By Seija Rankin
August 13, 2019 at 04:13 PM EDT
Tin House Books

What if Peggy Guggenheim, renowned art collector and infamously eccentric heiress, took her only daughter and a pack of wayward artists and set up shop in a rural seaside Mexican town to escape the encroaching World War II? Thus is the premise for Courtney Maum’s new novel, Costalegre. 

The author, who published 2017’s beloved novel Touch, in addition to several other titles, a critique on our modern obsession with technology, was in the midst of a different book when she found herself overcome with the idea for Costalegre. It follows a fictional character, based on Guggenheim’s real-life young daughter, as she attempts to maintain sanity and discover herself while holed up in a luxuriously decrepit villa with her mother’s disturbing and fascinating artist friends. The novel is written diary-style, the uniqueness of which won’t surprise fans of Touch.

Here, Maum answers EW’s burning questions about her writing process and most formative literary memories.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
COURTNEY MAUM: It was an illustrated story called The Unicorn and the Magic Rosebush. It was about a little girl whose parents are fighting all the time, so she goes outside and collapses, crying, near a rosebush, and the combination of tears on petals moves the bush aside to reveal a staircase down to an underworld filled with mythical animal friends. A wonderful teacher helped me create a dust jacket for it with flowered wallpaper and we even included an “About the Author” section in the back that basically said, “Courtney is seven years old and her best friend is Kristin.”

What is the last book that made you cry?
T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls. We all have complicated families, I certainly do, so I was incredibly moved by this memoir about a family that continues to love and need each other through upheavals that would have left many (most?) families broken or estranged. The last section of the book is just a whopper. I particularly enjoyed the memoir’s structure, which jumps around a lot, just like our mind does when we revisit what we’ve lived through with our relatives.

What is your favorite part of Costalegre?
My favorite part is that I wrote the book at all. I was working on another book at the time when I got sidelined by something in my research: I just couldn’t shake the discovery that Peggy Guggenheim — world-famous art collector — had a daughter, Pegeen, who wanted to be an artist. I’m proud that I had the guts to drop everything and write the book that called me.

Which book is at the top of your current To-Read list?
Sarah Rose Etter’s The Book of X, from the magic makers at Two Dollar Radio. I heard Sarah read eons ago from her first book, Tongue Party, and I basically pledged myself to whatever luxurious madness she chose to bring into the world next.

Where do you write?
I write at home in my office in absolute quiet, door shut, no one allowed in. I get very “American teenager” about the ritual of creation: this is my private time, it’s mine alone, the magic of the whole thing is ruined if someone barges in my space. I would rather volunteer for dental surgery than write in a café. I can barely send an email if there are other people around me.

Pick a GIF that you think, in this moment, best describes you:
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Which book made you a forever reader?
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. That was the first book that blurred the edges of my reality and the spell the book was spinning. I wanted to be in the world of the book so badly that I forced my best friend (No longer Kristin — how fickle is the heart) to continually trespass into the neighbor’s garden with me where we would play Secret Garden for hours. After that, I moved on to The Phantom of the Opera, which preoccupied me so entirely that I made up a Phantom who gave me singing homework.

What is a snack you couldn’t write without?
Dark chocolate and Yorkshire Tea. I had to give up coffee in my twenties because I worked at Starbucks and was drinking three Ventis a day and basically stopped sleeping for a few years. I can handle theine better.

What was the hardest part to write in Costalegre?
It was hard to write about the mother — the Peggy Guggenheim character fictionalized as Leonora Calaway. As someone who has a siren passion that calls me away from everything, I understood how Leonora could be neglectful of her daughter. As a daughter, however, I will always remember how much it hurts — how it will always hurt — when you can’t manage to be noticed. And as a mother myself now, it’s frightening to realize how much influence we have over our children’s emotional and physical trajectories.

If you could change one thing about any of your books, what would it be?
I would have been easier on myself during the promotion period for my first two novels. It took me years to admit that I needed to entrust my sleeping troubles to the big boys while I was on tour. In the beginning, I toured with gentle things like lavender oil and magnesium spray which worked for about two minutes; then I’d spend the rest of the night tossing and turning in a scented panic. Now I bring along Ambien, and I panic less.

If Costalegre had a movie poster tagline, it would be:
The famous heiress who has everything…except her mother’s love.

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