R.L Maizes is new to Colorado’s books list, but not new to its writing scene; she’s been actively soaking up all that the state has to offer would-be authors for over a decade while honing her writing chops. In some ways, she's a good example of what a strong literary community can produce, while still very much unique in her voice and her prose.
Her new collection, We Love Anderson Cooper, is an emotional and quirky set of short stories that will launch at the Boulder Book Store on Tuesday, July 23. In advance of that event, we sat down with Maizes to talk about the book, her writing, and everything “beautiful and vulnerable."
Westword: You're debuting your first collection of short stories at the Boulder Book Store, and reading at the Tattered Cover and Old Firehouse later in the week. How do you approach launching a book for a local audience? What can attendees expect at the event?
R.L Maizes: I hope to give the audience a sense of the book, and also a sense of me as a writer. The book is about characters who are treated as outsiders because of their religion, sexual orientation, or simply because they look different. I’ll discuss what compelled me to write a book about outsiders, what in my background made outsiders a subject that preoccupies me. I’ll also talk a bit about empathy and how it’s created, because one of my hopes for the book is that it helps readers develop greater empathy. The audience can also expect to hear me read from the book, to illustrate points I’m making in the talk and to help them decide if the book is one they’d like to take home. One of the stories I’ll read from is about a Jewish actuary who suspects his cat of cheating on him with his Protestant girlfriend.
Talk a little bit about the book. How did the collection start, how did the writing go, how did you get it into the hands of Celadon Books?
I wrote the stories over a period of about ten years, revising them until I felt they were as good as I could make them. Just because stories are short doesn’t mean they’re easy or quick to write. Some posed greater challenges than others. The story “Ghost Dogs” was difficult to write because it’s dark. I needed to find ways to lighten it up so the reader wouldn’t get emotionally exhausted. One way I did that was to flash back to times when the main character’s life was full of promise and she was surrounded by love. The story “A Cat Called Grievous” contains black humor. Getting the end right took quite a bit of work, and I was assisted in that process by Halimah Marcus, the wonderful editor at Electric Literature, a magazine where the story first appeared.
Like any success in life, getting the collection into the hands of Celadon Books, a new division of Macmillan, involved some luck. Since it’s my first book, I started by looking for an agent to represent me. Connecting with my marvelous agent, Victoria Sanders, took about four months, which is relatively short in publishing time. I was working on a novel, too, and she wanted me to get further along in that book before submitting the collection to publishers. I was impatient and hated to wait, but I believe it’s important to trust professionals you hire. Perhaps that’s because I used to be a lawyer. In any event, I followed Victoria’s advice and spent a few more months working on the novel. Then she submitted the collection to publishers on a Friday, and we were fortunate to have three publishers, one of which was Celadon, call about acquiring the book the following Monday. Talking to the editor at Celadon over the phone, I could tell I would enjoy working with her. That was important because the editor-writer relationship is a close one, a professional marriage that lasts years if things go well. I got a sense the company would champion the book and help it find its way to readers who have an enormous number of choices when it comes to buying books. I ultimately signed a two-book deal with Celadon, the collection plus the novel, Other People’s Pets, which is due out next summer. No surprise, my agent knew what she was doing.
How did the title come about? I know it's the title story in the collection, but why make the decision to invoke Anderson Cooper in the title of the book overall?
The way the phrase “we love Anderson Cooper” appears in the book is funny. And I use humor throughout the collection. So in that sense, the phrase is a good representation for the entire book. The title makes people smile and intrigues them, reactions I welcome and hoped for. When you put a book into the world, it becomes a collaboration between you and the audience. I’ve had numerous readers, including reporters, tell me why they think I chose that title, and each was partially right. I don’t want to foreclose that kind of interaction of reader and book by giving a “correct” answer to the question “Why that title?” And, of course, I don’t want to spoil the moment in the story where the phrase appears.
I love the cover of this book, and I'm always curious about how cover art gets selected. What were your other options for the cover image, and how did you settle on this little bird — a finch, I think?
I’m so glad you like the cover. The publisher worked on it for months. It was an effort that involved numerous people in the publisher’s art and editorial departments as well as a designer, Evan Gaffney, and an artist, Daniel Handel, who created the bird — yes, a finch. I was offered two choices for the cover, the one with the bird and a very different one, a graphic treatment of the title, and this one spoke to me. It relates directly to one of the stories, “No Shortage of Birds.” But more important, the image of the bird strikes me as beautiful and vulnerable. I thought it captured what I was trying to portray in the entire collection, the beauty and vulnerability of the characters. It’s very eye-catching, and I hope will draw people to the book.
