“A few years ago I graduated from working at the kitchen table in my tiny old railroad apartment to a desk against the my bedroom wall at a new place. My workspace is, like a lot of what I own, a pretty bare-bones, low-budget affair, but it’s gotten considerably more elaborate over the past year as I’ve hunkered down to finish my novel. I work both longhand and on my laptop, and, while I usually turn on Freedom to shut out the Internet, I keep my iPad handy to look things up online and to avail myself of all the reference materials I’ve downloaded.
Although I’ve lived in Brooklyn for more than a decade, I hate asphalt. I spend a lot of time looking at listings for cheap land in remote places and pining for the natural world. While I’m working, I like to surround myself with plants and rocks, and with shells like the ones I used to collect on Florida beaches as a child.
The novel I’m writing is set in Miami, and features a fundamentalist preacher mother and her doubting daughter, and the books on the surface of my desk are the ones I’ve been turning to most frequently for inspiration to help me get the thing done by the end of the year. They are, from right to left, a collection of Mark Twain’s nonfiction, E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat, Franz Kafka’s Letter to Father, Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, Joan Didion’s Miami, Patricia Kennedy’s Miami: In Vintage Postcards, Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Marlon James’ John Crow’s Devil, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a collection of Muriel Spark’s novels (normally my copy of Spark’s Memento Mori — the ultimate inspiration — would be there, too, but I’d lent it to a friend when this photo was taken), Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, James Baldwin’s Go Tell it On the Mountain and Julia Leigh’s Disquiet. To the right of these is a collection of overpriced pencils; I used to be against such things, but rewriting goes much more quickly with the Palominos, because the lead (graphite? whatever it is) moves so much more swiftly over the page. To the left of the books is a photograph of my grandmother, and beyond that, a Poe figurine from a friend I’ve lost touch with. I have no defense for fetishizing one of my favorite authors in this way; I just love to look at the fake him’s melancholy face. If you take off his head, you can see his heart.
On the next shelf up is a collection of books that, so far, hasn’t rotated: R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis, The King James Bible, Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses, The Complete Shakespeare, and the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (eternal disclosure). Partly obscuring these is an encouraging note Narrative editor Carol Edgarian sent to me when I won the 2009 Narrative Prize for a novel excerpt that appeared in the magazine. Next comes my terrarium. Right now it’s only filled with stones and moss, but I have elaborate plans for it. And the branch pillow on the far end is the handiwork of my friend Susan Maddux, an artist who grew up in Hawaii and is preoccupied by the cohabitation of technology and the tropical landscape. One day I hope to buy one of her paintings.On the middle shelf is a Trey Speegle puzzle from my friend Allison. I may take it down and put it together, but right now I get too much pleasure from picking up the box and moving it around so that all the beautiful, intricate shapes are jumbled together in different ways. To the right is a collection of usage manuals. Three of them, all Fowler’s, are gifts from my late father-in-law. The one on the bottom, The King’s English, is the clever and fabulously bossy Kingsley Amis.”
On the top shelf the only thing worth mentioning is Carrie Marill’s 20×200 print “Faceted Couroucou.” The dead or dying bird at the center of it is, because of the story I’m writing, of particular interest to me. Off to the right side of my desk are pictures, including some of my family, that I turn to look at often. My favorite — given to me by my dear friend Lauren — is a shot of Muriel Spark smoking one cigarette and getting ready to hand the viewer another.
(The photographer is my husband, Maximus Clarke.)
Maud Newton was born in Dallas, to a southern father and Texan mother. At two, she moved to Miami, Florida, where she was often mistaken for a tourist because of her pallid complexion.
She attended the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she studied writing with Padgett Powell and Harry Crews, and then, for lack of a better plan, went to law school. Now, having abandoned the practice of law, she lives in New York City, where she works as an editor and writer for Thomson Reuters. Newton has written about books, writers, and culture for the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Granta, The American Prospect, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post Book World, and Newsday. She is a contributor to NPR’s Books We Like and The Barnes & Noble Review, and a columnist at The Awl. Currently, she serves on the Board of Directors for Girls Write Now, a nonprofit organization that pairs professional mentors with at-risk teen girls. She is curating Girls Write Now’s Chapters series at the Center for Fiction.
FROM YOUR DESKS: When turning to a book for inspiration, are you looking at certain passages or the overall writing style? Take Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief and Didion’s Miami, what draws you to these titles?
MAUD NEWTON: The Orchid Thief and Miami are useful to me both because of their subject matter and the writing itself. They’re two books that evoke South Florida accurately and idiosyncratically, and they’re tightly, beautifully written. I’m drawn to Go Tell It on the Mountain and John Crow’s Devil for the same reason; they’re both about extreme fervor, which is helpful because of the story I’m working on, but I wouldn’t keep returning to them if the prose wasn’t so good, and the perspective so unique.
In general, but especially when I’m working on fiction or a personal essay, I immerse myself in writers I feel some sort of affinity with or aspire to write more like. Mark Twain and E.B. White are both incredibly precise, incredibly evocative, and incredibly funny. When I read them, I’m entertained and inspired. For several years, Twain has been my standby when I’m really stuck. I read him and remember that if I’m bored by what I’m writing, the reader will be, too. Basically, he reminds me to entertain myself first, and to assume that if I feel like what I’m writing is bullshit, the reader will see right through it. I have a similar feeling every time I revisit John Jeremiah Sullivan’s amazing essay in latest issue of The Paris Review
. Spark has the same effect, and she’s also so good at moving stories forward and drawing characters with astonishing fullness in a sentence or two. Her dialogue is deadly and accurate and wonderful. Poe I like for mood, for dark settings and for wallowing in misery, but I’ve been turning to him less these days than I was four or five years ago, because I don’t do that sort of thing nearly as well as he does and a lot of what I wrote when I was steeped in him is embarrassingly maudlin. Julia Leigh is sort of the meeting of Poe and Spark. The emotion is completely drained from her work, in the most remarkable way, but the situations are macabre and horrific and also weirdly entertaining.
I immerse myself in writers I feel some sort of affinity with or aspire to write more like.
FYD: I once turned to Ann Lamont’s BIRD BY BIRD.Do you think “writing inspiration” and how-to-write books are helpful? Or I should keep my copy buried in the deep files?
MN: Whatever helps, helps. There’s no rule. I haven’t looked at Bird by Bird in years, but my friend Lyrissa, then one of my law school professors, gave it to me in my twenties when I had trouble finishing drafts, and I still remind myself all the time of Lamott’s fundamental creed: “write a shitty first draft.” That’s true, for me, of pretty much everything I write. There have to be some truly horrible sentences on the page before anything decent starts to come.
FYD: Do you journal or keep a notebook of ideas?
MN: I’ve never been much good at keeping a journal. I tried in college but realized I was actually writing it for other people, usually the guy I was dating or obsessing about. It was all self-serving and manipulative, which was weird because no one else was reading it. I’m glad I wrote (and destroyed) all that stuff before the Internet era; it would be horrible to have it out there on a LiveJournal somewhere. I like blogging (to the extent that I still like blogging) because it feels like a much more honest form of writing. I’m writing on my blog for myself, but also for an audience. The tension is interesting. Perhaps it’s implicit in the personal blog form, but it’s hard to generalize.
FYD: What advice would you give to someone asking you about law school. Should they go? Save the money? Run?
MN: You really can’t convince someone not to go to law school, and I wouldn’t ever try unless somebody seemed to want me to talk him or her out of it. I myself went to law school not to make good on any grand ambitions but because I was lazy and weak-willed. My father wanted me to go; I had no desire to do it, but because he wouldn’t help pay for any of the grad programs I was interested in, and I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do with my life, and giving in was the path of least resistance. Basically, I went into law school expecting to hate it, and I hated it every bit as much as I expected to, until toward the end, when I was conflicted. I still didn’t enjoy it, but I realized it was making me a better writer and thinker and that I could identify and call bullshit much more readily and convincingly.
I’m writing on my blog for myself, but also for an audience. The tension is interesting.
FYD: When do you expect the terrarium to be planted; perhaps at the end of your novel? The purging of such a body of work merits the planting of a new life?
MN: That’s a nice idea. I have a feeling the moss in the terrarium will die before then, and that I’ll be too disheartened to start over, but I’m taking a (as I type this I am aware of just what a Brooklyn cliché I’ve become) terrarium-making class with a friend later this month, so maybe I’m being too pessimistic.
FYD: I love the name Maud; is it a family name?