In the process of writing his second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, Alexander Maksik had to sift through various characters before finding Jacqueline, the Liberian refugee stranded homeless and alone in the coastal tourist towns of Greece and the anchor for his book. As Maksik moved her through her story, recording her struggle from one meal to the next, one temporary shelter to another, all the while uncovering her horrific past in a country filled with unspeakable violence, the author found himself falling in love with his creation. That love allowed him to weave a character so deep, so complex, that the reader surrenders to being dragged through one painful memory after another in hopes of finding resolution.
How does a writer create a character? What steps did Maksik take to piece together a compelling third-person point of view? An author makes many choices before settling into his or her novel’s voice and characters. We asked Maksik to uncover his process for pinning down those sometimes elusive concepts.
Where did you draw the inspiration for A Marker to Measure Drift?
I’ve had a long interest in immigrant stories. I was always interested in the stories of people who had given up one life for another life and had suffered quite a bit in search of a better life. Living in Paris, I spent a lot of time in the north of the city where there were a lot of new immigrants. I talked to so many people who had gone through various ordeals for the privilege, if that’s what it is, to live in Paris and to work there. I also saw the way that they were treated, especially West African and North African immigrants, by the Parisians. I’m generalizing, but there is a dramatic level of segregation and prejudice there. But originally, the character was a man, and he was going to be from Senegal, and he would move from Senegal slowly north until he ended up in the French Alps. That ended up as a short story that I published in Harper’s, which turned out to be a Mexican man moving his way north from Mexico and ending up driving a Snowcat in the mountains of Idaho. I decided that I couldn’t write about someone who would naturally speak French and not English, so I started looking for countries in Africa where English would be a primary language. I remembered that I had been interested in Liberian history very casually. I went back to reading about Liberia, and I was reminded why I was interested. Part of it is the connection between the United States and the formation of Liberia. It’s the only American colony in Africa. The fact that it was formed by former slaves was compelling. But I didn’t set out to write a book about a Liberian woman. It was just part chance and part something else I can’t quite identify.
You mention the formation of Liberia and its relationship to the U.S., but you don’t touch on that in the book at all. Why did you choose not to include those details?
I wanted the reader’s experience to be as close to Jacqueline’s experience as was humanly possible, or authorially possible, so I made an effort to excise any information that wouldn’t naturally be revealed by the character herself. There were times when I drifted into historical explanation, but that seemed to serve my insecurity as a writer more than it did the project itself. What she knows, she knows, and to explain the history would be to break from character, and I wanted it to be a completely immersive and intense experience for the reader that was deeply personal through Jacqueline’s eyes.
The character Bernard, Jacqueline’s past lover, has a strong presence in the book, as do her deceased family members. He is the only person left alive, yet she doesn’t try to contact him. Why did you make that choice?
For the same reason that Jacqueline doesn’t try to contact anyone else. There are people in the U.K. she could contact and I think we can take for granted that there are other people in the world that she knows who have resources. But she doesn’t, primarily out of pride and secondarily because she is so numb at the beginning and so angry. Also, I think there’s an aspect of her that feels complicit, not only in what has happened to her family but also what has happened to her country. For me, the idea of the book is that this exile is self-imposed, and she wants very much to recreate her life on her own as an act of independence. She doesn’t want to rely on anyone else, and she has been harmed for that reliance and that faith and that trust [in the past]. Whether or not she will ultimately contact the people that she has to contact I would rather leave to the reader.
How do you balance the present with Jacqueline’s flashbacks and deep inner thoughts?
I like the idea of her present life informing and inspiring memory, and I think the novel is really about that interplay between present life and memory. She tries, although not very successfully, to suppress memory. How do you move through a life and actively decide which memory comes to you and which doesn’t? It’s a losing battle, that one. So I tried to have memory come based on her immediate experience. A smell would invoke a person or a moment in her life. That was always the idea that the physical world would return memory to her. Whether it was something that she sees, the sunset, a smell, the taste of food, that was the way that I wanted the past to return to her.
You mentioned that as part of your editing process you read your work aloud. Do you also have other people read your work either aloud or on their own?
I’m fortunate enough that I have a few very good friends who are exceptional readers, and I send my work to them. I would never ask them to read my work aloud, that seems a step too far, but I do have one friend in particular who, incredibly, likes to listen to me read. That has been helpful even well before I had published anything. It’s an incredibly powerful thing for me to be able to read for 20 minutes, a half hour, sometimes even an hour, and she – she’s an artist – will work while I’m reading to her. I can hear the problems so much better than I can when I see them on the page.
Does she notice things you don’t about your own writing?
Yes. Not linguistically so much, but in terms of plot, in terms of character and in terms of the accuracy or the probability of a character saying one thing or another thing or doing one thing or doing another thing. She is very astute when it comes to that. And she seems to be able to identify those problems naturally; it doesn’t take much effort. I think that comes from her being an excellent reader and somebody who loves literature and loves fiction and has read a great deal. In the same way that a writer has instinct, a good reader has instinct. It’s not necessarily explainable, but something rings false. If she says that it rings false, I take for granted in most cases that it does. Sometimes we argue, but in my experience, she’s almost always right. Or maybe she’s always right, and I only agree with her most of the time.
When you talk about Jacqueline, it very much seems like she’s real. What was your process for creating her character?
I experimented with various voices with different approaches to this story and, like I said, in the beginning, I thought I was writing a story about a man, but I came into this voice as I come to a lot of voices when I’m writing. You just find something that works, and how that happens is not entirely clear to me. But one thing that I absolutely do know is that at the time I was beginning to write this book, I was studying Chekov with the writer Allan Gurganus. He was emphatic about the importance of empathy and the importance of loving one’s characters and never humiliating them. I knew it intellectually, and I knew it from an academic standpoint, but I never really understood what it meant to love one’s characters until I started writing this book, and I came to that voice. If I was to spend three years with her, it was important that I cared about her in a way that I had never cared about another character because it was such a close third person. I was able to do that, happily, and I really did sort of fall in love with her. I thought about her all the time, and I imagined her waiting for me to move her along when I wasn’t writing. It was this strangely obsessive, highly intense experience. It was a little unsettling, but I learned a great deal about writing because I was capable of falling in love with a fictional character. That obsession strikes me as probably unhealthy outside of my writing life, but inside my writing life: really, really healthy. I like the idea that everything I write, I hope, every novel that I ever write, will include that kind of love.
What would have been lost had you written in first person?
You lose that little bit of space to move around the character. And that seems pretty essential for this book. I needed Jacqueline to be outside of herself, because I was so intent on not including, “she thought,” and I wanted her mother to be there but only through Jacqueline’s mind. The best answer is it allowed me a little bit of necessary space. I think about it in filmic terms, and I have two feet to move the camera around her. If it had been first person, I wouldn’t have had that.
The last writer we featured in this section was Bill Cheng who wrote Southern Cross the Dog. We discussed his authority to write as a southern black man from Mississippi in the 1920s, and yet he’s an Asian American man living in Queens. We could have a similar discussion about your novel. What are your thoughts on the need to write from experience?
While I understand the concern, I think a writer should be able to write about whatever he or she wants to write about, and the judgment, the criticism should be entirely focused on the work. It makes no difference to me whatsoever what [Cheng’s] background is. I feel very, very strongly about this. It is the work that should be judged, and I don’t mean that only in terms of fiction: art, music or whatever it is. Either I’m moved by a work of art, or I’m not. I know this is a point of contention for a lot of people, and I like the conversation. It’s an interesting and important conversation to have, but finally, if a work is a failure, it just doesn’t matter who wrote it, or who composed it, or who filmed it. Being of one origin or another does not make you a better artist, or a worse artist for that matter.
Megan Kaplon is an editorial assistant at Madavor Media. She is a graduate of the writing, literature and publishing program at Emerson College in Boston.
Here’s the first page of Section II of A Marker to Measure Drift.
How did Maksik do? What do you notice about his narrative?
The temperature was falling. There were decisions to make, an unrelenting present pressing down on her, and all she wanted then was for Bernard to draw the sheet and the thin cotton blanket over them both, to feel his knees fit behind hers, to feel his chest against her back, to close her eyes against her rotting country, against the coming night, against the rising wind, against this bench, against the inevitable, cold red sunset, against the bus driver’s eyes and the guide’s oiled legs, against her own blathering mother, against Safia’s eyes, against those ghost boys and their jackal father.
But all the wanting in the world, her mother reminded her, will leave you with exactly what you have.
And it was true. For all that desire, a desire that hung heavy and mean in her gut, she remained where she was: holding herself in her own arms, her skin turned to gooseflesh, while the earth rolled back from the sun with devastating speed.
And it was the speed, if nothing else, that provided some solace. For if it moved like that, it would always move like that, and somehow, because of it, things change, somehow things end.
Look, her mother said. You are not a child. You may not sit here wishing. We don’t have time for that kind of self-indulgence. The problems are immediate. Where will you sleep? She looked up from the cutting board and pointed a paring knife at Jacqueline, holding it like an ice pick, not to slice but to puncture. Tonight? Where will you sleep?
It could not be there in the park on that bench. The path was crowded with tourists. So she forced herself up and descended back into town to find a shop, a place to buy food and water, and then to find a place to sleep.
And that would be all she’d think about.
First the food. Then the bed and nothing more.
Excerpt from A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik reprinted with permission from Alfred A. Knopf.