On the Intense Power of Literary Friendship
Alexandra Kleeman and Kathleen Alcott in Conversation
Kathleen Alcott and I have been friends for almost as long as I’ve lived in New York, ever since our friend Nathan’s birthday party, when he introduced us saying “you’re both writers, you should talk to each other.” As it turned out, he was completely right. Since then we’ve traveled together, walked many many miles, and eaten countless sandwiches in pristine and not-so-pristine places. We went to a stand-up comedy night where the comedian asked us what we did for work, hoping that it would be something funny, and we said we write novels and the whole room was awkward and silent and the comedian didn’t have anything to say. Writing can be a lonely profession, but when you meet someone whose mind you trust, whose opinions you adore, and whose brain you’d like to smash into yours until they form a single powerful thinking entity, it’s not so bad. –Alexandra Kleeman
So often you meet someone in New York and you can’t quite communicate—you’re in a loud bar populated almost exclusively by elbows, or there’s a series of oncoming trains punctuating your fledgling conversation. When I met Alex Kleeman it was no different, save the fact that I knew how very much I wanted to hear her, and apparently she felt the same. The poets Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton each had second telephone lines for the purposes of having each other on the phone all day—they began a call at the beginning of their work and left the receivers off the hook, whistling into them when they needed a second opinion, or just to hear their voices aloud. I like to think Alex and I have a modern version of this set-up, an ongoing conversation about our work that appears whenever we need it. –Kathleen Alcott
Alexandra Kleeman: One of the things I love the most about reading Infinite Home was feeling in it the same personal yearning for grounding and home that I know is very close to you—I feel like I can read it when I’m away from home and feel zapped right back into your presence! We’ve talked before about how much we moved around as kids, and how important it’s been for us, as a result, to find stable connections around us. Is Brooklyn definitively home now, and how has it transformed your writing? Your book is very much about that act of building a family from the people that chance brings into your life—did writing it bring you into a different sort of relationship with those around you?
Kathleen Alcott: I think it’s dangerous to tie one’s ability to any certain place or circumstance, and moreover it treats the act of writing fiction as something that has to be coaxed out and babied—so I can’t definitively say living where I live has changed my craft. I do think finding a community of people who are novelists has helped to demystify the vocation, though—to be able to call someone on the telephone and say, “What do you think of this subject-verb arrangement or this title,” or “Just how often can the pluperfect show up before that is obnoxious?” or “How suicidal should this review make me feel?” The person I love is in Brooklyn so it is home to me now, but Northern California will always be the place I think of before I’m really awake.
Alex: Also, ancillary question—I feel I know you well, but can you talk about some aspect of one of your Infinite Home characters that I may not realize is deeply connected to you? There’s so much packed into each one of these characters and the only one that resembles you on the surface is Adeleine, the beautiful blonde. Who else contains a fragment of you? How did you build empathy within yourself for these very differently wounded characters—do you feel that you have to have experienced personally something of a character’s struggle to write about it or is there another way to connect?
Kathleen: What’s interesting about empathy is that it’s actually at its most flexible and powerful and useful when we’re reaching past our own experience: it is easy to say to a friend, “I’ve had a similar domestic struggle/financial burden/mental fixation” and much harder to say to a stranger (whether in apostrophe or not) “You come from a totally different corner of human experience and yet I feel pain and understanding and hope for you.” Slapping that onto the fiction model means that prose concerning characters unlike ourselves may require greater effort and a lot of stretching, but ultimately it traverses a greater and more important distance. None of the characters in Infinite Home are iterations of myself, but probably because of that the most significant work in writing the novel was in clarifying their struggle.
One thing I love about your writing is that it comprises childlike awe with erudite examination. That’s also a dichotomy in your personality that made me love you: that we could spend one minute giggling at dogs, or cooing at a vivid color in a shop window, and the next you’d be telling me something fascinating about cellular turnover. How do you think these two aspects of you come into play as you write?
Alex: The times when I love writing the most are when it feels like a form of play—when you’re setting up the fictive world and simultaneously encountering it as though you were an outsider. I think that’s when my capacity for surprise meets with my tendency to think things to death, and when I make stuff that’s both of myself and a bit beyond myself. When those parts aren’t in balance, I either can’t write at all, or I treat myself like an abusive boss and force out small bits of “good enough” prose. I think when we walk around together and observe the world with our patented mix of awe, analytics, and friendly mockery, it’s like getting to that perfectly balanced place—one of us can answer the other’s awe with erudition, and vice versa, ad infinitum.
Kathleen: You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine might be the first novel that truly explores our modern fears about food sourcing, and somehow it achieves both a sensitive consideration of these anxieties and a biting satire of them. What sort of crises of conscience were you experiencing, and what were you reading, when you first sat down to write this novel? Some people see more colors than the rest of us, and I wonder—do you feel the differences between the things you’ve eaten more acutely than the average American? How much of eating is a performance of identity?
Alex: I think I’ve been sensitive to the strangeness of eating since I was a kid, when I borrowed an anthology of Japanese sci-fi from my mother’s office and read a story by Sakyo Komatsu called “The Hungry Mouth”—it’s about a man who decides that it’s wrong not only to take an animal life in order to sustain your own, but also wrong to take a plant’s life. His only option, then, is to systematically amputate, cook, and eat his own parts. The story ends with a set of detectives breaking down the door to his apartment and finding only a set of teeth left behind. It was impossible to live a normal life after reading that story. But it did get me thinking intensely about what it meant for the thing I was eating that I was eating it, and then also about the less organic, un-living foods that crept into my life when I got older and could make my own food choices: In some ways they seemed to offer a way out of the chronic problem of having to take life in order to make your own life continue. But on the other hand, maybe that bit of embedded cruelty is a necessary part of life—eliminate it and you’ll eliminate the thing that connects you to the world at large, a busy, destructive, creative place.
It was important to me to include both of these contradictory feelings about food technology, and to recognize that both options are a bit sad, and a bit untenable. I often feel trapped between the foods of the future and the foods of the past—like we’re living in an imperfect time where more and more of our food is adulterated, but not yet properly understood and calibrated, and the old food whose goodness is proven by the fact of our species’ survival is harder to find in any form that feels pure. I hope that we make it out of the present and into the food future, and that it’s better there than it is now.
Kathleen: You and I spend a lot of time talking and texting about what it is to be a young woman in the world of New York fiction writers—when we are patronized, when our appearance is named as in ingredient in our success. Have you adjusted your assumptions about how you’ll be treated in these past few years? Is there anything you didn’t say to someone that you wish you had?
Alex: I think I’m a bit more guarded than I was when I showed up in this New York fiction world—in the places I had been before, it had never even occurred to me to think that someone might think I had succeeded at something because of my value as a young woman. I had thought of text as a place where the gender and appearance of the body you had could be put in parentheses, like a sort of extended Turing test. I try not to get too offended by things, so let’s say instead that I am very fond of people who treat me as an equal as though it were given, a moral reflex. It’s wonderful to be interested in someone’s work whether or not their work has been recognized by any kind of important institution, and it’s right I think to assume that they’ve gotten what they have through hard work, since no book gets written without hard work.
Kathleen: Yes. What seems to me a haunting pattern (and obviously a completely inaccurate binary) in our industry’s sexism is the idea about how the male comes to the work of fiction and how the female comes to the work of fiction. The male author sits down at a desk and struggles for many years, his jawline hardening, suffering greatly and reliably for The Book. The female just shows up, pummeled by some cycle of hysterics, and the book that surfaces is a muddled byproduct of her excessive emotions. It almost makes me want to put a camera in my office and produced a time-lapsed video of my process, which includes reading clauses aloud again and again, careful diagramming of chapter arrangement, flipping through the notebook where I’ve taken notes on every piece of research. But my anger doesn’t just goes out, it goes in, because I’m very aware of how I’ve been socialized. If someone says something that offends me and I react in a way that is less than cheerful or kind, I feel an immediate guilt: shouldn’t I have been the person to deflect that insult with total grace, to assume a better instinct just got jumbled on its way out? Having you in my pocket (on my telephone) to report these sorts of offenses has helped tremendously, just to type out the offense and watch your indignant exclamation marks come in.
