An Interview with Michael Alenyikov
by Richard Mandrachio
It was on a typical summer day in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district that I entered Alexander Book Company for a lunchtime reading by Michael Alenyikov. Many students from the nearby university milled about as I found my way to the basement area where the event was to be held. When I took a seat and settled in, I noticed that the floor above, as well as the stairway, constantly creaked to announce each subsequent attendee. By the time the author was introduced, it was a full house: not bad for someone who, less than a year ago, was having trouble getting anyone at all to attend his readings. The crowd listened with rapt attention while Michael read his selections. Afterward, I was fortunate enough to spend the rest of the afternoon talking with him over some coffee at a local Starbucks.
I first met Michael at the reception for the Northern California Book Awards in April 2011, when it was announced that he had won the top honor in the Fiction Category for Ivan and Misha, his collection of interrelated stories. He had not maintained a very public persona before that time, so many of us were curious about this mysterious writer known only by a pseudonym, and whose work appeared to have sprouted overnight. Michael seemed overwhelmed by all the attention as he had just returned from New York and was fighting off jet lag. Regardless, he still looked and acted like the quintessential writer, in his tasteful blazer and muffler. Since then, I had the opportunity to attend a book release party with him, besides the aforementioned reading. Each time, he was very cordial and quite generous with sharing his time. His casual yet engaging demeanor makes being with Michael Alenyikov akin to peering into a multifaceted gem. First off, his direct and honest articulation belies his shy appearance. When he speaks, it is with insight, intelligence and a bit of self-deprecating humor, not unlike the black humor with which his stories are laced. And, similar to the refractive surfaces of a precious stone, his surprisingly candid admissions seem to trigger new thoughts within his own mind, even as he speaks. From each visit, I learned more about him: his likes and phobias, his long-standing bouts with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, his takes on other writers and writing. Through my own research, I discovered that, under another name, his short stories had been published in The Georgia Review, The James White Review, New York Stories, and Modern Words; his essays have appeared in The Gay & Lesbian Review. Additionally, he was a Pushcart Prize nominee in 2007 and a MacDowell Fellow in 2004-05.
Were it not for Mr. Alenyikov’s easygoing personality, it would have been daunting to request a local interview from someone called “a uniquely gifted voice in American fiction,” and who was certainly worthy of national attention. Nevertheless, the moment I had made the suggestion, he obliged. It was decided that we would be informal about it, and conduct the interview in my apartment. He showed up right on time and, as he entered, it was like greeting an old friend though we’d known each other for mere months. I offered him something to drink and we got started.
Richard Mandrachio: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated? When and why did you begin?
Michael Alenyikov: I think my interest in writing originated, like a lot of writers, with my interest in reading. I had my nose in a book from as far back as I can remember. When I was very young, I was big on talking animal books, such as the Dr. Dolittle series. Even when I was in graduate school in Psychology, people would say, half holding their noses, that the papers I would write were very literary, which was not a compliment. So when I was doing my internship, and people would find out that I was reading Thomas Wolfe, they would be puzzled, startled. In the back of my mind I had always wanted to write creatively, but, having to do with my family circumstances, I didn’t have the confidence to do it.
Eventually, I started working as a freelance writer on interactive media projects. That was sublimating my desires because I was interested in filmmaking too. So I was getting closer to what I really wanted to do. Then I developed a serious chronic illness, and that gave me what I call “the-shit-or-get-off-the-pot-moment” in my life. So that’s how I got going. But I’d say that, like most writers, I was in awe of other writers who wrote books, and it seemed to me like magic. Which in some ways…this may sound strange, but what interested me originally in becoming a psychotherapist was whatever they did seemed like magic; there really was no rule book or formula. My initial interest was to look behind the curtain and find out how they did that. I wanted to figure out: how do writers make up a story; how do they create a character that I believe in. There isn’t a rule book for that either. There are craft things you could learn, but there was a kind of magic…so I pursued what was a parallel interest in a kind of magic in learning to be a psychotherapist as in later becoming a fiction writer.
And one other thing, and this is very personal: my mother died when I was young, and one of the last things I recall, maybe a few months before she died, was that she had signed me up for a playwriting class. I was twelve years old and had no idea why she signed me up for a playwriting class, but I went. For the last class, we were supposed to come in with a draft of a one-act play, and I didn’t do it, and my mother died about a month after that. So when, years later, I went to a writing class and wrote a short story, it felt that I had come full circle, back to a part of my life that had been cut off when my mother died.
