How did you become a writer?
Slowly and with trepidation. I wasn’t precocious about writing in the least, and didn’t start writing with anything like commitment until my mid-twenties. And even then I didn’t think of myself as a writer, which is a shame. If you write, you’re a writer. Unfortunately, I had the idea that you had to be published—and published successfully—in order to wear the moniker. I published my first short story when I was 27 or so, but I didn’t think of myself as a writer. Then I wrote a novel, had a great agent, but couldn’t sell the book, so I didn’t consider myself a writer then, either. It wasn’t until I published my first novel that I began to think of myself as—maybe—someone whose life was dedicated to this art. Which is all absurd, of course, and bound of up with issues of self-esteem that have little to do with what does and does not earn you the title. Bottom line: I became a writer when I started to spend hours every day wrestling with language and sentence-making, structure and stakes. That’s pretty much when it happens for any writer, young or old.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
This is always a hard one for me because I feel like writing is all about imprinting your sensibility on the page, which means what you’re really asking is what makes me who I am, which I’m not sure I can answer. Everything? I’m sure what I read is as influential on my work as the woman I saw last week yelling at her kid on the subway. Make yourself available to the world and everything becomes an influence. In terms of specific mentors, though, that’s easier. Jim Shepard, Amy Hempel, and Martha Cooley have all been hugely influential people in my life—as teachers and friends. They’ve set the bar very high for what constitutes great work and have taught me over the years how to find my way forward. How to strive for more. It’s wonderful for a young writer to have examples and mentorship, but it’s equally wonderful to retain those influences as you grow up. Your mentors become your peers, but that doesn’t mean you admire them less or have less to learn from them.
When and where do you write?
Whenever and wherever I can. I’ve heard of authors who need all kinds of conditions to write, but this has always seemed precious to me. Sure, it’s hard to write when it’s loud or the TV is on or your toddler is screaming. But extremes aside, it’s just not that hard to plunk down somewhere and open your laptop. Writing is hard. Where you do it is immaterial. These days I have very little time, owing to multiple jobs and motherhood, so I haven’t been very productive. But that is soon to change. When I do write, it’s at home or the library or a cafe. I used to go to artists’ residencies to pound out much of my draft work, but I can’t do that any more now that I have a child. So I’ll just have to adapt and squeeze in a sentence her, a sentence there.
What are you working on now?
A new novel about female rage, inertia, and the 2008 financial meltdown. I’m only about 90 pages in, though, so who’s to say what the novel will become over time. Check back in with me next year.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I have suffered from an incapacity to come up with ideas that are of interest to me. Is that writer’s block? I think all artists go through periods when they bore themselves. It’s brutal. You just have to keep throwing things down on the page until something sticks. It’s a scary time because of course you’re pretty sure nothing will stick. That you’ve exhausted your store of good ideas. Often, too, a good idea doesn’t appear good at first. So you throw it down and work on it and give it time to find its legs and feet and maybe if you’re lucky, it sticks. But then, of course, it has to run, which is its own challenge. In any case, getting through these periods requires real discipline and commitment, even as you’re despairing throughout.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
"So what?" Chris went to the store, he fell in love, she broke his heart—SO WHAT? What are the stakes here? What is happening in your fiction that will help enrich my capacity to feel deeply about other people? What are you teaching me? Why should I care? It might well be a writer’s responsibility to entertain, but entertainment without stakes is just fast food. Enjoyable in the moment but not worth much in the long run. I remember getting that advice early on and taking it to heart right away. It wasn’t going to be enough to funny now and then or to be able to spin a good yarn. I’d have to strive for much more if I wanted my work to affect people in a meaningful way.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Fiona Maazel is author of the novels Last Last Chance (2008); Woke Up Lonely (2013); and A Little More Human (2017). Last Last Chance was a Time Out New York “Best Book of the Year.” Woke Up Lonely was a finalist for the Believer Book Award and optioned by 21st Century Fox. Maazel is winner of a 2017 Guggenheim Fellowship and the Bard Prize for Fiction. She is also a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree. Her stories have appeared in Conjunctions, Harper’s, Ploughshares, Tin House, Best American Short Stories 2017, and elsewhere. She has taught in the creative writing programs at Brooklyn College, NYU, Adelphi, Princeton, Syracuse, Columbia, and the University of Leipzig, Germany, and is currently the Director of Communications for a legal nonprofit, Measures for Justice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.