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Interview with fiction writer ‘Kathleen Maher’

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Fiction writer Kathleen Maher, the oldest of five, grew up in a suburb of Chicago. She already authored two books, ‘Diary of a heretic’ and ‘Underground Nest’. It’s my pleasure today to talk to Kathleen on her books, specially about the ‘Diary of a Heretic’ – a wild ride of Malcom Tully through sex, food, money and religion.

So, dear readers, here we go.

Hello Kathleen, you are author of ‘Diary of a Heretic’ and ‘Underground Nest’. Will you please tell us what are these two books about?

Kathleen Maher: They’re fiction. Underground Nest is a novella (or a long short story) and Diary of a Heretic is a novel presented as a young man’s diary.

Kathleen Maher: “Like many fiction writers, known and unknown, I love writing but am never satisfied, even with what I consider my best stuff.”

Kathleen Maher: “Like many fiction writers, known and unknown, I love writing but am never satisfied, even with what I consider my best stuff.”

Underground Nest’ is a kind of character portrait. Zach Severins is a smart, ambitious man who craves honor and achievement primarily to feed his self-satisfaction. He grew up in the Boy Scouts, where he earned the rank of Eagle Scout status earlier than most. When Underground Nest begins, he’s a proud and demanding husband and father. As a professor of political science, he’s being considered for a tenured position at a highly ranked U.S. university.

He believes in upholding the Boy Scout Code of Ethics, and serves as the Scoutmaster to his son’s troop. Yet, he also considers himself a trailblazer, who occasionally strays from the path seeking discoveries. Zach uses “switchbacks” (zigzag routes hikers take when climbing especially steep terrain) as a metaphor to rationalize breaking his own rules. This justification soon leads him into a double life.

The story is about someone who loses the respect of his family and colleagues and must accept the friendship of a man he otherwise would have shunned. By the end, he’s ready to become the good and decent person he thought he was.

Diary of a Heretic’ is a novel presented as the diary of Malcolm Tully, a 27-year-old gay man, whose first and only lover died, leaving him grief-stricken and in a state of painfully heightened sensitivity and anxiety. His parents, worried about his mental state, have bought him a bakery/cafe in a suburb of Chicago.

I was reluctant to write ‘a diary,’ because like Malcolm, I’m easily sidetracked from the plot by tangential fascinations. But the character required a diary, beginning on New Year’s, when, Carlos, the cafe’s baker, stops resenting Malcolm and begins manipulating him. Carlos is an older man who’s achieved local fame without fortune. Before long, Malcolm suspects that Carlos is manipulating him but is too needy to stop him. Carlos talks Malcolm into starting an “open mike night” at the cafe, something Malcolm has secretly wanted but has been too afraid to try.

Even though Malcolm says little at the first event, he’s nonetheless embarrassed by it. Curiously, this convinces Carlos to employ standard mind control techniques on Malcolm, goading him into leading the discussions. When Carlos thrusts Malcolm to the mike, Malcolm unwittingly begins to preach. This both mortifies and elates him. Carlos and the cafe’s other employees insist that people need to hear him. In fact, they voluntarily contribute money in homage to Malcolm’s views on life and death and why we’re alive. Once it’s clear he’s drawing crowds, one of the cafe’s team names him the leader of ‘Religion Without Rules.’ Malcolm’s diary then follows the rise and inevitable fall of “Religion Without Rules.”

In one of the conversations with you, you told me that, the character Malcolm Tully in ‘Diary of a Heretic’ came to you full blown in a dream! I am really excited to hear this! How could this be possible? Are you a successful day-dreamer?

Kathleen Maher: In the late 1990s, I woke up with Malcolm in my inside my head. I told my husband my mind was filled with a 27-year-old gay man, and I began writing the novel. But this was a unique experience for me.

Kathleen Maher: “I know it’s fiction! But it’s also my life. Sometimes, my characters won’t leave me alone.”

Kathleen Maher: “I know it’s fiction! But it’s also my life. Sometimes, my characters won’t leave me alone.”

I have to struggle to consider myself a successful anything. Like many fiction writers, known and unknown, I love writing but am never satisfied, even with what I consider my best stuff. I do my utmost to bring a vision to life, and—eventually, I’ve rewritten a story so many times, there’s nothing more I can do without losing what first intrigued me. That said, you’re right, Shams. I’m very good at daydreaming. When I’m in the throes of a story, my conscious and subconscious blend. When I talk about my stories, my son sometimes teases me, saying, “You do know it’s fiction, right?”

