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Author Interview: Thomas Maurstad

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Thomas Maurstad, author of Mind the Gap.

FQ: Thank you for your time today. This was a most enjoyable read and I would like to jump right in. It’s rather cliché to ask: What was your inspiration...but given your subject matter, I found myself thinking back to Chaz (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) as that inspiration. Is this the case?

MAURSTAD: All my stories start with a character and a situation. In the case of Mind the Gap, I started with this: someone betrays the person they most love. Before resolving to atone for or even acknowledge the damage they’ve done, that person is gone. How do they move on? How do they work through and get past their guilt and shame? That gave me Justin. As I was thinking about him, I spent a lot of time sitting and staring at a painting I very much admire by Tomory Dodge; it’s a diptych of two cavasses. (It’s the painting in the background of my photo on the back cover of Mind the Gap). The two canvasses are the same, except they’re not, exactly. It creates this portrait of imperfect symmetry, and I decided I wanted to use that idea as the structure of my novel. So, I had one character-canvas and I needed another—the same, only different, slightly. And thinking in this direction gave me Ellis.

All the building blocks of the plot—the artists’ collective ACME, the activist-disruptor movement eXit, a sinister corporation, a secret—came out of my quest to construct a story that would allow me to follow Justin and Ellis as they tried to get unstuck from the situations they were stuck in. The only fixed details I started with: I knew Justin was a marketing/trends wiz, that Ellis was an artist-musician, that they lived in Austin, and that SXSW was where their narratives would intersect. You’re certainly correct to note the Seattle protest as one of the real-life events that informed Mind the Gap, though I started before CHAZ and finished after. For me, the journey from start to finish of a novel is a long, slow swim, and all along the way moments and happenings flash from the real world to provide bursts of inspiration and affirmation within the book.

FQ: In line with my previous question, I have to say you do an exceptional job of not peppering this read with political rant, but there is certainly nuance toward your views without being offensive. Was that difficult to do? If you found yourself leaning one way or the other, how would you redirect and get back on track?

MAURSTAD: I endeavor to keep “my” opinions out of my fiction. I hope that any feeling or attitude the reader infers comes from one of the characters. I want everything that is expressed, described, or spoken in Mind the Gap to be in service of deepening the reader’s understanding of the characters and engagement with the story. I have zero interest in broadcasting “my” political positions; I want my writing to be of me, but not about me.

FQ: As early as Page 8, I was taken by a passage: “...Justin scarcely glanced at what was just another matinee show of the performance-art theater that public life had become on the plazas around the capitol. How many months had it been now? Long enough that the news teams and camera crews were the background exception and not the frontline norm. Turns out protests on downtown streets were just like wars in faraway countries: when they just kept going and no one really knew what anybody was fighting for, people stopped paying attention...” This is some powerful stuff! How much of this is creative writing and how much of this is personal perspective? Care to elaborate?

MAURSTAD: As is almost always the case, it’s both. I think one of the general attributes you can assign to most writers/artists/creatives is that we are free ranging observer-gatherers. I look, I listen, I try to identify similarities and differences, recognize patterns, and so on. I try to remember; I sometimes scribble little notes to myself that I usually lose or put through the laundry or can’t later make sense of. But I’ve found that, most of the time, what I need is somewhere in my mind, waiting for me to need it. This was one of those times. I’d never thought this particular thought in this particular way, but when the moment was right, it popped up like a thought I had been thinking all along.

Reading truly is an escape and the world is one’s oyster with the insurmountable bevy of great reads out there. When you began this project, could you sense the audience you were writing for? How were they your guiding force and did you listen when something didn’t flow to your liking?

I don’t have any conscious sense of the reader(s) I’m writing to, or for. Or maybe it’s that I’m the reader I’m writing for. That doesn’t sound great, I know (solipsism much?), but I work on whatever I’m writing until it feels and sounds right to me, and then I have to trust that someone else may read it and feel and hear something that feels right to them. Among the many elements writing and reading share is this: they are both leaps of faith.

