An Interview with Alexandra Kleeman
by Dani Hedlund
This is a very strange book, and it’s really gutsy to create something so unconventional for your debut. How did that go? Why did you choose something so challenging as your first novel?
Well, debuts are funny. You’ve never written a book before, and there’s this feeling where you wonder if this is the only book they’ll ever let you write. You want to put everything you can into it. I think that’s why so many debuts are really personal or draw from autobiographical experience. When I was starting out writing after college and I was starting to read work by contemporary writers for the first time, it was a revelation. I learned that you could write amazing stuff and not be a dead classical author. I was really into writers who could really put forward emotions that are almost not really considered emotions. They’re odd, they’re mundane. That kind of writing is connected to technology and communication in a way that many books aren’t, because literature is often insulated from those commonplace things that occupy our everyday lives.
I really wanted to write about my experience and take seriously all the mundanities that I had felt were not worthy of writing about and try to imbue them with a kind of exaggerated pathos. I had to figure out a form for doing that, and I ended up cobbling it together from advertisements, media, and my own wanderings. I still had to figure out how I could visit all these places and emotional landscapes and still have a story that was real in some way, that had a plotline that could build up and detonate by the end.
I wasn’t sure how people were going to respond to it, but I also thought that if this was the moment I give the world something for the first time, I want to give people a piece of myself.
One of the things I find really interesting is this idea that there are elements of life that aren’t worthy of the page. You have commercials and other things in the background that come together to form the collage of the novel. It’s so different.
One of the really interesting things about living today is the way our internal lives are shaped by media. There’s media around us all the time, these images and advertisements and TV programs that puncture you on a deep level. They’re about people you’ll never meet or who don’t exist, but when they get into your living room or onto your phone where you can carry them around all day, they become very intimate. It’s a paradoxical kind of closeness and distance. In some ways this is a very internal novel, but in other ways, I think a lot of the emotional work depends on interfacing with these strange ads. They’re unsettling, but it’s not totally clear why. The reader has to take on that distress in their own body—it’s like being confronted with something difficult and disturbing.
The pacing of this novel is quite brilliant. There’s a great deal of absurdism, but you introduce it in a way that is so slow and gradual that the reader isn’t thrown out of the narrative. How did you create that sense of pace?
I really wanted to borrow the pacing of a mystery—instead of a series of things happening, it’s more of a series of clues being discovered. The world at the beginning of the novel is the same as at the end of the novel, but it feels different because of what you’ve seen in it. I wanted to slow the pace of the story and create the effect of seeing one thing among the familiar that just doesn’t fit in. I wanted to create moments where the reader would recognize that something is off and carry that feeling through as those moments accumulate and things get stranger and stranger.
A’s behavior is interesting in the beginning—you kind of relate to her. But then she starts doing crazier things, and you begin to feel almost sickened by her. It’s hard to relate with someone when they’re eating someone else’s hair.
I wouldn’t say that my favorite characters in books are unlikeable characters, but once I’ve emotionally attached to a character, I’ll follow them wherever they’re going, even if it makes me feel bad to go there. I’ve found this to be a really powerful experience in reading. I wanted to take a character who begins as a person pretty similar to myself and then force her to make a series of choices that would be impossible for me to make. I wanted to place her in an increasingly untenable position and see how far I could follow her there as a writer.
One of my favorite quotes about craft is from Haruki Murakami. He talks about how writing is like playing a video game that you are creating as you play it. There’s a kind of feedback between what you put on the page and how you react to it. It guides how you drive the story along as a result. I have always thought that there are many things that seem more and more cruel the longer and more intensely you observe them. I really believe in literature as a way to make the invisible parts of our world visible, and sometimes make the visible parts invisible or less prominent. I wanted to take the story to a place I’d never been before.
One thing that really surprised me about the book is how deeply funny it is. How did you manage to write something that is very serious and craft-focused and still has the kind of ability to make a reader laugh out loud?
When I was dwelling in the writing of this book, I found that a lot of the body issues that the book addresses are very psychologically intense and anxiety-inducing. Any time you think about the question of who you are, who you’re becoming, and your relationship with your body, you get into some very challenging territory. The only way I know to explore that territory and still be able to think and produce is to make fun of it. For example, I created a lot of products that I almost think could be good ideas. If I got myself in front of the right people, I could pitch them, and someone would run with them. But they’re exaggerated. I kept myself sane while writing the book by making myself laugh.
I’m really interested in how much tension you built through the narrative. We’re getting these ads second-hand, but there’s still this sense of something lurking in the background. How did you create that kind of tension?
