Natalie Bakopoulos and Alexander Maksik met at a book festival in 2013, after Bakopoulos reviewed Maksik’s second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, for the San Francisco Chronicle. Since then, they have continued a conversation about books and writing. This interview took place over email in September 2016, regarding the publication of Maksik’s third novel, Shelter in Place.
Natalie Bakopoulos: Several years ago in The New York Times, Katie Roiphe noted that the “youngish” generation of male novelists writes sex with a “convoluted, post-feminist second-guessing.” She argued that “the current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex.” I am happy that Shelter in Place does not follow that path, but your sex scenes do subvert the paradigm of previous generations (Mailer, Roth, Bellow, and so on). For one, they do not privilege bravado and conquest in the matter to which so many feminist critics have objected. Your work is always focused on the sensual. What is essential—and extraneous—for you in a sex scene? What do you shy away from?
Alexander Maksik: To begin with, I’m not much interested in writing about sex as a form of conquest because I’m not much interested in people who approach sex that way. Or maybe I’m not interested in writing about men who do. And to be honest, that’s not because I’m such an evolved or righteous person. More than anything, it’s because I’m so repelled by certain clichés. And what’s duller than a man whose identity is wrapped up in collecting women? So while I certainly consider myself a feminist, my primary objection to writing about those men is literary. Of course, the two things can’t ever be separated. The idea that men are one thing and women another is as terrible for the world as it is for art.
As for sex scenes in particular, the very notion that writing about sex is somehow separate from any other kind of writing is anathema to good fiction. What is essential in a sex scene is the same as in any other and I want to write every scene well. I do notice, however, that a lot of contemporary fiction seems to treat sex as farcical and/or disastrous. Disastrous sex is particularly popular. Terrible sex. Humiliating sex. Or, worse yet, it’s ignored altogether. Young urbanites embrace in the yellow light of a bodega and the next thing you know someone’s making a very specific blend of coffee in a very specific vessel, and they’re talking about whatever malaise happens to be haunting them that morning.
Personally, I’d prefer less about the origin of the coffee beans and more about the sex. There’s a real prudishness there, an underlying terror of giving offense. A cuddle is a hell of a lot safer than whatever you believe its opposite is and that instinct toward safety is born out of fear. I find all that disconcerting.
Who becomes an artist out of a desire for safety? The aversion to writing about real intimacy is symptomatic of what I see as our growing cultural aversion to sincerity. And far more frightening, is a growing atmosphere of caution. Since when have good writers been cautious? Are we so afraid to offend? To use the wrong language? To run afoul of the professionally outraged? To fall subject to an increasingly popular and powerful ad hominem moral criticism. Those who’ve taken it upon themselves to tell us what we may and may not write? I think the answer, too often, is yes. That fear is ubiquitous and dangerous. It’s a dry rot and it not only affects writers, but editors and prize committees, and critics who are so often terrified of backing the wrong writer, of being caught supporting the wrong book. And this obviously extends far beyond the subject of sex.
I don’t understand it. I have always been drawn to art because it is an utterly lawless world, limited only by a person’s courage and imagination. So what do I shy away from? Cowardice. I revile cowardice in art. I revile the idea that we should be writing benign and careful books.
NB: Rage, particularly female rage, is a key element of the book. And Tess is one of my favorite characters of recent fiction: restless and compassionate, driven by principle and anger, enraged by cowardice, with intense moments of both vulnerability and power. Like all the book’s characters, she resists gender stereotypes. How do you see her as emblematic of the book’s larger preoccupations?
AM: I’ve been struck by how divided readers are when it comes to Tess. There are those who adore her and those who abhor her. People see her as brave and powerful, or careless and cruel. My sense, though, is that if she were a man she’d be a far less polarizing character. We have a vastly greater tolerance for men who possess the characteristics she does. And indeed, what you describe is really a description of the same old male hero we’ve seen repeated in a thousand novels and films. All those tales of restless men, angry and driven by principle, who set out to slay the dragon, solve the crime, seek revenge, fight the good war, who return, bruised and bloodied, along a rose-strewn path while at the end of it waits a patient maiden smiling on the porch, bosom heaving.
