Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Melancholia of mind

Alexander Maksik’s story explores where memories and madness collide

Express Staff Writer

    Sometimes, all it takes to make an implausible tale penetrable to the point of surrender is a reference point where one can relate to it.
    Jacqueline is a tormented human, alone, destitute, a Liberian woman physically removed from the horrors that plague her, yet trapped on an idyllic Greek island with the haunting memories.
    Author Alexander Maksik explains that the title of his new novel, “A Marker to Measure Drift,” is Jacqueline’s search for a permanent home from which she can mark the distance she has traveled in body and mind. When I read that, I found my entry point.
    It’s a story about a woman coping—a woman reconciling her newly manufactured life with her reality, her desire to embrace the surrounding beauty and the artifice of her.
    Maksik said the marker concept was one he learned from his parents when they would take him to a beach, the family cooler a visual cue of where the currents had moved him.
    The author of the novel “You Deserve Nothing” and a Community School graduate has lived in many places before landing most recently in New York City. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper’s, Tin House, Harvard Review, The New York Times Magazine, Salon and Narrative magazine, among other publications, and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is the recipient of fellowships from the Truman Capote Literary Trust and The Corporation of Yaddo. He has taught at the University of Iowa, where he was the Provost’s Postgraduate Visiting Writer in Fiction.
    “Deeper Winter,” a short story set in Ketchum, was recently published in Harper’s.
    He will be traveling back to Ketchum on Monday, July 29, at 6 p.m. for a reading and book signing at The Community Library. It is presented by the library and Iconoclast Books.
    Maksik waded into the shallows for a short chat.
IME: Again, you have told a story that resonates on many levels, the impermanence of life, the perils of solitude, the futility of running from the past. Harboring the character of Jacqueline must have been maddening at times, but your narrative makes her visible and palpable. How long was your brain in technicolor over this novel and how did you escape it?
    Maksik: Once I found Jacqueline, I never stopped thinking about her. Over the years that I was working on the book, she was a constant presence. I dreamed about her. I worried about her. I don’t think I ever really escaped. But I didn’t want to. I’d never had the experience of caring so much about a character. It was a strange, exhausting and wonderful thing. I think it didn’t really end until I turned in the last edits. And even now I think about her often.

Are you a note-taker/keeper or do you just get to the computer and go with the thought?
    I’m an erratic note-taker. I try to have paper and pencil in every jacket I own. And I have kept a notebook for each novel I’ve written. I use them as logs to chart progress. I also always write the number of words I’ve written in a given day. It makes writing a novel somehow seem more manageable.

There was controversy after your first novel. “You Deserve Nothing,” on how tension between desire and action affect a charismatic young teacher and his high school charges. It was based on more than just your imagination (Maksik confirmed in a magazine interview that he ‘lost a job.’) It’s always a gamble for a writer, isn’t it? When do you decide your desire to tell a great story is bigger than your fear of the repercussions? That includes critics, of course.
    We always write what we know. My ability to write a character, a place, is inextricably connected to my own experience in the world, the relationships I’ve had, the countries I’ve seen, joy, sadness, and so on. That said, I’m interested in writing fiction because it allows me to imagine the lives of others and so I use my own experience to inform the work I do.
    It’s the writing that matters to me more than anything else. It’s impossible to write well while at the same time worrying about the repercussions, critical or otherwise, of my work. I worry after I’m finished. And by then it’s too late.

You said once you probably should have been a lifeguard, while I see actor, given that you study and marinate on everything that crosses your mind. Is there an alternative for you that would be easier to be?
    I’m happiest when I’m immersed in what I’m doing, whether it’s swimming or writing  I find it far easier to lose myself when I’m in the ocean than when I’m at my desk. I do wish sometimes, that I had no desire to be a writer.

Are there some markers that serve you in your everyday life?
    I love coming home to Ketchum. To be with my family, to see my friends, to swim in the river, to wander around Iconoclast Books. I’ve been coming back here for many years, from so many different lives, and each return serves as a way to mark time and progress.

You lived in Paris, traveled many places abroad, lived in Ketchum. What’s life like in the big city?
    My life in New York is more social than it’s been anywhere else, but finally it’s not much different. I wake up in the morning, go for a run along the river, come home and spend most of the day writing.

When you are in Ketchum, what is your favorite haunt?
    Iconcoclast. I’ve been going to Iconoclast Books since Gary (Hunt) first opened the shop. I’ve been following them from location to location. I met my friends Kara Watson (an editor at Scribner) and Darren Sutherland (who now runs the rare books section of The Strand) there.
    I read my terrible poetry at their poetry slams. Gary and Sarah (Hedrick) were both supportive of me long before I’d published so much as a paragraph. I know the people who work there now—Sarah and Harriett and Martha and Judy— all of whom are such smart readers. Independent bookstores, let alone good independent bookstores, are increasingly rare. We’re lucky to have this one.

Meet the author

Where: The Community Library, Ketchum.
When: Monday, July 29, at 6 p.m.
What: “A Marker to Measure Drift”, the second novel of Community School graduate Alexander Maksik, who previously penned “You Deserve Nothing.”

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