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Interview with Maxwell Olin Massa - 2022
Interview #17 (Fiction, Science Fiction, Allegory)
Max Massa's life has been all about China, language, and writing. Having finished college in 2004 with a degree in Chinese literature, he spent five of the following seven years living in the People's Republic: two years in a county town in northern Jiangsu province; one year in the capital, where he worked for CCTV-10 during the time of the Olympics, and then two more years for a master's degree at Nanjing University, for which he wrote and defended a thesis in Mandarin on the history of the Cultural Revolution. After returning to the States, he took a job in language program management and just focused on trying to find ways to keep his mind alive in Washington, DC, a city that is very highly educated and not particularly intellectual.
House of Apollo is his first novel and is greatly informed by his experience of seeing America as a partial outsider after his return from Asia. He has also published on the rule of law in Small Wars Journal and contributes semi-regularly to the cultural periodical Arts Fuse and Third Factor, a magazine for catalysts and creatives. He is currently working on another novel and translating a collection of medieval fantasies written by a Tang dynasty chancellor of the 9th century.
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Randal Eldon Greene: Hello, Maxwell Olin Massa.
I want to set the stage for the reader. House of Apollo takes place entirely within the confines of the Longshot Insurance building where our protagonist, Caleb, both lives and works. This is an insurance company which has perfected the art of not having to pay out any claims made by policy-holders. In fact, it's been so long since anyone has collected on a claim that the company doesn't know how to do it. They have no actuarians and no one staffing the office where claims are meant to be processed. The inciting incident occurs when a policy-holder named Vera has somehow managed to win a claim and has come to collect. While absurd, the events that follow from this premise affect the entire staff at Longshot.
Now that the stage is set for the reader, I'd like for you to explain how this novel about an insurance company works—as so many great stories do—on the level of allegory.
Max Massa: It is an allegory, and I chose to express myself in this manner because of an earlier experience I had with trying to convey something important in expository writing and failing. I actually did a great deal of work on understanding legal theory and ultimately formulated a definition of the rule of law, which I managed to get published. Sadly, I found that most people couldn't understand what I'd written and, after having it explained to them, either couldn't retain it or didn't care. That's when I realized that most people do far better with images than they do with concepts, and I decided that if I ever had another Big Idea that I'd try to convey it in narrative and symbolism: readers will remember the Yellow Brick Road much better and far longer than a definition of the rule of law, and that simply can't be helped.
House of Apollo represents my next Big Idea.
As I mentioned in my author bio, I lived in China for a long time, and the novel is heavily informed by my experience of returning to the States. When I got back to America at the age of 29 - never having really lived as an independent adult here - something struck me as strange. At first, I couldn't express it . . . there was just an element of life that was somehow absent. But I had the habit of reading and doing research, so I rooted around in sociology and in literature until I hit upon Nietzsche's articulation of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. When I finally read The Birth of Tragedy, I realized that the thing I'd been staring at was an imbalance of influences: Apollo was becoming dominant over Dionysus. Of course I don't mean that actual godheads were clashing in the skies over the District, but that the elements of our experience associated with the Sun God - the image, distance, intermediaries, logic, medicine - were overpowering that Wine God's traits -darkness, dance, music, proximity, rhythm, chaos. So I decided to write a book about life in a world where the conflict between the deities is over and Apollo has definitively won. That is the meat of the allegory in the book.
The way in which the novel works as allegory is through the protagonist's character arc. Caleb, the main character, begins his story with Dionysian and Apollonian traits uneasily balanced within him - this is why the opening sequence involves him utterly massacring his food at a company dinner function (Dionysian) but then consuming it in a manner that prioritizes cleanliness and efficiency (Apollonian). Without revealing too much of the plot, circumstances conspire to draw the Bacchus in him and his surroundings out, until there is a climax that resets the scales and he becomes very much of the other side. Thereafter, the remainder of the story focuses on his acceptance of this fact and his attempts to reorder his surroundings to suit it.
