Kathleen Maher’s style is engaging, but not in an obvious way. And within that subtlety lies the beauty of her work. The result, at least in this novel, is that the resonance of her narrative remains strong and true and lasting.
In this tale we follow Zach, an energetic, ambitious social-climber with an expanding waistline, as he blasts his way through marriage, extra-marital affairs, boy scout meetings, and business appointments alike. Over the 20+ years of this storyline, Zach’s life is filled with triumphs and tragedies, thrills and thumps.
It’s a difficult task, of course, for a writer to engage the reader so easily. And it’s an even MORE difficult task indeed to plug the reader into your story when your narrative involves a deeply flawed and (some might even say) repugnant main character. Ms. Maher accomplishes this brilliantly.
This is a story that feels authentic from the start, and maintains that authenticity to its watery end. It’s a fun ride along the way, and a quick, emotionally-engaging read.
1. Tell us a little about yourself.
I live in New York City with my husband We have two grown children. My husband is an editor and also writes fiction. Lucky for me, he thinks my writing is worth the inordinate time it takes. He knew from the start I wasn’t a money-maker. He knew almost everything about me, because our parents were good friends when we were small.
2. At what age did you start writing?
I always wanted to be a fiction writer. And lately I’ve been wondering why. Memory is always selective, especially mine. Yet as I recall, even when I was too young to read or write, my parents and their friends told me I was creative. I couldn’t have known what they meant because I still wonder what people mean when they say “creative.”
When I was six and learned to write a few simple words, I combined and rhymed them the way other girls might draw flowers and trees.
I was hyper-sensitive and remain so. All through school, I tried to describe the onslaught of emotions I had that didn’t fit the standard categories like happy, sad or anxious; calm. I still try to capture those feelings and still find it daunting.
During high school and college, my confidence nose-dived. Changing from a clever, smart-mouthed kid into a young woman proved even more confining than I’d feared.
Of course, we all have our traumatic growing-up stories. We all make mistakes. But by the end of high school, much as I still yearned to write fiction, I’d lost my nerve. I was afraid even to study it. It was the one thing I’d always wanted and adults still encouraged me, but it took more faith and more gall than I had.
That changed when my husband and I got together after the many years during which our parents’ friendship cooled. Once we no longer lived with them, we met for dinner and have rarely been apart since. We married within a few months and soon had children. We were young but not so young as to excuse the idea that jobs, degrees, leases, and insurance were just chimera. But then—children were not!
Once I became a mother, a role just as impossible as writing fiction, I uncovered a wellspring of nerve. Motherhood requires infinite confidence. And if you approach it as a perfectionist, you’ll lose the sweetest moments—there are no second chances. This perspective helped me to brave writing.
3. What is your writing routine?
My children’s routine determined my writing routine, which remains the same now that they’re grown—just much extended. I kept them up late and woke them early. Before they started school, I played with them until they were exhausted, so they would nap two to three hours every afternoon. I worked so hard to eke out that time that I used every second—no procrastinating, no warm-up games. Of course, learning to write is tough. I had to teach myself then as now by trial and many, many errors. If I didn’t know what to write next, I’d pace in a circle, praying for the next sentence. If I wasn’t writing a story, I’d pace and pray for a character.
I had read most of the classics in school and in the evenings began reading contemporary literature, paying close attention to how a story was structured. Briefly, I tried imitating fiction that played with conventions, which was fun, but not productive for someone who’d never learned how to write straight and tended to put emotion before chronology and logic.
Once my children started school, I tried writing novels. Short stories are formal in a way I still don’t get, although I’ve gone from no confidence to over-confidence and believe if I put all I’ve got to the task, I could manage one. During my kids’ school days, I finished a couple of novels and for a very short time even had an agent. Twice she thought my novels were going to be published. Nobody had warned me how often publishers cut their lists. That was then. Now? I hate to think.
The disappointment was crushing at the time. But in retrospect, I’m deeply grateful those novels were never published; they were awful.