Tess is angry for all the reasons any thinking human being is angry. She reads the papers. She pays attention to the world beyond her own, and if you do that, how are you not always a little furious? But she is also angry because she’s a woman, because she’s worked for many years serving drinks to men in bars, because she’s traveled, because she’s walked alone through cities. And that is enough. I absolutely do not believe that she needs any further justification or explanation for her rage. So in this sense she comes to be emblematic of the novel’s preoccupations. In a world full of furious, vengeful and powerful men, here’s a woman who says: you wait at home while I go wandering, or to war. She simply refuses to play the role expected of her.
NB: Joey worries that his deep love and constant gaze has somehow driven Tess away. And in one way or another, all the women in Joey’s life have disappeared. These absences give the story a deep sense of melancholy and also provide an interesting commentary. Can you talk a little about this?
AM: From the very start I imagined Joey pacing his tower waiting for his knight to return home. I wanted him to play a role so commonly played by women – docile, patient, enthralled and excited by the supposedly mysterious wanderings of men. We have been weaned on the idea that there is something noble, attractive, erotic about the stolid man who gazes absently out the window toward the western horizon, who is gone in the morning, off in search of adventure, or gold, or to murder his enemies. And we are told that when he returns home he should be tended to and honored for his inscrutable ways, and for whatever good he’s done upon the battlefield. We’re such suckers for that worn-out trope. As if absence, in and of itself, and in whatever form, makes a person interesting.
You don’t often see men swooning over monosyllabic women, gone in the morning in search of adventure. So why not put a man in the tower? Why not let a woman abandon and roam and set out to sea? Let her vanish to join the revolution. And let her refuse to explain herself.
NB: I admire that you resist the urge to follow a more traditional structure, which seems related to the book’s larger project. Joey often returns to certain key events, struggling not only to make sense of them but also to find a way to tell them. It creates a wonderful narrative urgency. Was this something you had in mind all along, or something that emerged as you continued writing and revising?
AM: I did want to avoid those structures you describe. Though when I began the novel, I wasn’t thinking much of structure at all, but of character. What I had in mind was this man, Joseph March, who has isolated himself, or perhaps trapped himself is a better phrase, in the house he built with a woman he loves, a house that was to be their refuge, and now she’s left him and he finds himself alone, a bit lost, a bit paralyzed, trying to answer the same question we all end up asking ourselves, no matter our fortunes or failures: what has happened to me?
I wanted him to tell a story, of course, but I didn’t want him to be doing it in any kind of formal way. I wanted to avoid the old tricks, though I’m sure I’ve used many of them in spite of myself. And after I’d been writing for a while, I came to see that the structure of the novel should reflect the structure of Joey’s mind. He is not someone who can begin a story and tell it all the way through as if he were standing on a stage. He’s suffered most of his life from bipolar disorder. The days change him. The weather changes him. A stab of memory changes him. In fact, I think of him as so deeply buried beneath these layers of memory that the recounting of his love affair with Tess, and of his relationship with his family, is a kind of excavation as well as an effort to put the world into order. What he’s writing is many things at once. Love letter, eulogy, prayer. He’s not driven by a desire to entertain. He’s not writing for us. He’s writing to save his own life. And, given his state of mind, I mean that quite literally.
NB: Shelter in Place reminded me a lot of Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion, whose narrator recalls a time in her life when she became obsessed with a man with whom she was having an affair. She writes: “Throughout this period, all my thoughts and all my actions involved the repetition of history. I wanted to turn the present back into the past, opening on to happiness.” She also notes that “there was very little difference between this reconstruction and a hallucination, between memory and madness.” How similarly does this reflect Joey’s worldview, if at all?