I specifically chose to set the story in an insurance company because Apollo is the god of foresight and divination: he predicts the future. And what would any insurance company love more than to know what's happening in advance, so that it could insure people only against things that it is confident will not occur? Even the insurance company's name, Longshot, is Apollonian, being taken from one of the god's Homeric epithets, which is Far Shooter (Ἑκηβόλος). Elements of symbolism like this are visible throughout the work; readers will do well to bear in mind that Dionysus was the god of wet nature (φύσις ὑγρά) before all other things and that Apollo is the only divinity who will not communicate directly with his worshippers, but demands the presence of a mediator.
Randal Eldon Greene: When I began reading, I immediately noticed religious imagery popping up all over the place. At first, I thought this was narrative only, but then I began to find the language manifesting in a very real way within the world you built. I think my favorite example was when the employees sang a company hymn. But the book is simply stuffed with theological word choices. I've opened a random page and found these words: exegesis, blessed, "the Radiant Founder."
Max Massa: This is correct. I wasn't interested in conveying a message that was, itself, religious, but the framework in which I had chosen to work was sacred. And I was particularly influenced by Walter Otto's work, specifically Dionysus: Myth and Cult, in the way I treated this aspect of the story. I remember him saying that people who misunderstand Greek religion believe that the ancient Hellenes actually worshipped ideas, because they see that Demeter is a goddess of growth and the harvest, Hestia is the goddess of the hearth, Hades is the god of death, etc. He points out that it is not these personified aspects that the Greeks reverenced, but the gods themselves as things celestial. And so, while I engaged with the abstract concepts that Nietzsche had spun together in his book, to make the story I was composing more human and more engaging I tried to remember that earlier, more human element of transcendent experience, and plait that into my writing.
You mentioned the language . . . I put a great deal of thought into this. First of all, there are the two poems that run through the length of the book and create their own sort of frame for the narrative: one is a dithyramb (Dionysian), and is based on the Dryden's work, "Alexander's Feast"; the other is a hexameter (Apollonian), and takes its structure from "The Homeric Hexameter Described and Exemplified" by S. T. Coleridge, which is short enough to include whole, below:
Strongly it bears us along in swelling and limitless billows, Nothing before and nothing behind but the sky and the ocean.
I also wanted the prose itself to vary based on the local influence of either god. Apollonian sections tend to have short, cleaner utterances with manifest purpose. Dionysus, however, is chaotic and the phrasing needed to express that fact. So word choice and structure become more of a jumble with him, to the point where the writing is almost a froth of excited blather at points, which is what I wanted. And then, when the Wine God is very close, the tense will change: action will move from the narrative past tense into the present (this was a deliberate attempt to recreate the historical present grammatical feature from Classical Greek). Some readers don't notice when that happens, but it's something I did with deliberate intent.
Randal Eldon Greene: The poems themselves are wonderfully composed. I'm happy that you placed both of them at the back of the book for an uninterrupted reading. What is your relationship with poetry as a reader and a writer? You'll have me very impressed if you say you hardly ever wrote poetry before writing this book.
Max Massa: My relationship with poetry goes back a very long ways, across multiple languages. It would be a minor exaggeration to say that I learned the alphabet from a poem, but not a very big one: my parents, being - perhaps - somewhat odd, made The Amphigorey available to me at a very, very early age, and I remember having memorized The Gashlycrumb Tinies (an abecedarium about children coming to grisly ends) before I could properly read it. One of my earliest memories is actually being miffed that my mom wasn't impressed with my reading the whole poem to her, when I manifestly could not and had just committed it to memory and was dragging my finger across the page at a pace that seemed reasonable.
But my real, personal relationship with poetry came later, in middle school. My maternal grandfather, whom I only ever met once and never knew, had been in the merchant marine. In going through some of his old things, my mom came upon an old pamphlet of verse that he had preserved, and it had a couple ballads from Robert Service in it. If you've not read Service, he's very rumbledy-pumbledy with a lot of internal rhyme that makes the structure of his work conspicuous and easy to follow for people new to the art form. Which made him, of course, perfect for the young Max Massa. And I loved the way he painted strange vistas of desperate men, far from civilization, and told tales that were not meant to be believed. Later on, when I was somewhat older, my mother made Dorothy Parker available to me, and she was the perfect next step: more polish, but approachable in her humor and welcoming in the way she made fun of herself. But then, every now and again, she would break out with something serious and lyrical, like in "Penelope":
In the pathway of the sun, In the footsteps of the breeze, Where the world and sky are one, He shall ride the silver seas, He shall cut the glittering wave. I shall sit at home, and rock; Rise, to heed a neighbor's knock; Brew my tea, and snip my thread; Bleach the linen for my bed. They will call him brave.
