Finding Out What Makes Keith Maillard Tick: An Interview

Photograph by Mary Maillard. Source

Keith Maillard is the award-winning author of fourteen novels, a book of poetry, and two works of creative nonfiction. His accolades include the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Literary Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Awards, the Polish American Historical Association Creative Arts Prize, and the Gerald Lampert Award for the Best First Book of Poetry Published in Canada.

Keith was born and raised in Wheeling, West Virginia, the inspiration for the fictional town of Raysburg, which serves as the setting for many of his novels. He has been a musician, a contributor for CBC Radio, a freelance photographer, and a journalist.

Your latest memoir, The Bridge: Writing Across the Binary, is about growing up as a nonbinary person in West Virginia in the 40s and 50s. How was the experience of writing it and exploring those memories?

Very intense. I’ve always been an introspective person, and I’ve certainly spent a large part of my life asking myself questions like, “Who am I?” and “How did I get this way?” Starting around 2009, I began to find people on social media who were exploring gender in a way that I hadn’t seen before, using terms like gender fluid and nonbinary. As I moved into that territory, I began to feel like an explorer in an uncharted landscape who has suddenly been offered an accurate map. I looked again at the entire span of my life and saw it differently. Much about my life that hadn’t made any sense to me before began to make sense.

What do you hope people take away from the book?

The Bridge has been marketed as a memoir of the 40s and 50s, and it is, of course, exactly that, but when I wrote it, the notion of an old guy recreating a lost time was the farthest thing from my mind. Gender identity is usually described as something that is constant throughout the lifespan—as psychologists put it—and it certainly has been for me.

When I was writing the book, I was hoping to enter an ongoing conversation in an unabashedly partisan way. Firmly built into the right-wing playbook is an unremitting attack on trans and nonbinary kids. We have seen great waves of this stuff lately: book after book, article after article, written by people who don’t know their ass from a teacup, holding forth—from conservative politicians to popular celebrities to best-selling writers like JK Rowling—saying, well, you know, you can’t argue with science; there are only two sexes and you’re either one or the other of them. That, of course, is not what scientists who actually have expertise in this area and publish in peer-reviewed journals are saying.

This anti-trans wave has been particularly bad in the UK and the southern United States where they are passing legislation that will seriously harm trans and nonbinary kids, even endanger their lives. When I wrote The Bridge, I saw myself entering as an ally to trans and nonbinary kids. I wanted to say, look, I’m an old guy, and I’ve spent my life thinking about this stuff, and my gender hasn’t changed since my earliest memories. What has changed is the label I put on it; I have always been what we would now call nonbinary. If it’s taking you a long time to figure it out, it took me a long time to figure it out, too. You are whoever you are, and I will vigorously defend your right to be your authentic self.

The term “nonbinary,” and an improved understanding of gender in general, are relatively recent developments—and ones that largely didn’t exist for much of your life. How, and to what extent, do you think this has influenced your fiction over the years?

It made me invent my own terminology, my own approach to gender—just as I had to do in living my life. A reader can see it most clearly in the four volume Bildungsroman, Difficulty at the Beginning, in which I take a character exactly my age and follow him from adolescence and on into early adulthood. Historical accuracy has always been extremely important to me, and the reader can see an evolving engagement with gender in my writing.

What does the title The Bridge mean to you?

It took me and my editor a long time to find that title. Please don’t forget what comes after the colon: Writing Across the Binary. The notion of the gender binary is very simple; binary means two, and in the binary, the two poles are male and female with nothing in between them. The term nonbinary is a broad umbrella; it can mean in between male and female, both male and female, neither male nor female, lots of different things, depending on the person using it. In my case, The Bridge means a connection between those two poles, a crossing over, a fluidity.

Then there’s another part to the metaphor. I grew up on an island in the middle of a river, and if you wanted to go anywhere, you had to cross a bridge, so bridges were very important in my early life. They have iconic significance in my psyche. I often dream of them.

How has your background influenced your writing more generally? To what extent does your own life influence your writing?

Questions like that usually translate into, “How much of your writing is autobiographical?” Most writers of mainstream fiction, myself included, begin with autobiographical strands of material, but if you’re going to keep on writing after a book or two, you run out of autobiography fairly quickly. A lot of non-writers think that everything in a novel is autobiographical no matter what the author says. That is a terrible way to read fiction.

In my most autobiographical work, Difficulty at the Beginning, the protagonist resembles me but is not me. In the earliest of the four books, Running, he resembles me the most, and then, gradually, he departs on his own track, as all good characters should. By the time that we get to Boston in the last book, he is absolutely different from me. If he were a real person, I would certainly have met him because we were both there at the same time and deeply involved in the anti-war movement, but he traveled in different circles from me and had totally different experiences.

