J.A. Tyler: In much of your writing, instead of named characters you use he, she, the husband, the wife, etc. Can you talk a little about your choice to render stories in this way and what consequences you believe it has (or you want it to have) on your readers?
Maliszewski: The short answer is I like to keep things simple, to pare it all down. Parables don’t often have named characters in them. You just get the carpenter, say, or the beggar. When I read, I often lose track of names. I’m always flipping back to the beginning, trying to figure out who Culpepper is again, or who Annabelle married. I’m really good at remembering faces but just awful at recalling names.
The effect of not having names is a trickier question for me to answer. Namelessness is not my default setting. I have two novels underway: one has names while the other is as name-free as the stories in Prayer and Parable. I don’t mean for the namelessness to suggest that the husband is representative of every husband. I don’t think of these people as universal types, an every-family. I think of my characters as individuals. Maybe I just don’t think names are that important—or even necessary for a good story. When I’m writing something, I don’t find it helpful to think of a character as Peter Eagleburger or Hans Hellenspout or whatever. I want to find more particular ways to make them real. I’d much rather give a character a great dream or an odd habit than some made-up name.
Paul Kavanagh: Prayer was once an art form placed above painting, sculpture, music. Do you think it has been hijacked by the lunatics?
Maliszewski: Was prayer an art form? I’ve never heard that. It’s not some specialized pursuit, like painting or music. Was prayer once something that only an elect few could participate in? I must admit my ignorance on the history of prayer. Your question, though, makes me think of William Gaddis. There’s a painter in his novel The Recognitions, a talented painter who becomes a successful forger of masterpieces. His dealer hears a Fra Angelico “sold somewhere for a high price” and so he asks the painter to “do a Fra Angelico.” The painter says:
Do you know why I could never paint one, paint a Fra Angelico? Do you know why? Do you know how he painted? Fra Angelico painted down on his knees, he was on his knees and his eyes full of tears when he painted Christ on the Cross.
And now, this is the painter speaking still, but about van Eyck. The ellipses are his. I’m leaving nothing out:
This … these … the art historians and the critics talking about every object and … everything having its own form and density and … its own character in Flemish paintings, but is that all there is to it? Do you know why everything does? Because they found God everywhere. There was nothing God did not watch over, nothing and so this … and so in the paintings every detail reflects … God’s concern with the most insignificant objects in life, with everything, because God did not relax for an instant then, and neither could the painter then.
Here’s the thing, I don’t believe this personally. I don’t accept that only by believing in god can you create great art. I’m not even sure Gaddis believed it. But he explored the belief, honestly. He took it up. Certainly, what he’s describing was true of some artists. The works the painter is talking about, they are religious works, they are works of devotion, incredible faith and deep piety. I haven’t answered your question, I know, but what I like, and what I do believe, is that the painter or writer or what have you is like that god, and not one of them can relax, not for an instant. No object is truly insignificant. Nothing is not worthy of our total attention.
Brian Mihok: How do you start writing? In other words, do you start from a character, a place, a word etc.? Or do you imagine a great many things, like the world of the story already existing, and then try to pick a spot in it to start?
Maliszewski: I think I usually begin with a situation, often between two characters. It’s like the kernel of a scene. There’s some problem, or maybe one person has said something to the other, and I have that line of dialogue hanging in the air, not yet answered. Sometimes this situation will become the beginning of a story, and I’ll just figure out what happens next. Every so often, though, the kernel of a scene will become the end of a story. I’ll just know somehow that I have to work my way to it, not that the path is clear. The path usually isn’t clear at all. I may have some idea of how I’ll get there, but I frequently turn out to have been wrong. There was another way. Usually, for me, it’s a longer way.
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