MB: Cris, you boldly stepped outside the boundaries of realism in your latest novel "Waterbaby." Of course, a ghost is not new to the world of literary fiction. Even Hamlet faced one, as did characters before and after him. But American literary fiction is generally not kind to the fantastic (they think itís too easy) though this trend is beginning to change—hallelujah! Why did you bring a ghost into the life of a 21st century woman who sends e-mail and uses the Internet in her quest?
CM: The Ďfantasticí is not so easy when itís actually rooted in its root word: fantasy. The ghost exists in a fantasy created by a character (who, I admit, is a creation of my fancy). For that matter, since the character Tam is no more "real" than a ghost, how can there be a debate over whether or not the ghost is a "real one"? What I wanted was for the Ďtruthí of legends to remain possible. And that potential can always (only?) be found in the human imagination.
My own fascination with the Lady Ghost of Hendricks Head was not "does the ghost 'really' appear and walk the shoreline?" but "Why would she throw herself into the sea?" Imagining her life, the drama and trauma that led her to the coast of Maine. As soon as I begin to create a story for her, she does exist, for me. So itís all in my headówhoís to say whatís in there isnít Ďrealí? Are my thoughts not real?
If itís not traditional realism to include a ghost legend thatís neither proven nor disproved, itís also not 'traditional paranormal literature,' (if there is such a thing—ask Stephen King) to not only bring the role of the human imagination into the mix, but to include no concrete Ďpoltergeistic close encounters.í But legends exist because of the human beings, not in spite of them.
MB: Without slipping into solipsism, donít we assume that everything that is taking place in a book is real according to the rules of the world constructed by the author? You certainly made imaginary seem possible. I especially like the parallel constructions, the mirroring of your characters and events between the past and the present. The baby miraculously saved from drowning in the sea in the past and another one saved from the toilet in the present (now, which time period is more harsh and cruel, technological advantages not withstanding?). The jealous and pushy brothers. The epilepsy. The kidnapping of babies. I admire your foretelling of the future when young Tam sounds a false alarm when she takes a floating doll for a baby. Is this idea of parallelism something that you carry from book to book, or is it specific to "Waterbaby?"
CM: When reviews came out for my first book (Animal Acts in 1989), a reviewer mentioned my use of doppelgangers. Clueless as I was, I had to go look up the word. Then I realized, yes, I like this. Meaning: yes, parallelism has been there, one way or another, for a long time, but sometimes itís just innate and happens without my conscious planning. In "Waterbaby," though, I had to be a little more conscious of the parallelisms because the character is actually writing some of the book. Not "writing," you know, but imagining and creating the historical part of the story (some of which she acts out). Of course Iím still in control of what she imagines, but her past life—her questions about it, her unresolved relationships (and just basic unresolved-ness)—will naturally lead her to replay her dramas in her imagined characterís life, in the historical setting. Her fantasy re-creation of that historical characterís life "builds" as the novel moves along. Itís sketchy at first, but as she thinks about her past and remembers things, she keeps adding to it, and thatís where the parallels start growing. The secret—lover, the role of the brother, then, eventually—and of course—she gives that character her epilepsy. She doesnít, however, "invent" that baby in the toilet. Sometimes life drops a second opportunity into your path, in ways you couldnít have imagined.
MB: Cris, from your 2005 interview in Chiasmus Interview Series:
I like the idea that the author isnít an expert on what his or her book means or where it belongs in a literary movement... But, I donít want to completely avoid the spirit of this question: I consider myself a literary fiction writer who writes layered narratives, often about a personís 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.
How does the interior world of "Waterbaby's" Tamara, known as Tam to her relatives and friends, impact her "real world?" Tam was twelve when she almost won a swimming competition against her brother Gary, who was three years her senior. Before the finish line, he pulled her under, probably causing her first epileptic attack. She dedicated her life to solving a family mystery, perhaps to find the origin of her disease. Thatís her "real world." What is her "interior world?"
