Welcome to the Hall of Mirrors, Andy!
Really? I thought debilitating self-consciousness was your thing.
Not anymore. I’m way past that.
OK, so should we just talk about the novel then—Contrary Motion?
What’s it about?
A divorced concert harpist in Chicago getting ready to audition for a dream job—principal harp in the St. Louis Symphony. He’s got a lot of problems—his father dies, his relationship with his new girlfriend starts to unravel, and his daughter is going off the rails.
What’s it really about?
Self-consciousness. Ambition. Death. Sex. Funny times. Parenting. The secret anxieties that I imagine terrify all men—though I can’t be sure, because men tend not to talk about their secret anxieties.
Is it unusual for a novel to have a harpist as a protagonist?
It’s totally unique. In the history of the novel, there’s never been a main character who’s a harpist—until now! Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of people I’ve read about: rancher, exterminator, police officer, astronaut, junkie, fashion model—not a one plays the harp.
What about Sasha in A Visit from the Goon Squad? She plays the harp.
. . .
So why did you choose to write about a harpist like this other novelist did?
. . .
There’s never been a main character who’s a harpist—until now!
I see. OK, then, Mr. Original, why a totally unique harpist?
Well, my wife is a harpist, so the instrument was on my radar. Harpists are the oddballs of the orchestra. (Not that my wife is an oddball!) You’ve got eighty-thousand violins and usually just one harpist. Who’s that solitary person with the big axe? Most orchestral harpists these days are women and gay men, and I wanted a straight male harpist to go against the grain of that. Is he a “real man” if he plays the harp? That helps the novel explore certain standards for male behavior: being strong and confident, being a breadwinner, being a good father, being great in bed, being professionally successful, etc.
But your protagonist is none of those things! Even your publisher calls him “dysfunctional.”
Well, “dysfunctional” is an ambiguous term, isn’t it? That could mean a lot of things.
Matt, the protagonist, is actually just a regular person, so he’s strong in certain ways and not as strong in others. He’s a talented musician, and he’s also experienced a lot of the challenges and failures that come from trying to do something difficult. He’s brave enough not to want to hide from that, and he’s neurotic enough that sometimes his responses to the stresses he experiences are not super healthy.
In fact, I wanted a lot of Matt’s troubles to come from within himself. My favorite narratives involve problems that come from both inside and outside of the character, as opposed to mainly outside, and for this book I wanted to push the inside problems more. I wanted to write about someone who’s straining to handle his inner crap. I think it’s important for readers to be focused there once in a while.
Plus, Matt’s sense of humor is a bit dark, and sometimes he exaggerates his sad-sackedness or what’s going on in his world to turn it into something funny.
Ha, ha. I guess I’ll have to set aside another ten hours to re-read your book and find the funny parts I missed the first time. Moving on, Matt’s six-year-old daughter seems as much of a whack-job as he is. What made you pick on a little girl like that?
Like a lot of kids, his daughter is having trouble dealing with her parents’ divorce. She’s a little high-strung and starts acting out. Her troubles are super painful for Matt, and he tries to deal with them even as he preps for the audition. He doesn’t want to be the guy who succeeds at the expense of his family or because his partner is doing all of the family’s emotional work.
Wow. What a hero. Helping raise his own kid.
Hey, as far as relationship flashpoints go, negotiating parenting responsibilities is right up there with fighting about money. Good stuff.
Did a newspaper clipping from your mother help inspire the novel?
Yes. My mom is a nurse and a hospice volunteer, and she once showed me a newspaper article with a photograph of a harpist playing a vigil at a dying patient’s bedside. I’m amazed by people who do service jobs because we’ve got such a wildly selfish culture. So I first envisioned Matt playing harp in a hospice, and then I set the drive to win the audition against that. I wanted to dramatize the tug-of-war between what people do for others and what they do for themselves.
Were there changes in audition practices in the 1970’s that altered the gender balance of orchestras and who played what instruments?
Yes. Orchestras used to be pretty much all male, but in the 70’s orchestras started using screens during auditions, so hiring committees couldn’t discriminate. And, what do you know, women started winning a lot more auditions! And this really interesting sorting process—who plays what?—started happening.
Matt is still in love with his ex-wife and desperately wants to sleep with her again. Are you jonesing for your ex-wife as we speak?
I don’t have an ex-wife; I’m jonesing for my real wife as we speak.
I bet now you’re going to say that you’re not even a musician.
I’m not even a musician.
Were you at least an English major?
I was an econ major and a law school dropout.
You mix together true and made-up stories about your experiences as a writer on your blog. Is it OK to lie and confuse people like that?
Do you like to talk about yourself or your work?
Oh, my god, I hate it!
What parting advice do you have for the twenty-first century male?
Close thy Esquire; open thy Contrary Motion.
ANDY MOZINA’S first story collection The Women Were Leaving the Men (2007) won the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. His second collection, Quality Snacks (2014), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Prize and other awards. His debut novel is Contrary Motion (March, 2016, Spiegel & Grau/Random House.) Mozina’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, McSweeney’s: The Small Chair and elsewhere. His work has received special citations in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, and New Stories from the Midwest. He is a professor of English at Kalamazoo College and lives in Kalamazoo with his wife, Lorri, and his daughter, Madeleine. Visit his website to learn more.