RM: So obviously you’ve had physical challenges, emotional challenges, and possibly even technical ones. With all of these, do you feel you’ve developed a certain style in your writing, or were there any obstacles insofar as how you wrote?
MA: I think in some ways my style was there from the very beginning. I took some writing classes with local writers, and everyone told me that I had an original writing style and a very strong presence on the page. The biggest challenge that often discouraged me in the first couple of years was feeling that I could create a character, I could sketch a scene, I have a way with words, but how do you create a story? What is a short story? What is a novel? I found that even though I’ve been reading fiction all of my life, I didn’t know what made for a story. I remember the very first story I finished, while I was working on it, feeling I’m not a ‘real writer’ until I finish the story. Then I finished that story, and it was published. And I thought maybe that was a fluke—that was my immediate reaction—maybe I was capable of writing only one story. So I worked very hard, and I wrote another story and another story, and a few were published. My confidence built. But then—and lots of writers go through this—I thought it doesn’t count until I published a book.
Now that I’ve published a book, a novel in stories, I feel I still don’t know how to write a novel, which I know is silly because some of the greatest writers are brilliant short story writers, and writing a novel is not necessarily a superior art form. So I think I have a lot in common with other writers, because no matter what rung of the ladder we’re on, we find ways to think, well yes, but we still don’t know how to do that or do this. For a long time I remember people telling me I’m a great descriptive writer; so does that mean I can do descriptive writing well but I can’t do dialogue? And then people would say you do write good dialogue. But it’s only between two characters, and some writers I admire could have dialogue between four or five characters, so I’m not really good enough unless I could do that. Most writers torture themselves like that. And, in some ways, it’s good because it goads you to learn more and stretch, as long as it doesn’t stop you in your tracks from doing anything. Then ultimately realizing that even with the greatest writers, there are some aspects of writing they’re brilliant at and some that they’re not. You read the writers you really admire and hope that through osmosis you’ll pick up some of their magic. You may never be Proust or Tolstoy, but that doesn’t mean that Proust and Tolstoy didn’t tell themselves there were things they couldn’t do right.
I attended a friend’s book club recently, and we got to talking about influences. I bonded with one of the people in the book club because we both were huge fans of Alice Munro. Now in the book Ivan and Misha, there’s a prologue that stands on its own; then you begin with the title story. But when I originally wrote it, the prologue and the story were part of the same story, and people would tell me, well you really can’t have a five-page prologue to a short story. But I have seen Alice Munro do amazing things, which gave me the confidence to do whatever I want if my sense as a writer is that it works. That’s one of the things I picked up: it’s that she does what she wants in terms of narrative structure. In two of my stories, at or near the end, I switch point of view from the main character; it was only days or weeks afterward I realized that I’d picked up that idea from reading stories by William Trevor: he had done that. But, initially, I hadn’t realized I had borrowed that technique from him. Then I reread some of his stories and was struck by how he’d done it with so much more subtlety and nuance than I had. That writers you revere can teach you so much even when you’re not consciously trying to copy their style and techniques; and that’s what I mean by osmosis.
RM: Early in Ivan and Misha, before the narrative begins, in the dedication, you mention that your mother “planted the seed.” Could you elaborate?
MA: Partly, I’m thinking of that playwriting class she took me to; partly, because she made sure I had a library card right away, and really encouraged my reading. I remember—and this may sound kind of funny—but just before she died, and I should preface it that it wasn’t clear she was dying (she was a severe asthmatic), she gave me a Harold Robbins book—which is going to date me. I think it was his first book: in memory, it was more serious and less of the sort that made him a big bestseller way back when. And she gave me a few more books which, in my memory, my sense was that she was trying to introduce me to more adult literature. At the time, when I was around eleven or twelve, I was reading science fiction; I devoured all the science fiction in the Santa Monica Public Library. So I think in that way she planted the seed. I don’t remember her well, but remember her making me think I could do anything, which stuck with me even after she died: the feeling that, in theory, I could do anything. My father fell apart and didn’t have it in him to do what she’d done for me. So coming full circle, I see writing as doing what I was meant to do, which may have had to do with her influence, and that I was never going to be happy until I did that.
RM: The program for the 30th annual Northern California Book Awards describes your novel as “a sort of literary cubism.” How exactly did you handle the multiple points of view in Ivan and Misha, and did you feel this approach was integral to the overall story arc?
