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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Cris Mazza interviewed by Gina Frangello

Cris Mazza is many things: a short story writer, a novelist, a memoirist, a professor, an academic administrator—even a dog trainer.  She is also sometimes a provocateur, infamous for her writings on sexual harassment, her post-feminist sensibilities, and her frank explorations of gender politics and (sometimes “deviant”) sexuality.  Whatever Cris does, she does passionately.  Her FC2 edited Chick-Lit anthologies were the subject of NEA hearings, and recently, she guest-edited an issue of Other Voices magazine in which she appealed for an end of the glut of confessional-toned, first person fiction pieces that use the “I” voice as a kind of default point of view, without consideration for the story’s larger aims or aesthetics.  Though in person Cris is somewhat shy, not fond of crowds, and usually in a hurry home to let out her dogs—as well as being barely over 5’ tall and probably weighing 100 pounds soaking wet—she has a kind of intense energy that crackles when you get her talking about anything writing related, and her passion can be intimidating, contagious, or both.  Her long publishing career, which began in the 1980s when her novel How to Leave a Country was a PEN/Algren award winner, has seen the publication of more than a dozen books, including Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?, Your Name Here _____, Dog People, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian, and Many Ways to Get It, Many Ways to Say It.  She has been published by a wide array of esteemed (and sometimes controversial) independent publishers, from Coffee House to FC2 to City Lights to Red Hen to Soft Skull.  Among those who follow independently published fiction, it would be hard to swing a cat without hitting a fan of Cris Mazza’s.  She is also known by her students and former students as—if somewhat hard to please—one of the most fierce and loyal advocates of work she does believe in, and a dedicated mentor whose stewardship has led, both through creative guidance and more direct sponsorship and recommendations, to many of her former students’ books finding publication.  In short, whether as a writer, an editor, or a creative mentor, Cris Mazza is a literary force to be reckoned with, and in ways that are completely non-mercenary and non-market-driven.  She stands in my mind as an anecdote to much that currently ails United States publishing.

I met Cris in 1995, when I was beginning my master’s at the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Program for Writers (Cris is now the head of that department.)  What began as a professor-student relationship grew, over the next few years, into a more personal mentorship, and—after I left the Program in 1999—into a friendship that has seen us both through many career developments.  Over the years, Cris and I have had many ongoing dialogues, both over dinners and through emails, about writing, and I have often wished I could “bottle” her ideas and advice on many subjects.  On the release of her most recent novel, Waterbaby (Soft Skull), I at last took the opportunity to pick her brain “on the record” about the publishing industry, writers’ psyches, sympathetic characters, and the dubiously glamorous life of a successful indie-press icon... 

GF: So I recently wrote a series of essays for the blog “The Literary Outpost” about the state of publishing in the United States, and my conclusion was that the corporate publishing industry has gone to hell in a hand-basket in the aftermath of 9-11, economic troubles, war, and the neo-conservatism of the Bush administration.  However, when I think about your long career as an independent press writer, I wonder whether I may be suffering from that usual syndrome of glorifying a previous generation: imagining that publishing was somehow "better"—more literary and more serious—in the decades prior to my working as an editor and writing my own fiction.  Your first novel, How to Leave a Country, was published in 1992, so you would have some historical perspective on that.  The novel originally won the PEN/Algren award to much fanfare, but despite major attention from the mainstream media, it was never picked up by a corporate publishing house.  Can you describe your experiences with the corporate publishing industry at that time—nearly 20 years ago?  In what ways do you feel publishing has changed or not changed in the ensuing decades?

CM: I was never privy to the PEN organization’s mission for establishing the PEN / Nelson Algren Award, nor was I ever told the reason they discontinued it only a few years after I won the first one.  My best guess—based partially on the promotional info about the award in 1984, the year How to Leave a Country won—is that the award was meant to discover quality literary fiction in manuscript form which the NY publishers would then be interested in buying and publishing, due to the well-known literary authors who judged (Grace Paley and Studs Terkel).  Following the award ceremony in NYC, almost every corporate publisher who did fiction contacted me or my agent and asked to see the MS.  Needless to say, none of them found it would be a good investment; the prevailing reason for turning it down was “not commercial enough.”  (I do wonder if, 15 years later, they now try to couch this term, hide it in other rhetoric, not admit so openly that “commercialism” is what they're seeking.)  Following this, after that agent and I had parted ways, a NY editor who liked the MS actually tried to send it to some of her colleagues because the house where she worked only did mass market paperback fiction.  When she eventually gave up, she told me, “Someday I'll be at a hardback house and I'll buy everything you write.”  Well, it wasn't a contract, and years later, when she was at a “hardback house,” and after she'd rejected one or two novel manuscripts that followed How to Leave a Country, then unsuccessfully pitched a third at an editorial meeting, she sadly admitted to me that things were not as she would have liked or imagined.  In the years after that, when I was at the Coffee House Press booth pitching a newly released novel at the BEA (then ABA) convention, several corporate editors walked down the row of Consortium independent presses, and I heard one wistfully say, “You guys get to do all the good stuff.”  Those are my two peep-hole glimpses into the heart of corporate editors.  I've never had any peek into the hearts of those who hold the true power there.  Going back to the PEN / Nelson Algren Award and its cancellation not long after it was invented: I wonder if the reason for discontinuing the award wasn’t because the award was meant to discover new serious literary fiction writers and then the corporate publishing world wanted none of them.

