Alexander Maksik, the author of You Deserve Nothing (Europa Editions, 2011) and A Marker to Measure Drift, out today from Alfred A. Knopf, has shown himself adept at illuminating uncertain journeys through isolating physical and psychological landscapes. In his new novel, Maksik explores the pain of adjustment for a young refugee of Libera’s second civil war as she scratches out a new existence on the Aegean coast. Haunting and sensual, Maksik’s prose deftly intertwines the tenderness and torment of memory with the hard reality of searching for sustenance and shelter. I put six questions to Maksik about his book.
1. In an earlier blog post for Harpers.org about the origins of your story “Deeper Winter,” you recall the volatile moods of an Ecuadorian friend as “remnants of an existence I couldn’t know.” A Marker to Measure Drift is about another existence you can’t know: that of a young Liberian woman who has escaped the horrors of her country’s second civil war. What attracts you to writing about lives so removed from your own experience?
For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in other people’s lives and their adventures. My parents told me stories, and read to me, from a very young age. I loved imagining myself as those characters. There was never any separation between them and myself. That’s what excited me about fiction from the very beginning — it allowed me to inhabit someone else’s life. I was Nancy Drew (with whom I had a rather intense relationship), and Scout Finch, and Lancelot, and Huck Finn. That’s why as a child I wanted to become a writer. It’s the same reason I loved to read — as a way to occupy the lives of people I found interesting, people I admired, who frightened me, who confounded me.
I’m not exclusively interested in the immigrant experience, but I certainly admire and have great respect for people who are willing to abandon their homes, their families, everything that is familiar, for places that will be hostile and foreign and dangerous bearing the hope of finding a better life. Isn’t that essentially the oldest story in the world? Isn’t that in one way or another what every story is about?
2. Jacqueline’s life of vagrancy on the Greek coast is structured only by solitary, aimless wandering. You’ve lived abroad and traveled widely: Paris, Italy, Greece, and other places. How did your own travel experiences — the solitude, spontaneity, and tedium of long-term travel — inform this part of the novel? How important is travel to your writing generally?
There’s no question that traveling so much and living abroad for so long has made me a better writer. It’s forced me to be a constant observer. I can’t help but think that because I’ve done so much of it on my own, I’ve learned to watch more carefully, to become better at paying attention. I’ve found that when I travel alone, strangers are far more inclined to start a conversation with me. And being alone, I’m less of a threat. People are more willing to tell me their stories when I’m by myself. And I’m forced to engage in ways that I might otherwise resist. Also, having so often been a foreigner I think I’ve become more sensitive to, and more interested in, the experience itself. I know what it’s like to exist for long stretches of time on the periphery of other worlds, to be outside looking in. I think all writers feel this way no matter where they live, or how much they’ve traveled. But in my case the feeling is compounded and intensified by travel and living abroad.
3. Your writing is so rich in sensory detail, often rendered quite poetically, as in this passage where Jacqueline is finally able to eat a full meal: “Already she could feel herself returning. Or memory returning to her. Or her mind. Or whatever it was that came rushing back. Call it memory, she thought. And for a time the act of eating displaced memory.” Do you strive for a lyrical voice in your writing, and do you tend to favor that quality in other writers?
I’m not interested in lyricism for the sake of lyricism, beauty for the sake of beauty. I certainly love language and I pay close attention to the rhythms of sentences. I think prose should always be musical, but that doesn’t mean that it should necessarily be lyrical. I try to remember that language is a tool for telling stories, that it should reflect, and work in service of, narrative. I am always wary of the elegant variation. It’s a way of calling attention to myself, but I am not writing for myself. I am writing to be read. My responsibility is to tell a story and when story and character become secondary to language, I have failed. It is much easier to write beautiful sentences than it is to write beautiful stories. I want readers to be entirely unaware of me.
4. The novel references some of the extreme violence, including use of child soldiers, that occurred during Liberia’s second civil war. What compelled you to write about this period of Liberia’s history in particular?
Mostly hazard. Many years ago I read a short article somewhere about the early history of Liberia, which I found interesting. Then I read Helene Cooper’s memoir, The House at Sugar Beach, and then Ellen Sirleaf Johnson’s This Child Will Be Great, and then Russell Banks’ The Darling, all of which led me to read about Charles Taylor, which led me to see a film called Liberia: An Uncivil War, which remains one of the most disturbing and moving films I’ve ever seen. And then Tim Hetherington’s extraordinary book of photographs, Long Story Bit by Bit. Most of all it was the film (Hetherington shot a lot of the footage, by the way) and the photographs. I couldn’t shake those images, those people, those various voices. And when that happens, I don’t know what else to do but write about it.
5. Simple interactions with other people require enormous effort of Jacqueline; when she feels weak and desperate, she seeks kindness from others even as she is ashamed to receive any. Do you see her failure to connect as a continuation of her trauma?
I don’t see Jacqueline as weak or desperate. She is strong and independent and determined to the point of making her life unnecessarily difficult. On the other hand, it is her determination, her pride and dignity, that allow her to survive. Everything she does, everything she thinks and feels is in some way a result of what’s happened to her, to her family. And I do think that her failure to connect with other people is a kind of continuation of that trauma, or is a symptom of it.
6. In both this novel and “Deeper Winter,” you’ve written about immigrants — Jacqueline and Eduardo — who have been severed from their families and are maneuvering in landscapes vastly different from home. Yet they’re powerfully drawn to places even less familiar, more remote. Do you intend this movement to be hopeful?
I didn’t intend one thing or another, really. Neither journey begins nor ends where the story begins and ends. What’s important, I think, is not so much that their circumstances are better than before, but that they’ve each chosen to keep moving. That’s the most important evidence of their courage — that despite their respective problems they each have the strength to continue traveling through unfamiliar and treacherous landscapes. Jacqueline comes to understand that home has little to do with what is out there in the distance, on those ghost islands, but I’m not sure Eduardo has learned that yet.