Sunday, September 8, 2013

Writer on Writer: Dave Newman Interviews Alex Kudera

Several months ago, I asked small press authors Alex Kudera and Dave Newman if they would be willing to read each other's latest novels and interview each other about them. Each novel features a protagonist struggling to make ends meet (and keep a writing life) while working as an adjunct professor: Newman's novel, Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children (Writers Tribe Books, 2012) follows instructor Dan Charles, a family man with one published novel under his belt; Kudera's Fight For Your Long Day (Atticus Books, 2010) is narrated by the unpublished Cyrus Duffleman.

I'm posting the resulting interviews in two parts. Stay tuned for Part II: Alex's interview of Dave, which I hope to post later this week. Without further ado, Dave Newman interviews Alex Kudera about Fight For Your Long Day.


Dave Newman: How scary was it writing a book about a frustrated adjunct instructor while working in the academy?

Alex Kudera: Writing it wasn’t scary at all. It was thrilling and cathartic for the first summer when a whole draft came out, and then there was a lot of painstaking work to improve it, and the fear of failure is always lurking in the background, yes, and then toward the end, there was doubt, but I didn’t have actual fear until I was waiting for the reporter at Inside Higher Ed to call. My first interview was by telephone, and I had no idea what he would ask or how I would respond. Despite my own ten years of adjunct teaching, I was ignorant of many different aspects of the national situation. Publishing the book has gotten me in touch with a full range of concerned academics, struggling adjuncts and tenured professors, and I’ve learned a lot about higher ed since the book came out.

It’s important to recognize that hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of indebted students and low-wage adjuncts and contract workers, folks just like us, families with children, are scared. Their legitimate fears are about how to put food on the table, how to afford utility bills, gas, and rent. Maybe the new healthcare laws will help in one important area; I hope so. But overall, if you think about it, the capitalist system can reward hard work, but it can also reward connections, ass-kissing, and greed, and the work, whether hard or “crafty,” is typically legal, but with occasional outright malfeasance, and sometimes the laws themselves can even be bought and changed to favor the wealthy or connected, and many folks who gravitate toward the top in order to save their own fiscal asses seem barely sentient enough to recognize the extent of the problems, never mind care enough to do something substantial. You look out and see what goes on, and you wonder how they ever came up with the idea of actually referring to us collectively as “humanity”; that’s one of the all-time great sales pitches, I’d say.

So whether I write this book or another book or don’t write anything at all, I’m going to be scared sometimes—scared for my kid, scared for your kids, and scared for little ones throughout the country and around the world. But sometimes, we have to put aside our own fears to try to help others.

DN: Have there been any repercussions?

AK: I believe that there have been, and yet I’m uncertain I’d be able to prove it. Academia also offers a lot of opportunity for paranoia, both individual and collective, so it’s all hard to say. Overall, it seems some tenured professors have reacted quite favorably to Fight for Your Long Day (one assigns it to her graduate students in English education, and I know that at least two professors have assigned the novel; the other was for graduate students taking a course in ethics in higher education), and there are other academics, including adjuncts, who are somewhat uneasy with the novel, possibly its conflicted look at class and race, find it dull, or just aren’t able to read a book unless the main character is perfectly sympathetic in the most stereotypical ways. And, yes, I’m scared of “repercussions” too, and in academia, they are difficult to label as such because there so many factors that can be introduced as a reason why any hiring or other decision is made.

Dave: There are some big buzz phrases in the academy right now — community, literary citizenship, collegiality — but universities run on adjuncts and tuition doubles at twice the rate of inflation, and the machine keeps acting like a job is a gift. Can you talk about how (or if) the language of the academy — the Orwellian nature of it — fueled Fight for Your Long Day? Orwell would have loved your title, as I do.

Alex: Yeah, universities are full of “success centers” and slogans like “students first,” and we’ve come to call that all Orwellian and in some ways, it is. Did Orwell have much on nations jacking up the price of air and water? I suppose jacking up tuition every year and buying leather couches for top administration is not the same thing. In fact, I’ve never read 1984 although I’ve read Animal Farm and Down and Out in Paris and London and I enjoyed the latter very much. It’s a writer’s book, and I read when I was bussing my own dishes in Paris during a semester off from college.

