Courtney Maum’s new historical novel tackles art, coming-of-age themes
Great Barrington — Courtney Maum’s newest novel, “Costalegre” (Tin House, July 2019), is a classic Bildungsroman, effectively hinging on timeless themes including a young girl’s quest for love and acceptance in the midst of a foreign and tumultuous landscape. The novel, Maum’s third, is heavily inspired by the real-life relationship between the heiress Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter, Pegeen. Through a collection of diary notes, drawings, unsent letters and vignettes, Maum triumphs with this wildly imaginative and curiously touching story of a privileged teenager who has everything a girl could wish for except for a mother who loves her back. I spoke with Maum—who currently resides in Norfolk, Connecticut—while she was en route from Boston to Brooklyn, in the very early phase of her 21-stop book tour along the east coast.
Hannah Van Sickle: This is your third work of fiction; what fueled this particular intersection of art, history and intimate personal recollection?
Courtney Maum: What fueled it is fact. It’s based on the relationship between the heiress and art collector Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter, Pegeen Guggenheim, who wanted to be an artist, identified as an artist. The origin point for the novel came when I was reading Peggy Guggenheim’s memoir for an unrelated project. I knew that she had two children, a boy and a girl—and not that writers who are mothers need to write about being a mother all the time, but she seems to go out of her way not to mention her daughter—and when I discovered that Pegeen really wanted to be an artist, I became kind of obsessed with the idea of this young woman having art as a rival for her mother’s love. And that was the point of departure; everything else fell into place thanks to the time period, really, and Peggy Guggenheim herself. She was actively involved, physically and financially, in helping key artists and intellectuals get out of pre-World War II Europe. These are documented facts, the artists that she helped save—we know who they are and we know what their art looks like—and so I thought it was a really interesting period to revisit, but I didn’t want to write a sweeping epic. I wanted it to be very intimate, so I had the idea to write it in a diary format from her own daughter’s point of view.
HVS: You spent time living and writing in Mexico; how integral was that experience to your writing this fictional albeit place-based novel?
CM: It was completely instrumental. I don’t think I could have written the book—and I definitely couldn’t have written the book the way it is written—if I hadn’t spent extensive time in Costa Careyes [a pueblo within Costalegre]. I’ve been to that specific place four times—and we went as a family for two specific research trips and we spent four or five weeks each time—and it was incredibly important because the role of nature and the landscape in the book almost come in as secondary characters. The sounds of the animals there, the way that the plants look—it’s very specific. And I don’t consider myself very naturally talented in terms of describing landscapes. That’s never been a forte, so being there—especially being there surrounded by that nature—[helped me to determine] how [the narrator] would describe that weird insect sound I just heard. How would a 15-year-old describe it? If I hadn’t been there—there’s not a lot of footage of that particular section of Mexico at all—[much would have escaped me]. Take the wild raccoon-monkey hybrid [creature]; when I was there, they were living in the house with us! Very hands-on research.
HVS: The novel’s structure is largely fragmented; how did you arrive at the decision to tell Lara’s story in this way?
CM: I arrived at it through trial and error. I tried writing in a couple of different styles: I tried writing in a more commercial, sort of typical literary fiction-type style; I tried writing it from multiple people’s points of view; ultimately, the story I was most interested in was the one I didn’t know, and the world doesn’t know, which is Pegeen Guggenheim’s, so when I decided I was going to write it from her point of view—she is 15 years old, in her diary—I thought, “This girl is in Mexico with all these weirdos, she’s probably super bored, they left really quickly, she doesn’t have any playmates, she barely has anything to do, so I don’t think she’s just going to be writing in her diary.” She’d probably be drawing in it, and making lists, maybe writing letters. But maybe they don’t even have paper for her to send letters. Can they even mail letters from western Mexico? So, the diary was used to fully capture Lara Callaway’s personality and desires—it seemed to me the best way to do that was not only through straight-up prose—and of course, she was an artist.
HVS: This is a classic coming-of-age story; in what ways did your own experience as a woman, a daughter and a mother influence your work?
CM: When I was growing up, I yearned very, very deeply to be a writer and to be recognized as a writer—and I did not always feel that I got that recognition from my family. I definitely got it from teachers, so it was really easy for me to imagine what it would be like for a young woman who wants to be an artist, who is watching her mother cavort with the world’s most famous artists, often talk all day about their art and then ignore her own creative production. So in that way, I identified very much with what that emotional neglect would feel like. As for the rest, I’ve never been isolated in the way this character is isolated; and I’ve never been an heiress! I keep waiting, but it hasn’t happened yet. But I’ve been in situations—while living in Europe, surrounded by wild eccentrics who are not always acting in a PC manner—so I draw upon that. I think teenagehood, for most women, is a period of time that stays with us in a really vivid manner. Or at least, it did for me. I can recall my years as a 14-, 15- year-old, honestly, as if they were three weeks ago. Being on the cusp of becoming a woman.
HVS: Could you speak to the importance of children’s voices in historical fiction?
CM: This is my first foray into historical fiction writing—I don’t think it will be my last, because I quite enjoy it. I will say, in the limited sort of exposure I have to contemporaries who are writing historical fiction, it does seem to me that the books that we hear about, that do well, are written from the point of view of adults, so much so that it might lead one to think that there were never any children in the past, that they didn’t play a role or that they didn’t absorb information or that things didn’t influence them or move them—obviously this is not true. One book that, to me, stands out—one of the best books in the world, really, but also in terms of historical fiction—is the writer Jim Shepherd’s, “The Book of Aron,” which takes place during the Holocaust in a Polish ghetto. It’s written from the point of view of either an 8- or 9-year-old boy who is pretty naughty, honestly. And he’s kind of a ruffian but we know—because history is behind this—what’s going to happen to this kid, so even his bad behavior becomes incredibly endearing. We have Anne Frank’s diary, but that’s not fiction. In the future, I know I’ll be looking out more for historical fiction that’s from a child’s point of view. Witnessing periods of trauma through a child’s eyes—they are too young to always be in misery, even if something’s bad. Hopefully they are young enough that there’s still a little hope—they’re not just being wizened, gnarled [by their circumstances]. I think the mixture of hopefulness and reality and misery, when these things all brush up against each other, it makes for really interesting reading.