On Emerging Unconstructed
     by Lisa Kavchak

A Conversation with Carole Maso

Carole Maso is the author of Ghost Dance, The Art Lover, AVA, Aureole, The American Woman in the Chinese Hat, Defiance, Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing & Moments of Desire, The Room Lit by Roses: A Journal of Pregnancy and Birth, and Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo. Ms. Maso has received numerous awards, including a Lannan Literary Fellowship for fiction. She received her B.A. in English from Vassar College in 1977, garnering General Honors and Departmental Honors. Since that time she has held the positions of Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, Illinois State University, 1991-92; Jenny McKeon Moore Writer-in-Residence, George Washington University, 1992-93; and Associate Professor of Writing, School of the Arts, Columbia University, 1993. Currently Ms. Maso is a Professor of English at Brown University.

Kavchak: I mentioned, in my initial correspondence with you, that I had very fittingly discovered your work during a period of severe disillusionment with the mainstream literary establishment, both the publishing and mentoring ends. Your book, Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, and Moments of Desire, did something for me that no other book, past or present, on the subject of writing, could ever do. It gave me the courage, or rather, the audacity, to keep experimenting with form in spite of the disheartening and ever-burgeoning stack of rejection letters, and perhaps most damaging of all, the disparaging criticism of teachers and peers: "Look," they were saying, "you're either writing fiction or poetry, there is no in between." "Short stories must contain a clearly delineated beginning, middle and end, and what about plot-yes, the voice you employ is interesting, but voice alone can never carry the story," etc., etc.-the death knell, I have to imagine, for many vibrant and innovative voices before they've had a opportunity to fully mature.

Would you talk a little about how much better or worse you believe the experimental publishing situation has become since the book came out? I'm also curious to know who's reading the book and what their response has been.

Maso: The book seems to be being read largely by people much like yourself who feel estranged from the dominant mainstream directives and are looking for alternatives. Some courage, company, some small hope. A way in to their own relationship with the page. I think in the years since the essays there is an increasing tolerance perhaps for the between genre impulse-particularly among the smaller presses who understand more and more they are having to meet the needs of a hungry and deprived readership. This slippage, if you will, or indecipherability in the text, is finding an audience that is sick of the vulgar and exhausted offerings by mainstream fiction. Perhaps what is most disheartening for those experimenting with form is, as you point out, the disparaging criticism from teachers and peers. I've never understood what everyone is out there trying to protect and conserve. I would say those are the sorts of people one needs most to steer clear of-particularly in the beginning.

I'll add this: In Three Dialogues, which Beckett wrote in 1949 when struggling with the final part of the Unnamable, he said the artist must turn away from "the plane of the feasible in disgust, weary of its puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road." This, like all of Beckett, brings me solace and makes me smile.

Kavchak: Each and every one of your books-including Break Every Rule-is an experiment in form, an attempt, you have said in the past, "to let form take as many risks as content."

In the preface to Aureole you write:

If I felt I was doing something I already knew how to do well, the rule was to start again, to attempt to break habitual patterns of mind and expression.

In Break Every Rule you say:

I wanted in my books prayers, bells, arabesques, dervishes, a doomed blood, a remote chorus, the static of cats, the way you looked that night, turning away-modulations to other keys. I wanted it all: the moment and the elongation of the moment, and then another moment, and the cumulative pleasures of an intensifying, building content. I was greedy. I believed it might all be possible.

Not to fear being ludicrous. Not to fear failing magnificently.

And finally, again from Break Every Rule and quoting Helene Cixous:

The desire to speak in a language that heals as much as it separates.

I understand from these lines that deeply experienced meaning, possibility, challenge and risk form the only static underpinnings of your aesthetic, and that without them, you'd feel absolutely no compulsion to put pen to paper. Which one of your books demanded the most from you, pushed you past all preconceived notions of what you felt yourself capable of accomplishing? And conversely, which book demanded the least?