Of course, I know it’s fiction! But it’s also my life.

Sometimes, my characters won’t leave me alone. (This isn’t necessarily a good sign. Just because I’m absorbed in a story, does not indicate anyone else will be.) I’ve read various “tips for writers” by famous writers suggesting that if ideas come to you—write them down immediately. That’s good advice, I think, for certain phases of writing. When you’re starting out, for example. Or, if you want to write but haven’t gotten carried away yet. I’ve reached a stage—which could change—where I have accumulated far too much material. The challenge for me is to cut 20 pages to one so that my writing is fast and fun.

Is the novel ‘Diary of a Heretic’ inspired from any real cult or religious movements like the Branch Davidians religious sect in Texas or the Japanese cult movement Aum Shinrikyo?

Kathleen Maher: No. I read books about various cults and how they began, but ‘Diary of a Heretic’ revolves around the deeply personal, dark relationship between Malcolm and Carlos more than it does around ‘Religion Without Rules.’ Although, when Malcolm preaches, he is charismatic.

I know many readers like to read about the overall structure of things—the scope that shows religious and/or political movements looming large in the world. But what drives those systems are the interplay of intimate desires, loves, hates, and aspirations among the people in power.

If I had a grasp on how to summon a cult, I might know how to captivate readers who would find my writing half as interesting as I do.

Fiction’ and ‘Fantasy’—are they two different genres or categories in literature, or is one the sub-branch of the other. How would you define them and what are your most favorite books in these categories?

Kathleen Maher: I read ‘fantasy’ books as a child. But I haven’t kept up with the current genre. If a story is too far removed from real life experience, and the spirit that makes us human, I rarely enjoy it. And if I don’t enjoy it, I don’t read it. Nevertheless, I often put down a book one year, only to pick up the next, and read it many times in succession, because at that time it speaks to me directly. But so far, I haven’t read many that fit strictly within the ‘fantasy’ genre, except those I read to my children when they were little.

Fiction is any story that springs from the writer’s imagination. Whether it’s good or interesting is entirely subjective. If a book matters to you, if the words resound inside your head and heart and the story enriches your life—that’s a great book.

Of course, our perceptions of ourselves and others might very well be fantasies and I do enjoy novels exploring that possibility. Certainly, every life contains elements of fantasy. But for me, that’s different from the fantasy genre.

In todays’ world where internet is available to millions and many will bring their thoughts to daylight, so at the end we can have more writers than readers. So what do you think, how literature is going to evolve in the coming future?

Kathleen Maher: I don’t know. I believe reading is an art in itself. It requires a sustained concentration similar to writing. Ideally, the writer and reader are engaged in creative dynamic that is especially potent because time and space don’t apply. To me, that’s an extraordinary interaction! I feel it when I read and it’s what I long to stir up with my writing, should anyone find enough time and interest in it.

I read a review of a book recently suggesting that style determines even science and mathematics, which many people consider absolute. (I never have, because using logic or mathematics, we can prove one premise and its opposite, or at least, some people can.)

What are your next books?

Kathleen Maher: For the past six years I’ve been writing and rewriting two books, ‘The Vitruvian Man’ and ‘The Vitruvian Woman.’ ‘The Vitruvian Man’ is about a 19-year-old mathematics prodigy, who goes to work on Wall Street constructing investment derivatives. He’s a privileged orphan, in that his parents were always traveling and developing drugs to combat AIDS. On his own then, Walter sped through every level of school. His teachers were replacement parents until he goes to work for his mentor’s cousin. Once employed, he marries his boss’s administrative secretary and becomes a father before he’s twenty. The family moves to the suburbs and the girl who lives across their shared driveway, Amanda, becomes his daughter’s best friend. Her mother is a traveling salesperson and once the girls start school, Amanda’s left to cope by herself. For years then, Walter and his wife look out for Amanda along with their daughter Olivia. Years later, his wife leaves him, taking his beloved daughter with her. Living alone, Walter decides he has enough money, and when a promotion comes up, he objects to a particular shady practice at the bank employing him and is fired. Within a few days, he notices his daughter’s friend doing cartwheels to get his attention.

Before long, they develop a rapport that grows more and more intense, until he thinks of little else. When I was first writing this story, my husband expressed alarm. He saw it heading toward a sick relationship. That remains a dangerous factor, but what Walter and Amanda share goes beyond her pubescent provocations and his struggles to resist them.

