Carole Maso is a writer who carves out her own language space not in relation to established forms or traditions, but to the particular tale she needs to tell. The result often demands a reader willing to yield to the unfamiliar. The reward is supple language, gut-felt emotion, and the privilege of tuning in to a poet who operates on her own, distinct frequency. Maso is the author of ten books, including the novels Ava and Defiance; prose poems, Aureole: An Erotic Sequence and Beauty is Convulsive; essays, Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing and Moments of Desire; and a memoir, The Room Lit by Roses: A Journal of Pregnancy and Birth. Her most recent novel, Mother and Child, is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press in 2012.
Maso has been awarded a Lannan Literary Fellowship for Fiction and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, among others. She received a B.A. in English from Vassar College in 1977 and is now a Professor of Literary Arts at Brown University.
When did you first realize you wanted to write? Was there an “aha” moment?
Yes, there was an “aha” moment. I had always wanted to paint or write music or dance and choreograph but it wasn’t until I was a senior in college and had to write a thesis and begged my way into writing a creative one, that it became totally clear to me that that was how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. Never with anything else had I been so mesmerized and so engaged. During that last semester at school I knew I would have to rearrange and accommodate this thing I now understood I would devote my life to.
I also understood right from the start that it would take everything. It was incredible, really. Before then I had not written very much—but I had always loved language—Shakespeare and poetry, for the most part.
Did you have some idea in your mind of what it meant to “be a writer?”
I had no idea as to what it might mean. In fact, it was not something I had thought much about. It wasn’t a lifelong dream or anything, and I had no romantic notions about it.
Were you a big reader early on?
I loved to read but was a very slow reader. I still am. In high school I was the only one to fail the speed-reading course in the history of the speed-reading school. There was a lot of daydreaming involved when I read and I would go on a lot of tangents and take a lot of adventures. I’d also get lost in the words, and in the ways the sentences felt, and how paragraphs were being made, and what a chapter was about, and what it might hold…
How did your family and friends feel about your decision to pursue a life as a writer?
I never liked to talk about writing early on and so my friends vaguely knew it was what I was trying to do, but they saw me mostly as someone struggling and doing a lot of terrible jobs while they were going on for graduate degrees and other sorts of glory. My family worried— thinking it would be an incredibly hard life somehow and filled with disappointments and probable failure. Not to mention the being destitute part.
Did you ever consider following another path or profession?
I never considered doing anything else. I didn’t even contemplate publishing or magazine work or journalism or anything where I might be tricked into thinking I was actually doing something creative. The writing itself was enough for me. Whether I succeeded or not seemed beside the point utterly. But I didn’t have a Plan B and for years and years I didn’t have health insurance or any of the normal things one has. For years my only vacation was looking at a large photo by the photographer Lilo Raymond of a room bathed in light by the sea.
How did you go about becoming a “writer?” Did you keep your writing private, or did you show it around early on?
I took my senior thesis, which was fifty pages, toward something bigger and just continued dreaming it, gave myself writing exercises, assignments, practiced, that sort of thing. I never showed anybody anything. I worked for eight years like that, until I finished my first book. I did, however, every year on my birthday have a reading in my apartment for my friends. This way I could assess the year, and I could let them hear a little of what I was up to.
When was the first time you were published? Do you recall what it felt like to see your name in print?
When the novel was finished I sent little parts of it out to magazines I liked the names of. I think my first publication was in a literary magazine called Sing Heavenly Muse! I didn’t like seeing it in print; it had been private and just mine for so long at that point.
What kinds of jobs did you have to support yourself?
I was a temporary paralegal at law firms— I preferred the night so I wouldn’t have to see the lawyers; the views of Manhattan were gorgeous. I was a waitress at many places. I was an artist’s model, a fencing instructor, and other weird terrible things.
I want to hear more about those weird and terrible things.
Oh, I hate thinking about those jobs. There was the Lord & Taylor’s Café waitressing job where we would have to serve the first shoppers of the day tea from a silver tea service on the first floor after they played the National Anthem. And the uniform we had to wear: a yellow dress and apron and we’d get inspected each day. I would get twirled and twirled around each day. And invariably fail: my shoes, my hair! My wrinkled apron!
There was a Middle Eastern restaurant, The Magic Carpet, where I was a waitress and was asked all night to do a lot of extra work, carry heavy signs in and out and all kinds of other stuff. They despised women. The two brothers tried to get me to clean the bathrooms. They also had some idea that I’d make a good belly dancer! And then after I was done for the night, they or their awful friends would try and follow me home. Eventually I had to get my neighbor the architect to come every night and escort me home.
There were the artist’s model jobs which served their purpose, because I would get so sad and angry staying still all those hours and watching other people make art— I did not want to be the subject, I wanted to be the artist, to make something, to be on the other side. In college the theater department thought they might recruit me to be an actress, (Meryl Streep had been one of their success stories) but the same thing came up in me, I want to make the thing, not interpret it.
There were all the legions of lawyers I saw in their fancy corporate Wall Street worlds, (I must have worked in 20 different law firms) who would always say “yeah right,” in their demeaning way when I said I wanted to be a writer. And their petitions for me to go to law school while all the while I was doing their mind-numbing work— digesting depositions about the price fixing of steam turbine generators for example! I have to say it felt as if I were dying. And their pathetic devotion to “the firm”. Lots of them had little children they never saw.
I did my share of caretaking and dog sitting. I have no affinity for dogs, really, but Rimbaud the Golden Retriever and I made it through many long, isolated nights together in the hostile French countryside. Without him I’m not quite sure I would have gotten through those difficult months of crushing solitude there.
Then when I was at wit’s end, in incredible debt, no way to go on, I took my first visiting writer job in Normal, Illinois, never mind I had never taught, never been in a writing workshop, never gotten an MFA and was not even entirely sure that the Midwest existed at all. Let me assure you, it exists.
I love the idea of you and Rimbaud the Retriever, but what were you doing in the South of France?
I had won a National Endowment for the Arts grant at that point and after paying off some debts I decided to go to an artist’s colony in France run by an aging Hungarian countess and her lover. It was a falling down villa with a lot of beautiful, makeshift buildings. I initially went for three months but ended up staying around two years during which time I became the caretaker in the months the ladies wintered in London.
A very strange and isolating time— I had minimal French then and no one spoke English, and of course the French are deeply suspicious of anyone who is not French—especially someone carrying a notebook everywhere and writing everything down. Though it was all great for my work— I wrote The American Woman in the Chinese Hat there and got much of the material for the book I am working on now called The Bay of Angels, which takes place largely near Nice and involves a group of misfits who are sheltered by a crazed Madame during World War II.
Glad good things came of it! But let’s backtrack to New York. Where were you living? What were you doing?
I lived on Bleecker Street and then Carmine Street in the Village with my lover. It was very cheap. We were film addicts and spent most of our free time going to films. Hour after hour of Berlin Alexanderplatz or Napoleon With Live Music. So many great and obscure films. So many retrospectives: Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr, Satyatjit Ray, Angelopoulus. I also thought my education as a writer demanded I go to the galleries and museums all the time, and all the readings I could manage and also a lot of concerts— CBGB’s was nearby, and there were lots of concerts in the park.
We ate Chinese food and I made pasta. We would have Friday night dinners with the neighbors, all people in their twenties, and each week someone else would cook and make something special. There was an architect and a sax player and a lighting designer who worked at The Public Theater, and someone who worked at Balducci’s. Also, my partner was in film school at NYU at the time. We spent a lot of time making films— sometimes I wrote the scripts or when the actresses wouldn’t show up I’d do the acting. Jim Jarmusch was in the class.
How do you look back on that time—fondly, or not so much?
I look back on that time fondly, though I remember to this day crying a lot, and despairing a lot because I could never get enough concentrated time to write and life on those terms often felt very frustrating and very unfair. That was the trick— how to get days in a row in which to write. I came up with a solution eventually, and that was working every crazy job night and day all the time for six months and then taking that much time off and going somewhere cheap and quiet and just writing. It seemed a little odd to people since I hadn’t actually written anything, but this I knew is what I needed to do. After awhile I started going to some small, rather obscure artists’ colonies and that was a good thing and allowed me time and space and time out of the city. I began to figure it out somewhat better.
Did you have many friends who were writers or artists in your early days?
A lot of my friends were artists back then. Film students, actors, dancer/waiters, painters, composers, a chanteuse or two, performance artists, musicians. It was nice to have that community; it was especially nice not having to talk about my writing. I did not know many writers.
Is there anything you would like to tell Carole of that earlier time? Any advice or knowledge that you feel would have benefited you at the time?
I would tell that Carole of long ago that your instincts were right, that you shouldn’t have tried to get married, that all convention and security-something I thought I should want, was nothing to want. I would tell her that she was right not to go to graduate school, that she was right not to fall under the Gordon Lish spell, that she was right not to make compromises around the work. I would tell her not to worry so much, her parents would love her no matter what. I would tell her that she should have forgotten about making that Godforsaken move to Brooklyn because she would just come back. I would have told her that when everyone around her was dying of AIDS, that she was going to be okay— and that she was not going to go insane. And that even a writer sometimes needs not to write.
