Literature : Interview

Kathleen Alcott on adolescence and her novel The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets.


Laura Newman, Peach Sky; Flashe and watercolor; 15 × 22. Courtesy Pierogi Flat Files.

Kathleen Alcott’s debut novel, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, jumps out in a field of exceptional 2012 debuts for its formal risks, its warm humor, and its investigation of psychological hinterlands that, in my eyes, are incredibly difficult to get right on the page. Dangers tells the story of Ida and Jackson, best friends and (later) lovers who share a kind of intimacy most people never experience. They grow up together, learn the world together, and in many ways, are one another. Their love is profound, and their individuation, when it comes, is a sad and painful thing.

I talked to Alcott about coming of age stories, how images tap into old emotions, and about what comes next for a young writer with a great debut under her belt.

Patrick Somerville So Kathleen: I wanted to start by telling you that The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets stirred up at least a half-dozen very old childhood memories for me—memories that I hadn’t revisited for a decade, maybe more. A friend, for example, slipping and falling on the ice, and breaking his teeth, and me waiting there with him, his face all bloody while he cried, after his brother ran home to get his parents. Here’s another: two girls in my driver’s ed class who sat near me, but who were from a different school, and their presence in the class made every Tuesday night into an adventure of anticipation and excitement, despite the content of the class. I can’t for the life of me figure out a) why those particular memories suddenly came back to me (there are many more), and in such a rush, or b) what it was about your novel that so thoroughly activated these memories. What did you do to me? Is it just that you know something special about adolescence, and it’s a part of this book? And more: can you tell me about remembering, and what fiction is relative to the memories of the person reading?

Kathleen Alcott Let me say, first, that I’m so incredibly sorry to bring you back to your driver’s ed classroom. (On a side note, I had a driving instructor named, no joke, Carl Carlson, a twenty years sober Charlie’s Angel ex-con, who told me once that driving stoned versus driving drunk was “ . . . Darlin’, just like switching seats on the Titanic.” I never forgot that.)

I think the memories you referenced are both pretty heavy with choice, whether the absence or presence. There’s nothing (really) you could have done while a child. You watched your friend bleed and cry because you just weren’t emotionally or practically prepared yet, but that aspect of childhood always horrified me. I wanted more responsibility; I wanted to know the world I lived in was one I had shaped, somehow. I think the characters in Alphabets, when they’re children (and adults), are moved by that same need. But it is an interesting distinction: what a book is to one person because of the stories in their brain, and what it is to another, given the imprints in their neural pathways. Maybe as novelists our job is to create something that’s rich enough, in terms of both emotion and image, that the reader is more likely to link it to their own mythology and thereby emerge with more than the contained narrative. I’m not sure what Carl Carlson would say.

PS In a way that sounds like imagism.

KA I suppose it is in that I’m interested in the ongoing mantling of images as a means to a narrative end rather than a story that requires the finding of images to support it.

PS I say that because I also think that memory reaction I had was something about the overall set of imagery in your writing, and how careful you are with visual matters, and how generous Alphabets is when it comes to showing us moments. That leaves so much room for the reader to feel things independently, but to be there with the characters, too. The image of Jackson, for example, being “rescued” from the roof of the old mill by the police, and being completely irritated and embarrassed about it as he’s brought down on a cherry picker, is pure gold for the reader. (I agree with Ida’s father about that.) Can you talk about that moment, and what you think it does in the story? There are so many more “significant” moments, but it keeps coming back to me as something emblematic.

KA You’re the first person to mention that moment to me. I suppose it is in tune with the way Jackson pushes at the world for the rest of the book. Ida has given him this place, and because she’s been irresponsible with his feelings he brings other people up there and wants to share that height and view with them, and assume some kind of emotional and sensorial control. But just as his sleep finds him on strange buses or making disturbed artwork without his permission, even the attempt at redefining his association with that place, with Ida, is quashed.

PS Do you write poetry?

KA I used to a great deal, and I think having different kinds of relationships with words is instructive, but I’ve pretty much ceased as I’ve gotten a little older. When one is putting a lot of thought into working out his/her emotional identity—when one has the sort of young time to do that, and fewer responsibilities—poetry feels urgent, and also the right answer to what feels like an endless string of moments of significance. At some point I became more interested in the vivisection of very long questions, probably when I became more interested in a long life (mine). I write about a poem per season now, or rather, when something in my life is verily changing.

PS Okay, one more about adolescence. Just before that cherry-picker moment, about one-third of the way through the book, you write this amazing sentence—meditative, not image-based at all—and I want people to see it, as it’s an example of a completely different path you take to the contemplation of growing up: “Our teenage years are just as engraved as the rest in my memory, but they are stories I am hesitant to speak about with anyone who wasn’t present: because they seem boastful, fantastic, no doubt exaggerated; because in telling them we seem to lose credibility as the responsible adults we tell ourselves and the world that we are now.” I have felt this feeling, but I’ve never heard it expressed quite like this. How does what Ida says here relate to the book as a whole, and to the “kid” and “grown-up” parts of Ida’s, James’s, and Jackson’s lives?

