Maggie Paxson is a writer, anthropologist, and performer. Fluent in Russian and French, she has worked in rural communities in northern Russia, the Caucasus, and upland France. She is the author of Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village, and her essays have appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, Wilson Quarterly, and Aeon. Her newest book is The Plateau.
On November 12th, she will be speaking at House of SpeakEasy’s Seriously Entertaining show, For Good Measure alongside Nina Burleigh, James Geary, and Monique Truong.
What is your earliest memory involving reading or writing?
In second grade, we made little books with rough gray construction-paper covers. Mine was about Rosa Parks. I remember getting inside the story at some point, writing quickly, with exclamation points! No!, said Rosa Parks when they tried to get her to leave her seat! That is my first memory of getting swept away—trying to convey something big. I also remember that I drew Martin Luther King in profile.
What is your favorite line from your current work?
The last line of THE PLATEAU, for sure. But I can’t share that here, because it’s the whole book in a mustard seed. Another line I love, though, comes like a little poem at the end of a harrowing chapter, La Burle:
A prayer that looks like a tunnel of white, with a gray smudge of a man, digging.
And sounds like a voice, still and small, saying:
Everything will be as it should.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Gracious. Every writer has different gifts, different tools. Some bring virtuosity to the table, and a sense of play. Or depth of knowledge. Or the strength to work and rework a thing down to its beautiful nub. Or a most barbaric yawp. I think I bring a decent eye and ear and a lot of urge to say something. Advice might be: Try to understand your own tools, such as they really are—and your own necessity.
What writer past or present do you wish you could eat dinner with?
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry! What was it like to fly over the Sahara at night? What was it like to see the stars like that, in that kind of solitude?
What writer do you wish you could share with the world?
Trained as a chemist, Primo Levi had a perfect clarity to his eye. No single paragraph has hit me harder than an early one in his The Reawakening. It is ravaging in its simplicity and its truth.
What are you reading right now?
For the longest time, while writing and editing, I could only read things like endless Anthony Trollope and Agatha Christie—nothing that could mess with my ear. The first thing I read, once it was safe to do so again, was the entire Harry Potter series, in a single gulp. It was immensely gratifying.
What fictional character do you most closely identify with?
When I was leaving for Russia to do my PhD fieldwork in a tiny village, I told the director my anthropology department at the University of Montreal that I would be going to Russia to search for Alyosha Karamazov. Clearly, I was looking for him inside of myself, really.
Or: Luna Lovegood?
Or: Sue Heck?
If you could live inside a fictional world, which one would you choose?