MA: It was not something I had intended at the beginning; it was something I became aware of as I went along. Initially, “Ivan and Misha” was written as a stand-alone story. I went on to spend the next year working on another story. My agent tried to publish a book of my stories, but there were no takers at the time. I seem to have a knack for going out with my books during recessions. An editor at a New York publishing house really loved the story “Ivan and Misha,” and suggested that I write linked stories, spinning off characters; he had suggested writing a story about their father and his friendship with the character named Leo, and about Misha’s boyfriend and his relationship to his sister. For about a year I wasn’t interested in doing that, so I worked on a novella. But after a year, I thought let me give it a shot, and I initially came up with the story “Barrel of Laughs,” and was fascinated to find out that this character I’d created, Louie, Ivan and Misha’s father, had more life in him, and a lot more to explore. Similarly, I discovered that Misha’s boyfriend, Smith, had more to him than I had realized. For a long time, I didn’t consider writing a story from Ivan’s point of view, probably because Ivan’s bipolar and getting into his head seemed daunting.
But eventually I took a stab at it. With each story, I became aware of how I could create a deeper emotional resonance for the reader by how each character had a different slant on their world and how they thought and felt differently than you’d have expected from each previous story. Sometimes it’s an outright lie one character has told, and other times it’s an example of how each character sees only what they are capable of seeing, which can mean not seeing at all clearly. When I write from Louie’s point of view, he sees the world and understands the world differently than either Misha or Ivan. So as you read, each story deepens the reader’s sense of who those characters were in the opening story. I would not have used the term “literary cubism,” but I like that phrase. I wanted each story to have it’s own ‘story’ and be able to stand-alone; I wanted each story to reflect backward even as it moved forward. The deeper I went into the book, the more I saw opportunities to do that. In the end, it became much more of a novel in stories than many of the linked story collections I’ve read; as the complexities mounted, those moments deepened the emotional resonance and the surprises the reader is presented with. But I didn’t want them to be gimmicky kinds of surprises; I wanted them to be true, to come from the characters’ emotional lives and their histories.
RM: You covered a number of sexual taboos in Ivan and Misha, which I felt you handled very well. When in your writing, if ever, did you feel like you had crossed the line? Were you ever apprehensive as to how the publisher or readers would react?
MA: Yes. Before “Ivan and Misha,” I wrote a story where I had given myself the goal of writing a sex scene between two men that would come out of their relationship and their characters. The story was published, and I think I did very well with it. With “Ivan and Misha,” I hit several points where I’d stop writing; I’d feel uneasy about where it was going and think, nope, don’t want to go there. I write intuitively; I don’t plot out stories in advance, I go where my unconscious and my characters lead me. So at one point, I stopped working at it, kind of hoping that it would lead me somewhere else. When it didn’t, I thought, okay, if this is where the story wants to go, then I will write it to the best of my abilities, and so it’s not sensationalized. And some people said, “You’re not going to get it published because of this.” I can be stubborn, but it helped that there were readers who told me to stick with it as it is, which helped me be braver. At the time, publishing a book was still a pipe dream. So my feeling was, well, I’m going to do what I want to do, and in some ways I’m writing to first satisfy myself first and that audience of friends who read my work. But I did not think at all about commercial considerations in terms of getting published at the time. I was ill the whole time, and writing took a lot out of me physically. So I didn’t see any point in writing to please other people, for commercial success. The whole point of writing to me was to tap into what was inside of me, the wonderful playground of my imagination, so I stuck with that attitude throughout the writing to such a great extent that I’ve forgotten that there was anything in the book that might have upset people. And I’ve been constantly surprised at what readers respond to and why.
I went to the Napa Writing Conference a few years in a row, and the last time, I presented a story that’s not in the book. It’s about a U.N. peacekeeper in East Timor, and the workshop leader was Dorothy Allison. She asked us all to pick someone else’s work and introduce it before the workshop discussion. Initially, I thought she meant to introduce it with a brief introductory comment, but the first day people were writing three-page, single-spaced literary criticism. And so, when later in the week my story was discussed—and I learned a lot from this—my biggest worry was that people would say, “Oh we don’t believe this is taking place in East Timor; you don’t know anything about it.” But the person who wrote up his two-page analysis was shocked by what he called “my courage.” And it wasn’t my courage to set a story in East Timor, it was my courage to set up a bisexual, tri-racial love affair. That never occurred to me as courage; it was where the story went. I just try to stay true to the characters, and be true to their story.
