By Robyn Ochs
A few weeks after it came out, I dove into Meredith Maran’s first novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes. I was very excited, as one of her nonfiction books, What’s It Like to Live Now, was a favorite and one of the first books I read in which the author explicitly and comfortably identified as bisexual. This book was published in 1995, and I don’t remember its specifics, but I do remember my excitement at finding a rare moment of representation.
The back cover of Meredith’s new novel begins with this:
“The kids may be all right, but what about their parents? Ripped from the headlines of today’s battle over civil rights and the changing definition of family comes Meredith Maran’s debut novel, a family story that spans two decades, set against the social, political and geological upheavals of the Bay Area. Alison Rose is powerfully drawn to Zoe, a free-spirited artist who offers emotional stability and love outside the norm. After many happy years together, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake deepens fissures in the women’s relationship, and Alison leaves Zoe for a new, ‘normal’ life with a man. Alison’s son is the outcome of both of these complicated relationships, and the three parents strive to create a life together that will test the boundaries of love and family in our changing times.”
Robyn Ochs: Can you tell us more about your own personal story?
Meredith Maran: Bi-wise, I’ve liked girls and boys for as long as I can remember. I got the message early on that liking boys was a fine thing; liking girls, not so much. Thanks to Facebook, I’ve recently re-friended the first girl I had a crush on, at age five. We’ve shared our memories of the day her dad came into her bedroom to find me lying on top of her, playing “Witches,” and he turned purple and threw me out. Even then, I knew somehow that had I been caught lying on top of the boy I had a crush on, his father’s response wouldn’t have been quite so apoplectic.
RO: What was it like to be out as bisexual back in the ‘90s, or before? Do you think you would have had a different experience had you come out instead in 2012?
MM: I began my first relationship with a woman at age 33, in 1984, and I immediately learned that in the lesbian world, being bi was unacceptable. It was seen as “being on the fence,” or dismissed with a knowing wink as a phase en route to coming out as a lesbian. Instead of coming out with trumpets blaring and rings around the May pole (or should I say, gay pole), it was more of a slither into the land of Queer. In the straight world, being bi was much more accepted, especially by straight men who clearly got off on their imagined visuals. Fifteen years later, while I was writing a book about Berkeley High School, I was stunned and delighted to see teenaged girls identifying quite casually as bi. What hasn’t changed is that being bi is still stigmatizing for a boy or a man.
RO: Alison, your protagonist, is gripped with anxiety and yearns for a “normal” life and as a result makes choices that made me want to jump right into the pages of the book and—alternately—reassure her and shake her. Without giving away too much of the plot, is there anything you’d like to say about this?
MM: Alison is complicated. Me, too. How ‘bout you? My intention in the novel was to pull the reader inside the heart, mind, and body of a complicated woman whose sexuality happens to be a bit more complicated than average as well. Women like Alison are the ones I choose for my closest friends, and I’m sure my friends choose me for the same reasons. And I know they alternately want to reassure and shake me, too.
RO: I’m sure anyone reading this book would wonder to what extent your novel is autobiographical. I am aware that your own life trajectory differs from Alison’s, but are there some parallels? Did you ever write for Mother Jones and other mentioned publications? Did you struggle with internalized homophobia and internalized heterosexism?
MM: First novels are always thought to be autobiographical, and in this case it’s true and not true. There are big parallels between my life and Alison’s, both external and internal. Yes, I wrote for all of the magazines Alison writes for, except The New York Times Magazine. Giving her that gig was my way of crying out, “New York Times Magazine, here I am, come and get me.” And yes, I’ve struggled with every kind of internalized everything. A lot.
RO: I’ve heard from Jan Clausen and other authors who have written about complex identities that it’s a challenge to get published and hard to get books reviewed. What has been your experience?
MM: The same. I first tried to publish this book in 2006, and even my very experienced (and very queer-affirmative) agent was stunned by the rejections we got. Alison was consistently described as “unlikeable,” “unsympathetic,” “unrelateable.” Neither of us is a conspiracy theorist, but we both suspected that had Alison been as complicated as she is, but heterosexual, we wouldn’t have had that problem. It’s been, shall we say, fascinating (read: incredibly frustrating) to write a book about how internal and external homophobia change over time, and then have it take eight years to get that book published because homophobia isn’t changing quite fast enough.
That said, I believe the book has been reviewed in mainstream magazines that might not have covered it if it didn’t have a bisexual theme. Heterosexual editors and reviewers at Reader’s Digest, Ladies Home Journal, People and many other magazines made a real point of reviewing the book as a way of demonstrating their own support for equal rights.
RO: What kind of responses have you gotten to this book, especially from lesbian readers and reviewers?
MM: My greatest disappointment so far is the response to the book in the queer media—or lack thereof. I’ve had and will have a few reviews and profiles, but my dream was to start a conversation between the straight and queer worlds, and coverage in the straight media has been much stronger. I haven’t given up yet, and hope this interview will help bring the novel to the attention of other Q journalists and readers.
RO: What kind of resources would you wish to see for women who identify as bisexual, pansexual or fluid?
MM: Resources? How about love, compassion, support, and did I mention love? In the first interview I ever did about the novel—many years ago, while I was still writing it—I said that the takeaway I wanted to give the reader could be expressed as, “Let’s all get over ourselves about who we love, already.”
RO: What’s next?
MM: I’ve got a nonfiction book coming out from Penguin in January. It’s called Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed American Authors on What Gets Them Started and Keeps Them Going. It was a complete delight to interview an eclectic group of commercially successful (famous) writers—including Isabel Allende, Walter Mosely, Terry McMillan, and Armistead Maupin—while I was finishing up my own first novel. They taught me a lot, and I put everything they taught me about writing into both books: my novel, and Why We Write.
I’m also working on a second novel, which I hope to get back to soon. I’ve learned the hard way that writing a novel is best attempted by those with trust funds (not me) and/or wealthy husbands (also not me). Spending eight years on this one sent me into debt, but je ne regrette rien. It’s been the best writing experience of my life.