Once my kids left home and I wasn’t writing to fit their schedules, I started rewriting everything to death. My husband started my blog for me while I had a migraine and named it “Diary of a Heretic” after a novel so strange I don’t know what to do with it, although I’m not quite ready to trash it. My blog cured me of writing the same ten pages week after week. I didn’t think to write serials at first. But discovering that someone might read what I wrote soon after I wrote it was thrilling, if embarrassing. Before long I was writing and posting the best I could do in two or three days. Now the endless rewriting has resumed. I’ve begun reading my posts aloud, hoping to make the sentences flow. Before I press Publish, I’ve memorized each post. So I’m about to stop and write my first and second drafts in solitary. The serial I hope to end this week is too long and too ambitious and should have been composed off-line.
4. Are you a “plotter” or a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants…)?”
I really do write as if I were Icarus with his wings of wax. It’s never been especially hard to find characters I know well enough to tell you anything and everything about their pasts. Finding the story, however, requires the same old pacing in a circle.
Underground Nest is different from anything else I’ve written. It’s an answer to all the bullies I’ve argued with all my life. I wrote a sketchy first version on my blog but I knew Zach’s character and what I wanted to happen better than you might think, seeing my first attempt.
Not long ago, Rhoda Penmarq let me rewrite Underground Nest on her blog, flashing by. When the last post ran on Rhoda’s blog, Dan Leo, who writes terrific serials often in tandem, currently Railroad Train To Heaven and tales of st. crispan, left a comment that revealed a murky spot—one I would never have seen on my own. I fixed that and a few other dangling threads and put Underground Nest in e-reader format.
5. In Underground Nest, we follow Zach, an ambitious social climber. Does any of this story come from your personal experience?
I never write from personal experience. Or rather, I’ve tried and it’s always very weak compared to what I make up.
When I made up Zach, I saw him reaching his goals, or almost, before his situation changes. Not everyone rises to the challenge after a humbling lesson. And Zach wouldn’t have come close to redemption if it weren’t for another character’s help, which he almost rejects out of prejudice. After he learns to sympathize, he becomes a better person.
Unlike most of what I write, there’s nothing of me in Underground Nest. Even the humor differs from mine. Although, I’m proud of Zach for turning around by the end.
6. In the story, an interesting aspect is that as we follow Zach and his wife, their weigh changes dramatically. I thought that was intriguing because it’s authentic and isn’t often addressed in fiction.
If the protagonist is female, it’s usually a significant trait. (Flaubert had Madame Bovary drinking vinegar to stay slim.) These days it seems that the advantages to overindulging in food rather than similar escapes are “All American.” In this case, overeating is a way for them to convey their anger, which they both prefer not to address. They sit at the table together, furiously stuffing themselves.
It’s gross but much more acceptable than screaming. In Underground Nest, Zach’s embarrassed but the women are perfectly happy. I wouldn’t be, but I’ve known women who feel more secure if the man’s overweight. Vulnerability is attractive, although I prefer a different form. Obesity makes me squeamish and the earlier draft barely got into their eating fits.
7. Ultimately, what are the themes you’re trying to address in this story?
Time will turn you around. Imagine if the vicissitudes we suffer made us better people. If I were the writer I wish I were, the story would show a way to make that happen, which is a lot more than showing it can happen.
Read more of Ms. Maher’s work at her blog: Diary of a Heretic
“Since early in 1948, I’ve been sitting–my family thinks literally–on a loose-leaf notebook inhabited by a hundred and eighty-four short poems that my brother wrote during the last three years of his life, both in and out of the Army, but mostly in, well in. I intend very soon now–it’s just a matter of days or weeks, I tell myself–to stand aside from about a hundred and fifty of the poems and let the first willing publisher who owns a pressed morning suit and a fairly clean pair of gloves bear them away, right off to his shady presses, where they’ll very likely be constrained in a two-tone dust jacket, complete with a back flap featuring a few curiously damning remarks of endorsement, as solicited and acquired from those “name” poets and writers who have no compuction about commenting in public on their fellow-artists’ works (customarily reserving their more deeply quarter-hearted commendations for their friends, suspected inferiors, foreigners, fly-by-night oddities, and toilers in another field), then on to the Sunday literary sections, where, if there’s room, if the critique of the big, new, DEFINITIVE biography of Grover Cleveland doesn’t run too long, they’ll be tersely introduced to the poetry-loving public by one of the little band of regulars, moderate-salaried pedants, and income-supplementers who can be trusted to review new books of poetry not necessarily either wisely or passionately but tersely.” ~ Buddy Glass, SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION