The acclaimed novelist and short story writer talks about sensual sentences, the controversy surrounding his first novel, and why his “enemy is blasé, detached, ironic art of any kind.”
Photo courtesy Martina Bacigalupo
It’s been a busy year for Alexander Maksik. His stories have appeared in Harper’s and Tin House and will be included in the 2013 Best American Nonrequired Reading collection. Meanwhile, he’s been steeling himself for an old-fashioned book tour. A Marker to Measure Drift will be released by Knopf this month.
The new book comes on the back of You Deserve Nothing, his debut novel, which was released by Europa Editions after several major publishers declined. It went on to become a critical and commercial success, and also gave rise to controversy when Maksik’s former student claimed that the depiction of a teacher’s affair with his pupil was closely based on her and Maksik’s own experiences. Until now, it has been the author’s decision to not comment on the allegation, but in this interview he does for the first time address the matter: “I lost my job, a job I loved, in a very public way.”
Maksik is a writer who provokes strong opinions, with a distinctive voice and an assured, intent approach. That approach was captured neatly in his recent essay on James Salter, whose work has so richly influenced his own: “Pay close enough attention to silver light on the ocean, to making love, to food, and all the rest is worth the trouble.” This is the scope of his new novel’s ambition. Properly reckon the life of the body, Maksik suggests, and we may find the earnestness needed for “all the rest.”
A Marker to Measure Drift is a portrait of a Liberian refugee deciding whether and how to go on living. Maksik’s heroine, Jacqueline, arrives on a Greek island hungry and skittish, driven by instinct and pride. The satisfaction of a few needs begins to fill her. She finds a place to sleep, earns money to eat, and begins to walk the island. Through a catalogue of sensations, Maksik charts the cruelty and the hope of Jacqueline’s new life, while slowly approaching the horrors of her past. The usual title of “unflinching” is not appropriate here. It’s a novel full of flinches for character and reader. Maksik’s world is reaching out to touch. The task he’s set for himself is to record the impression of that touch, be it caress or jab.
I met with Maksik at the Half King Bar in New York. A writer increasingly focused on lives far removed from his own, he was at first uncomfortable talking about himself. He sat with his back to the wall and a view of the entire room. Little seemed to escape him. The crowd outside bottlenecking at the Highline stairs. The Canadians in the next booth. The gauzy back of a waitress’s blouse. But once settled into conversation, he spoke with enthusiasm and tended to raise his drink several times before remembering to take a sip. We discussed the immigrant experience, his love for his characters, and sensual moments that can provide “something close to God.”
—Dwyer Murphy for Guernica
Guernica: In your new novel, you seem resolved to write about characters very different from you. That’s perhaps not a typical course for a writer early in his career.
Alexander Maksik: I’m not a publicly political person, but I feel that my work in some way should always be political, should be a response to the wider world. And I don’t know how to do that by writing about paying the rent. I find that I’m often bored by writing about a person trying to navigate the relationships in his or her own life, or the problems of being a writer in a particular milieu. None of that interests me. Even though there are writers who do it very well, it just doesn’t light me up when I read it. Self-referential, meta-fictional work—writing about writing about writing—it seems masturbatory. It bores me as a reader, and it bores me even more as a writer. I think fiction writers have a responsibility to be political.
Guernica: Was there ever any hesitation in writing about, for example, a Liberian refugee, like Jacqueline? Did you worry that readers or critics might get hung up on that gap between her experiences and yours?
Alexander Maksik: Yes. Of course, I worry about it, but I worry about it afterwards. When you’re writing, you’re in isolation, and it’s hard to believe anyone will ever read the work. It seems impossible. Anyway, the desire and ability to inhabit characters foreign from ourselves is essential to writing fiction. When I found the Jacqueline character, I felt a genuine interest in her. I had all sorts of doubts, but I just told myself to shut up. I actually spoke those words. There’s no one validating what you’re doing, telling you it’s worth continuing. But I knew that the character was someone I cared about. There was an emotional investment unlike anything I’d ever felt for a fictional character, to the point where it might have been unhealthy. It was a strange experience. The novel is either successful or it is not. The writer is irrelevant.
