Interview with Cris Mazza

by Gina Frangello

Appears in Other Voices #28

Cris Mazza is the author of eight books of fiction, most recently Dog People and Former Virgin.† Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for fiction, and two portions of Dog People won Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards.† Cris teaches in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and spends summers in her native San Diego. Gina Frangello spoke with Cris in her office at UIC, which also provides office space for Other Voices.

OV:The first Chick-Lit anthology, which you co-edited, was sub-titled Postfeminist Fiction, with two Chick-Lit contributors going on to start the Postfeminist Playground website. Yet while the stories and editorials on the Playground, like many stories in both Chick-Lit volumes, are predominantly playful, ultra-sarcastic and flirty, and not necessarily grounded in realism, your fiction, while displaying a dry or ironic humor, is pretty serious stuff, and nowadays stays grounded in what we consider reality. Keeping in mind the limits of such labels as feminist and post-feminist, where would you position your writing on this continuum?

CM: Well, naturally assessing trends solely by looking at the Chick-Lit anthologies would be to make broad evaluations based on a very small sampling.† But youíre also right that my fiction seems to have a grimmer, colder tone than some of the frisky stories in Chick-Lit. This could be the difference between novels and short fiction who would want to read a 300-page novel that sustained the friskiness of a Chick-Lit story?† I can also honestly say that I didnít base the anthology on where I was or had already been focused, but probably changed my own focus somewhat based on how the anthology developed. What I have in common with the writers in the Chick-Lit anthologies is that I donít hold my characters sacred.† Iím pretty rough on them, both in attitude and expectations. They arenít to be pitied or pampered, nor necessarily revered nor honored.† In this way, I feel about them more the way I should feel about myself, studying them with honest and close scrutiny, noticing their flaws and weaknesses without giving them ready-made excuses, and caring enough not to rescue them with justification.† Here I do also have to add that I hope youíre not viewing feminist as being at one end of a gradation, and postfeminist at the other far end, and that realism can side only with feminist, while the postfeminist side only embraces non-realism.† I certainly wouldnít want serious to be something only feminists can claim, while post-feminists must always and only remain irreverent or even fatuous.† Itís important to bear in mind that we can be at our most serious when weíre at our most outrageously silly. That my tone is more overtly serious than that of many writers in Chick-Lit, or that my method of experimentation involves more manipulation of point of view than leaving the familiar realm, these things are personal style, not a political movement.

OV: So how does your particular political agenda tie in to your tendency to deal with topics like sexual harassment, date rape, and, in Her Behavioral Symptoms, even incest, which have historically been embraced by the feminist community, but often scorned by those writers labeling themselves postfeminist?

CM: What postfeminist writers scorn at least what I scorn in these topics is the attitude often implied in displaying them.† Itís like, ĎOh the poor thing, Oh see how she suffers at the hands of the mean man, Oh see her strength in going on with her life despite her emotional scars.í† Also the attitude that whatís interesting about women is only how they respond to being victimized by patriarchy. I was dealing with the gray areas of sexual harassment in my second book way back in 1991, in Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?† The Ďhe said/she saidí structure indicated I wasnít taking sides, and neither character could necessarily be trusted for the whole truth.† True, the male voice, given that it was in a controlled voice-over third-person, was more easily believed, while the hysterical first person of the female voice was more easily cast as the exaggeration thus one could assume I was blaming the notion of sexual harassment all on women.† This ironic effect was, of course, made on purpose.† In fact I was blaming it on everyone who puts their own sex appeal as first priority; women do this, no one forces them to do this. Think of it this way: three or four women are together and two or more of them start comparing notes on how a male colleague has been sexually harassing them and these could be real stories of truly inappropriate behavior.† The last woman has not had any such encounters with this guy.† She actually feels hurt and slighted that he didnít sexually harass her—she wonders whatís wrong with herself with her sex appeal that she didnít get that kind of attention too.† She would actually feel better if sheíd been harassed because it would validate her sexual attractiveness. Women have the power to control or change this attitude, but often donít even realize the disposition is there; itís degrading, and itís their own fault.† I may have issues like harassment in my fiction, but I do think Iím dealing with them in a much different way than: ĎOh see how the male world victimizes its women.í † I hold women to a higher standard.