After that I began to get into anthologies - this is in high school now - after which point it's possible to go in whatever direction one wishes. I remember being really excited by Alfred Noyes for a while there, but I consider him to be escapist and romantic now. The last poet in English whom I'd consider to be a major influence would be Mervyn Peake, to whom I am attracted for a host of reasons, including the shared connection to China. But I would say that the most important thing about his work was that he showed me, in Titus Groan and Gormenghast, how poetry and prose can be mated together in a natural, mature fashion that improves both forms; I thought about his writing very often when I was working on House of Apollo. In almost every other writer, I'd found any included poetry to be abrupt and artificial.
I've been studying Mandarin since 2000, so of course there have been Chinese poets who have been significant to me, but I don't want to dwell on them too much because most American readers will find them hopelessly obscure. But I will mention one, who was very useful in the great task of learning what poetry could communicate, outside the particulars of East Asian versification: Han Shan (寒山), also known in English as Cold Mountain. I found his writing in around 2010, when I was at Nanjing University; he was a medieval, proto-Zen (Chan) monk who lived on a mountain in what is now Zhejiang Province, and he would spatter his fanciful writings as graffiti on rocks, trees, and the walls of houses in the area where he was active. His work is usually playful and expressive, with simple but evocative imagery that makes it easy to grasp not only as language but as art. However, the most important thing about him was that he was one of the main conduits for me developing a decent understanding of how Buddhism worked. China, canonically, has three faiths - Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism - and the last of the three is the only one that's a foreign import, coming from India, which makes it more difficult than the others, because the sutras have a lot of imported vocabulary in them from Sanskrit that looks strange in Chinese dress. I'd tried to read the original texts before and came out muddled on the other end, not really getting the point of it all. But Han Shan really helped me learn the basic precepts, and he did it with rhyme and meter. Any appreciation I have of the power of an ode to transmit genuine knowledge probably comes from him.
I understand that I've been speaking mainly about reading poetry as opposed to writing it, but my output has been very slight. My interest has always been in appreciation, first and foremost, with the assumption that composition would follow if I had a deep enough understanding of how the people who succeeded did their work and then held myself to a harsh enough standard.
Randal Eldon Greene: Caleb's boss, George, at one point explains the relationship between the company and their customers in this way: "They don't know they want it, we know they want it, we make them know they want it, and then we let them have it!" —In a sense, Longshot seems to me to be less an insurance company than it is an advertisement company. Could you expound upon how you view the relationship today between businesses and their customers, and then how you took that view and showed it to your readers in a mirror (a mirror that seems to both exaggerate and at the same time reveal more truthfully the reality of the relationship)?
Max Massa: This particular line ("They don't know they want it . . .") is supposed to sound rather like the CEO is addressing an ad company because Caleb works in the publicity department and is, essentially, an ad man himself. But I'm glad that you reference this passage because there was a particular message that I wanted to convey with it, since it contains a cultural comment. If we were to forcibly reduce the totality of Apollo and Dionysus to a pair of opposing creative impulses, then Apollo would be "design" and Dionysus would be "inspiration." This is why the two are supposed to be in balance, because each one needs the other: inspiration without design becomes violent, colorful mashing without form or message. Of course, that wasn't what I was interested in exploring here . . . I was more interested in probing what happens when one has, conversely, design without inspiration.
