Courtney Maum - Part travelogue, part eulogy—a marriage ending within and somehow beyond the narrator’s control. Danger lurks in the taut language, the refreshingly strange observations, the poignantly tippy searching
Courtney Maum, Notes from Mexico, The Cupboard, 2013.
Winner of The Cupboard’s 2012 Annual Contest, Courtney Maum’s Notes from Mexico is part travelogue, part eulogy—a marriage ending within and somehow beyond the narrator’s control. She has come, for a time, to Mexico. A Mexico where the men are lithe prowling creatures and the women are “yellow willows of sequin spank and clatter.”
Told in 21 brief chapters, Notes from Mexico is a book, as judge Maud Casey says, that’s “wickedly funny but never rests on its cleverness. Instead, the wry sensibility walks a razor’s edge; danger lurks in the taut language, the refreshingly strange observations, the poignantly tippy searching. Like the songwriter Dory Previn, about whom the narrator says, ‘no one gave enough respect,’ this story has an eye for the unsettling, resonant detail and the winning oddness of the world, as well as a lovely, fresh agility when it comes to wrangling with behemoths like marriage and having, or not having, children. Most of all, the pleasure here is in the fleetness of this voice and its deft ability to reside in, and to illuminate, uncertainty, for which its author deserves an enormous amount of respect.”
About the Author
Courtney Maum writes humor columns for Electric Literature, Tin House, and Barrelhouse, and frequently publishes fiction and non-fiction in other magazines. She has a novel called John Mayer Reviews Things which hasn’t found an editor yet, but maybe by the time you read this, it will have. You can find some of Courtney’s writing at courtneymaum.tumblr.com or follow her on Twitter @cmaum.
Excerpts from Notes from Mexico
My second morning is difficult. After breakfast, Mirabelle asks me if I will come on a swim with her. I say I need to stay in and write. She looks at the white seat cushion underneath me. The navy blue iguana crawling up the patio wall. But what will you do, she asks.
That afternoon, Mirabelle comes back to the house very excited. Her friend Pauline’s late husband worked for the famous publishing house Gallimard. Do I know Gallimard? She had forgotten all about this. What’s more, Pauline lives in a casita above the writer Alice Walker. Have you heard of Alice Walker, Mirabelle asks?
This is awful news about Alice Walker. If my husband were here, I would say, Can you believe this fucking news? I imagine her underneath a palm tree, writing something forceful, holding her hand up to block the glint from her Pulitzer Prize. She uses the medal as a mobile to keep the birds out of her garden. It is gold and swinging. It is hanging from a frond.
On my way down to the beach one afternoon, I come upon a scent that reminds me of a lover I’ve never actually had. It’s musky. Vetiver. As rich as a poem. I stop in my tracks, drunk with images of white starched dress shirts and yellow bars of soap.
I feel suddenly sure of it—if a masked man appeared on a horse that very moment, and if he managed his horse with élan, and if he were wearing not a cape, but a weathered dress shirt and was seated on a western saddle atop a patterned saddle blanket in a lively combination of red and black and mustard, and if the masked man said, Come with me, escape this, I would have leapt up and put my hands on the horse’s withers and leaned into whatever lay beyond the tennis courts.
No masked man comes for me. I go to the beach with my weathered yellow legal pad and find sand in the canister of my ballpoint pen.
Courtney Maum: The Ballad of the Single Leg Air DancerIt is one thing to be unemployed, another to be useless. We all come to life with a raison d’être: mine was to communicate a tremendous sale—the type of opportunity you had to pull your car over to investigate. I have heralded the opening of restaurants and nail salons; New Years resolution specials at fitness clubs; back-to-back services at a Megachurch. My life has been a long one, I’ve spent most of it inflated. Who knows how many used vehicles are on Interstate 10 because of me.
And not just me—my dancing. With fan, I stand 16ft tall, with an electric green shock of hair on my head like a sprouting potato. Are you surprised to hear me speak of a potato? You’ve never imagined what my life is like, up until this point, have you? It’s alright, I’m not offended. More than anything, it means that I’ve been doing my job, directing you away from the grandeur of my frame with an arresting gesture to a sea of motor vehicles. To a possible new you.
