“Lean, muscular, poetic, Orion’s Daughters explores the age-old hunger to re-invent Eden (in this case as a rural Ohio commune) and the marks left on two girls shaped by Edenic isolation and ideals. The novel has the heartbeat of a mystery, and I turned pages rapidly, desperate to know the outcome yet at the same time holding back so as to drink in each precise, resonant phrase.” – Pamela Erens, author of The Virgins
What were the seeds of this book?
Orion’s Daughters began as a short story about two women who were close as girls reconnecting unexpectedly as adults. The story was very different from how the novel turned out, but what was important was the intense, almost-obsessive friendship the women shared as children and the hold the dominant one still had over the other. My writers group encouraged me to turn the story into something longer, and right around that time I was reading a biography of Louisa May Alcott and becoming obsessed with Fruitlands, the utopian community her father started and which failed miserably. I was thinking about communes and why, when started with good intentions, they so often fail, and a whole new door opened for what I could do with my characters.
What sentence (or phrase, or idea, or innovation) in this book are you most proud of?
The structure of the book mirrors the narrator’s emotional/psychological state. As Carrie becomes more absorbed by the past, so does the narrative. There’s certain information that she’s repressing and which is not revealed until she’s ready to confront it—this means that at times she’s not an entirely reliable narrator. I knew I wanted to structure the book this way from the start, but I didn’t get it right for many, many drafts.
Are there any elements in this book that are drawn from your own life?
The members of Orion Community are vegan, as am I. And I grew up in Northeast Ohio, very close to the Cuyahoga Valley. I spent a summer working at Hale Farm and Village—in the book, one of Amelia’s postcards comes from there. Most significantly, I had a series of best friends in childhood whom I loved like sisters—we would have done anything for each other at the time. Thankfully, those friendships had all of Amelia and Carrie’s good and very little of their bad.
When did you first know you were a writer?
I don’t think I’ve ever not identified as a writer. I grew up in a family of book-lovers and storytellers, where the joy of narrative and respect for the written word were ingrained in me from the beginning. Before I could write sentences, I’d dictate stories to my older brother, and when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d always say a writer. Sometimes a writer and ballerina. Sometimes a writer and hatmaker (I have no idea). But always a writer. There have been periods in my life—mainly during adolescence—when I didn’t do much actual writing, but I still thought in stories and knew I would get back to it eventually, that being a writer was my life plan.
If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you would be? Put another way, what else fills your life besides writing (and how does this influence your writing, in practical or ephemeral ways)?
A psychologist. I did a psychology minor in college, and I’m fascinated by human behavior and the way our brains work. My husband and I watch an embarrassing number of pseudo-psychological documentaries, and I’ll read anything that has a psychological hook. I’m a character-driven writer, and I know that comes from my interest in psychology.
More About Courtney Elizabeth Mauk
Courtney Elizabeth Mauk is the author of the novels Spark (Engine Books, 2012) and Orion’s Daughters (Engine Books, 2014). Her stories and essays have appeared in The Literary Review, PANK, Wigleaf, and Five Chapters, among other venues. Born in Missouri and raised in Ohio, Courtney has been a New Yorker for ten years. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and teaches with the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She is an assistant editor at Barrelhouse. You can find her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.
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Orion’s Daughters has, at its center, a lost girlhood friendship – read about it here. Do you have any childhood friends who you have fallen out of touch with?
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