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issue 20: september - october 2000 

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essay: 'Rupture, Verge, and Precipice Precipice, Verge, and Hurt Not'
book reviews: Defiance, Break Every Rule and The Room Lit by Roses
Carole Maso

photo: Helen Lang

Interview with
Carole Maso

by Jill Adams

Carole Maso is the author of six novels: Ghost Dance, The Art Lover, AVA, Aureole, The American Woman in the Chinese Hat, and Defiance. Her most recent publication (May 2000) is the collection Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, & Moments of Desire (see final essay in this issue of TBR). This November sees the publication of The Room Lit by Roses: A Journal of Pregnancy and Birth. Maso has received numerous awards, including, most recently, the Lannan Literary Fellowship for fiction. She is currently professor of English at Brown University.

"Why shouldn't the old models, which are working with less and less success be challenged—the world re-imagined.   Heterosexual privilege and power—and all its attendant rigmarole.  Such a system if it were to be taken seriously would have precluded me from having a child.   Am I supposed to be grateful to it, acquiescent?  Luckily I have never taken it the least bit seriously."
                                                                                           from The Room Lit by Roses  

BR: The Room Lit by Roses is a journal of your pregnancy and the birth of your daughter Rose. You say at one point: "I need to consider the ordinary assumptions again about fiction and non-fiction. This interests me. Having never written like this Room Lit by Rosesbefore." In what ways was the writing of the journal different from previous work, i.e. was there less planning, less revision? Did it unfold more easily? Was it intended all along to be a published work? Having again considered the ordinary assumptions about fiction and non-fiction, what discoveries have you made? What new questions arose?
CM: Many things about the nature of fiction and non-fiction occurred to me during the time I kept the journal. One thing was that non-fiction is really just another construction, with all (many) of the inherent properties of fiction. A series of choices must be made: where to start a story, where to place the emphasis, etc, etc.— in short, how to convey the essence of the experience. An event once it enters language is always a fiction, there's no way to purely document. There's really to my mind no such thing as non-fiction. Anyone who recounts, let's say, the details of their day to another is in the midst of a creative process. Even the teller is a constructed character in many ways—a presentation of self is unconsciously being worked out in non-fiction's pages.
        For me the journal writing was simply done at a different level of attention and engagement than the fiction. It required a less febrile position of mind, I think.
        Another thing I've come to understand a little bit better: non-fiction is not necessarily more revealing or more "true" than fiction. I easily expose myself more completely and utterly in my novels than I do in non-fiction. I think it is because the novels show explicitly the depth and breadth of the imagination, which is the most intimate glimpse into a human soul one can perhaps get.
        True expression for me resides in fiction—I love the tautness of mind, the edge at which composition takes place. All my tentacles on end. The level of the intensity—focus—the places one can go, what can give way. No other form for me is as accurate or precise. Of course I have been at it for a long time—seriously, as a daily devotion for fifteen years. And so I have developed certain powers I do not remotely possess in other forms. Finally for me fiction uses language at a level where I feel most at home.
        On the other hand it greatly interests me that in journal writing—a form much minimized, trivialized, and totally ignored by the patriarchy—there is a place where one might escape the tyranny of "the master mouthing masterpiece." The journal takes things that one would ordinarily bury or ignore or discard as seen as outside the scope of appropriate or important subject matter and foreground them—little off-hand things—what is overheard, what is glimpsed, what passes ordinarily without remark. I love the fleeting, the ephemeral, the incidental, which a journal and sometimes letters can capture—and sometimes fiction can capture with some ease and effortlessness. Precious, disappearing things. The offhand, the casual, the things we've been told are not the "real story."
        There is a modesty in the claim of such a project—modesty in the very best sense—not manipulating, or controlling or overly selecting the material and effects. I think of the way for instance the last entry in the journal was written, utterly spontaneously. To my mind it is exactly right; open-ended, lacking in artifice, not consciously shaped. I might work very, very hard to achieve that in fiction. It's a strange last moment of the book—opening it up into a kind of forever and it came I think from being in a certain frame of mind, a certain small desire to get in one last thing, without the usual crescendos, etc. A book written as a record, as a keepsake. With no intention of publishing. A book for my child, and for myself. Without grander schemes or plans for it. There is something so lovely about that notion to me A ragged book. Scrawled in French notebooks. The progress of two souls in transit.
        To write as unselfconsciously as is possible, given the fact that I am a writer and have published a great deal, was a lovely challenge. There was a kind of letting go, a kind of freeing up—something I should like to bring back to my fiction. Have already brought back, I think.
        Finally—and this was a real revelation to me—it had simply not occurred to me before that you can get away in a journal with something you would never be able to get away with in fiction without immediately being labeled "experimental," and that is the absence of any real story or plot. This sort of writing is one of the very few places where this is possible. The conventional expectation of story is not there and yet somehow in this writing one is pulled forward—it is narrative on different terms. Still one is held and moved undeniably, inexorably, on an involving and evolving trajectory. But you couldn't call it plot. This exhilarates me. I don't think there's any doubt that the time of storytelling has passed—it's a beautiful relic, but a relic nonetheless.

