‘I always wanted to be a writer’

I always wanted to be a writer

Author Courtney Maum at her home in Norfolk, Conn. Maum lived in Sandisfield, where she settled in her late 20s and finished her first novel. She wrote “Costalegre” in her Norfolk home. Author Courtney Maum talks about her latest work ‘Costalegre’ and how her search for a literary life led her to France, Brooklyn and the Berkshires NORFOLK, CONN. — “Can I bring some notes down?” Courtney Maum had been lounging on her living room couch when she was asked about her navigation of fact and fiction in “Costalegre.” Published in July, the latest novel by the author of “I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You” and “Touch” reimagines a period in the lives of American art collector Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter, Pegeen, when the matriarch was attempting to extract her European holdings before World War II’s outbreak. Historically speaking, Guggenheim was known to have ushered artists into New York City during that stretch. But in Maum’s work, heiress Leonora Calaway hosts a group of surrealists and her 15-year-old daughter, Lara, in a slightly more remote location: a Mexican jungle resort along the country’s Pacific coast. Coupled with character names distinct from their inspirations’, this setting shift stirs uncertainty about truth and invention throughout the book, prompting the question that sprung Maum from her seat and up some stairs on this Tuesday morning. “Most of this stuff made it in,” Maum said after reemerging with an easel-sized pad in hand. She was presenting a page lined with several columns of handwriting, including one titled, “Characters.” Beneath this header, she had listed Laurence Vail (Pegeen’s father), Kay Boyle (her stepmom) and Djuna Barnes, among others in the expansive literary and artistic circle surrounding the Guggenheims at the time. She had also noted tidbits about some of their relationships. (“Max Ernst’s beloved who went mad,” Maum wrote, in part, of Leonora Carrington.) Maum had filled journals with her research before choosing their highlighted portions for the broader sheets. This reproduction allowed the author to memorize the most important aspects of her characters’ histories and led to “the most joyful writing experience” of her career. “I researched, I’d say, meticulously for a year, but I sat down and wrote that thing almost in one go,” Maum said. “It was almost like a channeling or something.” To achieve that intense connection with her characters, the author likes to work in isolation, primarily writing at a bedroom desk inside the Norfolk, Conn., home she shares with her husband, French filmmaker Diego Ongaro, and their young daughter. The location of her rural Connecticut abode, with its rippling backyard pond and rustic surrounds, also suggests a more abstract distance from the distractions of a literary nexus like New York City, where she and Ongaro resided before moving north. But Maum wasn’t an established novelist seeking refuge in the Berkshires when she arrived about a dozen years ago. Unlike many area arts figures who spent decades striving and thriving in New York City before […]

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