More with Paul Maliszewski, author of Fakers.
Joseph: How do you categorize your book? Do you see it as literary journalism? As cultural criticism? As a kind of memoir?
Maliszewski: Can I categorize it as completed? I really don’t know. The longer parts of the book I always thought of as essays. But some of the shorter chapters began life as book reviews, although I hope they’re better written and more thoughtful than the average review, which too often consist just of summary. I sometimes thought of the book as literary criticism, since mostly what I do is read and analyze writing, trying to understand why it was put together the way it is and how it affects us and what we bring to our reading of it. You know, I assume, that nothing quite gins up book sales like an author saying he’s got a new batch of literary criticism. Categorizing is tough. Luckily for me, the publisher decided to slot the book as cultural studies. They know best.
Joseph: What other books are similar to yours? What literary tradition do you see your work fitting into?
Maliszewski: Two writers who come to mind are John McPhee and Renata Adler. I have exactly no business inserting my little book into such august company, but McPhee makes wonderful, often slyly humorous stories out of facts and Adler is a fierce and careful advocate. My writing aspires to the standards set by their work.
Joseph: What other projects are you working on?
Maliszewski: You remember those prayer stories I started writing in Martone’s class on the short-short story?
Joseph: You made a chapbook of those stories. I still have my copy, and I've shown it to about a gazillion students over the years as an example of the beauty of handmade books.
Maliszewski: I’m nearly done with that collection, which I’ve now taken to calling Prayers and Parables. I’ve been working on them longer than I have the pieces in Fakers. I’m so slow, Diana. I’m also working on a book with our friend Steve Featherstone, another survivor of Syracuse. That book is about Joseph Mitchell and his enormous collection of, for lack of a more inclusive word, stuff. Mitchell collected doorknobs and escutcheons, bricks and chunks of floor tile, everything—hundreds objects he sometimes salvaged from buildings slated for demolition or already reduced to rubble. Steve has taken photographs of the collection and I’m supposed to be writing an essay.
Now it’s my turn to ask you some questions. Fair is fair. In Fakers, I wrote some about the recent spate of fraudulent memoirs, from Frey and his A Million Little Pieces to Margaret Seltzer, the woman who invented a gang life for herself in Love and Consequences, to the fake Holocaust memoirs by Binjamin Wilkomirski (Fragments) and Misha DeFonseca, who, in Misha: Memoire of the Holocaust Years, claimed that as a child she walked across Europe and lived in the forests, among wolves. As the author of a memoir as well as—if I may—a wonderful fiction writer, did the unmasking of these shoddy memoirists cause you much worry?
Joseph: Worry about memoir’s dignity as an art form? Worry about if readers would question the validity of my stories? Actually, I worried about the writers of those fake memoirs. I worried about what was going on with Margaret Seltzer: Who is she, really, and what happened in her real life that caused to her invent this particular story? Why gang life? Why appropriate from a culture that seems so far from her own? Did she think her life was too boring? Did she think no one would be interested in the real Margaret Seltzer? I think that’s heartbreaking. I can speculate that she invented a redemption narrative, a survivor’s tale, because those memoirs sell, but that seems too easy. I can’t help but think it’s got to be more complicated. I guess I’ve got some amateur psychologist in me who wants to know what’s underneath: she fabricated a story, yes, but why this story?
Maliszewski: So you were never tempted to narrate that time teenaged Diana ran away from home, joined up with Barnum & Bailey, then left to climb Mt. Everest and ended up having to wrestle a tiger over some food?
Joseph: I told you to never speak of that.
Maliszewski: I know in your short stories you sometimes write from your life, using what happened as only a starting point. Surely, almost every fiction writer does this to some extent. When you’re writing an essay or working on this memoir though, do you find it difficult to write exclusively from life?
Joseph: I remember this essay where Flannery O’Connor is talking about writing her story “Good Country People,” how she didn’t know the Bible salesman was going to steal the lady PhD’s wooden leg until a few lines before it happened. And that’s what writing fiction does to me, too: it’s the what-happens that surprises me. I love the way characters can catch me off guard, do unexpected things.
But for me, the what-happens isn’t what’s interesting about writing essays. In essays, people have already done what they’re going to do, they’ve already said what they’re going to say. There’s no changing that. What I love is the thinking about why they’ve done it, why they’ve said it, what it means, why a reader should care.
Take this anecdote, for example. I could think all day on what it means, what it reveals about my son and me, what it says about power dynamics and competing philosophies. The boy and I recently got a kitten and while this sweet sassy ball of fluff has brought all this energy and light into the house, her presence infuriates our older cat. In fact, the older cat is so peeved that every night she hops into the kitten’s litter box where she leaves a big old nasty deposit, and—this is the best part—she doesn’t bury it. She just leaves it there to show the kitten: this is what I think of you. There’s a turf war taking place in our house. Territory is being claimed. Lines are being drawn. I look at that nasty mess in the litter box and see a metaphor. “Wouldn’t it be fantastic,” I asked the boy, “if we had that kind of power? If we could go to the bathroom, that most intimate space, at an enemy’s house and leave a little something there for him to find in the morning? Wouldn’t that send the clearest of messages?”
“It’s cat shit,” my son, the literalist, said. He's not as obsessed as I am with the search for meaning, but I'm going to give him time.