It Is a Country that Inspires Me

Set in 1937, at the beginning of Hitler’s rise, Courtney Maum’s new novel, Costalegre, takes place in the Mexican jungle, where fifteen-year-old Lara Calaway and her philanthropist mother, Lenora, flee Europe to take refuge at the title resort with a group of surrealist artists and writers considered “cultural degenerates” back home. Told through Lara’s journal entries, the book is as much a travelogue as a traditional narrative, as the girl explores the plants and terrain of her new home; Maum uses Lara’s perspective to create a surreal version of Mexico, threading fiction (like tigers) into the breathtaking vistas around Costalegre. —Benjamin Woodard

BW: Both Costalegre and your chapbook, Notes from Mexico, take place in Mexico. Tell us why the country means so much to you not just as a writer, but as a frequent visitor.
CM: Places call to you, I think. You can have geographical romances; a lot of people do. I don’t know if I can explain why I’m obsessed with Mexico, but I have been since I was a child. I used to go to the CD section of my local Borders and moon over the Latin American music section: I’ve always been very taken by mariachi music; I find it absolutely thrilling. My first love (unrequited) was a Mexican bullfighter. Some of the happiest moments of my life have been lived in Mexico. Listen, I get that Mexico, like any country, has its share of serious problems and that it is unconscionable to paint any place as perfect, but the colors of Mexico and many of the people I have met there, the pleasure that is actually tasteable in the food, the joy that many Mexicans take in children and the care they show their elders, the endless array of weird, brightly tasty and texturally complicated drinks that are available, the architecture, the art—I could go on and on. It is a country that inspires me.

I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut—such a white place, such a wealthy place. When I was little, and this is probably still the case, there was this veritable fleet of gardeners called Ceci Brothers that worked on all the giant properties in town. They all wore red uniforms and appeared to be of Latin American descent. There was a giant, almost tactile distinction between “us” and “them” that was deeply upsetting to me as a child. You know, you’d look out your window and see this army of red shirts toiling in the garden—men without a name, men treated like “gardeners” whose entire purpose in life was to mow your grass. This kind of “us and them-ness” is still happening between rich, white Americans and Mexicans and Mexican Americans, obviously. It’s only getting worse. Every single person on this planet comes from a family equipped with hopes and dreams and secret pleasures. It is reprehensible to me to not be interested in the humanity of our fellow humans.

BW: Surrealists played a game called “Time Travelers’ Potlatch,” which asked players to come up with gifts they would give to different historical figures. What are some gifts you would give the characters in your novel—either the fictional characters or the real artists they’re based on?
CM: I would give Leonora Calaway, based on Peggy Guggenheim, therapy. I would give Baldomero Zayas, based on Salvador Dalí, some breathable linen because he only wears velvet in the heat of Mexico. I would give Walter Fritz safe passage back to Europe to get his wife and children out of Hitler’s grasp. I would give Hetty Coleman, based on the writer Emily Coleman, a sedative. I’d give Jack Klinger, based on Constantin Brâncuși, earplugs. I would give Lara Calaway, based on Pegeen Guggenheim) many things: therapy, a vibrator, an animal companion, a reliable best friend and a Discman with punk rock music on it.

BW: The characters in Costalegre participate in an automatic-drawing exercise where they try to reproduce their dreams, or associations of their unconscious, in a drawing or other art form. Can writers create potent literature using this technique? For an added bonus, can you answer using as much of your unconscious mind as possible?
CM: I am going to let André Breton, author of the Surrealist Manifesto, answer this: “I have always been amazed at the way an ordinary observer lends so much more credence and attaches so much more importance to waking events than to those occurring in dreams. It is because man, when he ceases to sleep, is above all the plaything of his memory, and in its normal state memory takes pleasure in weakly retracing for him the circumstances of the dream, in stripping it of any real importance, and in dismissing the only determinant from the point where he thinks he has left it a few hours before: this firm hope, this concern. He is under the impression of continuing something that is worthwhile. Thus the dream finds itself reduced to a mere parenthesis, as is the night. And, like the night, dreams generally contribute little to furthering our understanding. This curious state of affairs seems to me to call for certain reflections.”

BW: Where is the next place you would like to go in Mexico?
CM: Oaxaca! I made a friend recently who lives in Oaxaca and takes visitors to the under-the-radar stuff that’s happening around the city by bike. I had a big biking period in my teens, and that period is past me. So I don’t know how I feel about biking everywhere, but I feel very good about visiting my new friend in Oaxaca.

Benjamin Woodard is editor in chief at Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. His fiction has been featured in, or is forthcoming from, Best Microfiction 2019, SmokeLong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle and others. His literary criticism appears regularly at Kenyon Review Online and Publishers Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @woodardwriter.

Courtney Maum is the author of the novels CostalegreTouch, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, 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 BuzzFeed; The New York Times; O, the Oprah Magazine; and Poets & Writers. She is the founder of the learning collaborative The Cabins, and she also runs a service called “The Query Doula,” where she helps writers prepare their manuscripts and query letters for an agent’s eyes.

Lead image: Diego Ongaro