Ten Questions for Mesha Maren

by Staff
5.21.24

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Mesha Maren, whose new novel, Shae, is out today from Algonquin Books. In this heart-wrenching tale, a teenager from rural West Virginia, Shae, falls into an intense love affair with Cam. Their romance becomes complicated by Shae’s pregnancy and Cam’s awakening to her trans identity. While the two attempt to work through a new relationship dynamic, Shae’s growing addiction to opioids after the birth of her daughter with Cam throws their lives into turmoil. While Cam moves on from their small town—exploring music, higher education, and a more authentic sense of self—Shae finds herself with few good options to support their daughter or to move into a brighter future. Publishers Weekly praises Shae’s sense of place and emotional connection: “Maren beautifully evokes both the natural beauty of Appalachia and Shae’s plaintive longing for Cam.... Maren continues to show a knack for portraying the complexities and contradictions of an often-misunderstood part of America.” Mesha Maren is the author of the novels Sugar Run (2019) and Perpetual West (2022), both from Algonquin Books. An associate professor of the practice of English at Duke University, Maren has received the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, an Elizabeth George Foundation grant, an Appalachian Writing Fellowship from Lincoln Memorial University, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Ucross Foundation.

Mesha Maren, author of Shae.   (Credit: Grant Miller)

1. How long did it take you to write Shae
The notebooks I have with the early drafts of Shae date to 2017, and I fiddled around with the document for the final time in fall of 2023.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Oh, I suppose the same thing that is challenging about writing anything: You’re translating images and emotions into written language, which is essentially a series of random marks on a page that we have all agreed to use as stand-ins for the “real thing.” There is no essential relationship between the letters in the word tree and the green and living thing outside my window. We’ve just all agreed that those marks make up a word that stands in for it. Sign, Signifier, Signified. We’re up against all that. French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls expressive gestures, like pointing, our “first language,” and that’s basically what we’re trying to do when we write—point at something. But we’re using, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, “a gesticulation so varied, so precise, so systematic, and capable of so many convergent expressions that the internal structure of an utterance can ultimately agree only with the mental situation to which it responds and of which it becomes an unequivocal sign.” It is not the random marks, the t and r and e and e, that make the meaning but rather a union between the writer and the reader, following what Merleau-Ponty calls the “verbal chain” and going “beyond each of its links in the direction that they all designate together.” He also says, “Communication in literature is not the simple appeal on the part of the writer to meanings which would be part of an a priori of the mind; rather, communication arouses these meanings in the mind through enticement and a kind of oblique action. The writer’s thought does not control his language from without; the writer is himself a kind of new idiom, constructing itself, inventing ways of expression, and diversifying itself according to its own meaning. ... Great prose is the art of capturing a meaning which until then had never been objectified and of rendering it accessible to everyone who speaks the same language.” But simply making something accessible to readers of, say, English is not the same as capturing a meaning; rendering something accessible to readers of a certain language is the stuff of instruction manuals, and capturing a meaning never before objectified is the work of a novelist or poet. When I write the word sofa anyone who can read English can have access to a certain level of my meaning, but the reader is not picturing the same sofa that I have in my mind. Even if I get more specific, and I say “blue, velvet sofa,” they are still not picturing the same sofa; and the reason why is not merely about the need to bring in more specificity. I could describe every last inch of the blue, velvet fainting-couch I have in mind, and my description still might fail to capture my meaning, much less render that meaning accessible to the reader. Or it might not fail. That’s the beautiful mystery of writing: The “meaning” comes from an alchemy of the writer’s language mixing with the connotations supplied by the reader—connotations the writer has very little control over. One reader may have lost their virginity on a blue, velvet sofa; another may associate such a sofa with their dying dog or that time they shat themselves. Much has been made over the years of German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s description in The Origin of the Work of Art of Van Gogh’s painting of a pair of shoes; Heidegger goes on and on about the “toilsome tread of the worker” and the “tenacity of her slow trudge” and “the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls.” Thirty-some years later, art historican Meyer Schapiro rather gleefully pointed out that the shoes were not even women’s shoes. He tracked down the “truth” of the shoes, bought in a flea market in Paris, but I don’t think that really matters. What I care about is the fact that the meaning evoked in Heidegger’s mind—the loneliness of the female peasant, the push and pull of life and death and seasons passing—was created by a relationship between Van Gogh’s painting and Heidegger’s associations. An entirely different meaning is created in the relationship between Van Gogh’s painting and my mind. That’s the beauty of art. In The Origin of the Work of Art Heidegger also says, “In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing, a lighting.... Only this clearing grants and guarantees to us humans a passage to those beings that we ourselves are not, and access to the being that we ourselves are.” I think “clearing” is the best description I’ve ever heard for the space in which something like Van Gogh’s painting and the connotations that Heidegger brings to that painting can come together to create meaning. But that is also what makes writing so hard: You are pointing, and the reader is following—and these two things come together in a specific “clearing” that the writer has, at best, partial control over.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write in a cabin that my father and I built together when I was fourteen. I write on average five or six days a week for somewhere between four and seven hours a day.

4. What are you reading right now?   
I often dip into rereading periods, especially when I am in the middle of drafting a new book. Right now I am rereading Suttree by Cormac McCarthy and Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald. Also on my bedside table are Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner; Eros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson; Pig Earth by John Berger; Death in Venice by Thomas Mann; and The Meadow by James Galvin. I have been reading bits and pieces of those books before I fall asleep and when I am waking up. And just today I started rereading Joy Williams’s State of Grace. I was cleaning my house, and my eye fell on it. I hadn’t read it in a while, so I flipped it open and couldn’t put it down. I guess now I’m rereading that novel too.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?   
Often it is not authors but photographers and filmmakers who influence me the most. For Shae it was the films Wanda by Barbara Loden, Harmony Korine’s Gummo, and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers as well as the photo collections As It was Give(n) to Me by Stacy Kranitz, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of Their Dreams by Alessandra Sanguinetti, Upstate Girls: Unravelling Collar City by Brenda Ann Kenneally, Girl Pictures by Justine Kurland, and Beneath the Roses by Gregory Crewdson.