Maso: All of the books oddly have asked that I be a better writer than I was at the time. All were beyond my grasp. I see in those books the traces of what they might have been-they strike me each as in various states of flux and becoming-and I actually like that idea somewhat. Each book demanded a great deal in very different ways. The Art Lover documents a personal crisis of enormous proportion and as a result was a harrowing book to write during an extreme crisis of faith. AVA (ironically the book I consider my best thus far in some ways) was written it seemed to me, essentially in a trance, in only a few drafts. Defiance, on a different level altogether was difficult, as I for once took on the burdens of the narrator as my own in the way I imagine realist writers might-this was a whole other experience. I believe that all of the work I have done up until this point has been preparation for The Bay of Angels, the book I am now writing. I feel finally that my long apprenticeship is complete and I am ready to write something as Stein says "in my own handwriting." Nothing I have written to this point feels close to the kinds of things I feel ready now to attempt-it's really very exciting.

Kavchak: In AVA you write:

Sarraute demonstrates that the genuine response to art is on an immediate and personal level. It is essentially a wordless conversation between the author and reader and his or her willingness to assume the same responsibilities and prerogatives as the author.

Many critics of experimental writers-and I'll use Joyce with Ulysses and Faulkner with The Sound and the Fury as the most well-known Modernist examples-use this argument as a platform of savage. They are inaccessible, they say, incomprehensible on anything but the most intuitive and primitive of levels, and in so saying, dismiss them out of hand. Do you agree with the critics here, and if so, how would you distinguish your experiments with innovation from theirs? And just how necessary are these distinctions outside the realm of theory?

Maso: I find both Joyce and Faulkner a bit bloated, but extraordinary nonetheless and filled with energy and wisdom and beauty. You know I have never seen my own work as inaccessible or even difficult. I don't think I write in such a private language that there is no way for a reader to enter. My work does assume other shapes than those most often used but they are shapely and structured in ways that hopefully allow for a certain spaciousness and freedom and allowance. I feel in some ancestral line from the Modernists clearly and believe that project still to be a vital one. Of course the world is a different place now, even from then, and literature must find ways I think to speak to that.

Kavchak: Intense lyricism is an integral part of most of your work. An unremitting idealism, tremendous capacity for joy and boundless empathy in the face of suffering and grief also permeate much of it, as well as a fearless intellect intent on taking to task the various abuses of authority and oppression that have plagued the 20th Century.

Your novel Defiance incorporates, seemingly flawlessly, many of these elements and adds to the mix an almost unbearable dose of rage and despair the likes of which I haven't come across in literature since I experienced my first psychic woundings in the forms of Euripides Medea, Eliot's The Wasteland, and the tragedies of Shakespeare. You include, in fact, themes and lines and variations of lines from these works within your text with stunning dramatic effect. You have said that you intentionally stacked the decks against your main character, Bernadette, in an attempt to "play God," to "take any number of mainstream formulas and exaggerate them, mock them, make them ludicrous, and at the same time riveting." I'm very intrigued by these comments and would like to ask you to expound on them further.

Maso: In Defiance I wanted to fuel the text with various levels of rage. I felt myself confined and appalled by the instructions of the mainstream, deadened by the rules, as if delivered from on high of the prefigured, stable character, the progress through conflict to growth, the insatiable and sensational desire for more and more "story," the notions of closure, etc.-all these things I railed against in Defiance and tried to address in different ways on a formal level. It adds an extra ferocity to my mind to the narrative and actually makes it a book far more icy and lucid than I anticipated writing. My comments about this aspect of the book are meant to allow the reader in some wordless way into a place of confinement and claustrophobia and uselessness that the book relies on in order to succeed. The levels of manipulation, the preordained path in which one is put are crucial I think to coming away from it with a visceral as well as intellectual reaction. Defiance let me meditate on certain aspects of storytelling, to really get inside them, and exhaust them so that now with the new project I may serenely sluff them off. I am fond of the book, and frightened by it. I don't quite know now how I sustained the levels of fury I wrote from.

