A conversation between Logan Berry (theatre director, co-editor of SELFFUCK, and author of the forthcoming
Runoff Sugar, Crystal Lake) and Maryse Meijer (author of Rag, Heartbreaker, Northwood, and The Seventh Mansion) regarding paracosms (elaborate imaginary worlds). Screenshots of a paracosm they created are threaded throughout the interview. Photos of physical materials for Maryse’s ongoing paracosm with her twin sister Danielle are at the bottom of the text.
LB: In your “Twinterview” with your twin Danielle Meijer, you two discuss your ongoing paracosms. You talk about how these elaborate fantasies have become material in your books and have shaped your writing. How have the paracosms changed over the years?
MM: I always forget that I’ve talked about the paracosm publicly, because I like to think that it is some great secret just waiting to be revealed to fascinated audiences, when the truth is that I/we probably talk about it constantly, to everyone, without really being aware of how often, because to us it’s a constant source of fresh surprise, wonder, delight that this paracosm (or paracosms—not sure if it’s many small ones or one big one, i.e, our entire life) exists, and so we are perpetually speaking of it as if for the first time, revealing with a flourish the big ta-da! Even right now my hands are trembling, my heart is racing, my mouth is moving as if speaking aloud—in a rush to communicate how it is about this paracosm—which is impossible in a way to talk about briefly, but, as always, I will happily try.
The paracosm began 30+ years ago—or longer, maybe it started in the womb, one monozygote telling itself some crazy story about how it will someday be two—but I think, I don’t know, we’ve always made up stories, like everyone does, but it became a more baroque and intense and consuming storytelling maybe around the time we discovered Anne Rice? And we created this whole family of incestuous vampires that inhabited us and obsessed us, a storyline that seemed to smash up time and “reality” in its incredibly consuming intensity, and it eventually grew to include every literary character and cultural icon or movie star or musician or artist we liked and wanted to “be” in whatever way, with storylines branching off from this initial bloodthirsty family tree into hundreds of sub-stories and “alternative universes” and whatever else. We’d sit somewhere and “tell” the story, in real time, in a kind of “acting out” that didn’t involve moving around, for 6-8 hours a day or more. There was a break in the paracosm when I moved away from Danielle, when we were 18, and little paracosm-y things happened in the next ten years through our daily letter writing, but it wasn’t until we reunited about 10 or 12 years ago that the paracosm 2.0 began, which started with a letter my sister wrote as Daniel Craig…and then the paracosm moved online, through Google chat or whatever it’s called (i think it’s “hangouts” now?).
We refer to the act of being in the paracosm as “texting” as in, creating text, nothing to do with phones—I have never “texted” my twin on a phone, if you can believe it—so it’s weird to hear other people use that verb, it’s very startling, that people mean something other than “exist in an alternate universe” when they say “texting”, though perhaps it’s the same thing, haha. Anyway, I guess you could say what has changed about texting is format: first it was in-person, then it was through snail-mail letters and the occasional email, then it moved to chat, which is where it lives now. But in fundamental ways—in the sense that the paracosm is what the name implies, a parallel world—the paracosm never changes. It is more than a series of “stories” or characters, but rather the literal space of our collective imagination, a place where we are the way you and I “are” “now” “in the world”. The people we become might change, but the paracosm as a space, with its own texture, rules, atmosphere, being, remains the same. Am I answering the question?
LB: You are definitely answering the question, and your passion is burning through this text. I hope you’ll forgive me for some personal interjection, but I feel like telling you (and you): I actually lived in semi-private paracosms till I was about 17. After returning home from school, I’d bounce a rubber dodgeball around our apartment complex/on its balcony/in the parking lot existing in the paracosms. I call it semi-private because even tho I was “in” these imaginary terrains, many nonhuman beings were interfacing w/ me throughout the “game”, as I called it (and I mega-cringe wondering what the neighbors thought of this 6 foot, obese, 17 yr old w/ a bowl cut was doing bouncing a dodgeball in place, talking to himself). I’m awed by the depth and complexity of your and Danielle’s parcosms. Mine were fragmentary, filled with non-sequiturs, and dialogue repeated over and over till I was satisfied w/ how it sounded. Sometimes they were gothic plays acted out in my head (and somewhat “live” too––surely vestiges of whatever was going on imaginarily were smeared across my face and entified by physical gestures, tho I can’t be certain––you’d have to ask the neighbors lol). Other times they were riffs off mangas and horror media of all forms. And some were spent with evil figures from fiction and history, observing them doing day-to-day stuff––I especially loved watching them get dressed.
