Friday, June 12, 2009
I recently reviewed a novel by Alex Jeffers, Do You Remember Tulum, and was so blown away by it’s power and beautiful prose, that I immediately contacted Mr. Jeffers to ask if he would grant an interview to his newest fan. The following is the result of that interview:
Q: When did you start writing and how many novels have you published?
A: I can’t really remember a time before I started writing—trying to write, anyway. Probably about the same time I worked out that the stories in books had been made up and written down by fabulous creatures called writers. Age four or five, maybe? I wanted to do that too! I’ve published one full-length novel, Safe as Houses, the short novel Do You Remember Tulum?, and fifteen or twenty shorter works, including (as separate stories) about half of a third novel, The Abode of Bliss.
Q: Was there someone in your family, a teacher, or perhaps a favorite book, that inspired you to begin writing?
A: My grandfather, Robinson Jeffers, who died when I was quite young, was a world-famous poet. I wouldn’t say he inspired me—I expect his example has a lot to do with why I’ve never seriously tried to write poetry—but at the same time he made it reasonable to consider writing as a vocation when people started telling me I’d never make a living. (I haven’t yet.) My father, also, was a (bitterly never published) novelist. In a way, writing was something Jefferses did, although not as much as we read. I wrote—and write—because there aren’t enough readable books in the world.
Q: What was the first story you ever wrote about?
A: I can’t remember that far back! The first story I sold (I was sixteen) was a science-fiction re-envisioning of the myth of Orpheus and Euridice.
Q: Do most of your stories have gay or lesbian main characters? If so, why do you write about GLBT characters, considering that it limits your audience?
A: 1) No question. 2) I write for an audience of one … but I contain multitudes. Writing is hard. I second-guess every sentence, third-guess every paragraph. It’s too horrifyingly hard even to attempt if I’m not pleasing myself first. It happens that the characters I fall in love with and whose stories I want to explore are more likely to be gay than not. Many years ago I made several abortive attempts to write to formula, to audience—I couldn’t do it well and the trying depressed me. Besides, there’s no dearth of stories about straight people: that bucket doesn’t need me to fill it. It’s already overflowing.
Q: Who are the authors who most influence you, both in your early career and now?
A: The strongest early influences, still marking my prose and approach to the work, would probably be science-fiction writers Samuel R Delany and Joanna Russ—I only found out years later both were gay. I read the Alexandria Quartet at an impressionable age and am aware of the heavy shadow of Lawrence Durrell on a lot of my work. I can only hope to have been benignly influenced by Charlotte and Anne Brontë (Emily not so much), Samuel Richardson, Elizabeth Bowen, Alice Munro, William Trevor, Robert Ferro, Orhan Pamuk, among many.
Q: Do you need to be in a specific place or atmosphere before the words flow?
A: I need to be warm. If I’m not moving around, brain and body start to shut down when the ambient temperature drops below 70ºF. Good hot strong black coffee and cigarettes are helpful adjuncts, as is whatever music I’m currently interested in. As a rule, I’d rather be home at my own desk (although the cat who insists on sleeping under my feet is not helpful), but as long as I’m not cold I can—not to say will—write anywhere. Sadly, I find it very difficult to compose on a laptop, but I’ve never lost the knack for doing it by hand. A good chunk of the book my agent’s reading now was written on the commuter train back and forth between Providence and Boston.
Q: Do you drive yourself, with something like a daily word count?
A: I could only wish to have that self discipline! I’ll take any excuse at all to scurry off onto the internet to do “research.”
Q: What’s the strangest source of inspiration you’ve found for a story?
A: A Hebrew-language album, Ha’anashim Ha’chadashim, by Israeli rock star Ivri Lider. I don’t speak or understand Hebrew. But it broke my block (see next question).
Q: You took a rather long break from publishing anything. If it’s not too personal, can you tell us why?
A: A very long, very ugly bout of writer’s block that was probably—although I don’t like to psychologize myself—caused by my and two successive agents’ inability to sell the three book-length projects I completed between 1994 and 1999.
Q: Your novel, Safe as Houses, is being re-released after 12 years from its last printing, right? Tell us about the story and why you’ve decided to release it again.
A: Safe as Houses is an AIDS novel, I suppose, in the sense that you discover the narrator’s illness on the first page (or the flap copy or back-cover blurbs). But what novel about gay men in the eighties and early nineties wasn’t an AIDS novel? Primarily, though, it’s a novel about family and—in Nigel Nicolson’s phrase—a portrait of a marriage. The narrator, Allen, a callow young man, meets and falls for freelance artist Jeremy … and then finds out that Jeremy comes with a young son, Toby, whom Allen also falls for. The book follows their lives together for ten years, through good and bad times, as they build their family. The US branch of Faber and Faber issued a handsome hardcover in 1995; two years later, Gay Men’s Press in the UK reprinted it in paperback with a cover I still shudder to think about. Things got very complicated a few years later, in ways I can’t begin to summarize. Suffice to say the paperback was no longer available, though not declared out of print, and I could find nobody to release (or even clarify) the rights to me. I was unhappy when people could buy only GMP’s hideous paperback, still more unhappy when they could only buy it used. As I understand the contract, the rights reverted to me a year or two ago so, thanks to the high-tech magic of Print on Demand, I’ve been able to issue a new edition with a cover I like. What with all the kerfuffle around same-sex marriage, I think it’s more topical now than when it first came out.
Q: You recently had a new release hit the stands, Do You Remember Tulum? Can you tell us a bit about that story?
