Maris Kreizman on Working with Her Literary Heroes
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. My first job in publishing was with a company called William Morrow, a venerable house launched in 1926 and named after its founder who had died in 1931. I was a floating temp and every lunch break, I was assigned to fill in for the telephone switchboard operator. People would always call and ask the same thing: “Hello. Is this William Morrow?” And I would always answer: “No, I’m sorry, he’s dead.” This routine almost got me fired my first week.
While I was mostly just being a smart ass, I was also keenly aware that there was a publisher named William Morrow who had founded this house and that he was, in fact, no longer alive. Just as there was an Alfred and Blanche Knopf and two Macmillan Brothers who created the place where I now work. And they were all fascinating characters. The book business is filled with extraordinary people, most of whom share something huge: a love of reading. One of the greatest things about working in publishing is getting to know the people behind the books, but especially those whose names may not appear on the spine or even in the acknowledgments. And recently, I got to talking about working on books behind the scenes with today’s guest.
Maris Kreizman: Hi, I’m Maris Kreizman. I’m a book critic and essayist.
WS: While you might know Maris Kreizman for her writing now—in places like The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Buzzfeed, and more—she used to work on the other side of things, in publishing. She’s also the creator of Slaughterhouse 90210, a blog and then a book that mashed up the best of literature and pop culture. All of that comes as little surprise when you ask Maris what she was like as a kid.
MK: I’m from the area of New Jersey that Bruce Springsteen sings about leaving, but of course he never did and he’s a great presence there anyway. But those songs always meant so much to me, like Born to Run, gotta get out of here. I’m so central Jersey shore. And I was always just the one who knew she was going to be in New York City one day.
I have two older brothers. They’re twins and they’re police officers, so two Jewish cop twins, and reading isn’t really their thing that much, but my mom and dad both read like crazy. I was always the one in the school library doing the spelling bee and reading bee contests, except when it was Halloween because I was desperately afraid of ghost stories.
WS: Instead, Maris preferred series with characters she could recognize in her own life—ones she aspired to be like.
MK: The first chapter book I ever read was Ramona the Pest. I wanted to be spunkier. I always wanted to be spunkier, and I always wanted to have very curly hair so I could have boing boing curls. And so that series will always be special to me. And just like the classic 80s stuff, the Judy Blume followed then shortly by Sweet Valley High. I had every single one and I collected them and I loved to organize them by color or by who was on the cover or which character each book was mostly about. So I kind of was being a librarian in my own little corner of my room.
WS: And so as Maris grew up, there was only one career she was interested in pursuing.
MK: I knew that I loved books. I knew that I loved to read, and so then I was an English major in college. And then I attended the Radcliffe publishing course. It was in the year 2000 when there were 100 people in the course and 99 got jobs immediately after the course ended because media was great and book publishing was great and the digital space was just going to keep on growing and it was unlimited opportunity basically.
WS: Maris found her opportunity at Simon and Schuster, at the imprint Free Press. She started out as an editorial assistant, answering phones, filing, and faxing.
MK: In the old days, everybody told me that to be an editor you had to be an apprentice for many years. And even the word apprentice now has terrible connotations.
I did a lot of reading in bed in those years and sobbing in bed. It’s delight for anyone who wants to try it.
WS: But from the beginning, Maris was paying attention—to how books were edited, to what made a book a bestseller, and to her own gut feelings.
MK: Watching the people who I worked for edit was incredibly helpful in terms of thinking of myself, not just as a reader. For nonfiction, it’s very easy for me to think, okay, I’m a regular person. I buy books. What doesn’t make sense to me about this? Or what would I like to know more about? And how can I be become a little bit more of an expert in whatever I’m reading about? And then for fiction, it’s the most scary and wonderful challenge because there’s no right answer. It’s a subjective experience. And I just kind of went with my gut.
The first author I acquired was actually a classmate of mine from the Radcliffe publishing course and her name is Elisa Albert and I just knew that her voice was completely different from anything else I’d read and that we needed it in the world.
WS: And while she was working at Free Press, Maris came across a book with a voice she needed to hear.
MK: My boss at the time said that she had worked on the paperback edition of The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken and that I should read it and it blew my mind.
The Giant’s House is about a very petite librarian who lives on Cape Cod and who has made her home among the books. She’s kind of written the rest of life off. She’s a spinster and she’s happy to be. She owns the word. Then she meets this kid who is normal adult man sized by the time he’s ten. And he grows up to be about eight feet tall and he opens up this entire new world for her.