RM: Listed as one of your previous occupations on the book jacket is cab driver. How has your experience in this occupation informed certain scenes in the New York setting, and how much of the book is actually realistic insofar as your life experiences?
MA: I didn’t drive a cab in New York; I drove a cab in Boston. I had two different stints: one while I was in grad school, and one while I was working my way out of my first profession. The perspective of a cab driver, the “nuts and bolts” as Ivan says in my book, was close to my experience, even though Boston is quite a different city and the particular scenes were all invented. (And my brother was a cab driver, too.) My sense of New York City as a setting is drawn from growing up in three of the outer boroughs and living in a half dozen parts of Manhattan. I especially drew on the years I lived in the East Village. I didn’t intend to write a book about a cab driver, though. It emerged, as do all my ideas, seemingly out of nowhere. For instance, Ivan and Misha were born, in part, from the fact that I’m second generation Russian-Jewish. My grandparents were all from near Kiev. Mixed in was that back in the 90s, one of my best friends had been living in Russia and traveling back and forth, and I was hearing his stories. However, the spark that got it going was that we had a playwright friend who was always coming up with schemes to get rich quick, so he could spend all his time writing: usually it was in real estate, but I had heard through a mutual friend that he was investing in telephone booths. That was the spark around which Ivan and Misha were born, literally, with Ivan trying to convince Misha to invest in telephone booths and, as I was writing, I gave them the names Ivan and Misha. Without my planning it, they became Russian immigrants, and Ivan became a cab driver. And once Ivan became a cab driver, it was a vehicle—forgive the pun—to work in my own personal experiences as a cab driver. Actually—I’m thinking of this for the first time—it gave me a lot more places to set scenes in New York, because I’d travel in my mind with Ivan in his cab, in New York City, and scenes could be set in different parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn and Staten Island; there’s even a scene where he goes all the way out to Amagansett with a fare. So it was a great vehicle to bring in a lot of New York settings, but I’m only realizing that today. It had never occurred to me when I was writing the book that it was a vehicle for anything.
One of my friends has said, “If all of you were a wet washcloth, and it were squeezed out, that’s ‘Ivan and Misha’. It’s not autobiographical, but everything in it is you.” It’s not autobiographical, but there’s stuff in it that I’m still discovering how emotionally resonant that ‘stuff’ is to my life.
RM: You mentioned the Russian setting. Do you feel it gives the novel a more universal appeal, something that resonates with a greater number of readers?
MA: It certainly gave me more to work with as I explored each character: Louie is an immigrant who is older and never really adjusts to being in America. And the brothers came over young enough that they have that immigrant’s duality; they were young enough to become complete Americans. At the same time, each brother, in a different way, has memories and a sense of himself as coming from Russia and speaking Russian. Even, for example, when I switch in one of the stories to Misha’s boyfriend Smith’s point of view, a lot of the story is built around Smith’s attraction to Misha’s Russianness; Smith, originally being Robbie Dodsworth from Michigan, feels like a pretty bland Midwestern boy, so he envies Misha’s Russian soulfulness, though Misha’s not really aware he has any Russian soulfulness. It gave me my entrée into looking into their relationship from Smith’s point of view, that cultural difference.…How my characters appear to non-Russians gave me so much to work with. Another example, is Louie’s friendship with Leo and with Estelle, both native-born Americans.
RM: Had you written any stories with these same characters that were not included in the book Ivan and Misha?
MA: No and yes. An earlier version of the book included two stories written independently of the “Ivan and Misha” stories. I thought they were two of my best, and most of my friends agreed. It’s so hard to get a book published these days—getting Ivan and Misha published was very difficult—and so I was determined to get those stories into the book because I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to get another book published. One of those stories is still in the book.
The other, a story about about a Swiss U.N. peacekeeper in Bosnia and East Timor, which was published in The Georgia Review, I took out. To work it into the book, I created a half-brother for Ivan and Misha. I introduced him in a flashback in the East Timor story where my main character, named Willie, meets a Latvian peacekeeper in Bosnia; I wrote a whole back-story of how he would be Ivan and Misha’s half-brother, but they wouldn’t know it and he—his name is Lyov—only learned about his half-brothers and his father the previous year when his mother tells him as she’s dying. And, originally, I had closed the book with a short story about that half-brother recovering from wounds in a hospital in Frankfurt. It ends with his leaving the hospital and, as soon as he’s finished with his army duties, he’s planning on going to New York to meet his brothers and his father. That character is still alive for me, in my head. I finally was convinced to take him out.