In this specific passage, I was influenced by a concept of Dwight Macdonald's, which is his idea of "masscult“ and "midcult." Dwight asserts that prior to the late nineteenth century, all culture was "high culture" (in his terminology "highcult"), which simply means that it was culture that was produced by artists who had a specific, personal idea of what they wanted to create. He is also very quick to point out that the overwhelming majority of highcult production - written, visual, and musical art - is incredibly bad; all that the term means is that the practitioner was trying to convey his or her personal idea of what might be created. But, with the development of the printing press and the emergence of the penny dreadful as a genre, things changed and a new process of cultural production became possible. In this situation, he avers, the artist can be short-circuited out of the design process and the needs of the market made to stand in for inspiration. In his mind, this produces something qualitatively different from highcult, which is mass culture ("masscult", again, in his words), wherein the artist is degraded to the level of something like a typist: one who represents the disembodied desire of an inarticulate group, rather than his or her own individual, creative drive. To quote Macdonald himself, masscult "doesn't even have the theoretical possibility of being good" and "is not just unsuccessful art. It is non-art. It is even anti-art." He also adduces the idea of "midcult", which is masscult that is designed to look like highcult, but is ultimately still just market-drive pablum served on a prettier platter.
This was the reason why I made Caleb a graphic designer in an insurance firm: he is someone who, while - technically speaking - could perhaps be described as an artist, would never in a thousand years think of himself as such. He is excited by the idea of design documents and requirements, because they guide his work in a way that means he gets to short-circuit the uncomfortable side of his mind that wants to writhe in its own unbidden imaginings and just reach directly for expectation, instead. Of course, in this section, George is responding poorly to the images he was offered by the graphic design team because Vera has started to exert a mild Dionysian influence over them, and inspiration is creeping in (on the very next page, Caleb notices that his colleague Mona has been reading Vera's messages). Later on, of course, there are other descriptions of graphical work in the novel that reflect different spaces on the Apollo-to-Dionysus spectrum, and they should be considered separately, in their own context.
A terminal sat beside Caleb’s workspace with the five most popular images of the week displayed. They were:
a giant cheeseburger
Israel (outline thereof)
a football helmet
Randal Eldon Greene: If people end up talking about this book—and they should because it's not only fiction that will appeal to about everyone, but fiction I feel one could gain more from with each rereading—inevitably they will talk about Caleb's medical bills. While I can think of several examples of corporations owning the body parts of individuals in a fictional way, I have to say you played this grotesque trope for laughs. And it worked!
Max Massa: On the topic of rereading, I specifically had Cyril Connolly's observation in mind from Enemies of Promise: “Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once, and they require separate techniques.”
This is why I decided that it was important to have what you could describe as a "physical" narrative - by which I mean the actual sequence of events in which the characters participate and the choices that they make - that would be layered on top of the deeper "symbolic" narrative, which is the significance of their actions, proceeding along a different but more important line. As I said, the allegorical level of the story occurs in the character arc, but I don't expect the reader to realize this nuance in the first reading. This is how I satisfied Cyril's requirement for becoming literature.
And I believe that humor is important in its own right for two reasons. First of all, it reminds us of Dionysus, as he is the god of comedy. We cannot ignore that fact! But then there is also the (unfortunately?) greater issue of this being my first novel and there being the hard requirement that Max Massa find a way to write this thing all the way through to the end. Candidly, humor helped with that. I found that if I made elements of the story funny and pleasurable to the reader, they were also more pleasurable to me as the writer, and I was more likely to put the actual words on the page. And that needed to happen, one way or another.
I also think it's important to do some service to the occasional peruser who doesn't pick up your book for its perceived literary value, but simply because a family member or significant other is applying pressure. You should do what you can, as an author, to cater to the requirements of this sort of person as well, and humor is a good way of checking that box.
Randal Eldon Greene: The first book is always the toughest to write . . . unless you decide to write a second book. What did your writing process look like for House of Apollo?
Max Massa: I would say that there are two parts of this question: the way in which we conceive of an unwritten work and then the way in which we execute the vision we ultimately embrace. As a first-time author I sort of struggled with both, so I'll try to address these issues together.
The difficulty with the initial vision for a piece of long-form prose is that it has to be dynamic, limiting, and expansive. I know those three things seem like they wouldn't fit well together, but they really do. I'll address them separately below:
· Dynamic: This is the thing that separates narrative from expository writing . . . there must be a development or transformation over the course of the work, otherwise you're just trying to write an essay with character, which becomes obvious to the sensitive reader very quickly.
· Limiting: It is important that your idea of what you want to write have rails, essentially. Otherwise, starting from an intelligent beginning, it is possible to basically wander off on a random noodle of composition and end up somewhere utterly irrelevant.
