November 2007

Charles Blackstone


An Interview with Cris Mazza

Cris Mazza’s venerable cadre of characters, spanning an awe-inspiring thirteen books of fiction and one memoir, is a virtual spectrum of personalities, light years beyond stock “good guys” and “bad guys.” Mazza’s storytelling is more than just about story: she mercilessly plumbs the depths of personality, of idiosyncrasy, of foible, which makes it quite difficult for her readers not to hang on every word. Mazza’s a professor (she directs UIC’s Program for Writers), and for students of writing, especially those struggling to learn how to work with point-of-view, you can’t do much better for an instructive model than a Cris Mazza narrative. In the weeks leading up to the publication of her newest novel, Waterbaby, I sat down with Cris, virtually-speaking, to learn more about what it takes to be a Mazza character, reader, and writer.

I’d like to start with this exchange between Nat and Tam in your new novel, Waterbaby.

“They knew some hard sorrow,” Tam said. “And that’s how we know them.”

“Who?” Nat’s quiet voice still wasn’t a whisper.

“People then. We don’t think back to the happy times they might’ve had with a roasted goose and holiday pudding. That’s for Christmas carols. When we want to know them, we dig for their misery.”

This struck me as being a very apt metaphor for fiction writing. It also echoes a sentiment I know you’ve taught in your writing classes: Only trouble is interesting. Do you think Tam’s quest to untangle her lineage in Waterbaby -- your thirteenth book of fiction -- is on some levels, albeit levels unbeknownst to her, a meditation on the novelist’s proverbial dig for misery?  

Maybe more than a metaphor: a parallel. Maybe more than a parallel: because I was using my own maternal family tree as my basis, and for some reason I was struck by an enigmatic name of a woman who died in her early 30s, and that's the only information a family tree has: that she was born, that she died. All I could do was imagine her life. In the book I gave the job of imagining to Tam, but I was doing it with her. Outside novel writing, I've occasionally said (in jest) that I'm not interested in people who never complain, who are always just nice about everything. Well, extend that a little bit, and you realize that you do really get to know a person -- and maybe empathize with them, or sympathize, or care about them, or at least feel interested -- when you see how they deal with conflict, pain, stress, etc. And those are the emotions a reader needs to have about a character. Not necessarily liking or respecting the character, but being interested, maybe caring what happens, because you've gotten to know the character through his/her trouble. It's knowing people that leads to understanding.

How well do you usually know characters, or how well should you know them, before they get cast as novel POV characters?

I have no screen test for any character, unless you count the time spent feeling my way into the novel. The beginning of a novel gets re-written more than any other part -- perhaps the first quarter. I've never questioned my own interest in my characters because, inherently since they are my characters, they're going to be flawed, conflicted, stressed people. I may not know, when I start out, the true nature of my characters' flaws, but they do at least start out with an internal conflict -- one that arises at least in part due to who they are, their weaknesses, their fears and longings. I start with a little and know that I'll be gathering and learning as I go.  

How do you keep track of everything? I'd have to think that Waterbaby, given all the specific names and dates of the geneaology, provided certain organizational challenges during the writing process.

As I work through a first draft, I keep a file of stuff I know I need to go back and add, change, enhance, etc., based on what I discover as I plow forward. As far as forgetting names and dates, though, in this case I did always have that genealogical list to refer back to. But I also kept a word document that listed the necessary changes I had to make to it. (I don't even remember why that was important to me.) In my everyday life, the thought of losing anything -- memories, ideas, photographs -- I am neurotically concerned about and strive (struggle) to maintain ultimate organization. (You know how the laws of physics say that everything moves toward chaos, or something like that. I try to fight against it.)

Did you actually have to go to Maine to do any research? I’ve never been, but your descriptions of Hendrick’s Head, the coastal lighthouse town where Tam’s present story unfolds, its houses, its denizens, its general store, its Laundromat, felt incredibly vivid and convincing to me as I read them.

In fall 2001, I knew I would be writing a "Maine novel" that would somehow involve my family genealogical list and the lighthouse legends associated with certain ancestors. I also knew I would be on sabbatical I spring 2002 and traveled to Maine at that time for some genealogical research, as well as research of the overall milieu. 

This is your first novel set in a post-9/11 U.S., and touches on the rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero, as they involved Tam’s brother, Gary. Did you intend to include 9/11 in some way when you started writing? Is it possible for a novel set in the U.S. after September 2001 not to have characters trying to reconcile the WTC attacks to some degree?  

My general writing-mood during that period was that no writer currently working on a book set in contemporary times can just go on writing as though the world is the same as yesterday, and that no book set in contemporary times from now on can try to tell a story as though it isn't happening, didn't happen, or never happened. Even though this mindset has modified and evolved with the other changes in the world since then, I think many writers had this same thought in the days, weeks and months immediately afterwards, and some who were just starting a book that had a contemporary date-stamp may have been stymied for a while. I don't remember being particularly stymied, but the mood I was in, and the mood that evolved by the time I traveled to Maine just six months later, transferred immediately to the narrative and to the character. In short, it was a no-brainer that the moment this book was starting, the first paragraph, would include this event that had changed the world, and had to begin to influence reverberations of changes in almost everyone's personal life.

When I went to Maine in March 2002, the war in Afghanistan had begun, but not the invasion/occupation of Iraq. Perhaps because, by then, an emotional escape from world strife was desperately needed, I was able to immerse myself -- and found a certain amount of solace -- in the serenity of an off-season tourist area, in the period when winter struggles to become spring, and in the true aura the areas of my ancestry held for me: the isolated lighthouse, the quiescent graveyard, the austerity of the rocky coast, and the seeming simplicity of the human lives that had lived there in previous generations.

In the novel, Tam is met with many a suspicious eye when she begins to poke around. Did you find that the real-life Hendrick’s Head residents were supportive of your research? Did people wonder what you were doing hanging around? I’m sure in a small town it doesn’t take long a stranger to be spotted and talked about outside of the usual tourist season.

Like most small seaside towns in Maine, the population has grown. Not only have many people started to live there and commute to larger cities, like Portland, and even Boston, there are those who are able to do full-time jobs from home via a computer network, and thus can live in what might have been their vacation home in past decades. All this to say, it's not as much an everybody-knows-everybody atmosphere as one would expect (or even hope for). My family's "ancestral ligthhouse" (where my great great grandfather and great grandfather were both lightkeepers, spanning more than 60 years) is privately owned, so not a tourist destination. The owner, Ben Russell of Russell Athletics, told me I was welcome to go to the point and visit the lighthouse as often and as long as I wanted. He also arranged for his caretaker to let me in to tour the inside. (The caretaker was a neighbor, not a distant relative of mine, as is the case of the character in Waterbaby.) Because of this arrangement, I didn't have to poke around asking anyone questions who wasn't already introduced to me.

I’d like to go back to something you said earlier in our conversation: “I am neurotically concerned about and strive (struggle) to maintain ultimate organization.” I wonder if the fear of losing the past has something to do with why people want to make family trees and genealogical lists in the first place. I’m sensing another metafictional parallel, here. In the novel, Tam, Martha, and, to some degree, Gary, in their own very different ways, chase something ultimately unattainable, via lineage, recreating events, drawing up memories, successes, failures, seeking truths that have been eroded by time, reinterpreted by new experiences, new insights. For writers, do you think we write novels to preserve a past, via our characters, in a way that a historical record or newspaper article could never come close to achieving?

First let me just say that I'm always intrigued and astonished at the spot-on insights smart readers have to my work, even making connections I hadn't consciously seen before. But yes, there absolutely must be some near-universal need to preserve, some need to "keep" certain fleeting things -- whether they be real memories or daydreams and fantasies -- that causes some people to write, some people to keep blogs or take photographs or make scrapbooks, some people to research family trees, etc. It's also, in all these vocations, a need to build identity, or to locate identity, or to just feel some identity. So what is it about the world, about society that makes people feel a lack of or longing for identity? To either keep a public blog of all their daily activities, thoughts, desires, etc., or pore themselves into researching distant and obscure relatives? To scan, organize and preserve hundred year old family photographs, or watercolor the house where they raised their children. But this question brings me right back around to this: that the truth of what really happened in any past isn't as important as the ways, and the reasons, and the methods of recreating (even reliving) memory.

Given your prolific output, novels, short stories, essays, I can’t imagine much stymies you when working! As one is wont to do after finishing a Cris Mazza title, I’m already looking forward to reading your next book. I understand you have a story collection, set in the '80s, forthcoming in 2009.

My forthcoming collection, Trickle-Down Timeline, was largely written in the year after I finished Waterbaby, while I was finding a new agent, and while she was then beginning to shop the MS. After I finished that collection (in 2004) I began another novel that had erupted into my consciousness. I finished that in fall 2006 and finally began my first hiatus, completing only a few essays on writing (scheduled to appear some time this year). Breaks are dangerous, though, because they're easy to get used to, but I think I'm starting to come out of it.