An Interview with Fiona Maazel, by Esme Hoffman

There are a few female authors in Brooklyn who make me feel like I’m a little girl again, looking up at all the big girls around me who are smarter and cooler and do big- girl things, like write books. Fiona Maazel is one of those authors. Her sentences are knockouts, and her novels are both entertaining and wickedly intelligent. She is the author of Woke Up Lonely and Last Last Chance, a winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, and a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree.

When I saw Fiona Maazel read at the Franklin Park Reading Series, it was so crowded that it was hard to move. Her curly brown hair was just visible beyond the heads in the crowd. Fiona’s reading style is crisp, confident, and darkly witty, like her prose. The audience laughed as she gave us a scene where an awkward crush goes awry in the middle of a hostage situation. Although I was too shy to approach her at the reading, I contacted her via Facebook, and she graciously agreed to an interview.

When she arrived to meet me at a café in Park Slope, I was holding her novel, one end thick with dog-eared pages that mark places I want to return to. I introduced myself, and we ordered coffee. Her olive skin glinted with flecks of glitter across her nose. After our interview, she was headed to the Franklin Park Reading Series to see a few of her friends read. We discussed her novel, life as a writer, and this issue’s theme of Escape

Woke Up Lonely

I want to begin by asking how you came up with the names of your characters. Esme isn’t the only unusual name—there are also Thurlow and Olgo, just to name a few.

They’re weird names. A lot of people think they’re kind of Pynchonesque, and they may well be, but that’s certainly not what I was thinking of when I named them. Esme and Olgo and the rest of them I just kind of came up with. Thurlow, though, is named after Thurlow Weed, which I mention somewhere in the book. Thurlow Weed was William H. Seward’s political adviser—Seward being Lincoln’s secretary of state during the Civil War—and also a big politico, a big operator in New York City. I thought it’d be a vague little irony to make him the namesake for my cult leader, since so much of the book is about political secession.

Did the theme of loneliness emerge in the process of writing Woke Up Lonely, or did you start with that?

That was one of the things I knew from the start. I wanted to write a novel about loneliness. I’m unremittingly obsessed with loneliness; I always have been. My first novel was also about loneliness, but not explicitly. This time around I wanted to aggressively investigate what loneliness looks like to me these days, and to ask certain questions that I think we’ve been posing for centuries, but to which we’re still looking for answers: Is loneliness congenital? Are we born into it? Is it surmountable? Is it circumstantial? Is there anything we can do about it? I wanted the novel—and obviously my cult leader—to ask those questions as well.

The cult leader in the novel is definitely an entertaining way to get those questions across.

What might appear fanciful in the novel is actually based on fact. There’s a lot of research on loneliness that’s gaining traction these days and on which my cult leader based a lot of his ideas.

In fact, there’s an article in the New Republic, I think it’s called “The Lethality of Loneliness,” about the same studies I read for this novel, that explores how loneliness is actually changing our DNA and making us ill.

One of the most pleasurable activities for me to do when I’m alone is read. I don’t feel lonely when I’m reading.

Me neither. The novel doesn’t end up providing any answers as to what might curb loneliness, but, sure, reading probably helps.

Some of your characters just aren’t able to connect in this novel, and we see them struggle to do so. The relationships go wrong, or the characters have been estranged, and we wonder, “what happened?”

Right. I think you probably just want to smack a lot of these people, because the people they care for are right in front of them, and yet they’re not able to connect with them. But I don’t think it’s for want of trying or want of interest. I think it has to do with a kind of self-destructive quality they can’t overcome.

What you see people doing throughout this novel is trying to surmount themselves and reach out for each other. That’s one of the central tensions in the book I was hoping to dramatize: the fact of these people’s feelings for each other versus the sense that they are alone.

There’s a scene in the book in which possibly my favorite character, Anne-Janet, uses the underwire of her bra to pick a lock and escape from handcuffs, and I thought that was great. It also fits with this issue’s theme of Escape. Can you tell us more about Anne-Janet?

Anne-Janet is a dark creature. I’ve been on tour and reading that section a lot, and I notice people leaving my events looking pale and sweaty.

People looked pretty into it at the Franklin park reading. Anything else about escape that stands out in your mind from the hostage situation at the end of the novel?

At the end of the book, all four of the hostages—and this isn’t really a spoiler—all of them escape in some form, though the question quickly becomes: Escape from what? And escape to what? And that’s exactly what I wanted to investigate at the end of the book. That’s why the novel ends with these four short stories that do not talk to each other plot-wise. I think a more typical novel would have had them run away together and have their fates intertwined.

*This is an excerpt from an interview that appears in issue 14 of Slice. To pre-order a copy of the issue, due out late February, click here.

Author photo by Andreas Lamm.

Fiona Maazel is the author of the novels Last Last Chance and Woke Up Lonely. She is a winner of the Bard Prize for Fiction and a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree. She teaches at Brooklyn College, New York University, Princeton, and Columbia, and was appointed the Picador Guest Professor at the University of Leipzig, Germany. She lives in Brooklyn.

Esme Hoffman is a bookworm who works as an execu- tive assistant and writes fiction. She has a BA from NYU’s Gallatin School and lives in Brooklyn.