Maryse Meijer is the author of Heartbreaker, Rag, and Northwood. She lives in Chicago.
Nicole Rivas: Rag is your second short story collection following Heartbreaker, and your third book after Northwood. For you, what new and/or old territories do the stories in Rag begin or continue to explore?
Maryse Meijer: Most of my work is about loneliness. If you’ve read any of my other interviews, I always talk about having an identical twin sister. Because of this, I’ve never experienced loneliness the way other people describe it. The idea of being alone, of feeling truly that nobody understands you, to me is a horrific idea, and yet it seems so common. Where I live and with the people I’m surrounded by, it seems like loneliness is the center of most people’s lives. The things that we do and our obsessions seem to be trying to solve loneliness or ignore it or confront it in some way. So, there are all these tensions in Rag about people wanting to connect but maybe not in the best ways.
My first book, Heartbreaker, was about romance. I think after I finished that book I felt like I had pulled a few punches. There were a few instances where I felt like the writing was a little bit too commercial. I hadn’t really gone as far as I wanted to. With Rag, I didn’t want to hold anything back. I just let the stories be as dark as they wanted to be. I’m also interested in violence as it relates to loneliness and what kinds of loneliness come out of feeling disconnected from a community. Rag is an extension of these things that are already in my other work. For me, the challenge was to sit down and just not turn away from wherever the stories wanted to go.
NR: I don’t consider myself an easily rattled person, but many of the stories in Rag absolutely jarred me. For instance, “The Lover” and “Jury” left me crushed in a good, albeit complicated, way. What do you hope readers come away with after reading these stories?
MR: Those are two interesting stories in particular. Could you tell me what about “The Lover” and “Jury” interested you? “Jury” is my personal favorite. I think it’s the most disturbing, even though it’s not externally the most disturbing. But “The Lover” is the most interesting to me since most people don’t talk about it.
NR: There might be a degree of projecting I was doing while reading “The Lover,” as it deals with a young girl experiencing a sexual relationship with an adult man, but there was also something about the portrayed world that was a perfect example of letting the stories go to these dark places, as you mentioned. I don’t think that’s a place I’ve seen another writer go so fully. And the story does this in a way that isn’t about the shock factor, but is actually intensely emotional and hurtful. “The Lover” explored a territory I’d never seen another writer explore before.
MR: I think that word “hurtful” is very interesting. The stories are very hurtful. You certainly don’t want to just hurt your reader, but you also hope that something good comes out of it.
I have a really optimistic, basically hopeful view about life and about humans. For me, as a writer and a reader, I’m attracted to things that don’t reflect my life at all. I don’t write about my life. I don’t write about people that I know unless I’m writing non-fiction. My fiction is purely a fantasy. It’s always been a project ever since I was ten-years-old and started writing to try to understand the world through other people’s eyes. I wasn’t interested in my own world or my twin’s; I already knew that very well. I think you watch, read, or listen to something that is painful and you’re forced to do this kind of ethical work of trying to meet the other in a way that I think is interesting. So, you might have the reaction where you’re disgusted by it or you look away from it, which I think is a shame because you’re missing the opportunity to make a compassionate gesture with the other. Even if the stories are fiction, they represent real people, real feelings, and real things that happen. It’s just to give you that experience and to make you feel something. In that feeling is all we need to know about other people’s experiences. If you feel the hurt that somebody else might feel, then it makes you more compassionate, more sensitive—not just towards other people, but also towards yourself.
NR: I was struck by the intersection of obsession, imitation, and sexuality in this collection, apparent in stories like “The Brother” and “Pool.” On one hand, the characters in these stories seem messily human, their grotesqueness familiar and, to some extent, comforting. Looked at from another—perhaps less empathetic—angle, it’s easy to be disturbed by their thoughts and actions. Do you see the characters who inhabit these stories as heroes, antiheroes, or something else entirely?
MR: I’m not really interested in heroes. About half of the stories in my first book, Heartbreaker, are from the perspective of women or are about women. People look at these women as badasses who don’t care about things and just do what they want, and some reviewers made it sound like that was a positive thing. And my thought was that, “No, everyone is kind of horrible.” They’re doing things that aren’t good for them or for other people. So, when Rag came out and since most of the characters are men, everyone assumed it was about how horrible men are.