My paracosms never resolved. I wonder if I existed in them with a friend or twin, if they’d ever “end.” Do your parocosms two have fully realized endings and/or arcs? Also, do you “see” the paracosm? Mine were image-driven. Even if there was dialogue, I always “heard” it delivered in a particular way from particular entities. Are yours mostly textual?
MM: Oh my god LOGAN why didn’t you ever tell us this?!?!?!?! Your paracosm sounds amazing, and I love the image of you watching evil figures get dressed. I mean that is a “text” right there. It’s such an exciting idea—I wish I could see inside your brain and watch you watching all this. It’s beautiful! May I ask who/what the non-human elements were? And why did it stop at 17??
LB: I don’t think I talked about it before because I didn’t have a context for how to think about it. When I first read about your and D’s paracosm and heard you two talking about it, I didn’t think, “I do that too” I think because yours feels fully realized, elaborate, and felt. Mine tends to feel nascent and hazy. Like something about to happen. I feel ambivalent about discussing mine in depth. I wonder whether talking about it critically might puncture, drain, and deplete it. I just did a cursory wikipedia look at “paracosm” and everything veers towards pathologization––I’m not interested in that. That’s not to say there’s no truth to what researchers have written about it. It’s that, again, I don’t want to spoil it by scrutiny. I don’t want to make an ethical claim about it; I like feeling perverted for indulging in it.
I stopped with the paracosm for a while because I was ashamed of it. Now that you mention it, drugs and alcohol actually entered my life around then. The paracosm started happening again when I started writing (mid-20’s). The paracosm is now a part of my process: it’s where the action in the books happen before or while I write them. I have to “act it out”/transcribe it through the text. This is all sounding very causal, “if A then B.” It’s messier than how I’m describing it.
And the non-human elements involved were my material surroundings. When I reflect on the paracosm from years ago, I think about the hot asphalt of the apartment parking lot. I think about the beige doors. Our downstairs neighbors’ venetian blinds (I would constantly check if they were peeping out at me). Potted cacti on the balcony. They were all there but not there in the paracosm. And I got stung by a bee once while I was lost in my head and bounced the ball too close to her hive.
MM: It’s so true that the way paracosms/fantasy (in adults) is discussed is usually in terms of pathology—“maladaptive daydreaming” being an actual disorder someone like us could have; obviously, I think it’s all total nonsense. And I agree that there is something very private about these things that naturally resists discussion—in our case the paracosm itself, in terms of what happens in it, isn’t something I think can be shared, the way a book or a story can be—it is a form of narrative that doesn’t need—and maybe can’t even sustain—an audience. But talking about the paracosm is a way of talking about being a twin, and in that way—and in that way only—I think it’s worth discussing publicly, especially when people ask me about being a writer, because for me being a writer is inextricable from my experience of twinship—and if I’m not talking about Danielle then in many ways I’m not talking about writing, and if I’m talking about Danielle I’m always, on some level, talking about the paracosm.
I like that you use the word “perverted” and “indulging” in reference to your world; I think perversion is very much at home in paracosms, and I think that, for adults especially, to admit to devoting oneself to fantasy in such an intense and rigorous way is akin to admitting that one often eats an entire pizza in one sitting: a paracosm works only for the people involved in it—it produces nothing useful for anyone else, and the pleasure of being in it is so intense that I suppose it is has to be perverted, if you think of how “perverted” can mean “to divert from a natural course”—like we’re all supposed to be doing something else with our time, our lives, our minds—and if art-making is seen often as a self-indulgence, then what is a paracosm like ours, which has no product that can at least stand in for all the time we spend in it? It is puritan Capitalist’s worst nightmare!
To return to your earlier question about whether our paracosms end: the arcs of the storylines are often finite, but they don’t “end”— we often “loop” stories—we start them over, or repeat certain scenes within them, or, most often, we explore alternative options or endings or experiences within a relationship by allowing the characters to have multiple versions of themselves, so that the purity/integrity of one storyline will remain intact, but the characters can try out different stuff without blowing up the “original”, although in a way I suppose there are no real originals, they’re all just—I mean I hate to invoke physics, as when writers do this it’s almost always based on some lame misconception of some theory, but I guess the paracosm is a multiverse in which there are parallel or mirror universes in which the same people can act out many different lives while remaining more or less the same/themselves. Danielle and I get so obsessed with a particular character or a couple that we can’t limit them to just one existence—which is why the paracosm exists, I guess, because we feel, as ourselves, really antagonistic to the notion that we only get one life to live, as “ourselves”. How stingy! How immoral! Books and movies and art and friendship and love and nature allow you to slip into all kinds of different lives, but the paracosm gives us the space and time to focus solely on feeling what it’s like to be someone else without interruption, and without being “seen” by anyone else as “Maryse and Danielle”, and outside of the constraints of time and space and bodies and all of that.