KA It’s mostly about how we assign weight, both that sentence and the book. Which aspects of our pasts, precisely, become our obligation to forsake, given the lives we’ve made so many choices to secure and define? If in the past we chose to love people who were bad for us, or lived our lives in a dangerous way, how do we align that with tiny, domestic beauties? I think Ida and Jackson are so stunned to have made it out that they don’t always feel they’re deserving. I felt the same at some point. I ran a little wild for a spell—that’s such a cheesy expression, but there it is—and then made decisions to work harder and live quieter, but there are still moments where I can’t believe I get to just do the dishes near someone I love.

PS There are domestic beauties all over that apartment in San Francisco, I have to say.

KA I’m interested in the work and art behind joining lives. And strange fish and pastel curtains. The neat thing about being a writer is that you can save up a string of colors or objects you adore and put them into one room, if you’re lucky.

PS The book opens up with short chapters that give the reader briefer images, feelings, and ideas, and as it goes on, we got longer sequences—a girl who’s been kidnapped from the neighborhood, a tragedy in Ida’s family, James getting into trouble, and then a longer sequence about Jackson and Ida living together in San Francisco. I thought that said something about aging, and the quality and coherence of the narratives we build about ourselves as we get to a more stable place. Is that fair?

KA As a child there’s often the luxury of seeing an event as distinct, a story contained only by the time it happened in. And then exceptions become rules. The story of Alphabets, both from my perspective as a writer and the protagonist’s as a human, involved a good deal of layering—putting down somewhat transparent images on top of each other and observing which shapes show up again and again.

PS But I also wondered if it had anything to do with you, as a debut novelist, taking longer and longer strides as you fell deeper and deeper into your story. Is that fair as well?

KA Actually, the book was written with very little regard for temporal construction—I was moving through their memories as I pleased, and then only later went in to arrange them in a chronology. I’m doing a better job with that in the current book, although I’m wary to travel too far from receiver to administrator. I think it’s fine to take the long way while you’re writing so long as you keep a map in mind during revisions.

PS Ah, a map. I’m so interested in that and how other writers handle the size of a novel. I have this theory that short stories and novels have evolved as forms along neurobiological lines. On the one side is the short story, which is short enough for us to hold in our heads all at once and still imagine fully. But I think there is some crucial moment when novels simply become too complex for a writer to hold inside his or her brain all at once, and we have to build tools to deal with that information overload. A map, a key, a guide, some kind of private coded index . . .

KA I am the sort of person who wears a cocktail dress to a war, which is to say, the map I draw might not be the clearest. I drool when I see those photos of index cards arranged just so, but that’s not quite my system. I basically keep a number of lists. One is of important questions, those that are ideally driving and informing the book’s momentum and which generally prove useful in times I’m feeling derailed. Others are on characters—what I’ve come to know about them as people—and then there’s the document with temporal/spatial/factual matters.

PS What’s the current book?

KA The joke about the current book is that it’s an engaging party with plenty of thoughtful decorations, but possibly one attended exclusively by psychotherapists in several disparate fields. It surrounds the tenants of a building, who are all damaged and endearing in different shapes, and who are both pushed together and outward by the rapidly dementing landlord in the basement apartment. There’s a misanthropic ex stand up comedian attempting (earnestly and hilariously) to become more sincere, and a man with a genetic disorder (William’s Syndrome) that renders him endlessly trusting (and effectively incapacitated) into adulthood, and an agoraphobic luddite, and a visual artist who has lost half of his body to a stroke, and the corrupt son of the landlord who sends the whole barely-functioning system on another spin entirely. I’m in love with it, and like real love it takes work.

PS Louise Erdrich has talked about that time in a novelist’s life when memories are exhausted, and new stories have to flow more out of the imagination. Do you think that’s happening with the new book?

KA I think art always moves in cycles of departure and return. At this point I’m very happy floating far from where I’ve come, but at some point I’ll be called back. At this point in my life, I feel generally safe and cared for; there’s not a great need to make sense of my personal universe. Speaking to memories further, though, I think the maturation of the writer often involves a transition from leveraging the recollection of events to the recollection of emotion. We end up using how we felt rather than how we acted or what we witnessed.

PS What would you be if you weren’t a writer?

KA I would like to say teaching three-year-olds about numbers and letters, or something that unassailably helpful, but I bet I’d probably be making really obtuse bummer art. Like, the sped-up recording of a cicada’s life cycle looped over, I don’t know, videos of elderly people watching videos of their younger selves. I bet there’s already a Kickstarter for that.

PS Finally: Brooklyn is so far away from California. What are you doing?

KA So much! I am hiking in places with quite different colors than California, and braiding the loose ends of the novel, and growing my hair out. I love New York, particularly the relationship one grows to cultivate with their work given seasonal shifts: during the winter you stay quiet with yourself, and in the spring you take what you’ve learned out for an airing. It registers with me as correct in a way the aimlessness of California weather doesn’t. I like having to earn what I’m given.

Patrick Somerville’s newest book is called This Bright River. He teaches creative writing at Northwestern and Warren Wilson, and lives with his wife and son in Chicago.

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