I am working on a new project and sometimes wonder if I’ll write more about the characters in Ivan and Misha. In the book, there’s an epilogue from Misha’s point of view, which was a very last-minute idea; and I was stunned how easy it was for me to write from Misha’s point of view again when I hadn’t for almost ten years. It made me think I know these characters so well, I could probably slip into any of them at any time.
RM: Interesting how that happens…
MA: The only character that took more effort, that was more difficult for me, was Ivan. Ivan was easy for me to conjure in the eyes of other characters, but writing from his point of view, particularly because he has bipolar disorder, was very challenging. But now that I’ve done it, I think that I could be Ivan again very easily. That book club I went to, we got on this subject a little bit. They were saying, “Oh I’d love a story about Smith’s mother.” Then there is a character in “Whirling Dervish” named Gabriella, and someone said, “I’d love a story just about Gabriella.” And I said, “Really?”
I’m reminded of a workshop with Michael Cunningham I’d taken at Napa. I’d brought a story, the first I’d ever finished. I asked him, “How do you decide to write a novel versus a short story?” At that point in his career, he had already written a couple of novels, but it was before he had written The Hours. He said, “Oh, I always write novels because once you’ve created a couple of good characters, it’s a shame to let go of them in just a short story.” It’s not easy to create good characters; so for him, he wants to get a novel’s worth out of them. I’ve never forgotten that. He has written a few short stories, but he’s more of a big-picture-novel type of writer. And I’ve been told often that my stories feel ‘novelistic’.
I think my writing has been shaped—constrained is the word I’d use—by illness. It takes a certain kind of mental stamina to stick with a novel, whereas a shorter story, even one of mine—most of mine are very long—I could put down for months, then go back to it and keep the whole structure of it in my head and know what parts need work. With a longer work, it’s much harder for me to be able to do that. People often told me that I write more like a novelist than a short story writer.
There was someone who I met at the MacDowell Colony: Margot Livesey, I think; I had sent her some of my work, and she really loved it. I was lamenting how people say I write like a novelist, but my feeling that I don’t have the stamina to write a novel. And she said, “Maybe your niche is what you’re very good at: the long, long short story. It’s a shame there isn’t more interest in that.” To a degree, I’ve taken it to heart. As a writer we do what we’re good at, or what we’re physically able to do; it may not be what the marketplace is looking for at the time, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing it. We would all like to get a six-figure advance, to make a living out of writing, but you do what you do well. The best writers do what they feel compelled to do, and they do it from the heart.
RM: Is there a message you want to convey to your readers through Ivan and Misha or through your writing in general, something you hope they pick up on?
MA: Two thoughts come to mind. First, no, I just write my stuff. I don’t plan ahead in any of my stories, so they always surprise me, as I’m writing them, in where they take me. But there are two ideas—or call them agendas—of which I am aware. One is something from an interview I read years ago in an essay by Edmund White about Nabokov—I hope I’m remembering this correctly—and, according to White, someone asked Nabokov if he wanted his readers to come away thinking about something. Nabokov replied, “Not at all, I want people to come away from my writings shivering.” I’ve always taken that to heart; when writing really works, you don’t come away from it having a new thought. Later you might have some new thoughts, but the initial reaction from reading something that’s powerful to you is a sense of shivering…you emotionally, spiritually, intellectually see the universe at a slightly different angle than you’ve ever seen it before. If you’re writing a Ph.D. dissertation, or you have to write a literary criticism, then you think about it. But the writers we love, we don’t necessarily love them because they give us new ideas.
The second intention is one I have been aware of from early on as a gay man: I have wanted to inhabit characters who are gay men and write about them with the same freedom, the same lack of self-consciousness that heterosexual writers write about their characters. And it’s a very hard thing to do when you’re part of a newly, semi-enfranchised minority group—and for a long time, women were in that category, too—but there is a certain self-consciousness that I tried to throw off and just say, y’know, Philip Roth doesn’t think about his frustrated, horny male protagonists as being heterosexuals; they’re just characters, and he just draws on his feelings and experiences and observations. So, if I had any intention, when my gay characters are protagonists of a story, I don’t want the stories to be about them being gay, per se, but at the same time I don’t want to shirk or hold back on their emotional and sexual lives that they would have by being gay. That may be the single most important intention for me as a writer.