WS: Just as The Giant’s House opened up a new world for Maris.
MK: I wasn’t quite aware that people were alive who were writing great things. My education was all dead people, not even like a 20th-century kind of reading list. I had not read any of the important 20th-century writers in 1999, and so it was a revelation that fiction today could still move me so much.
I sobbed when I read it and I wasn’t used to sobbing from books. Even the saddest, darkest things I’ve read. I was living in a one bedroom apartment with a wall put up so that it would be a sort of two bedroom apartment. I was in bed, so I had a roommate at the time and we shared a couch and that was about it in terms of seating. If I didn’t want to see her for a little while, and sometimes that happened, the only other place I could go was my bed. And so I did a lot of reading in bed in those years and sobbing in bed. It’s delight for anyone who wants to try it.
WS: For Maris, Elizabeth McCracken’s novel was also a gateway to discovering other writers she had never come across.
MK: After reading Elizabeth McCracken, then I read Lorrie Moore, who does the kind of same similar, happy, funny, sad kind of situation and who is weird and wonderful in her own way. And I think that led me back to even more short story writers. So I got into Deborah Eisenberg and Lydia Davis and Amy Hempel and that opened up my world too.
WS: What changed for you after you read this book?
MK: I realized that it would be possible for me perhaps to help other people feel the way I did by finding books to put into the world. That’s why I wanted to be an editor so desperately, to facilitate that. Then as my career broadened and I grew up a little bit, I realized that there are plenty of excellent books that can make you sob, but are also intellectually stimulating and lovely and funny. I could elevate those books in other ways by talking about them or by reviewing them or by taking photos of them for Instagram or blogging about them and that that’s fulfilling in its own way.
I knew many people who didn’t have a TV and whether it was a pretentious thing or a money thing, you couldn’t even tell.
WS: Books were always a huge part of Maris Kreizman’s life, from the time she first learned to read, to her work as an associate editor. But her passion was not confined to purely literary forms of entertainment.
MK: TV has always been just as important to me as books always have been. And again, that took me many years to be able to say, especially when I first moved to New York, I knew many people who didn’t have a TV and whether it was a pretentious thing or a money thing, you couldn’t even tell. But, I guess I just love escapism in many different forms. And I saw that TV was an art just as books are.
WS: Her love for television and pop culture helped to buoy Maris during a difficult period. After almost six years in publishing, she was laid off and found herself at a crossroads.
MK: When I had found myself out of the publishing industry and at a job that wasn’t very appealing, but was paying the bills, I decided that books and TV were meant to be together like chocolate and peanut butter. So I started a blog called Slaughterhouse 90210, which sounds incredibly silly and ridiculous to me now, but 10 years ago, it was earnestly what I loved. And I would pair an image from a TV show with a quote from a book that I was reading or had read and kind of tried to juxtapose the two to make another comment about how they interact.
My first post ever was almost exactly 10 years ago and it was a still from Veronica Mars, because that was my favorite show at the time. And it was a quote from The Giant’s House because that was my very favorite book and I needed it to have the number one spot.
WS: Do you remember what the quote was?
MK: Yes: “But you can’t spend your whole life hoping people ask you the right questions. You must learn to love and answer the questions they already ask.”
WS: As Maris moved through the questions of her own life, books like A Giant’s House helped to light her path.
MK: My big joke is that the best self help books are of course all fiction because I feel like I’ve learned more about myself from reading about other characters than I have from reading any sort of guide. Fiction is my guide.
WS: Maris’s blog helped her move through that uncertain period of her own life—it was adapted into a book, Slaughterhouse 90210, in 2015. And despite her move away from publishing, Maris’s reading list did not slow down at all. She began writing more book criticism, and profiling authors. And recently, Maris got the opportunity to write about—and meet—Elizabeth McCracken herself.
MK: We were meeting for brunch, so I purposely chose a restaurant that was very low key and we sat for two and a half hours, and I tried to not just do the Chris Farley character from SNL, like, “Remember when you wrote—that was good! That was cool!” I tried. I think there was some of that. But for the most part it’s the reason why I’m happy with my career now is that I do get to meet my heroes. And very rarely do they disappoint.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino. Thanks to Maris Kreizman and Camila Salazar. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on Lit Hub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks.