You can’t always get what you want, as Mick Jagger famously sings. But sometimes, you get it after ten years. That’s how long it took Courtney Maum’s debut novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Without You, to hit the shelves last June, and it’s available in paperback for the first time this week.
The book centers around Richard Haddon, a British artist who finds his marriage with his wife, Anne, in disarray after she discovers his infidelity. The novel delves into the nuanced, destructive emotions surrounding marital disintegration and the pain between people falling in and out of love. But more than that, it contains Maum’s signature humor, along with thoughtful, dark jabs at the pretentiousness of art—and literary—communities. We talked to Courtney about the ongoing MFA vs. NYC debate, how getting a job as a waitress can be a great training ground for writing dialogue, and what to expect at her upcoming reading at Literati Bookstore.
Congratulations on your paperback coming out today. How does that feel?
Good, it’s surreal, but it’s exciting.
We’re looking forward to seeing you Thursday.
I’ve never even been to Michigan, I’ve never been to Ann Arbor, or Literati, but I’ve heard wonderful things about it.
We have a large academic community. Speaking of that, you’re really honest in your writing about the disparity between being in academia and not—You take a few jabs at the pretentiousness of arts communities in your essays, and in the novel, not subtly. Can you talk about that?
I can only talk about my experience, and mine is something of an anomaly because I didn’t get an MFA; I didn’t major in English, not that you have to, but that’s the common path. So I think there sort of needs to be a relationship between the two worlds. If you’re not in academia, you’re not teaching, you didn’t get a community through a MFA program, you need to either write your way into one, or buy your way into one (laughs), or just create one, because I really wasn’t able to get ahead in my career until I became friends within the writer community.
I lived in France right after college for five years, and I had no writer friends at all. By the time I had a body of work ready to share—a short story collection—I had no one to share it with. I lived in an incredibly rural area, literally 53 square miles, 1 ½ times the size of Paris with 730 people. So I was submitting to magazines and getting rejected all the time, because my name didn’t mean anything. I couldn’t send an email that said ‘Chloe suggested that I write you,’ or something like that, and at least that person may have taken a second look. I had nothing. So I had to build a community from the ground up and force myself into the storytelling community in New York.
I started meeting editors who had previously rejected me, and they’re like ‘oh we don’t even read those emails, send them directly to me,’ and it was the social networking thing . . . it’s an online term, but it’s still a face-to-face contingent that really matters. You have to get out there and meet people, shake hands, buy literary magazines. You can’t just do what I was doing—and what I think a lot of people do—and go ‘oh, I can’t afford to go out and buy books, I can’t afford to subscribe.’ You have to participate in the community that you want support from. For most young writers, that means circulating in academic and literary communities.
Does that affect readership?
Now my book reached people like middle-aged women who don’t read literary magazines, they have no idea what the Paris Review is, no idea. But those are not people I would’ve ever reached if I hadn’t written for free for online magazines. What happened was, I had enough published pieces online and in print that, agents started contacting me. I didn’t have to reach out to them anymore. And I’m on my third agent, I mean, I’ve been there, sending out unsolicited query letters and stuff like that. Both realms need each other in order to exist.
That’s a good point—artists doing things for free to get ahead. There’s the other side, that says that’s why no one is getting paid well, because the common denominator is dropped.
Yeah. We’re definitely at a point where, if you’re not gonna write for free, absolutely someone else is. And I think that’s just how it is, and I have to say a lot of the mags I started out writing for free for, they either started to value what I was doing for them, or something changed in the masthead and they started paying me later down the road. Obviously it’s never a lot, but if you like what you’re doing—I always enjoyed writing my columns whether I was getting paid or not—and then, you know, did it for years before they finally said ‘oh, we have money now.’ But by that time, you curry favor among people as well. It’s just the way the world works.
It’s an issue of sacrifice.
Exactly. When you’re having a book published, we’re in a world now where you have to ask for blurbs. And if you’ve been writing for free for all these people, it’s totally in your right to say ‘hey, either you write me a blurb or help me get in touch with someone.’ The lit community is very much a ‘I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine’-type, and sometimes it feels like that’s just the way it is. I don’t see it changing anytime soon. Even someone like Roxane Gay is a good example; she was writing for free all over the place, and now in just a short amount of time, a household name, she has a column in the New York Times, all over the place. And I’m sure that she would say the same thing. You have to get your feet in the door. Something else I would tell young writers—I always say make sure you have some other stream of income coming in. Unless, you know, you’re just independently wealthy (laughs), or living at home, it’s just . . . you won’t write well if you’re constantly worried about money. If you have to work in a restaurant, whatever . . . just make sure you have a reliable source of income coming in every month so you can cover rent and food, and then you won’t have to make excuses when you’re at the computer. Write for free, but don’t be like, ‘I’m a freelance writer, that’s my job now!’ It’s not a job when you’re starting, it’s an apprenticeship.
