Keziah Weir on the Women Behind Great Literary Men and Guessing Other People’s Intentions
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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from the episode:
Maris Kreizman: I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about some of the inspiration for the idea of Sal finding herself in a story. There are some real life circumstances I can think of and I’m curious what you were thinking about.
Keziah Weir: There are some things that, when you are around writers who are writing and when you are young and in maybe undergraduate circumstances and you start seeing yourself in other people’s work, that’s sort of an interesting thing.
That’s maybe not always true. Maybe sometimes it is. But then just as I started interviewing authors for my magazine jobs, people just always say that no matter who the character is or you know what they are, like the people in their lives believe that they are about them. And, and then there are of course a lot of authors who have very much made a whole career of writing about themselves and the people around them to various effect.
MK: So, Keziah, look into the audience.
KW: Yes. I see all my characters here today.
MK: I also love that Sal is very aware of some of the conversations that come up or around such things. I think it was on page 146 when I got to the part where Moira asks Martin, well, do you think we’re like the couple in The Wife (Meg Wolitzer’s novel about a famous writer and his long-suffering spouse)? And I was like, oh, see, they’re already there. We’re already contemplating what would happen if, spoiler alert, this doesn’t happen in this book. But if the wife was actually the one who was doing the writing.
KW: Yeah. And, and I think one of, you know, one of the fun things about writing after a lot of people have written other books is that you get to be in conversation with those other books. And there were so many novels that I was thinking about when I was writing this. For a long time I was thinking about a lot of novels written by the great literary men.
And I started writing this when I was 22 and so I was very taken with Philip Roth and Nabokov and still am. But you know, my sort of understanding of the literary landscape shifted as I was writing this book. And so that was sort of interesting. It’s like a living document in that it sort of grew up with my understanding of writing and who got to be a writer and what a great writer is.
MK: Absolutely. And I do think, if you’re thinking about great literary men of the 20th century, their wives are a part of their myth.
KZ: Yeah. Their wives or girlfriends or mistresses or whatever. And so that was also really interesting just to think about. So in the book, there’s a writer named Martin who sees himself as a contemporary of Roth and John Updike and Martin Amis and that sort of sphere, but he doesn’t ever really get to that level. He has a debut hit and then has a challenging second and third publication process. And so that was interesting too, not writing about a great author, but maybe seeing what it looks like to fail in certain ways. Even if, you know, three-book careers are great. That’s more than a zero-book career. But to Martin, it felt like failure.
MK: Well, if he and Norman Mailer hadn’t shared a pub date, his life might have been different.
KW: Yes. That’s the origin story of his discontent.
MK: I also love what you have to say about his writing style or lack thereof and his process versus that of his wife who is also a writer. But she happens to be a little bit more successful maybe.
KW: Yeah. So his wife is a physicist, but then also ends up writing sort of PopSci, basically, and is very diligent about her writing career. And Martin is more sort of waiting for the muse to strike and needs the circumstances to be perfect. That came from internal issues with wanting circumstances to be perfect and thinking like, well, if only I had a little cabin in the woods, or if only there were no other extraneous things, then I would be able to write this book. And then as you write, you realize you just actually have to sit down and write, and it doesn’t matter where you’re doing it. And each of the characters I think has various pieces of angst and anxiety about work and various forms of creativity.
MK: Yes. I don’t wanna ask you about your personal process, but maybe I will…
KW: Yeah, in the beginning of writing this, the process was no process and it was, not really understanding why a book was not just sort of magically coming together. And it was only once I started just sort of treating it like a job, like I have to get a certain number of words on the page every day until it’s done. And then to have something to work with was much easier for me than I think some writers who sort of go sentence by sentence, to make each sentence perfect before they move on to the next. And that ended up not working for me. So I just had to sort of like splat it all out and then, and then work from there.
MK: I think that’s another thing about romanticizing past great literary men. Like they had their office and their space and their time and their women to bring them treats. And it’s really kind of illuminating to see other people just sitting down and doing the work.
KW: Yeah. I was working at Elle magazine and I was interviewing a lot of women writers who, some of them had children and some of them had full-time jobs. And realizing that it is just work and just carving out an hour at a time and not having Vera driving you from place to place and you know, like carrying your wallet. Because you’re so brilliant that your head is elsewhere.
MK: And I do think that’s also something we talk about in our culture now. That we realize perhaps it was a mistake to venerate the tortured artist?
KW: Yeah, it’s interesting. I’m reading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men right now, which I hadn’t read in a decade, and it’s a great book. There’s so much in it, but it is really interesting thinking about the brain that it came out of and the person who was this tortured artist and treated people poorly and yeah, a lot of interesting conversations there.
MK: And it’s funny that you bring up David Foster Wallace because another part of the book that I find really fascinating and I’ve seen some discourse about is the question of publishing posthumously. Like if an author has died, what happens to the work?
KW: Yeah. There are authors who have said that, you know, their work should be burned when they die, or their unfinished work should be burned. And oftentimes their estate decides that it is more lucrative not to burn the work and instead to publish it. And sometimes it’s quite bad. And so in this book, Martin dies and there’s this unfinished, unpublished manuscript floating around. And there are various plans for it.
MK: And I think that’s so interesting because then that means that the people around him have to kind of guess at his intentions. And that seems to be something that many of your characters in this book are constantly doing, guessing each other’s intentions.
KW: Yeah. And I think that’s something that we do as people and as a magazine writer who is profiling other people, that is something that I have thought about a lot. When you profile someone you can do all your due diligence and work as hard as you can to think that you’re getting this person right. And then you can get an email from them saying actually, this is quite upsetting for me because I think I made it quite clear that I was a towhead blonde as a child, and you described my hair as, you know, whatever. And so like, you don’t ever know how you’re reading somebody.
Keziah Weir is a Senior Editor at Vanity Fair. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Elle, Esquire, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She grew up in California and British Columbia, and currently lives in Maine with her husband and dog. Her debut novel is called The Mythmakers.