Alexander Maksik on Violence, Madness and the Fiction of a Single Self

Jonathan Lee interviews the author of Shelter in Place

Alexander Maksik’s excellent third novel, Shelter in Place, opens with a sentence so viciously specific that I spent the whole first page in a daze: “In the summer of 1991 my mother beat a man to death with a twenty-two ounce Estwing framing hammer and I fell in love with Tess Wolff.” This line serves as a good summary of the plot that follow, and also provides a clue as to the impact the book exerts. Set in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s, the novel follows the fate of Joseph March, a twenty-one-year-old college graduate from Seattle whose life takes an unexpected turn when his mother is sent to a correctional facility. He moves to White Plains, Washington, to be closer to her, bringing the love of his life along for the ride, but fails to anticipate the extent to which his mother’s taste for vigilante justice will prove infectious to those around her.

Shelter in Place is, like the women in Joseph’s life, forceful in a way that’s hard to pin down. In the novel’s exploration of violence and obsession, it brings to mind Patricia Highsmith’s work — sometimes the bruising Ripley novels, sometimes the damaging passion in The Price of Salt — and the unsettling questions Maksik raises about mental illness and its inheritance made me think of Mary Gaitskill’s great short story “The Other Place.” At the same time, Shelter in Place is a book suffused with real human warmth — a love story, albeit an unconventional one.

“I am certainly not the same person in the morning as I am at night,” Maksik tells me during the interview which follows. “I am not the same person in one place as I am in another.” His novels, too, are always changing, pushing into new terrain. I met him for the first time in 2012 and soon became a fan of his debut, You Deserve Nothing (2011), and of his next book, A Marker To Measure Drift (2013). The latter was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book and a finalist for both the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and Le Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger. Shelter in Place feels to me like an even more accomplished novel: a book to shake your sense of self, by a writer doing exactly as he pleases.

Jonathan Lee: How quickly did this first sentence come to you — 1991, the Estwing framing hammer, Joseph falling in love and a man falling down dead? What kind of work did you hope it would do?

Alexander Maksik: The sentence itself came to me very quickly, one of those you write and like, but don’t quite know what to do with. It wasn’t until the last few drafts that I made it the first sentence, the first chapter.

It is, of course, a writerly device: by beginning in this way I’m introducing two fundamental facts — falling in love and his mother’s crime — which have entirely altered and shaped Joey March’s life. I also like that the sentence introduces a narrator so unsure of himself, so suspicious of fact and memory and form, that he attempts to compensate by beginning with an impossibly tidy summary. He’s trying to tell a story, or several stories, without having any idea how to do it. A declarative line like that, absent any overt poetry, which appears to withhold nothing, seems to him the best way to begin. And from the outset, he struggles with the same question all writers do: What the fuck am I making? And like most writers, he begins with the necessary pretense that he knows.

Lee: Merritt Tierce has said of Shelter in Place that it poses a “hard, important, and perhaps unanswerable question — how do you live with your self?” It occurs to me that perhaps all of your work to date has grappled with that question. In what ways might this new novel connect with, or depart from, You Deserve Nothing and A Marker To Measure Drift?

Maksik: I hope it’s true that everything I write grapples with this question. Certainly, all of the writing I most admire does. How do you live with your self and how does that self live alongside the selves of others?

I have made a conscious effort to write about widely various people, in widely various worlds, but in the end, I suppose, on some level, I do keep writing the same book. How depressing. On the other hand, I like to think that over the course of my writing life — and it’s certainly true of Shelter in Place — that my characters have become progressively better at living with their selves and with those of others. And there’s something appealing in the idea of having a body of work wherein I might chart that progress.

Lee: What did you struggle with most as this novel took shape?

Maksik: Structure and voice. I wanted to move quickly and seamlessly across time, to write a book that would reflect an active memory. Added to that was the problem of a bipolar narrator whose patterns of thought changed according to his rapid shifts of mind. I wanted those changes to be provoked not only by his present environment and experience, but also by recollection. Memory incites both physical and linguistic response. To do all of that, I had to constantly move between different languages, moods and times. And to do it while also telling a coherent story was a challenge.

Lee: Are you a planner?

Maksik: I am decidedly not a planner. I begin everything more or less blind and try to find my way to the end.