RM: Yes, some of your strongest scenes were very unapologetic. You were never afraid to get into that element of it.
MA: I noticed that with a lot of gay writers there’s a tendency…you could tell…okay, I’m gay, and I want to create gay characters, but I also want to reach a larger audience. So the gay characters are gay, but often it’s simply a character detail, with as much impact as having black hair or blond hair; or it adds a little frisson to the story. Right now there are very few crossover gay writers who can get an audience and include a major gay protagonist. David Leavitt does it; Michael Cunningham has his way of doing it. More recently, there’s Adam Haslett. And then there are many writers who write unabashedly for gay men or lesbians and bother themselves worrying about that larger audience. What I’ve tried to do is to write stories that aren’t about being gay, per se, but unapologetically bring in the characters’ emotional and sexual lives with the freedom and unself-consciousness of straight writers. I think for me it comes from a place where I assume we’ve assimilated to such a degree that I can include those sexual and emotional details in the particularities my characters experience and expect their stories to be meaningful to every reader.
Vivian Gornick wrote a brilliant essay in Harper’s back in 2008 about Jewish American writers of the ’50s and ’60s and how they wrote in an unapologetic voice that was both insistently Jewish and insistently American. It’s been true for every writer who belongs to an outsider or minority class: African Americans, women, Latinos, Asian Americans, and on and on. James Baldwin, whose novel Another Country is one of my favorites, had to juggle being black and being gay and being simply a person, an American, in all his work.
There’s a parallel process I went through in writing about Ivan, who suffers from bipolar disorder. I didn’t want to write a case study about the illness, but it was necessary for whatever story I told about him that it be filtered through his illness. Yet I didn’t want it to be an illness story, per se; there is more to Ivan than his illness.
RM: Earlier, you had mentioned the names of some established writers and classics. Is there anyone you’re reading now, or anything you’ve come across by a newer writer that has inspired you lately?
MA: When I was working on my book, I was reading a lot of William Trevor and Alice Munro, and they definitely influenced me. Also during the writing, Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys and and Colm Tóibín’s The Master; Penelope Fitzgerald and Shirley Hazzard also rubbed off on me. Right now I’m re-reading Bruce Duffy’s The World As I Found It. I’d read it twenty-five years ago, before I started writing fiction, and it made a big impression on me. I’m reading it again, in part, as a fiction writer myself, to see what it was that so impressed me back then. And the last year or two of work on my book, I discovered James Salter.
RM: Whom you’ve actually quoted at the beginning of your book, from his work, Light Years…
MA: Yes. I discovered him towards the end of writing the book, and it fascinated me that he ignored his ethnicity in his writing. I’d never thought of Salter, maybe because, from the little bit I’d heard about him, I assumed he was an upper middle-class, suburban WASP writer, and I thought I’m not really interested in those lives. Then I heard an interview with him and found out he was Jewish. I think it was when his last story collection came out, and there was something about the review that made me think I really need to read this guy. And I was stunned by how good he was. What he can pack into a sentence is amazing. But I still didn’t realize that he was Jewish until I heard an interview with him—probably on NPR—and the interviewer said, “You know you’re of the generation in between Roth and Bellow, but you would never guess it from your writing. You don’t write about Jewish things at all.” It interested me the kind of prejudices I had that screened him out, and also that somebody of his generation was writing about what interested him and not feeling obliged to write about his Jewishness or his Jewish Americanness if he didn’t want to.
I guess I’d say I’m drawn to writers whose prose sings and is alive sentence by sentence, and yet there’s a story that’s told and not obscured by the writing. Earlier this year I read Haldor Laxness’s Independent People, and while it’s a long book, the writing, even in English translation, literally sings and carries the reader almost effortlessly through its length. I love Henning Mankell’s police procedurals; they are my go-to comfort food. Right now, I’m reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell.
RM: In closing, do you have anything you’d like to say to new writers, words of advice to those starting out in the writing field?
MA: To be a writer, you have to be really stubborn, you have to stick to it, and you have to know you’re going to have to stick to it even if you don’t get any rewards. I think—and this is my bias—that you shouldn’t try to write like other writers; you shouldn’t be sitting down and trying to write like Hemingway, or write like Philip Roth or Martin Amis. Or even William Trevor and Alice Munro whom I so admire. But it doesn’t mean your favorite writer won’t work his way into your writing…
RM: So, you see it as a hindrance to emulate someone else.