CM: Most of her quest in 'solving' the family legend occurs only within her imagination. She does some research, yes, but in her imagination, and in a lived-out fantasy, she re-creates the lives of long-dead distant relatives who are literally only names on documents. [Some of her research, in fact, is only so she can get the historic details correct, not discover the 'reality' of her ancestors lives.] It is in the invention of these ancestors lives and dramas that she actually reinvents (or replays) her own past, but any methods of revising personal history—any means of dredging up memories—are all an "interior life," and this can impact a "real life." I mean, she has stolen a baby! Would she do this if not for the imaginary, the fantasy? Sheís literalizing a fantasy—thereís no more obvious way to manifest how an interior life can impact the real world. Whatís more, every personís memory is subjective—there are few (if any) objective historical facts in personal memory. So her obsession with her personal past with her brother and her former lover is another form of an "internal life" that impacts the Ďreal,í the most obvious way being how it impacted her relationship with her brother. His version of what happened in that childhood race is completely different than hers, and I do not intend either of them to be a liar. The fabrication of the past—whether itís her own or a distant ancestorís—thatís Tamís interior world.
MB: Do you want the reader to attribute Tamís spontaneity, as in the episode with the stealing of the baby, to her traumatic past? Why did you choose her to be sick in the first place? Do you think that past trauma creates vivid characters? Also, why epilepsy? By the way, I admire your clinical knowledge of the disease.
CM: Yes, her "failure" to rescue the fake baby floating in the swimming pool causing the disappointment of both her mother and brother, along with her brotherís lifelong mantle of being a hero-rescuer, provokes that spontaneous act. Also, by that time, sheís been emboldened by her first visit to the lighthouse to act more spontaneously. (See the sex scene question below.)
I think I chose for Tam to have epilepsy in my first rudimentary thoughts about this novel, because of a 'pattern' I use (I hate to call it that, though) where a character canít just be dealing with the plotlines of what other people throw down in front of her, but is dealing with her own 'demons' as well and how those complicate her reactions to the other events. I heard or read about a girl who was diagnosed with epilepsy in junior high and her doctor told her to never go swimming or even take a bath alone again. I thought this pretty severe, and wondered how it would impact someone for whom swimming had been a major part of her identity. Then, because I am uncomfortable when peopleís identities become so completely enmeshed with their physical maladies, illnesses or disabilities, I decided Tam herself would make her illness into a chronic debilitating label, self-imposing limitations onto herself far more than the disease actually did or would, and that would be her personal 'demon,' not the disease itself. To have a disease be the issue a character is struggling with is too much a fate-oriented kind of drama, where a character is struck with bad luck. I like my characters to wrestle with complications and conflicts they themselves have created or caused.
MB: Cris, to what extent are your characters you, Cris Mazza, and to what extent are they people whom you know or imagine?
CM: My characters are mostly all bolder than I am, sometimes say what I wish I had or do what I wish I could. I live an "interior life" of my own, through them, so we also share that. I share some of their flaws (obsessing over the past). Often their attitudes and opinions that color the narrativeís descriptive passages are mine as well. But even when they are me, theyíre only an imagined version of myself.
In the case of "Waterbaby," the links to me are not in an autobiographical main character (Tam), but that the family tree she pores over, the ancestors she chooses to fantasize about, the family legends she re-creates, are all taken from my family history and family tree. I didnít want to do Ďrealí research and write a 'true' story of my familyís lighthouse-keeper ancestors and the legends that sprang up around them. In creating a character to do the fantasizing and re-creating, I could immerse myself in the pleasure of that story starring imagined versions of my own ancestors, and also immerse myself in another imagined story, the one about the character (Tam) who carried into adulthood resentment for her brother for finishing that race (and winning) before he rescued her, thereby making her a victim, an invalid, and the loser all in one act [her take on the event]. I was able to have the satisfaction of re-creating an imaginary story of my own familyís past while giving the whole thing to someone else—someone with different baggage than mine—to make the impact of the confluence of the two parts, the two layers, more potentially volatile.
MB: Cris, yours characters, Tam and Nat, have sex just in a few minutes after meeting each other. Normally, only avatars of the social network Second Life move that aggressively. Is this your reflection on modern morals or a sign of a great, spontaneous love between your characters?
