The Art of Looking into the Near Future
Talking with Courtney Maum about predicting trends, encroaching tech and romantic relationships in the age of AI
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I came to know Courtney Maum’s work not through her 2014 acclaimed debut novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You — that would come later — but with Notes From Mexico, a chapbook put out by The Cupboard Pamphlet the year prior. It came into my life at a time of much upheaval and a fair amount of sundering heartbreak, and it was exactly the kind of medicine I was wanting and willing to take. Which is not to say that the reading experience itself was necessarily palliative; certain sections still make me well up, all these years later. Rather, I felt, when settled within its pages, a kind of benevolent solidarity that I was struggling to find outside of it, and I was — and remain — exceedingly grateful for that.
In the time since, I’ve loved watching Courtney Maum strike gold: first with I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You and now with her second novel, Touch, a book that is both timely and timeless in its consideration of how we navigate human connection in the face of technological advancements which seek, more and more, to blur the line between what we might call artificial and what we might call authentic. Maum is a keen observer of the fraught and polyvalent dynamics that occur at the intersection of the simulated and the actual, the performative and the artless, the meaningful and the meaningless. And of the many remarkable achievements in Touch, paramount is Maum’s persistence in troubling a reader’s impulse to situate those states of being as diametrically opposed. She is a student of the overlap, a scholar of the swirl, and with Touch she has produced a piece of writing which, to borrow and bend Rilke, causes a reader to rethink relationality as something alive.
It was exciting and it was illuminating, talking by phone with Courtney Maum about sensory overload and sensory deprivation, the relationship between technology and vulnerability, smart mattresses, the term “beach read,” and “powerful corporate turduckens,” the name of the band I hope to start with Courtney in the near future.
Vincent Scarpa: In the novel, we have a protagonist, Sloane, who is a trend forecaster; that’s her job title and the work for which she gets paid. But far more than that, that this is her work is extremely character-informing; it calibrates so much of how a reader engages with her from the start: what we think we know, what we expect of her, and so on. I wonder if you could talk about this a bit, and I’m interested — in a chicken-or-egg sort of way — in whether you began with the idea to write Sloane as a trend forecaster, or with the idea to write a trend forecaster who became Sloane.
Courtney Maum: The chicken or egg comparison is such a fun way to remember the writing process. So, the job came first, before the character, but she wasn’t a trend forecaster. In the first versions of this book, she was a stylist. It was a completely different story. I think I like writing fiction so much that I go out of my way to dance around facts. So, a hundred drafts later, I was like, ‘I used to work as a trend forecaster; why am I working so hard to make this girl a stylist when she could be a trend forecaster?’ It’s such an interesting profession. So I followed that, and had to figure out what would be an interesting thing for a trend forecaster to be grappling with. And I thought — well, what if she’s depressed? And so it really became about answering that question: how do you get out of feeling despair about the future as someone who’s paid to get people excited about it?
VS: And in some ways Sloane must see people as solvable, right? She has to probe what might, to the majority, seem enigmatic and inscrutable, and confidently gather from it something like usable information. I was thinking, God that must be really liberating in a sense, but also existentially boring, too, insofar as you can’t be surprised. Your job is to not be surprised. I wonder if you could talk about that a bit, and what that brings to bear on her relationship with her partner, Roman, who’s detached in very specific ways.
CM: I think trend forecasting is very much about distillation and translation. You have to be able to take in all this information and translate it into some sort of nugget you can share with clients to convince them that this thing is — or isn’t — going to happen. I think there’s two levels to it. It can be terrifically exciting to navigate a world in which everything happening around you and every discussion taking place could potentially have a clue in it to what’s coming next in terms of trends. But then you have to consider that a trend forecaster is paid in some sense to be actively listening to and feeling the world — to feel everyone’s feelings — and I saw Sloane as someone who needed a time-out from that; a sensory time-out. So it made sense that she would build a pretty solitary life and shack up with someone who doesn’t believe in human companionship at all. Her personal life is one giant sensory deprivation tank because the rest of her life is so overfilled, and when she gets to a point where she needs to tap into some love and connection, that tank is completely empty, she hasn’t filled it in over a decade.
