When I stepped into Toronto’s Westin Harbour Castle Hotel on Oct.25, I was relieved to have found what Bob Dylan would have called “shelter from the storm” that was ominously brewing outside. I was meeting renowned writer Alexander Maksik for an interview while he was in town for the International Festival of Authors. I checked my watch and realized I had arrived early, so I took a seat at the bar, but I didn’t have to wait long for Maksik to join me. Clad in a white dress shirt, grey v-neck sweater and jeans, Maksik had a sharp aura about him that matched his lean prose. Upon closer inspection, I noticed his boots were made by reputable New England shoemakers Alden and we nerded out over #menswear for a little before getting down to business.
He was in town for his latest novel, A Marker To Measure Drift, which is a stunning glimpse into the world of a Liberian refugee, who upon escaping the terror that gripped Charles Taylor’s reign, is left to fend for herself on the Greek island of Santorini. Maksik’s Paris-set debut You Deserve Nothing was one of the most praised in recent years, but there was some backlash when the fact that the plot was based on controversial events from his past as a teacher was discovered.
In a year that the IFOA boasted an all-star lineup of literary stars such as Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Stephen King, Maksik said he was simply excited to connect with old friend Anthony Marra and to hear Rachel Kushner talk about her work. Though “lucky to have the opportunity” to attend such events through the support of others, Maksik spoke excitedly of his impending Nov. 4 departure to Hawaii where he will be able to focus on writing alone.
When I asked why he chose such an exotic setting for his second major work of fiction, Maksik said, “I started writing You Deserve Nothing while living there and it’s a place I’ve always loved.” He said that its beauty had been created through physical destruction and was always on the precipice of being destroyed [Editor’s note: there is an active volcano on Santorini] made it an interesting place to send an equally volatile character: “I like the undercurrent of rage, the potential to explode that the setting holds”.
Maksik admitted he had difficulty writing a novel that he had no personal experience to draw upon, but he said, “writing is always difficult”. After approaching writing Jacqueline from a variety of directions, Maksik discovered a voice that felt natural.
“I fell in love with this character and that was something that I had never really felt, a true affection for a fictional character. I didn’t really treat her as a woman or as an African, but as a particular character who happened to be those things.”
Having gone through twelve drafts of his first novel, Maksik said it had been a similar number with A Marker To Measure Drift but he has come to enjoy the viagra sale prices editing process. He spoke about how he initially scrapped 40,000 words of another novel when a friend who he’d been reading it aloud to suddenly told him that she didn’t care about the protagonists. While at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, he came to notice that it sometimes “takes making that kind of mistake to write a book. It’s starting to occur to me that with the book I’m working on now that all of these first pages may end up being just for my own benefit, to get me to the place where the story begins.” Though reluctant to reveal any more details on his third novel, Maksik said that it’d be a love-story set in the Pacific Northwest.
In a bid to cut out distractions, Maksik says he now adopts an almost religious routine that he abides by when writing. “When I’m writing, I wake up at a certain time and usually go for a run or exercise in some way before having breakfast and then I will work. I try to write a 1000 words a day and I keep a journal of the novel I am working on.” With a laugh, Maksik said his regimen is not very interesting but “if I do those things everyday, I feel like a healthy human being.”
When I pressed him for any advice he’d give to young writers who are entering a rapidly shifting commercial landscape, Maksik said, “You should want to do it more than anything else. You have to be ready to be rejected over and over again. Like anything, the most important thing is love. If you really love it, then that’s what you should do.”
This was not so clear to Maksik himself, who admitted that he made a mistake in buying into the romantic notion that writers lived a certain lifestyle that most people associate with Hemingway’s debauchery — smoking cigarettes, drinking a lot, living in Paris. “I did all these stupid things, but in the end I was never writing and it took me a long time to figure out that I had to sit down at a table and just do it. All of the rest is just affectation.”
Looking to end on a less serious note, Maksik wisecracked, “If you wanna be a football player, you can't just throw on some shoulder pads; you have to learn to play football really well. It's simple advice, but you just have to write."