Maud Casey: Author Interview

Maud Casey is the author of the novel The Shape of Things to Come and a collection of short stories entitled Drastic. The Shape of Things to Come was named a New York Times Book of the Year. The New York Times called Casey “a stand-up philosopher posing the most vexing questions about human existence while satirizing the materialistic ways we find to hold our despair at a distance. She’s funny and inventive…[taking] a dazzling narrative dare.” She received Pushcart Prize Special Mentions in 1997 and 2003 for two of the stories included in Drastic. Her stories have appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Gettysburg Review, Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review and other publications. Casey received her bachelors degree from Wesleyan University and an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona. She teaches in the MFA programs of the University of Maryland and Goddard College.

Wayne: Though it’s often used to mask a sadness, there is a wonderful sense of humor in your fiction. It also ranges in style and tone. In Drastic, it can be simply offbeat and amusing, similar to what see from Eudora Welty or Anne Tyler, who populate their fiction with quirky characters. At other times, your fiction can be silly, satirical or poignant. In The Shape of Things to Come, the humor is more sad. Where does your sense of humor come from? Is humor usually sad, and is its source sadness–or something else, like exasperation?

Maud: I’m thrilled to hear you find my writing funny. My humor has occasionally been mistaken for bitterness–I won’t name any names, but let’s just say that a particular anonymous review of Shape referred to it as a “bitter, little novel.” Still planning on getting a tee-shirt made that says “bitter, little novelist.”

I’m not sure where my humor comes from, though I see it as a form of resilience in the face of sadness. One of Lorrie Moore’s characters says at one point, “Life is sad. Here is someone.” Or something, a banana peel? My favorite kind of humor doesn’t mask sadness so much as embrace it. Life is sad, but there’s beauty and, often, hilarity to be found in its sadness. The great philosopher Mel Brooks once said, “Comedy is when you get eaten by a lion. Tragedy is when I cut myself shaving.” Humor requires a little distance from great sadness, so it can be a kind of relief. It’s a relief, but it’s also deeply, inextricably related to and entwined with sadness.

Wayne: Which writers do you enjoy for their sense of humor?

Maud: Some of my favorite funny writers, at the inevitable risk of leaving a gazillion out, are Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, George Saunders, Stuart Dybek, Gogol, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Josip Novakovich, Alexander Hemon, A.L. Kennedy, Pinckney Benedict (“Zog 19: A Scientific Romance” in particular). But again, this is writing that has made me laugh out loud that is also deeply tragic on some level. Humor relies on sadness, and the other way around. For example, “A Season of Madness” by Hanan al-Shaykh is a disturbing story about a Lebanese woman who is trying to get out of a marriage by feigning madness, and yet it’s infused with humor. The story begins, “I fell upon my mother-in-law, biting her nose!”

Adam Haslett’s story, “Notes from my Biographer,” a story about actual madness does a similar thing–the narrative voice is full of life and humor and wildness and yet underneath it runs a tension that is created by the juxtaposition of sadness with that rollicking voice. Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jewish writer who was killed by the Nazis, wrote two whimsical, lovely, surreal books–The Street of Crocodiles and Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass–which reflect the atmosphere of Poland in the mid-1930s as they woo the reader with talking horses and a father who turns into a cockroach.

Wayne: Does good fiction give solace or teach?

Maud: I think it’s safe to say that good fiction never sets out to teach. If it sets out to teach, it’s usually a didactic disaster. I’m afraid I’m becoming a quoting machine, but when all else fails, turn to the masters for better words. I read in an interview somewhere that Arthur Miller said, “I write in order to discover, not to explain.” Writing has, however, given me incredible solace–I think all good art does. That’s what it’s meant to do–take the raw stuff of life and transform it into something that makes sense or asks important questions of the otherwise anxiety-producing chaos.

Wayne: A sense of the transitory pervades both Drastic and The Shape of Things to Come. In The Shape of Things to Come: obviously, Isabelle’s jobs at Temporama; her retreat from San Francisco back to Standardsville, where she (and her old beau) seems to be waiting for something to happen; the different dates that come in and out of the life of Isabelle’s Mom. In Drastic, you talk about the fleetingness of memories and how relationships lead to other relationships. Are we always in transition (in your short story “Relief,” you talk about how a certain relationship ends because it revolved around possibility, not achievement), or is there an ideal, some kind of stability or stage that we can reach?

Maud: I wish I knew! If you discover some kind of attainable stability, please let me know immediately. Back to Arthur Miller’s idea of writing to discover, not explain–I think the reason the transitory nature of life has been such a subject for me is that it’s something I wanted to think about, ask questions about, on the page. I am, admittedly, someone who has moved around a lot (something ridiculous like 8 times in the past 12 years), but more than that, I’ve been interested in exploring that sense of being in constant motion even when you’re not moving. Stillness as something we aspire to but which never actually happens. But maybe we can be still-er? See, to discover, not explain. My next book is, in part, a road novel, so clearly I really don’t have the answer, and I think I’m more interested in the questions anyway.

Wayne: Additionally, death seems to be a recurring topic throughout your fiction. One of your characters takes that final step, and his friend seems envious that she cannot join him. Another says that “death is boring, death is boring, death is boring.” Is death seen by your characters as one of the only true resting stages, something to mock or is it a state that hangs over the mind?

Maud: Well, death is certainly still. It’s got that going for it. That character’s “death is boring” mantra is her attempt to fend it off with irreverence, though I think she’s more scared of her own inclination toward self-destruction than dismissive. Perhaps not the most effective strategy, but, let’s face it, she’s sort of a mess. I suppose death is a recurring topic in my fiction, but then again, it’s a recurring topic in life, right? It’s there all the time as much as we try to deny its presence, sometimes hovering on the periphery or happening somewhere else, sometimes crashing in on us. A character in Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries” says that every happy person should have an unhappy person knocking on his door all day long, which sounds like a real drag but I think there’s some truth to it. Don’t get too comfortable, or rather, don’t ignore what’s happening in the world all around you.

Wayne: Your characters often flit in and out of dreams. Are dreams more reflective of the past or future? What purpose do they serve in our lives and the lives of your characters?

Maud: Dreams are kind of amazing things. I mean, there you are, sleeping and your brain is producing this wild imagery, making bizarre yet seemingly meaningful connections. I’m not sure whether they’re more reflective of the past or the future–they seem like a hodge-podge of both, a place where the past is present again. Dreams are a dicey thing in fiction because they can appear to be a cop-out, a way to dodge the logic of the story. They’re always held up as the cardinal sin of beginning writing students–and then the alarm clock went off and it was all a dream. But when dreams work within the logic of the story, as a way to juxtapose the extraordinary with ordinary circumstances the way magic realism does, then they can be fun.

In my story “Arrangement of the Night Office in Summer,” a dream was an opportunity to use an image that would have been ridiculous and heavy-handed in the waking world of the story–a wedding ring being rolled like dice across a craps table. And the dream in “Relief” in which the character dreams she has insomnia. It was a way of showing just how anxious and unsettled the character was (based on a dream that came out of my own anxious and unsettled mind). John Gardner likened fiction to a dream you create in the readers mind. I like that idea, stories as dreams that readers enter into. The trick then, as the writer, is to make sure you sustain that dream for the reader.

Wayne: Isabelle in The Shape of Things to Come seems somewhat like a female Holden Caufield who temps. Over the course of the novel, we gradually realize that she occupies an alternate reality, even though her musings begin to ring more true than those of the people around her. How did “Days at Home” become The Shape of Things to Come? Why was it the story calling out to become novelized?

Maud: A female Holden Caufield who temps! That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said about Isabelle. It’s going on the back of the “bitter, little novelist” tee-shirt as a rebuttal. The mother and daughter character in “Days at Home” were characters who I’d written about before in other stories so they were growing incrementally already. I was interested in the dynamic between this mother who appeared to be standing on the metaphorical table of life, screaming at the top of her lungs, and this allegedly grownup daughter who seemed to be cowering underneath that same table.

I was interested in the tension that arose from putting these two in the same house over the course of a summer. And I always liked Raymond in his falling-down polyester pants. Then right after graduate school I was living in, yes, my own mother’s basement in lllinois, working for, yes, a temp agency, and they sent me on, you got it, a mystery shop to a gated community. It was utterly bizarre–I remember sitting in my car outside the gated community memorizing not only the questions I was supposed to ask for the parent company (does the real estate agent call you by your first name upon meeting you?) but also the details of my made-up life (a salary that would have made it possible to live there, for one) and it seemed like the perfect job for Isabelle. And so the Holden Caufield who temps was born.