NR: I noticed the phrase “toxic masculinity” pop up a lot in regards to Rag.
MR: Yes. And of course I’m a radical feminist, and that’s certainly reflected in my work just because I live in the world and politics are unavoidable. Whatever the women in my stories are doing is also a response to patriarchy, but just because it’s women doing it doesn’t make it good. The idea is that everyone needs to reject patriarchy because it’s shitty for everyone. The idea isn’t that women get to do what men do and now it’s all okay.
But my characters aren’t examples of heroes. I’m not even sure what type of literature would tell readers to look at this hero and try to live like them. I don’t engage with that type of art and I’m not attracted to it, so I wouldn’t frame my writing in that way at all. People talk about likeable characters and unlikeable characters, but to me they’re just people. I just tend to look at the sides of people that aren’t great. I mostly write about the hidden things. But these characters do have other ways of being that aren’t shown in the stories, other aspects of themselves that make them more complete. So, I don’t have a master plan or anything like that. I just sit down to write and these characters start talking and I listen to them.
NR: Several stories in Rag play with perspective, time, and language in ways that are slight, but unique and necessary. What did you enjoy most about writing these varied stories? What came with difficulty, if at all?
MR: I focused on structure a lot more this time around because I’m not very good at structuring stories. For some of the longer ones, I had a hard time figuring out the shape of the story. “The Lover” is a good example. It covers a lot of time, and most of my stories just focus on a day or a week in a person’s life. But in “The Lover,” it’s years, and there are a few more characters than I usually write about. Usually it’s two people max. I crammed a lot of challenges into that story. I had to teach myself how to deal with time and structure in a way that I hadn’t really done before, but it was really enjoyable. I tried to think of the shape of all these stories and how to give them a deeper sense of different kinds of temporal spaces.
NR: It was hard to choose a favorite story out of this collection, but I was especially taken by “Viral,” in part for its dark, honest nod toward the socially salient. It’s also just a really tight, well-rendered story with a ruthless teenage world that rings familiar to me. Which of these stories are your personal favorites?
MR: I’m most proud of “Jury” on a technical level. I wrote it as a sort of homage to Joyce Carol Oates, whose work has really influenced me, and I tried to capture the various feelings I had when reading some of her early stories. I feel like I did that successfully, at least for myself. I worked a lot on the structure, on keeping the more disturbing aspects of the story buried. There’s a distance to “Jury” that I’m interested in, or a layer where it feels like you’re looking at everything through a thick layer of wool. Joyce Carol Oates does that so well. She makes something so grotesque, but then also makes you think that the whole world is really like this. People always talk about how certain new short story collections are cutting-edge, especially when we talk about women’s writing, and I just look back at Joyce Carol Oates and think about how she did all of this stuff that we’re doing with voice, time, perspective, violence, and especially sexuality. She did it fifty years ago. “Jury” was an homage to her and I felt proud of it because it forced me to withhold more than I normally do.
And then the first story in the collection, “Her Blood,” is one that I feel sentimental about. When I read that story, it’s like I’m a reader and I didn’t write it. It’s something that’s hard to do once you’ve written a story. But anytime I read “Her Blood,” I’m able to sit back and enjoy it. It’s a story I wrote that I would also want to read, which doesn’t often happen. Like when I wrote Northwood; I look at it now and it’s no longer for me. It’s a weird position to be in. And it’s the same with Rag. I know I can’t do that again because I’ve already done it.
NR: Your stories have been equated to horror by Kirkus Review and to fairy tales by The New York Times. How do you classify the stories in Rag, if at all? Do you think reading these stories through the lens of genre is an essential component to fully absorbing them?
MR: I think genre is artificially manufactured by people who are trying to make a distinction between high art and literature and this other stuff that people read that isn’t as good or as interesting. I grew up reading horror, romance, and vampire genres, so I have a great affection for genre, but I hate the fairy tale thing that a lot of people are talking about now. The reason I don’t use that term in relation to my work is that it implies that the writer is thinking about their story as metaphor, which I don’t do. To me, everything is literal. Even if someone is dating a fox, like in my first book. Some people get that the narrator of “The Lover” is an angel, but some people don’t. But to me, he really is an angel. It doesn’t mean something else. It’s not supposed to be some subversion of religion. It’s just what it is.
