One of the first books I reviewed for the Chicago Review of Books was Heartbreaker by the Chicago author Maryse Meijer. It was her debut book, and its power promised only more of the same for the rest of Meijer’s work. Two years later, Meijer has delivered her second book, Northwood, and though it is arguably nothing like her first book in content or format, it is equally engrossing.
Many advanced reviews have called it a hybrid prose novella, and it’s indeed difficult to slot into one label. It is told in short pieces, sometimes in cryptic two-page poetic sprawls, and other times in a block of text that reads like a regular fiction page. The combination is a fascinating journey through a fictional Northwood, following an unnamed female narrator as she tries to find inspiration for her art while simultaneously falling in love with a married man who is aggressive and mysterious and unobtainable.
As beautiful as the sharp and tight prose is the book itself: the cover is a deep red, and the pages are pure black with white words contrasting in an eerie way that undeniably enhances the feeling of being deep in the dangerous Northwood with the characters. Though a quick read, it’s rich and layered and sure to be a staple on many bookshelves.
I met up with Maryse at her favorite bookstore in Pilsen to talk art, mythology, and how Northwood came to its final form.
Sara Cutaia: The form isn’t a traditional prose novella. I think of it as a hybrid prose/poem piece. Why did this story need to be told in this way, rather than short stories or chapters?
Maryse Meijer: The project started out as a series of 21 poems, loosely based on the tarot. But it just kept getting bigger. Partly I was experimenting because I was tired of all the connective tissue you have to write in a traditional story—I wanted to cut right to the center of each scene or idea or feeling. I wanted to write more about emotions than actions.
SC: What do you think this form of writing can offer a narrative that a traditional style cannot?
MM: I think it’s more concentrated. I was reading a lot of poetry while I was writing ; I envy the concentration that poets get to work with, and the fetishistic attention to language. You get to be a little bit more lush, explore rhymes and rhythms, just really prioritize sound . And I wanted to focus more on how language evokes a feeling first, rather than a story. I wanted to be as free as possible with this project; I gave myself permission to do whatever felt needed to be done without thinking about whether or not any of it made sense, or was in any sort of order.
SC: You’ve always been interested in artwork in your writing. Not only is the protagonist an artist, but your cover and end papers are from English artist Rufus Newell. Can you tell me a little about why you chose him for this book? And what intersection you see between artwork and writing?
MM: Rufus had done some drawings for a project called Hercules and his Club that Jonathan Yamakam, the book designer, sent me, and I absolutely loved them. The figures are awkward and tortured, a bit sensual and mysterious. And that look worked for me. In Northwood, I based the descriptions of the narrator’s drawings off of Tracy Emin’s work, which is completely different from Newell’s, but I liked his look for the cover.
I’ve always wanted to be a painter, but I have zero artistic talent. Part of what I was trying to do with these short pieces is give the reader the feeling of what it’s like to look at a painting. I don’t know if, in the end, it approximates that, because the forms are so different. But there’s something that appeals to me about a single image being able to evoke emotion in a way that were used to narrative art, like film or fiction, usually does. There’s not necessarily a character or a story in a painting. How can abstract art inspire emotion? And how far can you push a novel or a story towards abstraction in a similar way, concentrate on a single image or word or movement, without the work devolving into meaninglessness? And then, too, the process of making visual art in traditional mediums—painting, drawing, sculpture—is so much more sensual than writing on a computer. And somehow writing this book felt more sensuous, as a process, than other things I’ve written.
SC: A lovely and somewhat surprising aspect of this novel is the allusion to Greek mythology. It could be interpreted that some of the characters mirror Greek characters. In a story that is playing with fairytale qualities and different genres, what made this mythology so important?
MM: Again, I’m cribbing from poets, who are more comfortable than the average fiction write with extended metaphors and references and quotations They just use whatever. I never really had a “complete” narrative for Northwood. I really wanted to echo certain themes but didn’t want them to get repetitive coming from the main narrator. But I could say the same thing through a different angle, a different voice. It’s much harder to do that in traditional fiction. The shorthand of mythology and fairytales – with these characters or ideas or images that are just part of the cultural lexicon – is fun to play with because it’s so rich. When you cut away the connective tissue you find in normal fiction, all of the symbolism and metaphors reveal themselves much more powerfully. And there’s a lot that happens in the white space (well, in this case, the black space), too. But it can be tricky to throw in all these different elements because you want the narrative to feel natural, still.
SC: The theme of desire is very strong here, in many ways other than just between two people, though that is certainly the anchor. How do you approach writing from such a charged emotion such as desire, especially one that verges on obsession? How do you balance desire and obsession?
MM: Desire is always rich. When it’s complicated or thwarted in some way, you immediately have a story—usually, it has something to do with obsession. The narrator wants something she can’t have completely, and that’s the relationship of humans to nature, too. You can admire it and want to be in it and a part of it and necessary to it. But nature doesn’t need you. I’m curious about why people focus on the closed door, the thing they can’t have, instead of looking at all the other possibilities that are available to them.
And I think it’s also about romance. There’s the thought that relationships have to be totally consuming to be real, or good, or ideal. But really, most of the time we can only really have fragments of people. And a little bit should be enough, really, but the cultural narrative about romance rejects moderation. I think this book is about the narrator coming to terms with not having everything. She has these little pieces and has to figure out what to do with them. It may not add up to the thing she wants most, but maybe it’s enough.
SC: Your first collection of stories Heartbreaker had a few images and symbols that I saw repeated here, such as the fox, and fire, and the woods. Do you find yourself coming back to these types of images for some reason?
MM: I do like foxes. And yes, I like the woods. It’s a cliché, sure, a trope. But it’s a potent one. It’s where where messed up things happen. I’m fascinated with idea that woods—and maybe all of nature—is somehow threatening to humans. When you go into the woods, you’re not part of it. It’s antagonistic to you, because you’re not in control of anything that happens there. Especially in fairytales and myths. People go into a wild space, and instead of being free, it’s dangerous because it exposes and subverts human desire; it’s anti-civilization.
SC: There are some really intense passages here, with anger and violence that is sometimes hard to face head on as a reader. How do you find the balance to write about sensual, violent acts without crossing a line?
MM: I was just reading a memoir by a friend and there are a lot of intense passages about historical violence that could easily have been overwhelming, but he’s such a master at controlling the emotion in the narrative that you get the impact of what he’s describing without ever feeling like it’s too much. When to make the language more lyrical, or let it be more emotional, and when to let the facts speak for themselves—you have to know when to step on the gas and when to let up In fiction it’s the same. When do you simply present an image or gesture or emotion, and when do you decide to go deeper into an interpretation from the narrator’s point of view? It’s a matter of knowing what effect you want to produce and shaping the content accordingly . Also, always being aware of not exploiting your characters, and not using them to be shocking or to laugh at them. The worst criticism someone could give me as a writer is that I’m doing something for shock value.
SC: You already have another book coming out in February, right?
MM: Yes, Rag is a collection of stories. The first collection focused on romantic relationships, and this one is more about people who are desperate for a connection on all sorts of levels. Lots of families and strangers. And there’s more violence.
By Maryse Meijer
Published November 6, 2018