Monstrous Actions: PW Talks with Maryse Meijer

The stories in Meijer’s outstanding and disturbing story collection Rag (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Feb.) feature an unsettling romantic triangle and a story narrated by a rag used in both mundane and criminal ways.

What is your approach to writing fiction?

I’m interested in exploring things that frighten me. Luckily, I’m scared of everything, so there’s a lot to work with.

Is there an underlying idea behind the form of your stories, which tend to be very direct and short?

Part of it’s technical—­I’m not great at sustaining long scenes or creating big movements in a piece. I think very small, and my focus is extremely narrow, so I’ve learned to work with that tendency. The other part is an affection for white space; a lot happens there. I like how the white space is a kind of void, but also absolutely present—it’s still right there on the page, forcing you to contend with it, pushing your eye around the text. The presence of what isn’t there, juxtaposed with these very specific gestures and images and bits of dialogue, creates a feeling for me as a reader that I find very unsettling and interesting. And, as a writer, it’s great fun to figure out how little you can get away with saying, and how much you can imply through the use of that white space.

Has a review of your work ever surprised you?

I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that my work is about cruel people. Certainly I often write about cruelty, I’m interested in cruelty, but I’m not interested in writing about amoral jerks. Some of the most positive reviews I’ve received assume that the work revels in its own darkness; that couldn’t be further from my intention. I think of my characters with a lot of compassion and generosity; though they aren’t role models, they are also not intended to be monsters, even if some of their actions are monstrous.

Who have been your biggest influences in literature? Do you have favorite writers?

Nabokov and Beckett taught me a lot about the extremes of prose—from the school of “Use all the words!” to “Don’t use any words at all!” Both taught me how to appreciate musicality in language, from radically different perspectives. Writers like Janet Frame, Patrick White, and Barbara Comyns showed me how weird the “real” world is. And Joyce Carol Oates remains a goddess for me, someone whose voracious curiosity represents the quality in a writer I admire most; the willingness to look beyond herself and her own story in order to apprehend the other, with compassion and courage and respect.

A version of this article appeared in the 01/14/2019 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Monstrous Actions

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