VS: I really like that idea of ‘the tank’ — the same brain that she uses to solve people, to relate to them, to imagine them, getting exhausted by the end of the day. I was thinking, too, of the idea — I think it’s Buddhist, but who knows — that living in the past is depression and living in the future is anxiety and you’re just supposed to, I don’t know, live in the present moment —
CM: Who the hell wants to live in this present moment?
VS: Oh, fuck, I know. But I was thinking that, for Sloane, her job actually requires her to be occupying all three tenses: she needs to have a working understanding of the past and its implications on the present; she needs to have her finger on the pulse of the present; and she needs to always be extending her imagination into the future. And while she seems capable of that tense-straddling in her work, she can’t manage it in her relationship to Roman. That fundamental misalignment struck me as one of the most compelling elements of the novel. In the drafting process, did you have the sense that their relationship would be such an integral part of the book? You mentioned that you’d written innumerable drafts, so I’m curious how the relationship evolved.
CM: My first novel was so much about relationships; the whole book is about a marriage. So for this one I thought: this is not going to be about a relationship. In the earlier drafts, Sloane’s relationship with Roman didn’t occupy nearly as much space, and I really thought I was getting away with it! Until my agent — who’s a ruthless and brilliant reader — raised a question about why a woman this brilliant and this sensitive would make a choice to be with this guy. And that became another question I had to ask in the drafts that followed. Why would she make the decision to be with Roman? She doesn’t make decisions blindly, so why is she choosing to be with such a loveless person? I don’t know, it really made sense to me. Some of the most creative and successful people I know either have no central love relationship in their life, or they have one that’s almost mechanical. And that’s fine, I don’t want to criticize that. It can really work. Sometimes really intelligent, really busy, really creative people do not have the energy and emotional space to give to a truly loving relationship with all of its ups and downs. And the more I thought about that, the more I started to see why someone like Sloane would choose someone like Roman.
“Some of the most creative and successful people I know either have no central love relationship in their life, or they have one that’s almost mechanical.”
VS: Well, and one of the things that’s most interesting to me — in fiction and in life — is why we so often stay in the presence of that which isn’t nourishing us. I don’t think there’s any answer to it that’s satisfying, or else we might not do it so regularly, but I saw it as one of the questions the novel was — not trying to solve, but trying to state more clearly, to state newly. (Which I think is a poor Chekhov paraphrase.) Which, switching gears just a bit, brings to mind “After God Goes Sex,” an op-ed that Roman writes and which instantly goes viral; a kind of disquisition on what he sees as the end of corporeal sexuality and the beginning of a strictly virtual sexual identity and practice. “As long as human beings are on the planet with their reproductive organs intact, sex will still be available and around,” he writes, “but I for one am taking a sabbatical from penetrative sex.” He defines his audience as, “the ones who find the possibility of human contact more exciting than contact itself.” The temptation here is to reproduce the editorial in its entirety — or, as much of it as appears in the text — because it’s just so wonderfully bizarre and yet so strangely, unequivocally assured and cogent as to be — almost persuasive? I’d love to hear about the process behind crafting it.
CM: I always knew that I wanted to have an excerpt of his op-ed in the book. I didn’t know when it was going to happen, but I hoped his voice would come. I was on book tour for the paperback [of I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You], and I was in North Carolina with two hours to kill before the event and just thought, I’m gonna write that article, and I sat down in my hotel bed and did it and not a single word changed. That happens very rarely for me. I think I always understood Roman as a character, and I was just waiting for the moment to get his voice down on paper. The thing about Roman and the way he looks at life is that it’s a far simpler viewpoint than Sloane’s. She has a very humanistic view of life, and he’s just waiting for the day where A.I. is integrated into our skulls and we become machines. He’s looking forward to it, he has no problem with it. And if you really have no problem with computers and mankind becoming one and merging in that way, if you don’t feel any guilt or existential yearning vis-à-vis your human life versus your digital one, things are more or less simple. It’s harder when — well, when you’re human. That doesn’t sound very erudite, does it?
