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Fiona Maazel’s Got the Human Condition — and Our Condolences

SS: Building on the notion of an afterlife, as you present at various stages in your book: Do you think it’ll be a tedious Our Town affair, where everyone’s bitching endlessly about stuff from their previous existences? Will there be a table at which sit Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, waiting for a fourth for bridge, with a chair set just for you? Or will these clubs be too exclusive? (It would explain why William Shakespeare never answers an Ouija board: too many callers.)

FM: Oh, I hate to disappoint, but I actually don’t believe in reincarnation or the afterlife. The book certainly concedes or endorses the possibility that reincarnation is how it all works, but I don’t share its value system. Mostly I was interested in thinking through eschatologies that oppose my own because what I think lacks imagination, and who’d want to read about that?

SS: But I’m a big believer in the power of dirt. I’m sure there’s a novel yet to be discovered in that terrain. If T. S. Eliot could show us fear in a handful of dust, then surely someone can explore the terrible, teeming diversity of life in a spade of turf. (Take a look at a sample under a microscope and you’ll see what I mean.) Care to have a crack at it?

FM: No.

SS: At your website for Last Last Chance, you mention how, when you were working for The Paris Review, you tried to submit one of your own stories for publication anonymously — a tactic that did not end well. This is just too rich a subject for me to pass up on. How, exactly, did that scenario play out?

FM: Oh, it was awful. I think I had this idea my brilliance would be recognized if no one knew the work was mine. Incidentally, I was not the first to have tried this, or so I was told years later. In any case, I dropped a story of mine in “the bin,” which is where you put fiction you thought was good enough to be read by the other editors. I think I wrote as coverage that here was a first-time author “worth looking at” — something ridiculous like that. Predictably, no one liked the story, and a couple people had some demoralizing things to say about it. One guy made fun of the author’s having used the phrase “den of iniquity” in prose. Den of iniquity! I don’t even remember what that was about, but, wow, den of iniquity! They were right to mock me. I wasn’t ready at all.

SS: What would you say you have gained for your time with George Plimpton? Or lost, for that matter?

FM: By far the best thing about my time at The Paris Review was getting to watch an editor like George put his hands on almost everything that went into the magazine. He had an amazing touch and eye, and real aptitude for bringing out the best in a piece. But editing and writing are, of course, distinct skills. George was blessed with both — he was such a wonderful prose writer — and so it was interesting to see him change hats, and to appreciate the gusto with which he wore them. His energy was remarkable and instructive; and he was always reminding me by example that it was interesting to be alive — to try new things and meet new people, and always to be making story out of it. He was one of the great raconteurs. He’d come back to the office and whether he’d been to Africa or the foot doctor, he’d have something hilarious to tell you about it. He was a real observer of detail, and as a result of listening to him, I’d like to think I’ve become one, too.

SS: The same site includes little short films. Do you harbor cinematic ambitions? Or is this just another creative outlet, one that is ultimately subservient to your writing?

FM: Have you seen my movies? They're ridiculous, but also very fun to make. My first movie was about cheese. It ended with a picture of a woman wearing a cheese bra, which I found online. (The moral? Cheese is salvific.) A year after I posted the film on my blog, the woman contacted me. She’d seen the movie! I was thrilled. Probably my best showing to date is about tumbleweeds in Marfa, Texas. They fall in love. They argue, they part, they nap. Someone sent me an article about a company that breeds and sells tumbleweeds, so I sent them the movie. Apparently, they liked it. As for the films on my website, I just made them for fun. I figured since there were these weird reincarnated people in my novel, why not make a short film about each? I’ve got lots of action figures in my apartment, and I like to procrastinate on my real work, which is writing. Also, I don’t know how to use my editing software at all, so the films are raw and low-fi, and a lot of the time I end up treating my ineptitude like it’s part of the work, which seems like a decent way to pass the hours. The New York Times website just posted one of my movies, so who knows. If I end up a filmmaker instead of a novelist, well, I’ll laugh my way to

SS: I recall corresponding with you regarding an article Rachel Donadio wrote for the New York Times, “It’s Not You, It’s Your Books” [30 March 2008]. Following a discussion Donadio had with Neil Conan on “All Things Considered,” where the topic was literary deal-makers and breakers — “Can love conquer literary taste?” — you said it wouldn’t much matter to you what your significant other reads. Politics, on the other hand, would be something else entirely. To which I must respond: Oh, come, now. You’re telling me that if you found that your amour had a bookshelf full of the works of Ayn Rand, your first instinct wouldn’t be to dive out the window?

FM: Well, what I said then was that I wouldn’t mind what he read so long as he was smart about his tastes. Make me a compelling argument for reading lots of Ayn Rand and I’d be fine with it. What’s more upsetting about the scenario you propose is the uniformity of this poor guy’s aesthetic and interests. I’d probably be equally put off by someone who read only Nabokov. Diversity is interesting. Wide-ranging and free-wheeling taste is interesting. This is why, for instance, orthodoxy seems so boring to me. Tragic for many reasons, but also boring. So if my mate can’t read but one author or eat but one food, etc., probably it’s quits for us.

SS: How far along are you with your next novel? Can you give us a taste? Even Dmitri Nabokov gave us a morsel from his dad’s last work.

FM: Yeah, but only after Nabokov was dead and couldn’t protest. I’m far enough into the new book to know it’s nowhere near ready to be seen by anyone. But it’s about one of these giant fiascos perpetrated by the government — think Waco — and everything that led up to it. There’s a kidnapping, a leftist cult movement and, at the heart of it all, a romance gone wrong. It will probably be sprawling and weird like Last Last Chance, though not quite so droll. I’m sure this will come as a disappointment to someone, but as you said of Lucy’s voice, it’s very much her own and not anything you’d ever want to do twice.




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