Interview with Derek Maine

MM) Your novel is titled Characters and while there are many characters you are arguably the main one. Its nature is solipsistic and cerebral, with an orchestral sort of interiority whereby the narrator’s thoughts skitter and hiccup around with musicality. When you read the Dolphin Lane Motel excerpt live on a Brooklyn rooftop at the Blank Swan expat event, you paced and sped up, oscillating between a quavering sonority and more blunt punctae. You slowed down and got startlingly intimate and hushed. To the extent that writing is performance, you time and again have answered the call to elevate words from the page. Here now in the year 2022, Characters will at last be enshrined between a spine, wedged between other spines in the library of the collective unconscious. So then, I can’t help but think of the way short-term memories crystallize into permanent ones. If writing is alive which it clearly is, mutating and evolving through print runs, ephemeral web iterations, and oral traditions, at what point is it dead to you, and what is reanimated? Who reanimates it?


DM) Characters is filled with them, but I think ultimately, it is a very lonely book. Or it is a book about being very lonely, I should say. I shouldn’t say that. I shouldn’t say that at all. I shouldn’t say anything. None of us should. Proverbs 17:28. I sit there and I listen and I try not to let my mind wander, but it does. I attend a Methodist Church on Sundays. They’ve never found a cure for me. We’ve never looked. All of it is dead and living to me. All of it is happening at the same time, at once, to all of us. We reanimate it when we read it, I think is a kind of truth. Not the best kind. Literature is a conversation. It is private, even and almost especially, in public.

I love talking about literature. I love talking about other people’s literature. I am trying my goddamnest to make some literature of my own and join that conversation that stretches millennia and tells our human story through each cycle and will continue to ad infinitum until the sun explodes. It will never be dead to me. It will just be inaccessible to me when there is no me.


MM) The nature of consciousness, artificial intelligence and sentience are grappled with here to bind the arc of the narrative. Some of the passages are ostensibly written by machines, and you walk right up to the wall that is the intrinsic limitations of the medium and laugh, and cognition itself becomes an engine that is iterative, stochastically and aleatorically, spluttering and spitting conditions of the experiment. Are you influenced by science fiction and neurology? Or philosophy of the mind, novels of ideas, that sort of thing?


DM) I am not familiar with science fiction in any substantial way and am wholly unfamiliar with neurology. There is artificial intelligence and the nature of consciousness at play in this work, but they are firmly rooted in the lived human experience of the here and now. Right now there are writers and publishers pumping out reams of artificial works, in every sense of the word. At a time when publishers can’t source fucking paper. Works that are created from a software program combing the past writings of an author. No one finds this obscene? No one? A clever trick, they say. A study of how the machine and the human co-exist and change each other? Hogwash. My novel stakes out a philosophical stance against this balderdash.

I am influenced by the novel of ideas, and I tried to write one that is enjoyable to read on its face, without eating its tail and punishing the reader.  


MM) The throughline of the Nightshades segments evokes on a visceral level the darkness of cognitive decline and dementia; at least nominally when I think Nightshades I think of dimmer switches and klonopin. Memories are hidden in the book, from yourself even. One could say the book is by design for posterity, not for you. For those of us still alive to read it, the pain of living, of having a life to look back on and forward to, is achingly familiar. What’s the point of all this beauty if we have to give it up, and seemingly, in sadness? As the light fades, what unfathomable solace follows lucidity?


DM) Dimmer switches and klonopin, marijuana sometimes certainly. The way our memories blur and fade, and the way our bodies blur and fade. Beauty is pointless by design. It is graciously relieved of the requirements imposed by meaning. The sadness is one thing we feel. The joy another. An orgasm at first light, in a tent in Big Sur, cliffside, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A telephone call that your mother is dying. If we have to give beauty up then we can try to create some, while we’re here, to share with others – those here now and those coming behind. And we can try not to destroy the beauty that was left for us. And we can celebrate beauty. As to that unfathomable solace, it is unfathomable precisely because we experience it once, alone, and then cross over to the other side. It is a private gift we earn through the pain of living. It is a collective gift we cannot communicate or share with each other.


