Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Paul Maliszewski

In books, fiction, short stories, writing on April 23, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Paul Maliszewski

Paul Maliszewski. Photo by Hadley Ross.

An introduction to Paul Maliszewski, author of the fiction collection Prayer and Parable (Fence Books, 2011).  The cover description for Prayer and Parable says the stories feature people who “struggle to do right. They argue. They think. They think again. They have odd dreams. Often they fail at being good, and yet, on occasion, they realize moments of true kindness.” People much like any of  us. These stories are about life and the human condition. The artistry is in Maliszewski’s honest language, and as he mentions, the best way to experience art, is to experience it yourself. You’ll have to read the book to discover its beauties.

Quick Facts on Paul Maliszewski

  • Home: Washington, DC
  • Top reads: The list fluctuates, but some dependable favorites include William Gaddis’s J R and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. For a while there, I bought every used copy I found of those novels and passed them along to friends. Grace Paley’s short stories astound me, for how effortless they seem. They’re so completely free of the usual narrative mechanics. They just speak, like a voice in your ear. I love Donald Barthelme’s stories, too. In college, when I first read them, I remember taking them as a license and an invitation: he can do anything, therefore so can I. As I continued to read them, though, I found so much sadness and complication under the antic inventiveness. I could just go on listing things here, but one new book I admire a whole lot is Scott Bradfield’s novel The People Who Watched Her Pass By.
  • Current reads: Adam Gilders’s collection of stories Another Ventriloquist. I’m writing a review for Bookforum. Gilders was a Canadian author who died of a brain tumor in 2007. The stories are wonderful. Gilders writes about people at work, in office settings, and pays attention to how they think. I did pick up Paradise Lost, because Gilders did his PhD at the University of Toronto and wrote his dissertation on Milton. But I’ve been trying lately not to have a million books going at once, something I easily fall into.

What are you working on?

The big thing I’m doing is a much-delayed project about Joseph Mitchell (much-delayed, I should say, by me). Over the years, Mitchell collected stuff, for lack of a more inclusive word. He collected doorknobs and escutcheons, bricks and chunks of floor tile, wires ripped from walls and spikes pried from beams. No matter what he collected or where he found an object, he almost always wrote down the place and date, including brief notations about the object’s relationship to other pieces in his collection. He tied these notes to the objects with string and placed them in boxes or, if the object was small, he dropped it into a plastic capsule or a jam jar or a baggie. I’m working on this with my friend Steve Featherstone, who has done some great reporting for Harper’s, among many other magazines. Steve has been photographing the collection, and I’m writing an essay about it, with the book to be published by Princeton Architectural Press. An earlier incarnation of our project appeared in Granta some years back.

What do you hope readers will take away from Prayer and Parable?

I hope I’ve made it so readers can’t take anything away from Prayer and Parable. I mean, I hope they like it. I hope they find something recognizable in it, that deep chords are struck, even. But there’s no message, there’s just the thing itself, the book itself, the stories themselves. I think all art—writing, music, painting, what have you—should aspire to be irreducible. We can try to boil it down, of course. We do that all the time. We describe the play we saw to a friend, or say you’d really like this song, because it sort of reminds me of something you were saying the other night about x or y or z. But that’s just what we do to communicate. We use shorthand, because it’s impossible to convey a piece of sculpture, for example, in its entirety, using a few words. That’s why, in those conversations, we often end up saying, “You just have to see it.” You have to see it for yourself.

“There’s just the thing itself,

the book itself, the stories themselves.”

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I write when I can. My wife and I have a son, and I take care of him during the day. I write during his naps, when he naps, and I write at night, after he’s gone to bed, provided I have the energy. I’m not particularly ritualistic about where I write. For a while, I did a lot of writing in bed, laying across the bed. Lately, though, I’ve been doing more writing downstairs during the day, in a chair by the window, the reason being that if the mail comes or UPS or something, I need to be able to get to the door before someone knocks and wakes up the boy.

The main habit I stick to is that I write my fiction longhand and tend to write nonfiction on the computer. I focus better on the story with pen and paper. There’s just some connection there, for me, with the writing speed and the thinking speed. Maybe it’s that handwriting is somewhat slower and it makes me slow down and be patient. Also, I don’t want the computer’s editing tools standing by, when I’m just starting out. It’s too easy to become mired in moving paragraphs around instead of getting some forward momentum. Finally, the distraction of email can prove too great at times. If I checked my email every time I need to stop and think of some phrase or line of dialogue, I’d never get anything done.

Do you listen to anything while you write?

