Alexander Maksik is the author of the novels You Deserve Nothing, A Marker to Measure Drift and Shelter in Place. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize and The Andrew Lytle Prize, he’s co-director of the Can Cab Literary Residence in Catalonia, Spain.
More about his latest novel follows the interview.
Cagibi: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
Alexander Maksik: I’m skeptical of such clear-cut distinctions. There’s something inherently moralistic about his argument. Is there really such a stark difference between wandering and traveling? Between distraction and fulfillment? As if there’s some great virtue in one, and none at all in the other. I have the same response to Belloc’s assertion that I do to those that begin, There are two kinds of people—
Cagibi: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.
Maksik: In most cases, when I’m traveling, I’d rather sit on a bench or at a bar watching people go about their lives than anything else. Maybe it makes me a lazy traveler, but I’ve learned a great deal that way and to call this activity a distraction is to do it a real disservice.
Cagibi: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe. Please explain your choice—we are dying to understand your creative process.
Maksik: I prefer a small, empty room. The more separate from the rest of my life the better. For a few years I lived in a house with enough rooms to make an office. I set it up with a proper desk, a bulletin board, all the usual writerly accoutrements. I never worked in there. Instead I was always writing at the dining table. I love to work at residencies, in other people’s houses. Even within my own home, I like to travel. I’ll leave the analysis to the psychologists.
Cagibi: This is Cagibi Express and we are here to deliver news to your readers—what can your readers expect next from you? What are you working on now?
Maksik: I’m hoping to finish a new novel by the end of the year.
Cagibi: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing?
Maksik: To be a good traveler, one must be a good observer and to be a good observer one must be a good outsider. The same is true of writing fiction, I think. Too much loyalty, too strong a sense of membership or affiliation is dangerous for a novelist. With those things comes a polemical instinct, an impulse to make arguments and both are anathema to writing well. For me, traveling has been an antidote to those easy inclinations.
Cagibi: We like your advice on observing: to be a good traveler, a writer has to be a good observer and therefore a good outsider. For Shelter in Place, did this way of observing and being an outsider contribute to your creation of the place of the memories, the “pretty clearing in the woods” in Washington State?
Maksik: In many ways, the novel is about being an outsider. On the other hand, isn’t every novel? Joe is so isolated, so removed that he has, as with all isolated people, no choice but to become a constant watcher—both of his past life and the one before him. I often thought of Joe as a traveler and I suppose my own experience traveling alone informed the creation of his character.
Cagibi: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel? Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?
Maksik: That I have been able to travel as a result of my work is one of the great wonders and privileges of my life. Traveling is never an excuse not to work. I would be an utterly different (and, I think, worse) writer were it not for all the traveling I’ve done.
Cagibi: Tell us about a book you read that made you want to go and visit a place you’ve never been to.
Maksik: Octavio Paz’s In Light of India, which I read before my first trip to that extraordinary country.
Cagibi: Did you ever have to hide in an uncomfortable space in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?
Maksik: No. I’ve been very lucky.
Cagibi: In a Tin House interview, you mention a quote from Kazimir Malevich: in response to criticism of his ultra-minimalist, white on white paintings, Malevich told Robert Irwin, “ah but we have found a desert of pure feeling.” Could you unpack for us the mechanics of how the metaphor operates there, why this line rings so true?
Maksik: In terms of subject and style, my interests as a writer have frequently changed, but what has stayed constant, what only intensifies as I get older, is my desire to translate utterly unalloyed emotion into language. I don’t think there’s anything more difficult. The artists I admire most are those who can turn raw rage, or lust, or love, or sadness, or any other fundamental human feeling into a painting, a story, a piece of music. To produce, in short, a desert of pure feeling. One can no more fake that kind of purity than emotion itself.
About Alexander Maksik’s Shelter in Place
Alexander Maksik’s latest novel Shelter in Place was published by Europa Editions. From the publisher:
Set in the Pacific Northwest in the jittery, jacked-up early 1990s, Shelter in Place, by one of America’s most thrillingly defiant contemporary authors, is a stylish literary novel about the hereditary nature of mental illness, the fleeting intensity of youth, the obligations of family, and the dramatic consequences of love.
Joseph March, a twenty-one year-old working class kid from Seattle, is on top of the world. He has just graduated college and his future beckons, unencumbered, limitless, magnificent. Joe’s life implodes when he starts to suffer the symptoms of bipolar disorder, and, not long after, his mother kills a man she’s never met with a hammer.
Joe moves to White Pine, Washington, where his mother is serving time and his father has set up house. He is followed by Tess Wolff, a fiercely independent woman with whom he has fallen in love. The lives of Joe, Tess, and Joe’s father fall into the slow rhythm of daily prison visits followed by beer and pizza at a local bar. Meanwhile, Anne-Marie March, Joe’s mother, is gradually becoming a local heroine—many see her crime as a furious, exasperated act of righteous rebellion. Tess, too, has fallen under her spell. Spurred on by Anne-Marie’s example, Tess enlists Joe in a secret, violent plan that will forever change their lives.
Maksik sings of modern America’s battered soul and of the lacerating emotions that make us human. Magnetic and masterfully told, Shelter in Place is about the things in life we are willing to die for, and those we’re willing to kill for.