Oct 17, 2016
Surreal Emotion: Talking to Alexandra Kleeman about Intimations
In her new book of short fiction, Intimations, Alexandra Kleeman renders completely new worlds with each story. Even when she chooses to present a mundane-seeming afternoon, like lounging poolside, it’ll often escalate into a situation unlike any other presented in literature. Her way of pairing everyday feelings and details with indescribably otherworldly elements makes it impossible to describe her fictional worlds as fantasy, or any other genre: they are simply fiction, but fiction unlike that created by any other authors. The surreal testing grounds in which she places these emotions allows their multilayered reality to shine. While the plot of her stories are far from relatable, they speak a truth about experiences like heartbreak or inferiority seldom found when describing these experiences directly. I talked to Kleeman about her use of ads, brand names, and uncertainty in fiction.
Brooklyn Magazine: I read that you were raised in Colorado and Japan, is that right?
Alexandra Kleeman: Yeah, my parents are academics so we moved a lot. I lived the longest in Colorado of my life, about five years. My first language is Japanese, I lived there when I was really young and picked up a lot of mannerisms.
Do you think that moving around a lot and having to adapt changed the way you looked at the world?
I think so. I literally lived in eleven places by the time I was thirteen, when I moved to Colorado. When I was in fifth grade we moved to California and I walked into my new middle school and I could not recognize anyone’s face. I couldn’t tell faces apart, but I could tell hairstyles apart. I’d always be like, Okay, that’s my friend Ivy because she has the straight, shoulder length hair. But if she put her hair in a ponytail I was screwed, you know?
In your 2015 novel You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine and in the first story in Intimations, “Fairy Tale,” advertisements are mentioned vividly. What draws you to ads?
What I love about ads is that when I watch them they so clearly want something from me. The desire that the ad has from the viewer is more apparent than it is in other things. You read an academic essay or you read a nonfiction book and they all have something that they want from you but it’s covered up and made subtle and polite. Ads have this self confident desperation that I love. They’re something that I look to to provide a little window into the subconscious of what’s going on [in the story] or that connect with the narrators on a level that they can’t explain or that unsettle them on a level they can’t explain.
In You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine there are so many different things that you bring in, that seem stray and self-serving, that end up, pieced together, accomplishing something much larger. Because of this, I wonder what you perceive as the difference in writing a novel compared to many short stories?
I mean, they’re so different. I always find it funny that fiction writers are expected to write short stories and novels because the skills you need to do each one of those are totally different. The way you need to shape your life to do them is also completely different. With a short story you could literally have it hit you in a flash and sit down and write it for eight hours straight and be done and not really need to edit it. It’s like an intense burst of story that can hit you all at once. Like “You, Disappearing” [the last story in Intimations], that’s a story that I began writing when I heard the voice echoing in my head and it was about 11 PM when I started writing it and I knew that I wouldn’t be allowed to go to sleep until I finished, so I was literally trying to write things down as fast as I could. With a novel, if you do two of those nights in a row you’ll feel like you’re going crazy. It’s like the difference between being a marathon runner and being a sprinter but you’re expected to develop the muscles for both in this world. I’ve often thought of short stories as the way I give myself a break from the pressure and depression associated with writing a novel for me. When you’re writing a novel, you’re creating a big world and it’s got to work together in this way, and you have to write it over the course of a year or two years. Sometimes, you know that you have to change as a person to see a solution to a problem that you don’t know how to work out. With a short story, you don’t have to build something that lasts 300 pages. It’s more fun, but I don’t know if it’s as rewarding. Like after you finish a novel you feel really good about yourself for a while.
Totally! A lot of the stories in Intimations, from what I can see, were published in journals or magazines years ago. What’s it like publishing works from so many years altogether and removing them from their original context?
It’s funny because the stories are clustered together in a way that is not chronological but is kind of thematic. I’ve written in a few different styles in the collection, like I’ve written surreal dream like stories, and I’ve written some stories that are even more surreal and hard to see happening. I’ve also written some more realistic, or my version of realistic, stories, too. The styles are pretty different but I always seem to come back to the same sort of obsessions. Obsessions about how to deal with the prospect of impending death, or how to deal with the realization that you’ve been born or released into a system where the rules are already figured out and they’re terrible.
Yeah! It makes sense to organize the stories in the roughly three groups but it may also be more interesting for the reader in total chronological order. [When read chronologically,] you can see when I wrote a story and was frustrated with one style so I then did something very different. That’s the secret story of the collection, for me.
Here your voice is so distinct, even from the first book. Do you think about your voice at all? How did you develop it?
