That Irresistible Idea: An Interview with Maura Candela

By HANNAH GERSEN

Maura Candela is one of my favorite writers, as well one of the best storytellers I’ve ever met—two talents that don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. Her debut fiction, “The Boys’ Club” was featured in the first issue of The Common. Maura has also recently finished a novel called The Love Dogs, which is set in contemporary New York and deals, in part, with the long-term effects of 9/11 on rescue workers and their families.

Maura and I met in 2007 in a writing workshop at the 92nd Street Y, when she was just beginning to work on The Love Dogs. Her writing struck me immediately as being very funny and sharp-tongued, but at the same time, full of emotion and longing. Her stories take place in New York City’s outer boroughs, a rich territory that allows Maura to address issues of race and class, as well as immigration and exile.

A native New Yorker, Maura was born in Brooklyn in 1953. She graduated from York College, a part of CUNY. She currently lives in Middle Village, Queens, with her husband and children. The following interview took place on a chilly Sunday afternoon in February over beers in a Long Island City bar. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

 

The Common: Your story, “The Boys’ Club” is set in a neighborhood near the border of Queens and Brooklyn, which your characters call “City Line.” You were born in Brooklyn; can you tell me a little about the neighborhood where you grew up? Was it in the “City Line” zone?

Candela: I was born right near Prospect Park, in an area just south of Bedford Stuyvesant. I think it’s been re-named Prospect Heights.  Almost immediately, my parents moved to a railroad apartment in Bushwick. Then they stepped up in the world and bought a house in the Ozone Park/Woodhaven area when I was in second grade. I have ten brothers and sisters—six of us were born in Brooklyn, five in Queens. Ozone Park was close to Brooklyn—you could walk down the avenue and be in Brooklyn. Woodhaven led to Cypress Hills, part of which was in Queens, part in Brooklyn. Both those areas, past Crescent Street, were referred to as “City Line”.

Something I’ve noticed when I talk to native New Yorkers is that they have an allegiance to their childhood neighborhoods that means more to them than the school they went to…whereas, if you grow up in the suburbs, you mainly identify with your high school.

Yes, because the neighborhood is like a living entity.

Do you think that’s something that’s still alive in New York or has it changed for younger generations?

I think the population changes but the strange thing is that as each wave of immigrants comes over, that idea of the neighborhood remains. I was just reading something that John Leguizamo said—he grew up in Jackson Heights, and he said he used to get so annoyed with his father because his father was always moving the family five blocks one way or five blocks another way and every time he moved he felt like he was in a whole different neighborhood—even though he was technically still in “Jackson Heights”. And if a neighborhood is really densely populated, your allegiance is to your block.

I love that about New York.

I know, it’s so crazy. When I was growing up, I felt like everyone had the same idea of the neighborhood—it was your defense against being invisible. It’s almost like Manhattan—we didn’t actually call it Manhattan, we just called it “the city”—it’s almost like Manhattan was not thought of as a place to live. It was where you went to work, where you went if you were ambitious. But in the neighborhood—that was where you were your true self and that was where you rested from the labors of striving. But it was a paradox, because even as the neighborhood was a place where you felt you were your most authentic self, it was also a place you wanted to escape from.

How do you think the idea of the true self and the neighborhood works in your story?

Well, I think that the characters each have a different relationship to the neighborhood and the code of the neighborhood. Some, in my mind, will go beyond that and some will stay there.

Was the idea of “the neighborhood” the jumping off point for the story?

No, I have a bunch of ideas for short stories that I haven’t written yet—I keep a list with three or four lines of notes for each story. For Boys’ Club I had notes about the dogs, the broken window of the deli, and that it had to be in the Vietnam era.

“The Boys’ Club” is set in the late 1960s; your novel, on the other hand, is set in contemporary New York City. How is writing about the past different from writing about the present? Do you find one easier than the other?

No.  Both present different humps to get over. It’s easy to forget the past—the texture and feel of a particular time. I think of the sixties or seventies; the graffiti, the dirt, the El, the polyester, the stickball games, the drugs—it was all out there on the street.  Street life, as it existed for generations, maybe even hundreds of years in this city, was fun and scary but also kind of innocent. And then it all went away. It’s very hard to describe that grittiness to readers because I think it was unique.

Writing in the contemporary ‘present’ presents the problem of plucking out the right details from the onrush of information we all confront daily. I really try to get months straight in a novel—even if it’s just for my own information. For example, in The Love Dogs, I had to show one of the character”s increasing paranoia about having gone to Guantanamo and broken the rib of an ‘enemy combatant’. I happened to look at a Gitmo timeline and saw that the Supreme Court ruled that the Geneva Convention be upheld on June 29, 2006—exactly the month and year I needed for plotting purposes. I took it as a good omen for the book.

