Debut Author Snapshot: Maya Lang

Posted by Goodreads on June 3, 2014
Maya Lang dedicates her debut novel, The Sixteenth of June, to "all the readers who never made it through Ulysses (or haven't wanted to try)." James Joyce's beast of a novel intimidates some readers; for others, reading it is a labor of love. Don't worry; Lang's book about a Ulysses-obsessed family has no prerequisite. Taking place all in one day, The Sixteenth of June is set on Bloomsday—a worldwide celebration of the author, named after Ulysses' protagonist, Leopold Bloom—when the Portman family is preparing for its annual party, but first they must bury their grandmother. Lang's story follows the two Portman sons, Leopold and Stephen, and Leopold's opera singer fianc&eacutee, Nora, from funeral to party. New Yorker Lang, who is already working on her second book, shares some of the inspiration for her Joycean adventure.

"An icon reading an icon. I love that Marilyn Monroe has the book open to the last page, which suggests either that she's reading Molly Bloom's soliloquy or that this is posed. One never knows with Ulysses. The fact that she's at a playground makes it even better." (Photo credit: Eve Arnold.)
Goodreads: Why do you love such an impenetrable classic?

Maya Lang: It's funny—people often assume I love Ulysses, but at first I couldn't stand it. What prompted me to write this novel was that impenetrability. I was irked—irate, really—when I read Ulysses in grad school. I came to it ready to love it. I even prepared for it by reading The Odyssey in Greek! There I was, sleeves rolled up, as determined as could be, and I felt like a door had been slammed in my face. I found Ulysses punishing, arrogant, nearly unbearable. I wondered about people who claim it as their favorite book. Had they even read it? If I couldn't make it through those unpunctuated passages or decipher the references as a doctoral candidate, who could?

There's that great Groucho Marx line about never wanting to be in a club that would have you as a member. Joyce set up the ultimate exclusive club, with velvet ropes and burly bodyguards. People want to claim they've been in because it's so hard to gain access.

When I was writing my novel, I didn't want to replicate that feeling of anxiety. I wanted a novel that would be inviting and welcoming and warm, that would stand on its own terms and put readers at ease. No prerequisites required.

GR: Like Ulysses, your novel tells its story in a single day. Have you ever lived a similarly epic single day in your own life? What do you find compelling about this time frame?

ML: I love thinking about how much can be revealed in small moments. The so-called big days in my life have often felt anticlimactic. Life is revealed to us in the micro, I think.

I set the novel on a day when quite a bit happens because I wanted there to be dramatic action; I didn't want the reader to feel bored. That said, I think some of the novel's biggest moments occur between events—on the way to one, preparing for the other—which I think is how life unfolds.

"Much of the novel takes place on Delancey Place in Philadelphia, one of those quiet, lovely blocks with beautiful old brownstones. I imagined Nora falling in love with the house as much as with its inhabitants."
GR: Tell us about your inspiration for the triumvirate of Leopold, Stephen, and Nora.

ML: The first sentence of The Sixteenth came to me at a time when I wasn't looking to write a novel. I wasn't even writing fiction. But there it was: Leopold turns the volume up as the hail comes down, as if he can drown out its sound, the thudding so loud that Nora worries the windshield will crack and across it a giant web will bloom. I felt like a cat that had coughed up a hairball: What on earth is that?

I decided to take it seriously. Who are these characters? Who would name their child Leopold? I imagined a set of wealthy, slightly pretentious parents obsessed with Joyce. I could see them naming their two sons after the protagonists in Ulysses, Stephen and Leopold. It then felt plausible that Leo's fianc&eacutee would happen to be named Nora (like Joyce's wife) and would be a singer (like Molly Bloom in Ulysses). It's the sort of coincidence just strange enough to be true.

"When I came across this old email forward of my husband's, I knew I had to use something like it for the novel, which is set in 2004. I remember filling these out (or, at least, getting them) all the time back then. It made me realize how much less I use email for socializing/procrastinating now and how technology was on the cusp of change in 2004."
GR: Do you celebrate Bloomsday?

ML: Nope. I was once invited to a Bloomsday party when I was in my twenties and thought it was the most pretentious thing I'd ever heard of. I wondered why there isn't a Gatsby day, when we wave green glow sticks, or a Faulkner day, when we flicker the lights in August. My first Bloomsday party will be this year at the Strand [in New York City] for the launch of The Sixteenth of June. It's not something I ever would have imagined, and I'm deeply grateful for it.

GR: What's next for you as a writer?

ML: I just completed a second novel titled Phinney and Maude. It involves a female scientist whose last request before dying is that her friends and acquaintances write letters to her daughters, Phinney and Maude, about the mother they would be losing too young. The novel tracks different reactions to that request. Through them we get a portrait of Patty Oakes, enigmatic scientist, and the family she has left behind. This is a novel about women in science, gender expectations, grief, and how we don't really understand our parents as individuals—as people—until we are adults.

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message 1: by Diane (last edited Jun 04, 2014 07:01PM) (new)

Diane Meier Folks who haven't gotten through Ulysses? Well -I have a treat for you: "re;Joyce" – The brilliant weekly podcast series by Frank Delaney, that deconstructs Ulysses - line by line - with wit and flair and huge wisdom.

Go to or on to "re:Joyce" on iTunes. It is free, and gorgeous and fun - and folks all over the globe are tuning in and loving it. More than a million downloads - and Frank's promise to keep going for the 27 years he estimates it will take to get through the book!

Also - Frank will be reading, on the very Delancey Place in Philadelphia that Maya Lang writes about, for the annual Bloomsday celebration staged by the wonderful Rosenbach museum of rare books. It's a grand celebration.

Come join us there on June 16th!

message 2: by D.U. (new)

D.U. Okonkwo Te classics are great, but as long as we writers co strive to make our books memorable, we wll achieve the modern-day classic novel.

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