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Big Books Feature

Transition Words

For Author Maud Casey, Moving to Baltimore Has Led to Writer’s Block, Obsession, and Her Most Ambitious Book Yet

Uli Loskot
The Block: "When I first came to Baltimore, I got blocked on this book," says Maud Casey of her current project, tentatively titled Genealogy. "Since coming here, I've really had to train myself to let go a little bit."

Big Books Issue 2004

The City That Writes Hey, remember writers? The people who, like, create books? They’re still around in full effect, but ...

Hustler Once an Anonymous Internet Sex Writer, Now the Diva of Erotica, Zane Has Erected Her Own Hot Publishing Empire | By Anna Ditkoff

Transition Words For Author Maud Casey, Moving to Baltimore Has Led to Writer’s Block, Obsession, and Her Most Ambitious Book Yet | By J. Bowers

Making History After 15 Years, Madison Smartt Bell Brings His Benchmark Haitian Trilogy to a Close | By John Barry

What're You Reading? On the Street with the City's Reading Habits | By Wendy Ward

By J. Bowers | Posted 9/15/2004

According to the dust jacket on her most recent story collection, 2002’s Drastic, Maud Casey lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. But a lot has changed over the past two years. Casey’s in Baltimore now, having traded an 11-by-14 foot studio in Fort Greene for a cozy flat on Eutaw Place. She’s seen her teaching career take off, thanks to opportunities at the Gilman School and the University of Maryland, which enticed her to move here. She’s weathered a serious case of writer’s block. And slowly, tentatively, Casey has watched her novel-in-progress, working title Genealogy, transform from a disorganized, frustrating tangle of ideas into something tangible and workable—a file on her laptop computer and a rigorously organized sheaf of character and plot notes, taped above her writing desk next to Bruce Springsteen ticket stubs and notes from friends and mentors.

“When I first came to Baltimore, I got blocked on this book,” admits Casey, 35, carefully studying the writing on her wall. “As someone who has moved, I think, 10 times in the last 12 years, moving affects my writing process, in that it interrupts it. And the book was just sprawling. I didn’t know where it was going. I hadn’t quite found the voices of the characters. For three years, it was not only, ‘Am I going to finish this thing?,’ but also, ‘How am I going to begin this thing?,’ ‘Will it ever be anything other than a bunch of words piled into my computer?’

“Since coming here, I’ve really had to train myself to let go a little bit. I’m a writer who likes to polish as she goes, and it wasn’t going to happen with this book. I have a little more control now. But as I sit here with it, I don’t like to tempt . . . I don’t want to get it mad.”

A petite, fresh-faced woman with a wispy pixie cut and an explosive, infectious laugh, Casey burst onto the New York publishing scene with her 2001 debut novel, The Shape of Things to Come—a darkly comic tale about a free-spirited woman in her 30s who returns to her childhood home in Illinois. Neatly avoiding the chick-lit stereotype that has dogged young female authors over the last few years, Casey’s novel was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Drastic came shortly thereafter, packaging the Pushcart Prize Special Mention “Dirt” with 11 other short stories about characters who flirt with self-destruction as they search for meaning in their lives.

“I feel really grateful to be published,” she says, nodding at the tall stack of Maud Casey books atop a nearby shelf. “In some ways, that gratitude has never worn off. The fiction market’s horrible right now, and that’s why chick lit has become this albatross, this unfortunate category that writers have to drag around in order to hock their wares. Well, chick writers, anyway. There was an article somewhere that put my first book into that category, and at the time I was grateful to be on anyone’s radar. But chick lit isn’t what I read, it’s not what I’m writing. I think my subjects are broader.

“I really feel tenderly toward my first book,” Casey continues. “I love it like I love an old blanket that I used to have. But it’s a smaller book than what I’m working on now. My short stories are more what I’d give to someone to say, ‘Here’s what I’m interested in.’”

Before Casey left New York, Drastic’s “Genealogy,” a terse vignette about the inner life of a college professor dealing with his ex-wife’s death and his daughter’s mental illness, began to unravel and beg for expansion. If all continues to go according to the plan on her wall, Genealogy will use four alternating perspectives to explore the lives of a family affected by mental illness, memory, and the peculiar life of Louise Lateau, a 19th-century Belgian girl who developed a stigmata every day after surviving a cholera epidemic. Casey discovered Lateau’s story as a footnote in one of the many books stacked around her writing desk and became obsessed with finding out as much as she could about the girl. Her passion for research became the backbone of her new novel: One of the characters in Genealogy is just as obsessed with Lateau’s bizarre tale, and Casey’s manuscript contains sections lifted “whole cloth,” she says, from a Catholic Review article about Lateau, written in the 1800s. The girl haunts Casey’s current work like a ghost, informing and influencing the new novel’s four narrative voices.

“This is the first time that I’ve written this way, that I’ve become interested in something that was real, something historical, and that’s been the inspiration for my work,” Casey says.

Her writing desk is loaded with other signs of inspiration. She’s recently become very interested in the whimsical sketches and writings of Bruno Schulz, a Polish author who was killed by the Nazis during World War II, and a fat copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales rests on the floor beneath her chair, amid a pile of notes about Lateau and other current obsessions. But like most novelists, Casey is loathe to give too much away when she’s in the middle of a project, especially since it’s taken her so long to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

“Now, it’s more about managing my time than it is about wrestling with my demons,” she laughs, with obvious relief. “For a long time, it was that horrible thing—I can’t write this, and I can’t not write this, so what do I do? This summer, I feel like I’ve finally gotten to that place where I’m not terrified every time I get up from the desk that it’s all just going to turn into a pile of dust. But, really, I think I taught my way through my writer’s block. I’ve just had really terrific students, and it helped a lot to be thinking about other people’s books.”

At this point, it’s safe to add Casey to the ever-growing, much celebrated roll call of Baltimore writers—over the past two years, she’s put down professional and personal roots, haunting local libraries and forging acquaintances and friendships with the likes of Michael Collier, Meg Tipper, and Madison Smartt Bell. But the self-admitted “one-project kind of gal” is still deeply absorbed in Genealogy and thinks it’ll be a good long while before she considers writing about her most recent home.

“When I was in New York, I didn’t write that much about New York,” Casey says. “I tended to write about Arizona, where I spent time going to graduate school in Tucson. And now that I’m here, I find myself writing about New York. So I have a feeling that writing about Baltimore will happen over time. It just takes me a little while, until I get a feel for a place. Then I’ll start thinking about it in that dreamlike, imaginative, fictional way.”

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