Cris Mazza is the author of a dozen novels and collections of fiction. A native of Southern California, she grew into early adulthood in San Diego County. She now lives 50 miles west of Chicago and is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her FC2 books include Disability, Girl Beside Him, Former Virgin, Revelation Countdown, Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?, and Animal Acts. This interview was conducted by T. J. Dietderich upon the publication of Disability in 2005.
Sometimes I am surprised at what unsettles people. I do not sit down with the objective to “shock” or make any attempt to be outrageous. That would be the business mode of a circus freak show. And yet I always think about the old cliché “art is meant to provoke” when I’m told that readers are disturbed or unsettled by my work. It means I’m doing something right. It also means that in the corners of “ordinary” everyday life where my characters live and work — i.e. the nurse-aides in Disability — there are situations and issues that the general public is unaware of enough that they are “unsettled” when that situation is revealed to them. We should all be “unsettled” like this at least once a week, if it means shaking away complacence.
Your newest book, Disability, takes place in a hospital for mentally handicapped children. The descriptions are very vivid. Have you had experience with hospitals like this one?
In the 70s, my first part-time after-school job was in a “convalescent hospital.” These facilities are now called long-term nursing-care hospitals, but commonly are still called “rest homes.” The last wing of this small facility had profoundly retarded, severely physically handicapped children, ranging in ages one through twenty. I earned minimum wage (starting $2 an hour), had no training whatsoever, and was responsible for the basic care of eight of the children, which included hand feeding, changing diapers, changing beds, some minor health care, and carrying out their prescribed physical and occupational therapies.
On your website (www.cris-mazza.com) your biography says that you have become interested in the concept of place with regard to your newer works like Girl Beside Himand Homeland. Does Disability also fall into that category?
Disability is a story I tried, various times, to write over the past thirty years. I wasn’t able to successfully do it until I removed myself completely and created characters who could see and do what I saw and did, but had completely different lives and concerns from those I had at the time. But this also means the germ for this story began long before my interest in place. So while it does take place in California, place is not fundamental to the novel.
You’ve been involved in editing postfeminist works like Chick-Lit and Chick-Lit 2: No Chick Vics. Do you find that postfeminism affects your own work, and in what way? Do you consider yourself a feminist, post- or otherwise?
I don’t know if there’s a woman working in this century who can claim no connection with feminism. Without what happened in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, there might not be as many opportunities as there are for women. As simplistic and old fashioned as that sounds, it’s true! If traditional (angry) modes of feminism have outstayed their welcome in American society, that doesn’t mean they didn’t make vastly important impressions on our world. Postfeminism doesn’t mean anti-feminism or let’s-undo-feminism, as some people seem to want to assume. “Post” means “after,” and it’s a good question: what now? Yes we’re still fighting stereotyped gender roles, unequal pay for equal work, etc., but we’re also smart enough now to see and understand what’s going on. We (women) need to turn our attention to what we can improve in ourselves to help continue to define and refine what it means to be female in America. So my work does not focus on women-as-victims or men-as-perpetrators; I try to look at both as flawed, sometimes weak, “victims” of their own instincts as much as anything else, often making all the wrong decisions.
Your last collection of short stories, Former Virgin, revolves around women’s issues as well. Nearly all of these stories deal with destructive (or at best, disturbing) relationships between men and women, and the women characters can sometimes be seen as perpetrating their own victimization. The example that comes to mind is the first story, “The Cram-it-in Method,” where the narrator witnesses her roommate’s spiral into a relationship/engagement that seems distinctly unhealthy. Can you tell me why these women characters continue on like this in your work?
I don’t see it as my responsibility to create characters who are any better than the real people around me. I don’t understand why writers are expected to show the foibles and messes people make, call it “drama,” and then fix it and make it happy and healthy. My characters are brought to a place where they can achieve, sometimes for the first time, some self recognition, some glimmer of realization of who they are and what they’re doing to themselves. That’s more than most real people have.
You have written numerous novels and short story collections. Which form do you prefer for your work, and why?
I write in whatever form is best for the material I am working with. This goes for whether it’s a novel or short fiction as well as what kind of “form” the piece will have. Recently I finished a story with “embedded” text (text boxes) carrying part of the story. I didn’t plan ahead of time to do this, but when the effect I wanted needed something that regular left-to-right text couldn’t give me, I looked for a form that would.
Are you working on any new project right now that you can tell me about?
I just finished a collection of short fiction called Young in the 80s. Most reminiscences of the 80s only echo mainstream media’s generalized summary of the 80s as the decade of excess, the decade of consumerism, of superficiality, of the me-generation. What is usually missed, forgotten, or disregarded by the emblematic popular synopsis is that there were other people, a lot of people, many of them in their 20’s — out of college and even further out of high school — who were struggling, and not just financially: They were often just finding out what they were going to want; or they were, in starting out, already where they were going to end up.