by Joe Schuster
A little more than seven years ago, Paul Matthew Maisano came home from a workshop he’d just begun at Seattle’s Hugo House, “The First Twenty Pages,” led by novelist Maria Semple.Maisano had finished a novel some time before this but had shelved it. “I had absolutely no pages at that point,” he says. “But I was so inspired by (Semple) that I just started writing.”
For some time, Maisano had been interested in exploring family conflict in fiction, especially the level of conflict that arises when one’s sibling commits an egregious act. When he sat down that evening in 2011, the egregious act that came to him centered on a character’s sister who goes to India and, thoughtlessly, as a kind of decoration in her life, adopts an Indian child.
After the workshop ended, Maisano couldn’t let the story go, and he continued working on it. A year later, he decided to enroll in an MFA program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. After three semesters there, he applied to transfer to the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, which accepted him. He graduated from there in 2016. In 2018, at age 42, he sold the novel, Bindi,to Little Brown.
Set primarily in 1993, Bindi centers on an eight-year-old boy named Birendra, who, in the book’s first chapter, becomes an orphan when his mother dies; his father had died four years earlier. He has one living relative, his mother’s twin sister, Nayana, who left India years earlier to study and eventually teach in London. With the help of a neighbor, Birendra sends a letter to his aunt, telling her of his mother’s passing, with the expectation that Nayana would come to India to take him in. However, the letter goes astray, and as time passes without word from Nayana, Birendra ends up at an orphanage where, because of his age, he is not considered a candidate for adoption and thus carries out his menial chores with little hope for change.
Maisano structures the novel by cutting among chapters from different points of view. Early on, those chapters focus on Birendra, and then on his aunt, who is ending an affair with a colleague just as she is discovering she is pregnant (she is uncertain for most of the novel whether the father is her husband or her lover). Eventually, the novel adds a third point-of-view, that of Madeline, a wealthy LA interior designer-to-the-stars, who comes to India after her own love affair has fallen apart and, rather than slipping into a rebound romantic relationship, decides on the spur of the moment to adopt a child. That child turns out to be Birendra, whom, because she worries others will have difficulty pronouncing his name, she calls “Bindi.” Madeline brings Bindi back to Los Angeles, where Maisano gives us the fourth significant point-of-view, that of Edward, Madeline’s younger (but more mature) brother, who has significant concerns about his sister’s decision, particularly since they were themselves children of a neglectful mother.
It is clear from a number of details that Maisano intends a skeptical interpretation of Madeline’s actions: for example, immediately after her first visit to the orphanage, Madeline meets an Italian woman who takes her to a shop where she is fitted for a saree. Once she’s dressed, one of the shop workers applies a small jewel between her eyebrows, a bindi, telling her, “With the bindi, you are now complete.” She adopts the boy in good part to find another kind of completion in her life. At another point in the novel, she gives him a birthday party, decorating her house absurdly with elaborate western variations on Indian themes, including a live elephant; when her brother arrives at the party, however, he has difficulty finding Birdendra, or indeed any children, as they do not seem the centerpiece of the party: Madeline does.
That Maisano’s novel spans three continents (Asia, Europe and North America) is not surprising, given he has lived for extended periods on all of those continents. After graduating early from high school, he lived for a time in San Francisco, where he worked as a makeup artist, before enrolling in Columbia University, from which he earned a bachelor’s in East Asian Languages and Cultures in 2002, at age 26. He spent some years after that living around the globe, often working in the fashion industry both overseas and in the US before deciding that he wanted to write.
In mid-January, he spoke with me by phone from Merida, in the Yucatan, where he has been living for some time.
Joe Schuster:You’ve lived in so many different places, so the fact that you wrote about a character from a different culture is not surprising, but still I wonder: Where did Birendra come from?
Paul Matthew Maisano: Initially he was a pivotal piece in the story, but not the central character. Early on, the novel leaned more heavily on satire, but the more I worked on it, the more I realized I did not want it to be satirical; and the more I drafted, he became more and more essential. I came to feel that he could not just be a pawn in making a point about something we should all know, which is that international adoption is fraught and imperfect in the best of circumstances. And eventually I came to see that I had to make it his story because he was, ultimately, the one with the most to lose. It was either going to be his story or it was going to be no story at all. My choice was to give up or get his voice and Nayana’s and Madeleine’s and Edward’s voices right. And to keep trying and to believe that I could access them because they are humans and that is what we have in common.
