Interview by Morgan Baker
Maryann Aita explores the concepts of intimacy, love, loneliness, and grief in her experimental collection of essays, The Little Astronaut: A Memoir in Essays, ELJ Editions, Ltd, 2022.
The collection revolves around her family and how she and they do or don’t face the challenges in their lives: the mom’s drinking, the sister’s eating disorder and the older brother’s cancer.
In a series of essays that sometimes include the dialogue of a screenplay, the rules of the card game Hearts, a report card, or drawings, Aita examines how she reacted to her siblings’ absences–that they could disappear forever, and how broken she is. She concludes while she may not have intimate relationships with her family members, she did with her cat Marzipan. She now lives with three new cats in New York.
Morgan Baker: Can you tell me about your cat, Marzipan? You actually start the book with Marzipan, and you end with Marzipan. That’s really interesting.
Maryann Aita: It was both intentional and unintentional. The first piece was something I wrote in an MFA class for an exercise to write about a small disturbance. Everyone took it a different way. I had this idea to write about the planets and space and there was no real meaning behind it. I just thought that’d be interesting. I added in a little bit about Marzipan waking me up in the morning to give it a frame. I put it aside and didn’t do anything with it.
Then I started putting together the thesis, which became the book. I went back to that piece and realized this is the perfect piece for the beginning. It had Marzipan, so that’s great. Then I actually had to put her down while I was finishing the book. I was literally maybe a week from turning in my thesis. It just felt like it had to be the ending. So, the beginning was intentional. And, I wanted to bring it back to Marzipan at the end of the book. I was not expecting and would have preferred not to bring it back that way.
MB: Why did you dedicate the book to Marzipan?
MA: It just felt right. She was a soulmate in a way. I know that sounds kind of cheesy. But I think that the book is about intimacy and love. There’s talk of soulmates and talk of people meaning so much to you. She meant a lot to me, and she was an important part of my life. I was really sad. It was really hard to write about, but it felt somehow, despite the book being about my sister and my mother, who do not know about the book, as far as I know.
MB: I was going to ask if your family had read it and what their reaction was? But now I’m fascinated by the fact that they haven’t. I teach creative nonfiction, so the conversation inevitably comes up about writing about people you know and care for. I’m really curious about your choices.
MA: I can tell you a little about them. I’m not saying this is the right choice. And I’m not saying it’s the best choice. It worked for me. My brother, who’s closest in age and is not discussed all that much in the book, knew early on. He and his wife asked me about my writing and I told them I was actually writing this book, and they asked to read it. I asked if he was upset by anything in it. He said, ‘I wouldn’t ask you to change anything. This is your story. And it’s different than mine.’
I wanted to tell my sister before it came out, but then she’s been relapsing for several years, because she was living near my mother. There was never a good time. I had to write this book. And I wanted to publish this book. I will tell her eventually. I’ve never told my parents I write about them. My mother doesn’t acknowledge her alcoholism. She objectively drinks a lot of wine and a lot of alcohol. Even my psychiatrist, as I mentioned in the book, has diagnosed her. I think telling her (about the book) would do more harm than good. At the same time, if my parents were to find out, I don’t know that they would read it. I just don’t know that they care enough.
MB: So, what would you say to students? If you came and talked to my students? What would you tell them? Everyone is writing about fairly sensitive topics.
MA: I would first acknowledge that because the book is experimental I chose to go with an indie press. So realistically, it is very unlikely that my family would happen upon this book. It’s listed on Amazon, but it’s backordered. There’s some safety in that. It’s not going to be a New York Times bestseller. Something to consider is how much publicity do you want? The other thing is, you don’t want to say anything that can get you sued. I did my best to avoid that by changing my family names. I added that note on truth up front, which, alone is not enough to get me out of a lawsuit, but it’s good.
MB: Yes, I noticed the disclaimer as it was, and really liked it.
The Disclaimer as Aita wrote it:
A Note About Truth: Most names in this book have been changed, and some identifying details adjusted to protect people’s privacy as much as I can without losing story. Dialogue, dates, and the narrative arc of events in my life may not be precise because I am not a computer. These are pieced together from my memories, which may be different than the memories of my family members. But memory is all we have to build the foundation of ourselves; it is possible for multiple truths to exist at once. I’ve done my best to capture my emotional truth, which may mean I remember rain on a sunny day. A weather report could prove me wrong, but if I was crying, isn’t it still a kind of truth? Every time we recall something, even in our own minds, it changes. The facts of memory are not equivalent to truth.
MB: You said earlier you had to write this book. Why? What were you investigating?
MA: I wrote it because in the most literal sense, I didn’t have anything else to write. I’m not very good at coming up with plots and creating stories. I’m not a great fiction writer. So anyway, it’s just kind of what I write about. I started writing nonfiction very early. I had a journal and I had all these word documents on my computer, that were, not a journal, but basically, the beginning of a personal essay. I just didn’t realize what it was. In college, I took a creative writing class, after which you could apply for a fiction workshop or a creative nonfiction workshop, and that sounded like what I wanted to write.
