Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Q&A with Courtney Maum

Courtney Maum is the author of the new novel Touch. She also has written the novel I Am Having So Much Fun Without You and the chapbook Notes From Mexico. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Tin House. She has been a trend forecaster and fashion publicist, and is a product namer for MAC Cosmetics. She lives in Litchfield County, Connecticut.

Q: You mentioned in our previous interview that you usually write from a male point of view, yet in this book your main character is a woman. How did you come up with the idea for your character Sloane?

A: Well, I find it easier to write from a male point of view, that’s for sure! (The further the character is from my own reality, the easier it is for me to make up a fictional life for him/her!)

But with Sloane—the thing is, this character had to be a woman. I used to work in trend forecasting and I never came across a single man in the profession. Certainly we had male clients, and there were male decision makers at the companies we consulted for, but the trend forecasters and trend spotters were always female.

There is just a truth and a power to the female instinct. It’s fascinating, and it can be a heavy thing to bear. I think this is where the notion of the maternal instinct comes from, the idea that women are naturally “better” at being parents—it comes from the fact (and I do believe it’s a fact) that women generally have keener instinct than men.

I happen to not believe that women are “made” to be mothers, or that they’re naturally better parents simply by virtue of their sex, but the instinct thing is indisputable. Women are just biologically more “awake” then men.

Accordingly, I really wanted to explore a character who has to embrace all the wonderful things about being a woman in an environment where she’s pushed up against a lot of the terrible things about womanhood: misogyny, condescension, ridicule, preconceived notions.

Originally, Sloane was a stylist—she worked for houseware companies like Crate & Barrel—but after a few drafts, I realized I was going out of my way to avoid a career I actually knew something about, and that it would be more interesting if I wrote the story from a place of experience.

So Sloane became a trend forecaster. (Although I did have some limited, inglorious experience as a stylist: I was a freelance box-opener for a food stylist at Food & Wine Magazine back in 2005 when I first moved to Brooklyn. And yes. Freelance box opening is a thing.)

Q: How much of what you write about in the novel comes from your own experiences as a trend forecaster?

A: I’m not sure how to answer that—on one hand, the entirety of the novel is fueled by my experience working in trends at several different companies, but in reality, the work I did was so much more private and intimate and small than what Sloane does.

I never worked in such a public way. There weren’t public brainstorming sessions—it was me, sometimes alone, coming up with predictions, and then sharing them with others, or it was me, working on some carpet in the middle of all these open magazines at 2am with a graphic designer and my boss, scanning things for a presentation.

The corporate setting of Touch was more informed by my work in branding and naming. I’ve worked in-house or as a freelancer for a lot of branding agencies, and I’m still, to this day, fascinated by these environments that have some of the most talented, creative people in the world working for them, but their creativity nevertheless has to be capped and controlled.

That’s the weird thing about working for a successful company—you can’t go too far out. You need to contribute to the making of products that sell—that are buyable. You just do.

I wanted Sloane to push against this, to try and rally for a way of thinking that was more free-form, that involved open discussions, brainstorming around ideas that might not ever come to market.

I’m not sure that kind of free-spirited thinking happens a lot anymore. It’s so important nowadays that something comes with a way of branding it: a visual identity, a reason for being, a hashtag.

Q: One of my favorite characters was Anastasia, Sloane's talking driverless car. What inspired the creation of Anastasia?

A: Sloane needed a friend! Here we have a classic scenario of a woman who “has it all” on the surface, but in fact, is really alone. She’s estranged from her family, she doesn’t really have friends she socializes with (she has their social media feeds, instead), and her life partner would prefer to sleep with her avatar than with her.

Anastasia is an unlikely friend for her—she’s a piece of technology, she doesn’t actually exist, but she’s the person Sloane spends the most one-on-one time with, and she understands (through machine learning) how to draw Sloane out of her shell.

Anastasia is also a shout out to the technology industry, to remind people that tech visionaries have done a world of good. I really don’t want the book to be seen as some bashing of smart technology, because it isn’t. I see it, instead, as a call to arms to use our technology better. To regain control over our devices.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I always knew how the novel would end, yes. I’m funny that way—I often have the last line before I have anything else! But it took an incredible amount of work to create a protagonist who could make it to such an ending in a credible way. (I hope I succeeded!)

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve been working for a long time on an adaptation of a chapbook I published a while back called  “Notes From Mexico” from The Cupboard Press. I spent some of the winter in Jalisco, researching the book. Not too bad a place for a work-vacation. I need to go back!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Maybe that the audiobook of Touch is actually really good! The reader, Kristen Sieh, is just so talented. She does different voices for all the characters in such a convincing way—it’s almost like you’re watching a show. I’m very proud of it!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Courtney Maum, please click here.

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