Courtney Maum is the author of the novels Costalegre, Touch, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, and the handbook Before and After the Book Deal: A writer’s guide to finishing, publishing, promoting, and surviving your first book, forthcoming from Catapult. Her writing has been widely published in such outlets as BuzzFeed, New York Times, O, Oprah Magazine, and Poets & Writers. She is the founder of the learning collaborative, The Cabins, and she also runs a service called “The Query Doula” where she helps writers prepare their manuscripts and query letters for an agent’s eyes.
“Breezy Severity,” an interview with Courtney Maum
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Alex Tallant. Of the process, she says, “Courtney Maum was so lovely to interview. Her novel COSTALEGRE encapsulates such a moving story about a young girl struggling to earn the love and attention of her mother, inspired by the fascinating heiress Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter Pegeen.” In this interview Courtney Maum talks about the need to feel free, writing a compelling villain, and being a mother.
Superstition Review: What was your process like when deciding to write from a young teenager’s perspective, especially in the diary format that Costalegre employs?
Courtney Maum: It took me a while to get it right. Because I’ve never managed to do it well, I originally envisaged COSTALEGRE as a novel in the close third person from multiple narrators’ points of view. I really love voice-driven, first-person work—that’s where I feel the most comfortable and free as a writer, but I was trying to challenge myself by writing in a way I wasn’t versed in. Those early drafts weren’t good. Plus, the whole impetus for the book was that I wanted to hear a voice that history had never heard, the voice of the only daughter of the art collector, Peggy Guggenheim. So why was I trying to erase this young woman even further by crowding her story with other people’s? That’s when I decided to get as close as I could to my protagonist, by writing in a diary format.
One thing I did to prepare for this book was revisit my own teenage diaries. My gut told me that a 15 year-old wouldn’t be filling her diary with only heavy details about the coming war and about how terrible her mother was, and in my own writing, that suspicion was confirmed. Of course, I’m not a Guggenheim and I wasn’t alive in 1937, but still, I found in my own diaries that I would write a line like “My parents got divorced,” and then I wouldn’t go into the significance of that or my feelings about it, I would pivot and talk about something superficial like what boy I had a crush on and whether or not he liked me back. I tried to replicate this kind of breezy severity with Lara’s writing: she will introduce something serious, and then walk away from it—textually—until she is so tired of fighting against the ugly truth that she confronts it in her diary.
SR: The push-pull relationship that Lara has with her mother evokes such intimate feelings that accompany strained mother-child relationships like theirs; how did you go about writing this from Lara’s perspective, and what did you hope to convey?
CM: Someone who actually knew Peggy Guggenheim wrote me recently and said that they thought I was too easy on Peggy, that it was worse than that in real life, the relationship between Peggy and Pegeen. But I’ve had enough manuscripts fail by this point to realize that nobody wants to read a book where the villain is always the villain and the angel is the angel. It is much more compelling—and moving, ultimately—to see a mother who gives her daughter glimmers of hope, the slightest hint that she is capable of change, capable of loving her—than a mother who is consistently neglectful, consistently unavailable. I wanted the reader to feel what emotional abuse looks and sounds like, and I also wanted the reader to understand how someone could keep holding out for the person who was doing them emotional harm. And finally, I didn’t want Peggy to be a villainess—I wanted the reader to have some sympathy for this woman who ends up being a pretty good parent to the artists she sponsors and a pretty rotten parent to her child.
SR: In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, you stated that it was hard to write about the character of Leonara, based on Peggy Guggenheim, because you related to both her and her daughter Lara. You also said that being a mother yourself, it’s scary realizing your influence over your children’s “emotional and physical trajectories.” Did the process of writing these characters affect how you view parenting or mother-child relationships?
CM: Yes, I think it did. I’m trying to be more present with my daughter. Before writing COSTALEGRE, I used to think that if I had work I hadn’t finished by the time that my daughter returned from school, that it was enough to be in the same room with her while I was working to show her that I cared, that mommy had stuff to do, but that I wanted to be near her. Now, I try—try being the key word—to do my work in my office and to be available to her when I am with her, or, failing that, to involve her in whatever task I’m doing. I’m taking Spanish lessons, for example, so I’ll show my daughter what my homework is; we’ll review vocabulary together. When it is time to make dinner, I involve her in the cooking. She’s six years old, to put all of this in perspective. I’m trying to give her a healthy outlook on what it means to be a hardworking female professional: that it is okay that mommy can’t always drop everything to be there for her, that it is okay—and even aspirational—to have professional obligations, that it is okay not to be able to do everything. But I always want her to know that she is seen and loved.