BR: Rose’s father, the "mysterious l’etranger from a far-off land who had uncannily existed in my pages for years," assumes relative unimportance after conceptiondisappears off the pages, in factalthough you believe your coming together to bring forth the child was predestined, as you say. Was he someone you’d never met until that one night on a plane? Does he fit in the picture at all now? Does he even know he’s the father? I can’t help picturing Lucien [The American Woman in the Chinese Hat], but that of course is my fantasy.
CM: Yes, the mysterious stranger... It's not possible for me to speak about him. The journal, and all discussion around it, must, of course, honor Rose's privacy.

BR: Someone wrote of Jayne Ann Phillips’ latest novel Motherkind—a book dealing with the same topic of pregnancy and birth—that the protagonist seemed to think she was the only woman ever to have had a child. Your journal is intensely more personal so one might think beforehand that this same criticism might apply, but it had quite the opposite effect: one is left in awe of the female body’s creative powers. I’m amazed at how you pulled that off. Apart from the obviously different writing style and genre, I think it helps that you’re not writing from the suburban, or "hetero club," point of view; it gives a refreshingly new perspective.
CM: Jayne Anne Philips's Black Tickets mattered a great deal to me when I was a young writer struggling to write a first book. I haven't read Motherkind. I think "the novel" in critics' minds often speaks from a more authoritative place, with more grandeur and self-importance and so perhaps opens up the way to this kind of criticism. The journal has much more humble aims and sets up far fewer expectations in the minds of readers maybe. Also, I think that Roses, like most of my work, provides a lot of space for a reader to exist, think her own thoughts, participate. And this I suspect goes a long way in a reader experiencing "the female body's creative powers," because the reader too has had a creative role in dreaming, in birthing the piece if you will—bringing her own meditations to it. And emotions. I find this the case in Woolf's journals. There are sufficient places to stop , reflect, imagine, recall, replay. The allowances in more open-ended forms are different from those of the conventional novel with its rigid structures.
        While I can't speak to Motherkind, the "hetero club" point of view is a bit tedious after awhile, God knows—its assumptions, its claims on the psyche. The arrogance and enormity of that agreement. Still, of course anything can be written about well given the exact, right confluence of factors. And certainly pregnancy and childbirth under any arrangement are among the great, unspeakable mysteries.

