The Reach of a Root: An Interview with Laura Tansley and Micaela Maftei
Cover illustration: Naghmeh Sharifi ~ Author photo by Stewart Ennis (@StewartEnnis)
“Life isn’t threads, it’s actions. Deeds. Childhood is when you get everything wrong and nothing makes sense.” She shuddered theatrically. “Can you imagine if that extended into…today?” (‘The Reach of a Root’)
> The Reach of a Root is a collection of short stories with a transatlantic twist. Co-written by Canada-based Micaela Maftei and UK-based Laura Tansley, the collection features an entirely interwoven voice, whose stories tell of everyday life, secrets, sexuality, gender, work, place and displacement. Many of the stories focus on characters at the point of change, rupture or transition, women at various stages of their lives. Drama is provided from scenes of flat-sharing, dinner dates, office politics and daily commutes. Maftei and Tansley flirt with the dark and gothic, Joyce Carol Oates style, while maintaining a satisfying crispness and existential friction that puts you in mind of Lorrie Moore or Lydia Davis. Still, there’s a Scottish humour in there that feels generous and warm, if often delivered through wry or slightly absurd situations – a little Alan Warner even, although unlike with much of Warner’s fiction, it might be tricky to call any of Maftei and Tansley’s characters heroines. But even as their protagonists are often held at an ironic distance, the wit of the prose makes every situation seem recognisable, relatable, even as the narrative then dashes your expectations.
> Craftily, the authorial power duo handle objects, arguments, moments of being, sex and a general contrariness. Title story ‘The Reach of a Root’ begins: ‘Clare got caught looking at her cunt’. The book depicts desire and dislocation with the cool directness and menace of Mary Gaitskill updated for the age of Facebook, ‘wellness’ and Fjällräven backpacks. Many of the stories bear a surreal quality, held in the turn of a sentence. You think you know where things are going, this seems a familiar scenario…but then the twist. Somehow, even the weirdest parts are delivered with a smarting matter-of-factness: ‘Christy often found herself thinking, What would Caroline do? She’d throw pieces of popcorn chicken at boys she liked the look of’ (‘The Woods from the Trees’). Whole stages of life are condensed in a sentence, with the ease of your wittiest aunt telling tales of divorce down the pub: ‘She also left behind Tim, the latest example of why independence trumped headaches and someone else’s post filling the hallway and dark curling hairs left in the drying bottom of the bathtub’ (‘The Reach of a Root’). In many ways, most of these stories are about characters on the edge. Sometimes we fear for their lives, other times we laugh at them or question their poor judgment. Sometimes the characters are on the edge because they’re the dangerous ones, as in ‘What Lies Ahead’, where the narrator torments unsuspecting coffee shop customers with incongruous questions of identity.
> What the collection captures is the strangeness of contemporary life through these mundane situations, staged askew. It feels like everybody is plotting something – maybe there’s a dash of Muriel Spark in there. Maybe it’s something in the capacity of collaboration that allows for this containment of surprise or distortion with economy. Sharp and addictive, these stories are earthy, rich and tactile to the highest detail: ‘From then it was wild mushrooms, vibrant broccoli, a fat heirloom tomato that lasted two days, and then eventually on to a final graduation of avocado, goat’s cheese and fresh blueberries that she burst against her palate with a slender finger that she then drew out of her mouth, sucking the purple skins from between her teeth’ (‘Blind Spots’). For all this talk of the New Weird in fiction, what The Reach of a Root is doing, perhaps, is a twisted realism where the clarities of familiar mise en scene are knotted, crooked and contorted with the existential intensities that grow out of contemporary confusions around identity, cohabitation and hospitality, intimacy, precarious labour, leisure and general urban living. Twisted realism is a distorted sociology of the present moment that nonetheless carries us through timeless dramas of human relations; its woven voices reach towards that space, a something else, a desire in excess of what we see.
> After attending a workshop Maftei and Tansley hosted at the University of Glasgow on the topic of Collaborative Short Fiction, Maria Sledmere interviewed the pair over email to find out more about their writing process, friendship and the book itself.
I believe you both met on the Creative Writing PhD at the University of Glasgow. What got you starting to write together?
We were doing everything else but! Shortly after we met we realised our lives and interests overlapped tremendously – in terms of work, research, friends, writing, everything. Writing fiction together was the last in a long list of co-‘s – we organised a conference, led postgraduate skills workshops, worked together in Glasgow-area secondary schools, became flatmates… we figured if everything else was working out, why not try this too. Initially we responded to a call for submissions for a short story collection, Tip Tap Flat, and because that process was fun and was accepted into the anthology, we kept writing.
How did the idea for the book come about?
We pretty much just had enough stories to start thinking ‘we can definitely get enough for a collection’. That and our conviction that the work needed and could find an audience. It began to feel like readers would benefit from having a longer engagement with the work, and how the stories were informing each other by building themes.