MM) There’s some meta/intertextual Easter egg stuff involving another character named Garrett, and the narrative outlives the narrator. Without giving too much away, even the act of reading and study is handled transparently, with all these great extant works by dead authors having a continued role to play. What gets left in a story and what gets left out? What is inside the story and what is outside? One definitely gets the sense of being invited to cross these borders throughout.


DM) The narrative outlives the narrator in one reading but fails to in another. There are some linearity glitches going on, having to do with how our memory and consciousness receives and stores inputs, images, and information. Dead authors are more vital than living ones because they always successfully resist the urge to discuss their work. Everything is inside the story and each reader comes to a work with their own Anschauung. In The Literary Conference by César Aira the main character is able to solve a riddle that no one else has ever been able to solve. He solves it not through any superior intelligence, but with his particular, unique mix of cultural references, readings, and experiences. In the book it acts as an allegory for how we create, through each of our singular blend of artistic and material influences. Readers are creators too. In fact, the work is not complete unless and until it is read. Unread works serve a purpose, I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But their purpose is limited to the individual. Readers bring references, readings, and context clues that the author will have no sense of. Each reading is different and all of the story is inside of it and none of it is outside of it – we just don’t have access to very much of it, having only one vantage. Collectively, it grows and becomes something else. This is why discussion of works can be as beautiful and as valuable as the works themselves. They uncover and create and provide us access to aspects of the story we could never extract on our own.


MM) You have been a regular contributor to the cultural dialogue for a while now. From posting video reviews, to posting writing, to tweets, to podcasting, to journalism and thinkpiecing with the Last Estate. To bubble baths. Suffice it to say, you’ve done a lot to cultivate community as an active participant and passive observer. But I get the sense that there’s more gravity to a book. More solemn are we with respect to our works without being precious. More loner. Is this out of respect for the work? Does it get to live on its own now? Also, is there a part of you that wants to live as a writer more than write? Are they the same? 


DM) There is more gravity to a book. Solemnity, yes. It’s out of respect for literature. It lives on its own now, hopefully without too much of my interference and this can only serve it well. There is no part of me that wants to live as a writer more than write. I explore this phenomenon in depth in Characters because of its prevalence today and my own fascination with its vulgarity. I want to live as a father and a husband, a friend, a brother, a son, and, at least publicly, a sex symbol.


MM) Can replicated fragments of memories be inhabited? Is it always too late when we’re already there?


DM) Yes. And no; our imagination is not bound to the linear timeline and its draconian laws concerning truancy.


MM) Name and elaborate on one or two or three artists or works of art that have influenced you or stoked your interest. Make it about you.


DM) James Hampton features prominently in Characters, in only two mentions. His work Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation’s Millennium General Assembly resides in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. It is free to go see and open to the public. It can fill you up with everything, if you allow it. I won’t go into why because I won’t spoil my own book. I won’t interpret my own book, I should say. I shouldn’t say anything. Another artist featured in the book is Truman Capote, though not for his artistry in letters. I love In Cold Blood and confess to not reading anything else of his or even having a speck of interest, but a play I saw in my hometown, at the North Carolina School of Arts, featured an actor playing Truman Capote sitting on a chaise lounge (that’s coastal for couch), smoking cigarettes nonstop through a tortoise shell, theatre length cigarette holder and calling friends on the phone to gossip and talk shit. He drank gin. It was both lonely and lovely, and I thought, with my loneliness, maybe I can make something lovely. When I take baths, which I am known for in certain circles, I feel like Truman Capote smoking cigarettes nonstop through a tortoise shell, theatre length cigarette holder.


MM) Is the author dead?


DM) The author always dies at the end.