BR: You say that it was difficult to read the proofs of your novel Defiance while you were pregnant, that you could scarcely believe you were the person who wrote the book, so filled with rage is the protagonist. Has this need to avoid the book gone? Do you feel more in touch these days with the Carole Maso who wrote the novel? That rage of Bernadette’s— against class and gender inequalities and all the subtle and not so subtle ways it forms character—is a legitimate, just rage. How do you cope with it now?
CM: I don't re-read old work, simply because by the time a book is between covers I am elsewhere, and as always feeling the terrible constraints of time, how it is running out—and I too perhaps am running out. Reading them would be to be drawn back in, which seems counter-productive. It's a kind of discipline not to look back, not to repeat oneself, not to linger with past work. However, yes, I do feel in touch again with the person who wrote it. The withdrawal of the "happy hormones" after Rose's birth was one of the most violent and unequivocal shifts of my life. And so the mildness, the passivity, the sweetness was replaced by the old intensities. I think I describe in the journal somewhere the oddness of the predicament — from feeling "no one can hurt us" (while pregnant) to "no one can protect us" (after the birth). It was the most breathtaking and dizzying shift really. I've never felt anything like it—to be slammed back into that other world again, and in an instant.
        Defiance was a harrowing book for me because I never allowed myself before to write so fully from a place of rage. To sustain that level of emotion on a daily basis over the years it took to write and to continually invent structures and forms to get at it, was completely exhausting—and, at times, frightening. Act V in particular was very difficult for me. It made me sick—mentally, physically—to write. I am working on a novel now in which in one way or another all those concerns will surface again. It's a sort of history of the twentieth century.

BR: You also say you can no longer relate to the protagonist in The American Woman in the Chinese Hat, who suffers a mental deterioration set off by her lover’s abandonment of her. Do you often think of Bernadette and Catherine though? Are they still alive for you, still important?
CM: Of course I do still think of them, though not directly—my characters for me are never really living people and so I don't relate to them in those ways but more as figments of the psyche and so they are me, and live in me, not in their Bernadette and Catherine shapes exactly, yet they are nonetheless utterly present. They feel like specific aspects of my disposition and also, oddly, they break from me and join a kind of collective universal human dimension. A humanity which murders in order to live, for instance; has a mythic need to survive; cuts off violently, maims, hurts, and has been hurt, offended, violated, in small ways and in large ways. Suffers. And the Catherine aspect: she is the one who turns away, who wanders off, who refuses, retreats, who does not come back. Also of course dramatized in Catherine's plight are the struggles of language—its redemptive qualities, its limitations and failures. There is not a waking moment where this is not playing itself out inside me. I can't explain the enormity of the silence against which I write, and must be accountable to. And in both women, and in all my fictional figures really, there is the isolation and the solitude which is part of my sensibility's daily drama. These figures are more than important to me—they are profound parts of who it is I guess I must be, and reflect my fears, hopes, joys, dreads, wishes. These characters are also events of language and exist as language shapes inside my body. It may sound a little abstract but it's really not—it's visceral, palpable. Hard to describe.

BR: You quote Virginia Woolf: "I shall make myself face the fact that there is nothing — nothing for any of us. Work, reading, writing, all are disguises; and relationships with people. Yes, even having children would be useless." Elsewhere you mention that Woolf  had a desire for children. Do you think if she had had a child it might have proved a "solution" for her as it did for you?
CM: I think I said that, in response to mental breakdown, and breakup, and the deaths of loved ones, a child always seemed a solution. As if there could be a solution. Knowing it would be useless, that there is no way to replace. Knowing always that a child could never be a solution. Knowing full well there are no solutions at all. And Rose of course has not been. The sorrows will still come. She has enlarged the world in many ways (including my understanding of sorrow) but she has not "solved" it, alas. Though in moments of great despair it always seemed as if it might be the only hope. The desire to begin again.
        I think that the stress of having children is one of the best kept secrets there is. The toll is enormous—the burden and demands of the emotion, the nature of the worry... and it makes me wonder whether Woolf could have borne the stress of it. I'm not so sure. I think she might have found the inability to have the same interior life as before intolerable. I think she would have found it extremely difficult the way time needs to be constantly divided and parceled and hoarded. It would have been difficult though who is to say it would have been impossible? Also, being double in the world—never singular again, no matter where you walk or how far you go, or how deeply you are writing—is a strange feeling. There's a level of preoccupation and distraction that's simply inherent in the set-up. For a writer who writes in order to be well, who writes in order to have some degree of sanity and something like wholeness, the toll a child takes is immeasurable. Of course there is a deepening of feeling, and a certain kind of knowledge that comes too. And she would have adored that window onto things. But this is a sly question and I have ended up inadvertently talking about myself, I suppose.

BR: I gather from the journal that you took more flack from the lesbian community than the hetero one over your pregnancy. Is this correct?
CM: I don't think the flack came from any particular community. It was more from those who are offended by the notion that it might be possible to invent one's life on one's own terms. It's appalling to them. It's frightening.

BR: How do you respond to those who say that there are too many people in the world already? For many people, like the late Allen Ginsberg, the decision not to reproduce is yet another alternative to the hetero club cycle. His principal concern, of course, was overpopulation. This is one point you never raise in the journal.
CM: It never occurs to me that there are too many people in the world. I think of those places like Montana with one person and a gun every million miles, or Australia—the world feels a remote, deserted, vast place to me. I guess I know that it's not the case. But Africa dies off as we sit here.

BR: Did you ever finish your book on Frida Kahlo? You record in your journal how you had wanted to complete it before Rose was born but the writing proved difficult.
CM: Yes, I did finish the Frida book. It's called Beauty is Convulsive, and will be published in fall 2001 by Counterpoint.

BR: You take on the literary mainstream in your book of essays, Break Every Rule, making a plea to the literary establishment "not to discard the canon, but enlarge it . . . . to acknowledge, for starters, the thousand refracted, disparate beauties out there." Butand this is the fault of big-house publishers as much as Harold Bloom et fils, as you note doesn’t the future look rather bleak in this respect, especially with so few independent publishers left in the wake of multinational mergers and buy-outs? Who poses the bigger threatthe academics who prescribe policy or the commercial publishers focused on their profit margins?
CM: I'm not feeling as bleak as many on this one. I do believe that big publishers will become more and more absurd, publishing less and less of any value whatsoever and it will become increasingly clear that this is simply not where serious work is available anymore. It will become more and more vulgar and trashy and formulaic, I think. Today you see all kinds of so-called serious fiction that is nothing more than pretensions versions of Hollywood movies and soon enough big time publishing will just be one arm of that miserable industry. Publishers of the usual crap which masquerades as innovative or cutting edge or "transgressive," whatever— which they justify by economics, market research, the buying public etc.—will become archaic, obsolete and even more ludicrous than they are already. And far more transparent I think.
        So then what? There will be a huge gap that will need to be filled. Real readers aren't going to just give up—neither are real writers. No book, no matter how daring or noncommercial, will go out of print as the Internet moves into maturity. This is a remarkable thing. I believe the electronic future, which there is obviously no holding back, will be where the action is. There is no question in my mind that the salvation of past and future literature lies in the electronic realm. Harold Bloom mourns the end of the reading experience as we have always known it, and I do too a little, but whole new ways of reading and perception will open up. Also the electronic world will be a more democratic one. Publishers won't be able to keep out or impose their "tastes." Of course there will be a lot of junk, but very quickly there will be ways to deal with it, I think. I worry a little about the loss of thought as we now know it. We are on the cusp of such radical change—it's like 1900 all over again. One once feared that the Machine Age would mean the end of silence and would change the reading experience— and it did change it, irrevocably, of course. I think there is always fear—and not without reason. And there is always mourning—there's no way around it. But I think the future is electronic and there's no reason to get all freaked out about it. Why, look at your fabulous Barcelona Review! Most of the independent publishers can't afford to publish much experimentation anymore and so the loss of them does not seem to me as keen or profound a loss as it seems to some people. It seems we've already lost them somehow. One wishes it were otherwise—and yet, I think of how Ulysses was published, and there are any number of examples. I guess I am secretly hoping for a small press resurgence of some sort through partnerships with the Internet. Suffice it to say I'm not all that gloomy about the future of literature. I guess that's pretty evident though in an essay like "Rupture, Verge and Precipice."
        As far as the Academy goes, as long as it's possible to be turned on to Theresa Cha's Dictee or Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson or Monique Wittig's Les Guerilleres in its hallowed halls, I'll put my money there.