When I was a kid, I would watch Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, and think, silly coyote. He really never gets the roadrunner. However, it’s only his cartoon flesh that lets us discard empathetic feelings for him. I think it’s a really interesting exercise to try to reactivate those feelings. Think about what could happen to cartoon flesh that we don’t see happening. What if we took an unreal character and moved him one or two steps closer to our own bodies? What if it did experience pain, hurt, aging? What if, when the TV is off, the character is still there somewhere, suffering in its way?
I’m really interested in empathy, and I’m interested in how the world we live in is configured by whom we decide to give empathy to. For example, I think the world becomes different around you when you become really moved by animal rights issues. I believe that literature has a great deal of power to shift those psychological boundaries. I’m really interested in playing around with those different degrees of empathy and bodily realness.
My male editors described being very affected by some of the female-centric elements of the book. Do you worry that your novel might be pigeonholed as a “female book?”
I don’t think that the issues in the book are necessarily just female body issues. They’re issues for anyone who has a body: how am I thinking about my body, how am I shaping my body, what other ways can I be shaping my body? Who else could I be? I feel like people can empathize with a lot; the body is an empathy machine. When we hear about situations we’ve never experienced, I think we’re usually able to imagine some part of what that experience is like. So I hope that it does connect for a lot of people.
What I’ve been hearing since the book came out is that both men and women are really interested in these questions. I think we have a big space open now for women writers to take up writing about the issues they face in their lives. Women have opportunities now to write and give these ideas the literary treatment and not feel like they’re doing something frivolous. I think it’s an exciting time to be a woman writer.
Talk to me about your writing process. How long did this book take to write?
The first draft took me a little over a year, and then I revised it for a good year and a half. When you write a book from beginning to end, you don’t make all the best choices. Plus, you’re aware of the fact that you’re not making the best choices, which can be really frustrating. If you let that get to you, you can really hamstring yourself. I think a lot of being a writer in the long haul is about developing that therapist voice that you keep inside you that tells you there’s no perfect solution.
As I worked on it from beginning to end, I felt very firm on some parts. I felt really good about the world I was creating, what I wanted to explore, how I wanted it to appear. The same goes for the progression of the main character, what I wanted her to go through. So a lot of that was there for me. One of my faults, I think, is that I’m a big planner. I can sit down and wanting to write a short story that does something specific. I think it should have these elements, and it should end in a certain way. When you do it that way, you usually end up with something close to what you imagined at one point in time. However, you don’t really have room for something unexpected or uncontrolled when you have everything figured out like that. When I wrote the novel, I felt strongly that I had to put myself in dangerous or threatening situations. I’d start here and know that I wanted to go to another place, but I couldn’t know how I’d get there beforehand. You have to put yourself in the position of the character and walk through the book in that way.
I was also really lucky that I had a great agent who really made me think that there was something in me that I hadn’t discovered yet.
Tell me about the publishing process. How did you find your agent and your publisher?
My agent contacted me after reading a story that I had published in the Paris Review. I was interested in working with her because she worked on Amelia Grey’s book, THREATS, which was another super-gutsy book. There’s a pressure to figure out what the best thing to say is, the best words to use, but there’s also external pressure. You want to call your book finished and send it out, you want to move your life forward. But my agent gave me the impetus to work on it longer and dwell on it. I needed that time to figure out solutions to the problems with the book, which were very personal and amorphous. I don’t think I couldn’t have fought my way through those problems seamlessly without that time.
After we had worked on it for about a year, we sent it out to a number of people. One of them was a guy who had been in touch with me ever since one of my first stories was published. He would send me a note at six-month intervals, but I’d never met him. He took the book home with him on a Thursday night and had an offer on Monday. The best thing was that he wrote me a wonderful note that really showed his personality and showed me that he had spent a lot of time and thought on the book. I could tell that he was going to be invested in a serious way. He’s the one who gave me my editor. From there, I was able to do the last layer of revision that I’d had in mind.
It’s nice to hear that essentially you went about publishing and found success in the traditional way: you write stories, they get published, someone reads them and finds you. Did you get frustrated with that process at all?
It’s possible, I think, to be very cynical about how publishing works. There are plenty of people who write great stuff and don’t get their proper due. But I really find that it’s a person-driven industry. Everyone working in it genuinely loves books, and they’re open and eager to be touched by what lands on their desks. There is definitely an element of chance: do you get to the right desk, do you get your work in front of the right person? But I love that there’s so much genuine enthusiasm in this industry.