The Toxicity of Female Tokenism: An Interview with Kathleen Alcott

Though Kathleen Alcott’s third novel, America Was Hard to Find, is set in the mid-twentieth century, its concerns are eerily current—nearly every character is caught between the stability of convention and the blazing allure of revolution. Alcott depicts several big American events—the moon landing, the carnage of Vietnam, and the Reagan administration’s dismissal of the AIDS crisis—but she renders just as many intimate realities with a sensibility that she has come to define as her own. Her prose has a way of finding the cinematic in the personal: the private toil of being a single mother or a fatherless son, the bright loneliness of youth, and, perhaps most vividly, the torrid struggle of a single citizen who is “sickened by the masculine bark of her country” as she tries to find a way toward action.

Fay Fern rejects the traditional path her parents had envisioned for her to instead bartend in the Mojave Desert near an Air Force base; Fay’s transition from the doting mistress of a pilot nearly twice her age to a radical antiwar activist serves as the spine of the narrative. Her stoic ex-lover, Vincent, has moved away to become one of the first astronauts in the nascent space program. He’s also unwittingly become a father to Fay’s son, Wright.

This triangulation sets the book’s plot in motion, but what hooks the reader are Alcott’s darts of wisdom and finely tuned observations. A woman’s youth is “the reigning god in her life, the thing from which came all permission and unhappiness.” Another character’s relationship with the possibility of suicide is “like some billboard he had to drive by every day … a highly effective advertisement that adorned the horizon on his way to getting anywhere.” The last moments of a sunset are “when all the colors, imperiled, flare up in protest.”

Alcott’s narration is penetrating and elegant, but she gives her characters some of the wittiest and most screen-ready dialogue in contemporary fiction. “Call me when you’re sober,” Fay says to her sister over the phone, who replies, “Call me when you shit out whatever rotten thing it is you ate.” A young man in San Francisco stumbles across his apartment and declares of his hungover state: “I feel like a goddamned aborted murder.”

I met Kathleen while we were living in New York, and since then we’ve spent our friendship in several American states and just as many emotional ones. Her intelligence and wit are just as sharp in person as they are in writing, and though I wish we could have conducted this interview in person—conflicting time zones required us to write it over email.

 

INTERVIEWER

Most of the conventional, collective images of what America “is” changed radically and repeatedly during the five years you took to write America Was Hard to Find. Though the novel is set mostly in the America of the sixties, seventies, and eighties, which had their own snakeskins to shed, did this upheaval change or challenge the concerns of the book?

ALCOTT

I am certain that it changed what I was looking at, or how I looked at it—the winter Trump was inaugurated I was living in seclusion on the Sonoma Coast, and I spent a fearful, manic period watching the Watergate hearings in their entirety on YouTube; that was research for a chapter I was writing, for a fight that takes place in the gas line the summer of Watergate and the oil embargo. It is difficult to imagine that I would have engaged with those hearings in the same way under a Hillary Clinton presidency but it is also impossible, at this point, to imagine a Hillary Clinton presidency. I mean that, mostly, life outside and art inside are always interdependent, and that to try to see one as the teacher of the other is to say that knowledge in the classroom travels unidirectionally—which I know, from the humiliation teaching has always been for me, is not true. I do know I am confronting structural misogyny in a way I did not during the Obama years, as is true for all women, and recognizing the shortcuts I took to avoid feeling its effects.

INTERVIEWER

Recently another novelist asked me if I have a specific emotional state or feeling that compels me to write fiction. I said whatever I said, then the asker told me he thought mine would have been anger. Could you tell me where you imagine your fiction comes from?

ALCOTT

I have written things because people in my life have died and I have written things because I have loved men who hated women and I have written things in answer to a part of me that swims out farther than is safe. This book in particular is a response to a transitional and itinerant chapter of my life, and there are many versions of myself who sat down to write it. You might have to ask me about a particular chapter, or even a sentence, to winnow it.

INTERVIEWER

There are a series of scenes in which Elise, a betrayed wife, icily takes up a regular barstool at the bar where her husband’s lover works. It culminates in a beautifully staged scene—you could make a whole three-act play out of this thread in the novel alone—that’s flush with a terrifying, nearly sexual tension. I am not sure I have much of a question here. I just love these scenes, the final one in particular, and want to know more about the ideas you think they raise. What was on your mind as you worked on them?

