Following Something Beautiful: An Interview with Courtney Maum




COURTNEY MAUM’S LATEST NOVEL, Costalegre, rolls history and invention into a story that transports us to the past while also transforming it. To use a phrase stolen from her main character about an artist’s work, which might as well describe the novel itself, “paint was mixed with fact.” The “facts,” or the real-life inspiration that was Maum’s jumping-off point, is the figure of Pegeen Guggenheim, the lonely daughter of Peggy Guggenheim, the famously wealthy socialite and art collector, better known for her generous patronage than for her attentive parenting. The “paint” mixed in is that Pegeen and Peggy have been transmuted into Lara and Leonora Calaway, who spend the novel holed up in a remote mansion in the Mexican wilderness in 1937. There with them is an eccentric, motley band of artists (also resembling real people), who Calaway has helped to escape Europe. They all await the arrival of a Godot-like ship with Leonora’s art collection, along with the outbreak of the war, which seems more likely to arrive than the crates of paintings. In this surreal milieu, feeling painfully unseen by her mother, Lara records her days in a diary, which constitutes the text of the novel and the reader’s sole aperture into the sequence of events that unfolds in the jungle.

While Costalegre’s setup is imaginatively plotty, the novel isn’t, and to wonderful effect. Trapped as we are in Lara’s experiences, musings, and even drawings, the story is an intimate fever dream, anchoring big questions about art, family, and historical forces to the individual anguish of an isolated teenager trying to make sense of a world that the selfish adults surrounding her clearly don’t understand either. Always the onlooker, but never feeling looked at, Lara’s story is as much about what we want from life as what we’ll never get. As she writes of bioluminescent sea creatures that seduce their prey with color, “Shows you what you get for following something beautiful.” Like all the people she knows, she too has been seduced by art, yet she’s still waiting to experience beauty.

Courtney and I emailed back and forth while she was touring to promote her novel.

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AARON SHULMAN: What was the earliest seed of this novel?

COURTNEY MAUM: The earliest seed came in the form of an invitation to visit my husband’s father’s ex-wife in Costa Careyes, Mexico. Although they’d been divorced for decades (and had only stayed married for seven months), my father-in-law and his ex-wife maintain an amicable relationship, so we all journeyed to her house in western Mexico together. Things have improved, but back then (this was around 2007), once you actually got to Mexico, Careyes was a four-plus-hour drive from Acapulco on “roads” that were frequently washed out or choked by endless herds of cattle.

Once I arrived at this place — Careyes — I found a muse in the form of landscape and architecture. I initially wrote a chapbook inspired by the setting called Notes from Mexico in 2010. I always knew I wanted to write a novel that was based in Careyes (which I fictionalize and call Costalegre in the novel — the name of the coastline there), but it took me quite a while to develop the writing chops to do so. You know, it’s actually hard to write well about a crazy place. It takes a lot of restraint, which is the opposite of what it feels like to be in an eccentric setting.

How did the novel grow and evolve, and what breakthroughs were involved?

Costalegre was originally supposed to be a book set in the 1970s when this resort, Careyes, was founded by a zany Italian real estate magistrate who dated my father-in-law’s ex after their divorce (hence the reason she has a house there.) To write that book, I was doing research on eccentric wealthy families, and I started with the Guggenheims. When I discovered that Peggy had had a daughter who wanted to be an artist, I couldn’t get past it. I just couldn’t stop thinking about what it would be like to want to be an artist when your own mother was one of the most powerful art collectors in the world. Why didn’t anyone ever talk about Pegeen Vail Guggenheim? None of the art-heads seemed to know about her, no one really bothered with the provocation of her existence — except for her surviving artwork, it was like she never was. When I discovered that Pegeen struggled with depression and ended up taking her own life, that was it for me. I had to try and write this story. A fictionalized version of this young woman’s story of course, but still. I wanted Pegeen Guggenheim to be seen and to be appreciated. I wanted her story to be heard.

The format of this book made me think of what an amazingly versatile and pliant literary form the diary is. In that sense, this book did what my favorite novels always do — not only tell a good story, but also wrestle with the novel as a form. How did you settle on a diary?

I did try writing the book from multiple points of view in both third person and first person — you know, having the “loonies” (as Lara calls her mother’s rescued artists) weigh in with their respective stories. But I found that I didn’t want or need their viewpoints. I felt so much compassion for Lara, it was crucial to me that we, the reader, stay with her throughout the narrative. To a certain extent, the reader is the only person who is on her side, and she doesn’t even know that we are there!

What did you discover, in perhaps moments of triumph and frustration, about writing a novel with a diary format?

I have to say that once I decided it would be a diary, I felt only freedom. There was very little frustration in the writing of this book. I was pretty sure that if the novel sold it wouldn’t sell to a commercial publisher, so I didn’t rein anything in. I knew it would be repetitive if the narrative was just a standard entry after entry, so I took time to think: here is a 15-year-old, the only young person in a jungle. She has nothing to do. Nothing to read. What would be inside her diary? What would she use that journal for? And that’s when I brought other material in: drafts of letters she is writing, lists, drawings, excerpts from a plant book she borrows from one of the artists. For me, this opened up the narrative and helped describe the world she is inhabiting in a way that I think is pretty organic and not as leaden as diary entries can sometimes be, you know: Today I did this, and this is how I felt about it, tomorrow I will do that …

I’m curious about the ways you feel this book speaks to the present. (The sense of looming disaster seems relevant, as well as handing narrative control to a person lacking power and at risk of getting written out of a story.) Were there any concerns you consciously kept close at hand while writing?