CM: Probably neither. I donít knowingly make reflections on morals (although someone in my reading group thought, with disapproval, that I was!). And as far as love... between these two characters there was only a great spontaneous connection in each finding his/her fantasy come to life, in the flesh. Natís been looking for, waiting for the shore-walking ghost to a point where his desire to see/possess her has become a form of passion. Tam is overcome with the possibility of being someone else for a while, of being someone (a ghost) who not only has a past but is only a past, a situation which fits Tamís lifelong obsession with her own past. So their passion is just the culmination of crashing physically face-to-face with the object of their quest, even when Tam wouldnít know how to define the object of her quest.
Thereís something else about the suddenness of that sex scene—itís the quintessential "zipless fuck" that only existed in fantasy (and was explained as only being possible as fantasy) in "Fear of Flying," a book that bore into my immature self when I was just starting to write. I didnít do it consciously, but when I saw it in the scene afterwards I realized, there it is, but in this case the zipless fuck could Ďreallyí happen for these two characters. Yes, it's a fantasy, but theyíre living theirs out, so it does "really" happen for them, even though Fear of Flying had sadly suggested it was not possible in "real life."
MB: So, in a way, itís another reenactment for them, just as they later reenact historical sex, complicated as it was, thanks to the womanís intricate clothing. I marvel at the wealth of your research, Cris. Do you spend that much energy researching all your books? Where do you find the time? You are teaching full time, right?
CM: Yes, not everyoneís lucky enough to find someone with parallel fantasies to play out imagined scenarios with them. And thanks for being impressed about my research. I was concerned I would look like a rather lazy researcher. I decided to show just about every scrap of research within the novel itself (since every bit of research I did, Tam would also have done). So all those websites (especially those wonderful "The History of Childbirth" and "The History of Housework"!) are there in the novel. Research is part of my writing time, since I donít even have to get out of my chair anymore. And since I have old fashioned dial-up internet and have to wait for stuff to download, I can be working on a scene while Iím waiting for the results of a Google search. I did visit Maine in preparation to write this book—to our ancestral lighthouse at Hendricks Head on Southport Island—but just like Tam, I would rather research by pondering headstones in a graveyard than looking up facts in an archive. She had to share this trait with me.
Yes, I am a full-time professor (in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago). I teach a graduate workshop in the novel and direct the writing program, but a significant part of my job is to be a novelist.
MB: Cris, tell me about your plans and dreams? What do you want to accomplish as a writer?
CM: Like every novelist, I suppose, I just want to be read, understood and appreciated, (but by no means do I expect readers to only "understand" exactly what I was thinking: I love to see interpretations I never dreamed of). In addition, Iíd like, now, to have people approach my work without any pre-conceived (and mistaken) notions about what "kind" of writer I am. Going further: Iíd like age, race and gender to not be factors in whatís considered cool, hip, or hot in the literary sphere. I'd like Bill Clinton to mention that he really enjoyed "Waterbaby," maybe call me up and ask to talk about it Iíd like George Bush Sr. to say "That book shows a real side of Maine."
Among my plans... to do some kind of book using some amazing photographs my father took in Germany right after the War (that war). I just havenít figured out if it should be nonfiction or fiction, but Iíd like to blend the two far more (and more obviously) than I did in "Waterbaby." But I have a story collection coming out from Red Hen Press in 09, and a novel MS my agent is shopping, so Iím in no rush to create more backlogs. The WWII-photos book can sit and simmer in my head, while I work on sorting and scanning the photos.
MB: Richard, according to Willamette Week that you quote on your publishing houseís website, "Soft Skull endorses a new, enlightened way of looking at society." What caused you to select "Waterbaby" for publication? What causes you to select any book for publication? After all, despite the slightly "genre" tint of your publicationís title, you print serious, literary fiction. So success in the marketplace is not the first criterion for you. What is, then?
RN: It was excellent and it was ambitious. What causes you to select any book for publication? If I knew exactly I wouldnít need to publish it. That would be awfully boring. I publish a book in order to discover it for myself and, in that process and full of the energy of discovery, I do everything I can to get others to discover it also.
Above all I want to have success in the marketplaceóI want my authors to have as many readers as possible, and we reach them through the marketplace. It is however true that I donít necessarily pick those books for which I already possess evidence of their likely success. I try to make success happen, rather than pick the easy ones and wait.
