- Roy Gumpel
- Author Carole Maso at her Clermont farmhouse.
"I notice there’s a whale hanging over your head. I could move that,” Carole Maso says helpfully. The whale is small and silvery, suspended from an open-work wire lighting fixture that resembles a bottomless birdcage. It is not alone.
Maso’s rambling farmhouse near Clermont is full of curios: a wooden squirrel, a sculpted deer head, a small Virgin Mary, a porcelain boat with mother and child huddled in the stern, a curvaceous “grandmother clock.” Outside are a “half-wild” rose garden, a cement rabbit under an ancient maple tree, two strutting cats. To a reader of her new novel Mother and Child (Counterpoint, 2012), entering this terrain recalls the vertiginous end of The Usual Suspects, in which the camera swoops from object to object, assembling the clues from which the narrative has been woven. “We’re sitting on the stage set,” Maso acknowledges, settling into an armchair in front of the hearth.
In author photos (often taken by her longtime partner Helen Lang), Maso can appear severe, ice-blue eyes commanding, full mouth dark with lipstick. In person, she exudes motherly warmth, immediately offering coffee and seeming dismayed when the answer is no. She wears comfortable layers—flowing print dress, rumpled scarf, soft patterned cardigan; her cornsilk hair tumbles from a loose knot. She laughs freely, often bouncing up to pad barefoot across the floorboards to fetch a knickknack or one of her books.
Maso’s work defies classification, leaving critics gasping for airless words such as “post-modern” and “experimental.” Her nine previous books (novels Ghost Dance, The Art Lover, The American Woman in the Chinese Hat, AVA, and Defiance; essay collection Break Every Rule; Aureole: An Erotic Sequence; The Room Lit by Roses: A Journal of Pregnancy and Birth, and Beauty Is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo) showcase a fierce literary intelligence and point-blank refusal to compromise her singular vision. It’s hard to imagine anyone less concerned with the mainstream.
Maso was 42 when she gave birth to her daughter Rose, conceived in a single encounter with an amorous stranger after she and Lang prayed for a child. If The Room Lit by Roses illuminates the miracle of gestation, Mother and Child limns the darker terrain of motherhood, presaged by this phrase from Roses: “The dizzying and terrifying shift seemingly overnight from no one can hurt us to no one can protect us.” Its titular characters are never named, which—along with Maso’s hypnotically lyrical prose—lends it a heightened, oracular cadence:
“The mother is a beautiful star, hot to the touch, radiant beyond belief. When the child turns away, she is draped in darkness, and when she turns back, she catches fire.”
“A lot of it started with real events, which is usually not true of my books,” Maso says, describing a terrible storm which knocked out the electricity and split a hollow maple near the porch, releasing a swarm of bats into the house while she and Rose slept. Maso’s mother was an ER nurse, so she knew it was dangerous to sleep in a house with bats. Rose’s pediatrician concurred, sending them for rabies shots at Northern Dutchess Hospital. “It spun me into a whole other world,” Maso says. “I felt very, very vulnerable. I thought, ‘I can’t keep the outside out.’ The outside and inside are porous; you can’t keep anything safe.”
She’d been working on another novel, The Bay of Angels, but “I felt as if some kind of veil had been lifted, so that what had been there before but had always been invisible was revealed.” She started chronicling quotidian shards–a funeral service, a fire truck dedication, the loss of a cherished stuffed lamb–often writing a story a day. “It was like taking dictation. I didn’t know what to do but to be receptive to what was there.”
The resulting novel is a magic-realist paean to the elemental bond between mother and child, weaving small-town events through a weft of large-scale calamity: the Chinese earthquake that buried thousands of schoolchildren, the Twin Towers in flames. Maso, who once lived near the World Trade Center, recalls a “disconnected, surreal feeling after 9/11—was I there or not? Am I here for real, or was I there? It’s about the empathetic imagination.”
It’s also about where she lives now. A recurring motif is the Spiegelpalais, a surreal venue for transmogrifying art exhibitions, “and of course we really have one, right down the road,” she says, referring to Bard Summerscape’s Spiegeltent. “Mother and Child is so much informed by the Hudson Valley–every moment of it takes place here.” Even the bookjacket has local provenance: the cover art is by Kathy Ruttenberg, whose work Maso first saw on a Chronogram cover.