GF: What about the independent publishing world?  Has it substantially changed over that same time period?  Is it stronger as a movement, or larger but also more diffuse?  Do the "indies" do things differently than they did then, and do different writers fall under their auspices than was true at that time?

CM: There are probably more independent presses now (I haven’t done a census), although there is only the same amount—or less—grant money to go around.  Possibly technology has streamlined production enough to reduce that investment, but warehousing and distribution is more expensive.  But beyond expenses, the major changes have to do with: 1) the demise of the independent bookstore, 2) chain bookstores only buying from one or two major (corporate) distributors, 3) severe cutbacks of newspaper book review sections and other book media, 4) bookstores only keeping a new title in a store a few months before returning, 5) bookstores only displaying books whose publishers pay for the privilege with major publicity campaigns.  Possibly all of these issues have been worsened simply because there are more titles being published by more independent publishers.  But certainly writers who might have been corporate midlist novelists, or had their first novels published commercially, are now, more and more, releasing their books with independent publishers.  The positive developments include internet book review websites, literary blogs, internet reading clubs, etc.

GF: You're known predominantly for your novels and short stories, but you've also written a substantial amount of creative nonfiction, both in freelance essays and in your memoir Indigenous: Growing Up Californian.  Can you speak a bit about why you've generally favored fiction over nonfiction, but why nonfiction occasionally lures you?  In what ways have the two forms complemented one another, or attacked the same aim from different angles?

 CM: Fiction allows my imagination to take experience, either my own or what I’ve observed, and ask dozens of questions about it, and try dozens of hypothetical alternate scenarios, exaggerate, focus, enlarge … as well as completely veer in angles away from remembered experiences to live a different vicarious life while I develop a different jumble of cause-and-effects.  I admit, though, there is one period of my past that has fueled many of my stories and maybe half of my novels because it is a period that I am still struggling to understand.  I can admit I’ve been fairly obsessed with this particular period of about 5 years in my mid-to-late 20s.  I explored it in fiction (many times) because my obsession was my bewilderment and continued agitation over it.  What I personally got out of writing those books must be (and I hope is) quite different than what readers got out of them.  Readers can see this common “inspiration” in many of my books as a thematic motif, because the stories themselves, and the characters, are sufficiently different.  Finally, though, my most recently completed novel manuscript is one that treats the material a little more directly than the others, and I told my agent, “call it 1/3 a true story, but we won’t say which third is true.” And yet I still didn’t feel finished with the material.  So I decided to write a nonfiction book about the same jumble of events, “the real story,” so to speak, although I've already begun to question the “realness” of any remembered story, especially one I've already partially re-rendered and re-conceived in various fictional forms in portions of at least 3 previous novels.  Working with the material over the past 25+ years, you tend to rework your memory as well.  I do have seven completely-filled-with-pencil-handwriting spiral bound journal notebooks from the years-in-question, which I'm going to have to try to make sense out of in order to attempt to not just create a narrative but a form and a structure that strives to make a larger statement (or at least ask a larger question).  The point of it being assuredly not “you need to know about these things that happened to me,” but that upon realizing that this tangle of (somewhat related) events has gnawed at me for literally decades, I've been drawn to examine and wonder why it was so vitally important to the person, and the novelist, I became.  I've probed the material in fiction from enough angles, one could argue, spiraling closer and closer—but closer to what?  Truth?  What does that mean?  All I know for sure is that now the only way I have to continue to seek understanding (or personal resolution) is to probe the question of why the experiences remained so crucial to me, but using the new context of conscious retrospect (which I discovered and used in writing the last novel which uses the same material).  By letting cognizance of the changes in society since then, the changes in my maturity and understanding about gender relations, and even my knowledge of changes in laws, remain consciously with me as I narrate past events, the book can possibly reach beyond being “about me’ and toward social commentary, at least significant social questions. 