Lee: And did it feel refreshing to return to the first person in this novel?

Maksik: In many ways, yes. It’s such an immersive experience, and I love that. I also like being free of the responsibilities of omniscience — and its falsity. The first person necessarily makes a story incomplete, which I think generally makes for a truer novel. The whole notion of a reliable narrator is a fiction. All narrators are unreliable. I despise books in which every question posed is answered. There’s an implicit argument in those books which says that somewhere there exists a series of answers, a perfect conclusion. In large part this is why I tend to write in either the close third or first person. Though I would like to take a shot at a sort of Tolstoyan omniscience, if only to move in and out of the minds of dogs.

Lee: What did you seek to sustain and erase from Joseph’s sentences as you revised?

Maksik: Joey writes sentences that I would not. He can be melodramatic, a bit baroque. He’s earnest and naïve, doesn’t always see the obvious, doesn’t ask certain questions that someone else might, doesn’t answer others. So the trick was trying to reconcile the language of the novel with his particular personality, his ever-shifting moods. On one hand you want to be true to character, but you also don’t want that character, that personality, to subsume the story. Or, more simply, you don’t want him to become so irritating that readers fling the book against a wall. While I was revising, I spent a lot of time searching for that balance.

Lee: Tell me a little about the structure of the novel, its short chapters — the gaping white space — and the way the narrative sways back and forth in time. Is that an intentional way of getting at Joseph’s sense of Tess — ”not as a physical thing, but as a tone, the way all the absent exist within me”?

Maksik: I wanted the structure of the novel to reflect the “structure” of Joey’s mind. The short chunks of text are a way for him to try, quite physically, to make order out of chaos. To convert the disarray of his mind, his history, his present life into self-contained, clearly-bordered objects. So much of the novel deals with his desire, and failure, to turn madness and disorder to symmetrical systems. He is moving so rapidly between the present and assorted pasts, trying so hard to apply a logic to his life, it makes sense to me that he would construct his story this way.

Lee: There are moments when the novel seems to imply something epistolary in its own form — ”Talking to myself. Talking to my parents. To Claire. To you.” Or, much later: “Dear Tess, Dear Mom, Dear Dad, Dear Claire.” Was this sense of address always there in the book?

Maksik: Joey refers to what he’s writing as story, love letter, eulogy, and prayer. It is, in turns, all of these things. The direct address aspect of the novel has been there from the start, but it’s changed significantly from early drafts. It’s far less prominent here and I removed some of the addressees.

Lee: Your last book garnered a good deal of admiration for its sentences — comparisons to the prose of James Salter, and so on. Did you find yourself in pursuit of the so-called “great” sentence in this novel, or something else?

Maksik: Honestly, I’m a little tired of writers talking about sentences. Years ago, under the influence of a certain academic cult and, not knowing what to say, I once told a novelist I admired that I was interested in “language-based novels.” Can you imagine speaking anything stupider, more redundant or hollow? What I meant was that I like to read writers who pay attention to music, to rhythm, who have control and precision, who avoid, at all costs, cliché. Or, more succinctly, I like good writing. But not at the expense, or in place, of unusual, compelling characters and stories. Writers are always saying that they read for language, for the beauty of sentences. Well, maybe so, but I’m never sure what that means exactly. What counts as beautiful? If I’m always noticing the “beauty” of an author’s sentences, then I’m going to stop reading very quickly. I read (and write) to feel, to communicate, to lose myself. Nothing is more irritating than a writer constantly interrupting me to demonstrate just how observant or sensitive he or she is — how the water sparkles, how the dust falls. I say this as someone who has sinned terribly in this regard.

Writers are always saying that they read for language, for the beauty of sentences. Well, maybe so, but I’m never sure what that means exactly. What counts as beautiful?

Lee: There’s perhaps a preoccupation in the book with each person holding different selves within them — with each of us being somehow more than one person, or at least being capable of quick transformation, whether that’s through mental illness or through everyday acts of naming: “Good morning Joe, Joey, Joseph.” What were you interested in exploring here?

Maksik: This goes to your earlier question about living with one’s self. Which is to say, living with one’s selves. It is, of course, a more pronounced problem in someone suffering from bipolar disorder, but it’s hardly one exclusive to the mentally ill. I am certainly not the same person in the morning as I am at night. I am not the same person in one place as I am in another. The woman before a flight is not the same woman after. We are constantly slipping between selves and often those selves are at war with one another. The notion of a single self is as much a fiction as the notion of a reliable narrator, or the possibility of a perfect conclusion. In many ways, nearly every character in this novel is struggling to make peace with her or his many selves. Tess, who you point out is always calling Joey by a different name, is as dramatically split as anyone in the book. Really, I think the central tension of the novel derives from this struggle.

Lee: This is also a novel that’s very aware of its status as fiction, I think. Was that important to you? “These are not the lies I want to tell,” Joseph says at one point, before steering us back in to his version of events, and there’s the great moment when Joseph follows a stranger around, watching his habits, trying to reassure himself of the reality of the man, but becomes aware that he can never climb inside his life, “this man [he’s] spent all day inventing.”

Maksik: I think, to some degree, all novels refer to the act of writing. And that’s particularly true when you’ve got a first-person narrator who is consciously recalling events, and, in Joey’s case, writing those events. In many ways, his struggles — how to tell a story, or many stories, faithfully, honestly — are mine in my role as novelist. I’m always suspicious of meta-fiction — even the term bothers me, the way all jargon bothers me. Still, in this case, I found real pleasure in writing about those struggles. I came to see just how closely aligned the act of writing a novel and the act of recollection can be. Both are hopeless efforts to communicate with the known and unknown, to make some sense of one’s experience in the world. To, in essence, turn experience into fiction.

Lee: Are you a writer who’s interested in exploring different forms of violence in your work? It seems to recur.

Maksik: It took me a long time to realize just how interested in violence I am. I know that sounds like the first line of a serial killer’s memoir. What I mean is that at some point a few years ago, I looked back at all the fiction I’d written and was surprised to discover how much of it dealt with sudden, unexpected and severe violence. I’m not entirely sure why that is, where the preoccupation comes from. Partly, I suppose, because it’s ubiquitous, because it frightens me, because I’m drawn to it. But more than anything, I’m interested in, and repulsed by, the idea that violence so closely corresponds with popular and regressive notions of masculinity and courage. In this book, I wanted to explore and subvert those ideas. Most of the violence in the novel is perpetrated by women. All the roles traditionally played by women are played by men, and vice versa. And as a result, it’s striking the way the novel changes, the way readers’ allegiances and sympathies shift.

It took me a long time to realize just how interested in violence I am. I know that sounds like the first line of a serial killer’s memoir.

Lee: There’s a lot of well-written sex between Joseph and Tess. Why is sex something Joseph obsessively narrates? I thought at one point of a line I like from A Marker to Measure Drift: “Desire focused the mind. It eliminated extraneous thought.” Does that hold any relevance here?

Maksik: I’m not sure I agree with you that his narration of sex is obsessive. Or even that there’s a lot of it. Certainly no more so than his narration of violence, or moments of platonic tenderness.The sex he does describe is fundamental to his longing to understand Tess, and is revealing of their relationship, of his intense attraction to her. She is an aggressive, highly physical and adamantly independent woman. She behaves, both sexually and otherwise, in a manner that is generally — and stupidly — attributed to men. All of this draws Joey to her. I think it’s essential that the reader sees these things — her strength, her power, and the way that Joey responds to it. But it’s also true that in the act of these recollections Joey finds refuge from his present life. It does, momentarily, eliminate extraneous thought.

I can’t understand why so often, even now, perhaps more now, there is so little sex in “literary” fiction. How is it that we’ve become so prudish? Why do writers so often dodge an integral aspect of human relationships? It’s such a missed opportunity and only makes writing fiction more difficult. It’s like writing without the use of verbs. I read those stories in which two people fumble with a set of keys, push each other against an entryway wall and then suddenly the sun is coming up and someone’s bringing someone else a cup of coffee. Why do we so often resort to that weak Hollywood device? Are we afraid that the MPAA is looking over our shoulders just waiting to slap an NC-17 rating on our novels? In a manner of speaking, I think, more than ever, we are.

Jonathan Lee is the author, most recently, of High Dive, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection and a New York Times Editors’ Choice.

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