Compelling, contemplative and laugh-out-loud funny, Fiona Maazel’s latest novel, Woke Up Lonely, is a sprawling story of a wildly popular cult, the Helix, which promises a cure for loneliness. Desperate to be reunited with his ex-wife and daughter, cult leader Thurlow Dan takes four people hostage at his Cincinnati headquarters and soon things unravel into a “Waco-like” hostage standoff. The novel hits close to home for Cincinnatians when the characters descend into an underground system of tunnels filled with all manner of vice beneath the city’s streets.
Maazel’s first novel, Last Last Chance, which dealt with drug addiction and a spreading contagion, was a Time Out New York Best Book of the Year. She was a 2008 “5 Best Writers Under 35” honoree by the National Book Foundation and won the Bard Fiction Prize in 2009. CityBeat recently chatted with the Brooklyn, N.Y., resident about the epidemic of loneliness, cults and the increased spying on Americans since 9/11.
CityBeat: Why did you choose Cincinnati for the underground “sub” city?
Fiona Maazel: I chose it because who’s going to suspect such things are transpiring just below the bedrock of Cincinnati? Who’s going to notice a cult compound in one of the more tony neighborhoods of Cincinnati? That and I’d been reading about the Underground Railroad and an actual tunnel system under Pyongyang. And then one Saturday I was driving through downtown Cincinnati and it was totally deserted. Then I went into some of the fancier neighborhoods and was amazed at the abundance of wealth. So something about how manifest the class struggle seems in Cincinnati spoke to me.
CB: I understand that you found writing about sex uncomfortable.
FM: I’m very comfortable writing about sex; it’s good sex that I have trouble with.
A, it’s boring. B, it’s porny. Good sex deserves good, quick exposition. Bad sex deserves the royal treatment.
CB: Did you do much research into cults?
FM: Oh, I read a ton. About Waco and Ruby Ridge for the standoff stuff, and then about political cults and therapeutic communities.
CB: So much of your novel focuses on loneliness and how it affects us. Why are you fascinated by loneliness?
FM: It seems to me central not just to the human experience, but to any discussion of our empathic facility — as individuals, a group, a country. Loneliness feels epidemic to me sometimes and I wanted to think about what it looks like for people who are actually not solitary creatures.
CB: Isn’t it counterintuitive for people with lots of friends and family connections, including those on social media, to feel so alone and isolated?
FM: Loneliness is all about being unreachable and unknowable despite having friends. Sure, there are degrees of loneliness that can be assuaged by friendship or even a chat room. But I’m interested in a more deep-seated feeling that we are all walking through life utterly alone.
CB: This novel features a lot of spying and surveillance. I wonder if your desire to write about this came from a belief that Americans have relinquished too many of their freedoms in the name of security since 9/11?
FM: I think we’ve relinquished our civil rights in the name of better security, but I have no idea if we are actually more secure than we were before the government began its illegal dragnet of our phone conversations and emails. But even so, I guess the real question is: Is it worth it? For me, the answer is no. Democracy can never be taken for granted; it has to be upkept like anything else. Give a little here, a little there, and before you know it, we’re living in a police state.
CB: There is light at the end of Woke Up Lonely. Did you want to be sure that readers finished with a “reason to believe?”
FM: Yes! Some readers have said the book is unremittingly bleak, which depressed me to no end. I think the novel is shot through with hope, especially by the end. It’s bittersweet, but still, I wanted people walking away with a sense that most of us are good and that good things are possible, even likely, if you just stick around.
CB: Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
FM: Yes! I’m working on a new novel called What Kind of a Man. It’s about emotional incoherence. About being unknown to yourself. Coming to a bookstore near you in, oh, five years or so.