It’s important to note that we don’t exist at all in the paracosm—meaning we are not characters in it, ever–and that’s the best part. It’s completely liberating. And it’s what makes it so different from the act of writing, which for me is about observing other people, not becoming them or being them or even really knowing them—it’s like me watching someone get dressed, quite literally, when I write, whereas in the paracosm “I”—as hundreds of other people—get to know what it’s like to get dressed. But this is answering a question you haven’t asked yet.
As for the visual—the paracosm is primarily visual. It’s funny—to look back on the texts themselves, which I rarely do (and 99% of it is deleted immediately) because they aren’t very interesting as collections of words—there is very little information in the exchange of language. The text is more a shorthand—the space of the paracosm is really that shared imagination, which can be triggered by saying “so-and-so walks into his kitchen”—we don’t describe the kitchen, but we both see it. When we check in with one another—“do you imagine the kitchen looking this way/being in this relation to the living room/whatever”—we are almost always seeing the same thing, automatically! Same with characters—we often use real people/famous people as templates, but the images become altered by us in ways that we don’t even have to communicate—we just “see” them, I don’t know how, as they are. People often ask us if we have a telepathic connection, because that’s a thing people ask twins, and we don’t, but I think our references and interests are so similar that we don’t need to describe much to one another to simply know what the other person is seeing—again, it’s difficult to describe, but the paracosm is a space that exists between us and not inside us individually, if that makes sense? So we go to that place and the words just kind of provide the code or key or I don’t know. I mean the dialogue is central, and that is something you can hear, and feel, and also the actions of the characters are incredibly visual, but also sensorial, like, I can feel an expression, or an emotion, or a movement even more acutely than I feel those things when I’m just “Maryse,” or when I’m writing. But it’s so much more immersive than text on a screen, it’s something that you experience directly, with all the senses, even touch and smell, and yet, unlike “real” life, you don’t have to deal with all the boring bits, like doing chores (though chores exist in the paracosm, of course, just not, like, hours of them)—It’s like drinking juice concentrate out of a can as opposed to diluting all the good stuff with a bunch of nonsense water—and it gives you a similar rush. We’ve never done drugs and we’ve never been drunk and I think this is because the paracosm is such a great drug, why mess with anything else which will just probably suck in comparison and also make you act dumb? Also, it’s free. It’s free and it’s very sexy.
But also we don’t need the act of texting to continue the paracosm—when we’re together we can exchange a look or point at something and an idea or a storyline or a character is immediately called into being—in a way, we’re always in the paracosm, always collecting and processing information to be channeled into it, always thinking about it, feeling it, sensing its life behind our other lives. It’s very hard to be around Danielle and act like a normal person because really we just want to talk about the paracosm—we’ll be like “oh yeah how was your day blah blah” and really what we mean is “Martin can’t wait to castrate Cam in the woods to prove his undying love.” The paracosm is the atmosphere the twins breathe regardless of what they are “doing” in the “real world.” It is mediated by text in its most concentrated form, but it is not bound to it or limited by it, certainly, and the text itself is almost laughably crude—there is nothing interesting or beautiful about the language of the text, but rather the paracosm takes place in the white space the text calls into being, and it’s that space that feels so complex and beautiful and possible.
LB: The question you answered that I hadn’t asked yet is v intriguing. My relationship with my writing and the paracosm is a near-exact inverse to yours. In the paracosm I’m a fly on the wall. I’m bearing witness to its unfolding. I “direct” it in that, as mentioned, I like things to repeat till they’re perfect. It’s all very recursive. When things flow, I’m the audience. When it comes to writing, I need to disappear: into the text (I often edit for the sound/look of the words), into the characters (if they’re historical characters, I imagine doppelgangers [or actors portraying them], since I don’t have authority over the real ppls’ lives), and into the ideas (I like tautologies, things that barely make sense, that have an internal logic). I wonder how all this would be different if I shared this space with someone else.
