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Carole Maso: an interview.

Nicole Cooley: The first question I want to ask is why have you chosen to focus on the novel rather than on the short story or the poem?

Carole Maso: Poetry is my first love. That's what I read. I read very little fiction. I read some of the fiction from other countries, and while working on my B.A. in English at Vassar, I got a pretty solid background. Now, given the choice, poetry is what I read. It speaks best to my experiences of the world. But I need a larger canvas than I feel most poetry can contain. I need a large musical structure to work within to create the kinds of resonances I'm after. Now maybe you can do that in a very long poem, but I need the sense of time the novel is capable of providing. Novels exist in time and recreate time in a way that the other forms don't.

NC: What about the short story?

Maso: I've never written a short story. Never. If I thought I was sitting down to write a short story, I don't think I could do it. I just don't see that way--in those rhythms. It amazes me that the World's Fair section of Ghost Dance has been excerpted as a short story and parts of The American Woman have been excerpted as short stories. The short story seems just far too neat for me, even the ones that are open-ended seem too resolved or too tidy for what I'm really interested in, which is to make these big messes. I'm interested in making human documents and trying to talk about what it's like for me to be alive, and the novel seems the best form for me, the most spacious form. So little has been done with the novel in a long time, it seems. As a young writer, I was shocked at the state of the contemporary novel in America. It was as if the novel had stopped with Balzac. I felt, my God, there's so much potential, there's so much that's untapped. Also, I'm a very long-distance kind of person. I like to stay on one project a long time and go very deeply. I like lots of layers and lots of ambiguity. I find it consoling.

NC: When you first started writing, did you work on a novel?

Maso: I started writing prose poems. Then I felt like they weren't giving me enough breadth and so I taught myself how to write a looser prose I could sustain in order to be able to make the connections I wasn't making in my prose poems. I learned how to sustain a lyric narrative for over 200 pages, whatever that narrative might be, because narrative can of course be many things. Not just what we've been handed.

NC: Do you feel that your open-ended definition of narrative is in any way a response to the idea of the "Great American Novel," these huge, encyclopedic novels, written by men, that have dominated fiction in America?

Maso: It's such a self-conscious male thing to actually think you're writing the great American novel. I can't imagine what that might be or what that might look like. The great American novel might be many novels, the oeuvre of somebody perhaps, the development over a lifetime. I mean, you look at all of Gaddis's novels, is that it? It seems "the American novel" is a thing that this crass publishing and marketing world has come up with more than anything else. It's so commodity, product, goal driven. But it has come also from a certain male sensibility-i'm going to make it, this is what it's going to be, it's going to be that for all Americans.

NC: The whole idea of the individual self, the great writer, the great speaking subject ...

Maso: Exactly. Right. And that "the self" actually exists seems like a fairly naive notion. That the self exists at all and that one could from this coherent self write this coherent great American novel. I find that this informs my teaching too. Teaching the way it's often done--I'm the teacher and I'm here to tell you something, and this is what I'm here to tell you--seems false and again very male-oriented. It disregards almost everything that is important about writing. The extreme example of this is someone like Gordon Lish--the ego, the abuse of power; it's so destructive.

NC: Yes, there is a kind of monologic classroom. I remember my father telling me about walking up and down the hall at Tulane and hearing nothing but monologuing lectures by the male teachers at their students who were just sitting there. And students become comfortable with that. That's what they want instead of discussion.

Maso: They hate when I say I don't know the answer, when I say, I don't know what to tell you, we're here to hold hands together. Everything's posed as a question. They hate that. They feel like they're paying their money to get the answers. They're very uneasy. They want some stable ground under their feet. And there are obviously things that you can say with some authority, but to put them up against their own fear is part of the job as far as I'm concerned. To show them how truly scary it is and how high the stakes really should be is part of what is done in my classes. I can't speak for anyone else's classes because I never got an M.F.A. I was never in a workshop before I taught one.

NC: Why did you decide not to get an M.F.A.? So many writers these days go into graduate writing programs.

