Groping for Vines: An Interview with Fiona Maazel

A man wakes up and doesn’t remember the night before. Then he sees photos that show him assaulting a woman. Add the fact that he’s a new father, his job involves experimental surgeries, and his own father has dementia—oh, and he can read minds—and you’ve got Fiona Maazel’s new novel, A Little More Human. Memory, autonomy, and conspiracy theories abound in this complicated, well-crafted book. Maazel has won the Bard Prize for Fiction and was a National Book Award Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree. She was recently awarded a Guggenheim.

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Jaime Herndon: One thing I loved about A Little More Human was the intersecting storylines, especially Dr. Snyder’s memory loss, juxtaposed with his son’s mindreading ability and blackout. How did you come up with the structure/form of the novel?

Fiona Maazel: Thematically, I knew I wanted to be writing about memory, and memory as a way of constructing identity, juxtaposed against how incredibly hard it is to establish an identity when we know so little of what transpires in our own inner lives. I wanted to get at all that, but there was no way to do it from one perspective. I needed a few characters to allow me to approach the topic from multiple angles.

Then, once I settled on multiple points of view, I wanted to find a way to architect a structure for these voices that would keep the novel in line, so to speak. So I went with something simple: ABCA, which repeats throughout the entire novel. You’ve got your dominant theme—or character—in Phil, followed by two offshoots that return us back to Phil at the end of every chapter.

In this way I was able to develop a kind of emotional hierarchy (I could literally check to see how many pages I was allocating each character) and for the novel and to impose on it some order. I knew early on the book was going to be a little wild—a little nuts—in terms of its plotting and innuendo, so I figured this rondo would keep things from getting out of control.

JRH: How did you formulate the concept of the story?

FM: I gotta say, it just sort of came to me chapter by chapter. I wrote the first line—“He came to on the back of a horse.”—and immediately had to answer the obvious question raised by a sentence like that: What happened to him? I actually had no idea. Then I wrote about a character who also “comes to” in a compromising scenario. What happened to her? No clue. But I figured whatever happened to her was related to what had happened to Phil; else why write about her? Then I threw in this doctor, who probably had to be related to at least one of these other two characters. And so I went.

Often, writing fiction for me is just about reaching out in the dark and groping for something that feels right. Sometimes you grab onto something awful and have to let go immediately. Other times you think you’ve gotten a hold of something good. A sturdy vine that will take you someplace worthwhile, only to find out your vine is going nowhere. So you have to let go of that, too, and keep groping. You’re lucky if every time you reach out into the darkness, you find what you need. But it almost never happens that way.

Once I had my three characters in place and their basic stories, I plotted maybe one chapter ahead. But I never saw further than that until about halfway through, when I realized I had to make some real decisions about the conspiracy and how all the pieces fit together.

So I did what I often do, which is to consult my mom. I told her the story. Then we argued about it—which is also common—for hours. She’d give me ideas and I’d reject them. I’d toss out ideas and she’d reject them. Eventually I came up with something thanks to this back and forth, and rolled with it.

JRH: I was really struck by the situation with Ada’s mom, where she needs to take more and more medication to maintain her health after a procedure, which plunges them into debt. On page 171 she says “This is the modern world, for G-d’s sake. Anything is possible.” Her father says “Exactly…. We signed on for this. And now we’re experiencing unanticipated side effects.” This feels incredibly relevant—we’re in situations now where medical advancements happen, with side effects down the road. It feels like a warning of sorts. What were your thoughts on the situation?

FM: I’m pretty terrified of modern medicine and scientific advancement in general. The singularity seems like a very real problem that’s not all that far off. I’m not saying I reject science or don’t believe in progress. But I am afraid of how our hubris and race for glory tends to ignore what is always so pleasantly called “collateral consequences.” It’s a little like these commercials for new drug therapies that often warn you in the nicest of ways that while this medicine might cure your athletes foot, it might also kill you. “Fatalities have been reported.” And then it’s back to pictures of beautiful feet walking along the beach. Much of the novel is focused on this tension between advancement and precaution. Why are we trying to create bionic ears for people when thousands of people in Sudan don’t have anything to eat?

Looking forward at the expense of the now has always seemed suspect to me. Of course, looking forward has also been responsible for some of the most incredible tech developments. Like, for instance, the very computer I’m typing on. So, like everything else, it’s complicated.

JRH: Do you think artists and writers have an obligation during this time of social and political upheaval?

FM: I think artists, by default, do the hard work of showing us who we are. I’ve often heard it said that art has no responsibility other than to be good. It doesn’t have to serve social justice. It doesn’t have to be polemical or attempt to repeal the kind of thinking that breeds intolerance or, you know, genocide. But what does it mean to be “good” then?

In my book, great art is always exposing us to our inhumanity—overtly or not. This doesn’t mean it’s polemical or pedantic. But it is usually getting at the pathos inherent in our efforts to get things right with each other. Do we need more of this now? Yes. Absolutely. We need to be reminded of what’s at stake when this kind of government gets elected and who stands to suffer the most. We need to be speaking out for the more vulnerable among us. But at bottom, we basically need to be doing what we’ve always done, just trying harder to be heard or seen or both.

JRH: What inspires you to write? Who do you read?

FM: I haven’t been reading much of anything new lately. I am so busy that I spend most of my time reading student work or work I’ve assigned to my students. But that’s okay. I’ve been teaching a class at Syracuse this semester that has been really great and that has taught me a lot. I’ve been forced to think of some things in new ways, which I always find inspiring. What else? I guess I’m inspired by writing itself. Once I get going, I just build on what I’ve done. Writing is like any other muscle, really. It has to be exercised. When you stop, you fall into a kind of torpor that makes it very hard to get started again. So I rarely feel inspired after a hiatus, but am generally pretty jazzed once I’m deep into a project.

I realize I’m side-stepping your question, mostly because the logic of influence has always made me uncomfortable. I’m sure what I read and the movies I watch and the galleries I visit all play a part in what I do, but I’m not sure their role is any bigger than the people I meet and what I see happening in the world every day. Writing is really just about imprinting your sensibility on the page, and so of course everything you see and do and feel becomes part of that impression.

JRH: What are you working on next?

FM: I’ve started work on something that’s interested in the intersection between rage, passivity, and the financial meltdown of 2008. But I probably can’t say much more than that. I’m only about 90 pages in. So who knows what I’ll end up with.

Jaime Rochelle Herndon graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia and is a writer and editor living in NYC. She is a contributor at Book Riot and a writing instructor at Apiary Lit, and her writing can be seen on Healthline and New York Family Magazine, among others.

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