By Daniel Ford and Sean Tuohy
Author Liana Maeby’s novel South on Highland starts like this:
The pills spilled to the ground like debris from a tornado, landing in various wet spots around the toilet. No, they tumbled out like a wintry mix: Klonopin hail OxyContin rain, Vicodin snow. No, like that moment on the 101, somewhere around Barham, when accident traffic suddenly unclogs and the cars shoot forward at once.
Loosely based on Maeby’s life, South on Highland follows a young screenwriter who toggles between crafting inspired screenplays and ingesting more drugs than a Tim Dorsey character. The novel rumbles like a freight train powered by addiction and Hollywood. You’ll need a stiff drink while you binge read, but the prose will make you question whether or not you want to keep refilling your glass (or powdering your nose with a blast of cocaine).
Maeby took a timeout from promoting her novel to answer some of our questions about how LifeCall influenced her early writing, how the idea for South on Highland originated, and her ketchup phobia.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Liana Maeby: I’m sure I’ve retrospectively self-mythologized a little bit, but I really don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. In kindergarten, I was penning—or, more likely, Crayoning—stories about mermaids and self-aware unicorns instead of playing tag like a normal, fun kid. There was a satirical kid’s book at eight [I’m still tremendously proud of Earl Can Hurl (You Can Hurl Too)], and then some god-awful early novel and screenplay attempts as a teenager.
Both of my parents are writers, so I grew up surrounded by it. I basically just took up the family trade. We’re like dentists, but poorer!
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
LM: Okay, so honestly? That infamous “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” medical alert commercial came out when I was four, and I remember finding it to be the funniest thing I’d ever seen in my entire life. Like, I would just laugh and laugh and laugh, a little toddler sociopath. So that absolutely had an effect on my comedic development. God bless you, LifeCall!
On the lowbrow side, I also grew up really loving dudes like Faulkner and Nabokov and Baldwin. And I can’t undervalue how important it was for me to have been lucky enough to come of age in the era of Tina and Amy.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
LM: I do like to outline, but I’m also not a linear writer at all. If I have an idea for an out-of-order section, I’ll just write it. And sometimes I’ll write, like, the second and the sixth paragraphs of said chunk, and then go through and fill in the rest.
At the same time, I’m super precise and can’t move on from a section unless I’m happy with every word. Which is great in that I don’t have to do a ton of line editing at the end of the process, but also not exactly ideal when I’m cutting stuff out.
Music? Never. It’s too distracting. I need my brain to pure, like Wonder Bread, ready to sop up the world and expel it back onto the page (I wrote that last sentence while listening to music).
Sean Tuohy: Does your writing style change when you are writing a screenplay? Do you focus more on dialogue when writing a screenplay?
LM: Definitely. I love writing dialogue and structuring jokes, but there’s really nothing more satisfying to me than crafting a good prose sentence. So much so that in South on Highland, I actually had to go back in and add more dialogue.
ST: Be honest: Do you think my screenplay about commando puppies that break dance on weekends will sell?
LM: I mean, this isn’t a deal-breaker, but I’ve already identified a logic flaw…to a puppy, every day is the weekend.
DF: How did the idea for South on Highland originate?
LM: It started out as a story about breakdancing commando puppies, but then I identified a logic flaw and decided to look at our culture’s fascination with the addiction memoir instead. The book was initially conceived as straight satire, but became more of a novel as I went along—mostly because that felt more interesting and easier to sustain.
DF: Your novel is based on your life, but after all the writing, re-writing, and editing, how much of yourself—and your interactions with friends, family, and others—ended up in the final draft?
LM: Really, the book is only loosely based on my life. I wanted to take a kernel of truth and see that through to its logical extreme. So part of that process involved challenging myself to come up with fictional ideas, which has always been much more appealing to me than just writing fact-based stuff. I kind of figured out a way to live vicariously through myself, which basically makes me Elon Musk or Willy Wonka.
DF: Sean and I talk all the time about how writers can be self-destructive when they’re not working on their craft, or things aren’t going very well with their work. How did you go about putting those themes on the page and how did you tie it into our culture’s view of addition and sensationalism?
LM: This is, in fact, one of the main themes of my book. Our culture is set up to reward wild, sensational behavior as long as we come out on the other end to write (a book, a song, a movie) about it. And as writers, we can justify this kind of behavior with the pretense that we’re gaining necessary life experience. It’s a very dangerous cycle to enter, especially if things aren’t going well, because you’ve set yourself up with the perfect toolkit for utter self-destruction.
DF: B.J. Novak, whose short story collection we loved, said your book is “the kind of book that kids will steal from each other.” How does it feel receiving warm praise for a story so near to your own life?
LM: I mean, I’d rather people buy the book… stealing it won’t exactly put my dog through college. But really, it feels indescribably amazing to hear these nice things, especially from folks I admire. Every single kind word I hear about the book makes me feel so insanely lucky, like all those late nights spent in front of my computer have been worth it ten times over. Compliments: I recommend them!
DF: You also landed on a few “best of” lists for your Twitter account! How do you balance promoting yourself and your work on social media and actually sitting down and writing?
LM: I’d say a good self-promotion-to-actually-writing ratio is 80:20. But I’m not even on Snapchat, so this could feasibly go up to 85:15.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
LM: I wish I had something better than “sit down and write,” but I really don’t. Write, and rewrite, and don’t be too hard on yourself if something isn’t working. There’s a huge learning curve, and the only way to get through it is to keep your head down and work for longer than seems sane or reasonable.
The good news is that if you have a writer’s heart, the above will seem like a fun challenge rather than a chore!
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
LM: I have a ketchup phobia. Not as in, I don’t much care for it on a burger, but more that I can’t look at it or smell it without getting nauseous, and if some happens to accidentally end up in my mouth or on my body, I will have a full-blown panic attack. It’s really weird and inconvenient! Like, even using the stupid word in this answer means that I will have to lie down on the couch for 15 minutes to recuperate. You’re welcome, you monsters!