BR: You say in one essay that "Women, blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc., are all made to sound essentially the samethat is, say, like John Cheever, on a bad day." We know this is partly the fault of literary dictates and the lack of vision of "literary" editors, but this homogeneity reflects American culture at large, doesn’t it? In a country where you can hardly tell one town from another for the chain restaurants, malls, discount outlets, etc, it seems inevitable that the literature will reflect a sameness. Is this some kind of American curse?
CM: I think generally what you say about American culture is all too true. And yet people still, against all odds, maintain some vestige of individuality, I think. It is deep-seated—it's not so easily given up. All people to some degree—and artists, with any luck, to a much greater degree because it is their job not to be homogenized, Hallmarked, etc.—will not succumb to the numbing and stultifying effects of American life. I'm not speaking of the individual genius or nobility of the artist—far from it—but the essential dignity and complexity of the human spirit—despite everything. Many who are doing interesting work play into the notion of our essential sameness and interchangeability, saying there is no original expression and disassembling the individual as we have constructed it. But these are hard, provocative questions you ask and woefully inadequate responses, I'm afraid.
        I do think the economic and emotional lures of publishing are much more seductive and much more insidious, and therefore a much more serious threat to serious writers. I think what is being asked in terms of acquiescence and compromise under the guise of a serious literary career is far more dangerous than are the more explicit and obvious blights on the physical and spiritual American landscape: stripmalls, chain restaurants, Disneyfication etc., and the usual assaults on the American heart and mind and spirit. This sameness can be easily identified and therefore dealt with but not I think the sameness of the demands which are much more artfully closeted by the publishing houses.

BR: "The future is feminine, for real, this time." I like the optimism of this, yet one sees so many females following the old male role models (clawing their way up the corporate ladder, pumping out fiction for the market, publishing fiction for the market) that it’s difficult to feel hopeful sometimes.
CM: Yes, it's difficult to feel hopeful sometimes. There will always be those women who will try to emulate male models. Having been marginalized their whole lives, they want to be on the inside for once. And never has there been more opportunity to get there. It's only human nature. Still, I think sensibilities are changing. I think there is a shift toward the feminine, which is not, by the way, the sole possession of women—far from it—but of everyone. There is something increasingly ludicrous about the traditional male claims, not only on literature but on the world in general. The power is eroding. Everyone senses it a little I think. There is a kind of panic in the air. Cloning alone! I felt it a lot with men around my pregnancy. They sense increasingly, I think, that the party is over.

BR: In your journal, you wrote: "A gift unanticipated—this ability to shed all that once disturbed so. My war with the literary mainstream ended. I have no desire to press against them. It is part of this great letting go now. It clears the path for me at 42 to begin my real work, my real writing." This was written during your pregnancy. What are your present feelings? You say you once needed this war to keep up your edge, to push yourself, "to write up against." That tension can’t have all dissipated, can it?
CM: I am now finally ready to do my own work after a long, hard apprenticeship. Directing my fury at the mainstream was part of that apprenticeship, I believe—useful, yes, but now I have finally divorced myself from their weird directives and so cannot be affected by them in quite the same way. Part of the performance of my dismay has allowed me, I suspect, to make the final break, and now I can serenely work, doing what I must do without care for my "career" or "reputation," or any of it. I feel a glorious indifference now to what's going on there. The pregnancy and birth helped rearrange priorities and made time much more precious even than it had been—also it somehow dawned on me, after the birth, that I was fighting a war that I had already won. I don't know.... I just knew I had won. I can't describe how extraordinary a feeling it is to be finally ready to write something of my own—after all this time. Free finally. No longer dancing that elaborate and asinine dance with the devil.