Kavchak: You write in Break Every Rule:

When I write sentences I am at home. When I make shapes. When I do not, I am damned, doomed, homeless. I know this well-restless, roaming; the actual places I've lived become unrecognizable, and I, too, monstrous, am unrecognizable to myself.

Writers with a temperament similar to your own-intensely private, well-tuned to the interior world and the astonishing places it takes you in your writing-will recognize the seriousness of this commitment you've made and, as you yourself have said, its necessity in your life for the maintenance of health and wholeness. How have you managed, since the birth of your daughter, Rose, to balance this need with those of parenting-as well as teaching?

Maso: I don't feel as if I've been very good at this balancing act, alas. It's been far more difficult than I could have imagined. The demands of each are enormous, and together they feel almost untenable much of the time. What is perhaps most surprising is how seductive the call to work remains even with this urgent, beautiful little life before me. It's extremely creative work to raise a child, teach well, and of course to write and I feel the depletion of my resources often. Still there is something utterly engaging in the direct, palpable world a child draws one into. We just finished gluing shells to a headpiece for her mermaid costume. Everything about her is interesting. I am moved and terrified by her world: "Will my teacher from last year recognize me?" "Will I get to use the red bicycle?" After seeing a fragment of the 9/11 destruction on TV she asked, "How will we ever get to Nana's again?" And shielded from that event, one year later, after her first day of school ever, she came home and said: "You'll never guess what-something terrible-a plane went running into a building." There's a window into the world that I would not have without her. And a wellspring of feeling in me-emotion like no other kind of emotion-difficult to locate. And a new tenderness, I think. And gentleness-and ferocity. But as you say my life for the most part is an interior one, intensely quiet, and essentially wordless so to have to be outward, to have to engage, which is obviously crucial with a child, has been very, very difficult, painful even at times. The dailiness of play dates and other parents and baby sitters and lessons and conversation of a certain sort-well it's been a little shocking.

There is also the feeling that I cannot be as reckless somehow as I might need to be in order to do my work. I hold myself back from dissolving, or changing shape, or going too far-something I think I once did routinely. And there is the problem of course always of time. And the need for sustained blocks of time in order to compose a novel-without interruption. I notice the sprawling pages that have emerged in the last five years and which I call a novel-but it is really a monstrous thing-like nothing else I've ever done. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it comes from this inability to focus entirely I think. In September Rose will be in school all day, and I imagine it might be possible to concentrate again in that steely way. This is the hope at any rate. If I were a different person entirely it would be easy I think as she is a mild, charming, extremely sweet and easy child.

Kavchak: Continuing with the subject of Rose, you said in a previous interview that one of the things you'd yet to accomplish was to help her become a free person. What does that entail for you?

Maso: A free child-yes, that entails trying to help her not emerge already constructed, to help her in some way from the start feel as if she might invent herself. Children are conventional-but also love possibility-and this notion of possibility is something I try to somehow convey to her. Though it's difficult in these times.

Kavchak: The response to the language constructs of Aureole, your book of Erotic Etudes, you have said, was visceral. To what do you attribute such intense reception?

Maso: Most erotic writing it strikes me is like reading the phone book or an instruction manual or something. It is certainly graphic enough, but it seems sexless and formally rather dry and brittle-at best a record of an experience, but not an experience in itself. I wanted Aureole to do something quite else. To somehow through language get closer to those delirious, deranged erotic states. I had to invade my own privacy in a way to write it-to allow in what is ordinarily kept out, it seems. It was a joy to write once I allowed myself to just go without concern for anything other than getting close to these states of desire.

Kavchak: You have described your book, Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frido Kahlo, as "a deeply personal meditation: an attempt to be in some kind of dialog with Kahlo across time and space-and with myself." What has been the response of readers to this newest experiment, a hybrid of fiction, poetry, biography and autobiography?