FQ: In line with my previous question, an editor once explained to me that in order to write something that will be impactful, one must never self-edit, nor write for oneself. Where is your ‘perfect writing zone’ and how do know when you get there and keep going forward versus go back and re-write?

MAURSTAD: Hoo and/or hah—my previous answer makes answering this question a little awkward. There is obviously an essential way in which I disagree with your editor. I spent the first 30 years of my professional life as a critic writing and reporting on all manner of arts and events for alternative weeklies, magazine and, finally-mostly, a daily newspaper. So, I have plenty of experience writing to the demands of editors and for the expectations of readers. And that was all very instructive and interesting and, sometimes, even fun. But as a direct consequence of that experience, I have (here’s that phrase again) zero interest in writing to the expressed or imagined demands/expectations of anyone other than myself.

The most valuable skill I developed from years writing on deadline for a newspaper is that I know how to put my ass in the chair and keep it there until I’ve written something. Through that experience, I know that I don’t need to wait for “inspiration” to strike. More importantly, I know that if I sit down, keep my ass in the chair, and stare into space and think, feelings will turn into thoughts, thoughts will turn into words, words will turn into sentences, sentences will turn into paragraphs. I’ve only ever experienced inspiration in recognition after it’s happened.

Because, especially when starting, a story can be anything and go anywhere, I need to set up boundaries, rules to follow that help me begin to make sense and create structure. One of the most important rules I hold myself to is that once I’ve started something, I don’t go back and re-read and tinker until the story is finished. Once I’m into a narrative, I only allow myself to go back and read the last couple of paragraphs I wrote the day before, to prime the pump. And then it’s onward, through the fog. I do that the whole way through, whether it’s a few-thousand-word short story, or a multi-chapter novel. There are all kinds of traps along the way from start to finish that will keep you from finishing. And endlessly tinkering with what you’ve already written is one of the easiest traps to fall into. I’ve found that endless noodling is just a way to deceive myself so I can feel like I’m being productive when I’m just wasting time.

FQ: I enjoyed the stark differences between characters Justin Mayhaps and Ellis Presley. Justin seemed to have all the elements of the ‘establishment guy’ and Ellis was the ‘creative free spirit who was changing the world through her art.’ Opposites truly do attract, and they worked beautifully in this story. Whose character could you relate with most in this story and why?

MAURSTAD: One of the unintended consequences of the alternating Him/Her approach I took in writing Mind the Gap is that, until Justin and Ellis met and began interacting, every new chapter meant taking a break from the character I’d just been living with and picking back up with the one I hadn’t seen in a while. While I was writing the book, I took it as a good sign that whether I was working on a Him chapter or a Her chapter, I missed the character I wasn’t with. I honestly didn’t, and don’t have a favorite. I gave them both different parts of me as gifts (or curses).

FQ: I loved the story behind Ellis’ name. Are you an Elvis fan? Favorite song?

MAURSTAD: I would say I’m an Elvis agnostic. He’s such an irreducible figure in American history; if there was a periodic table of pop culture, Elvis is hydrogen. How that whole “Ellis Presley” angle came about was another unplanned result of characterization and storytelling. I had decided on the name Ellis because...I can’t really say precisely, I think I just liked the name. And then I was thinking about her and building her backstory and here came her father and their relationship. Giving her that last name and telling the story of her living with that name just came out as a way of sharpening the edges of her relationship with her father.

FQ: I enjoyed the interview Ellis did with the reporter and the borderline loathing she had toward giving interviews. There’s a sublime fault line between her desire for fame and her creative process: “...That’s obviously a big issue for you, your privacy. Here you are a rising, I don’t want to say ‘star’ because that term carries a lot of show-biz baggage, but you are someone that people, new music fans, are starting to pay attention to. There’s that series of music videos you’ve put out that are racking up the views, and now your debut album, which is great, by the way. And yet the world knows almost nothing about you, not even what you look like. You’re barely in any of your videos, just glimpses here and there, and either your head is turned away or you’re wearing, you know, a mask...” There were so many points throughout this read that I found myself comparing Ellis to Billie Eilish. No disrespect to Ms. Eilish, but I couldn’t name one of her songs if you asked me. How is it do you suppose certain people rise to fame and why is it? Did you intentionally make Ellis unattainable to plant the seed that this is what the ‘hipsters’ migrate toward?

