by Authorlink Columnist
Ellen Birkett Morris
In Costalegre, Courtney Maum’s third novel, Lara and Leonora Calaway are taking refuge in a remote mansion in the Mexican wilderness in 1937 with a group of Surrealist artists, who Leonora has helped to escape Hitler’s Europe. Leonora is based on Peggy Guggenheim, the wealthy socialite and art collector, and Lara, on Peggy’s daughter Pegeen Vail Guggenheim, an aspiring artist.
The pressure is on. The group is trapped in the sweltering house, unnerved by the impending war, and awaiting the arrival of a ship containing Leonora’s art collection. “They are hot, bored and desperate there. Unnamed, but real, creatures are consuming the animals, which foreshadows the war that is coming,” said Maum.
“The novel first appeared under the guise of setting.”
The novel is narrated by Lara, who at age fifteen finds herself isolated from her peers and overlooked by the adults who surround her.
“The novel first appeared under the guise of setting. My husband has family in Careyes in Western Mexico and we’ve been going there for over ten years. It is an uncanny and exotic place,” said Maum.
She described Careyes as a jungle-like setting where it is possible to encounter crocodiles, giant serpents and Jaguars, and with a beach that has currents that can turn lethal. It is a place Maum explored in her chapbook Notes from Mexico.
“The question was who to put there?”
Maum was reading a memoir of Peggy Guggenheim when she noted that Guggenheim rarely discussed her daughter, and when she did it was as a burden.
“She mentioned that she forgot Pegeen when she was packing up the summer house. It seemed so egregious. When I discovered that Pegeen wanted to be an artist, I couldn’t get past it. I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would be like to want to be an artist when your own mother was one of the most powerful art collectors in the world,” said Maum.
As she tried to figure out the form of the book, Maum did a series of “verbal sketches” from different character’s voices and different points of view. “Pegeen’s voice was the one I wanted. Her voice was the one that had been muffled by history.”
The diary form allowed Maum to include lists, drawings, doodles, drafts of letters and portions of books that Lara was reading in the entries.
Since the characters were pushed out of Europe quickly, the diary could be both a companion of sorts and a repository of emotions for Lara. As Lara contemplates future marriage, she writes:
. . . I think how nice it would be to have someone to hold you
and to tell all your secrets to, instead of you, small diary, who
has no arms at all.
” I wanted to create a very contained, slightly claustrophobic experience…”
The diary as a narrative device also kept the focus on Lara’s isolation and aspirations and the depression she suffered from. “Pegeen died early, tragically. She took her own life. I wanted to create a very contained, slightly claustrophobic experience,” said Maum.
To solve the problem of populating the book Maum drew on an architectural feature of the area, open doorways and a curved structure to the house, so Lara is privy to what is happening around the house and can see and hear the movement of other characters.
“There is no locked tower scenario with Lara. She is a spy to a certain extent,” said Maum.
As she contemplated how to build the atmosphere of the book, Maum reread books that provided a portrait of anticipatory dread like Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness, and Speedboat, which had an upper-class bohemian vibe to it.
She wove her portrait of the fictional Pegeen from “a lot of extrapolation.” Pegeen was barely visible in the writings of artists, novelists, and other family members. “If there was a mention of her it was something like ‘Pegeen was there with her flossy hair,’” said Maum.
Among Maum’s creations was a fictional best friend named Elizabeth, who she later learned was real. “I was meeting Pegeen’s stepson and he showed me a picture of her best friend Jacqueline, who Pegeen wrote letters to daily. I’d made up the best friend in the book. It gave the shivers.”
Lara’s limbo, as she lives ignored, but still under her mother’s thumb, is broken by the arrival of Jack Klinger, a Dadaist sculptor and friend of her mother’s who doesn’t share Lara’s romantic interest.
The book ends with a glimmer of hope Lara contemplates her future and where she might fit in.
Throughout, readers are treated to characterizations of a number of Surrealist artists, based in real people, as seen through Lara’s eyes. Though they are eccentric and interesting, Lara remains the most compelling character. It is an achievement of empathy on the part of the author.
“When you find yourself feeling unattached to the work, be more vulnerable.”
Maum has a method for staying close to the work. “I advise writers to highlight low-calorie language in their prose, places where they are being lazy. If you use the word scared is that what you really mean? Is shame the word you are looking for? That is a much more interesting, protein-packed word.”
“When you find yourself feeling unattached to the work, be more vulnerable. Use truer language that will give you a much more umbilical connection to your work,” advised Maum.
She also shared an important tool she used early in her writing career. Living in upstate New York, she worked in New York City four days a week. She decided that every night in the city she would go to one reading series. She did that for four months. “It was huge. I’d had no writing friends and I made friends and contacts and got invited to read.”
Editors she met offered her feedback and her writing got better. She got work published and began to get name recognition.
With Costalegre getting rave reviews, Maum is working on a braided memoir that explores the history of humans and horses over time and shares her experience with how horses have helped her battle anxiety and stress.
She is also preparing to tour and teach in support of Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book, which goes on sale January 7.
Courtney Maum is the author of the novels Costalegre (a GOOP book club pick), I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You and Touch (a New York Times Editor’s Choice and NPR Best Book of the Year selection), and the handbook Before and After the Book Deal: A writer’s guide to finishing, publishing, promoting, and surviving your first book, forthcoming from Catapult. Her writing has been widely published in such outlets as the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, and Poets & Writers.