When a development in the paracosm occurs to you during “real” life activities and you’re not with D, what happens? Do you send an email? Has the paracosm ever gotten you into trouble––ever been stung by a bee?
MM: So interesting about the inversion of writing-to-paracosm experience; and it makes sense given your theatrical/directorial background. I feel helpless when I write; I would love to tell people what to do, but it’s impossible.
When I have ideas about paracosm stuff I obsess about it until I can share it with Danielle—usually through email, yeah, sometimes a phonecall if it’s something that feels momentous. It just happened today, actually, that I had some exciting brainwave involving a photograph of the young Robert Walser, but luckily Dani was at my house so I could tell her right away and we could silently trade telepathic squeals of delight while pretending to be talking about something else in front of our family.
I think the paracosm gets us into trouble all the time because we spend way too much time doing it—about 3-4 hours a night, sometimes much more, I can’t even say how much—and of course that interferes with real life/responsibilities/etc. It often interferes with writing, because if I’m typing 10,000 words some nights to my twin, I’m certainly not typing any words for my books on those days; I have not yet mastered the paracosm/life balance. But at least I do it indoors, where no hives can be harmed in the process!
LB: What happens when someone dies in your paracosm? Do you act it out? Do you mourn them?
MM: We don’t let anyone die. There have been times when I’ve known that for the reality of the storyline, death is the “right” thing for a character, but I usually don’t allow it. It’s not worth the pain!! Because the mourning would be real. Even though if someone died we could just continue their storyline in a parallel paracosm, we’d still have to experience the death itself in the moment, and…no. I mean, I feel like it’s cheating, to avoid these things, but really there’s enough heartbreak in the paracosm and since we have to go through it, process it, feel it…there’s a limit because the emotions don’t shut off once we’re out of the paracosm and, I don’t know, making a sandwich. We’d have to have, like, a weekend with no other humans around and nothing else to do but deal with a character’s death. And even then I would probably chicken out. I think death would require more space than we have to devote to it, psychically!
LB: Are your families aware of the paracosm? What do they think?
MM: Our families are aware to varying degrees, I guess? I don’t let anyone tell me what they think of the paracosm; I’m happy to talk about its existence, but it’s so personal that it makes me uncomfortable to even imagine someone I loved having an opinion about it. I’m so protective of it and to describe it sounds so ridiculous that the only response is to make a joke about it to deflect from the fact that for us it’s practically sacred.
LB: How do you know when something belongs to the paracosm and when something should be a piece of fiction?
MM: There’s never confusion about what belongs in fiction vs. paracosm because the forms are so different. Sometimes I might get an idea for an aspect of a story from the paracosm, but only in a very fragmented way—there’s an idea or an image or a relationship that is interesting to me, something Danielle thinks up, usually, and I might pull some element from that into a story, but it gets so processed that it’s never really what it was in the paracosm. Once a work is published, a character from a story might “graduate” to the paracosm, and then that can be very fun. But that cross-pollination is rare. Writing fiction isn’t collaborative for me until the editing stage, when Danielle reads a billion drafts of something and tells me what sucks—but the paracosm obviously is completely collaborative and is formed in entirely different headspace. We most often say that stories from the paracosm should be films—but we never say “this should be a book.” Perhaps because it is, as you said, a primarily visual medium.
LB: I suspect a lot of people have (had) paracosms but don’t necessarily acknowledge it to themselves or to others. I also wonder if NOT acknowledging it leads to delusionary thought. Like “real life” and “fantasy” might conflate. Have you ever had any trouble distinguishing between the paracosm and reality?
MM: I think a LOT of people have or have had paracosms (I mean, a paracosm is maybe just a fantasy, and I’m not sure there are people who don’t fantasize—maybe not to the extent, of course, that my sister and I do, and maybe it’s private vs. communal in many cases, but I’ve never met anyone who couldn’t relate to the idea of a paracosm at least a little bit—I agree, I think we’re just not talking enough about it with others or with ourselves).
