FIONA MAAZEL IS A MAXIMALIST. Her first novel, Last Last Chance, keys on an addict named Lucy Clark trying to keep herself and her family from cracking up as a superplague of Lucy’s father’s design tears through the country, leaving cadavers, panic, and paranoia in its wake. Maazel’s new novel, Woke Up Lonely, also depicts a nation in crisis, this time in reaction to its citizens’ overwhelming loneliness. A therapeutic cult called “the Helix” springs up to combat this burgeoning feeling of estrangement, and the book uses the cult’s sad-sack founder Thurlow Dan, his ex-wife/super-spy Esme, and four others to examine themes of loneliness and emotional incoherence: Is loneliness congenital or contextual? Is there anything we can do about it? And does our individual, fundamental unknowableness even matter?
Maazel lives in Brooklyn and teaches at more universities than any sane person rightfully should. We spoke at a café in Park Slope.
Evan Allgood: Do you think people are lonelier now than ever before?
Fiona Maazel: The corollary to that question, which I’ve gotten in every city I’ve been to, is: “Are you lonely?” That’s a lose-lose situation for me.
Do I think we’re lonelier? I couldn’t really tell you because I don’t know what people were like 10, 20 years ago. What I can say is that there is an ever-growing irony attached to the extent to which we’re lonely, because we live in an age that purports to bring people together in such radical ways. Facebook, Twitter, and Gchat allow people to connect more frequently and mobilely than ever before. In theory we should be less lonely, but I don’t think we are.
One of the books I read for this novel is Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, in which he contends that every means of civil and social engagement has been on the decline in this country since 1960 or so. We don’t have bowling leagues; we don’t play cards on Sunday; all the things we used to do in the way of coming together are on the decline. For some people, being together is no antidote to the kind of loneliness I’m interested in. But for many people, it is. So the upshot of not seeing each other combined with increased internet activity probably helps people feel estranged and alienated from themselves, each other, and the rest of the world.
Today, togetherness seems like the new project. I remember a few days after the Boston bombing, I was in Portland and saw somebody on TV who was organizing a run there as a show of solidarity with the Boston marathoners. But when asked why he was doing this, he didn’t say, “Because I want to communicate our solidarity with the victims.” What he said was, “I thought it was a good occasion to bring people together.” It’s so interesting that this is the goal now: bringing people together. It’s no longer a premise; it’s a goal. It’s not, “We are already together and let’s just use that togetherness to show support.” Now it’s, “We need to come together as a community.” I thought that was pretty telling of the day and age that we live in.
EA: It was like that after 9/11 too: “We need to be united, we need to stand together.” Why aren’t we like that all the time? Why just in response to tragedy?
FM: Exactly. Why don’t we mobilize our togetherness to do something like raise money? Of course, loneliness is a very different question. As I said before, loneliness often has nothing to do with togetherness. That’s why one of the questions of the novel is whether loneliness is circumstantial or congenital. If it’s the latter and a person is born lonely, I could be sitting here talking to you or my mom or my best friends and still feel utterly isolated, which is even worse. That kind of isolation is magnified by being around your closest friends, and that’s a terrifying thing for a lot of people. Take a guy like Don Draper. Thurlow in some ways reminds me of him. Draper is constantly out there looking for some woman — or rather for some peace of mind or sense of self that he thinks some woman is going to provide — and of course no one can do that.
EA: I read your “Research Notes” on Necessary Fiction, and they seemed to be just the tip of the iceberg. How many books did you read in researching Woke Up Lonely? Fifty?
FM: It’s hard to say because you don’t always read every research book cover to cover; you’re just looking for what you need. But this book required a lot because there are six characters and each one has his own obsession. One is obsessed with cloud seeding, about which I knew absolutely nothing, so I started researching the history of cloud seeding, and how you do it. There’s a scene towards the end of the book in California, and I wanted to know if that scene was even plausible based on weather patterns. It turned out that my downstairs neighbor is a weatherman for MSNBC. I saw him on TV one day so I started emailing him: Is this possible? Could this thing happen? Another character is a negotiator, and what do I know about negotiating strategy and theory? — nothing — and I certainly knew nothing about cults. There’s a lot of stuff about North Korea in the novel, too. I recently wrote a piece for The New York Times about the virtue of writing about things you don’t know, and how that can give you access to some more personal material that you might not know how to access directly. If you write about North Korea, you might wind up writing about your inner life in a way that you wouldn’t if you wrote about a woman living in Park Slope.
EA: Why did you set Woke Up Lonely in 2005?
FM: I started writing it in 2007, when I was still absolutely appalled by what had happened in the 2004 and 2000 elections. I felt like the country was so polarized and angry. Little did I know what would happen in four years’ time, but in 2007 I had this idea to write a novel about a cult that was much more explicitly political than the Helix. Originally I wanted these people to be secessionists because they were liberals, they were horrified, they hated the government, and they wanted to band together and move to California and secede. But I lost interest in that in about five to six minutes because the politics were engaging but limited. I recognized that the condition of fracture and schism that I was interested in was much more personal, even domestic. Of course when interpersonal relations break down that’s always political, so my attention shifted away from a political cult to a therapeutic movement.
EA: Were you working on this novel and Last Last Chance simultaneously?
