Interview with Meredith Maran

Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series presents:

An Interview with Meredith Maran

By: Nancy Au

Meredith Maran is a book critic, award-winning journalist, and the author of several bestselling nonfiction books including My Lie, Class Dismissed, and What It’s Like to Live Now.A member of the National Book Critics Circle, she reviews books for People, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Boston Globe, and writes for a number of magazines. Since publishing a poem at age six in Highlights for Kids, she’s dreamed of publishing her first novel. A Theory of Small Earthquakes is it.

Meredith Maran

1.)  You have such an inimitable talent for nonfiction writing (as shown by your ten nonfiction books, and the multitude of essays and articles that you’ve published over the years). What inspired you to branch away from nonfiction to write your extraordinary debut novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes? 

Meredith Maran (MM):I love a challenge. The theme of my life could be described as “Why do it the easy way when the hard way is available?” I’d written poetry, essays, investigative journalism, memoir, and book reviews, and I was in my 50s, and I’d always wanted to write a novel and it seemed to be a now or never kind of thing.

Also, I wanted to write what I love to read, and my favorite form of literary submersion is fiction.

2.)  You once stated that your writing is focused on your “greatest passion: the difference between how things are and how much better they might be.” How do you feel that your novel approaches this passion, compared to your nonfiction writing?

MM: In exactly the same way, but with a spoonful of sugar–love and sex, that is–to make the medicine go down. I’ve always felt that fiction has great potential to change people, and thereby the world; the book that got me writing in the early 1990s was Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees. I just wasn’t sure I had the chops to make it work. Back to the bucket list: I didn’t want to die not knowing.

3.)  A Theory of Small Earthquakes interweaves complex issues of motherhood, love, gender and sexuality, among many others. Are there any influences in your life that led to your writing of this evocative and deeply memorable story?

MM: There’s good evidence that I’ve been bi since birth, but I didn’t have a relationship with a woman till the early ’80s, the same era when my characters meet in an Oberlin “Wimmin’s Studies ovular” and fall in love. So the rule of first novel as autobiographical novel holds. I found that time and that world so utterly compelling when I was walking around holding a woman’s hand for the first time. Later, I found it hilarious. I wanted to share the intensity and the ridiculousness with friends–and by friends, I mean readers.

I started writing Earthquakes in 2004, when the first round of gay marriages were happening at SF City Hall. I wondered about all the gay couples, including gay parents, who had died without having that chance, and I wondered whether gay marriage could stop being such a big deal if more straight people understood what a not-big deal it is. Nothing like a “relatable” bi protagonist to introduce the masses to the world of “who cares who you love?”

4.) You’ve been a Writer in Residence at UCLA, the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, YaddoVirginia Center for the Creative ArtsMesa Refuge, and Ragdale. Do you have any advice for novice writers who are thinking about applying to a writer’s residency?

MM: Start by applying to smaller, less competitive colonies. There’s a huge difference between the ratio of applicants to acceptances for a place like Yaddo versus a less elite colony, and you get the same magic effect either way. All relevant info here:

5.)  Lastly, I have to ask: What was it like living with the cast of “Hair,” in London?

MM: Just as you would imagine it to be. Bear in mind, this was 1969-1970. Can you spell “Drugs ‘n Kundalini yoga for breakfast?” The actors were actually super-sweet and funny and eccentric–mostly in the good way. And needless to say, nudity wasn’t an issue in the house.