The third volume of The Masters Review, with stories selected by Lev Grossman, is available now. (And as an eBook!) To celebrate, we’re conducting interviews with the ten wonderful authors it features. In Andrew MacDonald’s story “The Turk,” the man who operates the chess-phenomenon shares the story of his experience as The Turk. In this interview, Andrew MacDonald talks about his favorite authors, the fun behind historical fiction, and the inspiration for this story.
“On our third night as guests of Joseph II, Maria Feodorovna ordered the Turk to be brought to her. Kempelen roused me from my hiding place in the room we shared and installed me within. ‘The countess wants to play the Turk, he said, half-naked and putting on his suit. I slithered into my hatch and into the cabinet, and in no time at all found the cabinet being transported through the palace halls.”
The Turk is based on real historical events. Wolfgang von Kempelen’s “The Turk” or “The Mechanical Turk” was a machine that appeared to play chess but secretly hid a human player. Can you talk about your inspiration for the piece?
I was taken with the idea of blank spots in history. At the time I was considering writing a series of historical stories based on “the other woman” — mistresses in history who appear as footnotes in the stories of famous men. I wrote a couple of them, one about Diane Arbus, one about a mistress of Genghis Khan, then thought of alternative relationships where a similar kind of dynamic could be explored. For example, I thought of writing a story from the perspective of one of Ginsberg’s lovers.
I came across the mechanical Turk by accident, through one of those wacky Wikipedia-page wormholes, where you start by researching the slow loris (adorable) and end up at a page detailing how to compress the ashes of the dead into diamond. Or, in this case, a page about the mechanical Turk. Anyway, I learned about different “players” who’ve given the Turk life and was drawn to the mystery man (or woman) who history forgot. How sad — like ghostwriting a novel that hits the bestseller list and never getting any credit. That seemed like a potent emotional springboard for a story.
In “The Turk” you tell the story from the point of view of the man who operated the machine. He is the brains behind The Turk’s success. Did you always know you wanted to tell the story from this perspective? What were you trying to examine with this choice?
Yeah, definitely. The Turk itself isn’t all that interesting to me, more so its potential as a vehicle to explore some ontological questions that its “player” is forced to ask himself. Like: the Turk actually had a biography. Someone wrote him/it a personal history. Meanwhile, the man inside had his history erased. The Turk’s love-making scene, such as it is, sort of makes that inner struggle tangible, and if I’m playing armchair psychologist, the sense of being loved as something you’re not, gets echoed in his relationship with the sister of his student in the”‘present” of the story. The feeling of being a fake, an imposter, strikes me now as something everyone experiences at one point or other, and I’m sure in some way I can’t understand I’ve taken my own insecurities and grafted them onto the story’s main character.
Everyone who reads this story is so taken with it. Why do you think the idea of The Turk is so fascinating?
That’s nice of you to say! There’s a pretty long line of stories about dopplegangers (the work of ETA Hoffman, Oscar Wilde, RL Stevenson, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson and Isaac Asimov comes to mind), and I remember being terrified as a kid by those dolls with the rolling eyelids that are just lifelike enough to scare the hell out of you. Just the other day Stephen Hawking told the world that we’re not taking the dangers of artificial intelligence seriously enough. There’s something unsettling about things that look human but aren’t.
I have to know — are you a chess player? Did this piece require much research?
It did — frankly far more than I expected, and by the end I certainly should have done more. On that note I should say that the folks at TMR went above and beyond your duties, in terms of fact-checking, and for that I am very grateful.
As for my chess playing ability, I play the game the way I knit: every once in a blue moon, and with an astonishing inability to improve in any capacity whatsoever. I know the rules and can last just long enough to get embarrassed.
What short stories (if any) inspired this piece? Or, what are some of your favorite short stories?
Jim Shepard and Sabina Murray showed me that historical fiction can be exciting. It’s idiotic that it took so long for me to understand that. Aside from those two, I’m a big fan of Miranda July, Wells Tower, Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, and this Canadian dude by the name of Craig Davidson. For those itching to see a story that marries style and story with outrageous skill, Davidson’s got a story in this year’s Best American Short Stories called “Medium Tough.” I also highly recommend the short stories of Jeff Parker, whose collection A Taste of Penny contains many a gem.
You received — or will receive — your MFA from University of Massachusetts Amherst. Can you talk a little bit about that program and your time there?
I’m from Canada — I think we have less than a half-dozen creative writing programs. I had no idea where to apply, just that 2012 P&W chart ranking all the MFA programs. I’ve since come to the conclusion that putting any stock in the rankings is ridiculous, but it was handy, seeing which schools fund their students, which schools require GRE, etc. It sounds crass, but UMASS offered me the most money; since I didn’t know much about the MFA landscape in the states, it seemed like as good a place as any to study. I’m relatively young, without a family (cats excluded), without a mortgage, and figured now would be a good time to do an MFA.
I’m a big fan of UMASS and am continually stunned by the dedication of the professors. The area’s full of writers, too. The area’s bucolic, treats its artists well, and there’s enough kale to drown in. Aside from warmer weather and beaches, I’m not sure what else I’d want.