28.9.05

INTERVIEW WITH CRIS MAZZA

Hello Chiasmus visitors:

Welcome to the Chiasmus Interview Series. We are proud to share with you our interview with the most fabulous Cris Mazza. Go ahead, read it--there's pictures! Please share with us and Cris your reactions and insights as well. A little reactivity does the body good.

Enjoy,
Chiasmus Staff

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1. Some of the chapters in MWTGIMWTSI have been published before. When you began this work did you have a clear sense of where it was heading, or did it just start accumulating, or was it something else entirely?

CM: I’m not sure how interesting the life history of a novel is to most people, but of course I find it enormously fun to think back. This book started life as a somewhat loosely plotted novel titled Two Halves, written originally around 1987-88, before my 3rd novel Your Name Here:___ Even though titled Two Halves, the book had two parts that alternated. What is now the 2nd half of MWTGIMWTSI came, in chapters, in between chapters of the first half — and those chapters were not separately titled as they are now. The characters and their problems and motives were basically the same, but it was longer by at least 75 pages. The title, Two Halves, was meant to highlight the idea of a person’s life being divided into two parts, the time while they are developing and deciding who they’ll be, and the time after it’s pretty much set in stone, dealing with who you’ve turned out to be. A few commercial editors showed a lot of interest, one even pitched it to a committee, but ultimately, it didn’t sell. I decided to try to create excerpts from it that I could place in magazines. I cut the excerpts out, titled each like a story and shopped them to magazines or anthologies as stories, never calling them excerpts. I think I thought the novel, as a novel, was dead, and publishing the individual stories was the only life outside my brain that Loralee would have. When these stories started being published, and mostly in anthologies, I wondered if the book might be resurrected as a “story cycle” (or “story cycle plus novella,” because I had never excerpted anything from the 2nd half). I just threw away anything from the 1st half that hadn’t been taken for an excerpt. It was like rolled out cookie dough after the cookies have been cut out and put onto a baking sheet — the leftover dough wasn’t reused, just tossed out. So I called it a story-cycle-plus-novella and tried shopping it. Still got interest, but no takers. I changed the title to Heart Problems and tried calling it a novel again and meanwhile kept revising the 2nd half, the last revision involving research into all the sexual slang the character uses, trying to never use the same sexual euphemism twice. That was when the titles for the two parts came to me, “Many Ways to Get It,” and “Many Ways to Say It.” Then I changed the overall title again to Young in the 80s (keeping the two subtitles for the two parts) When the opportunity to publish this long-suffering novel with Chiasmus came along, I knew I also had a publisher who would give me freedom with things like how long the title was, so I made a final title change to Many Ways to Get It, Many Ways to Say It.


2. When writing MWTGIMWTSI, did you find your writing style or ideas about craft shift within the period you were writing the book? How did that influence the final product?

CM: Since “the period I was writing the book” could be counted as a decade or more, then yes, many of my approaches to writing changed while working on this book. Most notably: The 2nd half was originally in 1st person — it was the “notes” Clay was dictating into a tape recorder while on this bus trip, so a journal-like form. But it began to feel phony. No one would narrate long dramatized scenes into a tape recorder. I knew I didn’t want him to be narrating the whole thing, later, in past tense, because then I would have a character who had already been through the whole story and had come out the other side, was already affected by whatever would happen in the story, and therefore wouldn’t narrate in the same agitated way I wanted him to sound. This might have been the beginning of my deeper understanding of 1st person: my realization that too many writers don’t utilize all the complexities and layers of 1st person; my dismay over the growing over-use of 1st person — especially 1st person narratives that didn’t seem to understand or take into consideration issues like temporal distance and irony and what motivates the telling; and finally my turn away from being able to use 1st person because it had so much baggage. [I’ve since decided I have to try it again, and not only carry all its baggage with me, but use its baggage in the texture of the novel. And this, I often preach, is the only way it should be used.] All those changes in my opinions and attitudes caused me to change the 2nd half of MWTGIMWTSI to a 3rd person present tense, so close to the character that it could be his voice creating the narrative (there are no “he thinks” or “he wonders if” — his thoughts and questions and conjectures and anxiety and assumptions are just sewn into the narrative). Thus the tone of anxiety is his, and is his present condition, but there’s no responsibility on the book (or the character) for what I call “motives for telling.” Technically, and literally, he’s not “telling.”

3. In MWTGIMWTSI, much of the narrative explores the idea that men and women are essentially unknowable to each other. How does this theme inform the actions of characters in your novel? Why is this kind of exploration important?

