With his critically acclaimed debut novel, You Deserve Nothing, Alexander Maksik established himself as a mature, confident voice in fiction. His second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, affirms his stature as one of the most inventive and daring writers at work today. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Maksik’s writing has appeared in Harper’s, Tin House, Harvard Review, The New York Times Magazine, Salon and Narrative Magazine, among others, and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. He lives in New York City.
GR: You wrote this novel, as you say, moving constantly from place to place. One of the places you landed was here, in Maui, another island like the Greek island that your heroine Jacqueline lands on. We are witness to the exquisite and painful detail of her inward journey and the physical effort of her traversing the geography of the island. Islands occupy a symbolically significant place in literature, they often inhere a mythical quality: Odysseus washes up on Calypso’s shore, the island setting of The Tempest and its marooned characters and so on. Can you speak of the significance of ‘the island’ for you as a writer? Were you washed ashore to write this novel?
AM: As a writer I’m drawn to external limitation – whether physical or temporal – because often a natural narrative structure lies somewhere within that limitation. So I think that’s part of an island’s appeal. The space is relatively small, the borders are clear. I also think I’m drawn to islands because they provide the illusion that they can be contained, and fully understood in ways that larger places cannot. It’s a silly notion, of course. An island is as complex and layered and mysterious as anywhere else. But the illusion allows me to see a story in its entirety, to more easily imagine a beginning, middle and end.
I came to Maui two years ago to work on A Marker to Measure Drift. I was staying in a small cottage on a beautiful piece of property in Haiku. I wrote through the mornings and then drove down to Ho’okipa and surfed in the afternoons. It was a good routine, but a very lonely one. I talked to very few people during that time and there’s no question that all that solitude amongst all that beauty had a tremendous influence on the book. I’d had no plans to come to Maui and then a long relationship ended. A friend found me the cottage and suddenly I found myself here. In that sense, it did feel a bit as if I’d washed ashore, that my arrival here hadn’t entirely been intentional.
GR: The Merwin Conservancy is delighted to have you as the debut author for the launch of its new literary salon: The Green Room. You have cited W.S. Merwin as one of your favorite poets and you have a long-standing personal relationship with the Merwins. Will you elaborate on that relationship and how it perhaps nourished your writerly journey?
AM: I am profoundly honored to do it. It means so much to me and I’m grateful for the invitation.
I was twenty-three and working as a volunteer for the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference when I first met William and Paula. My job was to take them wherever they needed to go. I was driving an old green Land Cruiser and I remember William riding shotgun and Paula leaning forward from the backseat. I’d never read William’s poems and so I wasn’t as nervous as I should have been. But the advantage of that blissful ignorance was that I was able to do what I’d later have such a hard time doing: speaking. They asked me what I’d do after the summer, what my plans were. As usual, I had no real plans, only vague fantasies of writing, and traveling. Read the iChing, William told me. It’ll work out, Paula said. It will, William agreed. I was struck by their warmth and also by how uncomplicated they made the future seem – these two strangers. It’ll work out they said, as if they were certain, as if there were no question in the world about that.
Over the following fifteen years, I continued to read William’s work, and nearly every summer I’d return to Idaho and listen to him read. By the summer of 2011, when I came to Maui to work on A Marker to Measure Drift, the only book of his I’d never read was The Folding Cliffs. On my first morning in Haiku, I sat outside at a metal table, opened it and read those first lines: Climbing in the dark she felt the small stones turn/along the spine of the path whose color kept rising in her mind. I knew immediately that I was reading the right thing at the right time.
Throughout that month in Haiku, The Folding Cliffs served as a kind of guide. And I feel particularly indebted to those first pages – those hypnotic lines, the lilting rhythm, the close third person, Pi’ilani making her way against the wind. I thought, in one way or another, this is what I want my novel to be. And so I began to see Jacqueline, my protagonist, more clearly, because while I was writing, William was carrying me along. Which, through his work, he has been doing since I stood at the back of a white tent in Idaho and first heard him read all those years ago.
In his poem, “From the Start,” William asks:
Who did I think was listening
when I wrote down the words
in pencil at the beginning
While I’m working, I often like to pretend that the writers I most admire are listening to me. While I was working on A Marker to Measure Drift, I imagined that writer was William.
© The Merwin Conservancy August 2013