Literary author tests rules of fact and fiction
Alexander Maksik, a 40-year-old literary novelist, has learned a great deal about life and art and the unexpected ways they can meet.books Updated: Oct 01, 2013 11:36 IST
Alexander Maksik, a 40-year-old literary novelist, has learned a great deal about life and art and the unexpected ways they can meet.
A graduate of the University of Iowa's celebrated creative writing school, he is a widely praised author whose books include "You Deserve Nothing," about an American teacher in Paris fired for having an affair with a student, and a new release, "A Marker to Measure Drift," about a homeless Liberian woman on a Greek island.
But in an otherwise exemplary career, there is one catch: "You Deserve Nothing" was based on real events, about Maksik and his student, and has become the subject of ongoing debate. Several one-star reviews appeared on Amazon.com, from commenters alleging that they were former students at the American School of Paris who were disgusted by the book. Some reviewers who liked "You Deserve Nothing" were unsettled when they learned of the similarities, first revealed on the website Jezebel, between the author and his character.
"At the first hint that the affair - between a 17-year-old girl and a 33-year-old man - was real, I felt my stomach twist," wrote Brian Hurley of fictionadvocate.com. "What had been a racy, convention-defying romance in the novel suddenly felt like a craven, embarrassing scandal."
Maksik has been reluctant to discuss the controversy, but spoke at length about it during a recent interview with The Associated Press. Drinking tea at a cafe on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Maksik is as regretful about his private behavior as he is forceful about his right to use it for his novel, one he thinks should be liked or dismissed based on the quality of the book itself.
"I was in bad shape, and this thing had happened and I wondered how I allowed it to happen, how I had made all these decisions," says Maksik, whose graying hair is offset by his youthful, open expression.
"And it was a very upsetting time for me. I was humiliated. I was ashamed and angry at myself and angry in general. And this was the only thing I thought I could do," he says. "It was an effort to make sense of what had happened, and an effort to turn this horrible experience into some version of art."
Maksik is in privileged company when it comes to turning private experience into literary material. Truman Capote alienated high society friends when he transcribed their intimate conversations into his novel "Answered Prayers." Poet Robert Lowell quoted from the letters of his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, in his collection "The Dolphin." John Cheever drew upon embarrassing family moments for his short stories.
Maksik began working on the book soon after he lost his job in 2006. He wanted to tell a story of moral failure.
"I had times that I felt, `You can't do this.' Then I would say, `Worry about that when you finish the novel,'" he says, adding that while the book's plot is based on fact, the characters differ greatly.
"Clearly there are parallels, clearly there are similarities. But I was never such a talented teacher. I was never so charismatic. I never had legions of fans."
Maksik says he and his former student remained in touch while he was working on the novel, and she knew he was writing it. According to Maksik, she ceased communication after "You Deserve Nothing" came out. (The woman's identity has not been made public.)
He was unsure if the novel would ever be published, but through author friends his manuscript was read by literary agent Eric Simonoff, whose clients include Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Lethem.
Simonoff said he initially struggled to find a publisher, with some editors put off by the subject matter and others worried the book would not appeal to women. "You Deserve Nothing" was eventually acquired by Europa Editions. Aware that the story was autobiographical, publisher Kent Carroll brought in an attorney.
"We identified a whole series of things - names of people, names of streets in Paris, descriptions of buildings - that we thought might be close to real people, real places - and we had all of those changed," Carroll said.
The son of educators, Maksik was born in Los Angeles in 1973 and grew up in a home filled with books. When he was a teenager, the family moved to Ketchum, Idaho, the final home of Ernest Hemingway, whose Paris memoir "A Moveable Feast" helped inspire him to live overseas.
Even before Paris, classrooms had been the settings for some troubling experiences. In 2002, Maksik was forced out from an Orthodox Jewish middle school in Los Angeles. Maksik had angered parents and administrators by teaching work that included an Arab perspective, including Naomi Shihab Nye's young adult novel "Habibi."
"I was quite young and arrogant," he says. "I think I was right. But I didn't handle it well."
Carroll said "You Deserve Nothing" sold 20-25,000 copies, a high enough number that Maksik attracted strong interest among publishers for his second novel. His editor now at Knopf, Jordan Pavlin, said she competed "fiercly" for "A Marker," which she remembered reading in "one great gulp."
"And when I finished I literally put my head down on the desk and wept. It was truly one of the most powerful reading experiences I ever had."
Now living in Manhattan and supporting himself through his writing, Maksik considers "A Marker" a far more mature and compassionate work than "You Deserve Nothing" - one that risks not being too close to life, but too far from it. In it, he imagines the life of an African woman, Jacqueline, who has fled civil war.
Maksik is working on a new novel, and says his ideal path would be to make each book better than the one before, leaving "You Deserve Nothing" as simply the opening of a great literary career.
But he may not be done with the story: Maksik hopes to reach an agreement soon for film rights to "You Deserve Nothing."
"I'm not concerned," Maksik said. "My interest is the same as it was when I wrote the novel: that it be of the highest quality and evaluated on its merits."