VS: I think that’s actually a wonderful distillation. And it makes me think of a line that really grabbed me in the beginning, another perfect distillation: “She wanted to believe in a world where all her choices hadn’t been made yet.” That line seemed to say as much about Sloane as Roman’s editorial does about him.
Speaking of computers and mankind becoming one, I wanted to talk a bit about Anastasia, the self-driving, human-like car that Sloane’s employer assigns to her. I really think the way in which the novel utilizes her is brilliant. Because Sloane is so often walled-off in her encounters with Roman at home — the apartment, which we could see as an embodiment of the so-called “personal” lived life — and then so task-oriented and performative at work — the headquarters of Mammoth being an embodiment of the so-called “public” lived life — what better way to make her available to us as a reader — available in ways we wouldn’t otherwise have ingress to — than for the novel to create the conditions whereby her method of travel between those two spheres becomes its own sphere, complete with a kind of phenomenological companion/confessor? (I mean, I admit to being a little stoned while writing marginalia through the course of my reading, but I don’t think my scribbled literal vehicle is also a figurative vehicle! is without its merits.) Did you know in the drafting process that Anastasia would come to function in the novel as this sort of suspending space for Sloane?
CM: Oddly, Anastasia came really late to the narrative. Really late. The book always started with Sloane and Roman arriving in New York, and there were all these drafts where Mammoth sent out this sort of clumsy, incompetent person to meet them. But one day I thought, This is Mammoth. It’s Google, it’s Apple, it’s Amazon, all built into this powerful corporate turducken — they wouldn’t be sending some inept escort, they’d send a driverless car. Then I realized — and you alluded to this — that the car was going to be a witness to her, and it very much saved the book. I was really struggling with how to get access to Sloane. She’s not the kind of person to have a breakdown at work, things are terrible with her life partner, and she’s not going to confide in a new person very easily. And it’s not a first-person narrative! But once I saw and took this opportunity with Anastasia, with this driverless car, a lot opened up. The car’s operating system is devised to be overly polite and always wanting the passenger to be well; meanwhile, she has this passenger who’s completely falling apart, but in a very private way. And so Anastasia serves a kind of maternal function for Sloane, and I don’t think that’s too far-fetched, either; this technology isn’t very far out. Tech companies are very invested in making the ‘personal assistant’ more human — emotional complexity is the holy grail. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have to guess that senior citizens living alone will soon have mattresses with smart technology that monitors their heart rate and reports back to their doctor, and they’ll end up leaving everything in their estate to, like, their carpet.
VS: I admired that the novel doesn’t judge that relationship between Sloane and Anastasia as inauthentic or invalid, either. I feel like another writer might have been tempted toward that kind of criticism.
CM: It was important to me that there be some represented form of technology that was nothing but positive. I didn’t want the book to come off in any way as implying that all technology is terrible. Of course it isn’t, and in any case it’s the humans that make things terrible. Is Facebook awful? No. Is the way people have started to use it awful? Yes. Anastasia is kind of a shout-out to the tech community; an acknowledgement that they have done and continue to do some beautiful things that are positively shaping the way we live our lives. Did you see that movie Her?
VS: Amy Adams is in it, so, yes, yes I have.
CM: I actively didn’t want that kind of viewpoint of, like, I’m completely obsessed with the perfect personal assistant and I can only live with her and I can’t live with anyone else and my only joy is virtual joy. Because of course you can be a good human and still use your smart phone, so long as you’re in control of the way you use it.
VS: I found that movie completely insufferable, but I’ll watch Amy Adams in anything.
CM: I watched it for the filter; it was like the whole thing was filmed in Ludwig or Perpetua or whatever. And I thought, Oh, this is pretty and everything, but get out of your house! You’re never gonna have sex with this woman!
“In any case it’s the humans that make things terrible. Is Facebook awful? No. Is the way people have started to use it awful? Yes.”