Guernica: How did you go about finding the character? Was she someone you had in mind for a long time?
Alexander Maksik: When I was living in Europe, I often went to Italy to visit my girlfriend in a tiny town in the north called Colorno, and I saw a guy who I think was the only black man in town or maybe even in the region. I watched him walk into the gardens, where he sat and smoked his cigarettes. I had an idea that I wanted to write about him. I ended up with a story about a man from Senegal working in a French ski resort, which eventually evolved into something different, a story about a Mexican immigrant, set in California and Idaho called “Deeper Winter.” But I still wanted to write this story about an African immigrant in Europe.
Guernica: And somehow that man in the garden in Colorno became Jacqueline?
Alexander Maksik: It’s a strange thing. I wish there were a more logical reason—why her? Why a woman at all? But it was an experiment: men, women, different classes, and when I got her, I was crazy about her. But even then, it wasn’t just about her. For a while I was writing a story about an immigrant on Santorini and a French-American couple also on the island. I was going back and forth between those stories, and eventually they intersected. At the time I was working on this, I would read what I was writing to a friend. She would listen to me read over the phone. Finally, she said, “Look, I don’t care about the French-American couple.” Now I had written a lot of them, thirty or forty thousand words, so when she said that, I was angry. But I was angry in the way you are when you hear something you don’t want to hear but you know is right. So I killed the couple. Once I did that, I was able to find that voice, Jacqueline’s voice.
I want to write about everything. I’m terrified of writing the same novels over and over again.
Guernica: The immigrant experience plays such a central role in your fiction. What is it about those stories, or those characters, that grips you?
Alexander Maksik: That’s a world that I’ve been trying to write about for a long time. When I was living in L.A., I’d talk to people who had just arrived in the city and were doing odd jobs. In France I spent a lot of time in the North of Paris, in immigrant neighborhoods full of West and North Africans. And traveling around Europe I would always find myself doing the same thing, talking for example to the guys in Barcelona selling sunglasses on the walkways above the beaches. I find those lives incredible and fascinating. And there’s a classic story there. A woman takes her children, gets into a boat, and crosses from Morocco to Spain. Often she doesn’t know the language. Doesn’t have anything. Trying to eke out a living. It’s incredibly brave. I should also say that while I’m interested in the immigrant life, it’s not the central focus of my work. I want to write about everything. I’m terrified of writing the same novels over and over again.
Guernica: Do you do find yourself personally drawn to that kind of life? Itinerant, if not quite so harrowing?
Alexander Maksik: I’m susceptible to that fantasy of beginning again, of starting over. It’s something I’ve done a lot in my life, although I’d never want to compare myself to the characters I’m writing about. But I’ve always liked the idea of going off to a new place and becoming some person that I’ve imagined being. There are varieties of that fantasy, but it strikes me as a very human and universal desire.
Guernica: You mentioned reading sections of the novel aloud to your friend. Do you always read your work aloud as you write?
Alexander Maksik: Yes, and it’s very important to me. I pay close attention to the repetition of words, to the rhythm of sentences and paragraphs. I wanted this to be a lyrical novel. I like the idea of a novel told in a kind of poetry, with close attention to sound.
Guernica: You wrote recently about James Salter, who said in an interview with Guernica that he’s become self-conscious about readers being struck by the beauty of his sentences. Is that something you worry about in trying to infuse an element of lyricism into your work?
Alexander Maksik: I don’t think to be poetic is necessarily to be beautiful. I very consciously tried to avoid making things pretty for the sake of being pretty. You have to be plain for the occasional beauty to have power. I don’t like writing where every sentence seems to be constructed to draw the reader’s attention. If it distracts, it fails. Beauty needs to be there to serve the story. I want simple, short sentences, so that they can work with the longer, lyrical passages and serve as counterpoints.
Guernica: Do you tend to revise extensively?
