It’s my absolute delight to interview Alexander Maksik today. His debut novel, You Deserve Nothing, is being heralded as “superb,” “beautifully written,” and a “bravura performance” by everyone from The New York Times to The Irish Examiner and The Sunday Times.
You Deserve Nothing was the first book published under Europa Books’ new imprint Tonga Books, and was acquired and edited by Alice Sebold, the bestselling author of The Lovely Bones. The novel is set in Paris at an international high school and Maksik’s own experience living in Paris for many years helped him evoke the city with a stunning seductiveness perfect for this story of power, idealism, and morality.
Maksik is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently the Provost’s Postgraduate Writing Fellow in fiction at the University of Iowa. I’m thrilled he took the time to answer a few of my questions.
Paris has been written about so much by so many different people; it’s almost a symbol as much as a city. Why did you choose to set your first novel in Paris?
I can’t imagine the novel set in another city. While working on the book, I always imagined that Paris was to Will [the young English teacher in the book], what Will was to Gilad [one of Will’s students]. Paris is a disappointment to anyone who has lived there long enough. Not that it isn’t an extraordinary place, but in the end there will be disenchantment – because of its beauty, or perhaps its failure to manifest that beauty in one’s personal life. I don’t know another city that promises quite what Paris promises. There’s even a syndrome associated with that disappointment – Syndrome de Paris. To a large extent the novel addresses personal and collective mythologizing, and how much our individual decisions are motivated by a need to avoid the inevitable moment of sincere and profound loss. I think the question that the novel poses finally is what to do with disappointment. The sudden disappearance, not just of fulfillment, but the promise of fulfillment, is something we cannot prepare for and I wanted to explore that idea.
I think more than anything, living in Paris forced me to be an observer in ways I’d never been in other places. When I first moved to France, I didn’t speak a word of French and really didn’t have any understanding of French culture. I also knew very few people in Paris. I felt very much as if I were outside looking in and as difficult as that was, it also made me a better writer. I wanted to belong and so I paid careful attention. I looked at everything – the way people dressed, ate, traveled, spoke, moved, drank their coffee. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was recording everything. And what better way to learn to write?
What do you miss about Paris, now that you live in Iowa City?
I do love Paris, and France in general. I miss so much about both when I’m not there. Paris can be a lonely city, but it is also the best city in the world to be alone. I miss the feeling of anonymity the city provides. I miss its light. I miss its variety – of faces, of neighborhoods, of moods. I miss its beauty. Trees. The sky. I miss the métro. I miss the precision and elegance of good bars, cafés, restaurants. I miss all the corners of the city that I love, that feel as if somehow they belong to me. No other place in the world has been more formative in my life. I’ve been both happier and sadder there than anywhere. I feel as if I grew up in Paris in the sense that the greatest changes of my life were there.
How did you come up with the idea for You Deserve Nothing? We’ve talked about Paris, but what of the international high school and setting the drama there?
My parents were both teachers and school administrators. In fact, in high school I had the distinction of being the headmaster’s son. As a result, from a young age I was sharply aware of both sides of school life and so I had a level of sympathy for my teachers that perhaps my friends did not. I grew up with a real respect and reverence for good teachers and teaching in general. Later when I became a teacher myself, I was struck by the contrast between the way a teacher is perceived and the way he lives his life. I think if you’re doing your job well, and if you subscribe to that particularly American notion of what it is to be a teacher – personal, inspiring, motivating, etc. – you’re really arguing for a certain kind of life. If you’re an English teacher, you want your students to be changed by writers and writing, to be excited by literature and art and the only way to do that is to be passionate about those things yourself. What I soon discovered is that it’s far easier to insist your students go to the woods and live simply than it is to do it. Hardly an original revelation, but I became fascinated by that contrast. When I first started teaching I was surprised to find that my students often looked up to me, imagined me a kind of hero. So it’s my interest in this tension that got me thinking about the novel.
What was it like working with Alice Sebold as an editor?
Alice has been great. She’s fierce. She’s passionate. She’s funny, entirely unpretentious and smart as hell. She’s really an extraordinary editor – concerned as much with questions of plot and character as with sound and rhythm. I didn’t anticipate such meticulous line edits, but she was as sharp page-by-page as she was with greater thematic issues. Just before I turned in the final manuscript, I tried to soften the book. I wanted to make the ending neater and Will more likeable. I think I made those changes out of fear. She fought me though and won thank God. It’s an indication of how clearly she understood the novel. She’d read the thing in its rawest form, responded viscerally and refused to let me make it something else. And in a thousand smaller ways, I always felt that that’s what she was doing – insisting the book be what I’d intended from the start. Really, I don’t know what more I could ask of an editor.
How do you feel about/approach deep revision, in general?
I’ve learned to love revision. There’s something liberating about cutting up a manuscript. I used to dread it, but now I find it exhilarating and nearly as satisfying as writing itself. I like the change from writer to reviser. When you’re writing you have to be kind and openhearted. You have to be loose and willing to write nine bad sentences to get a good one. When you’re revising you’re obligated to become cold and brutal. I read so much writing that is bloated, so full of unnecessary words, meaningless phrases. It’s lazy writing and I hate it. I want every sentence to matter, to be there for a reason. The only way to accomplish that is through revision.
The novel I’m working on now, The Barbarians, is the story of a Liberian immigrant living illegally in the Cyclades. I’m interested in writing further and further from my own experience. The question of whether or not we have the “right” to take on characters and worlds with which we’re not immediately familiar is too often raised. The notion that someone might not have that right strikes me as absurd. Either a work of fiction is successful or it is not. I have no interest in writing over and over about myself. But I am also aware that, no matter the character, no matter the continent, I’m always writing about myself. I’ll likely never avoid, as Marilynne Robinson says, “the landscape of my preoccupations,” but I’d prefer to explore those preoccupations through characters who have histories and origins foreign to my own.
I’m interested in writing foremost because the process allows me to imagine the experience of others, allows me empathy and insight. I do not want to spend all day at my desk thinking about myself. I can’t think of anything less interesting and if I’m going to continue doing this work, it’ll have to be in search of lives that are more and more foreign from my own.
Thanks so much, Alexander.