Alexander Weinstein is the Director of The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and the author of the short story collection Children of the New World (Picador, 2016). His fiction and translations have appeared in Cream City Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, Notre-Dame Review, Pleiades, PRISM International, World Literature Today, the seventeenth issue of The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and his fiction has been awarded the Lamar York, Gail Crump, Hamlin Garland, and New Millennium Prize. His stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, and appear in the anthologies New Stories from the Midwest 2013, and the Lascaux Prize Stories 2014 & 2015. He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing and a freelance editor, and leads fiction workshops in the United States and Europe.
First off, an oldie but a goodie: What are you reading at the moment?
AW: I’m presently reading The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy (edited by Johanna Sinisalo). It’s really incredible and deeply experimental writing. I’m discovering writers I’d never heard of before like: Pentti Holappa, Erno Paasilinna, and Tove Jansson. And I’m also reading Volume II of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s enormous and brilliant work, “My Struggle.”
Can you describe your process? Do you have any rituals or habits?
AW: I tend to always have paper close at hand—because I find that when stories suddenly “bite” I want to get them onto land as soon as possible. I write by hand first—it allows me to be much looser and more experimental in the first draft. This way, I can make a mess on the page without worrying about it, and I have much more fun while I’m drafting. I take each story from the handwritten page to the computer, and from there I’m usually drafting/revising/editing the piece anywhere from eight to a dozen times. My stories take six months to a year to reach completion. Luckily, I have at least 4 or 5 stories working at a time, all in various stages of completion, so I don’t really notice how long it takes for each story’s gestation period.
I also have a habit of stopping whatever I’m doing when I get a story idea, and writing for as long as I can. This might mean that if I’m driving, I have to pull over to the side of the road (somewhere safe) and write for an hour. Or I might be getting ready to go to sleep—and I’ll have a flash of the plot of a short story. Rather than go to sleep, I’ll turn the light back on, get out my journal and begin writing (sometimes for the next 2-3 hours) even though I have to teach class in the morning.
I honestly haven’t stopped thinking about the book since I read it, so let’s dive in. The title, Children of the New World, is the title of one of the stories in the collection, but it also reminded me of the title Brave New World - a classic science fiction book by Aldous Huxley. This got me thinking about influences. What authors and works have inspired or influenced you throughout your writing life?
AW: The experimentalists are a great influence on my work. Writers like Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, George Saunders, Daniel Kharms, Karen Russell, Ishmael Reed, Richard Brautigan, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Tatyana Tolstaya, Ken Kesey, John Barth, Kelly Link, David Foster Wallace, Victor Pelevin, Michael Martone, and on and on. I love how each of these writers experiments with the borders of fiction and the so-called "rules" of literature. I also find that the rule-breakers of other art forms inspire me deeply. Musicians like Sun Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Fela Kuti are big inspirations, as well as dance-theater choreographers like Pina Bausch.
One element I noticed throughout the collection is the clash between what’s real and what’s imagined. (I’m thinking in particular of “The Cartographers,” which is a story about artificial memories and the people who make them.) Why this contrast between reality and imagination?
AW: I was really interested in the way memories work, and how we end up creating memories with those we love. In "The Cartographers" I explore this through Adam Woods, and the company he works for, which produces virtual memories that people can beam into their consciousness. While the technology is sci-fi, the story is also a metaphor for the way that love relationships create memories in our lives. When I wrote the story, I’d just gone through a breakup with a woman I’d loved dearly. Without this other person in my life, the memories we’d shared often felt like phantoms. Who was this person I once loved? Did she still really exist? The answer, on a metaphysical level, was that this person didn’t still exist. She’d gone on to become a different person, an individual with new hopes and dreams which no longer involved me. And yet, there were still the memories of jokes we shared, replete with punchlines that no one else would ever understand. Movies and songs which have the ghosts of our times together hidden within them. There are the residues of our ex-lovers, unseen by anyone else, still shared across vast distances with people we may never speak to again.
This became the narrative, which drove the story, of Cynthia and the narrator who still loves her even in her absence. And this idea, of falling in love with other people’s projections (a la beamed memories), is akin to how we fall in love with the real memories we create with others. In "The Cartographers" it just becomes more sinister, because of the awful memory company the main character has helped create.
In the same vein, I’ve noticed that even outside of this collection, you often write about imaginary worlds. Why write in imagined settings?
AW: Imagined settings allow me to play with metaphor much more readily than realism does. The most fantastical of my settings in the collection might well be the story "Ice Age," where the world has been covered in ice, and the characters are living in igloos (with one rich guy living in a double-decker igloo and burning up all the wood). I was writing this during the Occupy Wall Street movement, and so this ice world seemed to be a great metaphor through which I could explore class and income inequality.
In my second book, The Lost Traveler’s Tour Guide, which I’m presently working on, I explore the metaphors of imaginary worlds even more deeply. The book takes the form of a fictional tour guide which describes impossible destinations—hotels of love, museums of heartbreak, and villages filled with magical instruments. The destinations are imaginary but largely autobiographical—I’ve experienced cities of love, heartbreak, and joy throughout my life. I find that the best way I can gain access the nuances of these universal emotions, is by creating landscapes wherein the emotion itself gets to be the geography.
There’s also something important that happens for me as a writer when I work with imaginary worlds. By writing about these landscapes, I get to be a traveler within my own stories. I no longer know the terrain that I find myself writing about, and by venturing into these fantastical settings, I’m forced to let go of my control of plot. The moment this happens, the story begins to lead me in unexpected directions—often ones wherein the dreams of my subconscious begin to play out. The subsequent metaphors the stories reveal are quite often ones I wouldn’t have come up with through my rational/plotting mind. So by opening the doorway to imaginative worlds, I get to discover tales I never knew existed.
For me, Children of the New World was an incredible read, but it was not always a comfortable one, if you don’t mind me saying. Still, I know that one of the reasons I read is often to find comfort. What’s the case for uncomfortable reads?
AW: I think we need to be discomforted, often and regularly. I’ve always been the most moved by art which ended up rocking my perception of the world and challenged me to think more deeply. And often this is an uncomfortable state to be in. When one’s world is shaken, there are no longer the old beliefs to hold onto. While I may not like the feeling inherent in that moment of experiencing transformative art, I know that I’ll come out of the experience a better person due to the challenges it posed to my worldview.
Work that strives only to make us comfortable—particularly by confirming the opinions, thoughts, and beliefs we already have—has the danger of lulling us into complacency. For example, most of the movies, music, TV shows, and advertisements that pop culture produces these days, really just puts us into a deeper sleep and makes us better consumers. There’s a kind of mindless 80’s dance party that pop culture is continually throwing for us, all the while leaving social apathy in its wake. After all, we presently have a lot of important causes to champion: fracking is making our water flammable, policemen are killing black people with seeming impunity, there’s a legal system increasingly set up to protect corporations, and the tribes of all nations have been amassing to protest the seizing of their lands by oil companies in North Dakota—these are huge social, environmental, and human rights issues (just to name a few). And yet, the majority of our movies are empty rom-coms, cliché superhero films, and comedies based on penis-jokes; our pop-stars are encouraging us to embrace consumerism, narcissism, and empty sex; and there are fraternity and sorority kids dancing their nights away to songs which encourage violence, misogyny, and an endless YOLO consumerism. It’s all very popular and successful, but none of it challenges us, or makes us uncomfortable about the particular destruction that our Western lifestyle is causing. If our art doesn’t challenge us to ask central questions about what it means to be human, to love well, or to broaden our sense of compassion (and in this way create discomfort with negative ways we are living), it can easily lead us towards a blasé complacency which has destruction at its core.
Overall, this collection seems to be a warning to us - especially the younger generation - about the dangers of focusing on technology more than real connection. As writers in the modern world, though, much of our work now depends on technology. Without it, none of our readers would be able to access this interview! How do you think technology affects your life and work as a writer?
AW: It’s very true—there are plenty of good sides to technology. The Adroit Journal is doing wonderful work in helping promote literature to the world—specifically though technology. And I think there are great social/political ways that the internet helps us—we learn about social injustices around the world thanks to the internet, and we’re able to protest and create human rights movements due to the networking capabilities technology provides. So there’s a kind of grassroots community building that can and does emerge thanks to the internet—and this is a wonderful thing. One can also download great spiritual talks from thinkers like Ram Das, or Rabbi Zalman, or the Dalai Lama. I listen to these talks thanks to technology, and I find them really enriching. As well, I’m a huge fan of Dan Savage’s podcast; his thoughts on relationships helped me create the relationship struggles in the stories "Openness" and "Migration."
As many would argue, the internet isn’t good or bad, it all depends on how we use it. My fear, of course, is that we’re not really using it that well. The endless emailing and texting, the spambot click-bait, and the millions of mini-games out there—I think this use of technology merely entertains us, and so creates a form of spiritual slothfulness. We feel like we’re being productive, but ultimately we’re not really growing in any meaningful way. I certainly notice this empty addiction when I find myself checking my phone for the fortieth time.
Perhaps, it’s a problem inherent in programs/apps/platforms we’re using which encourage us to behave in ways which aren’t always great for our social/emotional/psychological well-being. Facebook and Instagram, for example, have an inherent demand that we share the personal moments of our lives online in order to be “liked.” Tinder, Grindr, and OKCupid, all highlight our human need for connection, and exacerbate our fears about intimacy and connection. We swipe people away in seconds—and I wonder how this affects our feelings about strangers (and the expendability of partners we already have). And we are all familiar with those friends/family who text over dinner rather than communicate with those around the table.
I tend to think technology increases our social anxieties, our fears about acceptance, and our inability to be contemplative. These days it’s hard for anyone to simply sit anymore (in an airport, standing on line, waiting for the bus) without needing to check their phone. In turn, technology is training us to focus on the superficial rather than the spiritual aspects of what it means to be human. It’s a great metaphor for the human struggle of acceptance and self-worth and, in turn, has become fruitful terrain for my fiction.
Finally, since many of our readers are on the younger side, what do you think is the responsibility of young people and especially young writers in this new, technological world?
AW: It’s interesting, when Google Glass was being tested, I ran into a young student who was wearing a prototype. He was so excited about the technology: “We’re becoming enhanced humans!” he kept telling me. He seemed to have no critical edge about this strange robotic place Google was urging us to embrace. So, I think without a critical edge, we become merchandisers for technology, and by extension for marketing interests.
What seems to be arising in a lot of television and film (in movies like Her and ExMachina, or shows like Black Mirror and Humans) is a warning: Be careful—we’re trading our humanity in order to become technologically advanced. And so, I think we need young writers to help imagine a better world—one which helps wean us from our technological addictions and brings us back to a love for community and nature.
Thank you so much for your time and for your book!
AW: Thanks so much for the wonderful questions—it was a pleasure!
Shira Abramovich is very happy with her first name. Her work has appeared in Crashtest and Polyphony H.S., among others. In 2015, she was selected to participate in the Grub Street Young Writers Fellowship. She is a student at Brown University, where she serves on the editorial staff of The Round.
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