SR: Going off of that, did writing this book make you (re)consider the difficulties of finding a balance between being a mother and retaining your own passions?
CM: Definitely. I think the above question speaks to this, but I’ve come out of this realizing that I would be in a really tricky situation if it wasn’t for my husband. He does the bulk of the parenting, he’s far more patient than I am. If I didn’t have a partner in parenting, I would be faced with some tough challenges. I’d either have to sacrifice in my work load, or find a way to pay for extra childcare, which would probably mean working more, not less. There is a myth out there that woman “can have it all,” but that just isn’t true. There will always be aspects of your life—your friendships, your family relations, the state of your house or apartment, the healthiness and appeal of the food you’re eating, your professional obligations, your health and fitness—that will be souring from neglect. I think that’s fine. Once you accept that that is the case, it’s fine. It’s very freeing. I have priorities, and I stick to them. All the other stuff can wither until I have time to tend to those things again.
SR: On page 92 Lara states, “Things can feel like that in Costalegre, real and invented at the same time,” which is similar to what you said at the beginning of your author’s note: “Costalegre is a book where fact and fiction tussle.” How did you reconcile the facts you wanted to include with the fiction you wanted to create in the novel?
CM: It was important to me that I felt free with this project. I had a certain atmosphere that I wanted to create, a certain sense of foreboding that I knew I couldn’t accomplish if I felt beholden to exact facts. I wanted the facts of what had happened during this period to be inspirational, not a weight. To that end, I changed the names of almost all of the artists and writers in the book and moved them from what would have been New York City to the jungles of Mexico in 1937, instead of 1941, which is when the exodus of surrealists from Europe actually occurred. Fictionalizing the story was also a mark of respect for the characters: what do I know of what Peggy Guggenheim was really like? Or Max Ernst? Or Leonora Carrington? All I had was facts to go off of, research, and that didn’t feel like a passport to inhabit these characters completely, or to pretend that I knew them. Additionally, there were just too many interesting people involved in the real story, I couldn’t fit them all in the Mexican house. It proved more interesting for me—as the writer, and for the narrative, as well—to put a little bit of this person and that one into my fictionalization of the real people in the book. I think that approach enhanced the sense of disorientation that I was going for. I didn’t want people to be able to point to this or that character and be able to identify them easily. I wanted people to feel a little confused.
SR: You told BOMB Magazine that “It was a magic time” when you were writing Costalegre, because you were able to work on “something deeply private.” Can you talk a little more about this and how it compared to when you wrote your first two novels?
CM: With my first book, I was revising an old manuscript with my agent with the goal of selling it to a Big Five publisher. To that end, my agent, Rebecca Gradinger, was all-hands-on-deck during the revision. She checked in with me frequently, was reading pages, we talked about my progress (and difficulties making progress) every week. I sold my second novel, TOUCH, on a partial manuscript: my first editor bought it based off the promise of three chapters. So although that early sale put advance money in my account, I also had a deadline. I had someone looking over my shoulder, watching the writing take shape. With COSTALEGRE, no one knew what I was doing. I didn’t even tell my agent. I didn’t try to sell the manuscript before it was done, and I recognized that I was writing something that would probably go to an independent publisher, thus incurring a significantly smaller advance than my first two books. I felt free. This isn’t to say that I didn’t value and/or need the support I got for my [first] two books—that support is the very reason I was able to write the third. It’s just that I needed to be alone again in order to write it, alone editorially and financially.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
CM: In my head, or architecturally? I like to write somewhere elevated—I don’t like to write on the first floor of a building, maybe it has to do with being in a position where I can observe things in a wider manner, or with not being seen. I live in a house, and I have an office in the corner of our bedroom on the second floor. We have a big bay window overlooking the woods and a pond, so I have a really beautiful view. I have nothing on my walls. I like writing in a room that has white walls. There isn’t anything in front of me but the window and the view.
Mentally, what my writing space looks like is a list. I’ll usually have maybe three things I want to accomplish on any given day. I’ll start with the first thing, and I’ll disappear inside it. I have a lot of discipline. I’ll just get down to the task and try to get it done. That being said, I value quality over quantity. I reward myself for good work, you know? If I write really well for two hours, I’ll take the afternoon off and do something fun, and if I’m in a funk or something, I’ll forgive myself. There’s no point in my sitting at my desk and forcing myself to sit there for 6 hours if my mind is cloudy: maybe that is my mind’s way of telling me that I should get out in the world, have a conversation with a real person, take a walk, or something. But when the focus is there—which usually means that I know what I am trying to do with a story or an article—then I can disappear inside the writing, which is an irreplaceable feeling.