You’d be surprised, however, to hear about my training. When I was a young inflatable bag in Portugal, my parents assumed I would follow my father into the business of balloon art. But I had that something special that made children turn to catch one last glimpse of me as their mothers tugged them through the crowded markets. My balloon poodle wasn’t just a poodle, it was acarnivore. Grace, flexibility, presence. The artistic director at the Lisbon school for inflatable performance said I had it all. I came to Santa Monica on a competitive international scholarship underwritten by Goodyear. You should know these things about me. We could be here a long time.
Without a doubt, my favorite period was the nineteen nineties. I recognize a lot of you from back then—the cold-air inflatable blue Gorilla over there, deflated in the corner? We worked the Sacramento Boat Show together in 1999.
Things got bad when I was permanently branded with the word “smoothies” on my torso. After you’ve worked for the heavies—the Chevrolets, the Costcos, the Raymour & Flanigans of the world—I can tell you it takes a swig of pride to air dance in front of a Planet Smoothie. And then the car lots started closing. I couldn’t even work the going out of business sales because of this word, “smoothies.” Things got really tough for me. I had to work the gay tea dance circuit along Venice Beach. Those were not bright times.
If you’d told me ten years ago that I, an internationally trained air dancer from Madeira, was going to end up in a storage center with a truck load of defunct advertising inflatables, no, I wouldn’t have seen it coming. But here’s the thing, unlike some of you, I still have air inside of me. Certainly, my career possibilities were diminished when that idiot assistant manager send me to P’Zazz Inc. to be branded with “SMOOTHIES” in Comic Sans, but recessions aren’t permanent. The Americans, they know this. And if I know Americans—and after two decades of celebrating their fortune with my fingerless hands, after bending and undulating and coming perilously close to the cemented ground only to SNAP back up to professional attention, I like to think I do—they’ll want not only to drink, but also to drive.
I’m certain of it: out there at this very moment there’s an intrepid capitalist who will hone in on the Americans’ love for cold beverages and cars. He will sketch out a business plan: a used-car lot with smoothies. He will need an inflatable air dancer to summon the humans. My name will be called.
I am not long for this dark storage center, brothers. He is my ticket back.
In the past few months, I’ve had the good fortune to encounter several compelling stories of travel, each of which happened to be released in the form of a chapbook. Specifically, Courtney Maum’s Notes From Mexico, Bart Schaneman’s Trans-Siberian, and Aaron Gilbreath’s A Secondary Landscape (about a road trip down the West Coast) all impressed me greatly — which is how I came to reach out to all three writers about discussing chapbooks, narratives of exploration, and much more.
Each of you has recently released a chapbook focusing on some sort of travel or journey. What made the chapbook your preferred format for this particular narrative?
Courtney Maum: I wrote about sixteen drafts of this story: some were short, some were long, each draft was very different. But for a long time (eeek, three years I think?) my “preferred format” was a Word doc buried on my laptop’s unorganized desktop. When I finally (finally!) got the story into shape, I sent it to a contest sponsored by a literary magazine I admired called “The Cupboard” that publishes four stories a year in little book formats. I couldn’t quite believe it after struggling for so long with the story, but I won the contest, and thus got to see “Notes From Mexico” in book format. It’s a strange tale and I do think that it would have been a bit off-kilter alongside other work in a more traditional literary magazine, so I’m very happy that it’s allowed to simmer in its atmospheric strangeness, all alone, in its own book.
Aaron Gilbreath: Although I love the chapbook format, I hadn’t planned on publishing my essay this way. I sent it to literary magazines first, then Kevin Sampsell, publisher at Future Tense and an essayist himself, approached me when he was launching a new chapbook series. He asked if I had any essays that hadn’t appeared elsewhere, preferably something long enough to fill a small book. Fortunately, Kevin liked the essay that we later renamed “A Secondary Landscape,” and the piece happened to be the ideal length for the thirty-two page format. That’s what I love about the prose chapbook: you can read it all in one sitting, get fully engrossed in a single story, a single movement, and resurface. They’re self-contained; you can fit them in your shirt pocket, palm them in your hand. And they’re egalitarian: inexpensive enough that writers of all stripes — especially poets, who have a harder time swimming those commercial publishing channels — can produce them. I’m excited to have a chapbook as my first book.