Talk a little bit about how these particular stories came together. How did you select the order for the stories? Were there other stories that didn't make the cut into the final book? How do you draw that line, and create a sort of holistic sense of the collection?
The order of the stories was tricky. There are two stories that involve cats, for example, and while those stories bear little resemblance to one another, I wanted to separate them. Similarly, there are two stories about children. Again, they’re nothing alike, but I didn’t want them together. A few stories deal with Jewish settings and characters. For example, the title story is about a boy who wrestles with whether to come out at his bar mitzvah, and another story is about an interfaith couple that fights about celebrating Christmas. I wanted to separate those stories, too. So all of that became somewhat complicated. An agent who read the book, though not the agent who represents me, suggested leaving out one story, and I immediately saw she was right. The story simply wasn’t ready, though I had thought it was when I submitted it to her. The holistic sense of the collection is created by the theme of outsiders, which runs through the stories.
So why short stories? Why not a novel? What made the short form your first foray into print?
I love short stories. Because of their compression, they force writers to ask what one true thing they’re trying to get across and to focus on that. The result can be very powerful. I can’t help thinking about Tobias Wolff’s story “Bullet in the Brain,” which is just a handful of pages and takes place over the course of a few minutes, but which, once you read, you will never forget. Lorrie Moore, another great short story writer and novelist, describes the intensity of the short story this way: “A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage.” When I was just starting out as a writer, novels seemed overwhelming. I couldn’t imagine writing 300 pages. I had nothing but admiration for novelists but didn’t yet see myself as one. I wrote a novel over the past two and a half years, and it will be out next summer. Writing it was as hard as I imagined it would be, but fortunately I had already developed certain skills, such as writing scenes and dialogue, while working on stories.
One of my favorite stories in the collection is the last one, "Ghost Dogs." It's also a very Colorado story, and it's got this lovely sense of plainly put magical realism to it. How else does Colorado show up in this book, maybe in ways that aren't immediately evident?
The story “A Cat Called Grievous” also takes place in Colorado, and the weather — the cold and snow — is an important element of the story. It’s the reason the cat takes refuge in the couple’s house, and it drives the plot in other vital ways, too. The snow and cold help create the mood of the story, too.
Although the story “Better Homes and Gardens” takes place on Long Island, I got the inspiration for the story in my Colorado neighborhood. I was walking my dog during the Great Recession and saw a BMW with a pizza delivery sign on the roof. I imagined the driver had experienced a reversal of fortune, perhaps a change in social or economic class. I wondered what if the driver, rather than being unhappy about the change in circumstance, welcomed it. That was the premise for the story, but I located the story on Long Island because wealth is more pronounced there. So the change in status would be more dramatic, which would make for a better story.
What role has Colorado and its literary scene played in your development as a writer? Who are the Colorado writers you follow and who have affected your work?
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Colorado has a rich literary scene. To begin with, there’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a fantastic writing school in Denver. I took numerous classes and workshops there that were especially helpful, because I don’t have a writing degree. The classes were rigorous, and at the same time the teachers were encouraging, which was the perfect environment for learning.
I’m a huge fan of Laura Pritchett’s work. Her recent novel, The Blue Hour, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2018. I adore her short story collection, Hell’s Bottom, Colorado, which won numerous prizes, including the PEN USA Award for Fiction. Laura’s work goes deep into characters’ heads and hearts, and I’ve tried to learn that from her. I also love Nick Arvin’s work. His novel Mad Boy won the 2019 Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction. It’s a tender, funny book with a great plot. I couldn’t talk about Colorado authors who are important to me without mentioning Kent Haruf. I’m currently rereading his Plainsong Trilogy. Plainsong, the first book in the series, was a National Book Award finalist. The novels are set in fictional Holt, Colorado, and are about found families. In their gentleness, they’re a tonic for the roughness of life.
The independent bookstores in Colorado are wonderful, too. At a talk at the Boulder Book Store more than a dozen years ago, I heard an author describe her writing process. What I took away was that you have to write a lot before you can begin to write well. After I attended the talk, I started writing every day.
R.L Maizes will read and sign We Love Anderson Cooper at the Boulder Book Store on Tuesday, July 23; Tattered Cover LoDo on Thursday, July 25; and Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins on Friday, July 26.