Maso was born in Paterson, New Jersey, hometown of Allan Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams. Her mother’s heritage was Swedish, her father’s Italian. Three generations lived under one roof; Maso’s immigrant grandfather founded the Wood, Wire, and Metal Lathers Union.
She was the first of five children born in quick succession. As the family grew, her father stopped playing jazz trumpet and became a labor organizer. “He always seemed a little sad; part of him was elsewhere,” Maso says. Seeing him relinquish his artistic dream fueled her determination to follow her own.
She attended Vassar College without any thought of becoming a writer. During her senior year, she opted for a creative rather than critical thesis, but was rejected from the creative writing class because she hadn’t finished enough work. Her mentor, Elizabeth Bishop scholar Barbara Page, proposed an independent study. Maso wrote 50 pages of prose poetry, which launched her debut novel Ghost Dance. “I’d never been engaged in that way before, never felt so immersed. It was an utter gift and shock to me,” she recalls.
After graduation, she and Lang moved to Greenwich Village, where Maso supported herself with odd jobs: graveyard-shift paralegal, waitress at Lord & Taylor’s tearoom, fencing instructor, artist’s model. Modeling was especially useful, she says. “It’s infuriating to watch everyone work except you. You’re just the object. I really, really wanted to be on the other side, be the one making art. But I learned about sitting still, staying still long enough for something to happen. “
Throughout, she wrote. She rejected the notion of graduate school on the grounds that “I didn’t want to be told what I was doing before I knew what I was doing.” At her parents’ urging, she applied to Boston University and won a full fellowship, but dropped out the first day in what she calls “a now-or-never moment of lucidity.” She returned to temping and dog-sitting stints. Once a year, on her birthday, she read sections of her novel-in-progress to dubious friends. “By now, they were all attorneys and doctors, and here I was, waitressing.”
But her persistence bore fruit. After Ghost Dance was published in 1986 to glowing reviews, Maso won an NEA grant. She went to an artists’ colony in France, staying on as caretaker. Then she was offered a teaching appointment at Illinois State University, which she later ceded to David Foster Wallace. More teaching jobs followed, at George Washington, Brown, and Columbia, where she received a $50,000 Lannan Literary Fellowship.
This windfall became the down payment on her beloved farmhouse. Lang works in the city during the week, while Maso stays upstate with Rose. She still teaches alternate semesters at Brown, offering classes in literature, film studies, and creative writing. “The hard thing about teaching is that it’s demanding in exactly the same way as writing is. One of the strangest things about writing well is that it requires two different zones in the brain—rigor and recklessness—simultaneously.”
The front door swings open as poet Louis Asekoff, a neighbor, arrives with a bag of porcini mushrooms Maso needs for a dish she’s cooking tonight. She digs in her wallet for money and thanks him. Returning to her chair, she explains that she doesn’t drive, “so I make a lot of arrangements for things.”
She and Asekoff started a writers group with novelist Mary-Beth Hughes and playwright Martin Epstein; the late Romulus Linney was their fifth. Maso has now returned to The Bay of Angels, which shares some characters with AVA but “spins out into a history of human suffering, all kinds of wars. It’s huge. The notion of suffering and salvation. This is the one I feel all my other books were an apprenticeship for. I’ve done two very large drafts. I’m hoping to finish within a few years.”
Maso gets up to show her giant manuscript, much of it written longhand in oversize sketchbooks. Its many folders and cartons are stashed in a dining room cabinet, with more in her study. Maso’s desk sits dead center, covered with artfully arranged figurines, flanked by a leaping ballerina and a topiary tree. These objects come and go with different projects, she explains. “It can get to be too much, but I love it. As soon as I cross the threshold, I’m in my little world.”
In Carole Maso’s world, writing is a sacrament. In The Room Lit by Roses, she calls it the “dark radiance” that “brings me to a place of unearthly happiness.” She always asks her MFA students why they write, and her own answer speaks volumes: “It’s an honor and a privilege to be next to the great mysteries, and that’s what I get to do every day. Why are we here? How beautiful the Earth is. Whatever it is, large and small. There’s so much that’s beautiful and moving and sad, to experience that and find shapes for it, to deeply enter that meditative space. There’s nothing like it. Everything else seems so pale.”
Carole Maso will read on July 28 at 7pm at Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck