A Conversation with Cris Mazza
HTMLGIANT: The three epigraphs to Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls seem not only to be the usual thematic promise-making. They seem also to be aesthetic provocations. I want to list them, for the benefit of readers:
“Everyone, no matter who, no matter how rich or poor, has lived in the Tijuana garbage dump. One’s type of suffering does not rate, in my book, above or below anyone else’s.” –Luis Alberto Urrea, By the Lake of Sleeping Children
“Anna Wulf’s novel has been sprung by little more than a warm-hearted indignation against injustice: good, but no longer enough… Time had gone, and my memory did not exist, and I was unable to distinguish between what I had invented and what I had known.” –Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
“Because this is a true story, / I’ve had to change all the names, even my own, / The rest is true.” –Hester Smith
MAZZA: The first is not only a thematic prompt, but is Hester’s not-so-secret anxiety. As she simultaneously observes the victims of human trafficking near her workplace and agitates over events in her past, she ratchets up both by assuming her own experiences are trivial. It’s a tangible question the book wrestles with alongside Hester, even though this epigraph would assume to answer it. The 3rd epigraph makes literal the layering: that the main character is choosing the epigraphs and not-at-all tacitly cogitating over the themes. The middle epigraph is also part of the layering, place in the middle appropriately (although I just decided it must have been appropriate on retrospect, as I am being asked to talk about it) … in that I am the author of this novel (as well as the one selecting the epigraphs), but Hester is authoring her own “document” (as she calls it), just as Doris Lessing authored the book that contained Anna’s novel (or parts of it). Perhaps also Hester’s document was incited by my own “indignation against injustice,” that was also “good but not good enough” (this latter part also one of the main areas of thought for the novel) so that as I created Hester’s account of her past – which of course dovetails with my own – I lost the lines of what was purely hers (invented) and what had once been mine.
HTMLGIANT: The book makes great chronological leaps from section to section, and includes letters, an imagined feature story, various offsetting and elevating or subordinating typefaces, a tape transcription, archived news articles, an office journal, teacherly evaluation, Googled information, a portion of a Shakespearean monologue, and an engagement announcement on microfilm. There is also what appears at first to be a series of magazine-style pull quotes that appear throughout the book.
These are incorporated into the novel in a way that is orderly, and which privileges clarity. We have a person who is trying to make sense of her own history, but she also seems to care about the reader’s ability to track the procedure through time alongside her.
My sense of the way time worked was that there was a secondary and unannounced chronologically linear timeline that moved us from beginning to end, and that was the timeline that belongs to the latter-day speaker.
MAZZA: It was the timeline of the “later-day speaker” writing the book, from page 1 to the end, so in a way, yes.
HTMLGIANT: I thought that the past events and the imaginings and the documents and so forth were offered in the order in which she was dealing with each of them.
MAZZA: Yes, thus the linear chronology of the “present” (writing the book) did not present the past in a chronologic most distant to most recent line.
HTMLGIANT: So when I say “procedure,” this is the procedure to which I refer – her own step-by-step process of reassembling her own history. In this way, slyly, and in ways many readers might not even notice, I thought the book had a few things in common with genres such as the police procedural or the courtroom drama.)
MAZZA: Oh, I guess so … in that the prosecutor (or defense attorney) will present the hard-copy or testimony evidence not in the order in which he found it but the order in which it best suits the desired result. Except Hester’s “order” was often influenced by what was stimulated into her memory by other found “facts.” I don’t think she had as much of an opportunity as a prosecutor to assemble all the memories and then decide the best way in which to present them. So her “slyness” might not have been as conscious. Except – and this one crucial – she knew the end when she sat down to write the beginning. She just didn’t know what writing toward that end would show her about herself.
HTMLGIANT: In reading the book, all we get is the final product – the thing the book became. But the reader is also curious about the process that got us there. Was the book always meant to work this way, or did you write your way into this structure and strategy?
