The fact that I have the ability to create something from nothing with my words will never cease to amaze me. One of my writing goals for 2013 was to land at least one interview per month with a person (or people) whose creative work I enjoy or appreciate or am otherwise inspired by. And although I came up a couple of interviews short, I have one more to share - with fiction writer Alexander Lumans. When I signed up for my first 8 week fiction workshop at Lighthouse last summer, I didn’t really know what to expect. Lumans was the instructor of our course, and he’s also the real deal when it comes to fiction writing. In fact, he’s the Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell this spring. Aside from being a talented and accomplished writer, Lumans was such a good teacher that he inspired more than half of our class to keep at our writing work, so much so that we’ve since formed a moderately official fiction writers’ group. I hope you'll be inspired, too.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
A: In college, it was the decision to go either biology or English and I was taking both freshman year. And then I realized that I hated taking biology labs. The lab part was terrible, like the worst part of biology by far. Regular biology? Cool. But having to do a three hour lab that was one credit versus your one hour bio class that was three credits? I knew if I was gonna be a biology major I would have to go through so many labs. And just the thought of that to get to the really cool biology that I wanted to do - I wanted to be an ichthyologist or an entomologist - I didn’t get anywhere near that. You have to take all kinds of things like organic and physical chemistry. I was like “Well, I’ll just do English instead because I like reading and there’s no, like, English labs. It’s just you at home with a book." It was probably my junior year, after taking a couple of creative writing classes, where in my Contemporary American Fiction class we read a book called White Noise by Don DeLillo. It changed my life. It changed everything, basically. I knew that that was the book I wish I had written or that I would like to write.
Q: Could you pinpoint what it was about that book?
A: It’s just beautifully written, but in a way that I had never thought you could write beautifully, I guess. And stuff happens, and it’s funny too, but it’s also really dark, and it just seemed just perfect.
Q: Have you established your day-to-day writing routine?
A: I think so. It’s really routine-heavy. There’s something to me about the routine where it takes away the pressure of “Am I going to write today?” It’s sort of like “Yes, you’re going to write today, you did it yesterday, you will tomorrow.” So I usually wake up early and read and eat, then make coffee. It feels weird if it’s in the wrong order. Depending on what I’ve read, I’ve usually at least marked a couple passages or parts or even just single sentences that I like, so then I’ll type those out. Sometimes, it’s 3 sentences or one page, sometimes it’s an entire chapter. Then depending on what I’m working on, it could be starting something new, or the early stages of figuring out where it’s going. When you’re at those later stages and you’ve finally typed it out, I’ll print it out, read it out loud and mark things on it as I go, just places that are either weird or changes I want to make or questions I have. So, that happens a lot, I read a draft out loud, make changes on it with a pen, then go and make changes on the actual document, next day do the same thing again.
Q: So what do you do if you get stuck?
A: I always feel like there’s something that serves as a springboard. Sometimes it’s drawn from real life, a word or an image, sometimes it’s things that I’m learning at the time, like I know I want to write about this job or tell a story from this kind of point of view. I think in terms of getting stuck, there’s always exercises you can do. There are ways to jumpstart yourself by sort of providing like a fake platform to stand on in some way. Rather than just sitting down and saying “Okay, I’m going to write today” and not having any thing to start with, even if it’s just a simple word. That’s really hard and dangerous and scary. There’s always something to start with, even if it’s just a single word. Like the Birdmen story - I was revising another story at the time, and suddenly the word “Birdmen” pops into my head? It has nothing to do with what I’m doing right now, but I’m writing that down over here because there’s something cool about that and then I worked on that story and finished it and that story came out really quickly. It felt like I made all the right decisions really early on with it and it may have been just because I was working on other stuff and I had been purging things and finally that was like a nice installation of what I was actually trying to do.