AM: I take that as a tremendous compliment. I think Ernaux extraordinary and I love that novel. Before I get to Joey, I will say that I believe she’s dead right. And while I’m not sure if Joey would have the clarity of mind to see it in such stark terms, he does struggle constantly with the distinction, and, after a while, the intensity of his memories allows him to live vividly in the past. There’s a madness there, yes, but also a pleasure. What I find most remarkable about the Ernaux novel is that by its end, the object of the narrator’s obsession has become irrelevant. It is as if she has, by focusing so singularly on the past, on this once potent, but now unremarkable, man, she comes, on some level, to destroy him, or at least destroy the power his memory once held. Whether Joey accomplishes the same feat is another question.
NB: Joey’s intense focus on memory and loss seems to be his mode of survival, which is a departure from the way your earlier work engaged with these subjects. In Shelter, recollection becomes the main narrative. And Joey becomes obsessed not just with recollection but with translation—trying to translate feeling into action and language, trying to translate Tess—yet all the while understanding the impossibility of the task. How do you see the role of translation operating as you write?
AM: I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write a novel about memory, but more specifically about active recollection. While at times memories arrive unbidden, more often, Joey goes searching for them. That act, that conjuring of the lost, the disappeared, has, I believe, a true and extraordinary magic to it. And what I discovered in working on this novel is just how much like writing that conjuring is.
Really, recollection is itself a form of fiction writing. As much as we’d like there to be, there is no purely true memory and this is something that Joey can’t fully understand, or doesn’t want to understand. He’s trying so hard to disentangle fact from fiction. And he believes, in the way that some of us believe in God, that such a thing is possible. He’s convinced, for a while anyway, that if he could just find the essential truth of what’s happened over the course of his life, he’d finally understand Tess, his mother, his sister, his own erratic mind.
He wants so much to reduce all these years, all these inexplicable events, to some kind of logical system, a closed box in which he can contain the world. To some degree or another we all want to do the same. To provide the illusion of order by saying to ourselves: this is where I live, this is what I do, this is what has happened to me, this is what I am, this single thing, and as long as I know it, I’ll be all right. But Joey, who’s constantly switching from one personality to another, knows that lie better than anyone. There are days when he, or one of his selves anyway, believes that he can simply “tell what happened” as if such a thing were possible. But eventually he abandons the notion of telling the truth and communicating fact, and instead focuses on translating feeling.
And this, I think, while nearly as difficult, is not necessarily impossible. Perhaps he can’t entirely translate Tess to the page, nor bring the dead back to life, but I do think he can, if he’s very lucky, translate pure feeling. I believe he can take what is within him – that muddle of personalities and histories, desires and loves – and translate that. I have to believe that’s possible. It is what great musicians do. It is what great painters do. It is what art is for. It’s why I write and it’s why I read.
Kazimir Malevich, in response to criticism of his ultra-minimalist, white on white paintings, told Robert Irwin “ah but we have found a desert of pure feeling.” I love that phrase so much. If Judith Freeman hadn’t already used it for the title of her novel, I’d have used it for this one.
In the end that’s all I’m after.
Alexander Maksik is the author of three novels: You Deserve Nothing, A New York Times bestseller; A Marker to Measure Drift, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for both the William Saroyan Prize and Le Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger; and Shelter in Place. A contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler, his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper’s, Tin House, Harvard Review, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Salon and Narrative Magazine, among other publications. He’s the recipient of a 2015 Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the Truman Capote Literary Trust and The Corporation of Yaddo. Maksik is the co-artistic director of the Can Cab Literary Residence in Catalonia, Spain, and his work has been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Natalie Bakopoulos is the author of the novel The Green Shore, and her work has appeared in Tin House, VQR, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Granta, Glimmer Train, O. Henry Prize Stories, and various other publications. She has received fellowships from the Camargo and MacDowell foundations and was a 2015 Fulbright Fellow in Athens, Greece. She currently teaches at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.