MAZZA: I would have to say that both Hester and I wrote our way into the structure and strategy. Both of us “knew the ending,” and neither of us knew what it would show to Hester about herself. But I did also want to show the final product becoming the final product, thus left in as many of her digressions and moments of discovery as seemed natural. I then took this idea to the next level in my forthcoming hybrid memoir in that I want it to be a book that is “read while it is being written.”
HTMLGIANT: There are places where the novel seems to explicitly engage in little arguments with certain literary “wisdoms.” To give one example, on page 197, we break away from the action in favor of this paragraph:
“It wouldn’t make sense to pass by or gloss over the rest of the scene with the literary ‘veil of modesty,’ smear of Vaseline on the lens, the pull-away, the fade-to-black, the train through the tunnel. Isn’t this going to be a large portion of the whole objective?”
And then, a little later, our speaker talks about a desire to lower the veil again – of how the direct evocation of the moment and the concrete, physical details within it can obscure other truths about the moment – questions of power and so forth.
I was thinking about the contrast between your narrator and the narrator of Nabokov’s Lolita, and how the two books, despite overlapping subject matter, feel so different one from the other. It is possible for some readers to read Lolita as an exciting championing of pedophilia, for example, and even if that is a terrible misreading of the book, I don’t think such a reading would be possible for any reader of Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls.
I wonder: Was the explicit reckoning with the literary conventions a way of calling for a diminishment of mythic or literaryish romanticism and a heightening of clarity, of interrogating the uses and deployments of literature, of resetting the parameters of the exploration of the moral ambiguities? Was it a thematic imperative? Or is this stuff that just rose naturally from the character of the speaker as she worked through the problems of past and present?
MAZZA: Starting with the latter, it then becomes the two former. She (and I) both knew what she would be constructing in language – the events, the scenes, etc. But neither of us knew the effect that doing the construction, building the narration, would have on us. The reckoning with literary conventions was, as they happened, the evidence of the effect that writing the scenes – especially those scenes, with Heather and Dan Wood – was having on “the writer.” In this sense, I had given Hester my exact early impressions and intentions when it came to Heather. I had intended to show the ability in 16-year-olds to consciously seduce. And enjoy the seduction, and then enjoy the havoc it played with the seduced. The power they have. (See p. 200: “ …this is not her universe but his, and yet she is in the eye, enthroned, at the center of it.
And she does have an idea of how to stay there.”
Not only aware of the danger that we (Hester and I) could be validating a form of pedophilia, we became aware, as Heather “came to life” (as we created a form of Heather from our own consciousness’s and sensibilities – and it’s getting awkward speaking in plural here!) that Heather had no real control over what she felt about /or expected from the affair with Wood. And that this, not the ability to be sexual in any given moment, is why they say teenagers are too young to give consent.
HTMLGIANT: Hester, our protagonist, is an unusual protagonist in the sense that she explores her life almost entirely by thinking about other people. It’s not that she doesn’t have agency – in many ways, when she explores the lives of others, she’s also examining her own past agency. And she’s not passive – there is little more active than the exploration in which she’s involved. But this way of constructing a character stands in opposition to the way many novels work. It is a tremendously relational and inter-connected approach. It doesn’t subordinate the individual to the community, but it does seem to show how much circumstance – the place we’re from, the people we bump up against in place and time, the age they are and the age we are when our lives intersect, the attentiveness or lack of attentiveness of ancillary authority figures, and so on – will shape the forward trajectory of a life.
How did you come to build the novel in this way? Many writers, it seems, might have chosen to write the novel from the point of view of the teenaged Mexican prostitute, or to cut that part of the story entirely in order to avoid the common charge of drawing a false equivalent between the two experiences.
