistic “outing” of the story.
KM: And now for the writerly influences question: Who/what has had the most influence on Cris Mazza’s writing?
CM: I read Fear of Flying in college, several years after it was released. It kind of rocked my world. Nowadays I’d probably think its use of first person was an unnecessary distraction, but I think in order to do what it did (not just to me, but to women’s writing in general) it had to be in first person at the time. So Jong directly influenced my writing. Intimate confessions about sexual issues decidedly from a female POV. Sex not always being the fly-me-to-the-moon experience male writers had wanted to assume for women. Other than that? Maybe Nabokov. At one time, Carver. Recently, like 2 months ago, I read The Golden Notebook for the first time. It crystallized and validated some issues I’ve had with how to best use first person to its optimum potential. And a lot of it re-rocked my world.