A: On one level, Do You Remember Tulum? is a(n insanely long) love letter to my imaginary boyfriend. On another, a recollection of some of the ways it was hard to be young and gay in the 1970s and how it became somewhat easier in the 1980s. On yet another, a reminiscent travelogue of the Maya archaeological sites of southern Mexico—especially Palenque, where I lived and worked and wrote for a year and a half in 1977-8. On a fourth level, it’s a story about how the past won’t let you go however far you move on. And finally, it’s a work that appears to be autobiographical, as all first novels are expected to be (I wrote it before Safe as Houses), but mostly isn’t.
Q: So, if you don’t mind sharing, would you tell us about your latest work in progress?
A: That would be the book inspired by Ivri Lider’s Ha’anashim Ha’chadashim. It’s a science-fiction novel, working title A Boy’s History of the World. I can’t (won’t) talk about the story yet, but the setting is a distant planet, settled by people from Earth but out of contact with the homeworld or any other colonies, several hundred years after a mysterious crisis that caused no more women to be born. So, yes, it’s a story about a world where there are no women and all the men are gay … except the majority who aren’t and have nobody to be sexually/affectionally attracted to.
Q: Out of all the stories you’ve written, which is your favorite and why?
A: Actually, I have three favorites, all for the same reason: the ridiculous joy they gave me while I was writing them. 1) The short story “A Handbook for the Castaway,” a yarn about an eighteenth-century pirate shipwrecked in the south seas (you can download it from my website, www.sentenceandparagraph.com); 2) the novel Deprivation; or, Benedetto Furioso, a dream romance set in Boston in the early nineties, although what it’s really about is the longing to run away to Italy (after a long stretch in the bottom drawer, it recently reached the semifinals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and is now in my agent’s hands—if he can’t sell it, I may just publish it myself); 3) the science-fiction novella “The New People,” which will form the first part of A Boy’s History of the World and which I’ll be sending off to an international competition sometime in June.
Q: Which of your characters would you most like to have an intimate dinner with?
A: Not this year—I’m too involved in A Boy’s History of the World and may get caught up in revising Deprivation if my agent thinks I should—but maybe next, I wouldn’t mind sitting down with Ziya, Turkish narrator of The Abode of Bliss, and his American boyfriend Adam, viewpoint character of the projected second volume of what was always intended as a two-parter. Abode doesn’t stand up on its own. I’ve been trying off and on for ten years to get a handle on the second part. I know pretty much what has to happen but can’t get it to work. Over a long, leisurely Turkish banquet, maybe Adam and Ziya could help me out.
Q: Name a book or movie written by someone else that you wish you had written, and why that one?
A: Just one? That’s not fair—I write, and read widely, in at least four different genres: “literary” fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction…. Okay. I’m not a movie person so it’s a novel: Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. I read it first about twenty years ago and rare is the year I don’t reread it. (I believe it much stronger than Jane Eyre.) Brontë never puts a foot wrong. Lucy Snowe encapsulates a paradoxical blend of hard-headedness and romanticism, pathological secretiveness and brazen openness that speaks powerfully to me. Her alienation from her own British culture and attraction to/repulsion from the alien culture of the continental city of Villette parallel issues I struggle with, as a gay artist, intellectual, and not-so-willing native of resolutely crass America who recognizes I’d be just as out of place in contemporary Europe—even if I spoke any European language well enough to get along. The novel’s conclusion can only be regarded with wonder and sheer envy: it oughtn’t work but it does.
Q: If you could offer one tidbit of advice for new writers, what would it be?
A: If you can stop yourself from pursuing this ludicrous vocation, do. You’re just asking for trouble and heartache. And, incidentally, poverty.
Q: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
A: Drive very fast on the open highway with the top down and the wind in my hair. Since I don’t own any kind of car, those friends who occasionally let me drive theirs don’t have a convertible, and Rhode Island lacks satisfactory open roads, this happens tragically seldom. Failing that, I like to cook, to sew, to fool around with Photoshop and other design software, to pester my cats, to take long walks through Pawtucket and Providence and anywhere else I can get to, to visit my friends in the country and play with their dog and kids. I’d like to travel again—I’ve never been to Turkey or Spain or the Balkans, didn’t manage to get to Venice the last time I visited Italy—but it’s just not feasible right now.
Q: Had you not become an accomplished writer, what other occupation would you have most liked to tackle?
A: Rock star, of course. Or operatic countertenor.… (I can’t carry a tune.) More realistically, illustrator and graphic designer.
Q: What was the craziest thing you’ve ever done in your life?
A: Move from Boston to Phoenix because I’d fallen in love with a guy on the internet.
Q: What, more than anything else, fills you with rage?
A: The resolute distrust of and lack of support for the arts in this country—the endless, deliberate cheapening and vulgarization of cultural discourse and “product.” I almost wish I could say homophobia but, really, that just puzzles me.
Q: Can you tell us something about the place you call home?
A: It’s too small! Three quarters of my furniture and seven eights of my library are in storage.… I’m not especially enamored of Pawtucket, RI, birthplace of the American industrial revolution and the town with the second-most-ridiculous-sounding name in Christendom, but very glad to be back in New England. Unless somebody hands me a villa in Tuscany, a palazzo in Venice, a yali on the banks of the Bosporus, or a Georgian country house in Ireland, I expect I’m in Rhode Island for good, and content enough with that.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share?
A: My website: www.sentenceandparagraph.com. There’s a lot of freely downloadable fiction, long-winded ruminations on all manner of subjects, an infrequently updated blog, and pictures of my cats.
My books—they’re on Amazon. They’re challenging and worthwhile.
Oh, and I can be found on Facebook. You have to tell me why you want to be my friend, though (hint: “I love your work” is guaranteed effective), or I’ll ignore you with a clear conscience.
Posted by AlanChinWriter at 1:30 PM