Bart Schaneman: ”Trans-Siberian” is part of a larger narrative. As I wait to find the right publisher for the full-length book, I wanted to put out something that would generate interest in the bigger project. The two months I spent in China, Mongolia, and Russia worked as a story that would stand on its own, so it seemed like a natural fit for a chapbook/novella/zine. I’m always trying to get work out, whether it be essays, journalism, short stories, poems, or work on my blog. Full-length book work is my priority, but waiting a year or more to give my readers new work is too long of a quiet period. People have short attention spans. And Aaron’s exactly right: People can read my book from start to finish in one sitting. That’s great. With so many competing forms of entertainment out there, I’m honored when someone takes the time to start one of my books. But when they tell me they read it all in one shot, that’s far better. That’s motivation to keep going.
Aaron Gilbreath: Bart’s strategy about using selections from a larger book as a way to generate interest is an appealing one. If people like what they read and want to read more, they’ll probably buy the full book when it comes out. Fans of serial HBO shows know that we want stories to keep going. That’s part of the logic of why bands seed tracks to music blogs: to create interest in the album. Because we’re in a time of media transformation, though, where traditional book publishers and magazines are trying to figure out ways to monetize in the filesharing, read-it-online era, I think a lot of traditional publishers are afraid of giving too much away for free. Part of the logic: if we give a bit a way for free, won’t readers grow to expect everything for free? Time will tell. Probably not, though. This is America. We’re ruled by commerce and materialism. We’re used to paying for things. As eBooks, chapbooks and paperbacks prove: it’s not that we don’t want to pay, it’s that we just want to pay a lower price than a $25.95 hardcover. I never thought much about it until recently, but chapbooks embody this approach.
Courtney Maum: Regarding the question one thread below, I couldn’t agree more. We all know how hard it is to get a short story collection published in the traditional sense. Maybe if the stories were published serially — you pre-pay for the whole collection and then the individual stories are sent out once a week- perhaps this would romanticize the format somewhat, or at least provide incentive for readers plagued by short attention spans.
When writing about a particular place, how do you find a balance between evoking a place and keeping that sense of place from overpowering your narrative? And when thinking of a place, were you relying entirely on memories, or did you need to do research in order to hone certain details?
Bart Schaneman: I’ll answer this from the back to the front. I was taking notes the entire time I was on the Trans-Siberian. One of the great things about rendering a true experience is that your material is right before your eyes. You’re not in a library or on Wikipedia looking at pictures of the place you’re trying to describe. You can see it, smell it, hear it. (It’s easy to find time to write about Siberia when you’re stuck in a train for 5 days looking out the window.) When I went to write the narrative, I had pages of real-time sketches I could mine.
About the first part of the question: my favorite kind of writing is place-centric writing. Willa Cather, Faulkner, McCarthy, McCullers–if we read to escape, and I do, then the place needs to be a major part of the work. The first novel I wrote was about a place as much as it was about the people. People are their places. Our environments have a large role to play in forming us. Our sense of space, of nature, of beauty, of other people. Of course, when I’m writing, I’m trying to keep a character in every sentence, but every now and again I’ll allow myself a paragraph or two of scene description. I can’t draw. Or paint. But at least with a few sentences I can open up the reader’s imagination and show them the world I see my characters living in.
Aaron Gilbreath: Mark Twain said “All writing is travel writing.” I’m not sure the context in which he said that, but I agree in the simplest sense: narratives move. They involve characters on a journey, if not along an action-packed plot or highway, then from ignorance to a revelation. No matter where a story takes place, characters should be moving toward something, be it growth or awareness, or a decision to resist growth and stay put. I don’t really have a specific method for keeping place from overpowering narrative — I twist the knobs and levels differently piece to piece — but I want characters to drive the story. I like stories where people take precedence over places or ideas. It’s similar to what the author Jane Jacobs advocated in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. For her, great cities were great because of their inhabitants. She advocated for dense, walkable, socially diverse neighborhoods, not to protect the buildings, subways or streets, but for the benefit of the residents who used them. I feel the same about setting: although place often functions as a character, it’s always secondary to the human beings populating the story.