Maso: I loved school, and I really loved school too much. I knew that there was a part of me that wanted to please, that wanted to excel, that wanted to do all the things that writing has nothing to do with. Also, I was very, very silent around what I was trying to do because, from the beginning, I knew they would be long, ambitious, mysterious books and that they were not going to be resolved in a semester or in a workshop situation. I felt like my talent or whatever it was, was far too fragile and far too silent to bring it into that kind of a situation. My parents wanted me to go to graduate school, so I kept applying. And every time I almost went. One time, I got this huge scholarship from BU and I rented an apartment and got through registration, and then I just said I can't do it. They were furious because they had given me this fellowship, this Helen Deutsch Fellowship, and it was the first year of it, and they were going to give me lots of money. After that, I never tried again. It was really when I could finally break with my parents' desires for what I should do and how I should do it. My instinct was so strong about it. When I got there, I thought, there is just no way.

NC: Did you take writing classes at Vasar?

Maso: No. In the late 1970's, it was not such a big thing in the undergraduate programs. Vassar offered very little and the people who were teaching them didn't interest me. I didn't even know I wanted to be a writer back then. It was only when I was a senior and I had to do a creative or a critical thesis in order to graduate, I thought, well let me try this, and it ended up being these prose poems that felt like they were the beginning of something much larger. I knew this is what I wanted to do. It just clicked. Whereas before, I had wanted to be a painter or maybe I'd be a journalist. And I was very, very unhappy. I had no form at all for all the stuff inside. As soon as I wrote this thesis, the rest of my life became clear. Every decision was made around the writing after that. What kind of job I would get, the way I would proceed, the kind of people I became involved with. I mean, everything. My youngest sister is a professional tennis player, and I had watched her for years. When she wasn't practicing, she was watching video tapes, when she wasn't doing that, working out, when she wasn't doing that, she was working on her diet, when she wasn't doing that, she was going to a hypnotist. And I thought this is what it takes. I thought why couldn't a writer do that? I just decided that every facet of my fife would be arranged around my writing.

NC: I have a friend who is a pianist, and he practices for hours each day. While he is practicing, he can't be disturbed. I think writers need that kind of practice time too.

Maso: Exactly. That's basically what I did. Exercises of all kinds. I would give myself assignments, which are the ones I use now in class. I would give myself things to do, just to try stuff out. I spent a long time teaching myself how to write a straightforward narrative because I felt like you have to know how to do these things. If you're not going to do them, it's got to because of conscious choices and not because you don't know how to. I think that's why Ghost Dance took so long to write--it was really my apprenticeship. I taught myself how to write when I was writing the book.

NC: How long did it take?

Maso: Seven years. Seven or eight years.

NC: Was it related to the things you started at Vassar?

Maso: Yeah. I mean, three-quarters of a page of that senior thesis got into the final book. But it was related.

NC: I want to ask you a question about the reviews. Over and over in the reviews, you are talked about as an experimental writer. That word "experimental" is repeatedly used. In what sense do you see yourself as "experimenting"? In what sense do you see your work as an "experiment"?

Maso: I think my work is viewed that way because my influences are other than fictive, and most people are working from a conventional literary tradition. I was never a huge reader as a kid. I did not fall in love with books and that's why I wanted to write. I was a very sensual kid, just living in the world and observing it, day-dreaming, not lost in books or language. My father when I was young was a jazz musician and he exposed us to all kinds of music. I had tons of lessons in everything. I had art lessons, I had ballet lessons, piano lessons. These things seem to really inform my work. And film. I'm a film addict. I often see two a day. All these things inform the work in a way that make it appear experimental to people who are just grounded in the strict literary tradition. Also, it never occurred to me that something was not possible. It never occurred to me to set some limitation. A literature of limitation is something that I don't believe in. I struggled with that in The Art Lover, with what is possible and what is not. And even if certain things are not possible--for instance, I couldn't save my friend's life by writing that book--there still seems to be something about reaching really far and talking about things that matter to you. I think that's missing from a lot of fiction. Do you feel that?

NC: Yes, definitely.

Maso: That sense of infinite possibility is something that most people somewhere along the line forsake. With The Art Lover, my editor wanted me to take out the graphics and to make the non-fiction section fictional, integrate it into the fiction. I said, that is not possible, this is the book you bought, with graphics and everything in it, I will just take it back. It was a terribly painful period for everyone involved. I think they were just trying to see how far they could push me. They said, how will we market this? And I thought this is really not my problem. Compromise simply does not occur to me as an option. I feel very lucky in that way.

NC: I can't imagine what The Art Lover would be like without the images or the non-fiction section. It would be another kind of novel.

Maso: I think in a way that's why North Point finally failed. Because they were trying to become too mainstream without understanding what that was about and how to do it. Whereas Dalkey knows who its audience is. It's incredible how smart they are, not only in terms of fiction. They're also good business people. It's really been good to be there.