MM) This is decidedly an American Southern book. What makes the American South you’ve grown up in different from a big cosmopolitan city? Do you think it’s affected how you approach things? Are some things city folk do completely bewildering to you? 


DM) The nights down here are very long. Those hours of dread we discussed, over tea, at that weird ass Asian place you took me and Ted to in Bushwick, last three to four hours longer in the Summer. Two at least. Everything is seasonal down here. There are four of them. There are four of them down here, still. The moon plays a role, how could it not? I refuse to go to bat for the moon, though. It is a minor character. When the sun explodes the moon will sit there and take it. It offers no defense. Even if we find and transport ourselves to a habitable planet there is the problem of the Universe. My friend William Duryea, who you’ll meet in November this year, knows and understands the codes: 1.7×10106.

It’s going to get hotter first? There are going to be storms and pandemics and wars and the collapse will be live streamed. It’s going to get hotter first. In the Spring of 2020, when philosopher and author Mónica Belevan (@lapsuslima) posted, “It’s going to get worse before it gets worse” I kept uttering the phrase, “It’s going to get hotter first.” It makes the liberal pining for a restored planet and the conservative thrashing about for a restored society seem like they both bumped their head on the same door sill walking in. We’re not going backwards. You can’t slam the brakes. And I don’t like the looks of what’s ahead. I’m supposed to sit here and breathe. Focus on my breath. If we could spend this time having fun, trying not to hurt people, and trying not to make it worse – understanding that both will happen sometimes, because we’re real but then forgiving each other and ourselves and getting up tomorrow and trying to do it a little better. Sit down and write a to-do list. Make a breakfast the night before. Have your coffee beans ground. Take some responsibility for your life. These seconds do not belong to anyone else and they will never occur again – use them, protect them, Feel Them: If there is pain there is pain. If there is joy there is joy. I fuck with all of it. No one is bewildering to me. I encounter new characters every day, from all over the world, and I am privy to their innermost thoughts and those thoughts are translated by masters of their craft. I love translated literature, anyone will tell you that.

There is much written about the American South. Too much, even. I’ve written my impressions in my fiction, where I prefer they stay.


MM) Is the lyricism inherent in poetry and literature under credible threat from technology? It’s already at least conceivable that an algorithm will one day be able to produce a novel in the image of a man-made novel. It seems like it’s all part of the same mission…an almost narcissistic impulse to leave things behind, except that it isn’t narcissistic but reverent of the human condition. Perhaps we are what something else left behind, but without getting too far off the rails, it’s not difficult to imagine a world increasingly inhuman or post-human. Is it possible and do you believe you’ve achieved writing something say, insectile? All natural life tends to want to self-replicate and further its species or tribe or seed. Is the human condition inescapable as long as humans are involved? Or are we reckoning with obsolescence in more ways than we realize?


DM) All of these are excellent questions and obsessions of mine. I have an immediate distrust of anyone who claims to have an answer. Each of us has some sense of the precipice. It is etched in each of our lived experience. I crossed a millennium. I was born in one world and will die in another. Throughout human history most people cannot claim this. It must do something awfully strange to you. It certainly has to me. We won’t know what it all meant until you and I are long shuffled off this mortal coil. The job now is to document the here and now – to scream our existence to the unborn, so they may know us and find solace in our common humanity. We all know where this ride is going. We just don’t know what part of it we’re on. We reckon with our obsolescence every second of every day. Our instincts are to make love and to create and to destroy and we should honor these sacred passions as we ‘honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which Lord thy God giveth thee.’ (Exodus 20:12)


MM) You could’ve pared down the essence of the novel and were likely advised to keep being the short story writer you’ve always been. To just tell the stories. Why didn’t you?