Wayne: Can you tell us about writers who have influenced you? Additionally, you’ve had an opportunity to work with and talk to some top-notch writers. Can you tell us what you learned that you think would have been difficult for you to learn on your own?

Maud: Always the hardest question because it would require a novel-length list to answer it, but, here goes. All of the writers I listed in the answer to the first question and, leaving a gazillion out: my parents, John Casey and Jane Barnes, Christina Stead, Barbara Comyns, Edward Jones, Walker Percy, Beth Nugent, Jayne Anne Phillips, Isaac Babel, Alice Munro, John Edgar Wideman, Nina Berberova, Eudora Welty, Max Frisch, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Chekhov, James Salter, Mary Robison, Elizabeth Tallent, Elizabeth Alexander, Virginia Woolf, Naguib Mahfouz, Kenny Marotta. I’ll stop there, though the list goes on and on.

There were very early influences: Maurice Sendak, Richard Scary, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, whoever it was who wrote The Phantom Tollbooth. There have been so many revelatory moments in my life when I’ve picked up a book and thought, you’re allowed to do this? All of those moments were influential.

I’m incredibly indebted to each of my teachers whose writing has influenced me as well: Franklin Reeve, Phyllis Rose, Elizabeth Evans, Allison Moore, Dagoberto Gilb, all of whom, in one way or another, corny as it may sound, said, “Yes, you can do that.” Hearing that is crucial, because so much of the writer’s life is sitting in a room by yourself thinking, this is impossible and/or I have no freaking idea what I’m doing.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Stuart Dybek and it turned into an amazing master class in which he articulated notions of counterpoint and juxtaposition in fiction, the use of imagery, finding a way to translate the nature of memory onto the page, things I’d been obsessed by but didn’t have words for. My friend, Timothy Schaffert, a novelist, has taught me again and again about the lyrical possibilities of fiction. A beautiful example of this is his book, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters. It’s impossible to list all of the things I wouldn’t have learned on my own without all of the fabulous and generous writers I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting over the years. It’s part of what I love about teaching, getting to rub shoulders with colleagues who are incredible writers and thinkers about writing at the University of Maryland and Goddard where I teach in the MFA programs. Students too, are a tremendous source of new information–there’s a great essay [“What is Real?”] by Alice Munro a student brought into class once that I now quote religiously though I’ll spare you here.

Wayne: Anything you can tell us about your most current project?

Maud: It almost killed me for one. It’s a much different book than my first novel, bigger in scope, and in the beginning I kept thinking, I need to hire someone smarter than me to write it. Like The Shape of Things to Come., it grew out of a story from Drastic. In this case “Genealogy.” The novel will also be called Genealogy and it’s almost as complicated to explain as it has been to write.

Basically, it is the story of a family that, at the beginning of the novel, has already fallen apart. Bernard, an academic obsessed with the bizarre tale of Louise Lateau (a real historical figure about whom almost nothing has been written except for an article published in 1879 in The Catholic Review), a 19th century Belgian girl who developed stigmata every Friday after surviving a cholera epidemic, hit the road after discovering his wife, Samantha, in a compromising position with a carpenter hired to transform their bathroom into a bathroom worthy of a 19th century cure for mental illness called “the continuous bath” because Samantha has taken it upon herself to heal her daughter’s manic depression. Sara, the mentally ill daughter, however, has run away in the throws of a manic episode. Her brother, Ryan, also gone, took off in the back of a van with a mediocre rock band. Still with me? So the book begins with Samantha, alone in the family home, a converted train station in the Rhode Island countryside. Without giving too much away, there’s a tragedy in the first chapter that requires the family to go in search of Sara. So it’s part road novel, part meditation on faith, mental illness, and ecstasy, told in four alternating perspectives–Samantha, Bernard, Ryan, and Sara–and haunted by Louise Lateau.

I’m really excited about it–once I got over my own insecurity about taking on subjects that required quite a bit of research, and my writer’s block, and more insecurity, and more writer’s block, and more insecurity and more writer’s block, it was a pleasure to write. It’ll be out from Harper Perrenial in September 2005.

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