By Daniel Ford
I plan on gushing about Nicholas Mainieri’s debut novel The Infinite in greater detail in December’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar,” but I’ll say this: It's one of the best debut novels I’ve ever read. Everyone should buy the book and read it while scarfing beignets and downing coffee.
Mainieri talked to me recently about his early love of storytelling, how his writing process has evolved, his decision to get an MFA, and what inspired The Infinite.
Daniel Ford: Tell us about your origin story. How did you become a storyteller?
Nicholas Mainieri: I always liked to write stories. I liked that more than speaking them. We had an old typewriter in the house when I was a child, and I found myself retelling stories I’d seen in movies, that sort of thing. Then, when we were given free time to draw or read or whatever in grade school, I’d spend it writing in the back of my notebook. I remember mentally planning stories during recess, knowing I’d have a half hour at the end of the day to write them down. It was just a fun thing, I thought. I imagine a lot of writers had those impulses, growing up. I didn’t discover that storytelling was something one could take “seriously” until I was in college. I’d heard somewhere that to be a writer you just had to get up and do it every day, so that’s what I started doing.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
NM: For a good few years of adolescence, I read Stephen King almost exclusively. Character, conflict, structure—King’s work was instructive before I realized it. Cormac McCarthy, Leslie Marmon Silko, Ralph Ellison, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz, Raymond Carver, Breece D’J Pancake, Stuart Dybek—these were some of the writers I discovered right around the crucial time when I was turning to storytelling as a way of life. Once I had some idea of what I was looking for, my reading tastes tended to especially gravitate toward writers I thought of as interesting stylists.
DF: When you actually sit down to write, what’s your process like? Do you outline, listen to music, devour beignets?
NM: I had some beignets just the other night! Highly recommend Morning Call in City Park when you come to town. Sadly, beignets would likely be an unsustainable part of my process (though I’m willing to give it a shot). I’m an early morning writer. When it is still dark outside, when I am still a little fuzzyheaded from sleep. The voices of doubt are quietest then. When things are going well, I’m up and writing every day. I don’t outline because I like the process of discovery, but I usually keep an open notebook beside the keyboard and fill it with barely legible notes and reminders as I go. When it comes to rewriting, I can do that any time of the day. But for creation, early mornings are best.
DF: There’s an ongoing debate about whether it’s worth it or not to pursue an MFA. You earned yours from the University of New Orleans, so I’m interested to know how you made your decision.
NM: At UNO, I was welcomed into a place that wasn’t pettily competitive or designed to turn me into someone’s cookie-cutter idea of a writer or anything like that; I found a community of hard-working artists that cared about one another and one another’s work. Even while applying to MFA programs, I was pretty uneducated in terms of what they actually are. But UNO turned out to be exactly what I needed, and I imagine that my development as a writer was expedited by such an intensive, artistically focused environment with a built-in audience. I think it would’ve taken me much, much longer to learn certain things about the relationship between the written word and the reader had I not been through an MFA program. And all this before mentioning the many peers and faculty members who became great friends and mentors. As far as the whole MFA debate goes, I don’t know. It’s nice, certainly, if a grad program will provide funding or a tuition break, as that amplifies the worth of the MFA as I see it: an amount of time that one isn’t likely to find otherwise.
DF: What’s the premise of The Infinite and what inspired the tale?
NM: Jonah and Luz, two young people whose histories are informed by loss, meet and fall in love in New Orleans. Luz, who is from Mexico, came to the city with her laborer father in the post-Katrina construction boom; Jonah is born and raised. Both of their lives have been largely shaped by loss, and they find both refuge and hope in each other. When Luz becomes pregnant, however, her father sends her back to Mexico and her grandmother. When Jonah doesn’t hear from her, he sets off on a road trip to visit. Unbeknownst to him, Luz’s homecoming has derailed amid drug war-related violence, and she is fighting to survive.
I had observed a teacher-friend’s classroom in a local high school that had been marked for closure by the city. The school was a pretty chaotic place, the drug trade and attendant violence spilling into the hallways dramatically and often horrifically. In those hallways, though, I met a bunch of funny, smart, and resilient kids who were simply caught amid some tough circumstances. The characters started chattering in my head soon after that.
DF: How long did it take you to write the novel and what was your publishing journey like?
NM: I wrote the first words in the fall of 2010 (the novel is set, mostly, in the spring of 2010). All told, I think the first draft and a bunch of rewrites took me about five years, including finding a home for it. I’m very lucky to have an agent and editor both who understood the novel from the beginning, who saw it as I saw it. It all took as long as it needed to take, the book somehow winding up in the hands of its perfect caretakers. And seeing the final thing in print is a real joy, but it’s also an extraordinary relief—to know that all that time spent writing, and thus separated from my wife and friends and family, amounted to something.
DF: You tackle some pretty big issues for a debut—both post-Katrina New Orleans and the Mexican drug war. How much research did you do before writing the book, and how did you decide on the themes you wanted to explore?
NM: The key experiences that informed the writing can’t be considered research because I had them before the idea for the novel ever occurred to me (a couple summers spent studying in Mexico, moving to New Orleans, visiting the local high school, etc.). But, they created for me a number of memories, impressionistic and backlit with emotional pulse, that lingered and resulted in questions. I wondered about what I’d seen or heard from people. Somewhere in there the novel was born, and so I talked to people and, chiefly, read many things—about the drug wars, about American appetites, about the immigrant experience in New Orleans after the flood.
DF: I love your main characters’ dynamic, which is established right from the get-go. How did you go about developing Jonah and Luz, and how much of yourself ended up in them?
NM: Thanks! In writing young characters I thought an awful lot about how we discover things like love and violence and loss in the world—discoveries we often make when we are young. So, in the abstract, that feels derived from my experience, what I know of these things. In the details, however, neither character has a life that resembles my own. I’m a believer in putting characters on the page and letting them act and interact. I try to bring as much imagination, intelligence, and respect as I can to them, and go from there. The opening pages were written later on in the process (maybe even after a draft had been completed), after I’d discovered the kinds of things that were important to both Jonah and Luz.
DF: The Infinite has generated praise from authors (including Writer’s Bone favorites M.O. Walsh and Philipp Meyer!) and plenty of media outlets. What has that experience been like, and does it give you more confidence as a writer going forward?
NM: It’s exciting! But it is also a scary thing when the first people who are reading your book are authors you love! I was fortunate enough to receive kind blurbs from a handful of them—and that remains one of the more meaningful parts of the whole process. I’m still searching for adequate ways to say thank you. Confidence…maybe I feel more confident, I don’t know. Blurbs or reviews or whatever, they at least give me a bit more to combat those negative voices that arise inside my own head while writing.
DF: Speaking of going forward, what’s next for you?
NM: Well, two things. I’m working on a new novel and happy to be doing so. Transitioning out of the headspace required by The Infinite was difficult in some respects, but finding a new story to tell is exciting. I’d say more about the project but it is still early yet and I’m superstitious about that sort of thing!
Secondly, my wife and I have been working on another fun project that is based on her experience tending bar in a few iconic barrooms and my experience drinking in them. We’re hoping to be able to do something with that book soon.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
NM: Get up every day and do the thing. Don’t rush. Every word you write is necessary, regardless of which ones end up in print.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
NM: Crystal Hot Sauce is my favorite hot sauce.