Can you take us through the process of writing a book? What do you do first?

To write a book, the first thing I have to do is have an idea! One of the most maddening, annoying questions that authors get asked is: “Where do you get your ideas?” There’s only one honest answer: “I haven’t got a clue.” For any particular book, I could trace a line of thought that got me to the idea that originally formed the book, but the origin point will always remain mysterious. Yes, I began to think about writing Twin Studies after I read an article about twins,  but what was it in me that was attracted to that article? I don’t know.

Having an idea about a book always means people. My earliest ideas for Twin Studies came from the sudden appearance of twins talking to me in my mind. I could have said to them, “Go away,” but I didn’t. I said, “Tell me more.” Once I have people, they start interacting with each other and find themselves in life situations with problems that need to be solved, and they interact with other people who appear, and then they’re talking with each other in my mind in what Bakhtin calls “inwardly persuasive voices.” Some ideas—and people and scenes—eventually just peter out and fade away. Others keep on going and won’t let me alone. Those are the ones that turn into books. 

The first thing I write is what I think might be the opening of this new book. Often it isn’t, but I’ve got to start somewhere. And then I write those obligatory scenes, the ones that first appeared in my mind. What I’m creating at that point is an opening and a number of important nodes or turning points in the story. Fairly early on in this process I have to be able to envision how the story ends, otherwise I won’t know what I am writing toward. This initial process can take a long time, but eventually it has to produce a plot outline.

I love working with these things. They are what I take to bed with me at night as I’m getting ready to go to sleep. That’s when I see that scenes might be in the wrong place or I imagine new scenes. This is the structure of the book, and I love looking at it.Then it’s a matter of writing the scenes. As I do that, the structure can change, and it does. In order to finish a book, I have to write all the scenes required to get from Point A to Point B to Point C, and so on. Depending on the size of the book and how much research is involved, this can take a long time. Both Gloria and Twin Studies took about eight years.

What is the most challenging part of writing a book?

There are two challenging points for me. One is when there is no text whatsoever so I have nothing to edit—that is, first drafting, which, I gather, so many other writers enjoy. I absolutely hate it. Once I have some text to edit, then I am happy as a clam, but that blank computer screen is like staring into a mirror of malevolence.

The other challenging point is when I have a book thoroughly outlined, have written much of it, and there are still four or five chapters to go, and I know exactly what has to be in them, so there will be very few surprises in writing them, but I have to just sit there and write them, damn it. Of course, there are sometimes surprises, and they’re delightful when they appear, and the other wonderful thing I occasionally discover is that the book is working perfectly fine without a particular chapter and I can simply cut it!

What other books and authors have inspired you?

My reading tends to be directly related to what I’m writing. I’m a research nut. When reading for pleasure—drifting toward sleep at night—I tend to read genre fiction. I’ve read all of Ross Macdonald and William Gibson more than once. My most recent discovery is the utterly delightful Sara Gran who writes about Claire DeWitt, the world’s greatest detective. Also, for awhile, I was a great reader of Japanese manga. You can’t beat Urasawa’s Monster.

The reading that made me into a writer is very much related to the time in which I grew up. The 50s was a time of large, writerly books, and I always wanted to write one and I have—three of them (Gloria, Looking Good, and Twin Studies). Also, back in those days, the novel was supposed to matter; a good novel was supposed to change your life, and I always wanted to write one of those. On The Road is not the world’s greatest novel—we even knew that at the time when it came out—but that doesn’t matter. It was a book for kids of my generation and spoke directly to us in a way that John Updike didn’t—for all that he’s a much better writer than Kerouac.

Other books that mattered to me were Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Unfortunately, those are not good models for beginning writers—unless you learn what I eventually did, that you shouldn’t try to imitate their styles or structural strategies; what you should imitate is their utter dedication to following their own unique paths.

Which of your books are you most proud of?

I think my “best” books are the big fat old-fashioned novels: Gloria, Looking Good, and Twin Studies. My personal favorite is the shorter, odd, quirky Morgantown. The characters in Morgantown are adolescents, and they feel things intensely. They are either up in the stratosphere or down in the pits. I like that about them. One of my colleagues once told me that I am a novelist of adolescence. I resisted that idea until I started thinking about it. Many of my books have adolescent protagonists, and many of my books have adults who remember their adolescence vividly. It’s that time when you change, explore, find out who you are, and directly engage with life, so even though I’m an old guy now, I still like reading fiction with adolescent characters, and writing it. It’s always new and exciting.

Explore Keith Maillard’s work here