GF: What you say makes me think about Milan Kundera, a writer I love, who has essentially explored the same themes in almost his entire body of work—the same could, of course, be said of many writers.  I wonder if the things that obsess us never entirely change, and the writer’s task is merely finding new angles and avenues of exploration.  In your case, those obsessions seem to be sexual/gender politics, as well as the way memory continues to haunt and drive people years after a traumatic incident occurred.  Do you think those demons, literary or otherwise, can ever be fully exorcized? 

CM: The stuff my memory is haunted with is gender/sexual politics, but it took a while for me to even name what it was.  That period of my past I’ve been obsessed with: those approximate 5 years correspond with the court cases that tested and began to implement sexual harassment laws.  At the time it was happening, though, no one had even heard of “sexual harassment.”   The first court case bringing charges of sexual harassment was in 1977; then sexual harassment was defined by a court in 1982.  Those are the years when, as an undergraduate and then graduate student, I worked for two male bosses, apprentice-taught under a male master-teacher, and played a musical instrument that had been a male bastion.  And yet, years later, knowing the new laws, I couldn’t look back and just say “So that’s what was wrong; there’s the sexual quid pro quo.”  It was like I participated in a confusing turmoil of gender relations gone awry, none of which even resulted in a sexual relationship (but came close) or anyone getting this for that.  In fiction, I kept trying to replay the relationships, the events, put them into different contexts, to try to come to some conclusion about what was going on, why I was so filled with terror and rage when little was happening to me.  On the one hand, just looking back—any of us of my generation—at what we were doing and how we behaved (and how men around us behaved) in pre sexual-harassment years is interesting, fascinating, mind-bending.  But to still be perplexed by it all, 25 years later, it became a full-blown obsession.  What broke it open, further, and caused me to write one more novel, and now a nonfiction book, was the discovery, 2+ decades after the fact, that the master-teacher I’d been apprenticing under, and who’d been hovering around the periphery of leading me (willingly) into a sexual relationship, had been having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student at that same time.  Her attempts to have him arrested 25 years later brought a whole new whirlwind of bewilderment to my thoughts on what had been occurring, on gender relationships and what exactly is harassment, including catching myself actually asking why her?   After I finish my next book, if I come up with an answer to whether these demons can ever be full exorcised, I’ll let you know.

GF: About a decade ago, you were involved in a small scandal involving the National Endowment for the Arts over a book you edited for FC2.  Can you describe what happened?  Do you think arts funding suffers more or less now from this kind of "Big Brother" morality than it did at that time?

CM: The book was an anthology called Chick-Lit 2 (No Chick Vics), which might take too much explanation to put into context!  Suffice it to say it was not in any way similar to the urban-girls-looking-for-love “chicklit” that the corporate publishing word began marketing some time after the anthology came out (and they co-opted the title).  So in 1996, when Chick-Lit 2 came out, there was a review of it in a large city newspaper, a review which pointed out that some of the stories involved lesbians.  The review also mentioned that the publisher was supported by the NEA, and suggested that Jesse Helms might have “a conniption fit.”  So that’s exactly what happened.  Except that nothing happened next, after Helms had his fit, after the NEA was spanked, after artists (mostly actors) came to DC to speak on behalf of the NEA (but the editors of Chick-Lit 2 were not invited to anything), nothing happened … except the corporate publishers appropriating the title.

GF: Your current novel, Waterbaby, [reviewed by Elizabeth Burns on this blog] published by Soft Skull Press, is a real genre-bender, encompassing elements of ghost stories, historical fiction and experimental fiction, to name a few, all in one novel.  Has this kind of cross-over among genres been an asset to the novel's marketing or a challenge—or both? 

CM: It certainly was an asset in creating Amazon “tags” … I could list this novel under more than a dozen tag headers, from lighthouses to swimming, from post traumatic stress disorder to epilepsy, from ghosts to genealogy.  It was reviewed on a “haunted lighthouses” blog and mentioned in a sidebar for an article about encountering ghostly sensations in cemeteries.  At yet there wasn’t a single paranormal occurrence in Waterbaby, so how and why people keep calling it a ghost story, I don’t know.  I also don’t know if it has caused any marketing challenges, if it was passed over for review because the press release might have insinuated it was a “ghost story.”  But at no time did either the publisher or I call it “experimental,” since, for me, it’s not a characteristic I consciously try to apply to a novel.  The various forms and layers in Waterbaby are all there because, organically, they came from the story and the character. As soon as you start applying labels, any labels, you start cutting away part of your potential audience.  Just like calling it a “ghost story” might discourage people who dislike paranormal stories (as I generally do), calling it “experimental” or “historical” could be a turnoff to certain readers.    