MAURSTAD: Fame requires the ambition to be famous. In my experience as a journalist covering the fame industry, it doesn’t happen accidentally. It’s true that chance has a lot to with whether one becomes famous, but if you are going to be famous, you must pursue it. And if you’re going to remain famous, you must work and work and work to maintain it. Whatever else may be required—talent, focus, discipline, beauty, smarts, charm or its opposite—fame requires weapons-grade ambition. Ellis is blessed not to be burdened with that ambition; she has the clarity to know what she wants and what she doesn’t. For her, commercial success is a means to an end. She doesn’t want success to achieve fame; she recognizes that she needs commercial success to subsidize and spread her work. That’s a tricky balance to achieve and even trickier to maintain. I’ve watched many young artists/musicians strive to get to that place where they can focus on their work and their work can thrive. Some never came close while a few rocketed light years past that point and found themselves lost in fame’s funhouse. I wasn’t thinking of Billie Eilish, or anyone else in particular, when Ellis was evolving.

FQ: There are ‘nuggets’ of sentiments you pepper throughout this read: “...A touring musician is a door-to-door salesman cast in a slightly more glamourous light...” Wow! Did this just drop into your lap, or would you care to elaborate how this came to pass?

MAURSTAD: I spent a long time writing about music and musicians. I observed as the music industry, like every other creative industry, was upended and turned inside-out by the internet and social media. That traditional model—of record labels and promotional support and streams of record-sales and radio-play income—all but evaporated overnight and suddenly touring and merchandise sales were the only reliable revenue sources for musicians. No more being a Brian Wilson genius playing in your bedroom sandbox while getting rich. As for that particular detail/description, it’s another example of that quirk I described previously; that thought was there waiting for me to think it when it was time to write it.

FQ: There is a wonderful emotion that plays out when you are writing many of the scenes in this book. I sense you have a varied catalogue of music preferences. If you had to name one musical artist who is your ‘go to’ musician, who would that be and why?

MAURSTAD: Often, when someone finds out I used to be a critic who reviewed concerts and movies and tv shows and all the rest, they will ask “so what’s your favorite...?” And every time, my mind goes blank. I just don’t know; I love (and hate) a lot of things. I don’t play favorites. As for music, I mostly listen to electronic music. Because I spent so many formative years writing in big offices, with lots of people talking and phones ringing, I learned to write wearing headphones and listening to music to block out the clamor. I quickly figured out that pop/rock/country, none of that “radio music” worked. There couldn’t be lyrics. No words. And there couldn’t be too much melody; too much starting and finishing. I tried classical and jazz for a while, but both are too dynamic, too many tempo shifts.

I realized that what I needed was what Brian Eno described when describing his ambient music: “music that is as ignorable as it is listenable.” That’s exactly right. So, for me, that means electronic music—ambient, deep house, trance and so on. A slight melody, a steady rhythm, predictable, continuous, interesting but not too interesting, like listening to the surf. I need an aural room I can settle in and tune in and out as I sit and stare, think and feel. And then, when the wheels start turning, I need that music to just dissolve and drift away.

FQ: Thank you for the pleasure of chatting today and certainly for such a great read. There was a lot to unpack in this wonderful body of work! I can’t imagine this is it for your audience. Are you working on your next project, and would you please share a teaser?

MAURSTAD: Thank you for reading Mind the Gap, and for your thoughtful questions. I have a collection of short stories, Flyover States, that will be coming out sometime later in 2023. And I’m working on my next novel, tentatively titled Dreaming of Sleep. We shall see when that’s finished—slow and steady wins the race.

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