Alex: Over the years we’ve both had people pass in and out of our life, and have lost some friendships that we thought would be permanent fixtures. And yet the two of us are going strong, even though conventional wisdom might say that sharing such similar career paths could create competition and conflict. Is the risk of sharing career space, life space, etc. exaggerated in the popular imagination? Or is there some way we’ve kept our friendship healthy even under pressure?
Kathleen: Our novels and stories are very different, I think, probably belonging to realism and post-modernism if we had to sort through them that way, and following that is an understanding that they’re not really in competition. But we’re both very impressed by each other’s work, and we both want to learn from the other person. If we were painters I imagine we might work in the same room sometimes, even share a palette and consult on color, but what emerged would be very different, and we would be able to step back and see a real spectrum of interest. A much more simplistic answer is that I think we’ve been given the gift of really loving each other; somehow the essential bonding that needs to happen early on for a friendship to evolve did, and here we are. We’ve layered so much of our life besides our fiction onto our friendship.
Alex: I really agree, and don’t have anything intelligent to say because I’m feeling too many good feelings.
Kathleen: You and I are both in the peculiar position of being novelists who fell in love with novelists, something about which people really like to tip their heads and pronounce impossible. How do you think this has assisted or changed your craft?
Alex: I’m so interested in what you have to say about this, because I’m not sure we’ve ever answered this question to each other—being with these people we love is just such a fact of life now, that I haven’t thought of how else it could be. I think that the biggest consequence has just been feeling more comfortable dwelling in my life. Writing is so emotional, and it’s hard to feel like you can’t truly communicate the difficult parts to someone you’re with—my novelist partner and I share so many of the same experiences, and we can talk about them freely, without worrying that the other person will get annoyed or dismissive. As a result, I’m not storing a lot inside myself for private worry and analysis, I’m not wasting as much energy on self-containment—the biggest effects are emotional. But I know you and your partner are very involved in each other’s work, you read and line-edit each others’ drafts all through the writing process. How do you two influence each other as writers? Do you think there’s a special way you can read and critique someone’s work when you love them?
Kathleen: I think the special power we’re given when reading the work of someone we truly love and know is the ability to detect intent. I can almost always tell where my partner is trying to take a piece, which moments he decided would be sharp turns in the narrative and which details he hoped would be most telling, and that is often much harder to determine with the work of strangers. That ability runs both ways with us, and he has helped my work tremendously by acting as a kind of gentle mediator between my impulses and their execution. He knows in which areas I’m very talented and also in which areas I’m more like a bad dog in a five-star restaurant, trying to get at the thing I want (whether that’s a certain conclusion or mood) by any means necessary.
Alex: One last silly question: Who were you in a past life, and did we know each other?
Kathleen: I’m not sure how adept I am at imagining past lives, but in terms of the future, I’m touched by what Buddhists says about attaining a certain type of enlightenment—that it is “a thousand lives away.” And I’d like to think that in a thousand lives, I might be a very simple creature, someone who lives near water and sleeps very well, and that you might have that sort of life also, and that sometimes we would take long walks.
Alex: I strongly believe that we’d be very lovely old people together. I don’t think we need to wait a thousand lives to be more simple and serene—I think maybe in forty years we’ll be doing that, living within walking distance in house-shaped houses near a non-wimpy body of water. We’ll meet for long walks down to the body of water, and we’d stand and look at it and express awe and then erudition about it, and we’d talk about how its mood seemed different on this day than on others, and then we’d walk back home, both knowing that we’d do the same thing again soon.