BR: Who isn’t getting read and reviewed who should be?
CM: Anyone published by a small press—and these presses would include New Directions, Sun & Moon, Dalkey Archive, City Lights, Four Walls Eight Windows, Graywolf, CoffeeHouse, Copper Canyon, Fiction Collective 2, Kelsey Street, Zoland, to name a few—aren't getting reviewed. Anyone who violates the formula is not reviewed, anyone who experiments with form is not reviewed. Form is the great taboo these days, not subject matter. In fact the more sensational and forbidden the subject matter the more in line you will be with the dictates of the mainstream (create a Hollywood text). Anyone who writes poetry is not reviewed. Anyone who challenges the notions of what literature is, what the book is, and what it might be—working within that spirit—will not be reviewed extensively. When they are reviewed they will be treated for the most part with dismissal, condescension, fear, indifference or, if you're lucky, loathing. Reviewing in America is in abysmal shape. Regular writers essentially do not have the time to do the job any book deserves. And there aren't many professional book reviewers anymore. And there should be. I am right now trying to get through the unabridged journals of Sylvia Plath to review. I must be crazy.

BR: Back to Defiance: lines, partial lines and reworked lines of Eliot’s run throughout the novel and in other writing of yours and the rhythms work marvelously, as does the image of the "patient etherized." What we have is The Love Song of Bernadette Joan O’Brien, isn’t it? A feminine perspective, which provides a whole new construct. Did you consciously work at deconstructing Eliot? Or is "reconstructing" a better term?
CM: Oh, I like the idea of Bernadette asking, Do I dare disturb the universe? Perhaps, yes, as a girl she might have asked this in earnest. And the resounding response finally. Yes I do!
        You know I love Eliot, and I love your idea of Defiance as a reconstructing of Eliot. And yes, I was aware all the way through of his presence. Defiance was written simultaneously on quite a number of levels and that was one of the profound pleasures of the book for me.

BR: Could Beatrice have saved Bernadette if there had been a physical intimacy in their relationship? Or, put another way, if Beatrice hadn’t married, which came as a slap in the face to Bernadette?
CM: Alas, I do not think Bernadette could have been saved. I do not see her capable of physical intimacy in the end. She may have tried but I suspect it would have been an awful failure. Every ordinary means of escape is unavailable to her. I was playing God and I stacked the deck, I'm afraid.

AVABR: Would Ava Klein [AVA] have recognized Bernadette’s uniqueness? How would Ava have perceived her if they were, say, colleagues at the same university? Ava instead of Elizabeth. Say they were thrown together on some committee.
CM: Yes, Ava would have recognized that brilliant wounded extraordinary thing in Bernadette. I think Ava would have adored her in some way and felt keenly for her—especially her inability to experience pleasure of any kind outside the numbers—because Ava to my mind is, despite everything, a person devoted to pleasure, and to life. I think there would have been a strange attraction between the death and life forces within each of them. It's an intriguing notion to me. I think Ava would have been completely wowed by Bernadette's mind. And I think Bernadette would have been a little in love with Ava's joie de vivre. AVA's original title was In the Joie de Vivre Room. There's a room called that at the Musee Picasso in Antibes. A room I've spent a lot of time in.

BR: "So that form takes as many risks as content —" from AVA. . .
I happened to have a copy of AVA with me one day when I ran into local writer Nuria Amat. Nuria speaks very little English, but she looked at the cover, looked at your photo, then opened the book and raised her eyebrows in surprise: "I like this author," she said, and made note of the name. She was responding only to form and the odd word she could identify on the page.

CM: For me the way in which the story is told is the story. This is at the crux of composition for me. Form is my obsession. You know I love the story you tell about the writer Nuria Amat. I think it is possible to know a great deal without necessarily understanding any of a language's literal meaning. It's only one small part of the way language and form work on us. Its sounds, its silences, its surges, its reticences, its wholeness or fragmentation, its energy—all play directly into the meaning it carries and conveys. Literal meaning is just the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes with my students we will listen to a text written in a language we do not understand and see what secrets the language might give up.

