WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Paul, it’s really great to get to talk to you about your new book, Bindi. I was discouraged at first, and want to clarify for all potential readers—it is considered an uplifting,sometimes heart-warming book, but definitely not in a bad way. I was convinced this description would mean there would be little substance or depth to your novel, or perhaps your book would be too overwhelmingly optimistic in a way that might be disappointing. Bindi does anything but disappoint. It does stir one’s emotions and pull at your heartstrings but only in the best way. How did you come up with the idea for Bindi, and how did you approach it—character or story first, and how long did this novel take to develop before you finally presented it in its final form?
Paul Matthew Maisano: I certainly understand your concern. Messages of hope in literary fiction are a tricky business. But then I remind myself that hope, more often than not, is a response to longing and despair. I couldn’t have had one without the other. In terms of the initial idea that would become this novel, it’s hard to separate the roles that character and story played in its inception. The novel is told from four perspectives, but it would be fair to say that only two, Birendra’s adoptive family, came to me relatively fully formed. I was initially focused on the relationship between siblings who had grown apart as adults, despite clinging together and caring for one another as children in a broken and loveless home. Over the course of the five years I spent writing Bindi, my initial focus broadened and finally shifted primarily to Birendra, the boy at the heart of the novel.
MT: Was Bindi always meant to help the reader emote to such a degree? There are clearly some pretty intense moments in this book, filled with all sorts of feelings of loss and joy, and I wonder if you always intended it to be this way, and how you approached Bindi as a book that would arouse all of these emotions in the reader without being too saccharine or—well, for lack of a better word, “cheesy.”
PMM: I honestly cannot say that I set out to help the reader emote. In my experience, trying to create a family, whether chosen or born into, is a painful and joyful endeavor. I don’t know that I could have written this family differently. That the book had this effect on you is deeply gratifying. There will no doubt be those who do it find it “saccharine.” Some people thrive on despair. Many people are suspicious of hope and wear cynicism as a guard against being hurt and disappointed, as if that’s possible. Bindi may not be a favorite novel among cynics, but I can’t say if that makes it an important novel for them and others or not.
MT: What was the experience like, entering so many different viewpoints and people, some probably similar to you but others probably so far off and different from you entirely? How do you feel you’ve learned to embrace characters who are incredibly different from
you, and why do you feel it’s so important for writers to do so?
PMM: When it became clear that I would have to write from the perspective of Indian characters in order to tell this story, I was naturally apprehensive. Would I be sensitive enough? Would I get every detail right? Would they be believable? A concern that students occasionally bring up in the workshop environment is who has the right to write certain characters. To me this is ultimately well-intentioned but facile thinking. There will always be detractors, but I think some people forget that we would have almost no literature and probably no literacy at all if writers hadn’t begun writing beyond their experiences. Imagine the implications of that. In the end, I realized that all I could do was treat the characters the same: with love and compassion, with openness. Whether you like your characters or not, whether they are of primary importance to the story or not, whether their lives resemble the author’s life or not, all characters must be respected and treated as whole, complex beings with emotional lives even an author can’t possibly access entirely.
MT: How did you get your start as a writer? At what age, or what major life event, if any, led you to believe and understand “I am a writer”? How was your journey through life with writing, including being in a prestigious MFA program?
PMM: As a sophomore in high school, I went through a rebellious phase and had a particularly antagonistic relationship with an English teacher. One time I turned in a short story instead of the essay that had been assigned to us. I can’t recall if she gave me credit for it or not, but she encouraged me to keep writing fiction. And I have, though it was another fifteen years at least before I began to allow myself to think of writing as a viable career path. I left a “career” in 2007, along with the United States, and I went travelling for four years. By the end, I’d decided to return home to join a community of writers and receive an MFA in fiction.
MT: MFA programs are becoming more and more frequent these days, and we see more and more that it’s almost impossible to be published sometimes without an MFA, especially when writing certain genres. How do you approach the importance of an MFA program, and do you think it’s necessary for every writer, or is each writer different? What advice do you give aspiring writers?