On the other hand, sometimes it seems like things are changing for the better though. They’ve kicked the private lenders to the curb, and for government loans, there are forgiveness programs that aren’t publicized as well as they should be but base repayment on a graduate’s earnings and even forgive them outright if payments are made on time for 20 years (or even just 10 for careers that qualify as “public service”). It’s a strange game we’re in, and, frankly, where I am right now, the students seem to love the college experience and they seem barely cognizant of some of the ideas broached in my novel. That makes it seem all the more bizarre, and yet it’s pleasant here. The students seem happy.

True to my long-winded nature, for a long time, the working title was Arise Adjunct Duffleman, and Fight for Your Long Day. I didn’t snip off the front half until very late in the process. I think FFYLD was the title when I queried Atticus and a dozen others. That was a query several months after a failed round. In the Atticus round there was one other small press that seemed to be giving it serious consideration, and, well, as everyone knows, all you need is one “yes,” and that is usually all you get. I like a line from a Roberto Bolano story where he is describing Chilean exiles desperate for work in Europe, and he says the highest bidder was invariably the lowest one as well. It is tough out there.

[The interview continues:]

Dave: You said you don’t have a sequel to FFYLD. Just curious: why? Duffy is a great character. Do you think you’ll ever return to Duffy?

Alex: I have general ideas for two sequel novels, which possibly could be made into one book. But I already have other manuscripts in the works and I’ve put so much time into them I feel like I have to press on. Writing for me is incredibly challenging, particularly with all the teaching and parenting I do. I hope I get another novel out before I’m dead. If any small pubs out there want to help make that happen, please do get in touch.

Dave: After FFYLD came out, how did you feel and how did publication affect your creative process? Were you able to keep writing? I know some writers who have published one book then spend their days googling themselves.

Alex: I’m definitely one of those writers who googles himself way too much, checks Amazon, all the narcissistic baloney that isn’t writing and wastes time, and I’d assume the great prolific writers avoid this stuff. At the same time, having a book to google has made me much more enthusiastic about writing, and whereas as an adjunct for ten years you could say I was a “blocked” writer, or at least too overworked and tired to write, now I have this glimmer of hope, a past “success” that deludes me into thinking I’m not a total failure.

I write something almost every day during the summer, often for sustained periods, and even with four classes going, I write some fiction or some random personal stuff (either my blog or pen-and-paper journaling) almost every day during the semesters. But that doesn’t stop me from obsessing about my Amazon ranking and the rest of that superficial crap.

Dave: Can you talk at all about either of the manuscripts you’re working on?

Alex: Their working titles are Cartoon Bubbles from a City Underwater and Auggie’s Revenge. The former is a surreal look at urban America during the early nineties recession—end of Bush Sr., beginning of Clinton—and it has a lot of focus on housing and race relations. The latter is a gritty crime novel with three main characters, one of whom is an adjunct, and it takes place in the twenty-first century.

Dave: Is there a favorite writer you’ve interviewed?

Alex: Dan Fante is the first published writer I ever contacted by e-mail, and I’d had brief exchanges with him for many years previous to the interview. I recognize that Chump Change isn’t Lolita or A Fan’s Notes, but I have a strong emotional attachment to it. Iain Levison is the first published novelist I’d ever interviewed, and he has been very encouraging as well. The guy has recently been on the bestsellers list in France, and to the best of my knowledge that crime novel still hasn’t found an English language publisher. It doesn’t make sense. Or, I should say that if you understand just how unfair and irrational the publishing world is, then it makes perfect sense. I admire Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Television and several of his others quite a bit, and I’m very grateful to his English-language translator, John Lambert, for translating my bad written French back to English, even editing a couple questions to make them better, and to make me sound less ridiculous, and then helping Jean-Philippe complete the interview. I’m lucky to have that one.

Dave: Pretend James Baldwin is still alive. Pretend Duffy is a real person. The two get together in a bar in NY to talk about the academy, literature, and race in America. How does the night end?

Alex: My best guess is that no one gets laid, and in a worst case scenario, Baldwin could be muttering about Duffy, that crazy white boy, weeks after the meeting. Seriously, I’ve included Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” almost every time I’ve taught a college literature class, but I wouldn’t call myself an expert on Baldwin. From that story, some of his essay writing, and some of his recorded words (much is available on Youtube), I get a strong sense at his moral indignation, his sense of a coherent vision of black suffering at the hands of white America. Alas, Duffy is a far more conflicted personality, an inconsistent person who does not have a similarly unified moral vision. He sees black suffering, but he is terrified of young blacks. If he has a friend, it is black and homeless Wawa Ed, but Duffy is too busy trudging through his work day for friendship, any clear moral understanding of the world, or much else. The novel is very much about moral ambiguity and uncertainty, and it casts doubt on how anyone participating in contemporary America who could see themselves on the side of some sort of absolute justice.