And that goes back to the topic of academia—we can talk about motifs of crafting grief and longing in the classroom, but you need groceries before you can write well.
Yeah—and the other thing, writing is such a solitary endeavor. If you’re not in an MFA program, you could very well never leave your apartment or house. Even if you live in a city, you could just be living on ramen, working on your story and not seeing anyone. I’ve been a reader for fiction magazines, often I read stories and think ‘wow, this is great,’ until I get to the first dialogue exchange, and realize this person has not left their house, and hasn’t been listening to the way people actually speak. I’ve worked in restaurants a long time; that was always my job. I always tell people, ‘Work in a cafe, or a restaurant,’ because you’re getting paid a bit, and honing your craft. Those are the places where you can really listen to the way people talk to each other; they interrupt themselves. Then you can bring that into what you’re writing. You know, you read these stories by newer writers, and they’re so good, but all of a sudden, the character’s like ‘Hello, John, would you please come with me to pick up my tractor?’ (laughs) It’s just not real life.
Speaking of weird, there’s reviews of your book out there that call it a ‘beach read,’ or ‘predictable,’ but I think it’s actually pretty devastating. It drives at the subtleties of pain between people. On the tour, how do you choose passages that represent the novel’s messages?
I used to tailor things to the audience, and it became so time-consuming, and a little stressful, so now I just tailor the intro. I’ll get up and talk, and I started reading the same passage at all of them. I used to think that was a terrible thing, but it’s a passage that, to me, represents my work at large—it starts out funny but ends up really dark. I feel like it’s a pretty good example of not just the rest of the book, but everything I do in general, so if people don’t like that, they’ll probably just walk out of the room.
At all the events I’m doing, I try to make it not just an event. So I’ll be interviewing people, either individuals or couples at the beginning about love lessons they’ve learned. The part in the book where (main character) Richard starts interviewing his parents, and other long-term couples . . . I’ve repurposed this to ask people, preselected or who are willing, and ask them these questions. It’s usually both meaningful and funny, and then I’ll read, and then I’ll do the Q&A thing. It depends on the audience, too. If I can tell it’s young aspiring writers, I’ll say ‘hey, here’s a fun fact, I tried to publish this 10 years ago and was rejected 18 times,’ or if it’s senior citizens, I’ll do something differently; just sort of gauge the audience. So that’s what I do. 70 percent is tailored and then 30 percent is the exact same.
It’s a little tough if people haven’t read the book, I don’t want to give a spoiler, so I have to be careful. And I don’t read for a long time, I prefer to interact with the audience, because they can pick up the book and read it themselves.
I stress out, the reviews that are like ‘I don’t know if this is beach read or literary fiction, it’s kind of both and that’s weird.’ I’m working on a second book right now, and wondering about it, ‘Is this going to be a beach read? Literary fiction?’
It depends, maybe, on the reader.
Yeah, exactly. Now I’ve finally come to a place where this is actually a best-case scenario, you have people picking it up, thinking it’s a beach read, women who would never have purchased it otherwise, and then some attention from real literary fiction people, so I’ll take it. At some point I imagine there’ll be a switch, where the commercial world will say ‘this is too highbrow,’ or the literary fiction world is like ‘oh, she crossed over to the other side, she’s a traitor.’
It’s a thin line.
The book was almost published, but then it wasn’t—did you approach the manuscript differently?
Well, yes and no. Ten years ago, I was working with an editor while living in Paris. I revised it all summer, she wanted it shorter and tighter. But we had no contract; I was 23 or 24, my literary agent wasn’t good at protecting me. At the end of the summer, [the editor] quit her job, and the whole thing fell through. So we kept sending it out, I just sat there and got rejections until there were 18 of them. It only made me feel differently in that I thought I’d written this amazing thing that was gonna make me rich, and realized . . . no.
I was sick of [the novel], and conceited about myself at that time. I didn’t agree with the editors who’d rejected it, and couldn’t see the faults. I didn’t really look at it again until 10 years later, when my current agent encouraged me to pick it back up. I read it and thought ‘oh my god, this is what those editors are saying, the lead character isn’t compassionate at all, we can’t possibly have empathy for this person.’ I wasn’t married, and now I’ve been married 10 years, so I have a completely different view of married life, too.
Speaking of compassion, what about your #lovenotes project? It’s beautiful.
So, I’m inviting people to send me selfies where they’re holding a note card or piece of paper with some lesson that they’ve learned about love. They can be happy, optimistic, cheery, or they can be honest, sad . . . and whatever the person wants to submit, really. They’ll be living on my FB author page and Tumblr, I’ll share them on Twitter. As I’m traveling, I’ll include where the photos were taken, and the project will be an overview of what people are thinking and feeling about love right now. Maybe more like what people have learned. People can post them right to my author Facebook page, if they want. I have a nice stockpile and the booksellers are participating. It’s a fun thing.
Join Courtney Maum for a reading and Q&A at 7pm, Thursday, April 9. Literati Bookstore, 124 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor.