I was always interested in the stories of people who set out to recreate their lives

Alexander Maksik is a writer. His work has notably appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine and The New York Times Magazine. A Marker to Measure Drift is his second novel.

Was it your first intention to tackle immigration in the novel? How meaningful was it for you to have a Liberian refugee as the main protagonist?

Very generally, yes. I’ve been interested in immigrant stories for a very long time. I was born in Los Angeles and I partly grew up in L.A. There are a lot of first-generation immigrants there, immigration is a major issue, and the city is defined by immigration. But I was never particularly interested in it from a political standpoint. I was always interested in the stories of people who set out to recreate their lives—it always struck me as a kind of universal story and a compelling story, it’s a story for everyone. I was interested in the stories of people I met, but also films that I saw about immigrants. When I moved to Paris, I had this idea that Paris was this sort of multicultural wonderland, very opened and embracing of all people. I’m not sure where I got this idea, but I was very quickly disappointed by that aspect of French culture. I would go to the prefecture each year to renew my visa, and my experience in one room was very different from the others. I would see people from North Africa, West Africa, sitting on the floor, having picnics. I was really struck by that disparity, and I was living in the 6th arrondissement, so I was very insulated. I began spending more and more time in the north of Paris around Château d’Eau and I started to talk to people, listen to their stories, so it’s a kind of slow accumulation of interests. But it was really living in Paris and then traveling quite a bit in Europe and having the same experiences, see people in Barcelona, selling sunglasses in the front of the beach…

To answer your question, it was important to write about an immigrant. I’m not sure that I would say that I set out to tackle immigration, I don’t think Jacqueline is your typical immigrant, but from a storytelling standpoint it was always very interesting to me. That said, when I first began to think about it, the very first notes I took were about a Senegalese man who arrives in Paris illegally and then moves from Paris to Val d’Isère to drive a snow-cat. That didn’t work for various reasons, and one of the primary reasons is that I didn’t want to insist on English in the mouth of somebody who would normally speak French. So I started looking at Anglophone African countries, and I remembered there was something about Liberia that had interested me when I was a student. In fact, I started to read about Liberia, and it was the first and only American colony in Africa, but it was also a colony created by former slaves, and those slaves became the dominant class and that class has really caused much of the tension between those two classes.
So it’s one of those things where it begins with a little bit of interest in a very general subject through my own personal experience in Europe, but I didn’t set out to write a novel about immigration and a novel about a Liberian woman.

Why did you choose to locate the novel in Santorini?

For several reasons, partly because I knew it well. I spent quite a lot of time in Santorini. I started my first novel while living in a tiny little hotel in Santorini, it is a place that is incredibly beautiful, but the beauty is created out of destruction. It used to be one island, and then the volcano exploded, so you have these sheer cliffs, and from the sheer cliffs you look out onto this caldera and it’s shockingly beautiful, that beauty is built out of an explosion. It’s also a place that is on the brink of an eruption at any time—I liked that as a metaphor. I also liked this sort of vague reference to various Greek myths. It’s a journey for all of those reasons. I was living on an artists’ colony in Estonia when I was writing a lot of this book, and I had with me a film called Liberia: An Uncivil War, which was shot by a photojournalist who has since died, but I watched this film over and over again, and images were incredibly violent. But just outside my window, there were incredibly beautiful ruling fields and the Baltic sea. There was that contrast between a sort of physical beauty outside my window and this interior violence and horror, and I saw that as a kind of interesting balance for Jacqueline.

I thought that Santorini was described in a non-picturesque way, through a kind a smothering atmosphere…

I think the physical place itself was very important to me, and the idea is that she sort of uses focus on what she sees and what she feels as a way to avoid memory, or it’s an attempt to avoid memory. I do want it to be both things: oppressive and also liberating, and it turns to be both things at one time. It is oppressive because of the police, because she’s trying to find a home, but once she establishes versions of home (the cave, the various buildings where she stays), she doesn’t have time to think. As a way to project thought and reflection, she tries to focus on the beauty of the place. I do think there’s an oppression in that, because it’s a willful desire to avoid the past.

The novel is filled with ghosts of Jacqueline’s past in Liberia and yet the are very vivid and present in the narration. How did these voices come to you?

I think there’s only one voice, and it’s Jacqueline’s voice. It’s Jacqueline’s memory that is sort of streaming, and it’s funny because I played with different voices, but when I finally came to her voice, her mother was always a part of it, there was no separation. I didn’t find Jacqueline’s voice first and later put in the mother—it just came together. I don’t know why exactly, but I liked the interplay between those two people, the way that it happens in our own lives. Depending upon the way we’re raised, we may find ourselves at a dinner, when we’re young, and we forget to take our napkin and put in on our lap, and we may hear our mother saying “put your napkin on your lap”. I find that when I’m alone, I’m more sort of aware of those voices than when I’m with friends or when I’m in a large group of people. But Jacqueline is alone so much. I find that when I try to avoid something, I am constantly failing at avoiding it. I think that Jacqueline is accompanied by her mother partly because her mother was such a strong, opinionated and determined woman, but also partly because she’s lonely. Out of that loneliness comes this voice, and it’s like an imaginary friend who can be both benevolent and cruel.

Was the third-person narration the right distance to tell her story?

I hope so! The difference between what I would describe as a close third person – because there’s very little distance really – the distinction between a third person and first person is very slight. Because she is so removed from herself and because I wanted to have this sort of ability to move, to see her in ways that she couldn’t see herself, I think it was necessary to have that little bit of space. It’s not a sort of removed, completely omniscient narrator. I just needed ten feet to move the camera around her.

In the course of the novel, Jacqueline realizes that no matter how she tries to hold it back, intentionally or not, memory is constant, it’s always here. As an author, how do you work with the traps and the labyrinths of memory?

That’s a great question! Without memory, I couldn’t be a writer. What I find interesting is the ways in which the act of writing provokes memory. I may not be thinking at all about someone I once knew when I was fifteen years old, but if I’m writing a scene and one of my characters does something that recalls this person, suddenly that person from 20/30 years ago in my life is present. It’s a kind of conjuring of the past—when you’re writing, it’s very open to memory, it’s impossible to write without it. That what’s you’re drawing on. When people say that you draw on experience, what that means is that you’re drawing on memory. If you don’t want to think about something, if you’re closed to certain aspects of your experience, you’re limiting the scope of what you’re going to cover as a writer. I don’t see memory as a trap, as a writer, except for that it can be distracting.

One of the things that I discovered in writing this book is that it’s really a book about writing. I am telling her story but she is resisting telling her story, and at the end, she tells her story. It’s the telling of the story that’s important, and she understand that it’s important for her but she’s not sure why. I sort of have the same experience, I can’t provide an answer. When someone asks “why do you write?”, it’s one of those questions who’s only asked by somebody who doesn’t write. I don’t know the answer. Certainly not to be rich, it’s not a stable job. It’s something that I’ve always loved to do and I don’t know why exactly. Without memory, I can’t write, it’s impossible. Colors, physical experiences, emotional experiences, it’s taken from memory and put in to text.