JS: I’m curious why you decided to move away from satire. I think there is clearly a lot of material here that could lend itself to satire – Madeline and her instant decision to adopt a child, as well as the birthday party she throws for Bindi. At another point, when Edward and Nayana meet in an ashram in India, it is one that caters to westerners and so somehow seems more the idea of an ashram. How did you get from writing satire to writing the novel you did, one that Publisher’s Weekly called a “poignant debut”?
PMM: I have come to see that satire and cynicism are defenses against harder-to-cope-with emotions. They have their place, but in a novel about a boy whose life was really affected by the circumstances of his life, it did not feel fair to stay in the mode for too long. And it prevented the novel from becoming what I wanted it to be, which was something more compassionate. I did not want to dismiss Madeline because she had all of these characteristics that I really do find awful. People we love do awful things all the time, and we find a way to love them or we don’t, and I wanted to deal with that conflict in the novel the same way I deal with it in my life.
JS: Which is how?
PMM: Which is to confront it rather than deflecting through satire or using cynicism as a mode to not really deal with what is difficult or harder to understand or less comfortable. There is a lot of cynicism in our world right now because it is easier for a lot of us to deal that way with what is going on in our country, and frankly it breaks my heart. I can’t laugh at it. It’s not funny. I think it is a very privileged stance to take because it acknowledges you don’t have to deal with it, you are not forced to deal with it.
JS: I read elsewhere that you went through three edits with your editor at Little Brown, Lee Boudreaux. I’m curious how that changed the novel.
PMM: In the first round, there was not much in the way of significant change, but one day, (Lee) had a question, or made a comment that led to an idea that transformed the structure of the novel. In my mind, it enabled me to tell the story much more compactly and to cut out a good portion of the first third of the novel. A lot of that section originally was about Madeline and Edward before Madeline has even gone to India, and (Lee) said something about the fact that the reader really wants to get to the meeting between Madeline and Birendra. It hit me that I could cut everything out of that part of the novel except for the chapters from the points of view of Birendra and Nayana. So we never know Madeline until she meets Birendra. We never meet Edward until Madeline introduces Birendra to his world. The novel was then not about all of these people but about all of these people in connection to Birendra.
JS: You do create a lot of tension with your structure because we wonder, when will this character connect to Birendra or how will the character connect to Birendra, or how will the character react when they connect with Birendra? And because Nayana does not discover her sister’s death or that Birendra is an orphan for such a long time, we also get a lot of tension from that.
PMM:It really only spans three months, so anything I could do to tighten it could allow me to make the story more immediate, more full of momentum and that was what I wanted. I did not want some sweeping epic. I was already sort of spanning the globe. I didn’t want essentially this moment in their lives to be any longer than it needed to be.
JS: It seems pretty brave on your part to go back to your editor and say, “You took this novel based on X but now I want to change all of this.” I think it shows a good editor/writer relationship and that you were interested in making the best novel you could and that she was open to doing what you thought the novel needed to succeed.
PMM: We did have a really great relationship. I finished my last revision on my own in September 2016, and by the beginning of October I had an agent who wanted to send it out to market in two weeks. So it all happened much more quickly than I thought it would; it still felt like a fresh draft to me. I was lucky I had an editor who was willing to let me continue to work on it, not just fine tuning but on restructuring.
JS: This is the kind of question that I hate getting, myself, but I’ll go ahead and ask you: are you working on something new?
PMM: This experience has been both interesting to me and draining, with all the moving around I have done, and just dealing with the natural ups and downs of having your first book out in the world. I do have three very different projects I am interested in but which are on a kind of back burner. I am focusing on some freelance writing, including ghost-writing a novel, which is kind of helping with the creative fix, but it is completely different in style from anything I would ordinarily write so that is liberating in a way.
JS. You published your novel when you were 42, and I wonder if you have any advice or encouragement for someone who is not twenty-five and thinking about writing a novel.
PMM:I don’t know if it is specific to age, but there is always going to be someone younger or trending better than you are for whatever reason, and so I think you just focus on the story and telling it the only way you can, and if it keeps working, keep writing it. Take your time. I think the goal so often is selling a novel, and it is true that having a novel out there in the world is nice, but all of that is fleeting. That’s really just a moment. The work is what you are left with. There is something to be said about being patient and remembering that the work is more important.
Joe Schuster is the author of The Might Have Been. His short fiction has appeared in Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, New Virginia Review and Western Humanities Review, among other journals. He has also contributed two titles to Gemma Open Door’s series of books for adult literacy programs.