CM: I’m going to use a quote that I’ll cite (with its author’s name) again later: “Hunches are important to writers; intuitions are essential. Pursuing them honestly and enthusiastically towards success is what we …do.” Except often, for me, it’s less a hunch and more intuition. The concept that a good reader sees being explored is often not the idea I started with. Yes, I certainly became aware of it, and it became my guiding principle at some point while working on this book, but it wasn’t what I was “exploring” while initially writing the first draft. I often start with just a condition, a type of life that interests me, that I might like to vicariously try for a while. In this case, I was thinking about the girls in high school for whom college was not the obvious, logical, and always-known next step, the way it was for me and most of my close friends. Girls whose families either never mentioned it, never suggested it, and for sure never encouraged it. Girls whose life experience would have “taught” them that high school was enough, they would graduate, get some kind of job, have some fun being young, then get married, have kids, etc. I sat in classes with girls who already lived a very different life than I did: some of them did the grocery shopping for their families, some of them never had to be home at a certain time, didn’t sit down to a family dinner every night with everyone around the table. Why else would I remember one day in 10th grade world history class, a girl came in wearing the same clothes as the day before. I heard her tell someone else that she’d been over at a friend’s house and had just decided to spend the night and then came to school directly from there. (I couldn’t imagine suggesting such a plan to my mother.) That same girl, who had thin blond hair, an angular face, a husky voice, and was not well endowed, became the head cheerleader and then became Miss Spring Valley. Our school bordered three towns, and Miss Lemon Grove and Miss La Mesa were also in my class … none of these girls went to college. So I wanted to imagine that kind of life, with the life of support-yourself decisions being made at 18, when my mother was still deciding what I would have for dinner each night. I made a composite girl, thought of the boldest, most audacious traits I’d ever observed, made my girl more audacious than these, and set off with her, giving her that important craving: not knowledge, not a future, not accomplishments — but an adrenalin rush. (A craving I was well-aware of, although hadn’t followed at any length, not even on roller coasters!) It was in following her life, her reactions to the consequences of her actions, her method of “caring” for her young husband, and then, in the 2nd half, how her earlier experiences had shaped her view of life, that I came to understand the wall between her and the men she was physically intimate with. Also, in developing her “male double” in Clay — how that double would be different even though similar, how he looked at the world, sex, happiness, love, etc. — that I discovered the fissure between them greater than I ever thought. At one time I used to declare that men and women were really the same, except for different hormones and body parts; but things have changed my view, and writing this book was certainly one of those things. But, getting back to your question, the theme of being unknowable to each other didn’t necessarily inform the characters’ actions — their actions informed that theme, and then, once recognizing it, I was able to strengthen it in various ways on revision.


4. Where do you think you writing fits into the literary spectrum?

CM: I’m going to answer this question (or not) with a little story:

In fall of 2004, ebr (electronic book review) ran a series of essays on postfeminism including one containing this hypothetical question:

“I myself would love to know how authors like Mazza see their work in relation to other waves of feminism and feminist narrative practice: how [does her work] compare with, say, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway?”
—Lisa Yaszek, “I’ll be a postfeminist in a postpatriarchy.”

The editor of the series of essays invited me to offer a response to Yaszek’s piece. By logical inference, my reply should have contained my answer, but didn’t, because I couldn’t, or wouldn’t. What I wanted to say instead — my reason for not answering — had already been said, and better, almost twenty years ago:

“The orientation of scholarly and critical work is towards judiciousness — working deliberately, thinking carefully, and not being swept away by enthusiasms. We are all familiar with the orientation, and in fact many writers embody it superbly well. But others of us do not, for nowhere is it written that all of us handle the creative act as if it were a session in court… Hunches are important to writers; intuitions are essential. Pursuing them honestly and enthusiastically towards success is what we want to do, yet at the same time those ‘successes’ can appear to come and go with a facility which seems to betray more inspiration than judgment, to some of our colleagues.”
— Bruce Cutler, “What Happens If We Win?” (AWP Newsletter, May 1986)

But I do want to account for my opposition to answering this kind of question, which represents my resistance against making any synthesizing statements about the literary “movements” in which I participate. My reason comes in three parts:

I. I don’t think about it
This is going to sound an awful lot like “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like,” but it’s actually “I know about brushstrokes and textures, but not about things like the postmodern pre-diaspora of the post-masculine woman in post-9/11 post-America.”
II. Please allow at least a pretense of humility
How self centered would it be if I compared myself to this or that well-known (or even canonized) writer, or placed myself beside them on some continuum. Please let this be someone else’s job, and I’ll never complain about what they say (unless they call me a chick-lit writer).
III. The hypocrisy of deconstruction (I’m not supposed to know)
According to deconstructionists (usually professors in English departments) authors are not supposed to be the experts nor own the answers regarding their own work, but if we wanted jobs teaching in English departments, we had to go into interviews (with these same deconstructionist professors) and understand why we didn’t have the answers and be able to explain the answers that we weren’t supposed to have, and why in reality we didn’t really have them.
I like the idea that the author isn’t an expert on what his or her book means or where it belongs in a literary movement. Not because this lets me off the hook and I don’t have to have any intelligent ideas, but because when I hear a “real” literary scholar or critic pronounce what my books “mean” or where I fit, it is, frankly, for me, breathtaking. Not because what they’re saying is completely novel or exotic; it’s because I’m hearing ideas expressed in a way I never could have or would have articulated them. Certain ideas I never could have or would have explained in that particular way because they were, in the first place while creating my fictions, more of an intuition for me. Thus I recognize the interpretation, but I never could have made that same explanation myself. So under the (welcome) regime of deconstruction, critics — stewards of the now public ownership of books’ meanings — interpret me back to myself. Long before deconstruction, in a 1936 essay, “Technique as Discovery,” Mark Shorer said, “If our books are to be exercises in self-analysis, then technique must — and alone can — take the place of the absent analyst.” My text (my “technique”) may be my absent therapist, but I still need a medium (a critic) to translate.

But, I don’t want to completely avoid the spirit of this question: I consider myself a literary fiction writer who writes layered narratives, often about a person’s interior world impacting their “real world,” or so one of my former publishers told me. There is no school, camp, movement or category that I like to wear or own.


5. How do your various selves influence your writing? The author? The woman? The professor? Where do the politics of identity come into play in fiction writing?

CM: Perhaps in fiction writing —— during the hours of actually doing it —— I can completely shed the politics of identity. My identity can become as innate and basic as it is for a dog. I don’t write as a professor any more than I write as a woman. I think about being a woman when I am engaged in the task of shopping manuscripts, when dealing with issues of publicity and reviews, when I have to think about the business of the literary world and who really has the power. I think about being an author when speaking to a literature class that has read one of my books, when giving a reading or answering questions in an interview. I don’t think about myself as a professor unless I am leading a workshop or advising a student, or on campus in some other professorial capacity. I don’t think about being any of those things when I am fishing in the Upper Peninsula for smallmouth bass and northern pike on the Sturgeon River a mile past any marked trail. And I don’t think about being any of those things when I am training and showing a dog. Nor when I am writing a story or working on a novel. Those are the times I am not consciously wearing an identity, when my identity becomes just “me.” The switches of identity, however, are noticeable to me when, for example, I have to spend 2 days at a book convention, helping to promote a new book, or when I go to a fiction festival where I am reading or participating on a panel, and then —— immediately afterwards —- drive off somewhere with my dogs to a show or up to the Northwoods to fish. Sometimes, on the way, it’s difficult to shake off that “author” identity and get back to just “me.” And I do wonder if writers with other identities (say, “man” or “parent”) have this problem of shifting back to a more comfortable, more intrinsic self. Or if other people’s labeled identities are intrinsic to them.


6. What do you see as the role of the independent press in contemporary publishing?

CM: It’s a huge and important role, no matter how it’s defined. We all know the issues associated with commercial (or corporate) publishers. Simplified: The bottom line is money. Lots of it. The way toward lots of money is to tap into a mass audience. And the mass audience in the United States watches reality TV and follows the Brad-and-Jennifer divorce. Sure the corporate presses publish what they call “literary fiction,” and some of these books — even many of these books — are books I can enjoy reading. But so many of them are of a simple structure: starts here, goes forward, ends here, with some flashbacks. What happens in between may be shocking, fascinating, intense, important … I’m just talking about the structure being uncomplicated. Most of these commercial literary novels are easy (or easier) to follow. [I said most; I know people are going to want to throw the exceptions at me.] They aren’t layered, either with different passages in time or different portions of the character’s brain at work presenting different language, forms and voices. And 80 to 90 percent of them are in 1st person, tapping into that “reality TV” and talk-show confession and morning-news-around-the-coffee-table feel, the sensation that a “real” person is telling his or her own story. As an example, I have a novel MS in which the character becomes intrigued with a name on her family tree and begins to invent (and relive in her fantasy-mind) the story of that person’s life. So a subplot runs throughout the novel which is the character’s fantasy-invention of this distant relative’s life. Obviously (to most readers) this subplot says volumes about the character who is inventing; the original name on the family tree and what her real life was is irrelevant. And outside that thread the novel has dramatic scenes in the tangible “reality” of the main character’s life. When shopping the MS to agents, one agent suggested to me that I just make the novel two separate narratives about “the two women,” instead of trying to have one of the stories come from the mind of the other character. Two narratives about “the two women”? There weren’t two women. One of them was just a name and her “life story” wouldn’t exist without the other character inventing it. And that she invented it, and how she invented it, and why she invented it were major components of the novel! But contained in this agent’s suggestion is that easier road for readers: just tell a story, start here and end there, don’t mess with layers of consciousness and the reasons for fantasy and how fantasy and telling a story are the same thing, and how in the invention of another life a self is discovered. So in this experience is the role of independent publishers: Give those readers who don’t need the easiest structure and a confessional 1st person POV a choice of good books. This has been the age-old comparison of corporate to independent publishing: Indies “get to” publish daring, inventive, un-commercial books. Once at the old ABA (American Booksellers Association) convention, some representatives from a corporate publisher were out on the floor looking at other booths and came past the independent publisher’s booth where I was helping to introduce one of my novels. “You guys get to publish all the good stuff,” one wistfully said as she grazed her fingertips across the row of new books at the front of the booth.

