Evelyn Somers: You went back to school in your late thirties and got your MFA at 40, so you’re definitely a Bloomer.
Maureen Stanton: And then I didn’t get the first book taken until 49, so I’m really a late bloomer. Of course, I had two other books, a memoir and a collection of essays. The memoir almost got picked up. That was in 2001. And before anything could happen, September 11 happened, and suddenly no one wanted this manuscript, which was about taking care of my boyfriend, who died of cancer at age 31. It was just too sad for anybody. So I let it sit around for a few years and worked on other projects. It really took a sort of great faith to keep going. There was a point when I said I wanted to get a book published by the time I was 40, and then that didn’t happen, so it changed to 50. And then when I was 49, I thought, “You know, I’ve always wanted to go into the Peace Corps. Maybe I don’t really need to be writer; maybe this isn’t meant to be.” So I downloaded Peace Corps applications. I found that they did take old people. And I was really thinking about doing a whole other change in my life.
ES: What happened?
MS: Three weeks later I went to a conference on literary journalism. I met an agent, sent her my proposal, and within days she accepted me, and within two weeks the book was sold. So I didn’t have to go into the Peace Corps after all at the age of 50, and I managed to sell the proposal for the book at the age of 49. Even though the book didn’t come out until I was 51, it still was sort of a published book by 50. I made that goal, finally.
ES: When did you know that you were going to do this book?
MS: In 2004 I was at a writing residency, and I had two different projects I was working on. I typically get bored and move from one project to another. My agent was not able to sell the memoir about my boyfriend, but he said, “What else are you working on?” I said, “I’m working on a memoir about my coming of age, and I’m working on this flea market thing.” Each one had maybe 50 pages, and he said, “The flea market one sounds interesting.” And at that point I thought, “Maybe I should try to write something that might actually sell.” He was pulling me in that direction—but of course, it had to be something that I was very interested in anyway.
ES: One of the things that really hooked me when I was reading Killer Stuff was, oddly enough, the money. You get caught up in that story of how much things are selling for.
MS: The whole treasure hunting—the idea of something for nothing or something for cheaper—the value that some people can see with their esoteric knowledge—that really did interest me. I was equally interested in the finding and selling of things, and what Curt Avery would get for something. Also, I got interested, as you can probably tell, in the history of the objects. I crammed in all the history stuff. My editor wanted me to cut all of that. He hated that stuff. The opium bottles and the history of a fork—he literally struck out all of my little history vignettes.
ES: How did you decide which objects to research? Because obviously you couldn’t research every item.
MS: I did, actually, research just about every object. In some ways it was an obsession. I got very, very interested. There’s this whole section on Stanhopes that didn’t even make it in the book. I became fascinated. Part of it was a delay tactic for the writing because I love research and I’m good at research, and it’s very time consuming. It’s something to do to avoid the writing, which can be very scary. I’d think “Okay, now I have to make this good and interesting.” So I realize that my research is both a boon and a weakness. I let it delay me. But I did get fascinated in just about every little thing. I had a lot of research. Tons of it, really. Probably twice as long as the book is, and I had to chop all that out. I wasn’t quite sure which objects would be vignette objects. I chose the oddest and most interesting, quirky ones—but some common ones, like the fork and the chair. And then something like the little part of the auction where I talk about chairs . . . I had tons of research, and it ended up being three or four lines.
ES: How much time did you actually spend shadowing Curt Avery?
MS: It was intermittent for several years. And I got an NEA grant in 2006 and took a year off and just intensely tracked him. It would have been great if I could have taken a whole year and just done 40 shows with him; I would have had a real sense of his work. But, again, some if it’s tedious, the same thing over and over again. So I tried to show what would be emblematic of certain things. Like a low-level flea market and then the highest possible elite show that Curt did. Many shows I did with him aren’t in the book at all. There are three times as many shows I did with him.
ES: How did you arrive at the book’s structure?
MS: Structure was really hard. I had to think about it. The narrative arc I chose for Curt Avery was sort of looking at the beginning of his career and moving from low-level shows to trying to break into the fancier, more elite shows, where the profits are higher. And it actually was the arc of his career. The more knowledge you have, the more esoteric, the better objects you have, the higher price, the better shows. So he was on that trajectory of trying to move from a mid-level dealer to sort of a low-level top-echelon dealer. He actually sells to those people. He’s not one of those, yet.
ES: Also, related to structure, you have some chapters devoted to a particular topic, like Antiques Roadshow. But others focus more on a theme or concept about antiques culture.
MS: What I would try to do would be to have sort of an action structure. I’d move between an on-the-ground scene at a show or auction, and then exposition, with research about the objects. It wasn’t easy—it’s a very horizontal book. I had these little vertical drops, the history, but it’s kind of a horizontal book, and for me it was tough to find the drama in the narrative arc. There’s a little one in there, I think.
ES: I read reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and was surprised at the number of people who wanted the book to be something it wasn’t. They were expecting a how-to book about how to get rich buying and selling.
MS: That was one of the most frustrating things. There was really only one reviewer who called it “literary journalism.” He so got the book. He completely understood what I was trying to do. He looked at it in terms of literary journalism; he’s the only one. I think partly it was the way the marketing people pitched the book. It was very clear from early on, from the questions I was getting from interviewers, that this was being pitched as a how-to, an instructional thing. The New York Times covered it in the business section and the antiques section, but they never covered it in the book reviews. Partly it has to do with people who are interested in this subculture already—they want to have that knowledge. But I wrote the book for people who have no interest—no previous interest—in the subculture. In the way that Susan Orlean wrote The Orchid Thief. That was a good model for me. You don’t have to be an orchid lover or a collector or anything to have an interest in the subject.
ES: What are you working on now?
MS: I’m working on another memoir. It’s a coming-of-age story in the ’60s and ’70s in my hometown in Massachusetts. The town was the location of the maximum security prison. The only one at the time, so the town kind of became synonymous with the prison. I’m looking at the culture of the ’70s, the loosening of social bonds and mores, my own family, what happened to us, and the culture of the town, trying to use this metaphor of this prison on the edges, where the walls between good and bad and licit and illicit are more permeable. I’m trying to do a lot with it: memoir, cultural criticism, place narrative. And I’m struggling now, of course, with structure and how to layer in all that I want in there.
ES: What did you learn from the last book that will help you with the one you’re writing now?
MS: In terms of the writing, I learned how to write that book as I was writing it, and I made a lot of mistakes along the way. I made mistakes interviewing. I learned how to be a better interviewer. I learned my weaknesses in terms of over-researching. Now, when I’m doing research, I stop myself from using it as a way to not get to the writing. I’m aware of things about my own habits as a writer that I think are going to help me—I hope!
Click here to read Evelyn Somers’s feature piece on Maureen Stanton.