It's one of those too-perfect New York days. Spring has settled on Greenwich Village with a cinematic rapture, delivering to the neighborhood a dose of ideal sunglasses weather. The shoebox-sized French sidewalk cafe on West 4th Street where PW meets for a late lunch and conversation with novelist Carole Maso is jammed. There's a film crew basking just a few blocks away. The natives are starting to show some skin. When Maso herself appears, seven months pregnant, her piercing blue eyes are barely visible through a pair of black Ray-Ban Wayfarers. Within two minutes, a table opens at this restaurant notorious for its interminable waits, and the stage is set for this famously difficult and most opinionated of writers to hold forth.
What becomes quickly apparent, however, is that we're dealing with a different Carole Maso from the esoteric literary diva and scourge of Big Publishing who once likened Knopf to a "whorehouse" and who blew off Gordon Lish when, after declining to publish her first book, Ghost Dance (North Point, 1986), he offered to "collaborate" with her on the next one. "Because of this pregnancy thing, I'm just filled with serenity and happiness, and I seem to love everyone," Maso says, shedding her blue-and-gold Chinese print jacket and curling some strands of shoulder-length hair, streaked blonde and white, behind her ears.
This is not the woman whom critics have labeled as affected and inscrutable, and who was once depicted by the New York Times fondling a bowl of stones in a nearly empty room. Maso once seemed to invite such characterizations. In 1993, she told the Village Voice that there was "wildness" in her because "beauty and danger are what it's all about." Today, however, she seems less interested in perpetuating her personal mythology than in adapting to the new developments in her life, notably the child that she is having with her companion of 20 years, Helen Lang.
In a publishing world that some worry has become dominated by the bottom line, the 42-year-old Maso possesses the impeccable street cred of a writer who has stuck to her guns, never giving in to the money chase. Instead of pursuing fame and fortune, she has waited for them to find her. Defiance, out from Dutton, is her sixth novel, but her first with a mainstream house -- indeed, her first book with a mainstream plot -- after more than a decade with small presses such as North Point, Dalkey Archive and Ecco.
Maso still has her complaints about the book business, but one senses that her legendary rage has been subsumed by new priorities. This doesn't mean, of course, that she can't get her dander up. "American publishing relies too heavily on the formulaic," she grouses, "and the mainstream has vulgarized literature. Even with what's called 'serious literary fiction,' you have to stay within certain confines. At a place like Knopf, the best contemporary work they bring out is by foreign writers. They seldom publish young Americans who are as interesting. It's very frustrating if you want to try new things and also sell books."
For Maso, Defiance is definitely a new thing. Her previous books -- from Ghost Dance through the formally radical The Art Lover (North Point, 1990), the meditative, nouveau roman-ish The American Woman in the Chinese Hat (Dalkey Archive, 1994), the aphoristic AVA (Dalkey, 1993) and the collection of short pieces, Aureole (Ecco, 1997) -- were all unconventional efforts. Defiance, however, employs a recognizable structure and manages to live up to its billing as a thriller by suspensefully manipulating a reader's expectations until its brutal, macabre conclusion. The novel presents the misanthropic, borderline psychotic recollections of Bernadette O'Brien, a former child prodigy and sexually abused daughter of working-class Irish Catholics who's now a Harvard physics professor sitting on death row for killing two of her male students. Part Euripides' Medea, part Marie Curie, part Lizzie Borden, she's a deeply tormented, brilliant and bottomlessly angry woman. Her demise in the electric chair is prefigured by her abusive seduction of one of her students, Alexander Ashmeade, an often explicit liaison that traffics in violent SM imagery and transgresses numerous social, class and professional boundaries.
"It was extremely harrowing," Maso says of composing Defiance, "because I was writing into the center of my speechlessness about that which has hurt or wounded me and which I couldn't approach in any other way. I had never before written into that blue flame of rage." She blames this anger on an assortment of compromises that she has confronted in her life: from the injustice of initially not being able to publish her own books to the demands of teaching. It was a productive rage: Maso's reputation has been made in the realm of abstract, at times impenetrable prose, and it's clear that the novel took her to a place she'd rarely visited, an infrequently traveled territory that has allowed her to reconcile her disparate sides.
As a literary and personal crossover, the book is fairly successful, locking its sights on a broad range of targets while remaining faithful to a feminist perspective that Maso traces to Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson but updates via the recent theories of highbrow French critics like Hélène Cixous. There are no newspaper clippings and reproductions of paintings as in The Art Lover, a book that involves a commentary on the death from AIDS of Maso's friend Gary Falk. Absent is AVA's index of textual references. By Maso's vaunted standards, Defiance is an easy read.
The more mundane realities of Maso's worklife also influenced the structure of the novel. "I needed to have a project that I could work on while teaching," Maso says, "a book that I could hold in my head all at once. I love teaching, but the problem is that it places demands on the same part of the brain as writing: you've got to be ultra-generous, ultra-honest, ultra-discriminating. It's very hard to do both well." It's still further evidence of Maso's harmonized double-life that Defiance might finally define for her the broader audience she has never claimed to seek.
Still, the closest thing Maso might ever have to a breakout book isn't going to make her rich or allow her to surrender her position as the director of the creative writing program at Brown, for which she gave up a permanent appointment at Columbia in 1995. She reports her advance from Dutton as "extremely small" and chalks its meagerness up to her poor sales history. But, as usual, the money issue doesn't seem to bother her too much. Nor does she seem, after several blissful years with John O'Brien at Dalkey, to have been daunted by Dutton's commercial expectations.
Maso's editor at Dutton, Carol DeSanti, approached her four years ago to propose a paperback edition of American Woman, Maso recalls. "But she couldn't unless I committed to something else. In my desperation to have all my books come out in paperback at the same moment, I gave her about 50 pages of Defiance, which she liked. It wound up being a laissez-faire relationship. Carol did at one point ask, 'Where's the redemption?' But I just laughed, and she forgot all about it."
Of course, Maso is far from through with small presses. She mentions the book she's currently working on, The Bay of Angels, which she indicates will form the second panel in a "literary triptych" that will have AVA in the middle, and reminisces fondly about the Normal, Ill., literary scene, home to Dalkey Archive, the Fiction Collective and the journals Review of Contemporary Fiction and Exquisite Corpse. For a writer who suffered constant early rejection, Dalkey Archive remains the promised land. "To have that place in my mind," she says, "allowing me to experiment freely, to write the next thing without concern as to its commercial potential, lowers a tremendous psychic barrier."
Maso's satisfaction with the comforting union she shares with Dalkey is understandable, given the constant tension in her career between the desire to innovate and the need to make a buck. Prior to the publication of Ghost Dance, she pretty much lived by her wits. Born in New Jersey, the daughter of a nurse and a musician who gave up jazz to raise his family, Maso describes her family as one "filled with integrity" and argues that the anxiety-ridden filial relations she has detailed in her fiction "must come from another place in my imagination." Despite her own family's closeness, the constrictions and oppressions of other families remain intriguing. "Family," she says, "has failed many people."
Maso also claims that she "wanted to be anything but a writer when I was a kid." Her ambition then was for painting, but she eventually realized that "there was no rapport between me and the canvas." After graduating from Vassar in 1977 (having never taken a writing class or contemplated an M.F.A.), Maso moved to New York, found a tiny, cheap apartment on Carmine Street (in which she still lives) and began working at whatever job she could to support her writing. Stints as a fencing instructor, an artist's model and a waitress rapidly taught her that she couldn't moonlight as a novelist. "Since I started writing seriously, as a senior in college," she says, "I've always realized that I had to put the work at the center of my life. Every decision revolved around that." In an effort to concentrate her efforts, Maso began to alternate six-month bouts of employment with six-month episodes of focused writing, often at colonies or while house-sitting, developing an intimate relationship with the financial hustle that would characterize her life until prestigious teaching jobs and prizes (notably a $50,000 Lannan Fellowship, which she used to make a down payment on a country house) began to come her way in the 1990s. "I've never supported myself as a writer," she notes, with a certain degree of pride.
Often pegged an "experimental" writer because of her willingness to flout convention, Maso has usually benefited from the sort of thoughtful review that's eluded her more unorthodox colleagues. Ghost Dance was called "exquisitely written and ambitious" by the New York Times Book Review and "intensely demanding and rewarding" by the Los Angles Times Book Review. The positive press led to two fellowships, one from Vassar and the other from the NEA, which eased Maso's money worries and enabled her to field offers from agents (unable to find representation for Ghost Dance, Maso submitted the novel herself). Georges Borchardt, who once numbered Samuel Beckett among his clients, won. "Anyone who was Beckett's agent is the man to work with," Maso says, as if choosing representation from among New York's superagents would be foolish.
Maso's quiet audacity notwithstanding, her genial embrace of her own ebbing obscurity feels wise, as if she has finally covered all the angles. "A lot of early attention is not necessarily a good thing," she muses. "Talent too often doesn't evolve under such artificial circumstances. I feel very lucky to have been ignored for the last 10 years. Though now I feel lavished with attention."
Maso certainly doesn't consider her youth misspent, but it's hard to escape the impression that she's beginning to shed aspects of her past in favor of a more predictable future. As afternoon shadows creep across the Village, she fondly recollects the years she spent in France during the late 1980s and early '90s, then commiserates over the impossibility of really enjoying cigarettes in New York (she has abandoned all vices in the interest of an uneventful pregnancy). "France is for smoking," she agrees, genially excusing herself so that she can head off to buy Easter gifts for her nieces and nephews. Slipping on her Ray-Bans, Maso strolls away as the sun languidly sets over her favorite city in the world.