Maryse Meijer is the author of Heartbreaker, out today from FSG Originals. In an inversion of the prototypical author interview, here she asks her twin sister, Danielle Meijer, about fantasy, escapism, and finding the perfect reader. Welcome to the Twinterview.
When giving interviews leading up to publication of Heartbreaker, my debut collection of stories coming out from FSG Originals this month, I found myself answering the same handful of questions over and over again, leaving a trail of cookie-cutter sound bites to clutter up the interwebs. At a certain point, you might as well get a robot to do the job for you. So for this piece I decided to ask my twin sister, Danielle Meijer—an adjunct professor in the philosophy department at DePaul University, social justice advocate, dancer, and muse—the questions most writers dread. The result? A fascinating conversation full of inside jokes and egregious mutual admiration. Welcome to The Twinterview.
Maryse: When did you first realize I was a writer?
Danielle: I always knew you were going to be a writer, but I knew you were going to be a good writer around middle school, maybe? I remember how every time I read something of yours I had this excited feeling like, wow, this was written by my twin. I know there were things before that, in grade school, but I can’t recall specific stories.
M: I think up until the sixth grade it I was just doing stuff about cats and Star Trek characters. Then something happened—maybe reading Anne Rice and Kathe Koja—and things got a little more interesting.
D: There was a vampire story you wrote that was such a weird twist on the traditional concept, that demonstrated this insightful approach to themes of desire and loss and memory, something your average young person would not be writing or thinking about—or your average anybody, for that matter. It was just like, where the hell is this coming from? And your power of description was present at the start, too. I think that has always been the most striking aspect of your writing for me. I still don't even know how you come up with those images—do you walk around and visually interpret the world that way or does it just happen when you sit down and write and you're trying to think of how to describe something?
M: You mean how do I come up with metaphors and similies? That’s such a non-writer question to ask.
D: I’m not a writer!
M: It’s more the latter—when I’m working I’m trying, you know, to describe things. It’s not like there’s a rainstorm and suddenly I turn into Nabokov and think “oh, now the rain is crepitating on the leaves . . . ”
D: I have tried to write and have tried to describe a scene, and I literally cannot do it. It is a mysterious kind of skill. I get chills reading your work. We share almost 100% of our genes and so I should know more about how you are so good at writing and where it's coming from, but I don't.
M: Except you kind of do, because you are my muse, my editor—you’re the co-creator. You know exactly how it works!
D: I don't actually think I am a muse. I don't even think I contribute that much to your writing.
M: That’s so dumb, though. Because while I’m the one who might be doing the actual writing, you’re the one who is—and has always been—entering into the fantasy world with me, coming up with great storylines, characters, ideas…not to mention all the editing you do on every draft of everything I write.
D: We should probably discuss our paracosm here because I think that's where the muse thing is coming from—two of the stories in the book are based on or inspired by our paracosm (which is a fancy term for fantasy world—The Brontes had one, for example). We've had paracosms off and on our whole lives, and what makes it special is that we’re in them together.
M: It’s a collaboration. And it plays out more in real time.
D: It feels more worthwhile and interesting than just sitting around day-dreaming. You never know what element the other person is going to introduce, or how they’ll use what you’ve created and turn it around. It’s like actual work of some kind is being done.
M: It’s totally work! We’ve probably created hundreds of storylines and thousands of characters over time. And I have to say that while I love writing, working a paracosm is even more involving, because I feel that I am the people we are creating. When I sit down to write—even if I’m playing off of characters or an idea we’ve developed together—it’s much more distant. As a writer, I’m an observer. Which is a role I relish. But I’m never in my characters’ heads, though I try to get close. The distance is always there. Maybe I became a writer because I wanted to legitimize, somehow, my obsession with fantasy and escapism. There’s nothing very glamorous about telling someone you really enjoy spending hours pretending to be other people with your twin sister. And no one will pay you to do it . . .
D: It's funny how the adult world is intolerant of fantasy that isn't commodified—you can't have an intense fantasy world as an adult without being perceived as immature at best, or crazy, at worst. But if you create a video game, novel, poem, film, or you're an actor—that is, if you are able to share your fantasies with the public and get paid for it—then that's not only acceptable, that's something to be respected and admired. And of course people love engaging in the fantasy worlds other people have created through video games, plays, movies, books etc.