Who are some writers you admire? Who influences your work right now?

I can’t step away from my writing enough to know who influences it. But I know who I love…first of all, I love all Russian novelists. The triumvirate of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov. They create this entire world that you can get lost in. Whenever I’m sick I reread Was & Peace—I go to the chapters I like best, and it makes me feel better. Growing up, one summer, I read every one of Shakespeare’s plays because a teacher I admired said she had done that one summer. Sometimes I re-read those, too.

I love Stendahl. I love Primo Levi, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Di Lampedusa, Verga—I like a lot of Italian writers. Mario Vargas Llosa—The War at the End of the World is the greatest novel to come out of South America. It’s like War & Peace for South America. Let’s see, who else…I like Orhan Pamuk, recently.  Edna O’Brien, Nadine Gordimer, Alice Munro. When I was younger I used to love V.S. Naipaul, I read all his novels. But they got progressively more cynical and horrid. I love Tom Wolfe. I think Tom Wolfe is Dickens. And Don DeLillo, I love him. He’s a genius.

Do you think of DeLillo as a New York writer?

I think DeLillo is at his best when he writes about New York City, especially the Bronx. Those are the things that ring the most true. But he doesn’t want to be seen as provincial in any way. So I think he went out of his way to make a point that he could write about anything he wanted.

Are there any negative influences? I mean, is there anything you feel you are writing in reaction to?

No, not really. What inspires me is…well, sometimes I get an idea and it seems irresistible to me. That’s when I’m happiest. When I start with that irresistible idea.  And it’s something that, very conceitedly, I think that I know the truth about and other people don’t. And really, writing a novel is very egotistical.  Sometimes I think maybe I’ll just be a poet and not worry so much about the ego part! Because you’re really putting yourself out there with a novel. You’re presenting life as you see it. And anyone who does that is really setting themselves up for a fall.

I think Stendahl said writing a novel is like walking down the street holding a mirror—you just reflect what’s going on. But it’s kind of a distorted mirror…

Absolutely, you’re interpreting reality—the worry is, what makes you think you can interpret better than anyone else? But then again, you dothink that or you wouldn’t write. But there can be something comforting in writing, too. Something I like about writing is that I can retrieve the past. That can be depressing, of course, to write about things that have already happened, and even though you’re making things up, there’s that kernel of truth you have to deal with. But I’m not talking about writing as something therapeutic. I just mean that writing gives you a chance to shine a light on the truth—on something that hasn’t yet been told about a particular era.

When did you start writing fiction?

Probably when my children were small—actually, before I had my first child. I was teaching high school and I was writing a novel. And then, when my children were small, and I wasn’t working, I wrote.

So, when you started writing your first novel, when you were still teaching, did it feel like a big deal to decide to write a book?

It felt like a crazy compulsion. I tried to hide it from people. And yet, when I’m writing a novel, or even a short story, I feel like everything comes together and I get a focus on life. I’m seeing everything through that lens—I’m thinking, Yes! That will be in my novel! Yes! That will be in my short story! It’s almost as if I can see the world more clearly through the characters. I try to write about real people, who have a sense of humor about themselves. Even in the novel I just finished, about the aftermath of 9/11, I tried to focus most on the characters and their day-to-day struggles. They don’t see themselves as part of some larger political idea. They’re just trying to get on with their lives. And as you know, I’m trying to restrain myself from writing another novel. I’m just going to stick to short stories for a while.

Sometimes I think short stories are more difficult than novels—they’re a puzzle you have to solve, and you have to be so efficient, whereas when you write a novel you have more room, you can be messy.

Maybe writing short stories is harder, but to me, writing a sustained narrative feels more like life. And reading a novel is more like life. I enjoy getting into the world of a novel. If I read a novel in five days, I’m mindful that it took, say, three years to write it, and if it’s good and generous and I’m moved, I’m just so grateful for that gift.

Last question: What are some of your favorite places to go in New York?

I like to go to Brooklyn now for fun. Manhattan used to be more of a playground. Maybe I just got older but it seemed so much more fun to go to Soho when it was still an industrial area and rats might run over your toes. I have a real weakness for industrial and waterfront areas. Now I think it’s romantic to drive with my husband on the Brooklyn/Queens side along the East River, with the New York skyline twinkling on other side, looking like it’s being served up on a platter. And even in those isolated areas, a restaurant or bar or museum or park or theatre group space will magically pop up and you have an adventure. That sort of surreal landscape is what makes New York seem more real to me than any other place.

 

Hannah Gersen‘s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Granta Online, North American Review, and The Southern Review, among others. In addition, her journalism and essays have appeared in a variety of publications including The New York Times, The New York Observer, and The Millions. She lives in New York City.

That Irresistible Idea: An Interview with Maura Candela

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