Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed author Thomas Maurstad about his writing and recently published novel, Mind the Gap, an intensely moving story that stays on readers’ minds long after they finish the last page. (Read the review here.)
Thomas Maurstad lives in Dallas, TX. His collection of short stories, Flyover States, will be published in 2023. He is working on his next novel, tentatively titled Dreaming of Sleep.
Technological fluency and backgrounds seem to be an important theme in Mind the Gap. Was this a conscious decision you made before you started writing, or did it just seem to fit the story well and come up organically once you were already in the process?
The ubiquity of technology and our fluency with it are an important element of Mind the Gap, but I wouldn’t say this is a theme of the book so much as a reflection of the everyday world I wanted to capture. The ways in which this feature of daily life expanded and expressed itself through the novel were just the unfolding results of where the characters took the story. I try to avoid conscious decisions while writing, at least once I’ve given myself enough to get started. I knew I wanted my novel to be contemporary—not exactly now, but near now—so that meant information overload and media saturation. But I endeavored to treat that as a commonplace element, not a spotlighted topic. At this point, technology is manmade weather, and I don’t want to write about the weather. Early on while writing Mind the Gap, I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I still remember stumbling on this passage delineating the spread of a scandal that the book had been building to for over 700 pages:
“But this vague conviction of indeterminable guilt… had for the general mind all the superior power of mystery over fact. Everybody liked better to conjecture how the thing was, than simply to know it; for conjecture soon became more confident than knowledge, and had a more liberal allowance for the incompatible… as so much lively metal to be poured out in dialogue, and to take such fantastic shapes as heaven pleased.”
Oof. She wrote that over 150 years ago about people living 200 or so years ago. The modes may have changed—over-the-fence conversations into phone calls into zoom meetings, handwritten letters into tweets into TikTok videos—but the impulses remain the same. The technology through which we do what we do progresses. What we do? Not so much.
This story’s connection to Austin, Texas runs deep; the setting is as important to the book as the plot or the characters. Did you have to do any extra research or real-life exploration to bring Austin to life in Mind the Gap?
I lived in Austin for six years through the early-mid ‘80s as I attended the University of Texas. I still have friends and family there and regularly visit, though not so much in the last few years. It is absolutely bonkers how much Austin has changed since I lived there, but for the purposes of writing this novel, I had what I needed.
Which scene or chapter in the book is your favorite? Why?
Because of how I structured my book, with Him/Her chapters, I feel obligated to pick two. I’m going to say that the chapters that most surprised and satisfied me to write were the two in which you get to really experience Justin and Ellis as they are “working.” Justin is a brilliant marketer; Ellis is a brilliant musician. The trick when dealing with smart, talented characters, I think, is that you can’t just say they’re smart and talented. It’s that show-don’t-tell thing. You must find ways that allow readers to experience them being smart and talented. As I was writing Justin’s SXSW presentation and Ellis’s concert, I felt like I was there, in the audience, watching with everyone else. I didn’t have a plan; I didn’t have a program. I just watched and listened as I wrote, and let their work happen.
Justin and Ellis are both flawed, three-dimensional characters. How did you create them? Did you base elements of both characters on people you know, or did you build them from the ground up?
I appreciate the compliment wrapped in this question. I hope that Justin and Ellis become fully formed individuals to anyone who reads Mind the Gap, as they did to me while writing it. For any story I write, it all starts with a prompt, and then the character(s) at the center of it. With Mind the Gap, it started with this: You hurt someone, betray them, wrong them. And then, before you can even begin to make amends, they’re gone, forever. How do you move on? Move out of and past your shame and guilt? That was how Justin, and the novel, began. But then I needed a counterpart. I wanted the book’s narrative structure to be a study in imperfect symmetry, to go back and forth between two people who were in the same place for different reasons. And that’s where Ellis came in. She is the same but different. She’s also stuck, but not in guilt and shame. She didn’t wrong someone; someone wronged her. And suddenly that person is gone and now Ellis is stuck in her anger and resentment. And off the three of us went.
