We’re so pleased to announce the availability of our third volume, The Masters Review with Stories Selected by Lev Grossman, for preorder. This annual compendium of stories reflects the best emerging writers in graduate-level creative writing programs, and continually impresses with a diverse range of stories and styles. To offer you a little more information on these authors and their stories, we’ve put together a series of interviews with the writers in the book. First up is Michener Center for Writers’ Fellow, Maya Perez, and her story “Custody.” In this piece, a divorced mother takes her son on an African safari. She wants to show him lions, and to enjoy the experience of exploring a new country. It’s a story about flawed expectations, for both ourselves and other people, and Maya depicts these flaws beautifully.
“She heard a rustling and looked up, shielding her eyes to see better. Some of the wildebeests, about thirty or so, had run off, spooked by something. The zebras stayed put, though a few held their heads erect with noses tilted up to the wind.”
What was the first short story you fell in love with?
Picking a favorite always leaves me dissatisfied. For now, I’ll say Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter.” It’s easier to be truthful in the dark, say in a confessional or lying in bed at night or, in the situation of this story, during a power outage. Often in relationships, people are their most honest when they come to the relationship’s end. They are no longer communicating with an eye toward protecting their relationship for decades to come, but can speak openly and honestly — for better and worse — with little concern for the ramifications. I was also struck by how much history was conveyed in these few pages through the device of revealing secrets. Expectations, family tentacles, disappointments, tiny cracks that have become gaping caverns. And I’m a sucker for descriptive writing about food.
I also like John Cheever’s “Reunions” for making me feel so off-kilter while seamlessly and economically depicting the shifting father and son roles. I have only seen my own father a handful of times in my life and there is always a misunderstanding about agreed upon time and location when we meet, which of course exacerbates the awkwardness of our reunions. It’s funny, I remembered this story as being a very long, uncomfortable afternoon as Charlie is dragged from bar to bar by his father, and I just went back to reread it and was surprised at how short it is — only two pages! And yet a surprising amount of information can be surmised about the characters’ lives outside of this one afternoon.
In your story, “Custody,” a mother and son travel to Etosha National Park, in Namibia. Where did the idea for the setting come from? How did you conduct your research?
Last summer, I went to Zambia, Kenya, and Namibia with my husband and our then seven-year-old daughter. I spent my early childhood in Kenya and went to high school in Zambia and wanted to introduce my daughter to the continent before she got so old that it would feel foreign to her, as it does to Rocco in the story.
We camped at Etosha and I was fascinated by the fancy safari tours that we would sometimes share campgrounds with. All the passengers had to do was stretch their legs, take photographs, and enjoy their multi-course meals and Windhoek Lagers. The safari crews did the rest and there was some serious glamping going on. Like Sabine, we were camping on our own, but we do not share her ineptness. We had rented a landrover with a pop-up tent and my husband is a proficient camper.
In one of these tours was a woman who would become Sabine. She looked uncomfortable in her body and didn’t seem to be with anyone in the group. I imagined her taking this trip with an alienated teenage son and, because she’s stubborn and financially limited, she decides it’s a safari they can do on their own. Of course, what she was most ill-prepared for was adult life and motherhood.
Your story contains many elements of a traditional, well-executed plot structure. Do you plot out your stories before you write them?
My stories usually originate from an image in my mind or a “what if” musing. From there, I’ll move forward or backward until I have a general idea of the beginning, middle, and end, and then I’ll start writing, filling in the rest as I go. I’m also a screenwriter and when writing a script, I’ll outline in boring detail, scene-by-scene the structure of it. That part takes me the longest. The fun part is finally writing it and filling in the life.
What is your writing process (time of day, hours, setting)?
I write early in the morning, before my daughter wakes up. Fortunately, she sleeps late in the summer and on weekends, so I usually get in about four hours of writing every day. Throughout the day, I’ll jot down notes and ideas. Sometimes, I’ll pull up the document at night, in hopes that I can apply at least some of the notes, but my brain is only good for reading or watching movies at that point.
What does your writers office look like?
We live in a small, two-bedroom garage apartment, so my “office” is a desk in the corner of our dining/living room area. I face a window, but the blinds are always pulled shut and my desk is clear of photos and knick knacks. If I can be distracted, I will be. There is one plant on my desk for oxygen that I keep forgetting to water.
You are a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. What has your experience there been like? How has being in a program affected your writing (or has it)? What do you think is unique about the MFA Program at Austin?
I’m about to enter my third and final year at Michener and I’m wistful and panicked about it. I’ve written more creative fiction over the past two years than I had in my entire life up until then: three feature screenplays, treatments for five more, two TV specs, five short stories, and several critical essays. The time — it’s a three-year program, instead of the usual two years — the fellowship support, talented cohorts who read your work and give detailed notes, no teaching requirement, readings, the wine receptions… It’s a writer’s Shangri-La. I’d heard horror stories about competitive writing programs and cruel workshops but instead have found encouragement and inspiration from my peers and professors. Perhaps it’s because they are so talented that they can afford to be so generous!
Maya Perez is a screenwriter, a co-editor of the book On Story—Screenwriters and Their Craft (University of Texas Press, October 2013), and a consulting producer for the television series On Story: Presented by Austin Film Festival. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Vassar College and is a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. She lives in Austin, Texas.
To preorder a copy of our anthology, which features Maya’s story “Custody” click here.
Author photo image credit: Andrea Turner