NC: In another interview, you said, "More than anything, I wanted to make my writing accessible, even though it was experimental." Can you talk more about this?

Maso: Experimental writing has become much too precious, much too rarefied, much too much about itself. It can only be read by a very few people, mostly other experimental writers and a few academics. I come from a very middle-class family. My father after his jazz musician life went into organized labor--my grandfather had been a labor leader. I can remember, as a little girl, listening on the phone when these guys would call at five in the morning to get their assignments for where they would work that day, and I remember what they sounded like, so tired, so hopeful, so vulnerable. My mother was a nurse in the emergency room. It was a life that was a grounded in the real world, not in the rarified, the precious or the elite.

NC: Why is it important to you to be accesible?

Maso: To a lot of people, "accessible" is a dirty word, as if it means imitating television or commercial fiction. But I think it means simply something that everyone can have access to. I think the dramas of language are something that people can have access to if they're helped into it. I try to help people into it. A lot of writing has become simply elitist and game-playing for its own sake. It's very self-referential and has lost any real passion and love of the world. And love of the world is really my main love, this table, this piece of bread, this hand. The afternoon light. The sound of your voice. Writing in part is about communion for me. I'm always surprised at the kind of people who respond to the work or who feel there's a way into it. Once, I went to a readers' group in suburban New Jersey near where my mother lives. I dreaded the whole thing. But the women in the group were so smart. Their questions were amazing. I think it's possible to reach people. I get the most extraordinary letters think it's possible to reach people. I get the most extraordinary letters about AVA. and I was so moved, speechless, really, at the sort of connections that it's possible to make with the world.

NC: I was thinking of John Updike's notion of hi s ideal reader, the young boy in a small town who finds the novel on the shelf of the public library and reads it. Do you have any ideal reader?

Maso: I spoke with Updike once, and he talked about this. He and I were lecturing on the same day. I was the warm-up act for him. When he first started writing, he just wanted to be published. He had a very clear sense of who his reader would be and what the reader would want to hear. For me, it feels much more amorphous. I know that if you tap into your own humanity and your own enormous universe and if something is able to surface and get out to the page, it will reach other people. But I never think about the reader when I'm writing. It would seem to give the work a self-consciousness and again certain kinds of limitations. The people who loved Ghost Dance really did not like The Art Lover as much, and the people who loved The Art Lover were a little put off by AVA. I don't write to get or keep an audience. I think a lot of writers do, and it's detrimental to their work. Also, I think you have to forget about your parents and the people you care about when you're writing. Writing can't be dictated by something artificial, something outside of the dictates of the work. That's true of reviews too. I look at them with a healthy skepticism, thinking, this is one person's point of view. The other day, AVA was reviewed on NPR by Allen Cheuse, and he said something like, "More than meeting her maker, it seems like Ava Klein is getting ready for the GRE with all of the literary allusions." You have to just let it go. Too much reviewing is about sound bytes and saying something clever. Serious critical work is a whole other thing. And I think serious critical work is very important.

NC: I was particularly interested in the reviews of Ghost Dance. Many reviewers assumed it was an autobiographical novel, a memoir about your life.

Maso: I'm really playing with that in The American Woman in the Chinese Hat. I'm using myself, in an odd way. I have a Chinese Hat, and we're thinking of using a photo for the cover with me wearing the hat. Where is the line between oneself and one's creation? What if you didn't invent anything? That book is so different from my other books. Because it's a book about death, I felt that I had to use a dead narrative form to tell it. For me, the hook succeeds if it fails. It's very strange, a little dangerous. It's about the surface of language and not depth. It's about stereotypes. It does nothing that my other books do. All of that seemed to me false for this book. I dreaded it coming out. I've disliked reading from it so far. For me, in this book, the ultimate risk was not to do anything that I knew how to do and not to provide any escape through memory or imagination or sex, not to exploit the potential of language, not to exploit the potential of narrative, and a conventional narrative at that, it's about breaking down, falling apart, and language unable to do anything about it. In The Art Lover, the opposite is true.

NC: How do you see the two novels as being different?

Maso: I find The American Woman a very broken book, very dark, but I find The Art Lover a very hopeful book. Finally, one goes through to the other side. Experimentation still seems possible. Someone there is still trying, is still engaged in trying to arrange the fragments. As I say in AVA, in trying to make meaning, where maybe there is none.