FM: No. Usually there’s a year lag time between when you deliver a novel and when it’s released. Last Last Chance was published in April 2008, but I had turned it in well over a year before that. So I started working on Woke Up Lonely right after I submitted Last Last Chance. The best thing to do is to be at least navel-deep in a new novel before your book comes out so you’re invested in something else and not absolutely hanging on every word that you see in the press. You’ve already moved on.
EA: Why did you decide to structure the book this way? When I first started reading, I thought we were going to spend an equal amount of time with these six people. But we take a long break from four of them until they return at the end.
FM: Yeah, that was a risky move because the convention when you have multiple characters is to constantly rotate among them so the reader never forgets who any of them are. I think that’s a smart way to do it, though I was adamant about doing something different. I wanted to bookend my novel with short stories about the hostages and in the middle have a love story between the cult leader and his ex. I wanted this in part because when you’re writing a novel about fracture and schism, it’s healthy in some ways to hope that people forget a little about people they’ve met by way of disporting some of the themes the novel is interested in. I also wanted to demonstrate that our stories are often more empathic than they are similar, which is why the stories don’t really talk to each other. The last four stories overlap thematically, obviously, but plot-wise I think the temptation would have been to have all four characters run off together and have their stories interweave and overlap, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted four absolutely discrete short stories about individuals on their own.
Still, I tried to season the Thurlow and Esme sections with mention of the hostages, because I didn’t want you to completely forget them. But in large measure the structure had to do with the thematics of the novel: people are estranged from each other and so are the sections. It made sense to me.
EA: Where do you start when you build a character?
FM: I usually start with their obsessions. For instance, I started thinking about the kind of guy who might be interested in cloud seeding, and then asked myself why he was interested in it, which became my clue to Ned. Next, I wanted a massive egotist, and that’s Olgo. For Anne-Janet, I wanted someone who was lonely in the traditional sense of being single, but also terrified of men, and why is that? It’s because she has an awful history. So, for each one of these people, I thought about what the thing they’re obsessed with overcoming or the thing that occupies them all the time. If someone were going to write about me, they might write a character who is pathologically obsessed with loneliness, because in both of my novels that seems to be my subject, one way or another. I think it’s a good place to start. Often, I ask my students, “What are your people obsessed with?” It doesn’t have to be an active obsession, like some kind of OCD-type preoccupation, but what they keep circling back to, day in and day out, with alarming frequency.
So, yeah, I normally start with the psychologies of my characters. But not always. About four years ago I overheard a guy tell another guy that he’d woken up that morning on the back of a horse. What did that even mean? Obviously he’d blacked out because he was so drunk, but this was in New York City. It’s not like Montana.
EA: Was it a police horse?
FM: I have no idea. All I heard was, “I woke up this morning on the back of a horse.” And I couldn’t stop thinking about that. I thought about it for four years, and in the new novel I’m working on, the first sentence is: “He woke up on the back of a horse.” In this case, all I wanted was to know why he was on the horse.
EA: How far along are you into the new novel?
FM: I’m about three quarters of the way through the first draft. It’s not as big of a mess as Woke Up Lonely. I am trying to be a little bit more disciplined this time around, so there are only three characters instead of six, and though the novel does cycle through their perspectives, it does so rather predictably. It goes A-B-C-A throughout the entire novel. We’ll see if that begins to feel stale or if it works. It’s a crime novel, which is great except for the small matter of my not knowing how to plot a crime novel. I wish I could plot like John Grisham — that would be fabulous. So now I’m trying to read a lot of mystery novels to see how they work.
EA: This new book sounds like a smaller story than your first two novels.
FM: It’s starting to get bigger. I had ambitions to do a smaller book but then I got bored, and if I’m bored, how are you going to feel when you’re reading it? So it’s getting a little bigger, but it’s not quite engaging with the same kind of global or international polemics that the first two novels were interested in. I’m endlessly fascinated by that intersection between the public and the private, between what’s happening in your life and my life, and what kind of ramifications that has for what’s happening in the world. The example I always give people about this is genocide, which begins with one person, one perpetrator, who acts on a particular kind of racism or jingoism. Where did that person get his ideas? He probably grew up with them. So the political is the personal, and every time you sit down to write anything, it’s going to be overtly political and the question is how far do you want to go with it. With my first two novels I went pretty far, but there is a spectrum.
EA: In an interview with S. Tremaine Nelson in The Common, you talked about how artists aren’t celebrated anymore. Would you rather writers were more famous?
FM: Well, that probably overstates what I want for writers. I’m not in it for the fame and the glory. It’s just that you can tell a lot about a culture based on how much it reveres and at least celebrates what its authors are doing. It’s not about the author; it’s about the work, really. Still, if you go to Russia, you’ll see Pushkin Square. When was the last time you saw Hemingway Square? Maybe if you go to his hometown. If you go down to Oxford, Mississippi, they love their Faulkner, but it’s culturally not our thing to be excited about the arts in general. In Europe they’re much more supportive of the arts; they have so many more grants available and so forth. So, yeah, a little more support would be nice. A recognition that the arts matter — that’s really what this boils down to. I would like to live in a culture that understands that reading is perhaps one of the only answers left to us to the problem of estrangement. To the very issue I’m talking about, I think reading is a great solution. Reading makes us smarter, it makes us better, it makes us more generous, it makes us kinder — all of those things. If we don’t have reading, what happens to all of those qualities that we’re trying to grow in the next generation and the one after that? That’s really what I was talking about. I mean, if someone wanted to throw me a ticker tape parade, that’d be awesome. I’d do it. But that’s certainly not what I was getting at.