The Vitruvian Woman’ is Amanda’s story after she’s grown up. I’ve written it in serial form online more than once. When I finish ‘The Vitruvian Man,’ which I keep thinking is finished only to discover it requires further refinement, I’ll reconstruct and rewrite ‘The Vitruvian Woman’ off-line, which means I’m serious about publishing it. That’s the story I anticipate as the bigger challenge, but ‘The Vitruvian Man’ keeps deceiving me. It’s always almost the best I can do, but always—only almost. Yet I’m determined to finish it sometime this year.

Who’ are the most influential personalities, in your opinion, in modern day literature? And who influences you the most?

Kathleen Maher: Because I mentioned publishing my next book, let me interpret this question in a manner you probably didn’t intend, before naming the great writers I cannot ignore.

First, unfortunately, I do not know the influential people in modern day literature and they don’t know me. How I wish that they did!

Next, every novel I read affects me, but the phase when a writer’s voice might influence mine didn’t last long. Not that I ‘found my own voice’ easily or early. Instead, I found that what I loved reading was not mine. The great novels I loved were not the novels I wanted to write. So my days of experimenting with ‘stream of consciousness’ or reveling in the light and shadow of James Joyce and Nabokov, for example, ended almost before they began.

Among my favorite contemporary writers, whose prose moves me like music are: Marilynne Robinson, Keith Lee Morris, Joan Silber, and David Mitchell. I also hold David Foster Wallace in great esteem, as well as the writer of whatever novel I’m reading now and the novels I will read or reread after that.

What’s the best time for you to write your novels, like late night or early morning? And in which season are you more productive – spring, summer or even in winter?

Kathleen Maher: An ideal schedule would be if I started early in the day. But I write serial fiction in installments on my website and do my best to post regularly—the goal is once a week. I believe that pictures are necessary in online fiction, especially since more and more sites offer videos as well. For years, I’ve spent too much time fooling around in Photoshop, which sometimes serves as a break, in which I can reconsider what I’ve written but often keeps me up late. This throws me off schedule. Also, I continue to polish the writing, despite the serial being an interim stage. After I’ve shaped it as well as I can in serial form, I put it away for at least a year. If it still interests me, I work on it off line, changing the pace, structure, and refining the logistics of a story I’ve come to know thoroughly.

Writing online serial fiction keeps me pushing my limits. The goal, of course, is to interest readers. I love writing this way, and don’t really mind writing when most people sleep.

The seasons sometimes affect me if I’m starting something new or feel stuck. Winter can make me more anxious and restless than normal. I’m not a casual writer. And, I’ve learned that what feels as if it’s great when I’m writing it often proves vague or repetitive the next day. Judging one’s own writing, even in terms of grammar or typos, is difficult. I step back, put it away, and read it out loud. I read it on the screen and print it out. If I’m not careful, I mix up the different versions. So I don’t keep my early attempts. I may decide to reconstruct them, however. My husband reads and edits everything I write. He’s rarely wrong.

My father died this spring, leaving me and my mother and siblings with nearly insurmountable grief. Since then, I write when I can but often find I cannot muster the necessary concentration.

Any advice for the new writers?

Kathleen Maher: In her book, ‘A Poetry Handbook,’ Mary Oliver offers what I consider the best advice. She says to make a date with your muse, whether you think you have one or not. Show up on time and wait for words that may not come. Remain faithful and alert, in any case. Do nothing during the time you’ve allotted but listen for an internal sound. Eventually, an urge or hesitant sense will form.

Apart from our discussion, as you are a writer, I would like to ask you one last question, what is ‘romanticism’ actually? How do you see it, how would you explain it?

Kathleen Maher: The meaning of words is always in flux, and words ending in ‘ism’ are especially susceptible to misinterpretation. So I looked up ‘romanticism.’ From one century to another, writers and artists react to periods of reason and practicality with creations of passion or ideal love. This is different, I think, than the literary genre of romance novels. Again, I know little about those, except that I am an avid fan of Jane Austen, whose plots concern marriage. And, all of my fiction includes love and sex, sometimes romantic, sometimes not. Romanticism—I think—occurs when love with or without sex is matched by an intimate awareness of one another’s spirit. This is separate from any religious idea of a spiritual life after death. Romantic lovers recognize and love the part of each other that isn’t subject to time. What’s romantic cannot be proved or measured. It’s not rational, which does not mean it’s unreal or nonexistent. Romantic love is like altruism. It makes us aware of ideals that are unattainable, yet constantly call us to strive for virtue and honor, separate from praise or recognition.

*For interested readers, more on Kathleen Maher and ‘Diary of a Heretic’ on her site

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