NC: In your recent essay in Conjunctions, you talk about not being able to keep the body out of your writing, how the body keeps entering language. Are you talking about AVA when you say this or do you think it's true for all of your work?

Maso: I think it's true for all of it. I think every book has its own kind of pulse and approximates the pulse and the reality of my body during the time I was writing it. I was very upset and disturbed during most of the writing of The Art Lover. There's a more urgent surface, it's much more syncopated, it's much more skittish. I can remember just feeling the uncertainty of the body. My friend had just died, and I was up at Provincetown, feeling obsessed with illness and obsessed with the end of certain kinds of possibility. I had always believed that sex, for one thing, was a really saving thing, and then when AIDS started happening, one had to rethink, re-evaluate. Even in Ghost Dance, I was investigating different ways the body might be translated into the work. It's a very sensual book, and uses the sensuality of language as a salvation. That really shifted in The Art Lover; suddenly there was another perspective, a sense of what the body might not be able to do or how the body might betray one. In AVA the body comes up a lot--the songs the blood sings, illness and regeneration, the body as pleasure source, the body as mortal, as a precious, disappearing thing. The body is never out of my realm of consciousness when I write. I think it has a lot to do with the kinds of word and syntactic choices I make. I just read somewhere that because of the way the heart beats, human beings have decided to walk, one foot in front of the other, to mimic the heartbeat. When you were in the womb, that was your music--the heartbeat of your mother. Your whole life you try to get that back. I think there's something to that. How do the things happening in you translate onto the page?

NC: All the focus on listing and documentation in The Art Lover is interesting, the way in which Caroline is trying to order her world, saving things. Assemblage becomes a way of recuperating the self.

Maso: It really was a defense against chaos. There's lots of listing in lots if books, and often I don't understand why it's there. But I just had to do it, I had to make lists of things. And it seems to work in very specific ways. I think all my books play with questions like who am I? How does one construct a self? In my actual life, I was making those lists, taking those lost pet posters off the telephone poles, for instance. That was my drama during that time, getting a deaf mute card on the subway, taking it and not knowing what it might mean, trying to hold on to these mysterious signs and symbols as the universe crumbled around me. When I started writing the book I was thinking, what might these images yield? The world is so incomprehensible, and instead of making it comprehensible, Caroline lets it stand in its oddness. The reader is asked to make her own sense of it. I would never presume to make sense of it. I think a lot of fiction tries too hard to organize experience, to tame it and to make it comprehensible in ways that it's just not. A lot of fiction I read seems to make too much and too little sense at the same time.

NC: I think that happens a lot with the traditional short story. I see so many stories in magazines structured according to this epiphanic moment and then the realization that everything will be fine. There is a subversion and an immediate containment.

Maso: Exactly. That's not true to my experience of the world. Things aren't resolved in that way. I can't believe in the shape of the conventional short story. So I could never write one. It's this whole way of perceiving the universe which is again quite male, I think. It's not ours. It didn't come from us at all. In AVA, I felt very much like a choreographer, moving bodies through space. I started going to a lot of dance. Since my ballet lessons years ago, I hadn't really kept up very much. I went to see a lot of different contemporary choreography and felt more and more like I was starting to understand how that might animate fiction too.

NC: You get the sense of choreography from the jacket cover of AVA. I love that cover.

Maso: I love it too. And that space between hands on the cover of The Art Lover. I'm interested in the spaces between things and what might one do with that space. And in AVA, shapes that exist for only a moment, a s in dance.

NC: I was thinking of Stein's assertion in Tender Buttons, "Act as if there is no center." This is in many ways a statement of Stein's literary project. But it seems true for your work as well. Your work seems very much preoccupied with questions of the border and betweeness and liminal states. On the thematic level, Ava speaks on the last day of her life before she crosses the border into death, but I'm also thinking of your textual strategies, juxtaposing images and lines with an interval of silence and white space in between.

Maso: I think that's very true. It's odd, AVA is the only book I've continued to write after it's been published. And that's because it has no border. I write it in my head or my body writes it. I experience it as Eliot said, "as a series of rhythms." Sometimes I write part of it down on the page. It cannot be contained. And when I had to contain it, when I had to stabilize it and put one thing next to the other for good, I felt really sick. I guess that's where hyper-text comes in--it's continually living. It's another thing to have it engraved on a page. To have it be fluid and stable on the page is the hope. Also the hope is that in the spaces the reader will be allowed to live, to find her place. You can go a million places in those empty, silent space breaks, and then come back to the book, informed by your own story and then keep going, or whatever you want. That is something most men do very little of, I think. But that's how I always read. I've always had to stop the tyranny of the narrative and just dream for a while. But when I came I back, I never was allowed back in.

NC: How did you decide upon the listing of sources at the end of the text of AVA?

Maso: I feel that the democracy of literature is important, the idea that we're all related, that ownership isn't something so important, that Virginia Woolf can exist next to Beckett next to me next to Sappho next to Paul Celan. All these disparate things can come together in a whole. It's part of what I was thinking about as I wrote that book, about totalitarianism and tyranny and peace. Making peace with one's influences was important to me. Embracing sources. Imagining a world, on the last day of this woman's life, in which almost everything can co-exist seemed to me important, especially as the book became clearer and clearer to me as a testament to the longing for peace. I see it as very much an anti-war book. Ava longs for the throwing off of all kinds of tyranny: the tyranny of narrative, of meaning, of interpretation. I think the book is open to many kinds of readings. For me, the Night section is a utopic, feminine revision of the world. I was very conscious of it by the time I got to that point. I was amazed how the images started to flow, how one started to inform the other. You get Wittig next to female film-makers and that woman composer whose first name isn't known and women's non-violent action political groups. I was surprised because I had never aligned myself as a feminist writer or a feminine writer. But it became very clear in this book. I guess when you're first writing you say, there's no male and female writing, there's only writing, but now I'm really quite comfortable with the notion of being a writer who writes, without apology, out of her femininity.

NC: I wanted to ask you about silence. In Ghost Dance, there's so much emphasis on silence, the children trying to get the father to speak, Fletcher traveling into silence. In the other books the silence seems to me to be discursively enacted. Were you conscious of the opposition of silence versus music?

Maso: Very much so. I don't think there can be music, really, without silence. The gorgeousness of sound only exists because of silence. Just like life is so great because there's death at the end of it. Words arranged around silence vibrate in different ways. I'm very aware of silence. Also, there's a silence around my own work when I'm doing it. I don't really know what it's about. I don't articulate it. I don't show it to anybody. It's a very, very solitary pursuit. I'm very interested in the shapes that come out of that silence. In Ghost Dance, that's very true, all those themes are there, but it's not a silent book, really. Like when the grandfather is dying, he says something about how the silence is coming to get him. There's all this silence spoken of, and the way to resist it, to speak against silence, is very much what that book is about. To live next to silence, but to speak.

NC: The fact that Christine is a writer seems important as well.

Maso: Certainly, yes. She was my stand-in, in a way. Her struggles with language were mine, are mine. That's always the writer's struggle, finding a genuine language in which to speak, given all the silence, given everything. I think in the other books it does become enacted. By the time we get to AVA, the silence is really a presence, a character. It exists as much as anything else exists in that book. And I was really struck by the silence of death, the silence of living after World War II, the speechlessness. I read a great deal of the Holocaust writers. I read Celan; a lot of his struggle is how is it possible to speak, is there anything to say. He speaks in code. He really struggles with the silence. It's such a moving struggle. Another person I read, an Egyptian Jewish writer who also works in fragments and is very interested in silence, is Edmund Jabes. It seemed very important that Ava Klein be Jewish. The question of can one speak, is it possible to speak, is still a kind of intellectual thing in The Art Lover. There, it's not being played out. I think I finally played it out for now with AVA. I find silence so much more interesting than most fiction. Fiction has to be as compelling as the world, as beautiful as the world, as terrible as the world. Fiction really should be an event I think and not just the record of an event. Once it becomes a record of an event and not a genuine experience in itself, it ceases to interest me. That, and the degree of risk a writer is willing to take is all I care about in fiction.

NC: Do you see this use of silence going on in The American Woman too?

Maso: Yes. By the last page, I hope that it is clear that there is no way for the narrator to speak, to make the words work and therefore to imagine or remember or dream. The end of her language is the end of her world.

NC: I was interested in the fact that the last word of the novel is "roses."

Maso: It's a Steinian move, in a way. It's also the word without its sensuality any longer. I don't think that was a casual choice at all.

NC: In another interview, you said that The American Woman is a book about the surface. At one point, the narrator says "What I love is the surface." Then the novel ends with this concrete, sensual image.

