In her debut novel, Em’s Awful Good Fortune, Marcie Maxfield’s vibrant prose comes to life in the sarcastic, cynical, thoughtful voice of the narrator Em, who isn’t afraid to say what she’s really thinking. It’s not hard to imagine that Marcie, like Em, is a force to be reckoned with, just open up the book and see. Maxfield has also composed an award-winning play, Girls Together Always, and acts as a mentor to teens in LA, inspiring youth through creative writing.
Mel Rosenthal: Marcie—thanks so much for agreeing to answer a few questions! It was such a pleasure to be able to read an advance copy of Em’s story.
I think the most obvious question you’ll likely receive a lot if you haven’t already is why you chose to write a novel? There are a handful of references Em makes throughout self-referencing the text as her memoir. So, why use your travels and your other work writing and producing a play about “growing up girl” to fill out the life of Em instead of your own?
Marcie Maxfield: My intention was to write a memoir about my experience as a “tagalong” wife. But then I played around with making Em the narrator—and her voice became the story. It’s like she photobombed my book! Once I created distance between Em and myself, it gave me the freedom to dig into the emotional truth of the story. I’d call it autofiction, which blurs the line between autobiography and fiction, but the publishing community doesn’t accept that term. I had to choose—memoir or novel. I never imagined myself writing a novel because my stories are grounded in authentic experience, but also, they are highly embellished. At first, I resisted calling Em Literary Fiction, it sounded somehow above my pay grade, but Em’s story is voice-driven and so I think it is best described as Literary Fiction.
MR: Ultimately did writing Em’s story feel cathartic? What are you going to write next? And will it be as darkly funny and nonlinear as Em’s is? Her voice makes for such a great read—was much of her snark and cynicism lifted from your own voice?
MM: I like to think of Em as my alter-ego, she’s a raw, unfiltered version of me on my darkest snarkiest day. As for being cathartic, like a bloodletting—no, not really. The writing process was more akin to a creative explosion. These stories just sort of burst onto the page. I don’t know what I’ll write next, but it will probably be non-linear because whenever I attempt to plot a story it makes my head implode.
MR: It’s most clear I think, your opinion through Em’s POV on living in China (poor air quality and accelerated decay, etc.), but what has been your favorite place to live? Have you been to every place you wrote about? Is there somewhere else you’d like to try living for a while?
MM: I’m what they call a “serial expat” in that I’ve moved around a lot: Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Seoul. But I don’t really have a favorite city. I love French rap, Karaoke bars in Tokyo, Korean BBQ and the ramshackle old-world charm of the French Concession in Shanghai. Haven’t found the perfect place to live yet. Here’s what’s on my ‘to visit’ list: Greece. Laos. Central America. South America… Plus, I’d love to go back to Vietnam. And I’d even return to Shanghai!
MR: What is the main takeaway you want your readers to get out of Em’s story? Who would be your ideal reader, if you could get a copy into the hands of anyone (living or dead)?
MM: The setting for Em’s story is specific to being a “tagalong” wife, but the theme is universal—it’s about marriage and compromise. Ultimately, Em’s story is one of reinvention. It’s a reminder to women to pursue their own dreams even as they support the goals of their partner and family. I often say that Michelle Obama is the ultimate “tagalong” wife—because she quit her legal practice in Chicago and moved to DC to support her husband’s career goals. So, naturally, I’d like to get Em’s Awful Good Fortune in the hands of the former First Lady. Believe me, I’ve tried. The last chapter of my book is inspired by Esther Perel’s Ted Talk on infidelity, and I would very much love to have the queen of relationship therapy read my book!
MR: Which authors have inspired your own writing? Which titles are currently on your nightstand and/or at the top of your to-be-read pile?
MM: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz sat on my desk dog-eared while I was writing Em’s Awful Good Fortune. I’ve read tons of expat books, earnest stories about cultural immersion and I knew Em wouldn’t be that kind of book. I wanted to talk about marriage. I wanted to dig into love, loss and anger. Commitment and betrayal. I’d pick up This Is How You Lose Her open to a random page and read out loud. Then I’d let Em’s voice fly. When Diaz blurbed my book I was stunned, literally, speechless. It’s a powerful gift to have your work recognized by your literary hero. I’m reading a ton of women writers right now. The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavich. Poser by Claire Dederer. Blow Your House Down by Gina Frangello. I may have a memoir in me yet...
MR: Do you feel like Em’s journey was inevitable, that she ended up doing and being exactly what she had to? Do you feel like you did?
MM: Oooh. That’s a sticky question. I knew early on how Em’s journey would end up because originally, I thought I was writing a memoir. And I never strayed from that ending—I was married to it, so to speak. I don’t feel like my personal journey was inevitable, that’s why I wrote Em’s story, to answer this question: how did a capable, strong-minded woman give up so much of her power in marriage? And how does my personal experience relate to the collective female experience? Yes! I absolutely feel that writing about women’s issues is exactly what I was meant to do.
MR: What do you say to the other aspiring authors out there who have a story but don’t know either how to finish it or how to publish it? What was the hardest part of this process for you? Is there anything you’d do differently?
MM: Writing the first draft was easy—everything else has been hard work. My advice to writers who don’t know how to finish their story is to join a writers’ group and hold yourself accountable. As for the publishing process, it's been a learning experience. What would I do differently? Start earlier, trust my voice, don’t be afraid to fail. All of that said, I’m so thrilled to have gotten this far.
MR: And finally, how has the last year or so affected how you approach writing, or living? How do you think Em would have handled it all?
MM: This past year has been somewhat cataclysmic. I’ve been journaling, but I haven’t quite formulated a response. It’s a slow burn. I do think my writing has an underlying socio political edge to it and will continue to do so. As for Em, she would have been on social media ranting about public health, making face masks, and promoting vaccines.