M: This whole paracosm thing has taught me how to see as writer—gestures, expressions, a whole visual language. It’s even taught me, in many ways, how to feel. It’s like I’ve lived all these different lives, and there’s also the fact that I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing you create all these incredible people and dialogues and situations that I’ve learned so much from. I can’t get there through writing (or reading, for that matter) alone. I need to have you to play off of, I need to be challenged by you, to be inspired. So, I still hold that you are the muse. Accept it!
D: Well, fine, you’re welcome. I do think I’m a good cheerleader—maybe I push you to focus on certain themes, to develop or deepen your focus on something. Say you write about some girl flipping out, and I encourage you to write about more women flipping out, because the way you write about these women flipping out is working, and so when other people tell you to stop writing about women flipping out you don't listen, because my voice telling you MORE FLIPPING OUT is way louder than the voices telling you to quit. And I think I generally steer you in the right directions (pats self on back).
M: That’s definitely true. Especially in terms of edits—if you tell me to cut something, I sure as hell better cut it, because if I keep it in I’m only making more work for my editor, who then has to tell me what you’ve already said. I always resist a little at first, because, like most writers, I’m sentimental about what I do, but I’ve never known you to be wrong.
Now that the stories are being pushed from our nest and out into the world, what do the initial responses/reviews get right? What do they get wrong?
D: I think people might overhype the “badass-girl” thing, maybe because they’re responding to the feminism that is very present in the book, and they (rightly) want to comment on it. There’s this tendency to want every girl to be a hero in order to counterbalance all the tragic stereotypes about women that surround us . . . but I don't see any of your characters, male or female, as being role-models. Most of them are losers.
D: No offense, dear characters, but it's true. There’s a loser in all of us, and that’s who you’re writing about—the person who epically fails to take care of themselves, to do the right thing, to recognize a bad decision before they make it. No one knows what the hell is going on, especially where sex and romance are concerned, and that's what makes the stories real and interesting, even when they present some, um, statistically anomalous behavior. This is the fallout from patriarchy—how it makes sex dangerous and messed up for us all.
M: Yeah . . . we’re all just trying to feel good and get some love but the roadmaps our culture has given us are pretty shit. The people in these stories are taking the detours, but they can’t get off the map completely. Much to their bitter chagrin, as we like to say . . .
D: But even when they are doing some fucked up shit, you kind of want these people to be your friends, although you might want to hide the knives (and the high heels, the pet foxes, the kids . . . ) when they come over.
M: Are we ever jealous of each other? People assume we are, right?
D: The jealousy assumption really chaps my hide. Do people not know the true meaning of twinness, just like they don't know the true meaning of Christmas? I like being compared to you (except when someone points out that I am fatter than you, that's not cool) and I take pride in our similarities as well as our differences. Maybe if I were a writer myself and never got published I'd be a bit bummed, but even then I don't think I'd be jealous of you.
M: I remember crying at a performance of yours (Danielle is a brilliant dancer) and someone said “Don’t worry, you’re good at things, too.” As if I was crying out of self-pity! I always cry when I see you dance, or when I watch you teach, because I’m so in awe of what you can do. There’s this notion that siblings are always, in some ways, rivals, and twins even more so because we have to compete for whatever it is people think humans compete for. But it’s the opposite for us, I think—whatever one of us does well only reflects on the excellence of the twinship as a whole.
D: I have always been a fan of your writing, so I'm thrilled that this is all finally happening and now other people will know what I know. And I am proud of being the one person in the world that will ever know your work as intimately as I do, and to have had the privilege of being there through all the stages. It's like getting to be that crazy fan in Misery, Annie Wilkes, except I don’t have to kidnap you or break your ankles to get the goods. I have absolute access to my favorite writer. It's very, very cool.
M: And I have the privilege of having what every writer dreams of finding—the perfect reader, the most generous audience. I always tell people that you are the person I write for, period. I write for us. That gives me such confidence when I’m working—I don’t have to feel like I’m doing it alone, or that I’m writing into a void. But aside from me, who are your favorite authors? What are your favorite books?
D: "Lolita" is my favorite novel, and my favorite authors are Barbara Comyns, Elfriede Jenilek, Beckett, Kafka, Pessoa, Robert Walser . . . Kathe Koja is the most obvious influence on us—for you in terms of writing style—
M: Yes! Shout out to Kathe!
