Sunday, March 13, 2011

Interview with Elizabeth Alexander

I came to Elizabeth Alexander's work through Monkeybicycle 7, which includes "On Anzio Beach," her simultaneously breezy and melancholy story about a woman's search for her missing father. The piece ranges through time and space, as the narrator and the smoking, drinking dog who is her guide bound into 1923 Paris, then to the desperate beachhead at Anzio in World War II. For the past few years Alexander has shelved and unshelved a long project about race relations in Dallas, where she grew up, but has steadily produced short work that has appeared in places like Anemone Sidecar, Gargoyle, and The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Alexander agreed to answer some questions about "On Anzio Beach" and about the writing process she's used in her other work.

"On Anzio Beach" is made of characters and events that at first seem whimsical, but then reveal themselves as complex and somber, or even melancholy--as an example, Alet is a talking terrier, but he's also the reincarnation of the narrator's father's friend, returned in this dog body for only a short time. Would you write a bit about the genesis of this story, and of these characters?

The story came to me with the title, "The Last Christmas Pie." After a year of cooking disasters, including a small kitchen fire, my then 88 year-old mother decided that she would make a pie for Christmas dinner one last time. I think the story's genesis was my realizing that Mother would die sooner rather than later and wanting to make some sort of internal progression toward that eventuality. I see vestiges of those concepts in "Anzio" (p. 82, "She is dying," through the quote from "Marmalade Me," p. 83, and at the end).

I don't remember how I got from "The Last Christmas Pie" to "On Anzio Beach." Likely I shelved the project for awhile and took it up after there was a spate of new historical writing about Operation Shingle. (My dad did serve in the 56th Evac.)

The major source for "Anzio" is the history of my immediate family, from WWII until the recent past. The melancholy aspect of the characters likely springs from my own loss. All the main characters, except the fisherman, have historical (if not always personal) antecedents. As for their fantastical attributes. . . I seem constitutionally incapable of writing realistic fiction. My attempts to date have had consistently wooden or maudlin results.

This is a story that covers a lot of ground quickly, without rushing. It ends in a satisfying place, but I was left feeling like it could have spread out over a much longer space and still read as a full piece. Did you consider other scopes for this project, or did it always exist as a short story?

It always existed as a short story. Other readers have raised the question, however, which leads me to think that there may have been a longer possibility, or a different form, that I did not see.

You wrote that your major source for "Anzio" is the history of your family; can I ask what other sources you draw on in your writing?

Historical sources (people, events, and issues that interest me). The people tend to be literary or visual artists. The events and issues tend to be grim (e.g., Hitler's ascension to power, the recurrent threat of fascism, colonization and its legacies, war).

Like "On Anzio Beach," your other work that I've read--"Death Suite" in Archipelago and "Second Comings" in Prick of the Spindle--juxtaposes intimate character development and situations with chronologically and geographically sprawling settings or ideas. "Death Suite," for example, samples moments of violence against women throughout history and the world, and "Second Comings" summons images of Nazism in a modern setting. When you begin developing a piece, do you start from the broader view, or inside of a character's head, or somewhere else?

It varies, but I generally start simultaneously from the broader view and outside a character's head. The character's internal self emerges from his/her response to the problem.

Here's how "Colour Theory" developed: After reading Mouloud Feraroun's journal, I wanted to read more and write about the Algerian War. I'd had a years-long interest in Yves Klein and thought maybe I could work that in - but didn't want to treat only a European artist; research led me to Rashid Koraïchi. In a former life I was an ordained United Methodist minister; I see shades of that in "Colour Theory," where God appears as an affable but hapless character. The recurrent terrier ("Colour Theory," "Anzio") is an homage to our late great Alice Woodruff (a Cairn, 1984-2000).

"Second Comings" emerged as I was pondering what links there might be between fascism and child abuse.

I guess it's all stream of consciousness with me. I definitely proceed by instinct, rather than from an outline or plan.

I can see that instinctual development--your writing is often imaginatively playful even when it's serious, leaping from one image or place to the next. But it's also very controlled, composed of tight sections, like the individual pieces of "Colour Theory," and punchy sentences, like this, from "Second Comings:" "She had scabs in places that do not land on the pavement when you fall down." Does that concision come naturally? What's your editorial process like, once you've written a first draft?

I meant that the content is developed instinctually. I labor like a poet over the actual composition, often going word by word and almost always line by line. When the writing goes well and the piece is short, once I complete a paragraph it's pretty much set. In longer pieces, I write draft upon draft (at least 12 full drafts with "Anzio;" drafts of problematic/challenging paragraphs were countless). Needless to say, my process does not facilitate the creation of a large, or even a medium-sized, body of work.

Bonus Notes:

Here is some information on Operation Shingle, the 1944 amphibious Allied landing in Italy.

The Jill Johnson quote from Marmalade Me that Alexander references is

Nothing is deleted. That which is deleted has always existed. Whatever is, is constantly in deletion. Existence and deletion [are] the same thing.


  1. I knew and loved the late great Alice Woodruff. It is with deep and abiding fondness that I can attest to her impact and influence upon Ms Alexander as an observer, philosopher, yearner, and one of the most unique and inspiring humans I am privileged to count within my circle of friends.

  2. Elizabeth Alexander is one of the most talented and interesting writers I've ever read. Her whimsical, yet brilliant personality readily comes across in her prose, and like experiences with Alice Woodruff, the reader never quite knows what to expect.

  3. What I like about the story we discussed most here is how it's got these silly elements that feel useful to the story, but not fundamental--they enhance rather than prop up, I mean. Her writing has an adventurous feel, too, built on careful, literary writing. It's a lot of things all at once.