I’m so glad you asked me that, because I was in fact consciously trying to do something with the impending sense of doom that we feel throughout the book. I was interested in exploring what I call “joyful negligence.” In Costalegre, you have these artists who were in danger in Europe — the character Leonora Calaway helps them get out of Hitler’s Europe to relative safety in Mexico. But they have family members and friends behind them who are threatened, their countries in danger, their values, their livelihoods. But these nine artists in the book are the chosen few. They have been put on a plane by an heiress and they will (probably) be alright. That’s exciting — they are among the saved. They feel at a distance from whatever terrible thing is going to happen; they can’t tell what it is yet. That kind of privileged, giddy ignorance is the same perverted elation I saw in the years leading up to Trump’s election. When the left-leaning were all, “Oh, well that can’t ever really happen,” while being titillated by the idea, the potential danger, of Trump being president. They thought they were protected. From and by what? Their intelligence? Their schooling? Their cynicism? I don’t know. I have family in the South and spend a lot of time down there, and I was the only one of my Democrat friends who was sure he would be president from the get-go. So I felt like an observer for those early years — watching people titter at all the press that he was getting, willfully negligent of what all that press meant. I really wanted to revisit this very specific period of ignorance in Costalegre because we all know too well that far too many people (and politicians and rulers) never took Hitler’s threat seriously enough, either.

For me, the sentence that unlocks this novel comes near the end, when Lara writes in her diary: “I don’t think I have ever been contemplated.” Even if part of this is universal teenage loneliness and alienation, it’s devastating to see how invisible she feels, especially with regard to her mother, but her wounding seems magnified by the fact that she is surrounded by people (artists) whose lives involves constant contemplation of a sort and who create objects to be contemplated. It’s like Lara’s invisibility is invisibility squared. I’m curious about the ways in which you think the creation of art can redeem but also damage us and other people involved. 

This is a really insightful question, thank you for asking it. Although the final product is usually something that benefits and/or pleases others, the act of creating art is deeply selfish. You really have to go inward, block everything (and everyone) else out. There are all these artist residencies and colonies out there — and what is happening inside of them? You have talented creatives who have sacrificed and left their jobs and/or families behind in order to have a space where they can go totally feral and concentrate on just one thing for a month or so. And of course, for most of us, our art is not the thing that supports us. I was just talking to someone who has a friend who is a pharmacist who gave it all up to become a watercolor painter. You’re not getting a health insurance plan with watercolor painting; you’re not getting a 401(k); there’s no job security in art. It’s a risk and it’s a sacrifice, and it’s one that you are asking your loved ones to take with you. They’re either on the crazy dream boat with you or they are not. When it works out, there is this tremendous feeling of relief and pride, but for most of the creative people I know, that joy is soon eradicated by worries about whether or not the next project will fail. I have a writer friend who debuted on the New York Times best-seller list and she admitted to me that right after elation, her next thought/feeling was: How long until I fall off of the list?

I can’t help but ask what this project taught you about your own identity as an artist/creator vis-à-vis selfishness, blocking out the world, and having other people on your “crazy dream boat”?

You know, this project was a secret of mine. My agent didn’t know what I was working on, and the editor for my first two books knew I was taking time to regroup. My husband knew what I was doing; my friends didn’t. I’m a focused and hardworking person — if I have a task to accomplish, I’m going to accomplish it. I have worked as a copywriter for decades, so I don’t have a precious attitude when it comes to getting words onto the page. But the experience of — or rather, I should say, the privilege of — returning to a place where you are wholly invested in something that no one knows you’re working on was so restorative for me. That’s how we all start out, right? Those of us who dream of one day publishing a book. The world doesn’t actually want or need your writing. You think otherwise. Then the book comes out, and it changes things a little. It can change things for the better. Perhaps you are getting paid for your writing now. But once you publish something, there are people waiting, there are people watching. I can’t even brush my teeth alongside my husband, so the act of writing a book that someone was waiting on — this was the case of my second book — was a peculiar honor. And a challenge. I’m not going to turn my back on that kind of publishing structure, but I do hope that I can continue to find pockets of privacy in which I can work on something that — at least while I am writing it — is intimately mine.

Near the end of this book I found myself thinking of the Herzog film Aguirre, the Wrath of God, in that there’s a critique of European imperialism (or arrogance), but also people start to mysteriously disappear and it feels like the jungle and/or their own dark urges may consume them. Did you resist the urge to take things in a more macabre, surreal direction in the last part of the novel, or is that just me imagining another way the story might have played out? 

I appreciate the Herzog reference as I am a fan. People actually do start disappearing in Costalegre — I apologize if that is a spoiler — but I wanted to leave it up to the reader to decide what happened to these people, and also to decide whether they had really disappeared or if it was a kind of exaggeration or hallucination or even a wish on the narrator’s part. It was deeply important to me with this novel, my third, to not explain things to the reader. My last two projects were more commercial in their appeal, and I am proud of them and enjoyed writing them very much, but I did experience burnout from having to make my character’s motivations really clear, and also from the pressures that a more traditional plot structure puts upon a book. With Costalegre, I wanted the structure and the feeling of the book to truly mimic what it could have felt like for a young person of privilege living a few years short of World War II — the thunder is far off still, but the storm is coming. There is terror in Costalegre, certainly, but there is also hope, and there are bursts of youthful excitement and the possibility of joy. I tried to put hints throughout the book about how bad things are going to get, but I wanted the screen to turn to black before the dark things come for someone who — hopefully — we have come to care about.

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Aaron Shulman is the author of The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War (2019). A freelance journalist, he has written for The New Republic, The American Scholar, and The Believer, among many other publications.


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