Yeah! I mean, on the one hand, I don’t know if you get a choice about your voice. You have these tics that you keep falling back on and I think you have the option, if you’re really frustrated by the tics, to invent some new mode of performing your voice, but it’s difficult to do. You’re always so unfortunately, unavoidably who you are when you write. I think that a lot of my style comes from the perspective of getting to write fiction after writing mostly poetry and experimental essays and feeling like I didn’t have the authority to make things happen the way storytellers and fiction writers usually did. It seemed so authoritarian and almost violent to just dictate that, you know, “Suddenly, Sally’s head exploded” or something like that. I wasn’t really certain, so all of my characters began writing from a place where they are uncertain and this makes the stories common in an emotional way and sometimes in a linguistic way. I think my only character who is very sure of himself in the whole collection is my eighteenth century French dancing instructor, and by the end he’s pretty uncertain, too.
The lengthy interiority of “A Brief History of the Weather” seems, to me, completely unimaginable in the real world, but the emotional and nostalgic feeling “You, Disappearing” seems somehow plausible, even though the concept is wild. When you’re setting out to write a story do you decide to consciously decide which end of the spectrum you want the story to fall on?
I think with each project you figure out how easy it’s going to be for the reader to stand in your narrator’s position. “You, Disappearing” is not a real world situation, but it’s a real world feeling, I think, that’s going on in that story. I definitely want my reader to be with the narrator the whole time, to be feeling with my narrator, to be feeling with the things that happen. It means making the world relatable in that, the other story you mentioned, isn’t really. t’s so funny but, with “A Brief History of the Weather” [that story] is the closest to my own experience. I was really interested with talking about what it is to be a child with explanations and rules that had been given to you and really not being able to see your way out of them. Like, I think that being a child can be a really isolating phenomenon before you learn you have the ability to communicate outside of your family and communicate outside of your home. There’s this layer of uncertainty between the reader and the narrator about what actually is going on. Though I think you can feel the general shape of what’s going on, you know? But in my head, I have a very clear idea of what’s happening.
Fiction writers often talk about how, though their work isn’t autobiographical, it certainly contains aspects of themselves. Your work seems so otherworldly, so it’s hard to see the events and characters being at all based in real people and events. Do you ever consciously channel situations in your real life into your work, even if very layered?
Yes, I feel I definitely do. I often feel that the stories are fuelled by very concrete feelings and concrete occurrences. Karen, a character who appears in three of the stories in the middle, she is a person who is different from me and reacts differently than I do but she worries about a lot of the same things that I’ve worried about in the past. She’s a person that I’ve constructed as my double, but a double who hasn’t figured out how to handle some of the things I have. I don’t want to say exactly which things, but some of the things that happen to Karen are exactly things that have happened to me. I’ve often felt that a lot of my memories are organized emotionally rather than chronologically so I sometimes will have a feeling and the feeling is directly from my life, but in the book is placed in a very different setting.
I rarely make a character who’s wholly different from me, they’ll start from an interesting job, or interesting time period, or interesting historical figure but I more work in chipping pieces of myself and through the pieces you can flesh them out and make them a more separate person but I can’t make a character without beginning with something that comes from me.
In your writing, there are no direct references to pop culture and the brands mentioned aren’t true to life. Do you do this intentionally?
Yeah, I mean, in some of the earliest stories in the collection, like “Fairy Tale,” which was one of the first stories I wrote as an adult, that it takes place in a very minimalistic abstracted dream world where there are generic things like vases, and plates, and knives, but there aren’t any specific things. That was the world I was more comfortable writing in because I always felt like the second that you let “Coca Cola” into your story, is the second when all these other brands start asserting themselves. Like in the world of soda, there’s also Pepsi, and Sprite. It just fleshes out this whole capitalistic world that doesn’t have the same emotional valence as I want to have in the story. In writing the novel, one of the instructions that I gave myself was that I had to incorporate things from the world that had a texture I didn’t find beautiful or literary but I had to find a way to work them in. I could have more control if I built them in as separate entities [by renaming them], that could obviously look slightly like Walmart but I could do more with them. In saying Wally Supermarkers, I wouldn’t be in the situation of someone saying, Oh, well I’ve never been in a Walmart that has that, you know?
You also just have control over someone’s emotional and sentimental response when you’re partially making it your own.
You get the chance to make it strange instead of tacky. I love it, and I feel like there’s this mythic, kind of fairytale layer to our everyday lives but we aren’t really allowed to feel that. We’re just channelled into feeling like the buying impulse or the brand attraction impulse. There’s something about watching a commercial without knowing, Oh, this is a commercial I’ve already seen before. Like watching a commercial unfold for the first time, it unfolds as this surreal movie whose message is made mysterious again.
Author Photo by Graham Webster
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