ALCOTT

Feminism, and in particular what feminists owe other women. Adrienne Rich gave a great commencement address at Smith in 1979 in which she talked about the toxicity of female tokenism, the great lie of the exceptional woman who travels in male circles. How well that lie sits on the tongue of American capitalism—it’s not other women you need, not equality for all women. It’s the exceptionalism of you, who will, after all, be the only one up against the patriarchal fence as you search for a chink. The idea of that shortcut is augmented by financial and solipsistic investment in the right pseudospiritual practice, in the self as a brand, in the consumerist narcissism. I think female tokenism is something Fay swallowed wholesale, which I certainly did in my late teens and early twenties, taking advantage of situations that I believe now took power from other women. I almost categorically dated older, powerful men, musicians and writers and filmmakers, who I think made my intellectual world bigger but my emotional world smaller, or more contorted, because I always measured my life in contrast to theirs. I would try to conceive of each of those relationships as exceptions, as exceptional as these men made me feel, ignoring the ghostly margin that was the age-appropriate women displaced, materially or emotionally, directly or indirectly, by the freedom this granted those men, who chose the malleability of someone young over the experience-based standards of someone older. At least in a conception of heterosexual womanhood that involves partnership and childrearing, when a much younger woman takes up with an older man, I tend to think, it tells the males in the world that their lives always come with an emergency exit, another shot, and the women of the world that the windows are closing quickly.

INTERVIEWER

America Was Hard to Find manages to be critical of conventional American ideologies and still able to revel in some of our national imagery—from the landscape to fashion to film. I saw Badlands for the first time a year ago and I thought of you immediately, and of course you were already very familiar with that stunner of American imagination. Are there other films or artists that served as touchstones as you wrote? Did you have any photographs or paintings or songs pinned up in the mental space where you worked?

ALCOTT

I owe much of my best thinking to the repertory cinema of New York City. There was a summer of Chantal Akerman screenings at Film Forum, in 2015 I believe, that helped me think about narrative silences in a way that was transformative. Her “documentary” News from Home is just a voiceover of the letters her mother wrote her that she never answered, read by Akerman, over footage of New York in the seventies. There’s a lesson in there for a fiction writer about which images, however different, are there to amplify others—a mother’s unanswered entreaty becomes much more painful when you see another family passing together onto a late-night train.

Éric Rohmer, too, helped me identify the necessary coldness of certain stories, or turns in them, and how to use architecture, particularly transitional spaces—stairways, streets.

In terms of other mediums—Marsden Hartley’s paintings of his native Maine, which get pinker as he gets older and FJ McMahon’s album Early Blue, which he recorded after a tour of Vietnam and which might be the first folk record about PTSD. And during my rough-draft period of anything I write to one album, which is Phillip Glass’s Glassworks.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a poetics of the sentence? Do you have banned words or methods that you rely upon during the line-revision process?

ALCOTT

I pay attention to the syllabic value of each clause of each sentence, and whether it is increasing as the sentence progresses or diminishing, or ending on stress or no-stress, and whether there is justification for that in terms of the subjectivity the sentence is trying to portray. I pay attention to dactyls and anapests and spondees. I try to cut any sentence that exists only for its own beauty and does not somehow change or expand upon the meaning in the page or so before—this is a new practice of the last few years, a reaction to two overwritten novels, with deference to my critics. Finally, almost nothing is actually a “maw,” so I try to keep that word way outta there.

INTERVIEWER

Inevitably the novel we imagine ourselves to be writing outruns the novel we are actually writing. What got left behind? What was on the cutting-room floor?

ALCOTT

Truly, about two hundred and fifty pages, maybe most notably a series of letters written to the Vincent Kahn character by Americans who had nothing to do with the rest of the book, plus a traditionally narrated chapter about them. I’m still glad I wrote them—I think they were a way of being accountable to the tentacled reach of the era. Maybe most notably, there was a Daniel Berrigan-type character buying soap flakes for napalm at the grocery, knowing he will be arrested after he carries out his draft-card burning. I loved that scene, but somehow I ultimately felt that I wanted to give the epigraph—from Berrigan’s poem America Is Hard to Find—autonomy by leaving any Berrigan-inspired people out of it. The rule with using research might be that it’s less wise to use an ending than a beginning, at least for me—it’s limiting to write toward any fixity of facts, but empowering to begin there.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve been thrilled by your short fiction lately—some of it published and some that I’ve been fortunate enough to read before others get the chance. Who is the version of you who writes stories and is she different from the novel-writing one? Do you find yourself gravitating toward new forms?

ALCOTT

I cheat on my novels with short stories, have literally drafted them in robes in hotel rooms with my telephone off. Weirdly, I’ve noticed, I write one once a year, in between turning in some draft and waiting on an editorial letter, or after completing copyedits, or whatever. I am generally, in my short fiction, trying to address some formal problem, something I think I can’t do—a plural narrator, an image the protagonist can see but the reader can’t, what have you—whereas in my novels there’s probably more of what I tend to call in the classroom “a Bong Question,” something philosophical and ruminative and vaguely-to-thoroughly embarrassing if stated aloud. There’s that maxim in investigative journalism that if a piece answers the same question it set out to, you’re doing something wrong. I think this is true for novels, too, whereas in a short story there’s a grand unification, different elements of form trained up the same question. In the best short fiction, I’ve found, one can write down a list of verbs as they appear in order and see the story happen there, too, or catalogue all the figurative language and see a message emerge. In a novel these undercurrents can feel wilder, and can hopefully destabilize the reader without that feeling like a loss of control.

 

Catherine Lacey is the author of The Answers, Nobody is Ever Missing, and, most recently, Certain American States.

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