On Identity, Doubt, and Digging In: A Conversation with Fiction Writer Mesha Maren

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Mesha Maren published her first novel Sugar Run in 2018 with Algonquin Books, a literary debut for which she earned high critical praise. She followed that success in 2021 with her second novel Perpetual West, also published by Algonquin Books. In addition to her work as a novelist, Maren writes short stories and essays, which have appeared in Tin House, The Oxford American, The Guardian, Crazy Horse, The Southern Review, Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, and elsewhere. Her honors include the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Ucross Foundation. I talked with Maren earlier this year about the process of shaping her most recent novel Perpetual West, which tells the story of three people in love. Alex, a graduate student newly arrived in El Paso with his partner, Elana, quickly falls in love with Mateo, a Mexican wrestler performing under the watchful eye of a powerful cartel. Our discussion traversed the ecstasy of influence, the conversations that unfold between texts, and the strangeness of translating human experience into marks on a page, as well as a range of other topics.


JPG: Being in part a story of intellectual growth, Perpetual West invokes a dazzling diversity of texts. The novel contains shout-outs to the work of feminist, queer, and postcolonial theorists, as well as invocations of numerous fiction writers, including Bolaño. I’m curious about the relationship between those texts and the story itself. How did your own reading inform and inflect the story that you tell in Perpetual West? Did those texts shape you and, by extension, the novel itself, or was it the other way around, a process in which the writing of Perpetual West led you to discover the other texts?

MM: Seeking and cultivating relationships between texts is one of my favorite aspects of writing a novel. Both Sugar Run and Perpetual West were created in communication with other texts and art forms. People often ask writers whether or not they think about their audience while drafting. I’ve never been able to picture a human audience for my writing. The closest thing to an “audience” that I have ever envisioned is other books, which is why I view my own books as participating in an ongoing discussion with an array of literary and artistic works. I think the “audience” for Sugar Run includes the novels A Hall of Mirrors, Angels, Bastard Out of Carolina, and Fay, among other Larry Brown books, as well as the Carlos Saura film Deprisa, Deprisa

The closest thing to an “audience” for Perpetual West is Fat City, Close to the Knives, 2666, The Crossing, Autobiography of Red, A Sport and a Pastime, and the film Amores Perros. These are books and films that I kept close at hand while writing, and they are also, I think, stylistically and somewhat thematically in conversation with my work. There are also new books that came my way as part of the process of writing Perpetual West, which is always a joy. Those include The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles and Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. My partner M. Randal O’Wain read an early draft of Perpetual West and compared it to The Sheltering Sky, and I had to admit I’d never read the novel. Similarly, when my friend Fernando Flores compared Perpetual West to Under the Volcano, I had to admit my ignorance of the latter. In addition, I discovered a variety of books as part of my research process, such as Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez’s The Femicide Machine, toward which you yourself steered me. If for no other reason, writing Perpetual West was worth the trouble because it led me to stumble upon these incredible texts. 

JPG: In addition to being firmly grounded in a Latin American intellectual and literary tradition, Perpetual West is rooted in a distinctly North American canon. I was struck, reading your wonderful opening chapter, by the way the southward-bound journey of Alex and Elana echoes the trajectory of “the Kid” in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. The novel’s eponymous theory appears toward the end of your own book, referring to the notion that, “for those Americans who are still caught up in some form of the frontier thesis and manifest destiny, Mexico is the final and perpetual frontier, a place of eternal contrast that America can always compare itself favorably to.” Do you see your novel as one poised between two worlds (and perhaps, between two canons)? A novel, in other words, “ni de aquí, ni de allá”?

MM: It is fascinating for me to hear other people work through their thoughts about Perpetual West because the book is so bound up in my mind with a particular place and time, so intertwined with my younger self, and yet it is also not about me at all. The book’s setting and many of its themes came straight out of my early 20s, when I was living in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. During that period, I was trying to figure out my relationship to several different aspects of my life, including my sexuality, the place from which I came, and the place in which I found myself. But I didn’t want to write about myself. I wanted to take those biographical elements, fragment them, and make them encompass more than just my own experiences. In light of this, I have a hard time knowing exactly how to characterize Perpetual West, but “ni de aquí, ni de allá sounds” about right.

JPG: I was struck by the ways in which two quintessentially North American genres, the road narrative and the Western, resonate with this novel. In essence, Perpetual West tells the story of a quest through strange and rugged terrain, not unlike, say, a film by Peckinpah, or a novel by Kerouac. Did you think about Pickinpah’s movies, Kerouac’s novels, or other works in a similar vein, as you composed? Did the conventions and tropes of the road narrative and the Western come in handy as you shaped Perpetual West, either as guides or counterparts? 

MM: I wanted Perpetual West to feel like a Western and a road narrative in two specific ways. First, I felt called to draw on an idea that I see as an important aspect of most Westerns, which is the notion that the main characters and their journey are part of something bigger than themselves. In Butcher’s Crossing by John Edward Williams, for example, the fate of the human characters is small in comparison to the land and what it is doing, and their deaths comprise just another element of the landscape’s rhythms. In The Crossing, which is my favorite McCarthy novel, the main character’s journey with the wolf happens under the umbrella of larger social and cultural shifts. 

