'I always wanted to be a writer'
Author Courtney Maum talks about her latest work 'Costalegre' and how her search for a literary life led her to France, Brooklyn and the Berkshires
NORFOLK, CONN. — "Can I bring some notes down?"
Courtney Maum had been lounging on her living room couch when she was asked about her navigation of fact and fiction in "Costalegre." Published in July, the latest novel by the author of "I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You" and "Touch" reimagines a period in the lives of American art collector Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter, Pegeen, when the matriarch was attempting to extract her European holdings before World War II's outbreak. Historically speaking, Guggenheim was known to have ushered artists into New York City during that stretch. But in Maum's work, heiress Leonora Calaway hosts a group of surrealists and her 15-year-old daughter, Lara, in a slightly more remote location: a Mexican jungle resort along the country's Pacific coast. Coupled with character names distinct from their inspirations', this setting shift stirs uncertainty about truth and invention throughout the book, prompting the question that sprung Maum from her seat and up some stairs on this Tuesday morning.
"Most of this stuff made it in," Maum said after reemerging with an easel-sized pad in hand.
She was presenting a page lined with several columns of handwriting, including one titled, "Characters." Beneath this header, she had listed Laurence Vail (Pegeen's father), Kay Boyle (her stepmom) and Djuna Barnes, among others in the expansive literary and artistic circle surrounding the Guggenheims at the time. She had also noted tidbits about some of their relationships. ("Max Ernst's beloved who went mad," Maum wrote, in part, of Leonora Carrington.) Maum had filled journals with her research before choosing their highlighted portions for the broader sheets. This reproduction allowed the author to memorize the most important aspects of her characters' histories and led to "the most joyful writing experience" of her career.
"I researched, I'd say, meticulously for a year, but I sat down and wrote that thing almost in one go," Maum said. "It was almost like a channeling or something."
To achieve that intense connection with her characters, the author likes to work in isolation, primarily writing at a bedroom desk inside the Norfolk, Conn., home she shares with her husband, French filmmaker Diego Ongaro, and their young daughter. The location of her rural Connecticut abode, with its rippling backyard pond and rustic surrounds, also suggests a more abstract distance from the distractions of a literary nexus like New York City, where she and Ongaro resided before moving north.
But Maum wasn't an established novelist seeking refuge in the Berkshires when she arrived about a dozen years ago. Unlike many area arts figures who spent decades striving and thriving in New York City before uprooting to the region, the 41-year-old Maum's literary ascent has been rooted in these hills — first in Sandisfield, where she settled in her late 20s and finished her first novel, and now just over the Massachusetts line in Norfolk, where she recently worked on "Costalegre" and her forthcoming handbook, "Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer's Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book."
"We were young," Maum recalled of the couple's move from Brooklyn to the Berkshires, "and we spent the first two years only hanging out with post-menopausal 60- and 70-year-olds."
That didn't mean their social life had flatlined.
"They were great fun. In Sandisfield, for some reason, most people don't have kids, so there were some wild parties," she recalled.
Maum and Ongaro hadn't exactly been clubbing it in Brooklyn, anyway. They had met in France, where Maum lived for a handful of years after graduating from Brown University. She had long been a Francophile, an affection predated by her love for the written word.
"There was no wavering: I always wanted to be a writer," she said.
Growing up in Greenwich, Conn., she began writing stories when she was 7 and, with ample encouragement from her teachers, submitted to journals and contests as her education progressed.
"I was probably more serious about writing as a teenager than I was when I got to college," she said.
At Brown, she didn't take any creative writing classes, studying comparative literature and specializing in French-to-English translations. When she moved to France, she did some translation work but also got a gig as a party promoter for Corona Extra.
"It was a great job for a writer because I worked at night," she said.
Maum eventually returned to the U.S., renting in Brooklyn with Ongaro. Talks with an editor about her first book fell apart, though, when the editor quit her publishing house job. The couple quickly fell out of love with New York City, too.
"We had no idea how expensive Brooklyn was," Maum said.
They wanted to buy somewhere but weren't willing to spend more than about $140,000. Originally, Maum had targeted the Adirondacks, but a good friend sold her on the shorter drive to the Berkshires. Maum found a couple of Berkshire houses in their price range. One was a "decrepit log cabin" that the realtor told them to pass on, but the couple's penny-pinching New York nights spent watching HGTV renovation shows motivated them to take on the challenge.
"We got into this phase where we were like, 'We could fix up a house if these bozos could do it!'" Maum recalled.