Maso: I have not actually been privy to much of the response to Frida. Counterpoint Press was going under as it was released and it did not receive much review attention. It is being taught in classes but I have not heard as to how that is going yet, besides the fact that students are intrigued by its hybrid nature. Also of course they have wanted to compare it to the film based on Kahlo's biography which came out around the same time as the book.

Kavchak: A hypothetical question: I have just been accepted as an MFA student at Brown. I am terrified of failure, exhilarated by the prospects of success, and completely uncertain of what's in store for me in terms of the environment, the faculty and the curriculum. What can I expect?

Maso: The environment at Brown is relaxed, open, serious, fun. We are excited by all good writing, with an obvious predilection toward the more experimental. The curriculum is geared almost entirely toward giving the writer time to write. A workshop and one other class per semester are the only requirements. Often there are students from other genres in the graduate workshop. The faculty is eccentric and very happy I think, and this goes a long way in terms of the environment. And the students I find are extraordinary. We're small, and we fully fund everyone who comes and that makes it possible to attract some very interesting writers. It is a supreme pleasure to work with them.

Kavchak: Taking another tack, I have just been rejected from Brown and understand from this that more intense self-study is required if I am to make it in in the future. Who would you recommend-living and dead, literary and non-literary-that I conduct this self-study with?

Maso: I would suggest that you read widely and deeply-from the most ancient literatures through to the post-modern. It's central. Then I would say to follow your inclinations-whether it be into philosophy or science or history or music or film-whatever you cannot look away from-that would be first where to go. And then perhaps less likely places-where it might be a bit of a stretch, maybe theory, maybe mathematics? It's a wide and wonderful world and I think it all informs great writing. Also study a foreign language-on my to do list is Latin. Maybe when Rose gets there, I'll do it with her. The important thing, it would seem, would be to immerse oneself, to make a serious commitment, and to stay with it. It's a devotion more than anything.

Kavchak: Talk a little, if you will, about your writing process. How do you compose and why? How long do you "dream" your books before beginning them? Which one of your books took the longest amount of time to finish, the shortest?

Maso: My writing process varies from book to book, but it always begins in the dark, and it's the part of the process I love most, coming perhaps to some small light, as the shape emerges. I follow my instincts, interests, passions (intellectual, spiritual, sexual, emotional) where they take me without much worry about what I am up to, what a book will be, any of that, until it makes itself in some way apparent. I think The Art Lover probably took me the longest to write and AVA took the shortest amount of time. Some were written over a period of time with interruptions like the essays, and Aureole and Beauty is Convulsive. Defiance was a long haul, and now that I think of it Ghost Dance, of course, took the longest, as it was the first and a process like no other. There I was in the dark for the longest time of all-years and years, really.

Kavchak: You mentioned previously your continuing work on the novel The Bay of Angels. Will it be ready for publication soon, and are you working on anything else?

Maso: I've been working on The Bay of Angels on and off for the last 10 years, and now it is the only thing I am doing. It won't be ready for publication soon-it feels, on good days, still a few years away. It is utterly engrossing to me, and as I said earlier, it feels like the book all the others have been preparation for.

Kavchak: I'd like to return to your second response about Rose where you say "it's difficult [to raise her to be a free person] in these times." I'll assume what you're referring to here are the recent terrorist horrors and the drastic reversals in freedom we've experienced in the world lately. What are your feelings about the future, in general, as well as for the novel? Are you optimistic, cynical? One thing, I will venture an informed guess, is that you certainly aren't indifferent.

Maso: No, I am certainly not indifferent. I have a piece I wrote at the end of the summer that speaks to both of these issues much more thoughtfully than I could attempt in a few words. It's entitled "World Book" and seems a fitting conclusion to our discussion:

It is no longer possible to think in our day other than in the void left by man's disappearance. For this void does not create a deficiency; it does not constitute a lacuna that must be filled. It is nothing more, and nothing less, than the unfolding of a space in which it is once more possible to think.

