Interview with Alexandra Kleeman

I think that because women are so much more self-perceptive there is a sort of distance from yourself that can form as a result; you’re always checking yourself to see if you’re looking right and acting right and thinking the right thing.

When I first heard word of Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel, You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, the review came with the urgent recommendation that I should pick up a copy as quickly as possible. I expected that the novel would delve into the array of ways in which a woman’s body is monetized and desired, but, in fact, the book that I read blew apart my expectations. The book’s central character, a young woman whom the author refers to as A, is stagnating in her job, her apartment, and her relationship within an unnamed American city. A’s roommate, B, is obsessed with A and B elicits the reluctant narrator’s help in transforming B into A.

C is A’s boyfriend and he is the blandest, most content of males. A, B, and C consume enormous amounts of television and processed foods and much of the novel focuses on the ways in which these products, like the petroleum-based Kandy Kakes, are advertised. C disappears and, while A was certainly untethered to reality before he takes off, his disappearance causes her to seek out a different source of meaning: the United Church of the Conjoined Eater.

While You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is not the easiest book to summarize, I wanted to give you all my best attempt before introducing you to Alexandra herself, who was kind enough to speak with me about her novel, her writing process, and her other work. In keeping with the novel’s preoccupation with suburbia, she told me that she would sit down amid settings of urban sprawl to do her writing:

AK. Photo credit: Graham Webster
AK. Photo credit: Graham Webster

“I found it really useful to write in places that aren’t usually used for writing. I would write in the warmer months, and I would write in parking lots,” she told me. “There’s something about pockets of suburbia that’s a little different.”

She added: “We managed to turn whatever was here before into this.”

Alexandra said that she would often visit a local Wendy’s to get just the right feel for the consumption in her novel. And while she said that she wanted the Kandy Kakes to be ineffable, these synthetic treats do bear similarity to a Hostess Snack Cake, which she called, “the Platonic ideal of the snack cake in size and weight.” Meanwhile, Alexandra said that Kandy Kat, the mascot of the Kandy Kakes that A eats so many of, was inspired by a mixture of Wile E. Coyote and the Trix Rabbit creature.

I wanted to write about a crisis of the body that was contemporary and very much tied to being a woman.

I asked Alexandra about how she informed her depiction of A, a character who needs to take possession of something so badly that she joins a cult. She told me:

“The perspective of my character [is] sort of lost, pushed out from the world, looking for something either that she can take possession of or [for] some belief system. I imagined her coming across a pamphlet that will offer her solutions to that and how that type of information convinces her.”

“Think about your most private thoughts articulated by something outside of you,” Alexandra said. “That surprise and the feeling of connection at this weird, deep level that maybe you haven’t shared with many people; then the religious literature goes one step further and offers to help her with that feeling that she has. From there, she has a series of interactions that causes her to wander off into the unknown.”

I admitted to Alexandra that I could not help but enjoy the character of C, as moronic as he is meant to be. He just does not care to think beyond himself, sort of like the protagonist of a bro-mance feature film starring Jason Segel and Paul Rudd. . .but I digress.

The narrator’s microscopic gaze into her own body is a poignant contrast to the obtuse glance of C and about this, Alexandra said:

“I think that because women are so much more self-perceptive there is a sort of distance from yourself that can form as a result; you’re always checking yourself to see if you’re looking right and acting right and thinking the right thing. Someone like C doesn’t experience [that]; he’s got zero distance between who he is and who he thinks he should be even if that’s really block-headed, it can seem healthier — especially in the context of this novel — than trying to think your way through these problems, especially ones for which there’s no solution.”

A good novelist is someone who’s on the margins trying to figure out the system and the language.

I was interested in hearing about how Alexandra solved what I called the problem of writing a novel. (Novels, I admitted to her, are hard. How do you do them? I asked.) She told me:

“When you’re writing a novel as opposed to writing short stories, you know there will be times when you’re just completely stuck because the time frame is so long it requires endurance rather than effort. You have to know when to use effort and when to sit back and go easier on yourself. I feel like it was really helpful for me to try to work on smaller sections. Go in with one goal: ‘Let’s get this one scene operating with more emotion,’ and then pretend that nothing else in the book existed except for that scene.” She laughed.

While Y2CHABLM has been compared to many modern, surreal male writers like Don DeLillo, George Saunders, and Thomas Pynchon, I wondered what other writer ghosts hover in the back of her mind while she writes. Here are a few authors Alexandra loves to read:

“Samuel Beckett is an inspiration for everything I write. I connect to his characters . . . you know so little about them except that they suffer. That’s a really powerful thing to know about someone.”

● “I really love Muriel Spark . . . I love how willing she is to just let people be wicked and throw you into a situation where everyone is scheming against each other. It doesn’t matter whether you think one person is more moral than the other—it’s sort of a different world.”

● “Yōko Tawada: She’s someone who always writes from the perspective of a foreign, which I really feel moved by that. It gets my mind working. I think that to different degrees, that’s what all novels do: they come across something from the perspective of a foreign and then they make that thing more visible and tangible. A good novelist is someone who’s on the margins trying to figure out the system and the language.”

While Alexandra said that she was grateful for comparisons to male writers like DeLillo and Saunders, she felt that her writing’s “DNA” owes just as much to Margaret Atwood. “I wanted to write about a crisis of the body that was contemporary and very much tied to being a woman,” Alexandra said.

AK on nonfiction: “You have no control over it. You’ve got these people around you who are characters in their own right and who are not products of your imagination. It amazes me to be in a world that’s not a product of you.”

Alexandra is also in the process of finishing her PhD in rhetoric, and in addition to a collection of her short stories, Imitations, being published in 2016, she also contributes to Harper’s, N+1, and Vice. I asked her how she transitioned from writing this surreal style of fiction to writing investigative pieces, such her article on bed rest that was published in Harper’s.

She told me: “Writing nonfiction was sort of a vacation for myself because when I’m writing fiction, I tend to get really isolated and burrow into whatever I’m doing and lose touch with the outside world. I also feel like it gets tiring sometimes to feed off of what your mind produces, in order to produce more stuff to feed into your mind and then react against, ad infinitum. It’s just very insular. What I loved about going to do the bed rest piece was that you enter into an environment that’s not fabricated by you. You have no control over it. You’ve got these people around you who are characters in their own right and who are not products of your imagination. It amazes me to be in a world that’s not a product of my own imagination. I think it’s really healthy for me to switch into observer mode and to be an observer and to think about what’s there and how it all fits together, rather than trying to think of something that will fit into the world. It’s just like stretching after a workout: You need to do it for everything to work well.”

“I want to write more about the outside world,” Alexandra said. “But I’ll probably write just as much about the body because I seem to be obsessed with it,” she ended with a laugh.

Alexandra Kleeman’s fiction has been published in The Paris Review, Zoetrope, Conjunctions, and Guernica, among others. Her nonfiction essays and reportage have appeared in Harper’s, Tin House, n+1, and The Guardian. Her collection of short stories is forthcoming in 2016. Find your copy of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine here.


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