Ashley Mayne: Mankiller was the first novel I saw through to its completion, during my last month of college and the summer after. It wasn’t my first attempt, though. At that time, I had already written what turned out to be sort of a rough outline of Tiger, but it was pretty far from the form it would eventually take.
I’d been studying playwriting at Bard. Tiger began as a surreal, basically unperformable one-act. Minimal dialogue, but very lyrical stage directions; one of my teachers said to me, “You know the audience never sees those, right?” Someone said that theater is poetry on its feet. A play wants sturdier bones than a piece of fiction. It has to exist in the world of flats and curtains and fly lofts, and I couldn’t figure that out. I decided that I would rather be writing prose than plays, and that the bits I’d written so far, Tiger among them, needed very little tweaking to become fiction. Basically, I’d been writing fiction already without realizing it. So Tiger in its earliest prose form became a sort of experiment with magical realism, and then I moved on to other things. It was a couple years before I revisited that story again, approaching it from a different angle. Some of the magic became psychosis. I think of Tiger as my first novel.
Roll: Mankiller takes place in Texas, and is a vivid evocation of small town life there. Tiger takes across continents, just as vividly. Are its locations, among them Mexico, India, and Cyprus, places where you’ve lived? What was it like to move your storytelling to an epic scale?
A.M: I haven’t lived in any of these places. That’s by design, sort of; there’s a thrill in putting myself in a place I don’t know intimately, on the page. In the case of Tiger, I avoided some of the locations because time had made them inaccessible. What I would see as a traveler in the 21st century was different from what my protagonists would have seen decades ago. Also, I wouldn’t have seen it with their eyes.
For me, Tiger is very much about people in a state of running, from others, from reality, from their own lives and histories, sometimes literally fleeing (or not) from dangerous situations. Constant travel is part of that theme. Mankiller was a one-location deal. The story was this little town with its smothered fires, and the sacrifices required to reach escape velocity.
A.M: The dynamism of relationships was more the focus of these stories than sexuality or social norms. To a certain extent, they were both about transformation through loss of control. For me, that’s interesting. It was easier for me at the time to explore that in the context of a partnership forbidden by society, or a relationship where power was horribly skewed for one reason or another, than it was with two people of equal standing obeying convention. So I guess the answer is yes…which isn’t to say that I haven’t moved on since to explore the deep, pathological weirdness of conventional people.
We need witnesses. We need to be seen. That’s what Tiger and Mankiller have in common, for me. Relationships all have to exist on the edge to a certain extent, or they’re static. And maybe we all have this part of us that’s a little off, that understands the language of the arsonist and the predator. We understand the language, even if we don’t speak it. I’m not saying the abuse and myopia of some of these characters are justified, because they obviously aren’t, and I don’t think it’s my job to vindicate anyone. What interested me were the different expressions of witnessing and avoidance, and how that plays out in relationships. The violence/transformation of being seen, and the damage done by refusing to see.
There was a news story I came across somewhere of a man who had thrown himself into the tiger enclosure at the Bronx Zoo. He claimed he wasn’t suicidal. He wasn’t obviously ill. He actually seemed pretty normal and conventional. In all the references I found, it seemed like people were really reaching to find anything weird about him. He said he wanted to be “one with the tiger,” which of course led to a lot of jokes. I think it was a form of communion; maybe you can’t have a more intimate recognition than he would have had, at that moment, from the tiger. You can’t be more naked than that. Maybe that’s the edge. I actually found that story after I had written the end of Tiger and was working on something else. I felt like jumping around and yelling: That! See? That’s it exactly. The man survived. I think he broke his ankle.
Part of me was envious of that connection. I wanted to unpack it. Who was being reified? What passed between the one being seen, and the one seeing?
Roll: Not many novelists today strike one as bringing a full-throated poetry to the page, as you do. What drew you to writing novels?
A.M.: Honestly, I haven’t had the guts to write actual poetry. People who do amaze me. I think that takes a level of clarity and economy I haven’t yet discovered. But thank you!
When I’m writing, I hear sentences and the way they work together, and rhythm is as important to me as image. Music was always a big part of my life, and that led me to songwriting, my earliest form of writing. Jack Hardy took me under his wing in my early twenties, when I had just begun to write songs. He was a great musician, a great poet, a great man (often spotted wearing a witch’s hat). Jack was a big influence on me; aside from being a master songwriter, he was a patron saint of novices. There are a lot of people writing because of him. That was part of his mission.
A really unforgettable song usually tells a story. And the authors I’ve always been drawn to are the ones with musical depth to their language. I probably moved from music to plays to novels over the years because of a growing need for privacy. Performing in front of people is a big source of anxiety; if I could play music alone in my bathroom with the mirror covered and somehow make that into a career, I probably would (at the moment, it’s a secret pleasure). It was always a struggle to perform, and over time it just got more pronounced. Writing novels was a way to make stories while stepping further and further back from the audience. It seemed like a more honest connection, because it wasn’t stained with my insecurity.
Roll: Are there novelists, alive or dead, who inspire you or who feel to you like forebears?
A.M: Well, I don’t know about forebears; I feel like a kid running with a kite by the airfield. Robert Kelly is a huge inspiration, both as a writer and a friend. I consider him my artistic father. Edie Meidav has been another luminary for me. I love Carey Harrison, feel ridiculously honored and fortunate to be working with him. John Banville and Graham Greene have been big ones lately. And he’s not a novelist, but I keep the giant Yale Shakespeare by my desk. I’ll heft it onto my lap and read a few pages at random if I feel uninspired. It’s full of magic.
Roll: Where next? Will you be taking us to new territories?
A.M.: I’ve just finished a novel about the Midnapore Wolf Girls, so that’s circling at the moment. And now I’m into time travel. Eager to see how (and where) that goes.
Roll: Speaking for your readers, so are we! Thank you, Ashley Mayne.