Alexander Maksik: I spend a lot of time cutting. This book became shorter and shorter. Ideally, you get rid of everything that is not absolutely necessary to the story. That’s easier to do with a seven thousand word story or a poem, but I tried very hard to do that with this novel. I might be a little obsessive about it. One of the greatest experiences I had as a writer was sitting at my kitchen table with a friend in Iowa, a wonderful writer named Merritt Tierce. We went through a manuscript of mine that we had both read and edited. We went page by page and we were just hacking away at the thing, and it was so much fun. I loved it. It was like playing music together. Sometimes I love editing more than I love writing. I went through twelve drafts of A Marker to Measure Drift.
How do I eat? How do I shelter myself? How do I survive? And after that, how do I make a life? I don’t know of anything more fascinating—not from the standpoint of a human being, or of a storyteller.
Guernica: Can you say anything about the first novel? About its path to publication?
Alexander Maksik: When I finished the novel I was still living in Paris. I sent a query letter to every agent I could find, and then the novel to those who requested it. I was turned down over and over. The rejections came month after month after month. Then one day after I’d more or less given up hope, Eric Simonoff wrote to say that he’d loved the book. Suddenly I had an agent. I was thrilled. But no one bought it. I did a rewrite and still no one bought it. We tried everywhere. I mean everywhere. Eric told me to put the book in a drawer. I didn’t know what to do, but start thinking about the next novel. Which I did and I also applied to Iowa. I was accepted and after seven years in Paris, I moved to Iowa City and started working on the book, which would become A Marker to Measure Drift. About a year later Europa Editions announced a new imprint to be curated by Alice Sebold. Eric sent them You Deserve Nothing and they bought it forty-eight hours later. Two weeks after that, John Murray Publishers bought it in the UK, and then other countries followed pretty quickly. It was an exciting time. And I think it says a great deal about Eric. It would have been very, very easy to give up on me. But he never did. And he hasn’t and I’ll always be grateful for that.
Guernica: Were you surprised by the ensuing controversy? Do you feel you were treated unfairly?
Alexander Maksik: I wasn’t surprised that there was some controversy, no. What happened in Paris was never a secret. I lost my job, a job I loved, in a very public way. What did surprise me was the insistence that the book was not a novel, which it very much is, or that my own history should have any bearing on how the novel is considered. I don’t believe that the quality of a work of fiction, or art, or music, changes because of an author’s background or behavior. Anyway, I don’t feel at all as if I’ve been treated unfairly. I’ve been very fortunate and I was thrilled to see You Deserve Nothing evaluated on its own merits.
Guernica: With the new novel, was there ultimately a reason why you chose Liberia as Jacqueline’s homeland? Was there something about that country or its stories that had a hold on you?
Alexander Maksik: I wanted a character who came from an English-speaking country. It felt contrived to take someone who spoke French and force English into his mouth. I started reading about Liberia. Like a lot of other people, I knew little about it, but the more I read, the more compelling I found the history of the country. The idea that Liberia is essentially the only true American colony, that those first colonizers were freed American slaves, the particularly close relationship the country had to the United States, until, of course, Liberia stopped being useful to us. I went to Estonia to do a residency and brought along a film called Liberia: An Uncivil War, which was one of the most intriguing, terrifying films I’d ever seen. There was no internet where I was working, very little telephone access, no library, nothing. So I watched this film over and over again and I couldn’t shake those images.
Guernica: With the Second Liberian Civil War a relatively recent tragedy, did you feel a special responsibility to make Jacqueline’s story accurate and authentic?
Alexander Maksik: This isn’t an historical novel. Of course I did my research. I didn’t invent the most gruesome games that I could imagine. The things that happened to Jacqueline and her family happened to real people and happened often. But I’m by no means an expert on Liberia or the civil war or Charles Taylor, and I wasn’t overly concerned about whether a particular bar was on a particular street, though I tried to be as accurate as possible. What was most important to me was that the novel be accurate emotionally. I wanted Jacqueline to be an authentic, whole person. Ultimately, it’s a novel about this woman, and that’s where my responsibility lies.