BR: Of Defiance you write: "I knew even then that I was writing for the last time in a quaint, and fast-waning tradition: the conventional novel." But it certainly isn’t that conventional. What direction is your writing taking these days?
CM: For me Defiance critiques the very conventions it employs. And I think it plays into and often mocks such mainstream notions as character, voice, and plot—which in this case functions like a vice, point of view, climax, etc. It's on one level a rather preposterous and cynical project, which I believe through these kinds of decisions speaks to and adds to the book's general tenor and concerns. As I said before, I was playing God—one of the more persistent and annoying mainstream conventions, and a stance I disapprove of strenuously. Defiance does enter the traditional bargains with the reader, it does rely on buying into the "fictive dream," it plays on an unquenchable desire in mainstream fiction for event and action—even as it belittles it. It takes any number of mainstream formulas and exaggerates them, mocks them, makes them ludicrous, and at the same time rather riveting. I was interested to see what putting these sorts of limitations and restraints on myself might produce. I wanted to take a certain kind of narrative to its logical end. I've exhausted my interest in this now though. It sounds as if I don't like this book, but I do actually—it astounds and shocks me a little. It's a cynical triumph, I think.
        But I leave that world behind entirely now—I'm just not interested in writing books that resemble other books anymore. I am attempting now to find the abstract shapes and patterns that will convey and hold extreme emotion. I am interested in combining more completely and convincingly disparate forms: essay, poetry, and the visual arts with the fiction. I am interested in dissolving character and working more in multi-voiced, polyphonic sheets of sound. Of incorporating different fields of narrative. All the while re-imagining for myself what narrative is, and how to keep a grounding element present in some way. I am not interested in writing inscrutable texts, but ones that will engage me and enlarge my notions of what is possible. I feel so isolated and disinterested in what passes, for the most part, for fiction now. It all seems so transparent. So obvious. Making too little and too much sense at the same time. I think a book is capable of almost anything. I don't think we've even scratched the surface yet.
        I'm working on a large novel—have been working on it on and off a long time now—over ten years—it may take another ten, I don't know. It is called The Bay of Angels and is part of what I imagine to be a literary triptych of which my novel AVA is the first panel.

BR: Do you write with a computer? How has your schedule altered now that you have a child?
CM: I write in very large black spiral artist's notebooks. I need the space. And I love to write by hand. After I've gone as far as I think I can go, I enter it into the computer and do another draft, sometimes two, sometimes more. But I try and stay in the notebooks for as long as possible. It's a great joy.
        I used to work whenever possible from the time I woke up for the next five or so hours. At night I would prepare for the next day. All day I would carry the project in my head. This was my ideal way of working. Now I am up with the baby from 6 until 10 in the morning and then work until 3pm when the woman who comes to the house to look after Rose leaves. This is 4 or 5 days a week. We spend the rest of the day together until she falls asleep at 8. After that I find I am just too depleted and distracted to do any more work. Of course I teach one semester a year as well and in those 4 1/2 months things are a lot less predictable.

BR: Your partner Helen thinks Almodóvar would be the perfect film director for a screen adaptation of Defiance. He once said he’d never consider doing an American film unless it included transies, but . . . if he could be persuaded? Would he be your first choice? What other of your novels would you like to see in film, if any?
CM: I think Almodóvar proved with his last film that really he can do anything he wants. His vitality, his passion, his intelligence, his range, his willingness to continue to change and evolve all move me terribly. Defiance seems a quintessentially American book—but I don't think he'd have a moment's trouble with it. The cultural distance would be a plus in this case, I think. The book is in many ways a black comedy: garish, outrageous, over the top, often bleakly hilarious—it is also a tragedy. Few directors can really handle both well. Almodóvar can turn from one to another on a dime. I adore his work. Defiance is also a book without redemption. I think Europeans in general are much more attuned to this notion than Americans.Chinese Hat Americans simply cannot get their minds around such a thing. They refuse to believe that such a thing is possible.
        I can see Ghost Dance and The American Woman easily turning into films. Ghost Dance, sadly enough, remains all too topical, what with the latest Firestone/Ford antics. There has been interest on and off in The American Woman in particular. All that French Riviera!