They spent about eight years in Sandisfield before their daughter's birth spurred a relocation to Norfolk, where day care, a general store and a bank were all more readily available. Initially a reporter for The Eagle upon moving to the Berkshires, Maum has also maintained a career in the beauty sphere, crafting advertising and marketing copy. Today, she primarily names cosmetics and other products that can end up in stores around the world, but it's her creative writing that takes her to locales near and far. For example, she was planning to participate in a reading that coming Saturday with fellow Berkshire scribes Brendan Mathews and Sarah Trudgeon at The Bookstore in Lenox, part of a multimonth promotional tour for "Costalegre." The book stemmed from a separate project during which Maum was researching "eclectic, wealthy families." When she read Peggy Guggenheim's memoir, "Out of This Century," Maum found it odd that Guggenheim didn't really mention her daughter, and a quick Google search revealed few details about Pegeen's life. Maum became obsessed with her.
"Her mother helped all these artists evacuate, basically, before Hitler could get to them," Maum said. "So, I imagined, gosh, she's in New York City holed up in a house with truly the best artists in the century, and she herself wants to be an artist, and her mom's completely neglecting her. I just could not get rid of that."
But Maum didn't want to base the story in New York, the setting for Maum's 2017 novel, "Touch," about a trend forecaster's changing views on technology and physical interaction.
"It just wasn't interesting to me because New York has outlets. You can get out, visit other people, and I wanted everyone incredibly isolated," Maum said, "and this particular place in Mexico where the book takes place is somewhere I visit a lot, I've written about it in other short stories and things, and I'd always wanted to place a novel there. So, I thought, 'Why don't I just send them all to Costalegre?' That's the beauty of fiction, is that I can."
She also found historical reasons, including Mexico's robust surrealist culture, to pick Costalegre, a site the reader experiences, liked the rest of the story, entirely through Lara's diary. Her narration details her mother's neglect, different artists' peculiarities and her growing affinity for one creator in sentences that oscillate between poetic and awkward.
"In order to find her voice, I did something I think of as verbal auditions. I would sketch out the different voices that I thought that this young woman could have, and I finally settled on a mixture a little bit," Maum said. " ... I think something that develops over the book is that she wants to be an artist, but actually she seems to be talented at writing, so you see her kind of moving into that, and then there are times when she's just flat-out teenage, mad at her mom, and those sentences are less beautiful, I guess, and more blunt."
Maum's auditions weren't immediately well-received.
"The syntax thing was such a challenge because my copy editor [Anne Horowitz], the poor woman, was just like, all of this is wrong. None of this is proper English," Maum recalled. " ... I would read her notes, and they were somewhat hostile and abrasive for the first, let's say, 12, 15 pages, and then it seemed like she just gave up and settled into the voice."
Maum thanks Horowitz for her patience in an author's note at the end of the book and in a Poets & Writers essay about their back-and-forths. The publishing process will come under more scrutiny in Maum's next book to hit shelves, "Before and After the Book Deal." While an endless supply of works offer general writing advice and tips on how to find an agent, Maum wanted to create the "What to Expect When You're Expecting" for nascent authors.
"I decided to take it on because the book doesn't exist," Maum said of the work, which is due out in January.
She conducted roughly 200 interviews for the book, asking authors and others in the industry about specific problems that writers face as publication comes and goes.
"The cool thing about that book is that the people that were the most excited and willing to talk were the big, big stars, like Roxane Gay or Tony Doerr," Maum said.
After her first book was published in 2014, Maum wrote an essay for Buzzfeed about the positives and negatives of the publishing experience.
"It really was about, 'Oh, my God, no one tells you anything about what it's really like,'" Maum said. "I was lucky. My first two books were with big publishers. They put a lot of money behind the book, a lot of support. They toured me nationally twice for each book. So, you're on an airplane on someone else's dime for your very first book. You're going to wherever, Seattle. I mean, I had stunning hotel rooms. ... And then you go to your event, and there's two people there, and one is a homeless man. And then it keeps happening."
She was told that this was normal. But low book tour attendance isn't the only way an author's psyche can get damaged.
"You can head to your Instagram feeling like you're in a great mood to share some good news that your book got, and while you're there, you see that so-and-so just got a movie deal. So-and-so just got longlisted for the National Book Award, or they got chosen to some book festival that you wanted to go to. Although these are small moments, they don't feel small," Maum said.
Still, Maum doesn't rely on the digital sphere to lift her spirits. Writer friends from the city regularly visit her, hanging with the family cat, Chester, during their productive retreats, and she organizes an annual collaborative congregation, The Cabins, that gathers disparate artists in Norfolk. (One past participant, Dasha Ziborova, illustrated for "Costalegre.") And then there's the support she receives from Ongaro, whose film about Berkshire farming and logging, "Bob and the Trees," premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2015. Maum helped Ongaro write the feature, and he has reciprocated that creative assistance by always being one of her initial readers. An experimental memoir, a sweeping epic set in the '80s and '90s and a work of historical fiction may all eventually land on his reading list, according to Maum. As she works on those projects and others, she'll continue to draw inspiration from her local arts community.
"Just being around creatives, of which there are many," she said, "is enough for me."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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