Dave: FFYLD is set over one day, and the limited time heightens the narrative tension but still allows you to capture the minutiae of the adjunct working day. Was the one-day structure something you set out to do or did it emerge as you were writing and revising? Were there any other books that influenced you structure-wise? Do you and Duffy feel the same about A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich?

Alex: The idea came to me, and I went with it. I had a free summer, ten weeks or so, and suddenly I was writing, and I had about forty rough pages down in Philly by the end of June, and then I went to Seoul, South Korea for eight weeks, and with relatively light teaching and tutoring responsibilities there, I managed to push out the whole draft. I love a lot of Russian literature, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Babel, and then writers less well known in America like Biely, Olesha, and Shalamov, but I’ve never read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I have read Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, and I knew about Solzhenitsyn’s book, so I knew there were day-in-the-life books.

But I wasn’t even reading novels during most of my adjunct-overload days, and then the previous spring, 2003, I got into John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts. I’ve had a full draft of Cartoon Bubbles since 1993 or so, with some interesting sentences that the “kill your darlings” crowd would probably crucify me for in a workshop. So I already had a 400-page novel and the experience of 12-hour writing days. First car sales for a couple years, then two years of a MA program where I didn’t accomplish much, and then ten years of adjunctry took me away from writing, but I’ve been able to trudge ahead slowly with these 4/4 loads at Clemson.

Dave: Today, class lines seem like they’ve never been clearer – between rich and poor, between people who work a lot for a little and people who work a little for a lot. Still, it seems like writers still under-write or under-utilize work or workers for material, and that working class literature is shoved aside in favor of work that plays with language, ideas, or trees. First, do you see yourself as writing in any sort of tradition? Second, are there any novels that deal with work that inspired FFYLD? Third, are there any contemporary writers who deal with work that you admire?

Alex: On the one hand, I completely agree about the class lines, and on the other hand, it seems like in our social and working lives, we’re crossing these boundaries all the time. Some of my friends and associates are affluent, or even rich, and then I know other folks, 30 to 50, moving back in with their parents, and I know a lot of 40-year-olds just beginning to save for retirement. But the stats seem to support what you describe, and I think the median household in this country is worth about 75 grand. That’s barely two years of tuition, room, and board at some state schools. Yes, it’s 75K, but that’s a household, and half of our families are worth less than that.

And, yes, a lot of people read to escape. They know how shitty or banal their own life and job are, and they are looking for a magical story to take them away from it. And then, others are escaping in language, and you may be right that stories of work are under-utilized. I have noticed that in some of the “big books” of recent years, such as The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen or Richard Ford’s Independence Day, we are absolutely in the world of affluence or comfort, and the struggling academic in the former will still marry a wife with a good job at the end (sorry, spoiler), and in some ways these books, with their clever humor or beautiful sentences, offer a very limited representation of America, or at least the America they offer is one lived by only a small portion of Americans.

On the other hand, I like all kinds of writing, and one of my closest writing friends is very much enthralled by language. I’m very much interested in ideas in stories, too, even when they dominate character or story.

Dave: Jonathan Frazen or Jennifer Egan? Is there a difference? Does it matter?

Alex: I like The Corrections, and, well, writers like those two are living on another planet, New York media attention, quality pay for their fiction (or so I presume), writing as the day job, expensive hi-tech toilets that ensure that their shit literally never stinks, and, well, I’ve never even read a paragraph of Jennifer Egan’s stuff but there’s a decent chance she’s been on my home public transportation, the 34 trolley through University City in West Philly, so I’ll take her if this question was a “hot or not” type of deal. I’m in the South, so I feel pressure to arrive at a heteronormative conclusion.