OV:† Perhaps towards that end, incest stories have gotten a lot of negative press lately, from Katie Roipheís article in Harperís indicting them as overly trendy and lacking nuance, to the sub-title of the second Chick-Lit anthology, No Chick Vics. In fact, in the preface to that anthology, you stated that the Ďtroubled industryí was Ďsubtly drivingí writers to over-use the trope of victimization because it had Ďalready proven to be moving material,í and you seemed tired of such fiction, in which the source of conflict is something imposed from The Outside, rather than from within the character.† Yet in Her Behavioral Symptoms, much of Brianís current psychology is understood through his sisterís victimization, which, since he was a kid during her abuse, was his victimization too, right?† What made this particular spin on the incest drama more complex or interesting to you?

CM: Here again, my spin on this incest drama is different to me because, first and foremost, my general or over-riding demeanor isnít: Oh the poor victim.† Brianís sister, while not a minor, may be more of a victim than I am generally used to dealing with, but her victimization is not the central line of the book.† Brian is not dealing with being victimized as a child but with his own guilt that he was able to give himself adolescent moments of great sexual pleasure while his sister was in the motherís bedroom.† Itís not a story about the victimization of Brianís sister, but about how Brian chooses to deal with his own guilt, which is a conflict imposed from inside him.† Of course his conflict has to be incited by something outside him without that kind of initiation, few people would have any inner conflict to wrestle.† The important aspect to me is his choice to deal with his guilt by labeling himself a potential sex-killer, along with his fear of his self-determination these are central to the book. Many will call me not a post-feminist but an anti-feminist for this non-damning, maybe even sympathetic, portrayal of this manís fears and how far he goes to test himself to see if his assessment is true.

OV: Youíve indicated that Her Behavioral Symptoms is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress. Coming off your last novel, Dog People, in which the hyper-affinity between humans and their dogs led your now-former agent to call the characters lunatics, how does your current novel continue to explore the links between the human psyche and the animal world, especially with regard to sexuality?

M: There is a continued exploration carried in the subplot of Brianís work as a wildlife biologist, which also, of course, dovetails with his experiments on himself to determine if he is a sexual deviate. Iím looking at instinct animal and human and instinct gone awry.† For the first time, I think I do come to a sort of answer in a book.† While the dogs in Dog People were the most sane in regards to their sexuality, the cougar in Girl Beside Him does have aberrant instinct, caused not by genetics but by encroachment of her habitat. While itís not a condition she will get over, she also cannot be aware that her instinct is awry.† Only people can have that kind of cognizance.† And, interestingly, if a person does think he understands that heís behaviorally aberrant, he probably actually isnít.† Our powers of reason can be as twisted and damaging to us as aberrant instinct is to a wild animal.† Thatís, of course, another idea that will probably harm my popularity with feminists. And yet I never considered myself not a feminist.† But I guess Iím learning to handle the heat

OV: Speaking of heat, what was behind the recent hot controversy between FC2 and the NEA, and what role did the Chick-Lit anthologies play?

CM: It all started with a review of Chick-Lit 2 in the Washington Post.The reviewer pointed out some of the sexual content in the stories, and gasp that some were about lesbians, and then remarked that the book was supported by the NEA and wouldnít Jesse Helms want to know about this. Well, immediately a watchdog conservative group apparently most watchful to make sure lesbians donít get any kind of support from anywhere notified a congressman who was chair of a subcommittee that oversees funding for the NEA.† So the congressman contacted the publisher and asked to see all the books supported by the NEA. Chick-Lit and three other books from FC2 were reviewed by this congressional subcommittee.† One book not Chick-Lit was actually waved aloft by Jesse Helms at the eventual Senate debate over abolishing the NEA.† The outcome I cannot explain: no spanking, not even a stern lecture.† The NEA survived.

OV: Youíve been very vocal about the role large, chain, corporation-owned bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders play in dictating what the public reads.† What do you see as some crucial differences between what large, commercial publishing houses are publishing in the literary fiction category, and the stuff thatís coming from small presses?

