Maile Chapman proved she could write a (pretty good) novel after all

Maile Chapman
Photo: Wayne Wallace

Your book really doesn't reward speed-reading, I told first-time novelist Maile Chapman when we met for lunch at Gordon Biersch recently. I meant that as a compliment, and she took it as one. Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto (Graywolf Press, $23) is set in a Finnish women's hospital early in the 20th century, where there are strange goings-on, and the deep, wrap-around quality of the prose will frustrate the skim-minded reader. But it pays off for the reader who prefers to sink into a very specific literary sensibility.

Chapman is a Schaeffer Fellow at UNLV.

How did you arrive at the voice and style of his book?

It took me a long time to write it, and I think that might have something to do with the density of it. It took nine years. I started it in 2000. Because it took so long, I worked and reworked so many parts, layer after layer after layer. I wondered if anyone would be willing to read it, because I know it moves slowly in that way.

I based it on The Bacchae, a play by Euripides — I studied Greek drama. The one thing that I kind of didn't love about it was that you always knew what was going to happen. So even though I took on The Bacchae as a kind of structure ... I don't know if you're familiar with the play?

Not too much. I'm proof that you can get through 12 years of public school and six years of college and avoid Greek drama.

In this case, this is not a well-known play. It's a play in which there's an ecstatic women's religion, a mystery religion, and women leave the city and go off into the forest and do things, and no one is sure what it is they do. But they're unwholesome things, violent things, and no men are allowed to witness their rituals. They become intoxicated and wear animal skins and they kill animals by tearing them apart with their hands.

So men aren't supposed to witness or interfere with this. And when they do, that's where the tension comes from. So that was sort of the structure: a group of women, doing their thing, don't want to be interfered with; it may or may not be a good thing that they're doing, living on this hospital ward. Then an "interloper," quote-unquote, a surgeon who comes to help a family member, wants to know what they're doing. Is it a good thing or not?

Because I already knew where it was going, I wanted to make it as interesting a trajectory as possible, because the end was already decided.

How did you come to set it in that time and place?

I went to get a master's at Syracuse. I did a lot of research, and some of the books I was looking at were architectural books, architectural history. There was a picture of a hospital that I kept coming back to. It was built in 1930 and it looked like it had been built in 1973. There were pictures of the inside. The idea was that it had been built around the perspective of the patient in a pre-antibiotic kind of world. If you're laying on your back, the heating panel would be up here [gesturing toward ceiling] instead of over there [gesturing to one side]. The lights were all indirect.

And I thought, That's so cool. It was so progressive-seeming. Alvar Aalto was the architect. I just kept coming back to it, because it was so neat and clean.

I was also going through a phase with the movie The Shining, which I really liked. This idea of a kind of snowy atmosphere, clean and organized — not creepy, not your typical gothic setting.

And medicine; I write a lot about medicine. And the classical architecture thing — did it or didn't it affect what went on inside the building? And because the building was Finnish, I applied for grants to go to Finland, and I got one. That was in 2001-2002.

The Details

Maile Chapman and Vu Tran, reading from their work
April 15, 7 p.m., free
UNLV Barrick Museum Auditorium

That there are points in the book where the narrative directly addresses the reader, in the voice of the story rather than in the mouth of a character. What influenced those kinds of creative decisions?

It was the idea of a Greek chorus that sort of guides you through the story, and the idea of group of people who are in one environment and they're not going to be leaving that environment, and everything's going to take place in a slightly claustrophobic setting — that seemed to go along with the idea of a chorus.

Were you someone who always wanted to write?

Yeah. From really early on. I never had a game plan other than writing, but I didn't really think of that as a career. And then I realized, People can go to grad school for this. And so I did.

But I've been a short-story writer, always a short-story writer. I did not feel up to writing a novel. I thought it was beyond me. So I set myself the task: When I'm 30, I'll start working on a novel. And it was when I turned 30 that I started working on this.

What's it like to be a novelist in a time like this, where —

Where nobody's buying books?

I was going to find a nicer way to put it.

It's surprising. I kind of had other plans. I'm really interested in medical humanities, in things that have to do with hospital culture and humanities. I'm a facilitator for the literacy medical group at UMC; maybe teaching in a premed program, a class in the humanities — that kind of thing. What I'd really like to do is start a hospital-based [writing] program for stroke patients.

But the fact that somebody took the book was a wonderful surprise.

How did it come to be published? Is yours a Cinderella story or was it more of a long grind?

I had spoken to a lot of agents, and there just didn't seem to be a right fit. This seemed to be the kind of book that only somebody who really liked it would go to bat for it. I came to recognize "quiet" and "literary" to mean "slow" and "unmarketable." I got a lot of responses that said it's "wonderfully quiet."

But then a friend said, out of the blue, Wait a second, I know an agent who might suit your book. And he liked it and did everything he could to find a good home for it.

After nine years of working on it, how did you know when it was done?

There came a point when the only things left to do were the things I'd been shying away from because I thought they were beyond me. A lot of my earlier writing went over the surface of things instead of getting too psychologically close to characters. Because that was uncomfortable, I didn't think I'd be able to do that.

And then those were the only spots that were left undone, and I did them. That was the point — when I could no longer put off doing the stuff I didn't want to do.

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