MB: Richard, how does the acquisition of your Soft Skull by Winton, Shoemaker & Co., LLC affect you personally? On the one hand, you might have less creative control, but on the other hand now you are the Executive Editor of a bigger company.
RN: Iíve a very string sense that Charlie Winton didnít go to the trouble of acquiring Soft Skull to then take away all that made Soft Skull work! So Iím not too concerned in that regard. The challenge is more than weíre still a small company in a brutally competitive landscape so how do we put something together than can work? Weíll probably spend our whole lives trying to figure that out...
MB: Cris and Richard, both of you, tell me about the editorial process for "Waterbaby?" Was it easier for Richard because Cris is a published author many times over?
RN: Iíve no clue how things are from a relative standpoint—thereís not much to it, really? I give notes, Cris responds, I give more notes, Cris responds. Itís pretty straightforward. The only real complication was that Cris wasnít used to getting notes using the Track Change function of MS Word. But thatís whatís most efficient these days!
The basic editing was far more comprehensive than any Iíve ever been involved with. I learned a great deal and hope I continue to have these detailed editing processes with every subsequent book. Using margin-comments in MS Word, we sent the MS back and forth and could view every deletion, every addition, every word change, plus write explanations in the margins in color-coded bubbles. Richard and I had a few interesting conversations in the margins of this MS. Hereís the best example:
Questions from Cris Mazza to Richard Nash:
CM: Why does it seem, from my perspective, that a lot of fiction I think of accessible and attractive to a wide general audience—in the same vein as say, Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore, Ann Patchett or Susan Minotís workónevertheless carries, for so many publishers, the tag of "too experimental," "not mainstream enough," etc. What is it about this work that I do not see?
RN: Good question, I donít really know. I suspect that those writers are no more mainstream than you, but when certain ineffable things donít happen (which is most of the time); we search for explanations that center on the material. Personally, I doubt it has anything to do with the material—thatís just an explanation that allows us to feel slightly in control of the arbitrary process that is publishing, I think it has to do with incredibly complex things going on in the culture at any given moment and then a confluence of randomness thatís more tightly aligned to things like who the publicist was, how the book was framed, did the editor pitch it well at sales conference, blah, blah, blah.
That all said, there can be a tendency, outside of commercial publishing, to overstate how cool and out there a book is, and I think thatís unhelpful. I do think is it critical for me, as a publisher, to act as if this book should be read as if Cris Mazza were in that list of writers you just mention, because there is nothing about the book that intrinsically excludes you from that category. Theyíve simply been luckier than you. You, in turn, have been luckier than others.
CM: Or, as you said in an interview, "Thereís essentially two kinds of mid-list writers, the ones the big publishers want to publish and the ones the big publishers don't want to publish..." You explain that the second group are there because in the past they've had small print runs and therefore only sold what was printed (2000-5000 copies) and so get labeled as not big sellers, simply because there was never the opportunity to sell more, a catch-22 of sorts. Is it really this kind of pure luck? That writer X gets a big print run and sells 10 to 50 thousand copies, therefore is a good risk, but writer Y publishes with an independent publisher and gets a smaller print run and sells every copy but there were only 3000, so gets labeled as a writer who won't sell?
RN: Actually the former is the writer that makes publishers nervous the second time around, the one where they shipped 55,000 units and got 38,000 back. Thatís the one theyíre not interested in. Theyíll likely keep offering contracts to someone who ships 12,000 and have 3,000 returns (though I suspect the number they want to see might be increasing as the years go by). The big money goes to the ones that either make big money (100's of 1000s), or to the debut: the debut gets it because there is no track record in place to prevent them!
About the Interviewer
Mark Budman was born and raised in the former Soviet Union, but now resides in New York State. His fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry have appeared or are about to appear in Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, Iowa Review, McSweeney's, Turnrow, Connecticut Review, WW Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward , and elsewhere. He is the publisher of a flash fiction magazine Vestal Review, and the recipient of the Broome Country Art Council grant. He is also a book reviewer for The Bloomsbury Review and The American Book Review. His novel "My Life at First Try" is coming out from Counterpoint in October 2008, and the anthology he has co-edited came out in November 2007 from Ooligan Press.