PMM: I’ve actually been to two MFA programs. The first was not particularly well funded, but it was close to the beach, which appealed to me after my travels, which frequently brought me beaches and islands throughout the Mediterranean, Asia, and New Zealand. After my first semester, however, I struggled to convince myself that an MFA was worth accruing any debt, despite the valuable support of faculty and fellow students. So my first advice is to think long and hard about getting into debt. After all, it’s not a professional degree, and it offers no guarantees. As I was unwilling to get further in debt, I ended up working nearly full-time. This defeated the purpose of the MFA, which, in my opinion, is primarily to give writers the gift of time to write and think about writing. I applied to transfer and was accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I was guaranteed tuition remission and a stipend during my time there. I can’t say what’s necessary for every writer, but I certainly acknowledge how instrumental my time in Iowa was to completing and ultimately publishing Bindi.
MT: What are the books that have enabled you to write a book like Bindi? Obviously books by Asian writers should be listed here, but would you mind listing all of your favorite influences, from youth until now? What authors and books do you return to again and again, for form or inspiration or something else?
PMM: I’ve always struggled with this question, which is so similar to another that asks me to compare myself with other writers. It’s not that I think I’m so unique, it’s simply that, when I’m writing, the last thing I’m thinking about is what other writers would do or have done. I’m undoubtedly influenced and this may be evident to some in my style of writing, but it is not conscious. I think I’ve always been an emotional reader, which is to say that what sticks with me is the feeling of reading or having read a book. I may not remember plot details or character names, but I remember how it felt to move through the pages. The first time I lost myself completely to a fictional world on my own I was eight. I was in my elementary school library and found The Boxcar Children series on one of the shelves. I sat down in the aisle, opened the first book, and found the scent of the pages intoxicating. And then the story swept me up. Is it therefore meaningful that my first novel is about an eight-year old orphan? Perhaps. Since then, I’ve learned there are many ways to be swept up by fictional worlds. A few of my favorite reading experiences (of novels) to date have been: Midnight’s Children; Another Country; The Idiot; Sons and Lovers; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Black Boy; Good Morning, Midnight; The City of Your Final Destination; The Mandarins; Pride and Prejudice; Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Humboldt’s Gift; Lady Chatterly’s Lover; Laughter in the Dark; To the Lighthouse. This last book is probably the one I’ve returned to most often. I think it’s brilliant, bold, and beautiful. With her tale of the Ramsays, and particularly Mrs. Ramsay, Woolf gave us a great gift. Each time I read it, I find myself transported utterly and surprised at every turn, as though the story weren’t entirely familiar to me.
MT: The roles of parenthood and ownership are very important and clear in the pages of Bindi. Why did you choose to write about this topic in specific at this point in time, and why is it so important to talk about it now?
PMM: I think the story came to me as it did because there was no clear answer to any one of the questions I wanted to explore. It seems to me that we do claim our relatives, some to a greater degree than others, and this can lead to the purest love or the most devastating betrayal, as well as everything in between. In the case of parents, the question I posed is whether or not there is a way for siblings to love and support each other beyond the psychic wreckage of their shared nuclear family? And if not, as adults, what happens when one sibling acts in a way that the other finds hopelessly unforgivable, especially if it’s reminiscent of one or both of the parents? In terms of one’s right to be a parent, no matter the circumstances leading to that chosen role, I turned the question on myself and my characters: who has the right to decide the fate of a child, to deem a potential mother’s love worthy or unworthy, to judge an orphan’s adoptive home “right” or “wrong”? The answer was always that it’s complicated, we’re humans, and we can only do our best and encourage each other to be better.
MT: I love asking mostly every author I get the chance to interview that old quote that is attributed to so many authors, most frequently Toni Morrison, about how you should write the book you’ve always wanted to read but never found. Do you feel in Bindi you have written that book, or is that book still to come for you?
PMM: There are so many novels I still look forward to reading. For me, reading and writing are very different acts, but they are both rooted in the desire to connect with others at the deepest possible level. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’ve always assumed Toni Morrison was addressing the glaring absence of opportunities for readers and writers of color to engage in this great gift of literature.