Another story that I wrote was based off stuff that I’d learned in this Religion in the American South class. We got broken up into groups and we were each assigned a church to research and give a presentation on. And within your group, you decided if you wanted to do like the history of the church or the architecture, and of course I chose the graveyard of the church. The church itself is awesome, but the graveyard’s amazing because it has the oldest grave in Charleston, and it’s from, like, 1647. So I learned a bunch of stuff about the graveyard through research and through talking to some people at the church, and realized there were all these things about the different types of graves and there’s this slate one that had this particular kind of death’s head markings for whoever died from yellow fever. Then I started researching that and realized that people who had yellow fever sometimes sort of go so unconscious, and your breathing gets so shallow, that people think you’re dead, and then they bury you because custom says to bury you by sunset because you died. But you’re not dead. And maybe you wake up and you’ve been buried alive. So they eventually learned that they’d been doing this when sometimes they had to dig up graves and they’d find like scratch marks on the inside of the coffin. So then they had these things set up to try and counteract that. One of them is so amazing. You have a pipe that runs down to the coffin underground with a string and at the top of the pipe above ground is a bell and someone has to keep watch - especially those first few nights - in case the bell rings, because then it’s like “Oh, this person’s alive. We have to dig them up now.” That’s amazing. Okay, this is now in my brain and I have to get it out.
Q: Growing up in South Carolina, did you have any sort of religious experience? Culturally or otherwise?
A: There are more churches than anything else in town, and I started off being Lutheran and then we switched churches to Episcopalian, but the church we switched to didn’t have a building yet, so we met in the event hall of the local pool club and that same hall was where we did social dance. Are you familiar with this? This is something totally weird. When you’re really young, like before you have any say whatsoever in your life, your mom and the mom of a girl in town basically betroth you to each other for social dance. So before first grade I knew who my social partner was. And social doesn’t happen until 6th grade. So you have your social partner and everybody growing up in that town has a social partner and if you don’t it’s kind of strange. But all my friends knew who theirs were and we all went to school together and it wasn’t like “Oh, you’re a couple.” it was just “That’s your partner.” except mine was really in love with me and I was not in love with her. So it was really strange. She really liked me and I was just like “You’re just my social partner. I know our destinies have been twined together since birth, but cool it.” So social dance happens and you learn different dances like the fox trot and the waltz and the famous amos, things like that.
Q: Did you always go to church? Do you now? Do you think religious faith informs your writing in any way?
A: I went to church (mostly against my will/thanks to my parents' forcing) until around 12th grade. At that point, they kind of understood that I wasn't getting anything out of it--and I don't think that's even the reason we attended it. It was more a social thing. Maybe they had some hope that it would make me into a model young man, but I was already wearing chain wallets and shredded JNCOs by then. We had several family friends who went to the same church, which is also why we chose that church (they eventually built a chapel out in the farmlands, which meant moving out of the public pool room). So, yeah, I gave up on it in high school. And I don't go now, either. I will say I went to the Christmas midnight service this past Christmas, which was pretty strange if only because I hadn't been in so long. And it further reminded me why I don't go. During the service, I was more interested in reading the Book of Common Prayer about all the Death rituals and prayers (which come right after all the prayers for the sick, naturally)...I'm sure that looked entirely appropriate on X-mas Eve to the family sitting next to me. As for it informing my writing, I don't know how it couldn't. Of course, I always have to spin church or religion or faith in some way to make it interesting to me--I wouldn't just write about the church I went to because what's there to explore? But faith...that's what writing is. The faith in language. Writing amounts in many ways to a form of meditation for me, where certain parts of my thought process get shut off and allow me to focus in a way that no other action does. Moreover, to trust that something will come out of nothing? What's the difference between that and prayer?
Q: Would you say you consider yourself a Southern Writer?
A: No. I guess I don’t even know what that means exactly. I mean, some writers I know who just write about the south, you know they’re writing about where they live, what they know, they just feel drawn to it. Pinkney Benedict basically only writes about West Virginia, that’s where he grew up, but his stuff is also not like your typical West Virginia stories either. It goes into really weird zones, so it’s like “Okay, well are you still like a West Virginia writer?” I don’t know, I feel like if I’m writing stories that are set on the moon, I’m not necessarily southern. I don’t know what constitutes that.
Q: Maybe if you only wrote about social dances.
A: If that’s what my first novel was about, then maybe that’s my label. It would probably be in the Library of Congress as Southern Literature.
Q: Many of your stories seem to acknowledge the weight of father/son relationships in one way or another. Is that something you're conscious of?
