Q and A with R.L. Maizes about her story collection We Love Anderson Cooper
1. Tell us a little about your book:
To quote the book jacket: "In We Love Anderson Cooper, characters are treated as outsiders because of their sexual orientation, racial or religious identity, or simply because they look different. A young man courts the publicity that comes from outing himself at his bar mitzvah. When a painter is shunned because of his appearance, he learns to ink tattoos that come to life. A paranoid Jewish actuary suspects his cat of cheating on him―with his Protestant girlfriend.
"In this debut collection, humor complements pathos. Readers will recognize themselves in these stories and in these protagonists, whose backgrounds are vastly different from their own―we’ve all been outsiders at some point."
2. No one could rightfully accuse you of writing the same story twice. The diversity of your characters and situations is impressive--how do you begin a story? Is it with a character, an image, or subject matter, or all of the above?
All of the above. A news report I hear might stay with me and inspire a story. That was the case with the title story, “We Love Anderson Cooper.” A high school valedictorian in a town near where I live was planning to come out in his graduation speech, but his school censored him. He ended up giving the speech to the organization Out Boulder, and a video of the speech went viral. That gave me the idea to have a boy come out in his Bar Mitzvah speech. The story “Couch” came from an actual couch I inherited from my mother that she used in her therapy practice. I pictured all of her clients crying on the couch, and then I imagined a couch that actually made people cry. That story was also inspired by the many therapists I’ve had over the years, the good ones and the bad ones, but especially the bad ones.
3. “Tattoo” features an artist who is able to do more than ink people's skin--he has what I'd call magical powers of transformation--where did he come from?
The main character in “Tattoo” was inspired by a newspaper article about a tattoo artist who inked nipples on cancer survivors who had breast reconstruction surgery. So many women sought his services, he had no time for any other tattooing. He developed a conflict between wanting to help the women and hating the way it limited his art and imagination. I found that conflict fascinating and couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I decided to write about it. The story I wrote took a magical turn and went off in a different direction than the original article.
4. I love that there are many cat and dog characters in your stories--have animals always been of keen interest to you as a writer?
The first story I ever wrote—when I was six or seven—was titled “Unga and the Frog.” So I guess the answer to your question is yes. My forthcoming novel, Other People’s Pets, is about an animal empath who was raised to be a burglar. Animals are a big part of my life. My husband and I have adopted a cat and a dog. I’m vegan. I find animals to be a tremendous comfort in an often distressing world. My pets ground me. They teach me about love, loyalty, and being present. Animals of all kinds capture my imagination and end up in my work.
5. How long did it take you to write We Love Anderson Cooper and how did you find your agent?
It took ten years to write the individual stories in We Love Anderson Cooper and a few more years to revise the entire collection. I worked with two developmental editors who taught me a lot about writing in general and about short stories in particular. I found my agent, Victoria Sanders, by sending a cold query to her inbox. I had no prior connection to her and no referral. As far as I know, she had never represented a short story collection before. She’s a wonderful agent.
6. Who/what are some of your biggest literary and artistic influences?
That’s a hard question because I’m always falling in love with new writers and new books and trying to learn from them. For example, in The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai pulls off a surprise that’s brilliant. I won’t say more to avoid a spoiler. But when I want to surprise the reader, I think about whether I can use her approach. A collection that influenced me is Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. It contains a story, “The Conversion of the Jews,” that’s hilarious and profound. I reread that story as I was working on “We Love Anderson Cooper.” Nathan Englander’s “The Gilgul of Park Avenue” is another story I admire, its humor and the way it isn’t satisfied with just making the reader laugh. I grew up attending Wendy Wasserstein plays, and I aspire to write stories that move as skillfully between comedy and pathos.
7. What's next?
I just turned in the edits for my novel, Other People’s Pets, which will be out in 2020. I’m not sure what I’ll write next. Publishing a collection and a novel within a two-year period, I’ve neglected my nonwriting life. I want to regain some balance. Volunteer for a political campaign. Take up a musical instrument again. And begin a new writing project, too.
R.L. Maizes is the author the short story collection, We Love Anderson Cooper, and the novel Other People's Pets, forthcoming June 2020 (Celadon Books/Macmillan). Maizes's short stories have aired on NPR and have appeared in the literary magazines Electric Literature, Witness, and Bellevue Literary Review, among others. Her essays have aired on NPR and have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere.
Maizes was born in Queens, NY, and currently lives in Boulder County, CO. She is an alumna of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop.