Outside Looking In: The Millions Interviews R.L. Maizes

July 23, 2019 | 3 books mentioned 6 min read

R.L. Maizes knows a little about being labeled an outsider. The Colorado-based author grew up in a male-dominated Orthodox Jewish community in Queens, N.Y., an experience that gave her a keen understanding of what it means to feel separated from the wider society. It’s no surprise then that her darkly comic debut collection, We Love Anderson Cooper, features a curious cast of isolated outsiders and outcasts.

Publishers Weekly called the book—out today from Celadon—“delightfully eclectic,” praising Maizes’s “direct manner of storytelling and her imperfect yet unmistakably human characters.”

The Millions caught up with Maizes to chat about the pain of being an outsider, the role of humor in fiction, the importance of writerly discipline, and what she hopes readers will take away from We Love Anderson Cooper.

The Millions: The stories in We Love Anderson Cooper all center on characters who are outcasts and isolated in one way or another—because of things like sexual orientation, racial identity, religious affiliation, appearance. How did that become the overarching trait of your characters and theme of your collection?

R.L. Maizes: I wrote the stories over a period of about 10 years. The pain we all feel at being excluded and our tremendous desire to belong were among my preoccupations as I worked on them. Though I’m no longer religious, I grew up in a male-dominated Orthodox Jewish community. From that experience, I learned what it’s like to be an outsider, both within the religious community as a woman and within the larger society. Given the prejudice outsiders face, especially these days, I thought it would be a good theme for the collection.

R.L. Maizes

TM: Your work is darkly comic—for example, the character in “The Infidelity of Judah Maccabee” is jealous of his cat’s affection for his wife. Can you talk a little about the role of humor in your work?

RLM: I love reading work that’s funny, so it’s natural for me to want to write it, to give readers the enjoyment that other writers have given me. And because some of my work is dark, it helps to leaven it with humor; otherwise, readers might get emotionally exhausted. Humor also allows me to tell certain stories that I couldn’t otherwise tell. In the story you mention, for example, I exaggerate the main character’s jealousy and his bitterness about Hanukkah’s lesser holiday status in a way I hope is funny to take a character who is petty and parochial and make him someone readers will enjoy following around. That’s from the point of view of the reader. From the point of view of the writer, writing is hard, and if you include humor in your work, you can entertain yourself while you’re writing.

TM: Returning to the topic of outsiders, you mentioned you grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community. How did your experiences growing up lead you to write about outsiders? How much of your past is in the book?

RLM: Growing up as an Orthodox Jew meant that I was separated from the larger society. I went to Jewish schools, ate kosher food, and observed a different Sabbath and different holidays than most people. Christmas would come around, and I would long to celebrate the bright music- and present-filled holiday. I craved junk foods advertised on TV, such as Keebler cookies, but the elves, as it turned out, didn’t keep a kosher kitchen. On a more serious note, I grew up learning about the Holocaust, about the genocide and the indifference much of the world had shown. I’ve encountered my share of anti-Semitism. For example, when I was a teenager, my friends were beaten up outside of Madison Square Garden for wearing yarmulkes. Not knowing I was Jewish, a client in my law practice used the phrase “Jew you down” to describe a negotiation. And as a woman, I was treated as a second-class citizen within the Orthodox Jewish community. Women sat in the back of the synagogue and couldn’t lead prayers or study Talmud, and women’s role was to serve men. These experiences taught me empathy for outsiders of all kinds who found their way into my work.

Some of my past is in the book. The story “Yiddish Lessons” examines the culture I grew up in, its attitude toward and effects on women, though the plot of the story is invented. My life shows up in the book in other ways, too. The cat in “The Infidelity of Judah Maccabee” was actually my dog, Tilly. I was terribly jealous when she switched her affections to Steve, my then-boyfriend, now husband, after we began living together. The story features a cat rather than a dog because cats are funnier—I don’t know why—and because we expect less fidelity from cats. Also, I didn’t want Steve to know I was writing about our relationship. He wasn’t fooled.

