In her one-minute film “Morning Celebration,” Fiona Maazel haunts park grounds in an elastic bed sheet (“sack,” she says) as two unconcerned picnickers look on. Along with a similarly cloaked friend, Maazel writhes inside her cocoon, looking more like a college undergraduate than the 36 year old Brooklynite who was named the winner of the 2009 Bard Prize and the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” Award.
On Tuesday, Maazel sat down for an interview to give us a glimpse into her newest creation (a second novel, “Woke Up Lonely”) and to explain why she is thankful for lies, fiction and Google Earth.
X: Your latest book, “Woke Up Lonely”, has only recently been introduced to the market—are you hoping it gets picked up by Farrar, Straus and Giroux the publishers of your first book?
M: I like them, I don’t know if they like me. I expect I’ll be going with a more independent, smaller publisher. It’s a weird book. There’s this cult leader, his ex-wife and four hostages. It’s also about North Korea, incidentally.
X: Why North Korea?
M: North Korea is just, like, the apotheosis of loneliness. It’s not easy to get in there. Kim Jong Il is the most alarming dictator, ever. Well, maybe he’s not worse than Hitler. But I thought that there could be some correspondence between Kim Jong Il and the cult leader.
X: Does most of your work have a political edge to it?
M: Most of my books end up being very political. I, myself, am a die-hard liberal. I wouldn’t call myself a democrat because they’ve become horrendous and I want nothing to do with those freakshow libertarians, either.
X: Do you address these domestic concerns or is North Korea the main element of politics in “Woke Up Lonely”?
M: Well, it takes place in 2005 right after the election when schism and fracture is the order of the day. Our cult leader is head of this therapeutic cult. It’s mostly a love story between the cult leader and his ex-wife. Oh, and there’s also the young daughter.
X: How do you begin research on such a precise topic?
M: I used a lot of Google Earth. It’s difficult for a Westerner to even get into North Korea—so what does it really look like? I have this scene with a woman who crosses the North Korean border so I had to map her route. I looked at the train routes; I saw when the trains left and how long it would take to reach the destination. There are also a lot of smuggled photographs of what the towns and cities actually look like because a lot of that never even comes out.
X: How did you apply these details to your writing?
M: In that scene where she crosses the border Google Earth showed me exactly where the light fell exactly from her vantage point because you can point right to the spot. It just gave me goose bumps; it was like, here is the terrain, here is the temperature. Technology is an amazing thing; Google Earth is an amazing thing.
X: Does every bit of your work rely this heavily on research?
M: For that scene I felt it was especially important to capture the physical detail. I wanted to inhabit what the character was feeling. But even for my first book, “Last Last Chance”, which had to do with the plague I read so many books on infectious disease. At the end, I was just terrified. I also studied a lot of Norse mythology for that book. It was a lot of Vikings and whatnot. The nice thing is that if you’re stuck in your writing and people are demanding to know your progress, you can always say you’re still doing research.
X: It’s interesting that your fiction is so deeply rooted in facts. In your New York Times piece, “Summer’s Last Call,” you said that you often have to exaggerate your own experiences in order for them to be truly fathomed by the reader.
M: When it comes to real world truth and story truth—Tim O’Brien first said it, it’s not my idea—it’s about having to make things real to the reader; ‘I cut my thumb’ in the real world becomes ‘I broke my thumb’ in writing. You really have to manipulate and do some violence on the page for the trauma to sit right.
But sometimes, things can also feel overcooked and if you’re faithful to the way events played out it seems excessive. So, yeah, I think writers have the right to exaggerate and also to downplay.
X: Do you prefer fiction because you have this liberty to alter the way events played out?
M: No, I always thought I’d end up a nonfiction writer. Fiction scared me; I just thought you had to have real talent to assume people would want to read what you were imagining. You had to be a real egotist to do it. And I’ve always revered fiction writers in a way I never revered nonfiction writers.
X: What brought you to fiction?
M: You have to understand, I was a world- class liar as a kid and a teenager. I was always making up things and it wasn’t like “Today I won the lottery,” it was like “Someone ignored me today.” But, the storytelling got out of control and I couldn’t even remember what was true and what wasn’t. When I wrote nonfiction I would lie without noticing and so I decided, for moral purposes, I couldn’t do nonfiction anymore.
X: I read an interesting interview in Stopsmiling that said you were born during a car crash. Are these experiences fodder for your fiction?
M: Oh, that was a disaster. None of that is true.
X: So you can turn it into fiction.
M: I guess so.