As I said before, I try to avoid conscious decisions, but in the beginning those decisions are necessary. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of a project, once I know what the prompt driving my narrative is, trying to sit with my characters. It’s like any conversation with someone you don’t know very well. I try not to talk. I try to listen.
In addition to this novel, you’ve published short stories. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from writing short stories that you can apply to writing novels?
With short stories, you have to get to the point, which is tricky business when you’re trying to keep yourself from deciding or even precisely knowing what the point is. Here’s my challenge as a writer: I cannot keep myself from thinking in cliches; the farther out I stretch my thoughts about a story, the more cliched that story is going to become. And I don’t want to crank out cliches. So, I keep my head down and focus on the next step. And after I’ve taken that step, I focus on the one after that. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t want to know, except, of course, I do, so I just try to keep myself from guessing. As I’ve learned, my guesses won’t be nearly as interesting as where I end up if I let myself go.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?
Writing is hard. And lonely. And in most of the ways we’re trained to recognize, unrewarding. It’s (so much) easier not to write than to write, which means anyone who does write has to know down to their bones why they’re doing it. I write because I need to write. When I was younger, I would hear or read artists declare (and in this context, I am treating the terms ‘artist’ and ‘writer’ as interchangeable) that you can’t be an artist if you don’t need to be one. And I always silently feared that such an imperative left me out.
But now that I’m far too old to be a young artist, I understand. I need to write not because I burn to write or because some brilliance within me cannot be contained, but because writing is the only way I have of making sense of myself, of knowing myself, of being myself with myself. I write, first and foremost, to tell myself what I am thinking and feeling.
And still, it’s hard on almost any day to sit down and write. Because, you know, writing is hard and lonely and…. The cherry on top is that if I stop and never write another word, the world will neither notice nor care. To sit with all that and keep writing is an ongoing act of defiance. Lonely are the brave. Or something.
What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
It’s funny, almost as soon as I started writing contemporary fiction, I found that I could no longer read contemporary fiction. It’s analogous to the realization I had while I was the pop culture critic of the Dallas Morning News. Whenever you have any sort of lightning-strike idea, there are innumerable people out in the world having their version of that same idea at the same time. Thanks to social media and the other blah-blah-blah in our interconnected existence, we all drink from the same well.
And, at least for me, so far, my creative process is too osmotic. I don’t want to be worrying about cross-contamination. It freezes me up; it slows me down. So, I started reading exclusively old books by dead people. And in the process, I discovered how much I love reading old books by dead people. I love reading stories that were constructed in a world before cinema. I am fascinated by characters made real and recognizable using skills and methods developed in a world before psychoanalysis.
I know that it is customary for writers to wax rhapsodic about the work of other writers. As a writer in our increasingly post-literate society, it’s hard not to feel under siege in an ever-shrinking stockade. Novelists are like a tribe of villagers on a remote island eking out a precarious living doing each other’s laundry. And yet, I draw most of my creative inspiration from the thoughts and feelings I have while looking at an amazing painting that refuses to let me look away, or walking around a sculpture so improbably great it seems like a magic trick, or listening to the shape-shifting patterns and textures of a stretch of music so immersive I feel like I’m disappearing into it. I got the idea for the point/counterpoint, imperfect-symmetry structure of Mind the Gap while staring at “The Day’s Long Shadow,” a painting by Los Angeles artist Tomory Dodge.
(BTW, I deeply admire Ian McEwan, Don DeLillo, James Baldwin, and, dear god, Toni Morrison.)
What do you hope readers will take away from Mind the Gap?
I hope that Mind the Gap provokes thoughts and feelings from the reader, and that those thoughts and feelings provoke other thoughts and feelings, and on and on. That’s what every work of art I have ever loved or admired has done to me. The most important difference between good art and bad art is this: good art rewards the effort of thinking and feeling about it; bad art punishes that effort. For me, thinking and feeling are the highest forms of fun and I hope readers will have fun reading Mind the Gap.
What’s next for you?
I have a collection of short stories, Flyover States, that I hope to publish soon-ish. And I am working on my next novel, tentatively titled Dreaming of Sleep. We shall see how that goes—so far, so good.
Categories: BookView Review Interview
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