Once I started to look at it as a book, I started to curate the essays that would go in it, which included writing essays to fill a gap in this book. I was trying to solve, and maybe this goes back to why it’s dedicated to Marzipan… I was trying to answer the question: Is there something wrong with me? Or is this just how I am? Am I incapable of loving people and being loved? Or am I just normal? My idea of love is a little bit different, you know, so I think I was just trying to sort out am I so broken and dysfunctional? Or is it why I am the way I am? I think that that was solved for me.
MB: What’s your answer?
MA: Maybe I don’t believe in soulmates but I believe that there are things in the world that could be a cat or pet or friendships that fulfill me and that I do have love and intimacy. It doesn’t necessarily fit the typical get-married scenario. The answer was partially that maybe I’m a little bit broken in the sense that we all are and this is the way in which I’m broken. I have stronger platonic feelings for my cat than I do for some people. It’s because I was surrounded by a lot of potential loss. I had a mother who was volatile and cold. I can fix some of it. But I can’t fix all of it. But that’s okay. I can fix what I can fix. I found some power in that.
MB: One of the things that you play around with is sort of the concept of the astronaut, and stars and space. What does that all mean to you?
MA: I started thinking about things as outer space and then I started theming the essays. So not all of them have it but some of them do. Some of them use the space metaphor more directly. Some are sprinkled within. Then the title came. I was talking to a friend at dinner, and she said, you’re like an astronaut, you’re just like out there doing it. Oh my God, I thought, astronaut, that’s the name.
MB: What makes you most proud of this whole thing? Journey?
MA: What’s made me most proud actually is the reception to the book from individual people… probably the way to put it is that other people see something in this story that I wrote. And that is really important to me.
MB: I’m wondering whether it was freeing at all? To talk about mental health in this world that we live in?
MA: I do think it was freeing in some ways… that essay, (Leviathan) in particular, is obviously one of the more personal ones. They’re all very personal, but that was definitely about a topic I really did not talk to people about. I’m generally pretty open about these things. But suicide and thinking about taking your own life is a really sensitive topic. A lot of people really don’t understand it. That was a very scary essay to write too, because I didn’t know how people would react to that. Overall, a lot of positive comments have come to me through Twitter and online. I think a lot of people were really grateful to have someone try to explain, not so much depression, but like the idea of not wanting to live. That’s a really difficult thing to understand if you haven’t felt it… it was definitely freeing, and empowering to some degree too. I felt these things, and a lot of it is something I can’t control. But I can get help, and I can work through it.
MB: Have you ever tried talking to your sister? It seems you both had strong reactions to the family you were in, but reacted in different ways.
MA: The answer is, we’ve sort of tried. I’m five years younger than my closest brother and my sister is seven years older than me. We grew up very much like kids that lived in a house together, but not as a family. We ate dinner together. Then we went back and did our own thing. It’s almost like meal time at the dorms or something. The obvious metaphor was we were like planets orbiting a solar system.
MB: Can you talk about your publishing experience?
MA: I don’t know when I made the decision to go with a small press, but it was early on. I never really entertained the idea of agents. I queried a few but agents just aren’t interested in an unknown writer doing undefinable experimental personal essays collections. It’s the least marketable thing out there. I have a day job, so for me, I wanted to publish the book the way I wanted it to look. While I’m fine sharing the story, I don’t necessarily want a ton of publicity. I don’t really want to go on Jimmy Kimmel and explain my memoir. I learned about indie presses and they would give me the freedom I wanted. This was perfect.
MB: Can you tell me about the significance of incorporating the rules around the card game, Hearts?
MA: My mother, grandmother and I played. My brother, mom and dad also played a lot. There was a good amount of strategy but also a lot of luck. It was an intergenerational game. It’s fun and interesting. My grandmother would get really mean playing it, and it just felt it was a good metaphor. Playing the game of Hearts, you shed blood and shoot the moon, which is shockingly specific.
MB: Can you think of anything you want to tell me that I haven’t asked about?
MA: I guess the last thing would just be that you asked me earlier about what I would tell students about writing about your family. I was saying that you don’t want to get sued? Will they actually find it? I guess my piece of advice would be: Why are you writing this book? Who is it for? Is it for you? Or is it for them? You have to decide. If you need to write it for you, then maybe, there’s a reason you have to write it about them.
“I guess my piece of advice would be: Why are you writing this book? Who is it for? Is it for you? Or is it for them? You have to decide.” — Maryann Aita
The Little Astronaut: A Memoir in Essays is out now with ELJ Editions. Maryann Aita (rhymes with beta) is a writer and performer in Brooklyn, New York. Her debut essay collection, Little Astronaut, is out now with ELJ Editions. Maryann’s work has appeared in PANK Magazine, which earned a 2020 Best of the Net Nomination, The Porter House Review, The Exposition Review, perhappened, and The Daily Drunk, among other journals. She is the nonfiction editor of Press Pause Press — a journal with zero social media — where her fiction and nonfiction were previously published. Beyond her writing, Maryann often performs around New York City, including the one-woman-show My Dysfunctional Vagina. She has an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College and lives with three cats. Find her on her website, Twitter, and Instagram.