Guernica: In terms of present action, there’s a very focused, discrete series of events unfolding. Did you find yourself stripping down the plot as you wrote?
Alexander Maksik: There was a time when I thought something else had to happen in the present—that she be challenged, maybe attacked, maybe arrested by the police. Something in the present that was thrilling. But it struck me that it’s more interesting, and more realistic, if nothing happens. There’s a drama in not being distracted. I knew I wanted to tell a kind of odyssey story. The drama for me was: when you’re in the position of everything having been taken from you and you wash up on an island, how do you live? People wash up in foreign countries every day, and they all have to deal with certain problems. How do I eat? How do I shelter myself? How do I survive? And after that, how do I make a life? I don’t know of anything more fascinating—not from the standpoint of a human being, or of a storyteller. So when Jacqueline achieves this thing she wants—survival—she’s then confronted with the problem of what do I do now? How do I deal with my past? And so it seemed that telling her story—what happened to her in Liberia—was the most dramatic thing and the most cathartic thing that could happen in the book.
Guernica: And you wanted it to be the final thing, the destination of Jacqueline’s journey?
Alexander Maksik: I want it to come to the reader in the same way it comes to the character. I want the reader to feel that we’ve joined Jacqueline at this time in her life, when she is trying to both avoid and confront this story, this event, which has set her adrift. I probably err on the side of withholding too much, but I want the story to be organic. There’s nothing more offensive to me as a reader than that final moment when I sense that a writer doesn’t have the confidence to say, “If you don’t understand, tough shit.” That step too far is an indication of fear. If the characters are rich enough, are fully drawn, then somehow a smart reader gets her answers. But to answer your question, yes, I love the idea that the telling of a story is a kind of destination.
There’s an important distinction between characters who behave badly, but still have the love of their creator, and those who don’t. Even the characters who behave most despicably need to be human beings.
Guernica: When you’re working on something like this over a period of years, how do you know when you have the right voice, the right character, the one that’s going to come alive?
Alexander Maksik: When I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about Jacqueline, I knew that I had something. I cared about her. I would think about her constantly. I had a kind of romantic interest in her. I mean that I thought about her the way I’ve thought about people in my life I’ve loved. That’s what I want more than anything when I’m writing, to find a character that I feel so strongly about. That’s the way I think that all good work is done, not just writing. Art or business or whatever you do. There needs to be a real passion there. The enemy is blasé, detached, ironic art of any kind. That’s what I respond negatively to. I don’t want that anywhere in my life. I’ll forgive anything else if I can see that the work matters to the artist.
Guernica: That rejection of irony is an important part of your work. And it distinguishes you from many contemporaries. Was that your natural approach, or something you made a point of developing?
Alexander Maksik: I studied Chekhov with Allan Gurganus, and one of his points in reading Chekhov was how characters need to be loved by their authors. I always knew that empathy was an important aspect of writing fiction, but before that class I knew it in an academic sense. Then something clicked for me, and I realized what a deep empathy you need, what that really means on a practical level. You can’t humiliate your characters. There can’t be characters who are there only to be attacked. I don’t mean that I’m exclusively interested in characters who always behave well. I love to read about characters who do terrible things. But there’s an important distinction between characters who behave badly, but still have the love of their creator, and those who don’t. Even the characters who behave most despicably need to be human beings. And when I understood all this, I realized how I wanted to write. I also realized why I was put off by certain writing, where characters are made to be destroyed. Irony, glibness, detachment—it’s adolescent, too easy, too safe. Sincerity and love require more courage, I think.
I think I write best when I never come up for air. There’s a mild madness to writing well.
Guernica: When you’re writing about a character who has suffered horrible trauma, as Jacqueline has in the new novel, and you’re doing it in a voice that’s sympathetic almost to the point of identity, is there ever a need to come up for air?