Did you take inspiration from any previous examples of co-writing?
Not really. If anything, we took inspiration from the lack of co-written stories we saw around us. In other fields, working together is necessary/the norm, but we didn’t see anyone else co-writing short fiction.
In the co-writing fiction workshop you hosted at the University of Glasgow back in June, you spoke of how many publishers you initially approached were suspicious of your process. Although interdisciplinarity and collaborative practice are becoming more popular across the arts, often there’s still this material or institutional resistance to having your work recognised and supported. Why do you think this is?
Maybe a few reasons, or a mix of a few. I think there’s still a sense of fiction writing as the product of a unique, inner voice. We hear a lot about ‘writing what you know’ or your advantage as a writer being your own unique worldview. Which isn’t wrong, but does underscore this idea that good and/or true and/or authentic writing can only come through one person’s life or voice. I think in writing programs, which we were both part of and trained in, there’s encouragement to find that voice, to control it, access it, etc.
MM aside: I also frankly think that a lot of people don’t want to co-write. For a lot of people writing is deeply personal, and that’s one of the things that’s important about it. I have a lot of interests that I like to pursue by myself and wouldn’t want to do in a pair. I think for many people writing is something they don’t want to share. Which I completely get.
LT aside: Perhaps our experience with specific publishers was also framed by their particular need to invest in projects that are commercially viable. We’re maybe a little risky. Luckily for us we found a publisher who thought that could be exciting.
How did you manage the writing process in practical terms, given your busy lives and geographic distance?
We use email, sending the work back and forth as an attachment. We don’t have any schedule or timeframe in place when we write; I think doing so would really be detrimental to the process, in fact. We don’t push it – we’ve had stories that were more or less done within a week, and stories that have taken months. But the process is so energising that we often really want to get to it and work on it and send it back for more.
Did anything happen that surprised you? Were there any significant comprises made?
No. Together we made a choice to drop one of the stories from the collection because we thought the collection as a whole would be stronger without a story that explored a similar experience to “The Reach of a Root”. We love the story though, and it was recently published by Mechanics Institute Review.
MM aside: I wonder if the fact that we both write other material has helped offer another space in which we don’t have to feel any sense of compromise. If I have some idea, or bit of characterization or whatever, that I feel absolutely has to exist in writing, I can just go ahead and make it come to life exactly on my terms in another piece of writing.
So far as surprises go – it wasn’t much of a surprise, but I’m always grateful to get a hit of ‘being seen’; I find often between Laura and I there’s a really deep level of understanding. We are quite different people, I’d say, and we move in the world differently and seem to want and need quite different things, but in some way, in some particular slice of life, we’ve just had so many interactions or conversations or exchanges where I feel like she absolutely knows what I mean, what I’m after, what I’m saying – I just feel convinced of it.
LT aside: I genuinely can’t think of a reason or a situation in which a compromise would be needed; that’s been my experience of co-writing with Micaela. Would a compromise have to occur because of a singular vision? Or an idea that one person is convinced of and the other isn’t? If so, that experience or practice just hasn’t been part of our process. I wonder if that’s because we have always been interested in the co- part of the writing. When I begin a project I don’t think, ‘this is an idea I want to explore’; I think, ‘this is an idea Micaela and I could explore’. That mindset is imperative. It also helps that by some piece of fantastic fortune, combined with our own work and development as people, we have a deep understanding of each other. It’s sickening really.
So much of the collection is about the movement between private and public, the space of conversation and inner monologue, motivation versus social performance. How does collaborative writing challenge your sense of ‘privacy’ as writers?
Great question. The privacy of early drafts and experiments had to go straight away, but we do write separately and always have done – even when we lived in the same city. So we do retain a sense of privacy in that the act of writing doesn’t happen in front of each other.
LT aside: I’m not sure that I would describe that process as something ring-fenced, personal, or something I feel a right to, however. But I think it’s a really interesting idea to consider writing as an act, and I wonder how I perform it differently as a co-writer, especially when everything we write is a gift intended for the other. I suppose I need to be observed but then we’d be getting in to Physics…
MM aside: We’re like married people where one’s brushing their teeth while the other has a pee. There’s no privacy and I don’t really miss it. But again – I think this is tempered by the fact that I have my own writing where I can go away and be secretive and tentative and private if I want or need to.
Is fiction especially poised to explore the relationship between public and private? Why?
Not sure we understand fully….the relationship, within one person, between their public and private self? Or the more general concept of that which is public and that which is private, and how we might understand both? We don’t think that fiction is especially poised to explore such a relationship.
MM aside: I do think that fiction is working at its best when a ‘made-up story’ manages to access profound truths about selfhood or the human condition – the great messes we make, as bumbling humans, trying to move around each other and in this world, continually fucking up. When it gets it right, and has something to say about that, I think readers can get a deep, inner, ‘private’ sense of understanding.