I can’t listen to music while writing or editing. I wrote papers in college while listening to music. I had a tape with Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue on one side and In a Silent Way on the other, and I just kept flipping that cassette while I wrote. Now I need complete quiet. I have a pair of those noise-cancelling headphones that I wear sometimes. My powers of concentration were much greater, years ago. Once, I was sitting at my desk, writing, and my girlfriend played the same song over and over on the stereo, just hitting repeat on the CD player. This was a song I really didn’t like, too, and she knew I didn’t like it, and was, I think, being funny. The song was “Now Be Thankful,” from Richard Thompson’s otherwise brilliant Watching the Dark boxed set. “Now Be Thankful” is from his Fairport Convention days and, really, if you wanted to create a parody of everything that is ridiculous about 60s British folk, you could just play that song. It has this just prancing, elfin feel to it. A few notes alone can put me in mind of renaissance fairs and juggling jesters and tankards of mead. Anyway, I was writing, and this song was playing, and finally, at some point, I looked up and said, “This song is so annoying,” and my girlfriend said, “I’ve only played it seven or eight times.” I had no idea. I’d only just become aware of it being on. And it’s not a short song. That said, for all my super concentration, my writing then was not what I would call good. Also, and perhaps more curiously, I’ve started to kind of like “Now Be Thankful.”

Do you have a philosophy for why you write?

I write because I have to write, because there’s something that needs to be written, something that must be written, because I know if I didn’t write it, nobody else would.

“I know if I didn’t write it, nobody else would.”

How do you balance content with form?

I think of the stories in this book as having forms. Some are prayers and some are parables. Those forms might not mean much to anybody other than me, but they have intrinsic rules and limits which I’ve abided. I’ve also been working on a novel in the form of letters to former President George W Bush. I think of the letter as a form, too. None of these forms is like the villanelle, of course, or the sestina. They’re much more forgiving, roomier, but still, over the years, when I’ve had an idea, I’ll think, is this for the prayer thing, or is this a letter? Sometimes it’s neither, but the times when the idea was right for a prayer or a letter, it just felt like something fit, like the content matched what I knew I could do in a particular form. And I knew it instantly. I don’t recall deliberating or starting something as a prayer, say, and then deciding, oh, no, actually, it should be a letter. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s something in the idea itself—the content isn’t even content yet, it’s embryonic, nothing is even written down in note form—that insists on what form it will take.

Is there a quote about writing that inspires you?

This is going to seem odd, but there’s a quote from Jack Nicholson, talking about acting, that I like a lot. I came across it one night while watching the “making of” documentary that’s included on The Shining DVD, and took to it immediately, to the point that I got pen and paper and wrote it down, starting and stopping the video, until I had it word for word. In the documentary, Nicholson is just talking about working with Kubrick, and he says:

“Anything you do as many times as a successful actor—you can’t have one set of theories. You can go for years saying, ‘I’m going to get this real, because they really haven’t seen it real.’ They just keep seeing one fashion of unreal after the other that passes as real, and you go mad with realism and then you come up against someone like Stanley who says, ‘Yeah, it’s real, but it’s not interesting.'”

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Max Apple, my creative writing teacher in college, told us that, if we were serious about wanting to be writers, we would have to write a dozen bad stories. I took him literally and so tried to write my awful dozen as quickly as possible, to get them under my belt and, you know, move into my golden period. I sometimes repeat that advice but inflate the number to two dozen, because, frankly, I just think that’s more realistic. It was for me. The other thing I say, which students never like or maybe they just don’t believe me, is that they need to love writing—the actual solitary work of it—and they need to keep publishing in its place, ideally a small, separate place that doesn’t require a lot of oxygen or occupy much of their attention, because publishing, just taking all this writing and trying to find a home for the stuff, is a fickle and, at times, frustrating business.

“Love writing—the actual solitary work of it.”

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

My friend Steve, with whom I’m working on the Joseph Mitchell project, once observed that characters in fiction almost never make a metaphor or get to think a line of more literary-type language. That ability to speak and think, that power to find the higher registers of expression, is kept from them and reserved instead for the narrator and author. It’s as if the characters are these cavemen and -women, who haven’t even invented fire yet. They’re just left to, in effect, grunt and gesture dumbly at the sky. I think of this observation of Steve’s so often, more than any piece of advice. It seems manifestly true. It also seems like a current to work against. I like characters who reach for some understanding. I like characters who try to articulate their lives. I like books that don’t deny them that.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

Structure. I feel like I’m only now just getting a handle on the most fundamental aspects of structure.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

Watch movies at home, be with my wife and son, go to the National Gallery.

About Paul Maliszewski

Paul Maliszewski has published essays in Harper’s, Granta, and Bookforum, among other magazines. He is the author of Fakers, a collection of essays published by The News Press. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Black Clock, One Story, BOMB, and elsewhere, and have been awarded two Pushcart Prizes. Prayer and Parable is Maliszewski’s first collection of fiction. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and son.

Buy the book, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Paul Maliszewski.” Words With Writers (August 25, 2011),

Prayer and Parable by Paul Maliszewski

Prayer and Parable by Paul Maliszewski (Fence Books, 2011).

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