Claire Wilkshire’s maxine is a sophisticated, heart-warming, fresh debut about loss, anxiety, friendship and taking chances on life and people. Wilkshire, with years of writing and editing behind her, flexes her muscles in a new way and succeeds. The reader feels comfortable with Maxine, will root for her success and sympathize with her failure, will welcome her like a lifelong friend. I immediately understood this character because I saw myself in her, I think we all will.
How we identify with place and home is one of the themes in maxine. How important is place and home to our identity and that of the characters?
If you live in Newfoundland, then place is not just where you live; it‘s part of who you are. That can make it hard for people who move here. At one point in the book, Maxine is talking with her best friend about people who move here from somewhere else and how they feel frustrated and shut out. I’ve heard that from a lot of people, that Newfoundlanders are superficially very friendly but that it’s hard to break in. I don’t know what to say about that; I grew up here, so it’s not my experience, but I believe those people; I can empathize with their feeling of being on the outside, and that’s how Barb feels. As someone said at a book club the other day, it’s hard to imagine, when you grow up here, not having someone to leave your child with for a few hours because your husband needs to have surgery. Being so desperate you have to ask a neighbor you scarcely know. I suppose the flip side of all these people going around formed by this incredible place is that the ones who haven’t been here forever, who might take a while to be formed…those people can feel excluded. But there will always be a neighbor, even one you scarcely know, who will help you out when you need it.
I think that in Newfoundland, place is more important than it is elsewhere. That is, of course, a sweeping statement, but I’m thinking of Southern Ontario, where I lived for a year when I was in grad school. Where people were from didn’t seem to be particularly important. They shrugged it off. The second time I went to grad school I lived in Vancouver. Hardly anyone seemed to come from there: everyone had moved there from somewhere else and they were delighted to have made it: it was the ultimate endpoint. I was told, repeatedly, how lucky I was to be in such a beautiful place, the mountains, etc. And it is very beautiful. But it’s beautiful here too. Those people should hike the Skerwink trail.
Maxine’s transformation was sparked by Kyle. What is it about Maxine that needs him in her life?
I’m not sure Maxine did need him. She certainly didn’t want him at first. In a sense, she chooses him, twice; both times it’s because she knows it’s the right thing to do. It’s a moral choice. But he is very valuable to her, whether she needs him or not. She certainly wants him around; she learns a lot from him. He helps prevent her becoming too self-absorbed.
You write a story about Maxine who is writing a story about Frederique who’s also a writer. What are the steps/processes one has to go through in order to draw that line between the self and the characters it creates?
At one point there’s a reference to the fact that Maxine is reading Rose Tremain’s novel The Way I Found Her, in which a boy, Lewis, goes to Paris and becomes increasingly preoccupied by a writer friend of his mother’s. Lewis is reading Le Grand Meaulnes, a French classic whose boy protagonist is also on the cusp of adulthood. People come of age in different ways and at different points and I like the idea of these nesting stories. The Tremain book is just a passing reference in my novel, but it’s true that Maxine is writing her own story about Frédérique.
I am not Maxine; this is not an autobiographical book, but there are, in places, echoes of my experiences in hers. And she is most emphatically not Frédérique, but there are places where Maxine’s life seeps into her novel. If you were a fan of Doctor Who, you might say that Frédérique exists in a parallel universe.
Maxine strives for definition in her life. What does it mean for Maxine to be “Defined.”
Well, when the reader is told Maxine is defined at that moment in the novel, it means that she has been defined by the experience of a close friend’s death. The friend, Cindy, died just before 9-11, and there’s a parallel between the personal catastrophe of that death and the international catastrophe of what happened in New York. A piece of Maxine has been permanently altered by the death of her friend; that experience has affected her understanding of the world.
What was your writing process like for this book?
This book started as a short story. It became a longer story, then longer still, a novella, a longish novella… the worst way in the world to write a book. I’d never do that again. And it took forever.
I’ve been a freelancer for a several years; I do a number of different things in the run of a week and, like lots of people, I’m always juggling and trying to cram more stuff into a day. So there weren’t many long stretches of work on this. A brief, concentrated bout and then nothing, as I worked at other things, and then another brief, concentrated bout: repeat as necessary.
I’m glad it’s published, but I’ll miss it too. I’ll miss the characters.
Does the Burning Rock Collective still get together to discuss writing or drink pints?
Yes! We met last Friday. Not, of course, as often as when we didn’t have kids and jobs and various other responsibilities. Sometimes not for months. We have less time, or it fills up faster. But we send each other pieces by email sometimes. We stay in touch.
Meetings are always good: it’s exciting to hear people read, and to hear what everyone thinks about a piece that’s just been read, to talk about books, about words.
What projects can we expect from you in the future? What are you working on?
Right now I’m up to my eyeballs, but not in my writing. If I write another book, I’d like to have a solid plan for it first, and I just haven’t had the time to devote to that. I’m thinking (ssshhh, I haven’t really said it out loud yet) I might like to write a fantasy novel. We’ll see.
What are the last few books you read?
Right now I’m reading Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Chad Pelley’s Every Little Thing. I read maybe half a page of one, and then a few days later a page of another, so I make slow progress. But they’re all interesting.