CM: Firstly, we donít call them small presses.† (Laughs.)† Theyíre independent. But as far as the difference between these and the commercial presses go, what I think I perceive is very hard to articulate.† Letís say that what a commercial press may see as a lunatic is a character an independent press may find interesting and worth exploring.† Any book a commercial press may view as cold and without redemption may, to an independent press, be disturbing enough to provoke thought, to provoke strong reactions, which is what art should do.† Perhaps the fear to provoke, along with the assumption that they know what readers want, is what drives commercials differently than independents.† Of course, commercial publishers do sell books. Maybe they do know what a large segment of the reading public wants or thinks it wants.† But that doesnít mean itís all they want. Package anything in a publicity drive that says Ďthis is what you wantí and people will want it.

OV: Iím always bored stiff when I have to read about a writerís process, what time of the day she writes and for how many hours, blah blah blah, so Iím not going to dwell there though actually, I may be being evasive mostly because Iíve heard you wake up so early itíd depress any aspiring writer to read about your schedule

CM: Seven a.m. most days is that early?

OV:† Letís see yes.† Particularly since the stereotype of the writer would have you just going to bed, right?

CM: If Iím not seated at the computer by at least nine, I may not get much done that day.† If itís ten or eleven, I start making excuses to not even bother starting.

OV: So not only are you one of those enviable daily writers, but you actually complete these morning projects at a dauntingly prolific rate. In a decade, youíve come out with seven books, as well as recently attaining tenure at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and consistently publishing short stories in journals like Other Voices.† What I want to know most is how you keep your creative process from becoming merely a matter of getting business done.† Or is a romantic and lofty distinction between writing-as-work and Writing-As-The-Muse passť?

CM: Iíve always found this writing-as-the-muse thing to be a romantic fantasy sometimes downright mawkish, the way Iíve heard some people express it.† It also puts a judgment of quality on individual styles of inspiration, as if I donít get my energy to write from the spirit in the wind or the voice of a tree, Iím not as inspired.† Writing is only accomplished by pure energy.† When thereís no energy, writing is wooden and feels indifferent. I donít even think of it as Ďthe creative process.í† I become so immersed in each project that during the hours at the computer, while I am still always aware of the phone ringing or my dogs asking to go outside, and I always answer, I am submerged in experiencing whatís developing on the page, living it out, not just creating or processing it.† To me, creating is a more distant experience from the one Iím having while Iím writing.† Creating sounds like the writer is separate from whatís being written.† Itís more like Iím doing improvisation; Iím right up there on the stage, except I get to try different things, do it over and change things if I donít like what Iíve tried.† This parallel, of course, does seem to leave out all the necessary things Iíve had to learn and continue to learn about how the techniques of fiction work and play off each other.† If Iím flying on a fantasy, when do I put that kind of technical nuts-and-bolts knowledge to use? It kind of starts to come naturally.† And then thereís always re-reading and revising.

OV: Where does your energy to write come from?† What drives it?

CM: If I knew what drives me, I suppose I could either kill it and end this torture ha ha or turn it on and off when I need it.† If I donít write, a day feels a little worthless, certainly flat and a waste of time.† If I write even one good paragraph, I feel buoyed somehow. Maybe writing is like being an armchair traveler for me.† I get to do things like hunt mountain lions and break up dogfights, say exactly the right thing when confronted, and pause just the right amount of time before a kiss.

OV: Where do you see yourself heading as a writer?† How is your work different than, say, when you wrote Animal Acts or won the PEN Nelson Algren award for How to Leave a Country?† What do you observe happening in your writing now that youíd like to see grow and develop over the next five to ten years?

CM: Iíve started to venture into some non-fiction.† Naturally itís harder for me than fiction because those techniques I mentioned point-of-view, structure, character and motive, and all the rest donít play here. At least not the same way. So I have to be somewhat more analytic about how Iím writing while Iím also immersing in what Iím writing. I joked the past year or so that I was finished using stuff from my life as fodder, thus Girl Beside Him is about a wildlife biologist who fears heís a sex killer waiting to happen.† But my non-fiction is like digging in those same exhausted mines and still finding veins of ore.† Wow, what a metaphor

My fiction is also starting to more often be grounded in place and gain texture from specific landscape.† How to Leave a Country actually started that journey, but Iím continuing it now.† Animal Acts and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?, my first 2 books, started a different journey, a more honest some say more brutal way of looking at womenís lives and choices.† Hopefully Iíve continued that journey too. Not repeated it continued it.