Maso: Yes, but the sensual image has lost its meaning. It makes the loss even greater, I hope. More heartbreaking, somehow. There's musicality in it. It has a different rhythm than my other books. I think that, too, is a struggle with silence and a struggle with meaninglessness. She keeps repeating these stories and nothing is ever made of them. They can't save her or even help her.

NC: In the narration, there are the shifts from first to third person, an alternation between "she" and "I" which becomes increasingly disturbing as the novel goes on. There are ruptures in the surface of the text.

Maso: I went back so many times to ask myself why am I using "she" here or why am I using "I." Because the shift otherwise can just be a device. I wanted it to be progressively disorienting. I'm hoping you find it disturbing.

NC: The early part of the book reminds me of some of Marguerite Duras's novels, particularly The Lover, which also alternates first and third person narration.

Maso: She's a big influence on that book. Another odd thing about the degree of resignation and cynicism in the book is that it tries to imitate a certain kind of form: the nouveau roman. It borrows a form. It doesn't even try to make up its own. But then that doesn't work either.

NC: Do you see any similarities between Vanessa, Caroline, Ava, and Catherine, the narrator of the last book?

Maso: I've never thought about that. I do think that I've been looking at mental illness from afar, and that has informed all the books. In The American Woman, the "I" becomes the one who is really in trouble, whereas in the other books, it's always someone outside. I think that Christine Wing from Ghost Dance becomes Catherine, or is a version. But I was too afraid when I was twenty-one to write Catherine, and so I gave the suffering, the illness, to the mother back then.

NC: Christine is such a great character.

Maso: A lot of people have criticized her for being too unreal. But I don't think she's supposed to be quite real.

NC: To me, that's the central issue of the novel--she's always out of reach.

Maso: In some ways Ghost Dance has been my most popular book and the book that has allowed me into a lot of things. Still it was for the most part ignored. And that anonymity really' freed me to go to where I wanted to go next. I'm very fond of that book now. When I wrote The Art Lover, I hated Ghost Dance. I felt like those beautiful scenes and those long, lyric fines were all a he, that that was not at all what the world was about. When I first began The Art Lover, it looked very much like Ghost Dance, and then my friend got sick, and the book completely changed. It got much fiercer. I had first started writing about the fictive family that Caroline writes about; it had a Ghost Dance sort of feel to it. Then these things started to happen. It's interesting to me how directly I allow my life to be used, not autobiographically, but to be used to write from. What I tried to do for a long time was write The Art Lover in the morning, then visit my friend in the hospital in the afternoon. One day I sat down in the morning to write, and I looked at all this stuff and I thought of the rest of my day, and I thought, this is so absurd, you are such a fool if you think you can create and control all these things. I stopped writing for a year. I just visited him and felt like I don't have any language for this so I'm not going to write. Later, the harrowing task and the real test of faith was to try to approximate it, even a little.

NC: Did the book have the images when you were first writing it, before your friend got sick?

Maso: No. I started collecting those images after he got sick. I was collecting things to keep the world in place. I didn't know what the book would be, or if it would be.

NC: What are you working on now?

Maso: I've been working on a kind of literary triptych, three related books--AVA being the first, it turns out, of that series. Everything has been preparation and training for this next project which I call The Bay of Angels. It's going to be two additional novels that are related but that can stand on their own and that inform one another and resonate. They have the same characters but exist in completely different times. I don't know how they will be published, if they would be published together, or whether one will come out first and then the next, or they would be in one volume. At a place like Dalkey, though, I can do whatever I want, for the most part, which is extraordinary. They give me a great deal of freedom. And in fiction that's pretty remarkable. I'm sure they would publish it in any kind of configuration, but that's way down the road. That's got to be at least a five-year project.

NC: Are you working on both novels at the same time?

Maso: I have taken notes simultaneously for both of them. I don't know when the actual composition begins, if that will be possible. I think probably not. Or I'll do a draft of each and then work on them simultaneously.

NC: When did you start them?

Maso: I was living in France. There was an artists' colony there, in the town of Vence. It was run by a Hungarian countess. I wish it was still there. I was there for a total of two years. I had gotten an NEA. I decided to go someplace cheap to just write. It was the beginning of those two big books. They take place in France during World War II. The first one is narrated by an amnesiac. It really came from my sense that as soon as I got to France, the first day I was there, I knew I had been there before. Everything was completely familiar. I was sure I was a little girl there once. I thought, My God, what, that I cannot remember, has happened to me? I remembered France so clearly that I just started investigating that by writing from the point of view of someone who simply cannot remember. And the other thing was I could really feel the war everywhere. It's so different from being here. What happens is that at the end of the book the amnesiac walks into la baie des anges, which is that bay by Nice, and that's the end of the first book. At the beginning of the second book, she walks out of the Bay in Provincetown, and it's forty years later, and she's still the same person, the same age, and she still can't remember anything.

