Thursday, June 5, 2014

Another astonishing debut: Maya Lang's The Sixteenth of June

To me, there's nothing more exciting than a wonderful fiction debut. Like Ulysses, The Sixteenth of June wraps around a single day in the lives of a family, even as it explores ambition, love, and the connections we make or fail to make. Maya was awarded the 2012 Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Foundation Scholarship in Fiction, and was a finalist for Glimmer Train‘s Short Story Award for New Writers. Her work has appeared in VQR and Publisher’s Weekly. I'm so thrilled to have her here. Thank you so much, Maya!

The Sixteenth of June is set over the course of a single day, much like James Joyce’s Ulysses, and so much of it pays homage to Joyce. So, my first question is, Why James Joyce? What made you decide on this structure and what were the difficulties you faced?

First, thank you so much for having me here. I always look forward to this blog and the questions you ask, so this is an honor.

I think there’s an old saying about how the writer doesn’t choose the subject matter; it chooses her. I was studying for comp exams in grad school one day when a sentence came to me out of nowhere, seeming to drop from the sky: Leopold turns the volume up as the hail comes down, so loud that Nora worries the windshield will crack and across it a giant web will bloom.

I felt like a cat that had just coughed up a hairball: What is that? Later, I realized the first word was “Leopold” and the last was “bloom.” I wondered if there could be a novel riffing on Ulysses while exploring the questions that bothered me about it. Namely, why do we revere a book that holds us at arm’s length? Do people truly love Ulysses or do they just claim to?  If I, as a doctoral candidate, couldn’t get through those unpunctuated passages or follow the references, who could?

Many Ulysses references snuck into that first draft unbidden. As I revised, I decided to incorporate more. I modeled each chapter after an episode in Ulysses and brought in excerpted lines. My goal was to weave these into the novel seamlessly (no attention is drawn to them with footnotes or italics) so a reader won’t necessarily be aware of them. Anyone who reads The Sixteenth gets a small dose of Joyce. I’m like the mom who sneaks veggies into the brownies.

I loved the whole idea that from a single day, a lifetime can evolve, that in just a moment, the course of a life can change. Can you talk about this please?

Gladly. It’s something I believe very strongly, that if you follow a character for a day—her thoughts, her internal dialogue—you can glean a sense of a whole life, its arc. The particular day in this novel isn’t an ordinary one, but its richest moments occur between events. I think life speaks to us in interstices, in the before and after. I can’t tell you a thing about my college graduation, but I remember the car ride home.

This mesmerizing novel is very much about love, and two brothers who both adore the same woman. Do you think there is such a thing as having a choice when it comes to love?

Whoa! Tough question. Amazing question. My gut reaction is that I don’t think we can choose whom or what we love, no. This is why breakups and death can be so painful, because a choice gets made for us and reminds us of our futility. As humans, we like to believe that we’re in charge. This is hubris. In love, as in writing, as in life, we are often surprised by our choices. We are drawn to certain things or people without knowing why.

I don’t mean to suggest we’re utterly without agency. Maybe you feel drawn to someone and make a choice to resist the impulse or to urge it along. But that initial attraction is quite mysterious. “I never would have imagined myself ending up with him.” “That’s not what I thought I would have chosen.” Our predilections and desires surprise us, but I think this is a good thing. There is always more to ourselves than we realize.

What was it like to write this particular novel? What were the difficulties—and the joys? What’s your writing life like?

This was the first long piece of fiction I’d ever attempted, and I started it when my daughter was three months old. As a strategy, I don’t recommend this. I was sleep-deprived, harried, exhausted, and I was in a new city (Seattle) with no family in the area.

I wrote the novel at nights and on weekends, an hour or two here or there, whenever I could. I felt like I’d discovered a little escape hatch into an imaginary world. I didn’t tell a soul about it other than my husband; I didn’t even think of it as a novel. This uncertainty was the hardest part. I basically felt like a crazy person with a secret. On the other hand, that solitude—writing for the sheer happiness of it—was wonderful. The difficulties and pleasures with writing are often one and the same.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Current obsessions: “Breaking Bad” (I’m in the third season and can’t get over how brilliantly it’s edited), the comedian Louis C.K. (he’s a genius! Like Nietzsche doing stand-up), and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (a luminous, exquisite novel. I’m still trying to figure out how he pulled it off structurally).

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Hmm. How about this, since it gives me an excuse to share an invitation: What are you doing for Bloomsday?

I’ll be celebrating Bloomsday and the launch of The Sixteenth of June at the Strand in New York City. The Strand is one of my favorite bookstores on the planet, so I’m thrilled. I’ll be in conversation with the acclaimed David Gilbert (& Sons). Readers of your blog are warmly welcome: Monday, June 16th, 7 p.m., The Strand (Broadway and 12th).

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