MA: I do. But then of course that’s a generalization to which there are many exceptions. I know writers that started off writing like some writers they admire but eventually develop into the kind of writer they’re going to be. But for me it’s not helpful to deliberately imitate. And figuring out how to be my version of a writer taught me something surprising about myself: it was a kind of stubborn perseverance and also a kind of trust in my own intuition, so that even when I was in the middle of a story, and had no idea what to do next, I learned to trust that over time I’d figure it out. So it doesn’t scare me as much: I know it’s going to take me a while to figure out how to proceed with the story, or where the heart of the story is. Some people would say if you start something, you just have to plug away at it every day until you’re done. It works sometimes. For me—and it has to do with my health history—I often have to put things down for long stretches. I’ve learned that I could just trust that I could go back to it and pick up where I’d left off, to let the story come to me and not force it.
There’s a character in the book I’m working on now—it’s sort of a joke when I talk about it with any friends who’ve read it—I think he’s going to die in the book. I know he’s sick; I don’t know what he’s sick with, and I’ve written in having him die, but I’m not certain when it happens. For a while I felt I couldn’t go on with this book until I know what’s wrong with him, and when and if he dies. Then I realized, well, I just don’t know yet. I’ll figure it out finally. There’s another character in the book who, as a child, doesn’t talk, and for the longest time, I assumed he would have Down’s Syndrome or autism. Then, around the age of nine or ten, he starts talking; by the time he’s seventeen, he’s talking a fair amount. He’s still kind of unusual, but I let go of feeling like I have to give him a diagnosis. He is who he is. It’s actually kind of a wonderful freedom as a writer to just let some aspects of the work remain mysterious…but all the while to be alert to those little signals from your unconscious that tell you where they want to go or what’s important about them.
So, here’s some advice: pick a writer whom you admire and turn out stories and novels about as often as you can; that will keep you saner, rather than looking at the writers who are writing faster. One thing I’d add is that there are certain writers I discovered when I had started writing who triggered the writing part of my brain. I found that very early with William Trevor and Alice Munro; I’m not trying to copy their writing but their brilliance, the way they create sentences and get into the souls of characters, the rhythm of their sentences, their sense of detail, external and internal to their characters.… I will be reading one of their stories, and I will get ideas for stories of my own. There are other writers I enjoy reading, but they don’t do that for me for whatever reasons. So I think it’s important to know the writers who literally wake up the language part of your brain. I guess, in part, what I’m saying is there are all sorts of survival strategies that make your writing possible and keep down your personal level of angst. Marrying someone rich, for example, can be helpful.
RM: That couldn’t hurt! (laughs)
MA: Years ago, I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and there were lots of writers and artists in my building, mostly because the superintendent was a writer himself…I was in awe of the poets because I grew up poor and always had to think about survival. The idea of being a poet seemed to me scary and quixotic—you’re never going to make any money as a poet.…I didn’t understand back then that artists persevere, often regardless of money. That it’s feeling more fully alive when creating, which drives us. Someone recently—a short story writer—titled a blog, “We Are All Poets Now.” Which I thought was pretty funny and also true.
RM: You have to keep a balance between the creative end and the practical one.
MA: Pretty much everybody has to consider that, but what I didn’t realize at the time, and what I discovered when I was writing, literally, my first couple of pages of prose, I didn’t realize how wonderfully exciting it was to tap into my imagination and my feel for words, for language. Those first few months when I was tentatively writing stories, I understood why people were willing to put up with poverty for their whole lives for their art, because it made me feel, as I’d said earlier, more fully alive than anything I’ve ever done. It was, like, oh yes, this is what keeps you going even if you’re not successful or famous or making any money at it; creating art makes you more fully alive. I’ve long had a theory that to feel like you’ve lived a good life, your soul requires: finding the right vocation in life, finding your soul mate, and finding where to live—what city or what community to be a part of. If you actually get one in your life, you’ve done really well; two is remarkable. When I started writing I felt like my soul had found its true vocation, and that part of my soul was finally at peace. There was always a nagging irritable part of me that was never happy with anything I did, and it was because I was not doing what I wanted to do, what I needed to do.…
RM: That’s good advice for life as well as for writing.
MA: How many people do you know that have even two of those?
Richard Mandrachio is a novelist who reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. He is a member of the Northern California Book Reviewers, a volunteer association sponsored by Poetry Flash. The NCBR and Poetry Flash, with other collaborators, present the Northern California Book Awards.