Dave: One of the things I love about Cyrus Duffleman, your main character, is that he’s complex. He’s not a walking-talking idea. In an otherwise great review in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the reviewer says this, “The sexual and digestive preoccupations of the protagonist seem like distractions from the larger message of the novel. One could argue that they relate to Maslow's hierarchy; in any case, they are revoltingly described, and Duffleman's sexual interest in students severely undermines any sympathy the reader might have for him as a representative of adjuncts… the sexual detours seem to cater more to the perceived demands of the book market than to the actual life of an adjunct.” I have so many problems with this section of the review. 1.) People should be allowed to fuck terribly 2.) If there was a “larger message of the novel” it would have ruined the novel 3.) Obviously, FFYLD was not written to market—how little do you have to know about literature to realize that a novel about an overweight man flirting with poverty is not the same as a mystery or romance novel? I don’t think I have an actual question here—mostly this section of the review just pissed me off—but I think it’s interesting that this reviewer, like people in America have always done, feels that poor people must somehow be morally-worthy if they expect to make a living. Why should Duffy—and adjuncts everywhere—be held to a moral standard relating to sex that politicians, musicians, religious leaders, and cafeteria workers are not? Also, have you ever wanted to punch a reviewer in the dick?

Alex: Thank you for expressing all of this. Yes, absolutely, “fucking badly” is essential to the entire human condition, and any serious writer would be an imbecile to avoid it. And, yes, I have gotten angry at a few reviews although sometimes the negative ones are so transparent you can see just how ignorant or biased a reviewer is that it is hard to take it too seriously.

At the same time, William Pannapacker, the Chronicle reviewer, is trying to help adjuncts get better working conditions, and I suspect he was worried that Duffy’s character flaws or inconsistency could interfere with what he wants to do with his journalism, which is to stay “on message” and help improve the lives of part-time teachers. But someone will have to ask Pannapacker about that part of the review. It’s possible that he found some of Cyrus’s personal habits to be completely revolting, and so that’s what he wrote. Guilty of honesty, no more, no less.

Dave: How long did it take you to write FFYLD? Was it written while you were teaching? If so, how did your teaching load impact the writing? How did the writing impact your teaching?

Alex: It took seven years. The first draft, 280 pages, was written over ten weeks one summer, and then the editing and revising occurred very slowly over six years, but there were semesters, and even summers, where I accomplished nothing. Although I write almost every day, I have way too many projects at once, and I often make the mistake of drafting something new rather than facing down the old text and trying to improve it.

Dave: Who would play Duffy in a movie?

Alex: Philip Seymour Hoffman? Jason Alexander in heels? I don’t know, but it should be a film.

Dave: So we’re in a country where fast food workers and Wal-Mart workers protest or start to organize and the general public hates it. In the comment sections on Huffpost or wherever, people tell the strikers to go fuck themselves. Why do you think there is so little compassion for working people? Can literature change that?

Alex: I see a lot of comments on and other sites that are very much in agreement with raising the minimum wage, helping workers, etc. Even in SC, you wind up meeting an awful lot of progressives. has some racist weirdos in their comments section, but it feels, to me anyway, like right now, there are a lot of folks who understand how hard it can be in America for all of us. So maybe compassion is on the rise, and that would be a wonderful comeback story if literature can be part of it.

Dave: When I started reading, I imagined that literature could save the world. Now, I have to ask: can literature save literature?

Alex: I never felt that literature could save the world. I saw it more as offering some truths about the world which many people want to ignore.

Dave: You’ve been reading and blogging about Jack Kerouac, particularly The Dharma Bums. If you could make the same money working as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak as you do teaching, would you take the gig?

Alex: I hate to disappoint, but I’m afraid of heights, so I’m guessing I’d do the cowardly thing and keep teaching. Although I seemingly need a lot more quiet time than most people, I’m not sure I’d be able to handle the loneliness at the top, so to speak, either.

Dave: What’s your dream job?

Alex: At this point, I don’t even know. For me, maybe, it’s not the actual job, but being able to go to work not needing the paycheck. In other words, a dream would be to keep coming back only because I want to do whatever it is. I must say, with every job I’ve had, there were some things I liked more than others and some things I disliked entirely, and I’ve received some kind of W-2 every year since 1986 (the early ones for remarkably small totals), so as an experienced worker, I’ve come to not expect any ideal work situation. I’m a little scared of those people who look you in the eye and say, “I love what I do” as if they love every single aspect of it.

Dave: One of the great moments in the book is when Duffy is forced to deal with the students acting out in class and saying vulgar and racist things. First, did you ever imagine when you started teaching college that you would be dealing with things like classroom discipline? Secondly, what’s the worst thing a student has ever done to you?

Alex: In my first quarter teaching at a private university, a student said to me loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, “Fuck you.” This was during my third year of teaching, and I was raised by a public-school teacher, and well, I just assumed I had to make sure everyone understood that I was the teacher and that there would be consequences for inappropriate language, and as I recall, I’m pretty sure I asked her to leave the room. Anyway, it turned out the student had contacted my supervisor and asked to be placed in a different section because she was too embarrassed to return to my class. In the long discussion about this incident with my supervisor, I learned so much about the university. At the time, it seemed shocking that the person in charge would actually be taking the side of the student who used direct foul language (but “students first,” right?), and I began to make analytical points, and soon I was threatened with not getting classes for the next quarter. I’ve taught for seventeen years, and I’ve seen the same thing, where the administration sees it as in the best interests of the university to side with the student and cast doubt on the teacher’s ability to do his or her job, and I suppose that’s why they want even more contingent teachers, so people can be gotten rid of if they become problems.

The system rewards grade inflation, not challenging students too much, and particularly not emotionally (and that can mean not daring to say anything interesting at all in the gen-ed classroom), and so irrational and subjective qualities about whether individuals “like” you seem to become central to whether or not you’ll survive in academia. My experience has been that the safest bet in most classrooms is to be funny and easy because if you start challenging the students and grading too rigorously, giving out Cs or worse, the complaints will pile in, and it will create even more work, handling them, etc., and there is already too much work to begin with. Now that the price of college is so outrageous and many campuses, with their enrollment-management and scheduling problems, even make it difficult for students to enroll in the right classes for their major, it is easy to see why students could use a laugh, a teacher in their corner, etc.

Dave: Duffy is very race-conscious, as most intelligent people are, yet most intelligent people pretend not to be race-conscious, as if that makes them racists. When Duffy is tutoring an older African-American woman, Linda Jones, there is this really deep connection he feels for her, especially in that they both dream of financial security. Could you talk about how difficult that scene was to write (if it was difficult) and how you balanced class and race throughout the book?

Alex: I think that many Americans are absolutely terrified of saying anything about race, and some of the folks who are willing to speak about race sound like obvious racists when they do speak. Folks don’t want to acknowledge their advantages based upon race or nationality (I like the line in the book where Cyrus recognizes the possibility that if we lived on global level playing fields he might not have any jobs at all), and others don’t want to acknowledge their disadvantages. People are desperate to believe that the terms of life are fair.

The Linda Jones section was in the original draft, and in fact, that was right around when the book began to take off and almost write itself. But I’m glad you mention the scene because it seems like some folks give up on the book due to Duffy’s or the narrator’s strong sense of “seeing race” early on, when several of the more touching scenes surrounding race come in the second half of the book.

I grew up on the edge of University City in Philly, right where it used to make a sudden switch from middle class to affluent and multicultural to working-class black with some blocks of utter abandonment. From my childhood apartment, you could walk less than two blocks to at least one real crack house, but it seemed as if almost no one from my neighborhood a block away ever walked west back then. The neighborhood has changed a lot, and on my current salary, it would be difficult to get by living there. But my mother would drive west every morning to teach urban public school, mainly at a middle school that had some of the poorest kids in the entire district, so I was highly aware of African American poverty, the sense of national neglect for issues surrounding it, the national culture of blaming the victim (the only time I didn’t vote for President was Clinton’s reelection, and my main issue was Welfare-to-Work and how harmful that would be to many of his own voters). When I visit Philly now, it seems like that there is a lot less segregation and many more neighborhoods that are quite diverse based upon race and income level.

But the larger point is, concerning why Cyrus Duffleman has all these conflicting impulses, is that this is what people are actually like. For example, people have abstract sympathy for entire regions of the city, but never set foot in those places. In this regard, you’ll find some of the biggest phonies of all in academia, and with tenure.

Dave: A writing student tells you she wants to go to graduate school to become a professor. What do you say?

Alex: I don’t teach English majors, so this topic does not come up often, but in general I try to be enthusiastic for students’ future plans, and I write recommendations when I’m asked to. Because I teach general education, I’m often writing recommendations for programs that will lead to far greater financial success than most of us in creative writing will ever see, so sometimes it’s a little depressing, but, alas, with my students, I’m generally enthusiastic and happy to hear they are saving themselves, or trying to, from the life of the starving writer or just the starving anyone who can’t pay back their loans and spends their twenties living in their parents’ house (so, yeah, maybe they’re well fed if eating at home). But it’s not impossible to become a professor with a degree in the humanities, and right now, I think comp/rhet or one of the newer English PhD concentrations or programs with tech in the title, like “Digital Humanities” or “Text and Technology” is the best bet for landing at least a lectureship in higher ed.


Update: Part Two is posted: Alex Kudera interviews Dave Newman about Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children.

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