DM) The stories, interrelated and essential to the overall narrative arc as they are, were written to also (hopefully) be enjoyed as stand-alone stories but this work is a novel. Some readers may connect with the stories and disregard the novel. It’s out of my hands now. A Frank Lloyd Wright quote may prove useful here: “Form follows function—that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” I agree with him on this and the stories and the novel were born of each other and joined in their own spiritual union. The stories are characters in a novel filled with them. To just tell the stories would be a renouncement of the novel and the ideas I set out to write. Did I succeed? That will never be my question to answer. I have crossed over into another side of this conversation, and any power of influence I had died the moment your printer bound the object.

This work is a rejection of our cultural attention disorder. It is written for close readers and re-readers and paranoiacs in an age where no one reads. This makes it the ideal vessel to hide things. I have hidden things, true things, in fiction. I have hidden disagreeable things in fiction. Major plot points somewhat necessary to resolving the narrative arc of the novel are mentioned in passing, in the middle of paragraphs three-quarters of the way through in what otherwise presents as harmless asides. I did not set out to do this to flaunt or frustrate. I did it to serve the story I am telling. We live in an era of instant access to a shared consciousness, transparently transactional social relations, and grifters masquerading as prophets. I felt, while writing this, that we must pass ideas through unconventional means to avoid the sentry and the howlers filling up the second balcony, their seats paid for by their devotion to a cultural homogeny. I hid things because I am trying to find, and speak to, the diggers. The stories are fucking bangers though and don’t require any digging whatsoever. This is yours now, to enjoy or detest or ignore however you please.


MM) All neurosis aside, the life of the narrator in this book is full of exploits and other people. It is a life basically fully-lived, insomuch as an unfinished life could be. Tell us about the more concrete stuff that happens. What kind of characters inhabit this life? How would you characterize them? What is a life well-lived, by contemporary standards?


DM) These are good questions that I have no idea how to answer.


MM) How is getting fucked up on drugs or alcohol similar to or different from getting fucked up by a novel? Do you feel you needed to soberly slow down to write one? Is there an alternate reality where Derek Maine wrote cutting-edge stories and books in his past when he was still living like many young artists do, with reckless abandon? Or is controlled discipline more your school of thought?


DM) Drugs and alcohol subdue your focus and dull your attention while art, and specifically novels in this case, require a sharpened focused and heightened awareness and attention to fully inhabit. There are times suited for each approach. I did not need to soberly slow down to write a novel. I needed to soberly slow down to be a good father and husband and person in this world and then, and only then, I felt comfortable publishing. This is my first published novel. The stories and books from my past have been, almost without exception, excised. I destroyed the hard drives. Once I completed my final proof of Characters, I destroyed the hard drives again. Just this past weekend, in fact. All of my writing has either been published online or is within Characters. The only exceptions are 800 words of my work-in-progress and perhaps a story in a zine or two from my teenage years still held on to by old friends, which more closely resembles palm print outlines my mother kept from Kindergarten than literature. Each re-birth demands a cleansing. I’ve never stopped writing. I wrote drunk and I wrote when I lived a life of reckless abandon. I wrote in bars and delivery rooms. I wrote in the suburbs. I wrote in the woods. To get any good at anything you have to live with being undeniably awful at it many, many times over. I’ve written enough garbage to last a lifetime. With any luck, I’ll write much, much more. Publishing is a different matter. When I choose to publish, I do practice a controlled discipline. I have to be quite sure. Characters is my first novel.


MM) How have the people you’ve met since we first met influenced you?


DM) I am easily and giddily influenced, but I can hardly identify the ways. I am too busy being me to notice the changes. I hope the influence has been reciprocal and positive on the whole, but I have no desire to investigate.  


MM) What are you working on now/next? Is there something you wished I had asked you? Something you wish you had said.


DM) For my next project I am trying to track down an author, goes by the name of Shep. The Atlantic paid this completely unknown writer to cover the war in Ukraine. There is nothing on this guy. I want to interview him and then just try and get someplace to publish it – like really try for someplace big. To announce myself. To sell the book. To find a reader. He’s some kind of wartime author. It starts now. I wish you had asked me. I wish I hadn’t said anything.