TM: You’ve spoken in interviews about the importance of discipline in your writing. Can you tell us a little about your process?

RLM: I write for several hours every morning six days a week. That time is sacred to me, and I say no to social invitations, and I try not to take phone calls or to schedule any other appointments then. The morning is when I’m freshest. By writing then, I know it will get done. If I put it off, I risk getting tired or having other things come up. I force myself to take a day off on Sunday, so I don’t burn out. I try to do an hour or two in the afternoons, too. I’ll work on something until I have a complete draft and the plot and prose become too familiar. Then I’ll set it aside for a time or send it to a reader I trust to give me feedback. I had developmental editors critique the collection and the novel I’m working on. Not being as attached to the work, they can see it more clearly. I don’t have an MFA and working with developmental editors has been an important part of my writing education. Some of those editors have become mentors who I turn to with craft questions and questions about the business side of publishing. Taking workshops has been another important part of my writing education.

TM: Who are your influences—whose writing do you see as helping to shape your own?

covercoverRLM: I read a lot, and a good deal of what I read influences me. If I see a problem in an author’s work, I try to understand it and to avoid it in my own writing. I’m constantly falling in love with new writers and new books, and I try to learn from them. Like nearly everyone else, I adored Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers. She pulled off a surprise in the book that’s brilliant. Since reading it, when I want to surprise the reader, I think about how she did it and whether I can use a similar approach. As far as influences on the collection, one of the earliest collections I read was Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. It contains a story, “The Conversion of the Jews,” that’s hilarious and profound. I studied that story as I was writing “We Love Anderson Cooper.” Nathan Englander’s “The Gilgul of Park Avenue” is another story I admire tremendously, its humor and the way it isn’t satisfied with just making the reader laugh. I love Wendy Wasserstein’s plays and aspire to write stories that move as skillfully between comedy and pathos.

TM: What are you working on now? More stories? A novel?

RLM: I have a novel coming out in the summer of 2020 called Other People’s Pets. I’m doing final edits on it now. It’s about an animal empath who was raised to be a burglar, and it shares some characteristics of the collection. Animals feature prominently, the main character is an outsider, and the book contains elements of magical realism. A practice novel I wrote before that one resides on my hard drive. I brought the earlier novel to a summer writing workshop many years ago, and the reception it received was poor enough that I put it away and went back to writing stories. That was a very painful time, but if they had liked that novel, I might not have written the collection. And the truth is, I didn’t have the skills then to write that novel. I love short stories and novels. But the scale of stories makes them less daunting to write, at least for me. For a while, I wasn’t just writing Other People’s Pets, I was wrestling with it. It took a lot of will to keep going in the face of obstacles and setbacks. During much of the process, it wasn’t clear who would pin whom.

TM: What are your hopes for your work: why do you write and how would you like to see your stories affect your readers?

RLM: I write because I have to. When I don’t write, I feel out of sorts. That wasn’t always the case. Though I’ve always wanted to be a writer, I went for years without writing. I was an editor, then a lawyer, and the writing got lost. After my mom died suddenly, I understood that none of us knows how long we have and that if I wanted to write, I had to start and to make it a priority. Now I take advantage of every opportunity I have to write. Nothing equals the satisfaction I get from spending a morning at my desk trying to create something as lovely or funny or insightful as the work I admire. Nothing is as meaningful to me as trying to give readers the gift other writers give me when I disappear into their books, the way my pulse slows and I’m entertained or affected, but not in the way real life affects us, with so much on the line all the time, especially with the way the world is now. I hope the collection inspires readers to be kind to themselves when they don’t quite fit in and to have empathy for people society deems outsiders. I hope it helps people see beyond their differences. But I’d be satisfied, too, if the stories illuminate aspects of our humanity and in doing so make readers laugh or break readers’ hearts a little.

This post was sponsored by Celadon Books.

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