· Expansive: Even given the importance of limitation in initial vision, it is also critical that there be room for random discovery and the kind of tiny inspirations that happen often with writing. Little things should be permitted to flourish.
Ultimately, I settled on a basic principle: the underlying, core vision for a book should be expressible as a single sentence that involves change or significant action. For example "a man learns to give up his anger" could be the basis for 850 pages of character-intense prose, and it would be equal to that task. Similarly "a woman tries to build a temple and fails in the attempt" has a great deal of potential and energy in it. But these two examples are very different from the sort of initial conception that traps a lot of aspiring authors because they struggle to tell the difference between narrative action and static situation. Vision statements like "there is a strange thing that happens every year on a special day" or "no one goes to the valley anymore" don't imply change and should be avoided. I think newer writers are attracted to this kind of thing because description doesn't demand the commitment that plot does and is essentially bottomless: more description is always, always possible.
When it came to the actual writing of House of Apollo, I focused on how each chapter would advance the greater drive towards the transformation the book wanted to create and then, within that narrower framework, permitted myself to be more organic. Focusing on the chapter as the basic unit of creative writing where I permitted myself to have freedom was something of a crutch; it was still very useful for me as a first-time author, because it also gave me a field within which I could set character goals without worrying too much about letting personal touches override the greater structure.
Randal Eldon Greene: Are you working on another book now? If so, what's its single sentence of change or significant action?
Max Massa: I am working on two books, actually: one is a novel that I got about a quarter of the way through writing and then put down because COVID depressed the buh-jeezus out of me, and the other is a translation of a collection of medieval Chinese fantasies by Niu Sengru (牛僧孺), a chancellor of the Tang dynasty in the 9th century. It wouldn't be fair for me to try to sum up Niu's work, which is highly disjointed because chunks of it are missing, but for my other novel, I'd say its single sentence runs thus:
A woman rises to excellence in her craft, only to find success to be as hollow as praise.
It's the imagined biography of an artist and is - ultimately - a comment upon the nature of language. But I don't want to say more about something I haven't finished yet, because that would be something of a promise and promises should not be made lightly.
Randal Eldon Greene: I too don't like to talk too much about what I'm writing—at least until I've finished the first draft. But I am looking forward to reading your next novel when it's published. Your translation is also something I'm intrigued by. Would you mind ending our interview with a sample of your translation from Niu Sengru's work?
Max Massa: It's hard to choose a section . . . I think I'll just go with the opening of “The Daughter of the Dang Clan (党氏女)” because it's story with an interesting idea behind it: many of the pieces in Niu's collection have strong notes of Buddhism or Daoism in them, and in this particular work the Buddha casts a long shadow. It's a murder mystery, where a killing occurs and then the victim is repeatedly reborn in the perpetrator's life, and attempts to drive him to ruin. As narrative, I think that's an engaging concept. But this will also showcase how important annotation is in the translation, since the world of medieval China is incredibly distant from our own and a lot of help is needed for the American reader to really get a reasonable grasp of what is happening.
Here's the text (it's still in draft, so wording is liable to change and I haven't put tone markers in for most of it yet):
The daughter of the Dang (党) clan was of the southern village in Zhichuan (芝川), belonging to Hancheng (韩城) county in the Tong (同) prefecture. (1)
But before all this, there was one known as Lin Rubin (蔺如宾), who dwelt in Zhichuan. In the first year of the Primal Peace, there was a traveler known as Wang Lan (王兰) who came with copper cash numbering in the millions to purchase tea, and lodged at his abode. As the years mounted, he had no friend or relation who came to visit. Then one day he took to his sick bed and Rubin – believing there would be no issue from his actions – slew the man. The abundance of his wardrobe, chattels, carts, trunks, servants, and attendants was such to resemble that of a duke or earl.
In that year there was born a boy, handsome and discerning, such that the prodigies even of Kong Rong (孔融) (2) and Wei Jie (卫玠) (3) could not compare with him. The family thinking on him decided that the pearl of the Black Dragon (4) or the jade annulus of Zhao (5) were not his equal, and so named him Yutong (玉童). (6) The expense of his board and raiment could come to several taels of gold in a day and when he was betimes unwell, the outlay on dances for the spirits and offerings to Buddha while the sun shone was exhausting, and yet paid without concern. Time passing, he grew to manhood by degrees and was permitted to come and go as it pleased him, daintily attired and with a well-fed mount. And so he mingled with the youth in music halls and wine shops, to delight in song and unleash himself at hazards, never at rest; even the madmen would defer to his extravagances. And yet when enlargement of his holdings would but weaken a little or the harvest be not plentiful, he would crave loans of others in expectation of the coming year’s bounty.