As for memory versus reporting, you can’t go on memory alone. You have to check it against something. Narrative nonfiction writers know that eyewitness accounts are as unreliable as our own memories, so even though we’re striving for compelling, poetic prose, we should also strive for accuracy. Otherwise we bend the meaning of ‘nonfiction’ so much the genre begs for a broader taxonomy. Although the issue of accuracy comes up around things like dialogue recreated from memory, if you don’t take as good of notes as Bart and other writers do on site, you have to check. I love the image of Bart recording his surroundings and experiences as they happen, especially on a train. I’m an obsessive note-taker myself, so I’m biased. To fact-check and expand location details, we can use Google Earth and street level imagery, use books, ask friends, scan photos. You can call people in the area and ask them questions, be it a convenience store salesclerk at a rural crossroads or your uncle who lives near the place you’re writing about. When I can, I visit the location myself. It’s great having a reason to leave the computer and get into the world.
Courtney Maum: I have to say, I don’t really think about maintaining this balance when I write. When I first started writing short stories, I was drafting these tomes I felt so good about and serious about while writing them, until I re-read them and realized that the protagonist never left the house and that all the action was taking place inside his or her head. Riveting stuff! Having a strong sense of place has helped me get my characters out of the damn house. In terms of process, whenever I’m able to, I try to write in the place I’m writing about. For example, I recently “method wrote” a novel, by which I mean that I wrote each chapter in the actual place where the scene is happening, a challenge that took me from the deserts of Joshua Tree to the karaoke strip clubs of Portland, Oregon. If I’m writing about a place I’ve never been to, I do extensive research online, with maps, on forums, and by interviewing actual residents so that the descriptions — hopefully — will resonate as legit.
Aaron Gilbreath: They’re both challenging in their own ways. A yearning to travel often powers my writing about places I’ve never been, but a lack of personal experience creates certain obstacles. And although writing about familiar places is easier on one front, that familiarity can mean you take it for granted and flub details. You don’t want to get too cocky: Ah, I know this place, I grew up there, been there a thousand times. It’s too easy to mistake familiarity with accuracy.
Courtney Maum: The challenges are different, but I do love the specific challenge of writing about a place I’ve never been to. We’re so lucky now, with tools like Google Maps or Yelp, we can really do some interesting research on places we might not otherwise ever go to — like a specific Applebee’s in a specific, small town. What makes it interesting? What makes it different? What would our character notice? Not only has the internet made it possible for me to not have to go to Applebee’s, but for those of us who don’t have a travel budget, it’s opened up the possibility of places we can go to without leaving our beat-up chairs.
Aaron Gilbreath: I support Applebee’s blocking technology.
Bart Schaneman: I’ve never written about a place I haven’t been. Maybe I’m too prudish, or too tentative, but I’d be worried about getting it wrong. Aaron’s right that if you’re too familiar with a place, it’s easy to miss details that someone who hasn’t been there might find interesting. But I’d still rather err on the side of familiarity. I set almost all of my fiction in the Midwest because I know the names of the trees and the birds and what causes the shifts in the weather.
For that reason, a place like Siberia was easier to write about — the landscape doesn’t vary much, at least from the train, and a lot of the flora and fauna is similar to that of America — but I saw things in China I’ve never seen before and didn’t have the words for. I took pictures, but I couldn’t accurately describe what I saw.
Bart’s already addressed this somewhat, but I’m curious: who, for all of you, are the writers who best convey a sense of place? Are there specific lessons you’ve learned from studying their work?
Bart Schaneman: Right, as I mentioned before, Cather, Faulkner, McCarthy and McCullers are all big place-writers for me. Authors who write/wrote about specific places well enough that you associate them with their regions. Another contemporary writer, Kent Haruf, is also very good at place. He writes about small town, Northeastern Colorado.
For a while there, I thought “regional writer” was a disparaging term. Reductive, somehow. But I don’t think that anymore. I’d be honored to be known for giving voice to a certain part of the world.
As for the second part of the question, with Faulkner you really get the sense that he studied the landscape and the plants and animals. You can smell the jasmine. You can see the decaying plantation houses. Simply knowing the proper names of the things in your characters’ surroundings gives the writer a sense of authority. And we all want to make the reader feel like she is in good hands.
Courtney Maum: I would say Deb Olin Unferth, Jim Shepard, Martin Amis, A.M Homes and the poet, Arda Collins. Jim Shepard captures the sense of place(s) of adolescence; dank bedrooms, stuffy classrooms. I mean, sometimes his prose actually smells like gym socks and sweaty t-shirts in the best possible way. Deb Olin Unferth and Arda Collins manage to convey a sense of place that is both intensely strange and almost unbearably beautiful. A.M Homes does LA weirdness like no one else, and even though Martin Amis’s prose is sometimes dense or unwieldy, his books always leave me with very specific land and cityscapes in my mind. In terms of lessons I’d say yes, these writers have taught me that I can always do better than I currently am doing and to keep on reading.
Aaron Gilbreath: As an aspiring writer in my early twenties, Ed Abbey was my first role model. He wrote fiction and nonfiction about nature and people. It was smart, funny, opinionated and confrontational. My young self loved his righteous provocations. I also loved that he wrote about my native Arizona. Back then I was trying so hard to capture the essence of life in my cactus-covered homeland — what it meant, how it felt — and here was this person doing it right down the street. His work showed me that, with enough effort, I could improve my writing, and he showed me that writing about places and ideas weren’t enough. You had to populate them.
After that, I read more widely and found models all over: George Singleton, Charles Portis, Flannery O’Connor, Larry Brown. Like so many nonfiction writers, Joseph Mitchell is one of my gods, but so is Calvin Trillin. Peter Hessler writes incredibly well about China, Dorothy Allison about life in the South, Gerald Haslam and poet Larry Levis about California’s San Joaquin Valley.
My reading and wanderlust go through seasonally shifting geographical phases. One month I’ll crave Los Angeles, the next month crave New York, then dream of London and Seoul and Australia. This happens every year. To indulge this cyclical hunger, I search for books about particular places, and in the process I’ve discovered writing that’s deeply influenced me: Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, Joan Didion’s Play As It Lays, Sandra Tsing Loh’s Depth Takes a Holiday, Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust. Along with a few of John Fante’s novels, these remain some of my all-time favorite works about a place, and they’re all LA books. Fante’s novels capture a dusty, desolate, desperate old downtown Los Angeles that I never tire of, a lost world that feels as bustling and shady as it does isolated and blinding, electrified by want more than palm trees and sunshine. Another enduring influence is the movie Repo Man.
Courtney Maum: I forgot to mention Robert Stone. Robert Stone! A bunch of desert dust and the scent of dried-up limes comes at you when you crack open one of his books.
Thanks again to all of you for taking part in this. I wanted to bring this discussion to a close with one last question. You’ve all spoken about longer projects in the works, and I’m wondering — has the experience of doing these particular projects had any effect on your future projects?
Bart Schaneman: For me, because I was using this shorter book to generate interest for my longer book, doing it this way helped to hone my sense of how to market my own work. It’s important to know how you’re going to sell your books once you’ve given up on going the traditional publishing route, which I did years ago. I wrote a good first novel and wasted way too much time that I should have been using to write trying to find a publisher. I’ll never do that again. The important thing is the writing. Of course, I wish I had the resources and the reach of a big publishing house behind my books to get them to more readers, but I have limited time. I like to live. I like to write. And I have to work. I wish I had more time to find an agent or a publisher, but writing is a perishable skill. If you don’t do it every day you weaken your ability. Spending days of writing time sending out query letters and sample chapters and synopses — especially when every agent and publishing company has specific requirements, requirements they’re really fussy about and want you to waste a lot of time catering to (our submission requirements are a double-spaced manuscript with no page number on the first page, the first 5 pages, a 3-page synopsis, an author bio; our submission requirements are a single-spaced manuscript with a page number on the first page, the first 17 pages, a 5-page synopsis, no author bio: our submission requirements are a triple-spaced manuscript with page numbers on the bottom, the last 64 pages, a 300-page synopsis, a complete autobiography, etc, etc.) Until you’ve wasted so much time with this nonsense that your work languishes. I’d rather self-publish a hundred novellas than spend my days jumping through different-sized hoops.
Aaron Gilbreath: The main lesson my chapbook has taught me about current projects is: find the format that fits your story, not the other way around. Just because many of us dream of publishing a book that provides a nice advance, not every story is suitable for the for-profit enterprise of commercial publishing. It’s a business. Some of our prose is too experimental for that outlet. Some of us write black sheep forms like the essay. I think of it the way I think of individual pieces. Some things you write are essays, some are articles, and some of the ones you thought were articles turn out to be short blog posts. The same goes for book projects. Some stories are chapbooks. Some are longform lit mag pieces. Others are books to send to trade publishers, and others are eBooks. Not every long narrative is a potential trade paperback to give your agent. Sometimes it’s best to go indie — not to be forced to, but to want to. Independent presses and relatively obscure literary magazines foster some of our country’s best writing, hands down, and writers should try to match our story to the venue. Sometimes self-publishing is ideal, like with essay collections or collections of music writing, two forms that trade publishers often turn away. Otherwise, just post your story on your blog, or find some great, innovative online magazines to serialize it for you. I want to be as creative in publishing as we try to be in our writing, and always, always think of readers first. Give people something to enjoy or something stirring, rather than something that gratifies your ego or validates you as a writer. I want a paycheck. Insurance would be nice, too. But most of all, I want to provide people good reading material, because that’s what I love, too.
I agree with Bart that the important thing is the writing. We have to make the text the best we can. That takes time. But if we want our stories to move hearts and expand minds, we have to spend a lot of time on the publishing end, too. Publishing is the bridge between reader and writer, so it’s important and inevitable that we exert a lot of energy on that. I know what Bart’s saying about the frustrations of time spent searching for a publisher we never find, and formatting manuscripts for agents that never even respond to decline. Life isn’t long enough to spend so much time pissing into the wind. But I still think it’s necessary to think of which of our many options fits our project. If you believe your novel is solid, you should spend some time pursuing an agent to find a traditional publisher — if it’s the right story for a commercial enterprise. As I work on book projects, I no longer always think of which big publisher I’d like to publish it the way I used to. Now I ask myself what form is best suited to my book’s length and content, and who prints books like it. Is a trade publisher the best for my collection of jazz essays, or should I print it myself? Again, I agree with Bart: big publishing houses will get your book to the most readers. But expecting a big house to publish jazz writing would likely be a waste of time, because unless you’re Whitney Balliett, that’s rarely seen as a commercially viable genre. (And I’m no Whitney Balliett.) Instead, I’ll likely publish that collection myself. Fortunately, our new world means that we writers can design, print, promote and distribute our own books comparatively well. Self-publishing isn’t what it used to be, though hustling is the same as it ever was. I’m all for it. Just as I’m all for a world where both commercial and independent presses thrive, and for the Espresso Book Machine and the stapler I used to collate essays that I printed out and sold on the street of downtown Portland in April for a few dollars a piece. Diversity is the key to a richer world. Writers need options and different approaches, just as humanity needs diversity of culture, ethnicity and opinion. Find the format that suits your story, and work hard to get the story out there. My chapbook opened my eyes in so many ways. I feel more optimistic and empowered now than ever before, because we writers have so many great options. Most of us still have to keep our day jobs, though, but what else is new?
Courtney Maum: Other than continuing to admire and support the intrepidity, creativity and sense of humor of small, independent presses, no, publishing a chapbook hasn’t influenced my future projects mostly because I don’t have any right now. I finished two huge projects this year so I’m treating myself to a vacation for which I’m leaving in 24 hours. Back to Mexico I go! This being said, having a tiny little book out in the world that can actually be held, be ordered, be read, be liked, be disliked — it’s a great feeling, and I love the size and “attitude” of chapbooks. When it comes to publishing, I’m of the “can’t we all get along?” mentality: self-publishing, indies, mainstream publishers…they all provide worthwhile roles and with really hard work, diligence, patience and unremitting optimism, I do think that the right work will find the right place. - www.vol1brooklyn.com/