D:—and she was a huge influence in my life, too, given the fact that I studied psychology because of one of her novels.
M: And I went through a ten-year obsession with schizophrenia because of that book (Strange Angels, seriously, check it out, it’s brilliant). Which is a whole thing with us, how deeply obsessed we get with books, movies, music—the things we love are immediately sucked into our world and devoured. Another pleasure of twinship is always having someone to be a fangirl with you, someone to discover things with, someone who understands how absolutely amazing so-and-so or such-and-such is. What are you reading now?
D: I'm currently digging The Last Bad Man, Wolf in White Van and The Vegetarian—all suggestions from you! I don't have time to wade through the crap, so I rely on you to tell me what's worth reading. And I can't help but mention my non-fiction favorites since that's what I'm immersed in these days: the child liberationists John Holt and Janusz Korczak, Wendell Berry, Jerry Mander, Neil Postman, Julian Beck's diaries ("The Life of the Theatre"), Karl Menninger's "The Crime of Punishment," Robert Jensen, Andrea Dworkin, V.F. Cordova, bell hooks, David Graeber . . .
M: I only know the names on that last list because of you. (And let me say that I’m a feminist because of you, a vegan because of you, somewhat informed about economics and politics because of you . . . ) Growing up you were always ahead of me aesthetically, in everything. While I was listening to Sarah Mclaughlin you were turned on to Bauhaus, David Bowie, punk music . . . you were reading Doestevsky and Sartre and Burroughs in middle school while I was still stuck on Star Trek novels and Anne Rice. When you started getting into Francis Bacon in high school I was like, What the fuck is that?! You find all the good stuff first, metabolize it, then pass it on to me. What are you looking for in art? Where do you find it?
D: So much of what I became interested in was either an accident—a discovery made in the book bargain bins of Tower Records and Barnes & Noble. Or else I came to something because of my desire to come across as intellectual and cool and different from everyone else. Sad, but true!
I think we've always been fascinated by the extremes of sexuality, as well as by the weird unknowableness of death and violence (and how sex and violence intersect). Death doesn't make sense no matter how hard you try to think about it. It never feels real, even when you are really close to it, like when Dad died. I don't know anything more about death now than I did before he died—in fact in some ways death seems even stranger and more unknowable. But I think our conversations over the years have helped me to not rely on pat answers when it comes to these sorts of issues, and there’s some wisdom in the pursuit.
Sex is a little easier to sort out, but it also tends to end up in pretty dark territory, and that’s where your stories get scary. The patriarchy is scary, alienation is scary, not being loved back by someone you love is scary, loving someone who may not be a good person or good for you is scary . . . that's what makes your work down to earth and "normal" despite the on-the-surface strangeness of the scenarios. We all know what fear looks like in relation to love.
M: Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
D: "Home" has a lot of meaning to me since it was the first story of yours published. And it's the one I've read the most. It’s such a classic story line for the Meijer twins.
M: Wait, what’s a classic story line for us?
D: You know, older man/younger girl (or boy), weird shit ensues . . .
M: What’s your least favorite story?
D: I don’t have a least favorite, but maybe there are stories I don’t know as well, in a way, like I need to spend more time with them before I get to second base. “Stones” is like that for me, still kind of a mystery . . . but there aren't any duds in the collection. I would have told you if there were, before the book got published, to save you the embarrassment. Duh.
M: What do you think I should work on next?
D: You have yet to write a full-length novel with a lot of characters, so that's a question mark. I have no idea what a 300-page novel by Maryse Meijer looks like, but I want to find out, so chop chop.
M: Given that you know all my secrets, is there anything you want to reveal about the real Maryse Meijer?
D: People tend to assume that writers are just like the characters they write about, so I want to burst some bubbles on that score. You're a mom, you do regular things, you aren't depressed or self-destructive, and while you are indeed a true badass and definitely not boring you are not crazy and you don't get yourself into too much trouble. So high five for having your head screwed on straight while being able to write effectively about people who don't.
M: So we’re just normal people?
D: Yup. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.
Maryse Meijer’s work has appeared in Meridian, The Saint Ann’s Review, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Portland Review, and actual paper. She lives in Chicago.