A version of this Q&A originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of The Practicing Writer.
When I learned that my friend R.L. Maizes had a short-story collection in the publishing pipeline, I couldn’t wait to obtain an advance copy and prepare a Q&A for The Practicing Writer. And when I read the book (We Love Anderson Cooper, just published by Celadon Books), I wasn’t at all disappointed.
R.L. Maizes was born and raised in Queens, New York, and now lives in Boulder County, Colorado. Maizes’s short stories have aired on National Public Radio and have appeared in the literary magazines Electric Literature, Witness, Bellevue Literary Review, Slice, and Blackbird, among others. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Lilith, and elsewhere.
Maizes is an alumna of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Tin House Summer Workshop. Her work has received Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open contest, has been a finalist in numerous other national contests, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. We Love Anderson Cooper is her first book.
Please welcome R.L. Maizes!
ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): First things first: We’re friends, so I know what “R.L.” stands for. Why the choice to use initials rather than your full name (or at least, your first name and last name) for the byline?
R.L. MAIZES (RLM): I didn’t want my gender to be one of the first things people considered, consciously or subconsciously, in deciding whether to read my work. I wanted them to take the work on its merits.
ED: You thank a lot of people and programs in your acknowledgments section, but some readers may find it notable that you do not have an MFA degree. (Also: You don’t live in New York!!!) Please tell us a bit about your path to becoming a published author.
RLM: I’ve always wanted to write, but I was discouraged by my family, so I chose a different career path. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized I didn’t want my life to go by without at least trying to become a writer. So I began to write. Poorly. But I got advice at a reading from an author who explained that you have to write a lot and to write badly to eventually become good at it.
After that, I wrote every day after work. I joined a writing group. There’s a great writing school in Denver called Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and I took classes there. I also worked one on one with a writing coach, Laura Pritchett, a wonderful writer and teacher, and with developmental editors. I attended summer workshops at places like Sewanee and Bread Loaf. I piled up a mountain of rejections. Gradually, I improved.
ED: Short-story writers are often told (and discover) that it’s difficult to acquire agent representation for a collection, that story collections typically “don’t sell” to big publishers. Please tell us a bit about how you connected with your agent [Victoria Sanders], and about the deal with Celadon, a new-ish division of Macmillan Books.
RLM: While many agents aren’t open to short story collections, some are, and a few actively look for collections. If you read Publishers Marketplace you’ll find that short story collections sell regularly, though not as often as novels. It helps if you have a novel to go with your collection.
I didn’t have any connection to my agent before I queried her. As far as I know, she’d never sold a short story collection before. But she’s the perfect agent for my book because she loved it and was ready to champion it. My novel, OTHER PEOPLE’S PETS, sold together with the collection to Celadon Books.
Agents and editors at publishing houses want to fall in love with books and to usher those books into the world. Write the best book you can, whether it’s a collection or a novel, and put it before agents. Then engage in good luck rituals because, as in everything in life, succeeding in publishing takes a fair bit of luck. Personally I wear a red string around my wrist. Don’t ask. [Editor’s Note: I won’t ask, but I’m familiar with at least one red-string tradition: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ask-the-expert-red-string-bracelet/.]
ED: Which of the stories in this collection was most challenging to write? What made it so, and, looking back now, how do you think you managed to make the story happen?
RLM: “Ghost Dogs” is about a woman who has lost hope and was very hard to write. A colleague who read an early draft told me it lacked contrast. She compared the story to a painting that is so dark you can’t make out the images. Following her advice, I found ways to lighten up the story. In some cases that meant flashing back to times in the main character’s life when she was surrounded by love.
ED: Which of the stories in this collection was most satisfying to write? Why?
RLM: “A Cat Called Grievous” was very satisfying to write. It’s full of dark humor, and I took a lot of risks with the story that I think paid off.
ED: The characters and situations of the 11 stories in this book are diverse in lots of ways. I notice, though, that interspersed among them are a few (I’m thinking here mainly of “The Infidelity of Judah Maccabee,” the flash piece “L’Chaim,” “Yiddish Lessons,” and the title story “We Love Anderson Cooper”) that might accurately be described as “Jewish stories.” Or course, “Jewish stories” aren’t monolithic themselves, as these stories illustrate nicely. But here’s something that applies across this subset of stories: If you were to remove their Jewish qualities/content (ritual, textual allusions, language, etc.), I don’t see how they could exist on their own. Again, we’re friends, and so I know that you come from a Jewish background. How do you perceive that background as influencing your work?
RLM: I take issue with the phrase “Jewish stories” because it makes stories that are about people of other faiths or no faith normative, when those stories also locate characters in specific cultural settings. That said, when I write characters who are Jewish and put them in culturally Jewish settings, such as a bar mitzvah or Hanukkah celebration, I’m able to draw on a long and complex history and a set of traditions that I know intimately because I grew up as an Orthodox Jew. I think that lends a richness to the stories, and in some ways those stories are easier for me to write. I also grew up reading authors such as Philip Roth, Chaim Potok, Bernard Malamud, Elie Wiesel, Saul Bellow, and I.B. Singer, and those writers influenced my work. I wish women were included that list, but there weren’t many books by women who were Jewish in our house, which is a crime and takes me back to your first question.
ED: Anything else you’d like to share?
RLM: Whatever your age, you can begin writing. WE LOVE ANDERSON COOPER is my first book, and I’m old enough that I no longer qualify for most emerging writer awards. My age didn’t come up with my agent or publisher. The work was what interested them.
ED: Thank you so much, R.L., and congratulations again on your marvelous book.
For more information about R.L. Maizes’s new story collection, please visit https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250304070.