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Modern Lone: Fiona Maazel on Her Novel "Woke Up Lonely"



Last May, I had the pleasure of talking with Fiona Maazel, author of Woke Up Lonely, about the culture of loneliness, the differences between Cincinnati and North Korea (there are a few, it turns out), and the novel she is working on next.


So tell me about the book.

I'll give you the book in brief. It is about a cult leader and his ex-wife and the four people he takes hostage. It takes place over a four-day Waco siege-type scenario. If I'm being pretentious, it's kind of a book about loneliness in America. But I think probably at the bottom, it's a big 'ol love story.

What made you want to write a book about loneliness, specifically American loneliness?

I think I've been pathologically obsessed with loneliness since I was a kid—

—This seems healthy.

No one ever said I was a healthy girl!

I've always been interested in some basic questions about loneliness. Is it congenital, is it something we're just born into, is it just froofy and existential, is it surmountable, is it circumstantial? Why is it that so many people who are in a group of their best friends, their lover, their family, do they still feel so estranged? I decided to write a novel that might try to explore some of those questions.

It's interesting, the Helix, they seem like they're out to cure loneliness but it's a very modern type of loneliness. Do you feel like there is a modern loneliness, that there are things in the world today that make us lonelier than we were before?

I think we're more aware of how lonely we are, precisely because there are so many opportunities to foster connectivity and intimacy that we didn't have even twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago—Twitter, Facebook, just the internet in general.

And these are false ways to connect with people, or less genuine ways?

It depends what you're using it for. If you're using social media to replace more normal or conventional styles of camaraderie like, I don't know, going bowling together or playing cards or even having sex, if you're using that media to replace those experiences than probably it's bad. But if you are homebound and you have no friends and you have no life and you're using those things to branch out, then it can be a very good thing.

There have been a lot of studies that have come out recently over the past few years that there's a real uptick in loneliness. Thirty years ago, in 1984 I think, there was the study that asked people "how many intimates do you feel like you have?" and on average it was three. They did the same study eight years ago and the average was zero. That tells you something about how miserable people are these days.

Does the Helix take inspiration from something in real life?

A little bit. The Helix is a therapeutic community, so I read a lot about all kinds of cults, religious orthodoxies, but in particular, therapeutic communities like RC (Re-evaluation Counseling). Harvey Jackins started it and basically people get together and start to confess to each other and council each other through their problems, which sounds nice enough until these people end up in a room for twelve hours a day crying and flogging each other.

There are two main settings in this book: North Korea and underground Cincinnati.

What, those don't go together?

It's the only book I've read where it's Cincinnati and North Korea—what made you want to set it in those two places?

North Korea seemed like an obvious counterpart to...

Cincinnati?

Haha, no, the culture of loneliness that I was describing. North Korea is the last black spot on the map, it's made isolation a sustaining ethos, it's an unbelievably isolated and lonely country. So I thought this was quite interesting. When I was writing this, Kim Jong-il was still alive and very much in power and he is very much a cult leader. I thought it might make sense for there to be an affinity between my cult leader and Kim Jong-il.

As for Cincinnati, I thought it was kind of an innocuous place to locate a cult compound, and also a good place to have an underground city of sin. Because who's gonna look in Cincinnati? If you're a diplomat's daughter and you want to do something naughty, everyone's going to be looking for you in New York or LA. No one is looking for you in Cincinnati.

So what are you reading right now?

I just started a really good book called A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims. It is a zombie apocalypse novel, but that sells it short. It's really this long, beautiful meditation on multiple subjects, among them the undead and death, romance, immortality, mortality. It's just exceptional. And Bennett Sims is just so bright and he writes these beautiful, lilting prose sentences.

About the undead.

About the undead. It's got a lot of footnotes which maybe will turn some people off who think it's annoying metafiction, but it is nothing of the kind. It's quite good.

What are you working on next?

I'm working on a new book.

A novel?

Yes, another novel.

And this will be your third?

It will be my third of all goes well. It's about emotional incoherence: what happens when you just do not understand why you do the things you do. Specifically it's about a guy who wakes up one morning and has no idea what he did the night before because he was really drunk—we've heard that story a million times. But then he's presented with evidence that he accosted and perhaps raped a woman and he has no idea if he is a man who is capable of doing this or not. He is absolutely appalled. The novel is a little bit about him trying to find out what happened, but it's also about neural prosthetics, so go figure.

It sounds like you're pretty far into it.

I am. At least pretty far into a first draft. I hope by the end of the summer that I'll have the draft completed. It's a bit of a crime novel.

And actually, Woke Up Lonely is a bit of a spy novel.

Yeah, because what do I know about spy novels? Nothing. What do I know about crime novels? Nothing. I just boldly forge ahead and hope for the best.

So you don't read spy novels or crime novels?

No, but I thought for this new book it might be wise to go and read some crime novels, so I went to The Mysterious Bookshop down in Tribeca and asked them to recommend some stuff—those people are amazing. I gave them very specific criteria for what I needed, and I got four books. But I might be so intimidated by how good they are and how well-plotted, that it might turn out to be a bad idea.


Woke Up Lonely is available in hardcover and Kindle book



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