This quotation from Michel Foucault's The Order of Things, seems for me to get to the heart of where we are now going. World events of the past two years press the novel with astonishing speed into its next phase, and in some way the place it has been tending toward for a hundred years. "Orts, scraps and fragments, she quoted what she remembered of the vanishing play" Virginia Woolf wrote in her war-torn and broken hearted Between the Acts. As the novel breaks apart, becoming shards, a debris field, without a real audience or raison d'etre it free falls into the space of pure radiance, a place of unimaginable intellectual and emotional freedom. Cut off from the quaint scaffoldings of narrative and character-for this no longer makes any sense except as a sentimental record of human folly, we write now wholeheartedly into our own obsolescence, our own obscurity-a place at once tender and absurd and fierce. We chronicle figments, and it is as if we have already disappeared and our shadow words are trailing us, leaving their extraordinary, flickering residue:

It shall be a record of our vanishing, one of the voices offers. It shall be a book of scraps. Last messages left on answering machines, trace elements, in the Unfinished Book of Hope-a sort of reliquary, a dome, a memory of bread, a dormer, a basket, a rabbit path. It shall be a cradle that holds time. A prayer. More and more a prayer. It shall speak to what mattered most-as much as it was possible to do so. It shall be a pageant, a celebration, a mourning grove, a history of our suffering at once intimate and epic, the progress of our regret, the passage of yearning. My mother's voice, the swing swung, the way you looked that night. The bells. Birds, migration, peace in our time. A philosophy of wings will emerge.

It shall be our lives-eclipsing the darkness. Our lives passing brightly before the darkness and obscuring it for a moment.

She was busy, should she be asked. She was mid-stream. She was standing in front of the illuminated manuscripts in that ancient Italian city. She was alive. We were working, should she be asked, on an erotic song cycle. It shall be a record of all human feeling, knowledge, invention. A record of that beauty-and its disappearance. It shall be a record of heartbreak. The dust in her hair-what is left now of those two tremendous towers and their daylight inhabitants. What is left. Remnant of a beautiful, blue morning-New York City-just the words once before we fall back into forgetfulness: surrendered, evaporated, dissolved, perfected. That fragment of flame that was my life. Trailing daylight.

To see the sky one more time through those towers, the view they arrange. The light as it made its way across their skin. They were your friends-you always called them that. The boy you loved who had worked at their summit carrying cool, blue drinks. Windows on the World.

Things that maybe you did not know. I loved rain, snow, anything that purely, recklessly and without harm fell from the sky to grace this earth.

I used to find myself often on Sullivan Street, where from one angle I could see the gorgeous Empire State Building and then by turning, by pivoting without lifting a foot I could see the World Trade Center. I must have done it a thousand times.
The pivot now made silently in the dust. A habit I know.
A record of our resourcefulness and longing and our folly.
There were things I wanted you to know.
There's a list I've been keeping.
What did you think was beautiful there?
My father bee laden among the roses. Peace eludes us, I can scarcely believe.
Crossing the color fields, figures pass before her-she remembered a world of pure vibrancy and form-miniscule now they pixelate and blur. No one says it and there is no need to, for it is abundantly clear…
The living and the dead, the bodied and the disembodied inextricably linked, the mingling of a thousand dusts. Small voices: a voice calls, a voice screams, some voice somewhere sings, another asks for help, begs for water, asks for a story, especially a story, and if there were a story like that I would be the first in line…A story with assertions, a story with solutions, pointless now.

We write now into our extinction with surprising reserves of energy, perversely embracing the motion toward our disappearance. From the erasures, from the negations, from the violence and assaults and trespasses and betrayal, from the love for all that passes, the novel in new forms will persist; it alone has the potential of coming closer than any other human document to the poignancy and terror of the moment.

About the Interviewer
Lisa Kavchak is the Interview Editor at WDS. She can be reached at interviews@webdelsol.com


Web del Sol/Algonkian Workshops
2020 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Suite 443
Washington, D.C. 20006
Phone: 703-262-0969