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Powell’s Q&A: Fiona Maazel

Describe your latest book.
My new book, Woke Up Lonely, is about a cult leader, his ex-wife, and the four people he takes hostage. It's about loneliness in America. North Korea. A city underneath the city of Cincinnati. Cloud seeding. Espionage. Eavesdropping. It's also, you know, a big-old love story. Does that describe it adequately? Probably not. How about: The novel takes place over a four-day Waco-style siege. It follows six people on their paths toward or away from estrangement. I'm told it's droll and maybe a little wild, though it doesn't seem so wild to me.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I once sold knock-off perfumes in parking lots all over Los Angeles. I'd seen an ad in the paper. I showed up for an interview, which consisted of myself and 40 other people jammed into a room and shown wads of money that could be ours if we just broke the law a few hours a day. We were told not to worry if we got arrested, that the company would bail us out. We were given a script that was invasive, yet compelling, with which to approach customers as they walked out of Walmart: Does your girlfriend wear perfume? Yeah? What kind? Okay, but I'm selling Obsesssion for half as much. Smells the exact same; I got about 50 bottles in the trunk of my car. Surprisingly, the job wasn't that hard. The perfume really did smell the same and who doesn't want to save a buck or two? I probably made more money doing that job than I have as a writer in all my years since, combined.

Fahrenheit, Celsius, or Kelvin?
Kelvin, hands down. I don't even know what a Kelvin is. So now I have to go look it up. Which is why I like it. I am reminded of John Ashbery and why he once ended a book with a word most people wouldn't know: "I liked the idea that people, if they bothered to, would have to open the dictionary to find out what the last word in the novel meant. They'd be closing one book and opening another." What an appealing idea. The Internet tells me that "The Kelvin scale is an absolute, thermodynamic temperature scale using as its null point absolute zero, the temperature at which all thermal motion ceases in the classical description of thermodynamics." I have no idea what that means. The Internet also says that Kelvin is a company that sells "products for technology education, science, robotics, electronics and pre-engineering designed to assist educators in enriching curriculum and motivating students through quality hands-on activities." For $5,000, I can buy a wind tunnel. Take that, Fahrenheit.

Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
Is there even a real debate here? What authors are you people hanging out with? Even the baddest, most notoriously destructive author at most sleeps with the hotel maid, pees his bed, and writes about it later.Even the baddest, most notoriously destructive author at most sleeps with the hotel maid, pees his bed, and writes about it later. Though probably he just gets drunk, is rebuffed by the maid, and lies about having peed his bed, just to make it a better story. I don't know from rock bands, but if the rumors are true, every time a bell sounds, some rocker's snorting blow off a lady's rump. So perhaps the better question is: What would you rather be, writer or rock star? I'd say that's asked and answered.

On a clear and cold day, do you typically get outside into the sunshine or stay inside where it's warm?
Stay in. I don't like cold weather. I don't find it invigorating or telling of the world in all its glory unless it's a cold day on top of Kilimanjaro and I just happened to get airlifted in. That said, if it's snowing on a cold day, I will be out there in a second. Snow! One of the few weather events (or events of any kind) whose magic is uppermost no matter how old you are. Snowflakes! Snowmen! Snowshoeing! But if it's just cold and I can see my own breath but can't feel my toes, then I'd rather stay home with Dostoyevsky.

What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
Indulgence? I don't know that word. And now I am depressed.

If you could have been someone else, who would that be and why?
I think the best answer to this question is Not Me. I'd rather be Not Me. I can't presume to have any idea what transpires in anyone else's inner life, though I can presume that what you see on the outside is not what you get. For instance, Lorrie Moore. If I could write half as well as Lorrie Moore, I'd be ecstatic. So maybe I want to be Lorrie Moore. Except no way is Lorrie Moore's psyche healthier than mine. So she's out. Likewise Catherine of Siena or Madame Curie. Joan of Arc or Nina Simone. I'd like to have accomplished what these women have without actually having to be them. Is that possible? In sum: I am that person who annoys the genie so much with my caveats, she retracts her offer. But seriously, who hasn't thought about this? You get one wish; what's it going to be? If you say: I want to be happy, you might end up turned into a person who is happy with what she already has, when what you really meant was: I want a baby. But if you asked just for the baby, maybe you'd get a baby with polio. Do babies even get polio? Now, perhaps, you can see why I'm going with Not Me. I have qualities I'd be happy to part with.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
I actually have a cat — my most beloved feline, The Emma — though I am actually not a cat person. My cat is more dog than cat, though in the historic war between those species, I have been agnostic. Instead, I choose the turtle. Slow and steady. Unflappable. Maybe a little dumb. I think it'd be nice to be a turtle. Less because ignorance is bliss than because retreat is bliss. If I could carry around a shell on my back wherever I went, well, I might go more places. Try more, venture more, knowing I could always hide as needed.

Five books I love but am too scared to reread lest I hate them now, thus forcing myself to question which aesthetic (Fiona then, Fiona now) to trust, since it's always possible I have become too demanding, fussy, implacable, and impatient over the years:
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
A Death in the Family by James Agee
Light in August by William Faulkner
Angels by Denis Johnson
U and I by Nicholson Baker

÷ ÷ ÷

Fiona Maazel is the author of Last Last Chance. She is winner of the Bard Prize for Fiction, a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree, and the recipient of a Lannan Foundation Residency. She teaches at Brooklyn College and New York University, and was appointed the Picador Guest Professor at the University of Leipzig, Germany, for the spring of 2012. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Woke Up Lonely is her latest novel.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Last Last Chance
    New Trade Paper $19.00
  2. Woke Up Lonely
    Used Hardcover $9.95
  3. Angels: A Novel
    Sale Trade Paper $6.98
  4. Light in August Used Hardcover $14.95
  5. A Death in the Family Used Trade Paper $9.95
  6. Madame Bovary (Penguin Drop Caps) Sale Hardcover $15.50
  7. U and I: A True Story Used Trade Paper $5.95

Fiona Maazel is the author of Woke Up Lonely

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