BR: How is baby Rose anyway and how are you handling the Terrible Twos? Is there any of the "Buddha spirit" left that you experienced during pregnancy?
CM: Baby Rose is fabulous. Two is an amazing age. Watching her acquire language has been one of the great thrills of my life. She is now practising conjugating verbs. Yes I am, she says. Yes I will. Yes I do. Yes I did. She says them over and over in a row and then tries them out in different places in a conversation. She's a little Joycean—her word combinations are amazing. Of course! She was born on Bloomsday after all. It's also extraordinary to watch her becoming autonomous. One of the refrains of these days is "Baby do it." The Twos are not quite so terrible as they might be because she is quite free of temper tantrums. We are still breastfeeding, and my theory is she doesn't feel the usual betrayal and frustration and senselessness of having the breast taken away arbitrarily.

BR: Off the cuff . . .
Favorite dead white males (of the literary kind):

Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, Melville, Mallarmé, Flaubert, Proust, Kafka, Beckett, Stevens, Nabokov, Calvino, Hemingway—the list really is endless.

Living Female icons:

Agnes Martin, Meredith Monk. Monique Wittig, Hélène Cixous, Patti Smith, Chantal Akerman, Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, Nicole Brossard, Martha Argerich, Rosemarie Waldrop, Doris Lessing, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Tipper Gore (only kidding), Nathalie Saurraute (OK she's dead), Diamonda Gallas, Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, Agnes Varda, Gong Li, Alicia de La Rocha, Leontyne Price, Courtney Love, P.J. Harvey.

Ideal Night Out:

To see something beautiful and endless: Tarr's Satantango, Wagner's Ring, Glass and Wilson's Einstein on the Beach, Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, Kieslowski's Decalogue

Favorite Recent Films:

Flowers of Shanghai, The Puppetmaster—Hou Hsiao-hsien
Time Regained—Ruiz
Histoire du Cinema, JLG/JLG, Germany Year Nine Zero, Nouvelle Vague—Godard
All About My Mother—Almodóvar
Eyes Wide Shut—Kubrick
Autumn Tale— Rohmer
Beau Travail—Denis
Holy Smoke—Campion
Fallen Angels, Happy Together, Chungking Express—Wong Kar—Wai
Lovers on the Bridge—Carax
Close-Up, The Wind Will Carry Us—Kiarostami
After Life—Koreda
Irma Vep, Late August, Early September—Assayas
Decalogue, Red,White, Blue—Kieslowski
Forgive me . . . . I’m a film addict. I could do this all day!

Three things yet to do:

Write something in my own handwriting.
Shepherd my parents safely to the other side.
Help Rose to become a free person.

See also essay from Break Every Rule:
"Rupture, Verge, and Precipice  Precipice, Verge, and Hurt Not"
And book reviews:
Defiance, Break Every Rule, and The Room Lit by Roses

© 2000 The Barcelona Review

This interview  may not be archived or distributed further without the express permission of TBR and the author. Please see our conditions of use.

navigation:                         barcelona review #20                 september - october 2000

George Saunders: Sea Oak
Anthony Bourdain: Bobby At Work
Robert Antoni: How Iguana Got Her Wrinkles...
Anne Donovan: Hieroglyphics
Yvonne Vera:
excerpt from Butterfly Burning
Clayton Hansen: A Box for the Sand Country
Nuria Amat: excerpt from Intimacy


Carole Maso: Rupture, Verge, and Precipice...
Lawrence Norfolk: Being Translated...
Translators' Replies to Norfolk


John Ashbery: 3 Poems
Jonathan Monroe: 3 Poems

-Interview Carole Maso
-Article September and October in Barcelona

Harry Crews
Answers to last issue's Toni Morrison Quiz

-Regular Features Book Reviews
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