When we use these genre-specific terms, there’s something slightly pejorative about it. I consider myself a realist writer. Whether other people agree with that or not is fine, but I’m just writing the stories as if they really happened. I’m suspicious of these categories and why we use them. Is it to separate literature? Is it to sell literature and make it easier to talk about because we want to use these shorthand terms? Maybe sometimes that’s useful, but if I read a review of my work and someone refers to it as a fairy tale, I wouldn’t be interested. But it may be accurate and helpful for someone else. I’m not speaking badly of fairy tales; they’re obviously a very rich and fascinating tradition. I do enjoy reading them, but again it hints that the work is operating using metaphor to give meaning. As I writer, I don’t consciously do that.
Also, this resurgence of talking about fairy tale as trope and pigeonholing works into a category seems like something we do when we talk about women’s writing. I’m not sure what that’s about. Maybe there’s a positive aspect to it, but fairy tales are also children’s stories. To put women’s work in relation to that genre, even if it’s meant in a positive way, still feels a little bit trivializing. Think about someone like David Foster Wallace. His work isn’t exactly realism, but no one refers to his writing as fairy tale. The same could be same of Jonathan Franzen or George Saunders. Even though I love George Saunders, I’ve never heard someone say that he writes fairy tales. I think it’s interesting how gendered our labeling is.
NR: “Rag” is a morbid flash fiction told from the perspective of a piece of cloth. How did you come to choose this piece as the titular story of the collection?
MR: I think it was actually my agent who suggested it. The word “rag” is a sort of harsh, ugly word, and it did seem to evoke the feeling of the collection. The rag is something obscure, tossed-away, and a mundane object that people don’t think about. It’s also filthy. And that’s kind of a good way to summarize the collection. Like, let’s look at the dirty things we tend to keep hidden. But then the rag is also used to clean and expose things. And in the story, “Rag,” the rag is perpetrating a crime but also illuminating a crime.
“Rag” is also the last story in the collection. Originally, I wanted to end it with “The Shut-In,” because “The Shut-In” feels like it summarizes what the stories are about in terms of loneliness. “The Shut-In” was the most painful story to write, too. I actually tried to write a different ending to the story because I was so uncomfortable, but I ultimately realized I just had to let the characters do what they wanted, even if I was disappointed in that.
NR: I didn’t want this collection to end. After turning the last page, I wondered which writers you’ve been reading, or what other influences came into play in this collection and in your work, generally. Who can we read—or what else can we turn to—in order to further steep ourselves in your creative realm?
MR: One of the stories in Rag, “Pool,” was written for Dennis Cooper, whose work I love. He’s willing to let his writing go wherever. His work is so graphic, so violent, and so nihilistic. But it’s also strangely heartwarming. I always had this sense that Cooper himself was a nice guy, and I just met him and he is super nice, super normal. But he has that compassion in his writing that I’m looking for. I hate work that’s exploitative or that’s just there to shock you or make you laugh at the characters. Cooper does a brilliant job of writing stuff that’s hard to read, but it’s hard to read for a reason. He’s not the nihilist that he’s writing about. He just wants you to understand that dark place.
Muriel Spark is another author I love. Her book, The Driver’s Seat, is a great novella. There’s also the British author Barbara Comyns who wrote a book, The Vet’s Daughter, that had a big influence on me. She writes really well about young people and poor people, and gives power to people who normally don’t have it. Also Taeko Kono, a Japanese author who wrote Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories. It’s an amazing collection written in the 1960s. And to think of a woman writing during a time when Japanese literature wasn’t how we think of it now. Her work is a recent discovery that blew me away. I also just read a book called The Ice Palace, by Norweigan author Tarjei Vesaas, that was amazing. There are so many great small presses who are publishing works in translation now. And lastly, the Argentinian writer Jorge Consiglio. I randomly bought a short story collection of his while I was browsing a bookstore in Paris. I just picked it up because I liked the cover, but the stories are incredible.