Narrative 10

Narrative recently asked Maud Newton a few essential questions:

1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?

A few years ago, and for the longest time, I would have said Maurice Bendrix in The End of the Affair. Now I’m not sure. I related then to so many aspects of his obsessive, angry perspective that I don’t feel as much kinship with now. It is always and forever an outstanding book, though. No novel has been more important to me. In life, my favorite character is my granny, with my mom and sister tied for a close second. They are a fiery, funny crew.

2. Your favorite line (that you or someone else wrote)?

One favorite is that famous line from Flaubert: “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”

3. The story, novel, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time.

Oh, so many. Recently one of my best friends died and someone else very dear to me was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, and lately I really wish I could reaccess the clarity of feeling I had when I first read Denise Levertov’s “Talking to Grief” not long after my father-in-law died. “Ah, Grief,” it begins, “I should not treat you / like a homeless dog / who comes to the back door / for a crust, for a meatless bone . . .”

4. Best part of the day?

Dusk. I usually get my best writing done at night or at the close of day, and a sunset feels to me like the entryway to my most creative self.

5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?

It varies. On any given day, possibly being with plants, animals, toddlers, friends, books. Talking to Max (the guy I’m married to) or my sister. Calling up my mom and having her say, “Here I am!” in her sassy Texan accent.

6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?

I’m such a changeable person, it’s hard to say. Lately I find my mother’s and granny’s expressions coming out of my mouth more and more often, which is unexpected, because they were Texan and I grew up (after moving from Dallas) mostly in Miami and very carefully taught myself never to say anything that would mark me as an outsider, to erase all vestiges of what was considered a hick accent there. But it’s still in there, apparently. “I just need to git ’er done,” I find myself saying to my writing partner when I’m lagging on a chapter. “I reckon so,” my sister and I say more and more often to each other. Truly a surprise to find this history bubbling up.

7. What’s your current obsession?

I’m writing a book about the science and superstition of ancestry. It’s a blend of memoir, reportage, anecdote, history, science, philosophy, cultural criticism, and ghost stories, I hope an open-hearted blend. I’ve been drawn lately to histories of spiritual beliefs about ancestors that predate Christianity. I didn’t realize that ancestor veneration was prevalent even in Western Europe before the saints became seen as spiritual ancestors, supplanting the ancestors of the body.

As someone with a complicated family structure—my stepdaughter is one of the most important people in my life, and my amazing niece and nephews are not biologically related to me, and I also have a stepfather and a stepsister, and twin half-siblings I’ve never met—and a complicated relationship with some of my family members, I’m not fetishizing the biological family. I’m wary of our cultural fixation on looking to our genes to understand ourselves. At the same time, the influence of our genes, our ancestors, on the people we are is undeniable. All we have to do is look in the mirror to see that. Most days right now I’m thinking about these kinds of things.

8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?

Padgett Powell once wrote “good: problem on deck” on my first story for his fiction class, when I was twenty. He also praised part of the story that I’d written in an offhand moment, something that felt fun but extraneous, unlike the (leaden) rest. “Keep it all like that,” he said.

9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now you wish you knew then?

I wish I could tell my twelve-year-old self that shutting out feelings as a strategy for dealing with pain isn’t the answer. I understand why she did it, though.

10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.

I had this verse from Song of Solomon inscribed inside Max’s wedding ring: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”

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