GF: Over the years, we've had many conversations about the risks—from a publishing perspective—of women writers writing about characters who are not traditionally "sympathetic."  What do you think the mainstream publishing industry deems a "sympathetic" heroine vs. what a literary writer (or more literary readers) might view as giving them sympathy with a character?

 CM: I think of this in really basic terms of interest and caring.  Am I interested in a character, and do I care what happens next?  To be interested in a character, I like to see that her troubles and problems are at least in part, if not a large part, caused by herself: her fears, longings, anxieties, obsessions, habits, etc.  I’m not interested in victims of fate.  I think that a flawed character with limited self-awareness creates true “sympathy,” if we must use that word, or true interest, because stories of self-realization—characters who have to come to grips with their complicity in their own traumas—are more satisfying.  Mere stories of “recovery” only go so far, but when what we have to recover from stems from our own weaknesses, when true self-evaluation is part of a resolution, then, I think, readers feel (even if unconsciously) more hope about themselves and their lives.  Part of the divide between what I view as interesting and what popular fiction might view as sympathetic is in that word, “weakness.”  There’s this conviction that readers need “strong characters.”  As though characters in novels should be role models.  Instead of meaning memorable or loaded—that kind of strong—too often they mean people with no flaws who can handle anything fate dishes out.   The other area of disconnect is in where I (and other literary writers) tend to end books.  I usually end a book at a point where the main character has finally gotten a new glimpse at the world and at herself, a new perspective, or a dose of plain old self realization.  At that point she’s ready to find resolution, make changes, find a new direction, etc., but I’m not interested in detailing out all the changes and resolutions and giving the reader a “one year later” sort of happy ending.  I was told, on one occasion, that by doing this, I had a book with “no hope,” as though to have hope you have to spell out exactly how a person uses their new perspective. 

GF: In these days, when publishing may be more competitive than ever before and so many writers are "left out" in the cold, there must be many people—students, those you meet at conferences, etc.—who imagine that you, as a highly successful writer of many acclaimed books, lead a very glamorous existence with no career obstacles.  What have some of your experiences been regarding the disparity of people's expectations about "the writing life" vs. its realities?  And do literary fiction writers have to internalize different measures of "success" than, say, writers of genre fiction or nonfiction?

CM: I don’t know of anyone—not anyone with any sense—who believes I lead a glamorous life.  But I know there are people who don’t believe I can (or am allowed to) have insecurities or career frustrations.  I do still feel I haven’t fulfilled something.  And that something, frustratingly out of reach, has to do with things out of my control.  My agent tells me 90% of this whole business is luck: to be lucky enough to have the right reviewers pick up your galley on the right day, or the right editor pick up your MS on the right day and have the right idea for how to pitch it at the right time in history.  There are many tales, we all hear them, about the one-in-ten-million-chance string of events where someone sells a self-published book to the movies and then Random House brings it out in hardback.  These stories only tease any of us who live and work by the usual rules of anonymity, luck (usually not good luck), the hard humiliating work of self promotion, the disinterest of the media in literature, the growing trend among indie publishers to look for what’s cool, hip and young, and the constant pushing of ourselves to have ideas that are more relevant, more timely, more probing, more controversial … without even knowing if that’s what anyone wants.  But we still do it.  We can’t stop.  And a good sentence, a spot-on paragraph, a crackling piece of dialogue can still make me feel heady, and as though I’ve accomplished something, all day.  Ready to start over the next day.    

[Gina Frangello is the author of the novels My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006) and London Calling (forthcoming in Spring 2009 from Impetus Press.)  For many years she served as the Executive Editor of the literary magazine Other Voices, and co-founded its fiction book imprint OV Books in 2004, where she is now Executive Editor of the Chicago office.  Her short fiction has been published widely in literary journals, including StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Swink and Clackamas Review, and in anthologies such as Homewrecker: An Adultery Reader; she also guest-edited the anthology Falling Backwards: Stories of Fathers and Daughters (Hourglass 2004.) She has been a freelance journalist for the Chicago Reader and a book reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, and currently she teaches creative writing at Northwestern University’s School of Continuing Studies and in Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing Department.]

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