Interview: Maisy Card
CRAFT is ever grateful to award-winning debut novelist Maisy Card, who served as this year’s guest judge for our 2022 First Chapters Contest. Maisy has chosen the three winning excerpts, which will be featured this month, starting tomorrow. To celebrate, Suzanne Grove, our associate editor and short fiction section editor, interviews Maisy Card about reading, writing, and living.
Suzanne Grove: Within the writing community, we talk frequently about the importance of reading voraciously. I know so many writers who often revisit favorite passages before a drafting session to get into a narrative rhythm. For a while now, I’ve been revisiting the works of Dantiel W. Moniz, Annie Proulx, and K-Ming Chang. I’m curious about how you approach reading while actively working on a project. Do you find yourself returning to old favorites, or wanting to explore writers unfamiliar to you? Do you ever read before you write? How does reading figure into your writing process?
Maisy Card: I usually read before I begin a writing session. I love being inspired by a new voice or a novel with an inventive structure, but usually I find myself going back to old favorites. I’ll often read passages from my favorite Toni Morrison novel, A Mercy, when I’m working on a piece with multiple narrators. I also reread stories or passages from Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, anything by Jamaica Kincaid, and recently, from Lesley Nneka Arimah’s collection, What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky. What I read depends on what stage I’m at in my writing. If I’m stuck on the beginning, I’ll reread the beginnings of my favorite books or go to a bookstore and just pull books at random off the shelf. If I’m stuck on an end, I’ll do the same.
SG: I’m perpetually in awe of writers who can create multifaceted, nuanced, complex family dynamics on the page. I’m reminded of These Ghosts Are Family and your skill in handling these elements. How do you approach writing familial relationships—and do you have any advice for writers who might struggle to draw relationships that feel authentic to whatever the story’s attempting to do? I often think of advice I learned while acting: A good performance is about listening. In some ways, I think all fictional characters are either leaning into or away from that idea when interacting with one other.
MC: I find it interesting to always begin with something true. When writing These Ghosts, I thought of early memories from childhood that were somewhat hazy. I remembered observing some tension or awkwardness between family members in a particular moment, but back then didn’t fully know the cause. I also thought of stories I’d heard through family members about other family members, stories that I’d heard told and retold but that changed a little or a lot each time, depending on who the teller was. I think the key for me is to be inspired by the known and the unknown at the same time. Sometimes people get bogged down from trying to write characters based too closely on real people. A fictional family might be inspired by a real one, but that wide gap of the unknown is what differentiates them from each other. In a way, the fictional one should begin to feel more familiar to you than your real family as you write because you can fill in that unknown. Once you know all their secrets, you can anticipate their emotional reactions to any situation you put them in.
SG: I often wish we talked more about dialogue as a craft element. Beyond some basic advice about dialogue tags and imitating real speech while also cutting out redundancies, it’s an element we don’t speak about as much as, for example, opening hooks or creating tension or high stakes. Do you have any thoughts about creating successful dialogue?
MC: Sometimes I just use real people as inspiration. Especially since I write in patois, but I personally don’t usually speak in patois anymore. I’ll think of my mother’s voice or someone else who I know and write the conversation with their voice in my head. In later stages of revision, I always record myself reading dialogue out loud. I hate listening to the sound of my own voice on tape, so if I can listen to myself and still like the dialogue, then it’s probably good.
SG: I think a lot about how essential a sense of community can be, especially considering how solitary the act of writing can feel in certain moments. Do you have an experience within the writing community—perhaps with a mentor or teacher or colleague—that has remained with you? A piece of advice that still resonates?
MC: A professor, I believe it was Michael Cunningham, once said during a craft class in my MFA program that sometimes your writing is smarter than you are. That really freed me up to go along with my instincts, even when I can’t articulate what exactly I’m trying to do in the moment. He also said that sometimes you have to stop writing and say to yourself, “This is the best I can do right now.” Nothing ever quite feels “complete” to me, and so I repeat that quote to myself, so I don’t rewrite a piece into oblivion.
SG: What activities outside of writing bring you pleasure—what do you always try to make space for in your life that you think helps bring you more joy, and, as a result, maybe helps you when you arrive at the page?
MC: I usually try to go for a walk before I start writing or, if the weather is good, I’ll read or write outside. Writing comes with a lot of anxiety for me, and it helps to be able to focus on other things, like nature, before I begin, to calm down.
SG: If you could have the experience of reading any book again for the first time, which one would you select?
MC: Maybe Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. It’s one of my favorite books right now, but when it was assigned to me in ninth or tenth grade, I think I skimmed it or read the SparkNotes. It’s unfortunate, because I realize now that it was really what I needed to take in at that particular time in my life.
MAISY CARD is the author of the novel These Ghosts are Family, which won an American Book Award, the 2021 OCM Bocas Prize in Fiction, and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel, The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and the LA Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review’s Daily, AGNI, The New York Times, Guernica, and other publications. Maisy was born in Portmore, Jamaica, but was raised in Queens, New York. She is a graduate of the Brooklyn College MFA in fiction program. She is currently an adjunct assistant professor of writing at Columbia University and a fiction editor for The Brooklyn Rail. Find Maisy on Twitter @dracm.
SUZANNE GROVE currently serves as both the associate editor and short fiction section editor for CRAFT. Her fiction and poetry appear or are forthcoming in The Adirondack Review, Barren Magazine, The Carolina Quarterly, No Tokens, Okay Donkey, The Penn Review, Porter House Review, Raleigh Review, X-R-A-Y, No Contact, and elsewhere. She has also received honorable mention for her fiction appearing on Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s Work in Progress website. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @suzannegrove.