A: I wasn't conscious of the father/son relationship aspect for the longest time. It was the aspect of my life at the time that I subconsciously wanted to investigate. I can remember writing a story in undergrad where I knew for the first time, before I started the story: "Okay, I can write about complicated father-son relationships, I'm going to do that." And while it did have some nice moments that I still remember to this day, it failed ultimately as a story because I was too self-aware of what I was doing. I was too comfortable with it, even though the subject itself had discomfort in the content. So now that I'm aware of it (among other subjects), I don't let it become the initiating focus for a story. If it creeps its way into the story in an organic way, cool with me. I simply don't trust the feeling of fully understanding a story as I'm writing it. For example, now, I keep writing about weddings. My sister is getting married in May, so it's there in my brain but without much of a handle on what that means exactly. At some point, I'll exorcise this because I'll have figured out whatever mystery keeps drawing me back to it. I'll have moved on to another obsession by then. Some obsessions you work through, and some obsessions are lifelong. That's partly what informs one's individual voice.
Q: So your first novel - what does that process look like? Have you started?
A: I’ve started. I started fall of 2011, because I got this residency to go to MacDowell for seven weeks and do nothing. Everything’s taken care of. I didn’t even cook. You just are there to do what you do. I’m like "Okay, well, if I’m gonna do this, this is the time to start.” So I did. And at that point, you’re starting it, you just write and you don’t worry about it. Stuff will get revised along the way just as you’re thinking about it. I know some novelists who say write 50,000 words, then go back, look at it, cut it down to 20 or 10, and figure out whatever is there that’s worth following. Then write 50,000 more, cut it down again. That’s kind of like what’s been happening, because I only feel comfortable working on it at residencies like that where it’s totally uninterrupted, because trying to work on it during the school year is ridiculous. So, to work on it in these weird spurts, where it’s 2 months here, one month here, one month here, within the span of two years, feels very strange and I’ve watched it changed and I realized, I need to scale back. I’m trying to write this epic and I don’t need to write that because I’m not capable of doing that. Maybe down the road. But one of the things that has stayed true about it at this point is that it takes place in Latvia. I’m half Latvian.
Q: Have you been there?
A: Once. For a week, basically. It’s on my dad’s side. He was a history professor until he retired a little while ago, and his focus was European history and his deeper focus was World War II European history and his really deep focus was Eastern European WWI History, which involved Latvia.
Q: Was he born there?
A: Sort of. He was born as his family was fleeing Latvia in 1944 because the Russians had come back. The Russians had occupied Latvia, and the Nazis came and chased the Russians out, and to the Latvians that was great. And then the Russians came back once Germany started losing the war, and that’s when they left and so my dad was born in a deportation camp in Germany. So, he was not technically born in Latvia, but his whole family’s Latvian. So he lived in the camp for 4 years, and his sister was born there too, and then they came to America. But the amazing thing is that he had never been back to Latvia. His parents had never wanted to go back. He grew up in Florida and they just stayed there. But he became a history professor and ended up writing a book on the history of Latvia and WWII and he gets invited to this conference in Germany and half of it takes place in Germany and the other half takes place in Latvia. So we all went along with him, we all went to Latvia together for the first time he’d ever been. It was in 2007. I was like “This is insane.”
Q: How’d he handle it?
A: There’s this amazing moment the first day we get there and we just go to a cafe and we’re sitting outside in the capitol, Riga, and there are people walking by and they’re talking and they’re talking in Latvian because it’s Latvia. And he’s like “They’re speaking Latvian!” Like, that doesn’t happen anywhere else he’s ever been. It was so unbelievable.
Q: What would you say is your ultimate aim for your writing and/or yourself as a writer?
A: My ultimate aim for my writing and myself as a writer? To keep challenging myself. One of the quotes I always come back to is Michelangelo's "I am still learning." As long as I put in the hours, I typically get rewarded in some form or fashion (I don't mean being published or winning prizes, but rather being pleased with something I've created, typically having surprised myself with a thought or a moment I wouldn't have otherwise come to if I hadn't written that story or poem or essay). Being too content frightens me because it's a slippery slope to laziness, arrogance, and egocentricity. Something that Jon Tribble, the editor for Crab Orchard Review, told me is that writing is a marathon, not a sprint. I like that, and I take comfort in that. What my finish line is, I have no idea. It's not like I will have crowds cheering beneath a big "Finish!" banner to point out when I'm "done." In an interview I was just listening to with TC Boyle, Boyle talks about how interesting it is that our goals readjust automatically--1) if I could just get my first story published, 2) if I could just get a story published in a decent magazine, 3) if I could just get a story published in The Paris Review, 4) if I could just get a book published, 5) if I could just get a book published that won acclaim and prizes, 6) if I could just win the Pulitzer. It's easy to forget that you've already achieved a lot because you're always wanting more. But that wanting is what keeps the writing progressing and, again, keeps me challenging myself.