Maryse Meijer’s writing has often been described as “taboo” “dark” or “weird.” Although this isn’t necessarily what she is after.
“All sex, all desire, feels taboo. Every single on of us living under patriarchy has inherited a perspective on sex that seems, to me, to be rooted in violence, in notions of dominance and submission, of ownership, of bodies as objects to be used and consumed,” she says in my interview with her.
Once you read Meijer, this notion speaks loud and clear. in her most recent collection, “Rag,” we come face to face with the strangeness she uses to intensify the emotional realities of her narrators and their violent, unbalanced or animalistic impulses and desires. In “Her Blood” the hapless hero is thrust into an uncomfortably undefined relationship when he helps a woman having a miscarriage in a bathroom stall and apparently feels a stronger connection with her than she does with her boyfriend. The detective in "Evidence" tracks a female serial killer but ultimately unearths his desire to become one of her victims. “Viral” creates extreme discomfort as the female protagonist tapes and distributes a video of her former friend masturbating as an act of humiliation and revenge. Other stories, like "Francis" and "Good Girls," literalize metaphors about the animalistic urges of men.
In Heartbreaker, described as a book that will “gnaw at your soul,” Meijer’s characters are lonely, obsessive and self destructive. In “The Daddy” a woman hires a younger man on Craigslist to play her doting father. “The Cheat” involves an actual fox that seduces a teenage girl with junk food at a Christian weight loss camp. A man falls in love with the forest fire he creates and chases her, revealing his passion for “her” as she burns in “The Fire.”
Meijer is a unique and powerful writer, conquering uncomfortable or unsettling territory with the fearless love she has for each character. They are human, they are each one of us.
I had the pleasure of asking Maryse Meijer a few of my many questions after I devoured both her collections in just a few sittings. In this interview, Meijer discusses how her work is an act of political anger against the patriarchy, how she approaches writing about the body, thoughts on mainstream porn and her writing process.
I’m interested in your male protagonists in your latest collection, Rag. What inspired you to write in the voice of the opposite sex? What were some challenge? What do you like about using this voice?
I've always written from the point of view of both genders; Heartbreaker is often mis-represented as being only about women, but really half the stories in that collection are about men. I don't find it particularly challenging to inhabit a male voice, since it's not masculinity per se I'm thinking about as I write, but a particular character--and, for me, there's really nothing special one has to do to imagine one gender over another. They are all individuals, and the challenge is same for each; to plausibly present a specific person's state of being. And the pleasure in doing so is the same across the board, whether I'm writing from the perspective of a woman or a man or a gender neutral individual or a rag or an animal.
It's a challenge to get inside any other body, any other mind. I don't find it more or less easy to write about what I supposedly "know"; writing about female bodies is just as intense an act of imagination as writing about male or non-human or non-gendered bodies--since I'm never starting with myself, or writing about myself or my experiences, I'm always writing about things I don't know. And the fun and the difficulty of that is what draws me to writing in the first place.
This collection explores a lot of those marginalized by society, wanting to be part of something, but they can’t be. What do you think draws you to this subject?
I'm an identical twin, so I don't experience loneliness the way other people seem to. I find the idea of loneliness truly terrifying. So I'm always writing around that, trying to figure it out. I think a lot of violence comes out of loneliness. And cruelty, too. I think this has a lot to do with the ways in which we've constructed our notions of what it means to be human under a liberal, capitalist patriarchy; many of us believe that we are fundamentally opposed to, and isolated from, one another.
Competition underlies so many of our values, our relationships, our activities--so often our way of orienting to the Other is with a "me vs. them" mindset. And that is a monumentally destructive orientation to the world, and I think it's what has brought us, quite literally, face to face with extinction.
As a writer, I want to understand all of this, where it comes from, what to do about it. I hope people read the work and feel compelled to examine the role of violence and loneliness in their own lives. And I hope that there can be something comforting about recognizing ourselves, or each other, in these situations that seem extreme but which are, in fact, pretty common, on some level. We're not alone. But it's very dangerous to believe we are.