The paracosm is so great and fun that it would be really hard to conflate it with “reality” in terms of literally distinguishing the two—real life could never be as consistently and intensely gratifying as the paracosm—but I would say that the emotional effect of the paracosm penetrates the “real” all the time— it feels real emotionally, meaning, I can’t distinguish between how I feel as someone else in the paracosm from how I feel as myself in real life. For example, falling in love in the paracosm is “real” in the sense that the sensation of loving isn’t something that takes place in my imagination, but in my body—though perhaps the distinction between bodies and imagination isn’t, itself, “real.” But my body is a thing in space and time, and the emotions that all these hundreds of “Others” feel—and they are distinct from me, Maryse—are felt in my flesh. Perhaps the fact that I can cry about something that happened in the paracosm two days ago is a sign of delusional thinking, or a malfunction of my relationship to reality, but it never feels confusing or wrong—it feels normal. We all get worked up over video games, movies, books, music—the products of other people’s imaginations. The ability to be moved or scared or saddened by the products of an imagination is vital to survival, I think. Without it, we’d probably be dead, or entirely sociopathic.
LB: You’ve referred to the paracosm as “practically sacred.” Are there any rituals associated with it? How does sacrifice factor in, both formally and within the narratives?
MM: What a great question. I don’t know if there are “rituals” per se involved, but definitely habits, pleasures—? Like to prepare for the paracosm there is a lot of talking about the paracosm beforehand, and then afterward, little bookends of commentary/speculation/squealing about the current paracosmic events. One of the best rituals is introducing a new character and then putting together a kind of scrapbook for them—finding images, music, arts, etc that might contribute to the “atmosphere” of a character or a situation—a rabid exchange of materials to help birth the newbie.
The chief sacrifice is time. We devote an enormous amount of our lives, spirit, emotion, desire, fragility, thinking, and feeling to the paracosm. We sacrifice time that could be spent on “real” relationships, experiences, friendships, etc—we do that for each other, and the time that we spend in the paracosm is a gift that serves the twinship, that gives our imaginations an infinite playing field. It has no currency in the outside world, it creates nothing that lasts, it manifests in no material way—it is a profound “waste of time.” But it is our most “real” living.
Within the paracosm, I think there is always this balance between indulgence and a sort of attempt to be quite strict with the boundaries of a character—there are many things I might want my character to do or say or have, but I have to play by the rules, I can’t force anything to happen that a character wouldn’t do/that other characters wouldn’t allow. I think in that way you sacrifice your own desire as a being outside the paracosm in service to those inside it—you don’t play God. You have to be true to the people you become. That can be extremely frustrating, but such is life—I think because the paracosm is communal for us, it’s not the same as, say, fantasizing about whatever on your own. You have to enter into it with a real wish to delight and respect and serve your paracosm partner—and I think the sacrifice of the self, not only in terms of making oneself disappear in the paracosm, but in terms of pleasing the Other, is such a tender and important thing. You give something up so you can have something even better than anything you could do on your own. In another universe, I could have been content to be a writer, working alone, imagining alone, but in this universe I am only a writer because of the paracosm, because of my twin. And those things are the chief joys of my life.
LB: I’d love for you to elaborate on: “I feel helpless when I write; I would love to tell people what to do but it’s impossible.”
MM: I mean that I’m an observer as far as characters and what they do. I don’t “decide” or “choose” what happens in a story in terms of who a character is and what they do. I just watch what’s going on in that initial draft, the way you watch snow settle in a snowglobe, and then my work as a writer is to be as precise as possible about what I see. The people I write about don’t “speak” to me, they don’t inhabit me, I’m not them, etc etc. It’s like peering through a window. It’s frustrating, because I have so many ideas—as I do in the paracosm—about what people should do and how they should do it—and I love that control, I love that embodiment, the feeling of possession, of really feeling what it’s like to be these other people. But my work as a writer never feels that way. I only get to boss it around on a craft level, because I edit like an insane person and of course there’s a lot of work that is necessarily conscious and controlled about what you do with whatever material you have. But that’s just inhabiting the work on a technical level. It’s not at all like being in the paracosm, where I’m living out another life. But, there is great pleasure in watching, too; if I am condemned as a writer to watching people take their clothes off, emotionally or literally or whatever, then I am happy to be the custodian of those visions. It would never be enough, though, just to be a writer—the paracosm is really the central thing in our lives. I wouldn’t know who I was without it.
Maryse Meijer is the author of Rag, Heartbreaker, Northwood, and The Seventh Mansion. She lives in Chicago.
Logan Berry is a theatre director, co-editor of SELFFUCK, and the author of TRANSMISSIONS TO ARTAUD (SELFFUCK), NASIM BLEEDS GREEN (forthcoming from Plays Inverse Press) and
Runoff Sugar Crystal Lake (forthcoming from 11:11 Press).