NC: Have you been writing every day?

Maso: I have been, but when I was teaching last year another book intervened simply because with teaching full-time and doing the Kenyon Review there was no way I could concentrate the way I needed to on The Bay of Angels. So I started this book, and it seemed just kind of ridiculous, like I was playing because I was teaching and it was too hard to write The Bay of Angels. But it has become a book I'm very interested in. It's a short book, again, about a woman, again, who has been sentenced to death. It's called Defiance. She has murdered two of her students. She's a mathematician. It's a book of such extraordinary rage. On the surface, it seems like such a sensational thing, but there's a lot going on. What I've done to write this book is to re-read all the Shakespeare tragedies. It's sounding extremely Shakespearean to me. It's really fun and very freeing because it is really different from other things I've done. I've also gotten to re-read Dante. Great fun.

NC: When do you expect to finish it?

Maso: Oh, it's hard to say. It shouldn't take too long. Dutton is to publish it in 1996. Now that I have this money I don't know what it means about time off, etcetera. In the past, my younger self would have just gone to a cheap country and lived there for five years. But I don't know if I can or should do that anymore. When I got my NEA, I must have been around thirty, I just said, I'm going away and I'm going to live on this and write. But now it's different. I feel less sure that that's the solution this time. I have to think about it really hard. Stability seems important. I've traveled so much for so long and not in an elegant way. In that terrible way. I feel so tired of that. I'm not sure what I'll do. I keep trying to ask what's best for the writing. The Lannan Award is such a complete gift.

NC: As we approach the end of the twentieth century and even the end of the millennium, do you think literature and writing are being called into question? Do you think of the end of the century and the millennium in terms of writing?

Maso: It's so enormous. It's hard to even think about what that means. John O'Brien at Dalkey says there's going to be a whole revolution in terms of publishing. People are hungry enough and upset enough about the kinds of books they're being given to read, that are accessible to them, that books are going to start being done by presses like Dalkey and books will be treated like pieces in a museum and kept in that way, encouraged to be written and then kept in print. There's going to be something else other than commercialism and marketing, there's going to be a whole art revival in a way, that serious literature is going to come back. Don't I sound idealistic9 There's been an incredible loss in terms of this nation's literary life because that hasn't been encouraged or valued.

NC: But I've also heard a lot about the end of the book. In the future, everything will be on a computer disk. There won't be any book to hold in your hands anymore. Could technology eradicate the book?

Maso: I don't think it will happen. I don't think so. There's something about the force of a book and the force of the word on paper that seems to me unalterable. I think that what we're seeing is the least interesting of what's going on or could be going on if there was a place for it. I think that sometimes people are very talented and serious but they can't withstand all the things against them and they want to be accepted. It's too hard for most people. I think I was really, really lucky by having been so over-loved as a child, having so much attention lavished on me that I have no desire for that at all anymore. I don't want any more attention. I feel no need to conform in any way. I just want to write. I don't need the New York Times to care about me, so I'm in a very privileged and lucky position. But I'd love to see more writers writing in their own voices and for that writing to be given a place somewhere. And I do think the book will prevail--it's intimate, it's private, you can hold it in your hands, you can read wherever you like in it. We are in the midst of an outpouring, as Paul West says, of "so much electronic media we will go blind." Yes. But there are still a handful of words and they shine brighter than a million suns. A few fiction writers will survive and certainly of course--poetry. The great poets--they shall never die, and there shall never be a substitute for what they do.

NC: Any last thoughts?

Maso: I'm always a little disarmed by the question and answer format. Whenever I give an interview I am reminded of my friend Picasso who said, "You mustn't always believe what I say. Questions tempt you to tell lies, particularly when there is no answer."

Nicole Cooley is a graduate of The Iowa Writers' Workshop and a 1994 "Discovery"/The Nation Award Winner. She is currently completing her dissertation, "The Avant-garde at the End of the Century: Gertrude Stein, Postmodernism and Contemporary Women Writers," at Emory University.
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Author:Cooley, Nicole
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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