Page Turner: Meredith Maran

The prolific author and journalist mines her personal life for fascinating material.

Page Turner: Meredith Maran
Photo By: Lisa Keating Photography

Meredith Maran’s first memoir, What It’s Like to Live Now (1995), covers a lot of personal ground: from her childhood in New York City, to her 1960s social and political activism, to marrying a man, having children, and getting a divorce, to becoming intimately involved with women.

Today, Maran, 60, lives in Oakland with her wife, Katrine Thomas, whom she has been with for 15 years. The two were married the day before Prop. 8 passed in 2008. Maran has two sons and a grandson.

What It’s Like to Live Now is described in Library Journal as an attempt “to reconcile her activist ideals of the 1960s and 1970s with her life today and shows us clearly how her life has been and is still shaped by them.”

Lesbian and bisexual readers of What It’s Like to Live Now would, Maran says, come with a copy of that book to her other readings and book tour events. “This happened consistently, the most memorable occasion being when I was touring for my 2003 nonfiction book Dirty. I was speaking at a theater in Seattle, and after my talk a woman about my age came up to me with a copy of every one of my books in a canvas bag—including the book I published in 1970, and didn’t own a copy of, and hadn’t seen since! She actually gave me her copy. It was moving to me to know that writing a memoir about raising kids in Oakland as a lesbian mom evoked such loyalty that readers would follow my career through several books that had nothing to do with that topic.”

This year, Maran published her 11th book, A Theory of Small Earthquakes. It’s her first novel, and she hopes those same readers will reacquaint themselves with her through this work. “Writing A Theory Of Small Earthquakes felt to me like coming home to the readers of the memoirs I published in 1995 and 1997,” Maran says, “and I hope they’ll come home to me!”

Well-received in everything from Reader’s Digest and Ladies’ Home Journal to People magazine, A Theory Of Small Earthquakes is, according to Maran, a family story spanning two decades, and is set against the social, political and geological upheavals of the Bay Area. Eager to escape her damaging past and chart her own future, Alison Rose is drawn to Zoe, a free-spirited artist who offers emotional stability and a love outside the norm. After they’ve had many happy years together, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake deepens fissures in the two women’s relationship, and Alison leaves Zoe for a new, “normal” life with a man. Alison’s son is the outcome of both of these complicated relationships, and the three parents strive to create a life together that will test the boundaries of love and family in changing times.

  “A decade ago, a friend told me a true story about such an untraditional family, whose existence required so much daily forgiveness on the part of all involved, I thought, ‘If only I were a novelist, that would make a great plot,’ ” Maran recalls. “As I watched the story unfold in real time, in my friend’s real life, the itch to write it finally overcame my fear of attempting a novel. After a lifetime of writing only nonfiction, that fear was epic—and, as it turned out, well-founded.”

  A Theory of Small Earthquakes “took two years to write, five years to rewrite, and many gnawed fingernails to sell to a publisher. And it’s been the most thrilling writing experience of my life,” says Maran.

  The book was not an easy sell. “My agent shopped the first version of the novel in 2006, and about 15 editors, all of them female, said they loved the book but didn’t love the lead character, Alison, because she wasn’t ‘likable,’ ‘sympathetic,’ ‘relatable’—all euphemisms for ‘nice.’ I suspect that Alison’s active bisexuality was a factor they didn’t want to mention, as well,” says Maran. “It was crushing to hear this, especially since I’d written a story for More, years before, about male protagonists who were assholes, when female protagonists were not, and are not, allowed to be much more interesting than ‘nice.’ ”

  The book finally landed with the indie house Soft Skull Press, a publisher Maran says, “was determined to position it...as a love story—not a gay love story, or a bi love story, or a ‘normal’ love story, just a love story.

  “My hope is for the largest possible number of people, including people who don’t agree with me, to read my book. I want my book to be an enjoyable as well as a thought-provoking read. It’s not a Great Work of Literature, but it’s the kind of book I like to read, with compelling characters and a twisty plot and a deep examination of what it means to love. So when one reviewer called it a ‘beach read,’ I took that as high praise!”

Another reviewer said the novel “hits every possible stereotype on the subjects of feminism, liberalism, and lesbianism.”

Maran, being “an incurable and impractical optimist,” took that to mean that the book “ ‘hits’ stereotypes by rendering them as the ridiculous, and also sometimes true, generalizations they are. I assume my readers are smart enough to know the difference between poking fun at stereotypes and perpetuating them,” she says. Elated to have published her first (but not last) work of fiction, Maran says, “I stopped writing memoirs at the request of my family.”

Having had “several long-term relationships with dudes before marrying my husband in 1974,” Maran also had “several long-term crushes on chicks, none of which was consummated until I finally got up the nerve to cross Sexuality Street. I’m sort of amazed when I compare my coming-out process in the early 1980s to the process of bi and lesbian girls coming out these days. I’m aware of the importance of keeping our oral herstory alive, reminding our young ’uns of how we collectively got where we are now. That’s one reason I wrote the novel—to bring life to the past, and help younger people, LGBTQ and het, understand what a huge factor sexual orientation was as recently as 20 years ago.” (meredithmaran.com)

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