MAZZA: In fact a few people recommended that I write from the POV of the kidnapped teenaged prostitute. It was not worry over the charge of “exploitation” that stopped me (I would face that anyway). But it was her existence’s effect on other people that interested me. Part of that effect is to worry that your own life’s troubles (and often life is simply made up of the trouble and trauma we learn from, grow out of, and build defenses against) are comparatively insignificant. That particular piece of angst might have led Hester (and me) to explore ourselves by reconstructing our version of Heather and her affair with her English teacher. The things we chose to give Heather as far as attitude, sensibility, background, etc., would say something about the person (or people) who were creating her. We learned while doing it, by doing it, that some of the most effective self-discoveries can come from this. So while we could have had other discoveries by imagining and re-constructing scenes from the teenaged prostitute’s POV, because it is so much farther from our own experience, it would not have provided the kinds of answers Hester was looking for. After all, it was Hester’s experience with Dan Wood that seemed to incite the whole re-construction of her past-with-men that was the birth of this “document” that became this novel.
HTMLGIANT: I’m thinking, again, of the Luis Alberto Urrea epigraph, and you must have been, as well. Is this something you’ve struggled against, as a writer – the idea that some experiences are more worthy of being dramatized than others, or that certain stories, due to the current literary or political climate, must only be approached from this or that certain point of view?
MAZZA: Yes, this too, and I shied away from doing the book in the Mexican prostitute’s POV as much for the previous thematic reasons (and where my interest really was) as I did because it seemed the “socially responsible” thing to do, to write the prostitute’s story for her. Instead, that’s what Hester thinks she’s going to do, and quickly realizes the folly of that, that it won’t change anything … for that girl nor all the girls who follow her. This book was definitely about that kind of individual helplessness too.
HTMLGIANT: There are so many ways in which the novel is interested in the intersections of things: Private history against public event, private memory against a growing collective memory, what is imagined against what might have happened, what is documented against the memory of the things that were documented, the younger self against the older self, the ostensibly privileged self against the less privileged other, legal imperatives against personal imperatives, one ethical system against another. There is an impulse, in some ways, to measure, to compare. All the standard ways of doing so seem to be found wanting. At story’s end, we get this:
“Telling just their stories, what I knew of them, would have accomplished little, nothing more than what was reached by the accounts that already existed, the background research that informed me of their probably circumstances and conditions. But now I think I might’ve completed something, rescued someone after all. I think it’s Heather and I who left a nasty messy place but didn’t remake and relocate it somewhere else. And I’d also like to believe you’ll perceive a difference, a subtle shift in the atmosphere of your life. I think you won’t have to return to sit in a courtroom with that senseless, senile expression. I think we’re going to leave you alone now.”
It’s not a conventionally satisfying ending, yet it is also perhaps a more common ending, in the real-life sense, than the sort we often see in books.
How did you come to this ending? Were there other kinds of endings you considered and discarded, or was this what you were writing toward all along, or did you come to the end and this is what your narrator was naturally left with? Does your narrator speak for you, or only for herself?
MAZZA: I think my use of the plural 1st person in these comments has answered this one.
HTMLGIANT: How has the act of writing a book that ends in this way impacted the work you’ve done and the work you will do, going forward?
MAZZA: I never considered an ending where Hester was a successful rescuer, where anyone’s life was overwhelmingly changed/saved/improved. I never considered a reunion with Dan Wood (to whom she is “speaking” in the paragraph you quote). I never considered anything that would probably fit into what you mean by “conventionally satisfying.” In a book about helplessness, failure seems an appropriate ending. And yet this failure might hopefully have the effect, if anything, of backing Heather away from her lawsuit, of causing Hester to NOT contact Dan Wood and stir anything else up for him. Does she likewise simply leave the kidnapped prostitutes out in the field with their captors? Yes, and she suffers a little for her abandonment of them. The book is concerned with how Hester views herself, how she goes on from here with whatever new insight about herself she now has. And the insight that she had been fascinated with the teenaged victims of human trafficking partially because their experience was the epitome of “being sexually desirable” will provide her enough to chew on for a while. It is a charge I offer to readers as well: is there anything else at the root of your horror/fascination with that subject, with your wanting me to tell the prostitute’s story from her POV?
But I don’t think ending the book this way is impactful to my future work because it’s not that far from the track of how I’ve ended other books. I have few “satisfying” resolutions.