By age fifteen, Alexander Maksik hoped to be a writer, but, he admits, “it wasn’t until my late twenties that I realized I wanted to do the work. For a long time I was more concerned with being a writer than writing.” Recently, Maksik’s evolving commitment to his work produced You Deserve Nothing, a much-lauded rumination on power, idealism and morality. Maksik, based in Paris and Iowa City, will visit Chicago’s Seminary COOP Tuesday, September 13th, to discuss his debut novel with Adam Levin. But first he spoke with Our Town about inspiration, practice and Paris.
Our Town What was the original kernel of inspiration for You Deserve Nothing?
Alexander Maksik Both my parents were teachers and school administrators and from an early age I was acutely aware of the distinction between their public and private lives. Who they were at the dinner table was different from who they were in the classroom. As a result, I was never entirely capable of seeing any of my teachers only as teachers. That subject - the divide between the public and private self - has always fascinated me. In many ways, I feel as if I've been writing You Deserve Nothing since I was a teenager.
OT What are the pros and cons of setting a first novel in a place as symbolically loaded as Paris?
AM The advantage, of course, is that the city means a great deal to so many people and so perhaps I didn't have to do quite as much work as I might have if I were writing about a lesser-known place. On the other hand, a certain version of Paris has been filmed and written about over and over and over so the real challenge then was to do something original with the city. I tried my best to reveal it in ways inconsistent with the postcards.
OT Why utilize multiple points of view in your book?
AM It seemed the best way to deal with the novel's primary questions. In large part "You Deserve Nothing" is a book about the difference between the way we imagine ourselves and the way we are, the way we imagine others and the way they are. Those varying versions of "the truth" are also consistent with much of what is discussed in Will's classroom and I liked the idea of mirroring those seminars structurally.
OT What was it like to work with Alice Sebold as your editor?
AM A pleasure. She's an excellent editor. She has such respect for language and she misses nothing. Above all, it was her dedication to the novel as a whole that mattered most. She saw what I wanted to do, and refused to allow me to stray too far from that intention.
OT You wrote much of your book at Bibliotheque Mazarine. How important is establishing a place or time to write?
AM Time is what matters most. Time is the hardest thing to come by because writers are so rarely paid to write. Time is the luxury. For anyone who is serious about it, time is the thing to treasure most. After that, of course, a peaceful place to work is important. Still, as lovely as the Bibliotheque Mazarine is, once you settle in, it's just a table in a room. You either finish or you don't.
OT What’s your writing practice like?
AM I try to write a minimum of five hundred words a day. When I'm in a rhythm, when I see the end in sight, I write a thousand words a day. Sometimes, often really, I just sit there staring at the wall wishing I'd decided to be something else with my life. But I count that as writing - sitting and staring counts as much to me as any typing.
OT What’s the biggest misconception non writers have about writers or writing?
AM That there's some secret recipe or code. Authors are always asked where they write, whether they write on a computer or by hand, etc. In the end, it just doesn't matter. You either take it seriously enough to finish your work, or you don't. Write in bed, write in the bath, wearing earplugs, on a modified computer, with a blindfold tied around your head, with a parakeet on your knee - it just doesn't matter. Write or don't write. It's like anything else you want to do - it requires doing. I wish I'd understood this sooner.
OT You’re at work on your second novel. How does the experience differ?
AM Really, the only difference is I'm certain I can write a novel. I've done it once. That's good to know and important to remember. Otherwise though, it remains daunting and difficult, frightening and exciting and, very occasionally, magical.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," is forthcoming from Soft Skull, an imprint of Counterpoint Press. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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