This past July, at age 56, R.L. Maizes saw her lifelong dream of publishing a book come true with the debut of her collection, We Love Anderson Cooper. Next summer, Celadon Books will also publish her novel, Other People’s Pets. We’re grateful that she took time to correspond with The Masters Review reader Lynda Montgomery about her writing.
Lynda Montgomery: The stories in We Love Anderson Cooper are well populated by animals: parakeets, cats, and dogs. Many writing workshop maxims warn about including animals (and babies) in fiction. How do you balance the pros and cons of having pets populate your stories as much as they do in our real lives?
R.L. Maizes: In some of my stories, the animals have more agency than the people. The animals are often focal points for conflict, too, which saves them from being precious. Structuring conflict around animals allows me to approach classic themes, such as jealousy and loss, from a fresh angle. “The Infidelity of Judah Maccabee” is about a cat that transfers its affections to its owner’s girlfriend. The man’s jealousy over a cat might seem absurd, but it’s no less painful to him. With the cat as the focus, the story can approach infidelity in an offbeat manner.
LM: Tell us about how you came to put this collection together. Did you write later stories to harmonize with ones that you already knew would be included? How much did the collection change over the course of life into a published book (pitching to agents, working with editor, etc?)
RLM: I curated the collection around the idea of the outsider, drawing on stories I had written over a ten-year period. An earlier version of the manuscript had a different theme, but an agent who read it suggested that the stories were in essence about outsiders, and I realized that was something I returned to regularly in my work. Another agent who read the collection suggested leaving out one particular story and I did. By the time the book reached the agent I signed with and my editor, it was in a form very close to the published version.
LM: One of the most fascinating elements of the collection’s title story is the portrayal of the characters’ relationships to media and social media. The protagonist Markus gets his idea to come out at his Bar Mitzvah from a viral video; his parents try to convince Markus that they understand his identity by invoking Anderson Cooper; and a video taken at the Bar Mitzvah creates waves in the Markus’s social world. Talk a little about how current media milieu operates in the story—did you find those aspects to be challenging?
RLM: So many of us are living our lives on social media today. Steve Almond has described it as a life directed outward at the expense of a more inward life, and one that prizes online validation over real-life relationships. I explore some of that in the story, as Markus’s dream to go viral derails his real-life relationship. I don’t think his situation is unusual. So no, I didn’t find it challenging to write about that because we’re all—including myself—living with that tension.
LM: Can you speak about your development as a writer, particularly being an emerging writer in mid-life?
RLM: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but it wasn’t until my mother died suddenly when I was close to 40 that I realized none of us has forever and that if I wanted to write, I had to start. So I did start, and I wasn’t very good, which was frustrating. But I went to a reading at a bookstore and heard a writer say that early drafts are not supposed to be good, which may be obvious to many but was eye-opening for me. She also said that when you’re writing a piece you have to write far more material than will end up in the piece. Her advice pointed to a way forward. Eventually I started sending work out and getting a lot of rejections. But some editors were kind and encouraged me to send more work. I went to writing workshops and met writing teachers and equally important other writers who like me were dedicating themselves to the craft. In writing my novel and my collection, I worked with writing coaches and developmental editors.
We Love Anderson Cooper is my first book, and I’m old enough that I no longer qualify for most emerging writer awards. My age didn’t come up with my agent or publisher. The work was what interested them.
I am sometimes envious of writers who got an earlier start. But I don’t believe it’s ever too late to begin. And the good news is that the rewards are inherent in the work. So even if you don’t publish right away, which most people don’t, doing the work is meaningful from the moment you put pen to paper or its electronic equivalent.
LM: We met through The Binders, an online community of women and gender non-conforming people on Facebook. As a person who works outside the traditional literary world, those relationships, mostly virtual, have been tremendously valuable to my development as a writer and literary citizen. How do you balance being in community (IRL and on social media) with making space to write?
RLM: I’ve gotten so much from online literary communities. I’ve discovered wonderful books I might have missed otherwise. I’ve learned about opportunities to publish that took my work to new readers. I’ve met fantastic people who labor every day to create art, whose efforts and end products inspire me. That said, if you’re not careful with social media it will swallow your life and rob you of time you want to spend writing. I try not to let that happen.
TLR: Where do your stories usually begin?
RLM: There’s not one way that stories begin for me. I’ll usually come in contact with something that sparks my curiosity or moves me, an object or an image that I want to investigate either because it seems to contain more than what is on the surface or because I wonder why it has struck a chord. I want to understand it better and also let my subconscious play with it.
“Tattoo” came from a news article I read about a tattoo artist who tattooed nipples on cancer survivors who had breast reconstruction surgery. “Couch” was inspired by furniture I inherited my mother who was a therapist. “Better Homes and Gardens” came from a glimpse of another singular object. It’s helpful if I don’t know too much about what inspires the story because then my imagination has room to create something new. And the story always ends up being different from whatever inspired it.
LM: What are you reading currently?
RLM: I’m reading the The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal and rereading some of the funnier lines aloud to my husband. I’m also reading Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., which is a book that delivers on the promise in the title and is full of wisdom. Some other books I’ve enjoyed recently are Jennifer Wortman’s This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love., a dark, beautiful collection, and The Yid, a fantastic novel by Paul Goldberg.
LM: What is your writing habit? What advice about process has been most helpful to you?
RLM: These days, I write six days a week, all morning. If you write first thing, you reduce the risk of finding yourself too tired at the end of the day, or of other priorities interfering with writing. I take a break for lunch and to walk the dog. While walking, I think about places in my work where I’m stuck. There’s something about walking that nearly always helps me discover solutions. Then, I write for another hour or two in the afternoon. I’m grateful to be writing full time now, but when I started writing, I wrote whenever I could carve out time, in the evenings and on weekends. The important thing for me was to be regular about it.
As far as advice goes, a teacher of mine once said he couldn’t think of any student who stuck with writing over the years, working at it and honing her craft, who didn’t find success. I love this because it shows that writing isn’t an inborn talent that either you have or you don’t. Instead, writing is a skill that you develop over time with great effort.
Interviewed by Lynda Montgomery