Alexander Maksik: When I was writing this book, I realized that if I remove all those authorial devices that distinguish author or narrator from character, it flows so much more seamlessly. With Jacqueline’s mother, for example, I wanted the experience of the reader to be as close to the experience of Jacqueline as possible. I never wrote, “Sometimes Jacqueline would imagine her mother…” Instead, her mother appears, the way sometimes I’m walking and am suddenly struck by a memory which is inspired by a smell or a woman passing who has eyes like a woman I once knew. For me, memory is a sensual experience. I wanted that to happen for Jacqueline and for the reader. I wanted there to be no authorial intervention between her memory and her present life, because we flow seamlessly between those experiences. And I think I write best when I never come up for air. There’s a mild madness to writing well.
Guernica: Your work has a sharp focus on that connection between physical experience and internal life. You’ve written about sensuality in literature almost like a creed.
Alexander Maksik: I like writing that is deeply sensual because that’s how I experience the world. That’s how I experience everything that pleases me. I’m happiest when I’m immersed in a moment of sensual experience. I want the same thing as a writer and as a reader. The finest moments of my writing life are when everything but the work goes away. And as a reader, it’s the same—there’s that moment when suddenly you forget that you’re reading. The world that’s distracting you vanishes.
Guernica: That kind of immersion in the physical world also stirs something spiritual in Jacqueline and leads her to contemplate more spiritual problems. Did you set out to write a religious book?
Alexander Maksik: I find that the more time I spend alone, the more often I drift into considerations of God. Jacqueline’s mother is a religious figure, a spiritual entity. She’s dead, but she’s present. I’m not a religious person, but certain people live in my memory in very precise and vivid ways, and that seems to me something that’s close to God. On the other hand, I feel the same about deeply sensual, deeply physical moments, when memory is entirely eradicated. And there’s an interesting tension between those two types of spiritual experience. There are moments when I’m totally unaware of myself or my surroundings, completely lost in recollection, feeling the presence of someone I haven’t seen or maybe even thought of for years. I’m lost. Twenty minutes can go by and it’s as if I weren’t there at all. It feels dangerous to me. It’s like a hallucination. I have that experience regularly. My grandmother, with whom I had a very particular relationship, appears… I don’t want to say appears, I don’t want to sound like a… but I see her in ways that are extremely vivid. Isn’t that a sort of evidence of God? And on the other hand, I’ve never been happier than when I’m deeply immersed in physical experience—running, sex, eating, swimming. I’ve been swimming in the water where Jacqueline swims in this novel, and it’s an extraordinary thing, bordering on the spiritual. Those moments also feel like God. So in a certain way, this book is an attempt to reconcile those two varieties of spiritual experience.
Guernica: But you hesitate to call those experiences religious?
Alexander Maksik: I’ve had so many moments of deep, intense feeling, and those moments are God to me. But I don’t really believe in God. I’m averse to religion really. I’m not even attracted to it. I’m attracted to that kind of certainty, but I have a hard time understanding it.
Guernica: And Jacqueline eventually begins to grapple with these same problems?
Alexander Maksik: I wanted this to be a story about someone who has experienced profound trauma and is navigating a line between the desire to continue and the desire to stop. I’m not suicidal, I should say, but that seems to me a pivotal question. In some ways, underneath all compelling characters is that question. And it’s even more compelling when the character has so little, but chooses to continue. That’s a mysterious thing, this desire to live, to recreate life in spite of it all.
Guernica: The title—A Marker to Measure Drift—how does it relate to this decision that Jacqueline’s making, the decision to carry on?
Alexander Maksik: The phrase comes from an essay I wrote years ago about sensualism, and from an image I kept returning to—trips to the beach with my parents when I was a kid. They had a little red Igloo Playmate cooler, where we would keep sandwiches. When I was out swimming, I would float with the current, and keep an eye on the cooler to measure how far I’d drifted. In the novel, Jacqueline is trying to find something like that—a solid point that she can use to evaluate the distance she has traveled, to measure how far she has drifted from a previous life.
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