That’s wonderful. I know I needed to hear that. Any early challenges, writerly or otherwise?
The challenge was to learn that it would be all right not to please my parents. I love them and they gave me everything, all the love and emotional support in the world, but I had to come to terms with the fact that I would probably break their hearts. When I first moved to Bleecker Street my father moved me in. I lived right near the Bowery and in order to get in the door we needed to step over a lot of drunken bums. This was before they were called homeless people and the Village was not all that glamorous, really. Son of Sam was killing people, that sort of thing. My father was so upset. I hated to see it.
Other challenges were to resist the heterosexual narrative everyone everywhere tried to impose on everything with such gusto. I couldn’t have men in my life in a serious way at the time; they were just too high maintenance. I was just in the process of becoming, something that seemed to be an affront to many of them at the time. “That’s great, but when would I get a real job?” they always asked.
What about early triumphs?
There were really very few early triumphs. Once early on out of the complete blue I won a New York Foundation for the Arts grant for my fiction. I was floored. No one really could believe it. I knew no one, I had no connections, and no one had ever seen a word of what I was writing. It bought me a moment’s credibility, I think. A little after that I won something called the Rose Prize for my novel-in-progress from Vassar where I went to school, which was a lot of money to me at the time and again it seemed really incredible and quite heartening. I remember marching in and quitting my job at Lord & Taylor’s. Of course when the money ran out I had to go crawling back.
Does life as a writer ever get lonely?
I always love writing, even when it’s hard, even when it is not going well. There is a level of attention, of just being utterly engrossed and lost that I simply adore. It never feels lonely. What feels lonely often is when I am not writing. I feel exiled then, estranged, more than I’d like.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
No. I’ve never felt like giving up, though I have felt silenced: by AIDS, by all the wars, by 9/11. Eventually, with much wrestling, I have gotten to those subjects, but it’s called everything into question—what do I think I am doing, is it worth doing, what can art do? How to go on at all, given everything. My novel The Art Lover deals with this directly, and in some ways was very painful to write. But the writing of it saved me in the end, and there was never again that kind of questioning of the import of art, or its reach. It is the reach that is so beautiful for sure. As Beckett says, “fail better.”
What are your work habits like now, and what were they like before?
I work every day now that I am not teaching. I only teach one semester so that gives me a long spate of months in a row to concentrate and focus. It’s the same thing I was looking for back then, and it’s always been the same struggle. It’s not easy to cut your salary in half, and to have your colleagues resent your time off, and all the rest of it. Still, for me it’s clear that it’s the only way I can write. My books are large and there’s a lot to hold in my body and head at one time.
How do your roles as a writer and teacher work in interplay— is it difficult to do both at the same time?
When I teach I give myself little doable projects extracted from the book I am working on at any given time. This makes it possible to at least get something accomplished during the semester I teach. Or sometimes a smaller book will materialize as a result off from the fragmented concentration and I will do something smaller. This was the case with Aureole—an erotic prose poem sequence.
Writing and teaching well demand the exact same qualities: generosity, openness, attention to detail, exactitude, discretion, focus and so it’s very, very depleting as both are taking from the same zones of the brain.
When I heard you speak at Columbia, you talked about the importance of being “porous,” of really listening to your own impulses to find the form for your writing that truly is natural to you. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Being porous is about openness. Surrendering to what’s out there, letting fear and preconception go, allowing in what is right before you, but not ordinarily available because of reticence, or inattention or a failure of nerve, fatigue or one’s own unacknowledged attachment to convention or routine. It involves getting very lost and discarding the self almost entirely. It’s pretty amazing to be in that state. There’s really nothing quite like it.
You do a great deal of experimentation with form and voice, have you faced resistance from editors?
I am very open to the editorial process and find that any editor who has made comments and suggestions in the spirit in which a book has been written and wants to make it more of the book it already is, has been very useful. Those who resist and want another book entirely, or who want more conventional “solutions” or are too worried about how it will fit into the marketplace— well that never quite works out. I’ve had some great experience with editors— especially with The Art Lover. But as of late I’ve been getting less and less editing— as is the nature of the business now, I gather. Ava was not touched at all, and very little was done with Defiance.
Any advice you would give to writers just starting out?
I would say to young writers that it’s a time of great change and flux in publishing, and now perhaps more than ever there’s the chance to write the kind of book you yourself really want to write– not the book the publishers want or the teachers want, but the book you want. And the task is to find out what that book might look and sound like. Enter your own strangeness and solitude, really embrace it and see what kinds of shapes you bring back. It feels as if anything is possible.The only limitations are those we impose on ourselves. Bon courage!
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Helen Lang