And here's the notes.
1. The Tong Prefecture was established in the mid-6th century AD and occupied an area in what is now central-eastern Shaanxi province. Under the Sui era of Great Enterprise, it was briefly known as the Pingyi Commandery (馮翊郡, Pingyi Jun).
2. Kong Rong (153 – 208 AD), in addition to being a poet and warlord, was one of the Seven Masters of the Era of Developing Peace (建安七子, Jian’an Qi Zi), a group of seven literati who were active at the end of the Eastern Han dynasty (25 – 220 AD). He and his entire family were put to death because of an insult he leveled against Cao Cao (曹操), a brutal general of the time who led the kingdom of Wei (魏) in the following era of the Three Kingdoms (三国, San Guo), which ran from 220 to 280 AD. A famous story of Kong’s generosity and selflessness in childhood is preserved, which tells of how he gave up larger pears to his older and younger brothers, satisfying himself with the smaller fruits. This story is known as Kong Rong Giving Up Pears (孔融让梨, Kong Rong rang li).
3. Wei Jie (286 – 312 AD) was renowned for great physical beauty in his youth, being known as the Man of the Jade Loop (璧人, bi ren). There is a famous saying that comes from his demise: Staring Wei Jie to Death (看杀卫玠, kàn shā Wèi Jiè), which comes from his biography in the Book of Jinn (晋书, Jin Shu): on account of his peerless elegance, Wei Jie was surrounded by people who desired to behold him wherever he went. In the end, the pressure of being stared at constantly, with no rest, drove him into such a state of distraction that he became ill and died from it. The term is now used of one who is greatly admired. He is considered one of the four beautiful men of ancient China (四大美男子, Si Da Mei Nanzi), along with Pan An (潘安), Lan Lingwang (兰陵王) and Song Yu (宋玉).
4. The black dragon referenced here is actually a literary creation of Zhuangzi, and it occurs in the Lie Yukou (列御寇) chapter of his book. The story tells of an impoverished family that gets by on selling woven mats, until the son goes diving in a deep pool and comes back to shore with “a pearl worth a thousand in gold” (千金之珠, qian jin zhi zhu). The father then tells his son to smash the pearl, as it could only have come from the chin of the black dragon at the bottom of the abyss, and its sleep is now surely disturbed. In this particular context, it is used only to indicate a precious object of great value.
5. The reference here is to an ancient treasure: the Jade Ring of the He clan (和氏璧, Heshi bi). It is noted in the Han dynasty history Records of the Grand Historian (史记, Shi Ji), where it is connected to the kingdom of Zhao. The narrative involves a 3rd century BC discussion between King Huiwen of Zhao (赵惠文王) and Lin Xiangru (蔺相如) about the plans of the kingdom of Qin to acquire the jade and is too lengthy to insert here, but emphasizes the object’s great value. After the kingdom of Qin violently united China in 221 BC, the annulus was recarved and became the imperial seal (玉玺, yu xi) of the new Qin dynasty; it was ultimately lost in the 10th century AD. The item is perhaps culturally analogous to the Hope Diamond, in the western context.
6. This name literally means “child of jade.”
The boy, it turns out, is actually Wang Lan reborn, and his intent is to bankrupt his murderer . . . I know I should not spoil these things, but this is only one story of many, and perhaps is gives a taste of what readers in the Tang dynasty found interesting.
I hope that's engaging to you. I also really appreciated the opportunity to discuss my work, and I love the format of your interviews. Thanks so much for everything, from one who truly means it.
Randal Eldon Greene: Thank you, Max. It was a pleasure to read your book. I'm glad you reached out to me about it.
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About the interviewer:
Randal Eldon Greene is the author of Descriptions of Heaven, a novella about a linguist, a lake monster, and the looming shadow of death.