You both co-edited the anthology Writing Creative Non-fiction: Determining the Form (2015). In the book’s introduction you write, ‘Unclear boundaries between fact and fiction can be freeing, allowing authors to tell stories using the structures, techniques and language of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, creating unique and personal testimony. In this way creative non-fiction can become a highly individual truth’. How do you experience writing fiction versus creative non-fiction, if we are to cautiously permit that binary of forms? Is there something particular about one’s ‘individual truth’ that is paradoxically revealed through co-writing?
Our process – an email exchange, a back and forth – has been the same for all the writing we have done together so far, although our intention is what drives us in different directions and produces those different forms.
As for an individual truth, we don’t think so, although that’s an interesting idea. For these stories, we’re committed to serving the story, and letting the story guide us. Which is such a fuzzy and ambiguous way to describe writing, but there you have it. For example, one of us might change something about a plot, or a character, which moves the story in a direction that the other may not have anticipated. And if that’s the right thing to do, and if that takes the story to the right place, then that’s where we go. If we were using this writing to give voice to our individual truth, then that would be a fundamental conflict of interest. We wouldn’t be able to permit that. Without the openness to let the other change tack suddenly and build something that is truthful for both of us I think the co- experience would be compromised (this links back to your question on compromising, above).
Would you say collaboration is a particularly feminist act? I’m thinking of how Sara Ahmed describes citation practices as a ‘rather successful reproductive technology, a way of reproducing the world around certain bodies’. Although The Reach of a Root is clearly fiction, not academic writing, I wonder if there is something ‘citational’ about the way your collaboration works, the way you take each other’s voices and make a thicker weave around gendered scenes.
MM aside: I’m not sure I understand – a thicker weave, i.e. using two (women’s) voices to produce gendered scenes (i.e. scenes about women and women’s lives?) such that the two voices amplify each other?
LT aside: I’m curious about the idea of citationality (is it possible to make this a noun?). There’s something apt about describing co-writing as citational if it foregrounds the conversation that occurs. But it also might suggest a reference to something previous, something created separately and then brought in to the conversation, which would seek to diminish the concurrent way we co-write – always with the project in mind, with each other in mind, always simultaneous in the sense that although we might write alone, we are both always present.
You said something about your process in the workshop which really struck me: ‘Every sentence is an offer’. I was thinking about the word ‘offer’ and then ‘tend’, as in tender: an offering, a caring or compassion, a proposition but also a kind of bid, an estimate, a submission. There’s this thing Hélène Cixous says in Stigmata where she’s like, ‘Extend the hand, write, and it’s all over with the end. Writing is the movement to return to where we haven’t been “in person” but only in wounded flesh, in frightened animal, movement to go farther than far, and also, effort to go too far, to where I’m afraid to go’. I love thinking about that quote in the context of the title, The Reach of a Root and the idea that co-writing is inherently a deictic gesture that reaches between text and world, invites the reader as writer, the writer as reader. In what ways do you think fiction can reach towards this ‘movement to go farther than far’, and is fear the affect you experience when attaining a writerly intimacy with this vulnerable beyond?
MM aside: I’m going to approach this sideways, because frankly there’s a lot here, and touch on the idea of fear. I think it’s an important one, and I think very often writing can serve as a way to go to scary places. Writing itself can be scary, and/or a way to remember/explore/understand frightening things, either things that have actually happened to you, or things you are frightened of happening, or both. For me, writing with Laura always carries with it the sense that someone’s there. I don’t feel that these stories are in any way triggering for me, nor do I feel our writing is getting close to any areas where I’m scared to go, but I do feel comforted by the fact that someone else is there. I suppose again this somewhat returns to the privacy question – whatever privacy I may have given up (which is negligible, in my view) is amply compensated for by the good feeling that someone else is there, that whatever the writing needs to figure out will be done together, that wherever it leads, I won’t be alone. And again, I’m stressing that never in these stories have I come close to feeling like I’m anxious or scared about the process or the topics.
LT: There was certainly a sense of trepidation and exposure when we first co-wrote fiction together. First words, first drafts occupy vulnerable spaces I guess. I responded to that with typical self-deprecation, and a lot of our email exchanges at this time offer the other a caveat of recusal, ‘if you think this is shit please delete’ etc. I was conscious that I respected Micaela and her writing a great deal, and I wanted to meet her in that place. I was never fearful or scared, but we did care for each other in these early moments by being sensitive, and in my case, diminishing, in case what I offered Micaela wasn’t worthy of her time.