VS: I was really interested, while reading the press kit, by what you wrote vis-à-vis the challenge of writing a book that is at least in part about prognostication; prognostications which, while the novel is being written and then while it’s in the interim between completion and publication, might already be coming and going. You say, “I really had to gallop my way across the finish line with this book — I started it nearly three years ago, and so many of the things I wrote about are already coming true.” This strikes me as a unique, singular difficulty to consider while writing a novel, a process which is already — at least, for me and a lot of the people I know — almost unbearably punishing. I wonder if you could talk a bit more about that galloping; was it perhaps even useful, mobilizing, knowing that the content you were producing had the possibility of dating itself, or losing its sense of prescience, by sheer virtue of the time between writing it down and it being read?
CM: It was definitely stressful. The first drafts were way, way more detailed about very specific predictions, and I could see that some of the things I was writing about — professionalization of affection, professional huggers, things like that — were probably going to come to pass. In trying to compose a book about things that are happening in the near future, I had to lose some ego, and I think the book is better for that. Because ultimately it pushed me to build a stronger story around Sloane and her interpersonal struggles, rather than showing off and saying, Hey, I was a trend forecaster and I’m putting my hat back on and here’s everything that I think is going to happen! Once I started letting go of the clever bits and the show-off bits, the work became more rewarding. It also became more difficult, because it turns out it’s actually harder to focus on your characters than the magic tricks they’re doing.
VS: Okay, so, I was waffling back and forth about this final question, but I think I’ve found the way I want to frame it and what I want to ask. It has to do with the term “beach read.” I’m genuinely interested in what that phrase is meant to serve as a signifier of and what’s behind the impulse to use it. It’s possible that my feelings about it — which I guess you could classify as, I don’t know, suspicious confusion — could have everything to do with the fact that I just fucking hate going to the beach, and on those occasions where I’ve been sequestered and forced into a beach setting it’s way too bright for me to read the pages of any book, be it a “beach read” or not. But I tend to think there’s more to it. I mean, I suppose I understand that, when it’s used to describe a novel, “beach read” is an endorsement of that novel as being, you know, riveting, absorbing, a “page-turner,” — another phrase I hate! But it also seems like “beach read” can suggest a kind of noncomplexity to the work; as in, This novel isn’t so demanding of your critical engagement that you can’t read it at the beach. Maybe it holds both connotations in the bowl. Maybe more than anything else it has to do with marketing, a field about which I know nothing. But it definitely feels like a highly gendered construction — though maybe it’s not my place to hypothesize that — and seeing as both I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You and early praise for Touch have made use of that language, I’d be so curious to hear your thoughts on it. (And my god I’m longwinded, I’m sorry.)
CM: Oh, I think this is a great question; I’m glad you decided to ask it. So, when my first book came out, I was very lucky in that I did have great coverage. There were a lot of reviews or round-ups in women’s glossies that said, you know, “One of the best beach reads of the summer.” And then I was having these reviews in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. There seemed to be this question of, Wait, is it literary? Is it commercial? Can it be both? Is it possible for a book to be enjoyable, accessible, and also trying to say something? And for a little while I wondered, What am I? Am I commercial? Am I the “beach read” writer? I was asking myself those questions, and then I just decided not to care. The honest truth is, when you’re behind the scenes, “beach read” usually means “it’s selling.” It means that it’s a salable book. So, go ahead and call it a beach read! Call it that publicly! I’m thrilled to have people say that my books are good beach reads, because that probably means people are going to buy them and bring them to the beach. It’s fantastic. I also think that I’m writing sincere satires that — whether or not you’re tricked into doing so — I’m hoping will make you think. If someone buys my book thinking it’s an easy, breezy read and that’s how they experience it, that’s fine. If someone buys it thinking it’s an easy, breezy read and then finds themselves reevaluating their own marriage or the ways in which they’re dependent on their smart phone, then my personal agenda will have been fulfilled, but I don’t need that to be the case. I’d prefer “smart beach read,” but whatever, I’m thrilled, I’ll take it.
The thing about — and not that you asked me this! — but the thing about the question of am I comfortable or uncomfortable with potentially becoming a writer under the label of “commercial” or “beach read” — I think what that question really is is, “Are you worried that your friends in the literary community are going to turn against you because you’ve ‘sold out,’ or your work isn’t ‘indie’ or ‘cool’?” First of all, I’m proud of what I’m writing, and second of all, I’m putting food on the table, so I’m at peace with it. For now!