MT: What was the most difficult aspect about publishing your first book? Did you ever feel you should have written something “safer,” and did you ever feel that you needed to compromise your vision in order to see your work published?
PMM: I’ve tried not to question the story I wanted to tell, which is not to say there haven’t been many times I was worried I wouldn’t succeed. Perhaps the biggest risk was committing to a message of hope, despite the loss and longing that the characters experience. But this, too, became essential to the book, and to me, in the years leading up to its publication. I was fortunate in that this aspect was never questioned by my editor.
MT: What do you hope that readers will take away from this book? In fact—to take from numerous other interviews with famous writers, a favorite question of mine too—if you were to give the president this book and, just assuming, he actually read it, what would you hope he’d
take away from Bindi? What other book would you give him by another author and what would you hope the president—or, again, anyone—might take away from the book?
PMM: I suppose I’d like readers to come away recognizing how complicated things really are, even as we try to simplify our lives, and that the tendency we have to make snap judgments about people, their actions, and their intentions is never going to be fair. So little in our world is black or white, right or wrong, one way or the other. We have to be willing to get a little uncomfortable, especially those of us who’ve grown up privileged in one way or another, in order to discover the transformative power of compassion. That being said, I think there are some people beyond humanity’s reach, and I guess Trump is one of them. I wish I believed he was capable of reading a novel, let alone benefiting from its message, but I don’t. In any case, I think everyone should be reading Baldwin right now. He was one of our greatest minds and his essays and fiction, though written sixty years ago, are as essential and compelling today as they always have been. If I had to choose one book, being a novelist, it would probably be Another Country.
MT: What do you think is the most important role of the writer in this time in history? Which writers, including or excluding yourself, are exhibiting these traits or acting out this role best, and where do you see the role of books and writing heading as our world continues to grow and change, for better or worse?
PMM: I think a writer’s most important role is to communicate in earnest. As I said, we need to complicate not simplify our understanding of the world and people in it. Writers must make that effort, too, and hopefully we succeed in casting light upon the challenge in a way that offers even the least amount of guidance. I’m an optimist, out of necessity. I have to believe that books will continue to provide refuge for writers and readers. I’d like to believe that there is room for messages of hope in literature, as well as tales of despair.
MT: What was the hardest part of writing Bindi? Did you ever find yourself wondering if you could actually complete the novel? Was there a specific part of the writing process—whether a specific chapter, or a kind of rewrite, anything really—that nearly stopped you from letting Bindi see the light of day?
PMM: I began writing the novel as both an escape from the growing disillusionment I felt about the world around me and an outlet for the cynic within. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that cynicism became a way of guarding against a life of despair. What began as a semi-satirical novel had to transform over time into something else, something compassionate, tolerant, and as non-political as possible. There were times when it felt my novel was kicking me out, and what I discovered was that it was the lingering veneer of satire that was being rejected by my characters and the novel itself. I had to find compassion for characters whose actions I personally found unforgivable. I had to learn to love them as people even if I couldn’t respect their behavior. I think what helped me get through it was the simple fact that I was writing a novel about family. The struggle to overcome these mixed feelings where family is concerned, especially in these increasingly partisan times, is quite common and demands our attention, as well as our patient persistence.
MT: What is the next book or work we can expect from Paul Matthew Maisano? Are you already developing a work-in-progress or are you taking a break, touring your book and the like? What can fans of Bindi expect from you next?
PMM: I have three very different projects in mind. I’ll soon be settled enough to learn which story captures my full attention. Until I know more, I hesitate to say what to expect.
MT: Paul, I really appreciate you taking the time to stop by Writers Tell All and answer some questions and really get fans excited about your work. I wish you the best and hope you will give us the chance to work with you again in the future. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, suggestions, questions, and the like. And thank you again.
PMM: I’m so grateful for the opportunity, and especially for your thoughtful and engaging questions. Thanks so much for reading.