I love this line from ‘Wednesdays’: ‘Once when Monica was checking Facebook, which she always does at the end of the day, she said, “Oh jeez, look, Urban Outfitters are selling Walkmans”’. There’s this whole irony about the commodification of nostalgia, but also the fact of putting words like ‘Facebook’ within narrative prose. Does it instantly become static, a relic of ‘era’ or a code-word that activates from wherever the reader exists in time?
It’s doing some work to fix the stories in a time and a place but allows it to travel too, to meet the reader wherever they’re at. Readers will respond to those ‘era-specific’ words based on where they are, and that time and place will carry different connotations as time passes, as they move deeper and deeper into the past. That’s fine. That’s normal.
I’m interested in what we mean when we call a work ‘contemporary’. How do you see the interface between material detail in fiction and this thing called ‘the present’? The Reach of a Root feels relatable now, but somehow I reckon it’s immune to the kinds of instant-datedness found in a lot of contemporary fiction which references brands, social media and so on. Consumption, in its various forms, is a big theme of the book. Was the decision to include product names and other concrete details deliberate/critical, or was it more about establishing ‘local colour’ as such?
Ultimately it’s about being true to how the characters see the world and what’s important to them. There’s also a lot of fixedness that deliberately isn’t included – many stories lack a clearly stated setting, for example. We’re excited when writers manage to get a location or an image in my mind without explicitly stating it.
Your publisher is Glasgow-based ‘Vagabond Voices’, who describe themselves as ‘both Scottish and fervently European in [their] aims’. A lot of your characters, while seemingly tied to specific situations, are yearning for something else or somehow cast adrift – ‘vagabond voices’ might be a nice way to describe the way your own voices ‘float’ into another space within the movement of collaborative fiction. How important is this openness, this traversal of borders or spaces, to your practice and creative outlook? What was your experience of working with Vagabond Voices?
This traversal of borders and spaces is key. And as you say, it’s maybe balanced by the way a lot of the people in the stories are ‘locked in’ to certain situations or problems or places. Writing has been a way to cross time and space, to hold on to some things longer than might otherwise have been possible, to propel ourselves into new spaces. Writing is time travel, is space travel.
MM aside: It’s so, so important to me to feel that my writing can help me go places, and take me to new places, and for this project specifically, writing has been nothing less than the thing that has tied us together (but not the only thing).
LT: The funding our practice receives has allowed us to travel, to spend time together, so it has been worth the investment both professionally and personally.
You hosted several workshops on co-writing fiction around the book’s launch in June. Did you find audiences were enthusiastic or curious about collaborative practice or was there some resistance? How are you finding the book’s reception more generally?
The people that signed up were already curious, thankfully. It takes a very specific kind of person to sign up to a co-writing workshop to critique and resist co-writing; those people have been few and far between in our experience. Participants were interested in the practicalities of the process more than expected. We love to engage with the more theoretical, shall we say, parts of it – who do you become when you blend your voice with someone else’s??, stuff like that. In the workshops we felt people were really curious whether we used email or Google docs. No resistance, though – that would have been very depressing.
Anyone exciting you’ve been reading, viewing or listening to lately?
We’ve read and talked a lot about the article “Mother Writer Monster Maid”. We also just read “The Crane Wife” in The Paris Review and marvelled at how sometimes good writing just feels like it fell out of someone’s pocket, so easy and deceptively simple. Actually, we talked about that loads with an excerpt from Normal People that was in Granta, trying to figure out how Sally Rooney did it, before she totally exploded. (Though I suppose she does it the same way now.)
MM aside: I read Rachel Cusk’s memoirs recently. Aftermath felt more brutal than A Life’s Work (which in fact didn’t feel brutal at all),and I think I was expecting the reverse. I’ve been listening to a selection of old Rihanna songs while answering these questions, toggling back and forth between videos. What a fucking goddess. I’ve got Three Women on hold at the library.
LT aside: I’m reading A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson and it’s unlike anything I’ve read before. The way it moves between characters and in time, it’s really fun and compelling. I’m watching Documentary Now! which manages to achieve parody without being smug. It’s just really funny. Right now I’m listening to Steve Lacy. I like the Prince vibe and all the sex.
Anything more you’d like to say about The Reach of a Root or what you’re working on now?
We’re cracking the Canadian market with ROAR of course. And slowly building towards another co-project which we really ought to just dive into, but it’s going to be quite different again for us so we have no idea how it will turn out.
MM aside: I’m trying to get a new project. I want to start a new personal novel project. There, I said it. Now I have to do it. I’m at the stage where bits are coming to me, snippets of dialogue or description or setting. I just need to wait until I’ve got enough of them that a frame starts to emerge.
LT aside: I’m always trying to write funny, sexy, odd poems. 1 in 10 of them achieve this maybe. I’ve written a couple of scripts I like; I hope they reach an audience one day.
The Reach of a Root is out in September 2019 via Vagabond Voices. You can order your copy here.