A Bit Contrived
features interviews with authors who exist about books that don't, with covers designed by people who do.
Please note: Cuddling, Smiling, and then Kissing does not exist, nor will it ever (probably)—it's been improvised during the course of the interview. If you really want to read it, do yourself a favor and check out Maxwell's debut, Echo of the Boom.
Release no. III:
Cudding, Smiling, and then Kissing by Maxwell Neely-Cohen
As per his choosing, I met Max in Fort Greene, at a Swiss-meets-Afghani restaurant that kept the awning of its former occupants: a rickety old Laundromat run by Hasidic Jews. In the back there was a secret passageway to a bar that only serves cocktails with one invisible ingredient. There was Max, yacking it up with the bartender, a Liam Neeson lookalike, punctuating some story by holding up a flaming five-dollar bill.
Upon noticing me, the bartender scowled, pointed to the entranceway and started a rebuke, but Max held up his hand, wiggled his fingers and said ‘He’s a friend’. I sat down, ordered a gin on the rocks on air, and we began.
Thanks for agreeing to talk with me Max. Upfront I have to say I’m in no position for chitchat, let alone an interview. I’m morose. The weight of the world has never been more apparent, Max, for I have just finished Cuddling, Smiling, and then Kissing, your first release since Echo of the Boom. The book is a leviathan of gravitas. The critics agree. Ariel Fontaine over at Publishers Weekly called it a “poignant discovery of what is, and isn’t, human”. Arturo Perez at Booklist said “if you’re looking for a poignant read, you can stop looking (because this one is real poignant)”. Dragoslav Ezekial at The New York Times called it “poignant”, and also said that it “evoked a keen sense of sadness or regret”, which, to me, seems just another way of saying poignant. What was your process in writing Cuddling, Smiling, and then Kissing? Was poignancy such an unalloyed goal for you?
Initially I spent a great deal of time collecting and sifting through the email and gchat transcripts of my own failed relationships, and then expanded that to the correspondences of my friends. While submerging myself into these personal regrets helped with some larger thematic questions, and were ultimately responsible for the structure and form of the book, they were insufficient as inspiration for the actual content of the book (which is something I always have trouble with). I wondered if my own autobiography was totally inadequate because my own relationships have been too successful, and also thought that this must extend to my friends.
It was then that I decided to expand my research to the declined and fallen past relationship correspondences of strangers. I realized that bulk metadata collection shouldn't just be the province of governments but those seeking literary genius. Obviously, given my upcoming civil trial my lawyers are insistent I cannot fully comment on the technical methodology with which I did the rest of my research, but once I was tapped into a veritable totality of human loss, regret, stupidity, desperation, and loneliness—the book wrote itself, as they say. Though in this case, given the content, it really did write itself. I was more of a supervisor. So the poignancy does not belong to me, but to all of you. And to the machines.
I have a friend who was, um, part of your 'collection'. He was the one who's band broke up because his girlfriend had also slept with the drummer, bassist and theremin performer. Neil Kramer. That's his name, which I don't have a problem saying because you also didn't change it. He was nonplussed by this. What was the thinking behind using real names? I understand you also can't comment on methodology, but this is a massive, massive undertaking. I assume you had a factory of unpaid interns from Bard or Vassar doing most of the real work?
Without the real names it would have been, well, a novel. I can see it now, it would have been Tao Lin (who I actually once punched in the face at a Bushwick party I was DJing in 2007) meets Adelle Waldeman (who once told me I was the "anti-Nathaniel P" while we ate chocolate chip cookies in the corner of a book party) or something. And I didn't want to do that. The real names allowed my agent to sell the shit out of it as a work of supposed non-fiction, even though the way the content interlocks is entirely fictional.
The real names also created a built in social network to leverage marketing the book. So many readers bought it just to check if they were in it. And those that were in it, even if they were angry, inherently helped promote it. I know I have been criticized for thinking too much about marketing schemes as a writer, but oh well, sorry that I care about people actually reading books.
I did borrow a number of small liberal arts school interns and graduates from James (Patterson) to do some of the selecting and analyzing on literary merit, but they lacked the technological chops to really attack the thing. Instead I had a team of interns from Carnegie Mellon, Stanford CS, and MIT help with the data collection. I had hopes the publishing industry might hire some of them, yet I know the salaries will not be competitive enough for them.
Digital technology meets literary enthusiasm—that's what I'm all about my friend. And thank the fucking lord someone's owning up to the fact this is a goddamn business. We're here to make some fucking Lincolns dance until we say the music ends (which, god bless reprints, will be never—or, more realistically, 70 years after you're in the ground).
Now that you've done the job of stripping away pretense, I'm going to do you one better, and ask the one question you never ask. What did you want Cuddling, Smiling, and then Kissing to mean?
