Smoke and Mirrors—An Interview with Jessica Alexander

by Caren Beilin Read the Story March 31, 2015

This piece, to me, eschews a particular passion of realism, to blend sentences—to keep them contiguous through a false smoothness of logic. Your sentences refuse this smoothness, this logic: “I said I want you to leave, Thomas. Leave and don’t come back here. He stood up. I said sit. You look thirsty. Tom, may I offer you something? I took off my top.” Can you talk a bit about your relationship to realism and more specifically to its insidious smoothness?

What was it William James said after reading Stein’s Three Lives? This is a fine new kind of realism. I think that’s it. Maybe he was joking. I think he had a wonderful sense of humor. In that novel in particular Stein was parroting key features of realist narration. I mean repeating to the point of nausea and, I think, her point was that clichés are the symptoms of a real social sickness. And because they joke and parody, Stein and James force questions like what is reality? What is the relationship between words and reality? How can one way of using language have a more authentic relationship to the real? I know what you mean by this smoothness of logic, this stultifying sameness, and I experience a delightful shock, a violent surprise whenever it’s defiled. Travesty, burlesque, camp, hoax all do this for me. For instance, The Onion once ran this op-ed called “If I’m So Crazy, Then Why Do People Keep Having Sex With Me?” The joke, I guess, is that such logic is madness. But I also think that such sentences, whether or not it’s intended, invite us to seek delight inside a mad logic that longs to vandalize conventional wisdom.

Is this story heterosexual camp? Is this genre possible? I think you might be doing it. Do you think you’re writing heterosexual camp? What could define this genre? If you’re not writing heterosexual camp, what are you doing writing about all these men + women?

My gay lover calls The Bachelor camp because it endlessly repeats the ruling metaphors of romantic love. (How’s that for economy!) The program, of course, promotes a love that’s bound up in marriage, monogamy, and reproductive heterosexuality. Yet love is a relentless monolith, indiscriminately prodding this brood of women. Despite that love’s avowals hinge on singularity (soul mate, my other half, the one), here the object is disposable and the form is inflexible. That’s campy, right? Other examples of camp that come to mind include the 2003 comedy Girls Will Be Girls, Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray, and anything by Jean Genet. These latter examples, unlike The Bachelor, don’t depend on my lover’s penchant for reading convention as comically perverse; they ape the dominant culture with intent. For this reason, I don’t think camp requires any modifiers. To my mind, it’s less about subjects or objects than ways of reading and performing them. But camp also tends to read women as dispensable and abhorrent—their erratic want, their nauseating bodies! Of course, this is disconcerting, and yet my impulse, for some reason, is not to reaffirm or exalt the category (woman), but rather to exaggerate its degradation and maybe to write a desire—whose lexicon was botched to begin with—unhinged from any objective or value that might redeem it.

What have you read or seen or done in life that has indisputably made you a better, more serious, more intelligent, more troubling, more wounding, more radical writer?

As an undergraduate I majored in philosophy. “What is Philosophy?” was the last thing I read before graduating. That was Heidegger. So, naturally, I left without knowing the answer. I was not a very good philosophy student. I suspected I had gotten a degree in a kind of fiction, maybe what frightens white men. A lot of what I’ve been assigned to read in my life has been about what frightens white men. And I was often under the impression that calling attention to this was neither significant nor rigorous. This discovery, this tactic of reading symptomatically, alone did not necessarily make me a more troubling, more wounding, more radical writer (probably made me more wounded than anything), but the combination of this and reading more troubling, more wounding, more radical writers certainly did—reading your work, for instance, reading Elizabeth Wagner, reading Jaclyn Watterson, reading Rachel Levy, having friends that tell me to read Stacey Levine, Gayl Jones, or Adrienne Kennedy.

You write many short pieces—many smokelongs! What is this form good for? I’ve had a pretty tortuous relationship with writing long—have you? Do you desire to? Or is everything right here?

Grace Paley has this story called “Mother.” It’s one page long. It opens with “One day I was listening to the AM radio. I heard a song: ‘Oh, I Long to See My Mother in the Doorway.’” And she relates times her mother stood in the doorway and things her mother said in the doorway. “Then she died,” it says. “Naturally,” it goes on, “I longed to see her, not only in door ways, but in a great number of places.” So, we see mother in other places: kitchens, dining rooms, she sits in the den beside her husband. “Talk to me a little,” she says, “We don’t talk much anymore. I’m tired, he said. Can’t you see? […] Listen to the music. I believe you once had perfect pitch. I’m tired, he said. Then she died.” The repetition lends these instants the quality of routine. You’re lulled into this rhythm, this habit, or pattern of seeing, which ends so abruptly. The piece is so perfectly performative. Its impact is in the compression of events, the repetitions, the tension and absence between sentences. I like the short form because it lets me be myopic. I have this impression that writing longer forms would require that I be more controlling, that I plot and plan. I could be mistaken.

About the Author:

Jessica Alexander teaches and studies at the University of Utah. Her fiction has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Fence, DIAGRAM, and PANK, among other places. She is currently a fiction editor for Quarterly West.