When it comes to road narratives, a central feature of the genre is that the main character’s intellectual and emotional development parallels the physical movement of the journey. I wanted to evoke that tradition in Perpetual West. While drafting the novel, I had in mind Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime as a striking example of a road narrative. Though Salter’s book doesn’t cover that many miles, it’s a story about an American abroad who discovers himself sexually and intellectually, which is maybe even its own subgenre of the road narrative (The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy comes to mind as a similar example). There is something about the sense of travel and distance from the known, and what that does to a young person in particular, that drove me to think about Perpetual West in relation to the road narrative genre as I shaped the story. 

In one of my early drafts of Perpetual West, I thought it might make sense to evoke the idea of the Western and the road narrative at the very beginning of the novel, as a way of setting the tone. The Rio Grande section that now closes the book started off as the opening. I wanted to begin with an aerial view, to show something bigger than the three protagonists. But that approach didn’t work as the gateway to the novel, so I shifted the Rio Grande section to the end. I still wanted that aerial view, though, so I kept trying out ways to imbue the opening paragraph with a sense of distance. At one point, my editor insisted on putting Alex’s and Elana’s names in the first sentence, and I had to say an emphatic no to that. I felt strongly that I needed to create distance for readers by referring to Alex and Elana as “they” at the start of the novel, so the opening sentence ended up this way: “They came by way of the Blue Ridge.” If Perpetual West was a movie, I wouldn’t want the first shot to take place inside the car. It would be a totally different film if we began inside the car. 

JPG: Perpetual West is, in so many ways, a story about how misinterpretations impact our lives. Not only does Elana misunderstand what the condoms in Alex’s carrel signify, she also fails to fully grasp the complexities and nuances of Alex’s disappearance. Against the backdrop of Elana’s inability to interpret Alex’s actions with accuracy, we watch her struggle with learning Spanish. She gradually acquires a grasp of the language, but she never quite succeeds in making herself understood as a speaker of it. To what extent is Perpetual West a meditation on the limited capacities of the novel as a literary form, and perhaps of language itself, to adequately convey meaning? 

MM: I didn’t think about that at all while I was writing, but I love the idea. Writing is itself a process of translation, of course. You are translating images and emotions into written language, which is hard as hell, and it’s also just kind of a weird thing to do. Storytelling is a natural human impulse, but writing is different. Telling a story is not at all the same as translating an experience onto the page. Written words are basically random marks that we have all agreed to use as stand-ins for the “real thing.” There is no essential relationship between the letters in “tree” and the green thing alive outside my window. Sign, Signifier, Signified. Writers are up against all of that. At the same time, words possess connotations that carry whole worlds with them, and scientists have shown that reading about an action makes mirror neurons fire, almost as if we were acting ourselves. I love language so much, and yet it is such a fragile and corruptible tool. 

JPG: One of the novel’s most compelling and moving portraits comes in the form of Elana herself, whose body is the site of significant tension and conflict. Yet Elana’s anorexia doesn’t define or encompass her as a character.  How did you manage to make Elana’s mental health both an urgent concern of the novel and an aspect of her identity that never reduces her to either a caricature or a victim? 

MM: Thank you. It is so good to hear this about Elana. My process for creating any character, and this goes for Elana too, involves a lot of listening and a lot of doubt. I know that all of my characters come from my own brain, but often, especially in the beginning of drafting, I feel as though I am getting to know someone entirely outside of myself, a complete stranger. If I move in too fast or jump to conclusions too quickly, a character can clam up, go silent, and turn away from me. It’s like getting a skittish stray cat to trust you. Both processes involve a lot of quiet sitting. 

Once a character has started to open up to me, the doubt comes in. Healthy doubt. The kind of doubt that spurs me to ask myself if I can write in a way that feels true and full about a character grappling with disordered eating. This lack of certainty pushes me to interrogate the text, and to reach out to people who can either help me answer questions or else help ensure that I’m asking the right questions. The doubt never really goes away, but I don’t think I ever want it to disappear. The more I keep doubting, the more I keep digging in. 

JPG: Do you see Perpetual West as being in conversation with Sugar Run, your debut novel, which was published by Algonquin in 2018? Have you had a chance to step outside of the two books and identify any particularly salient similarities and differences between them?

MM: I have a hard time seeing my books from the outside, but I know that I am constantly obsessed with place, and with questions about the reciprocal relationship between identity and landscape. Do we define ourselves by the places from which we come, or rather by the people with whom we have relationships? Who has the right to define themselves by a place? What does it even mean to be from a place? Can you claim identity or nativity in anything outside of your own body? 

JPG:  I’d love to hear about your next project. Feel free to go into as much or as little detail as you’d like. What are you working on now? 

MM: I am working on a few things, but the easiest one to talk about right now is a new novel that will be published next summer. The book is titled Shae and it’s a first-person narrative, a love story of sorts. Shae seems to be finding itself in conversation with Eros the BittersweetSpeedboatJesus’ SonNatural Born Killers and the photography of Brenda Kenneally, Stacy Kranitz, Justine Kurland, and Alessandra Sanguinetti.

JPG: Thank you again for taking the time to talk with me about Perpetual West, and I know that readers of Literary Matters will be thrilled to learn about the impending publication of your next novel.  

Mesha Maren is the author of the novels Sugar Run and Perpetual West (Algonquin Books). Her short stories and essays can be read in Tin HouseThe Oxford American, The Guardian, CrazyhorseTriquarterly, The Southern Review, Ecotone, Sou’westerHobart, Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the 2015 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, a 2014 Elizabeth George Foundation grant, an Appalachian Writing Fellowship from Lincoln Memorial University, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Ucross Foundation. She was the 2018-2019 Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is an Associate Professor of the Practice of English at Duke University. Her third novel, Shae, is forthcoming in May 2024.