I wanted to show people the truth Andrew. I don't think they know, we know how sad we all are. Cuddling, Smiling, and then Kissing means that to me. It in itself is trying to strip away pretense. It's not enough to have all these fictional characters who are sad. Let's show real people who are sad. No exposition about their sadness needed. Just the content of their lowest moments. What they send and what they receive.
I can reveal to you, right now, an exclusive: we are working on having the full text translated into emoji. I cannot wait for this. I think that will be the, or at least my, definitive version of the book.
We all are just pathetic little lemmings aren't we? And isn't that just literature? Hints and nods that everyone is sad, and so it's okay that me and you are.
Let's zoom in to the nitty gritty of the book now. One of the most magical and inexplicable parts of Cuddling was that you're able to thread out a very nice, very round plot arc. We have a classic love interest, good vs. bad, flawed hero reemerging as his best self story. Obviously I wouldn't ask David Copperfield to reveal his methods, but can you, you know, reveal your methods? What was the hardest part of the story to fabricate using your innovative storytelling?
You know, this was where I really got lucky. People now inhale so much media, television, movies, books, video games, that they attempt to live their lives in nice, round plot arcs. They try to be the classic love interest or the classic flawed hero reemerging as his best self. They have internalized the words of a thousand screenwriters and YA novelists into their every attempt at communication and self-realization.
In the case of Amy Zelesko, the most mentioned character in the book, and James Pham, who many readers have in fact deemed that "hero", they were just the best at living their actual lives as if they were supposed to act in tight plotted arcs. Or at least that's how they communicated. I doubt it was actually true. It just looked that way, which is why I included people like your drummer friend Nick. To show the chaos. Show the scope. Show that sometimes that hot human rights lawyer who you met at a friend's birthday party never ends up texting you back even though he brushed his hand against the small of your back at the end of the night, or how that cute yoga instructor who you met on Tinder and had one nice coffee with won't go to dinner with you because she didn't feel you had a "connection". And the senseless noise of that disappointment enhances the arcs that more closely follow our narrative expectations. They help.
The hardest part to craft was finding an actual murder, an actual death, to use to make the story more real. It took a full year sifting through to make those connections possible. I was worried I was going to have to wait years for someone to die in real life. But then I found James. And <spoiler alert> when James bites it after 300 pages of following him and that's the reason he doesn't return Amy's email. Boom. I knew I had gold.
There is that moment—every writer has it, I assume—where you say to yourself 'Boom. Now we're in business. It's showtime baby, boom.' It's profound and delectable to know when that moment came for you.
It's too often books are praised for being 'honest' or 'heartfelt' or 'brilliant'—who cares unless it's going to actually change things. To me, this is the first I've read in a while that I think could actually alter how we behave, how we view media consumption, how we consider community, privacy, the rights of the individual. If there's one tangible change you hope to imprint upon your readers, what is it?
Well the fact that there have only been those two lawsuits, one dismissed and the one pending, suggests a change. I wonder if people are overrating privacy, starting to think that that we are all watching each other might be a good thing.
But the change I hope to imprint with Cuddling is far more personal. I just really hope it leads to a greater degree of relationship honesty, and most of all, a sense of sexual empowerment that separates itself from pure hedonism. The role of alcohol in the book is very disturbing too (you might even say it's "sobering"). The heroes in the book, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, seem to be those who have figured out how to process their emotions without freaking out and taking MDMA or posting shirtless selfies for six straight weeks. So we will see.
First off, don't think that "sobering" pun was lost on me. It's in reference to the mention of alcohol.
It seems to me that the book reframes what we might call the age of social media as, in fact, a forbearer to an age where transparency is king, mirrors are unsmudged (using this as a metaphor) and we're finally able to peel back the personhood-covering layers that have wrapped themselves around us as the bulk of culture becomes more unwieldy, and its flavors farther reaching. Or maybe it's just like, fun to see people fucked up.
This has been enlightening Max, and we're almost out of time. Close us out: what was one thing you might have done differently in the making of Cuddling?
I do wish my publisher had let the entire text exist as fused and compiled screenshots, but alas, they were not up for that. But narratively, I wish I had managed to cram a greater metafictional element in there. The first thought I had for the book was to have those real people start fictionally reacting to the book's existence, but once I got going, well, it's probably better the way it is.
Thanks and cuddles.
Cuddles to you, Max, cuddles to you.
Cover by Joan Wong. Joan is a Brooklyn-based graphic designer and graduate of the Communication Design program at Parsons The New School for Design. She is currently working as a cover designer at Vintage and Anchor Books. Joan has also designed covers for Knopf, Penguin, Farrar Straus and Giroux, Simon and Schuster and Harper Collins.
Are you a graphic designer who wants to contribute a cover to A Bit Contrived? Get in touch: editor [at] 0s-1s [dot] com.
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