Fiona Maazel’s Got the Human Condition — and Our Condolences
An online exclusive interview
Thursday, July 17, 2008
By Michael Helke
Fiona Maazel, whose first novel, Last Last Chance, was published in March by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, thinks her résumé is a bit boring. She obtained her BA at Williams College and her MFA at Bennington. Interned at The Paris Review in the summer of 1997; served as managing editor, 2003-2005. Received a Lannan Fellowship for Fiction in 2005. Has contributed to such publications/sites as Bomb, Boston Book Review, GQ, n+1, Salon, Tin House and the Village Voice. Lives in Brooklyn, where she plays the guitar “very badly,” makes “stupid” movies, and edits books for “$$$” (money, I presume). Teaches occasionally. Is currently at work on her second novel.
Okay, that does sound boring, the way she tells it. Allow me, then: born in a car crash; mother isn’t sure where the little one has disappeared to until she starts reeling the cord back in; cigars and smiles all around. Learned rebbes declare the circumstances of her arrival a sign of future literary greatness. At age 3, Maazel saves a drunken John Cheever from drowning in his pool after he tries to prove that the central conceit of “The Swimmer,” his 1964 short story, actually does have validity. (“Wish she were editor,” Cheever sobs. “Fuckin’ Shawn.”) In her adolescence, she writes a well-received article for the New York Times Magazine titled “Parents Can Be Such Dicks,” and then pointedly decides not to pimp herself out to J.D. Salinger. While at Bennington, helps found the literary theory known as Devolutionism, which seeks to explain why first-year English students come up with some of the more ridiculous textual interpretations that they do. Does her stint with the Israeli Defense Forces, where the squad she commands puts down a surprise zombie attack. (Compared to the walking dead, Hamas and Hizbollah have proven more difficult to contain.) House-sits for Gore Vidal in Ravello. Drinks Norman Mailer under the table and then dresses him in a green Santa’s Elf costume. Knocks out Joyce Carol Oates in the second round of the Literary Golden Gloves Sweepstakes, but is denied the belt by Toni Morrison. (Nobody beats Toni Morrison.) In Colombia, on assignment for Playboy, tracks down Pablo Escobar with help from George “Dog” Plimpton. (Article’s publication squelched on request of the DEA.) Informs Susan Sontag that she’s left the cap on her Leica, which amuses Annie Leibowitz to no end. Is rumored to possess the missing chapters of Answered Prayers (Truman Capote’s incomplete last novel), which she (allegedly) uses as beer coasters.
Wow. What a life.
And what a novel. Last Last Chance concerns Lucy Clark, a recovering drug addict living in New York City who picks the worst possible moment to get clean. Her mother, who smokes crack, is in even worse straits than she. Her little sister hates their druggie guts. Her grandmother, a reincarnation enthusiast, is starting to go loopy in her senescence. And her father, who is believed responsible for a virus that was released and has since turned into a lethal epidemic that threatens the nation with almost certain annihilation, has committed suicide.
Like I said: most inopportune of her.
Lucy’s rueful, hung-over, frequently hilarious recounting of events — how she keeps slipping up, how she unintentionally stalks her former lover (who, incidentally, is married to her best friend), how she’s stuck with her current lover, Stanley, a fifty-ish sad sack who plainly doesn’t excite her — gets interrupted occasionally by weird bursts of spectral rumination: proof, perhaps, that dotty old Grandma Agneth may have known what she was talking about after all. Different voices drift by, Pedro Páramo-like, weighing in from such historical epochs as Europe during the Plague, WWII-era Norway and Wisconsin in the Seventies, home to a teenage Who fan who gave everything — and I mean everything — to rock 'n' roll. As the world goes to hell and the afterlife beckons, Lucy endures her own personal journey to the end of the night: traveling to Texas to attend a lengthy rehab with her mom, a tour de force worthy of Céline. Eventually, Lucy gets it back together. By then, however, will it even matter? Did it ever?
I first made Maazel’s acquaintance when she and I did a weeklong guest-blogging stint at the online magazine Jewcy. As bloggers, we revealed parts of ourselves to each other (and the universe) that people of this era just aren’t ready to handle. Like “Immaculate VD,” a song she had written as an ode to sexually transmitted disease (“Immaculate VD is what she had / Woke up one day predictably sad…”). Or the man-crush I confessed having developed on Daniel Drezner. In this interview, Maazel discusses such concerns as Last Last Chance, her notions of what makes a compelling fictional character (they don’t wear black hats, for one thing), her time at the Paris Review with Plimpton (no manhunts in Colombia, as it turns out) and why Ayn Rand doesn’t faze her (bring it, Objectivists!).
Stop Smiling: Did you have the idea of drawing upon Norse mythology before you began writing Last Last Chance? Or did the decision arise during your labors, as a way of augmenting the character and background of Isifrid “Izzy” Clark, the protagonist’s mother?
Fiona Maazel: No, I had no idea. I want to say that all my decisions have an organized and artistic pedigree, but really, I just make a lot of stuff up as I go along. I knew I was going to write about a Norwegian family and that the grandmother in this family believed in reincarnation, specifically that all her relatives had experienced past lives. Her daughter is a crackhead and a rapacious businesswoman. When I started to think about who she might have been in a former life — who the grandmother might imagine her to have been a Viking seemed reasonable. So I started reading up on the Vikings and learned — to my delight — that much of Norse mythology is about language and poetry and storytelling. He who is best with words always wins. Since much of the novel is about story-telling as it dovetails with some principles of your average twelve-step program (you tell us your story, I’ll tell you mine), it all started to work out.
SS: The Vikings themselves were also fairly consistently out of their minds on drugs: They ate mushrooms (Amanita muscaria) before battle. Not too big a leap from ‘shroomer to crackhead, no?
FM: Yeah, the berserker warriors are said to have chowed down on mushrooms before battle, but that might well be apocrypha. Those guys worked themselves into a frenzy, which isn’t so dissimilar to how some athletes prep for the night’s game, say football, when you know you’re gonna get hammered. So the upshot is the same: mushrooms, epilepsy, psychic transports. They got crazy, and from crazy to crack is not such a leap.
SS: Were you ever tempted to laden the narrative with pages of details concerning, to take an example, the gestation and proliferation of plague? Did you end up leaving a lot of that stuff out? Your novel avoids that pitfall, but I see a lot of it in contemporary fiction: authors who look to examples as far back as, say, Moby-Dick — or perhaps as recently as Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace — as models of verisimilitude, who then end up fashioning works that don’t suggest the desire to tell a story as much as the unconscious drive to teach their readers a trade.
FM: Yes, I was incredibly tempted to freight the novel with what I’d learned about plague and disease. It was fascinating and dreadful — I can’t believe we’re not dead already — and so I did want to get at least some of that in the book. But I didn’t want it to be tedious. Me, I can read that stuff for hours, but I am not the control. So my solution was to obsess Hannah, the 12-year-old sister, with disease, and use her as a conduit of information. I figured it was just absurd enough — this young girl knowing much more than she should, and in far greater and morbid detail — to relieve that material of its pedantry. It’s hard, really, trying to divest your work of the stuff that’s interesting to you but no one else. Harder still is to make it interesting to other people. Wallace does this extremely well. He’s so smart and his prose is so elastic, he can make most anything interesting. Jim Shepard is really good at this, too. Obviously, how well you do at vectoring information that’s heady or technical or just esoteric is all in the telling.