I am of course influenced by authors, or rather I am influenced by their books. People like to ask writers whether or not they think about their audience while drafting. It doesn’t work for me to think about a human audience for my work. The closest thing to an “audience” that I have ever been able to imagine is other books—my books talking to other books. I think the “audience” for my novel Sugar Run is A Hall of Mirrors by Robert Stone, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, Fay by Larry Brown (and other books by Brown), and the Carlos Saura film Deprisa, deprisa. The closest thing to an “audience” for my novel Perpetual West is Fat City by Leonard Gardner, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy, Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter, and the film Amores Perros.

Shae is in conversation with the films and photo collections I mentioned above as well as Glass, Irony and God by Anne Carson, Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Shae?
I was surprised by how fun it was to write. I have never been one of those writers who complains about how hard writing is. If I didn’t like writing then I wouldn’t do it. A day when I have written is always better than a day when I have not. But with my first two novels, especially with the first one, I had all these worries about doing it correctly or being able to do it at all—but with Shae those worries were gone. It really felt like what French painter André Marchand said: “In a forest, I have felt many times over that it was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me, were speaking to me ... I was there, listening ... I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe, and not want to penetrate it.” Writers get off track when they try to penetrate something instead of letting it penetrate them. Shae penetrated me, and I am happy for it.

7. What is one thing your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
My agent, Bill Clegg, and I had a lot of very interesting conversations about second-person point of view. Shae was originally drafted in second person, with the main character, Shae, speaking directly to her ex, Cam, as in a letter. At one point, maybe five drafts in, Bill mentioned that he felt the second person was limiting his ability to see or understand Cam and Cam’s relationship to Shae. We had a lot of great conversations about it—this was before we even showed the manuscript to my editor—and it chimed in my mind with this one aspect of Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet. Carson talks a lot about triangulation. Love, novels, metaphors, they all “triangulate, haunt, split, wrench and delight us.” She writes, “Novels institutionalize the ruse of eros. It becomes a narrative texture of sustained incongruence, emotional and cognitive. It permits the reader to stand in triangular relation to the characters in the story and reach into the text after the objects of their desire, sharing their longing but also detached from it, seeing their view of reality but also its mistakenness. It is almost like being in love.” When I wrote from Shae’s perspective speaking directly to Cam, there was a level of intense intimacy there, which is what I wanted. But there was also a lack of triangulation; there was just Shae and Cam bouncing back and forth with no third point. When I shifted the narrative to just first person, Shae was suddenly speaking about Cam to a third entity, the reader. Cam is still refracted through Shae, but there is a third point for triangulation now. While some of the intensity of the intimacy is lost, what is gained is Shae’s ability to reflect on Cam and her relationship to Cam; what is gained is the bittersweet realization that Shae and Cam never quite matched up, never quite understood each other, and it is through Shae talking to the reader about Cam that this realization is possible.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Shae, what would you say?
Probably just the same thing I say to myself every day: Lighten up. Go outside. Eat a good hamburger. Look at the way the sun shines through that newborn leaf. Listen to the car wheels pass like waves. Remember to go to the Tractor Bar on Sundays and laugh and share food and smell the billiard chalk.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
In order to write this book I had to be born outside Alderson, West Virginia, in September of 1984 to back-to-the-land parents from New Jersey and Iowa. They both had to move to the same corner of Greenbrier County at the same time, and my dad had to play his saxophone on the balcony of an old Victorian house on Greenbrier Avenue so that my mom would hear him and look out her window across the street and think he was cute. She had to ask him to play at her friend’s birthday party so they could flirt and then make me. I had to sit in the dirt under our front porch and watch a white cat give birth in my sister’s lap and stain her favorite strawberry-patterned dress with blood. Then the river had to flood so I could find a worn-out collection of Alfred Tennyson poems in a pile of free books during the cleanup. I had to read “The Lady of Shalott” and fall in love, and I had to memorize the poem while I swung one hundred times back and forth under the black walnut tree. I had to be lonely, and I had to believe that if I recited that poem for my sixth-grade talent show that I would make friends and not be lonely anymore. I had to recite it right after a cute, little redheaded kid in a cowboy hat lip-synced “Achy Breaky Heart” to roaring applause. Everybody had to look at me funny. I had to become more lonely.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
I don’t believe in writing advice. I know it might sound counterintuitive since I teach creative writing, but I tell my students the same thing: What works for me likely won’t work for you. We are each doing our own pointing, in the Merleau-Ponty sense, creating our own verbal chains, and what I’m pointing at, and maybe more importantly how I’m pointing at it, is not the same as what you or anyone else is pointing at or how you are pointing at it. Author Tom Spanbauer once said to me, “I don’t believe in third person.” And I love Tom, as a writer and a teacher. I sat in the “pond scum circle” writing group in his basement in Portland for a whole summer, and I have all the love for him. But I guess all I’m saying is that what worked for him and his pointing (limiting himself to first-person point of view, among other things) doesn’t necessarily work for me. For me the only “advice” that has ever been helpful has come from reading all kinds of different writing and noticing when I see a kind of pointing in the writing that sings along with the kind of pointing that I feel myself doing. So maybe the best “writing advice” I ever got was when author Matt O’Wain handed me copies of Larry Brown’s Fay and Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, and author Katherine Min told me I should read Laura Kasischke’s A Suspicious River, and author Fred Leebron said to me, “Haven’t you ever read Robert Stone?” 

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