However, something scary has been happening lately: independent publishers are unconsciously, perhaps unwillingly, adopting the same attitudes as the corporate publishers. One of my publishers recently wrote to me: “… you’re plumbing the depths of traumatized passive women who live inside their heads instead of in the real world. And as we’ve discussed, it’s not the easiest theme to present these days. I respect your decision to be true to your vision, but it does make your books more of a challenge for a marketing staff.” Another independent publisher told me they are no longer doing novels as they have been hard to sell; an occasional themed story collection might work, but novels just don’t sell. Many other independent publishers have dropped collections of short fiction, due to the difficulty of getting reviews and therefore the danger of low sales. And one publisher said he has to only consider MSS under 300 pages, regardless of literary quality of longer projects. So something has happened to the old fissure whereby the corporate publishers worried about making sure a book was marketable and profitable, but the independent publishers looked for writing that was significant, bold, entering new territory, or in some other way carried high literary value regardless of its potential to create revenue. And yet, this idealistic vision of what independent publishers “should” do, of course, disregards the very real problems of funding. Paying for book production, for editorial services, for publicity, for the time the publishers are pouring into their ventures has become more and more difficult as granting organizations tighten up, as government grants become controlled by arch conservatives, as too many publishers are competing for the same pool of serious book buyers, and as the pool of book buyers becomes, mysteriously, stagnant. I wonder: with the plethora of writing programs not only churning out new writers but turning away a certain percentage of applicants … aren’t all those would-be or promising-new writers also readers? Why hasn’t the buying of literary books increased componentially with the increase in enrollment in writing programs?

These are not problems any single independent press can solve. But independent presses can team up with disenfranchised (i.e. labeled “unmarketable”) writers and work together, instead of trying to emulate the priorities of corporate publishers.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Ricardo Cortez Cruz said...

Cris Mazza can jam, "wobble"--Word...flows with the best of them, that is. Mazza overstands how to move the crowd. And, her articulations about identity are real (she keeps it real), reflecting the double-consciousness that all writers with integrity must surely have. While I haven't read all of her brilliant work, I am quite familiar with her aesthetic (it's like a funky little beat that you can't stop nodding your head in approval of). And her philosophy. And as they say in 'hood, it's all good. Peace.

Ricardo Cortez Cruz, author

10:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

right on...makes a very clear statement as to what the role of the independent press CAN be...not to commodify and create "sales," but to de-commodify and recreate language, authors, readers. and the space between them.

8:41 AM  
Anonymous littlebigwoman said...

i'm so interested in the idea that the critic might be a medium, and that the text might be an absent therapist...but are you SURE the critic is necessary and not just sort of pleasurable? i'm thinking of kathy acker's idea that art is a "cry" and criticism may not be necessary, even as it exists and propels itself, creates jobs and talking heads...

5:27 PM  
Anonymous littlebigwoman said...

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5:27 PM  
Anonymous littlebigwoman said...

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5:27 PM  
Anonymous greta gray said...

I don't know if Cris actually reads and answers these, but I have a couple of questions...

1. Do you think women writers are ... gun shy in America? What I mean is, do you think that women writers in America are so worried about whether or not their work will see print that they end up writing themes and forms that are safe? It seems to me that the women writers who take risks in our country are few and far between, and that the men who take risks get...famous.

2. What advice would you give a young woman writer who KNOWS she's not doing things like anyone else and KNOWS that her writing is very far away from what's ordinarily sanctioned and published but wants to write anyway? Any hope?

Thanks. I'm in college and wondering if there will ever be a place for me out there in the world.

4:53 PM  

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