In Fiona Maazel's new novel, Woke Up Lonely (Graywolf Press), the melancholy leader of a global self-help group and his ex, a hapless spy, seek each other in a world as teeming and empty as ours. Maazel's first novel, Last Last Chance, won the Bard Prize for Fiction, and her work appears in venues like The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, and N+1. In 2008, The National Book Foundation named her a "5 under 35" fiction writer. She spoke to me by phone from Brooklyn, New York.
I ended up in Jim Shepard's creative writing class by accident. A friend asked me to take the class with him, but I wasn't so hot on the idea. Even at age 21, I sensed that fiction writing would expose all of my deficiencies—as a thinker and as a person—but that if I wanted to excel in this discipline, I'd have to lay bare my inner life and then some.
I walked into class on the first day (my friend having prevailed in the end) knowing nothing. Not about writing or contemporary literature, or that these subjects would be my life's work and thrill from that moment on. Jim is a legendary teacher for reasons that aren't that hard to quantify: he's incredibly shrewd about fiction and how it works; he's hilarious and incisive—a supremely generous reader and ever mindful of what we're all trying to do the second we put words down on the page and, more importantly, why it matters. He made fiction seem necessary—vital—and, in a way, weaponized. You could do something with fiction. You could change lives.
That year, I started reading his work, moving from his first book, Flights, to Lights Out in the Reptile House—a great novel with one the saddest endings in the world. Then came Nosferatu, about the silent film director F.W. Murnau and his travails, and Jim's first collection of short stories, Batting Against Castro, which is masterful, even though it's not the work for which he's now best known.
Of Jim's stories, "Love and Hydrogen" is one of my favorites. It's about two gay Nazis serving aboard the Hindenburg in 1937 and ostensibly about how a combustible mix of desire and jealousy can have lethal consequences. But really it's about what happens when hubris meets up with a kind of cosmic impatience with our unending need for more. More love, more thrills, more power.
Throughout the story, people are always offending god—with their ships, their guns and ecstasies. They are rising and overreaching, which all gets dramatized through images of floating and flight, not only of the ship's ascent but of the mind as it contemplates scenes of its own devising, which might be the worst heresy of all. "Imagine five or six city blocks could lift, with a bump, and float away," the story begins. Imagine. Rise up and out of yourself and see what happens. Following, there's backstory about the two lovers ascending mountains, and one of them flying over Calais on a bomb raid—everything about height, exultation, and certain kinds of joy.