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?
RLM: 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.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Laura Lippman, R.L. Maizes, J. Ryan Stradal, Gretchen McCulloch, Kate Zambreno, and more—that are publishing this week.
The Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lady in the Lake: “Set in 1960s Baltimore, this smoldering standalone from Edgar winner Lippman (Sunburn) trails Madeline Schwartz, an affluent 37-year-old Jewish housewife who separates from her husband after dinner with an old classmate reminds her that she once had goals beyond marriage and motherhood. Maddie relishes her newfound freedom, renting an apartment downtown and starting an affair with a black patrolman, but she yearns for more. After discovering the corpse of 11-year-old Tessie Fine and later corresponding with Tessie’s incarcerated killer to determine his motive, Maddie leverages her story for an assistant’s position at the Star. She dreams of becoming a reporter, though, and starts investigating a crime otherwise ignored by the newspaper: the murder of Cleo Sherwood, a young black woman whose body turned up in the Druid Hill Park fountain. Lippman relates the bulk of the tale from Maddie’s perspective, but enriches the narrative with derisive commentary from Cleo and stunning vignettes of ancillary characters. Lippman’s fans will devour this sophisticated crime novel, which captures the era’s zeitgeist while painting a striking portrait of unapologetic female ambition.”
Gravity Is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Gravity Is the Thing: “This tender and frank adult debut by YA novelist Moriarty (The Year of Secret Assignments) follows one woman’s search for happiness in a world as brimming with promises of healing as it is overflowing with letdowns. On her 16th birthday, Abi Sorenson’s beloved brother went missing. On the very same day, she received the first chapter of a mysterious self-help book titled The Guidebook in the mail, and received chapters intermittently through the years—the chapters cover everything from the death of metaphysics (in a single paragraph) to winking criticism of Keats to more traditional self-help metaphors. Now 36 with a young son, and 20 years into the lessons of The Guidebook—and still reeling from the unresolved circumstances of her brother’s disappearance, as well as grieving her ruined marriage—Abi is invited to a remote island to learn the truth about why these messages came to her. The course ultimately leads her back to her hometown and an opportunity to further explore the mysteries surrounding The Guidebook with others whose life it has haunted—which, she hopes, might somehow help her find her brother. With an eye as keen for human idiosyncrasies as Miranda July’s, and a sense of humor as bright and surprising as Maria Semple’s, this is a novel of pure velocity; it sucks the reader into Abi’s problems and her joys in equal, brilliant measure. A complex dissection of the self-help industry, as well as a complete and moving portrait of a difficult, delightful woman, Moriarty proves her adult novels can live up to her YA work’s reputation.”
We Love Anderson Cooper by R.L. Maizes
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about We Love Anderson Cooper: “Maizes depicts characters who feel ostracized from their peers under an array of circumstances in her delightfully eclectic debut collection. In the title story, a boy comes out as gay during his bar mitzvah speech. ‘Yiddish Lessons’ tells the tale of a young Orthodox Jewish girl whose desperate need for attention leads her to commit a horrible act involving a young child. In ‘The Infidelity of Judah Maccabee,’ the protagonist is jealous of his cat’s affection toward his wife. Maizes excels in humanizing the characters through their occasionally self-destructive flaws. Tattoo artist Trey lets his obsession with outward appearance destroy lives in the magical realism–inflected ‘Tattoo.’ In ‘No Shortage of Birds,’ middle-schooler Charlotte allows her jealousy of her mother’s new pet to fill her with violent resentment. United under the loose common theme of isolation, the stories meld together nicely, giving the collection a satisfying cumulative feel. Maizes’s direct manner of storytelling and her imperfect yet unmistakably human characters are sure to win over readers.”
The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lager Queen of Minnesota: “Stradal follows up Kitchens of the Great Midwest with a refreshing story about women who know how to take charge in a family that becomes involved in the brewing industry. Edith and her sister, Helen, are young Minnesotans in the 1950s, and though the unassuming Edith gains temporary fame for her scrumptious pies, Helen becomes obsessed with making beer after her very first sip. Both women marry, and while Edith and Stanley Magnusson struggle to make ends meet, Helen manipulates her ailing, beer-loving father by selling him on her capacity to make a beer of her own. After he dies, she takes Edith’s inheritance along with her own. Helen’s husband, Orval Blotz, is heir to his family’s failing brewing empire, and while Helen uses her inheritance and persistence to bring Blotz Beer back to popularity, Edith has difficulty forgiving Helen for her betrayal. The sisters lose track of one another for decades, but Edith’s teenage granddaughter, Diana, is drawn, seemingly by fate, into the brewing business. This is not a story of drinkers and drinking, but is rather a testament to the setbacks and achievements that come with following one’s passion. This story about how a family business succeeds with generations of strong and determined women at the helm makes for a sometimes sad, sometimes funny, but always winning novel.”
Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Because Internet: “McCulloch, writer of the ‘Resident Linguist’ column for Wired and podcast cohost of Lingthusiasm, debuts with a funny and fascinating examination of the evolution of language in the digital age. Exploring everything from capitalization and punctuation to emojis and gifs, her book breaks down the structure of ‘internet language’ in a precise and engaging way. She offers novices a well-structured introduction to modern linguistics, including a history of informal writing and the social implications of language. McCulloch discusses the ongoing shift toward less formal, more concise greetings in message writing, observing that receiving emails from strangers provides a ‘never-ending multiplayer guessing game of what generation someone’s in,’ based on how her correspondent addresses her. She also discusses the stylized language of memes, sharing an excerpt of Genesis translated into the terminology of lolcat memes (‘Oh hai. In teh beginning Ceiling Cat maded the skiez An da Urfs…’) and the function of punctuation in text messages, such as how a period may or may not signal passive aggression. An extensive notes section invites readers to further explore the impact the internet has had on language. Thanks to McCulloch’s skill in explaining both academic and popular subjects, this survey will make an excellent starting point for anyone’s exploration of the topic.”
Reasons to Be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Reasons to Be Cheerful: “Stibbe’s charming latest (after An Almost Perfect Christmas) chronicles how 18-year-old Lizzie Vogel navigates young adulthood while working at a dental practice in 1980s Leicester, England. With some nursing experience under her belt and a way with words, Lizzie finds a job as a dental assistant for the intolerant and often thoughtless JP Wintergreen. Lizzie helps out JP’s part-time employee turned girlfriend, Tammy, who remains a friendly, if overbearing, presence. Their personal foibles—such as JP’s desire to join the Freemasons and Tammy’s fertility issues—often spill into the workplace. Through the practice, Lizzie becomes involved with childhood acquaintance Andy, now a lab tech, though their love life suffers after her mom, Elizabeth, takes him in as a boarder and takes a shine to him that Lizzie worries might be romantic. Stibbe nicely captures the tug of love and exasperation at the heart of this mother-daughter relationship, and also successfully writes quirky characters that don’t come off as cutesy or forced. She’s particularly adept at inhabiting a daughter’s forgiving eye of her mother’s past alcoholism and other dark times. Stibbe’s memorable characterizations and storytelling talent hold steady as a tragedy in Lizzie’s life suddenly unfurls. This novel treats readers to a rare voice that captivates with pathos and humor.”
Also on shelves this week: Screen Tests by Kate Zambreno.