Lets talk about your debut short story collection, Heartbreaker. The stories within it spotlight women who live unsettled lives, have fierce emotion and who have strong, often times taboo desires. What inspired you to write about these women this way? What does “taboo” mean to you and why do you think you like to discuss and unpack these themes in your work?
Again, there's no grand gender plan in my work; all my characters are struggling with their desires, and while it's tempting to give the female characters more of a pass--I've often had reviewers describe my women as, bizarrely, role models of some stripe--the truth is they're all having a bit of a difficult time sorting out how to be in the world. The effects of violence and of misogyny and self-hatred and loneliness vary from body to body, and I certainly believe that there are gender-specific ways in which bodies absorb and respond to and enact violence, but I don't have to go out of my way to decide how to show this on the page; the differences are obvious to me, and the writing, I think, reflects that.
I'm a radical feminist; my work is, therefore, unavoidably feminist. But the target of my political anger, as a writer, isn't men, but patriarchy, which destroys all of us; when the women in my work act on their desires, they aren't doing so in way that is superior to the way men do it; I don't assign moral superiority to the differences in the way they respond to or enact violence, on themselves or others, though the differences are important and telling.
As for taboo--I don't really sit down and think, "well, what's the weirdest thing this person could want"? and then write about that from the position of a literary peeping tom. All sex, all desire, feels taboo. Every single one of us living under patriarchy has inherited a perspective on sex that seems, to me, to be rooted in violence, in notions of dominance and submission, of ownership, of bodies as objects to be used and consumed.
If you don't think connection to the Other is really possible, but you feel the intense desire for that connection, then you are fucked from the get-go. You want something your culture says isn't really possible, but that romance and love stories constantly dangle in front of you as the holy grail of human experience. I mean, mainstream heterosexual pornography is so devastatingly violent, so inherently racist and misogynist and cruel in its assumptions about what bodies want and how we should use them, that nothing in my work should really surprise anyone. I like to think that my characters are trying to find a way out, actually; that they are often looking to find connection and pleasure in ways that might seem strange, but which are often really just iterations of the same sexual tropes surrounding us all the time.
So maybe if you're reading about a girl and her relationship with a fox you'll recognize a lot of your own desires and frustrations in a situation that seems, on the surface, fantastic or metaphorical or whatever, but that really is fraught with the same issues you and your human boyfriend always seem to struggle with. All the violence, all the sex in my work, it's all literal. There's no distortion of reality, in my mind, when I sit down to write. These are common experiences, feelings, hopes, desires, fears. And that commonality--expressed through different bodies--is what fascinates me and motivates me as a writer.
Are you affected emotionally when immersed in writing about violence and the intense emotions you describe in both of your collections?
Absolutely! I cry a lot while i'm writing. I often don't like what my characters doing, to themselves or to each other. I want them to feel better, you know? I want them to do better. I'm trying to understand why they can't, or think they can't. When something funny or nice happens, it's such a relief.
Does your writing routine differ when you are writing a short collection, as opposed to your novella?
It's all pretty much the same, in terms of just sitting down and writing. I don't make outlines or plan anything or impose a certain order on my work day. I simply sit and see what happens. And then I edit for a long, long time. Of course, different projects require different ways of thinking about form and style and shape, but the actual routine is pretty much the same; sit, type, read, revise.
What do you think aspiring writers can learn from the short story form? What do you like most about writing short prose?
Short forms teach you precision, economy, shape. It's hard to jump right into a novel without first having some idea how these things are working or not working in your writing. And shorter forms give you lots of room to obsess over the details, to push yourself to get everything just so. I'm a writer very much oriented towards the small--gestures, expressions, single images. I think all the grand narratives can be found in the way two people look, or don't look, at one another. You don't need to say everything to say everything. And it's the not-saying that I enjoy as a writer when I'm working on something small; it's figuring out how much can be packed into the white space, into the margins.
What is next for you?
I'm working on a novel, out in 2020, about climate change, veganism, and necrophilia, and a nonfiction project about my obsession with bullfighting.
Maryse Meijer is the author of Rag, Northwood, and Heartbreaker. She lives in Chicago.