Hybrid Interview: Alexandra Kleeman
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re happy to share this conversation between Alexandra Kleeman and Claire Lobenfeld, who also essays about Kleeman’s Something New Under the Sun. —CRAFT
Essay by Claire Lobenfeld •
Alexandra Kleeman’s latest novel Something New Under the Sun is a book about plague. Not necessarily about sickness—although there is an age-agnostic form of dementia in its pages—but the Biblical kind. A novelist moves across the country to oversee the film adaptation of his novel and impress his family with a reinvigorated career; instead, he finds Hollywood to be more sinister than star-launching. In this near-future climate-nightmare, fictional California is fueled by WAT-R, a privately-owned and inequitably accessible synthetic H2O, as wildfires rage; an upstate New York commune called Earthbridge mourns each destruction of the natural world and its nonhuman inhabitants while sequestered away from being any help to it; a former child star seeks to escape the response to her “latest” work, a viral video of tampon-theft that ends in a violent outburst.
Something New is polyphonic in a way that reveals the deeper possibilities of an omniscient third-person point of view. The array of consciousnesses it explores rivals something like the tag-you’re-it cascading perspectives of Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex trilogy but extends beyond humanity. Tense character scenes swivel into rich descriptions of wildlife and landscape, all of it as essential to grounding (or, perhaps, unceding the importance of) the assorted neuroses and preoccupations in which the human characters are mired.
Kleeman’s fiction presents the ways human consumption and obsession are intertwined as framed by our evolving and crumbling world. Her characters are obsessed with possessing things. In her 2016 story collection Intimations, a woman is clueless to the identities of the barrage of men claiming to be her fiancé (“Fairy Tale”), babies are assigned to parents by the government (“Rabbit Starvation”), a breakup is set to the backdrop of the world’s inventory of people, animals, and things that are vanishing, increasingly, into thin air. That last story, “You, Disappearing,” reemerged at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, achieving literary-virality on Twitter and newsletters which cover that kind of thing. Its resonance felt almost Kleeman-esque to me. The projected relatability wasn’t about lives lost due to the novel coronavirus—although it was so early into the pandemic, the devastation was not yet so pronounced—but the absence of sociality, as if to say that if you can’t see someone, can’t have a drink with them, they might as well not exist.
Portraying interconnectedness and media in all its power, strangeness, and ubiquity is an area where Kleeman excels. In her debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, the protagonist is obsessed with a couples game show called That’s My Partner!, which includes a contractual obligation for losers to break up and commercials for uber-processed junk food. Something New explores vigilante forum communities with their gatekeeping and acronyms, while any other use of the internet (to summon ride shares, read a map, communicate through texts) is rendered seamlessly—and brandlessly—on the page, almost a final word in the argument about whether or not there is a natural way to write about our contemporary tech-facilitated existence.
“We’re not all living in the same reality,” Kleeman says early into our July phone conversation. “I wanted to write to reflect the strange microclimates of reality that I felt so intensely in the four years I was writing [Something New] and conceiving it, which were also the Trump years. But I think it was going on before that. More recently, the pandemic has literally isolated us in place and also showed how much of the reality we live in is constituted by our information diet.”
In this conversation, Kleeman and I discuss the vast undertaking of writing beyond human experience, fire beetles, and navigating the world through, what she calls, preapocalyptic malaise.
Claire Lobenfeld: Most literary fiction that doesn’t take place in intentionally otherworldly places is usually set on Earth, so to speak. But in Something New Under the Sun, that setting is fully realized: the landscape and its nonhuman inhabitants are just as much a part of it as a dingy motel room or a starlet’s empty swimming pool. What inspired you to bring in these big passages of nature?
Alexandra Kleeman: I moved around a lot as a kid. The thing that seemed to hold normalcy for me was the presence of an outdoors of some kind wherever I was living, even if it was just a park or small wooded area in New Jersey where I lived or these mysterious-to-me hills behind the LA suburbs and the San Gabriel Valley [when I was] around ten years old. In some ways, the natural world, the one that’s kept backgrounded by the ways we foreground our lives or the things that are most relevant to us as humans, has sometimes felt more real to me. You just have to scratch the surface of our surface-level reality to find a much more populated and much more unexpected, in some ways, natural world. It was really important to me that, with this book, I do something that troubles that foreground-background relationship between humans and their setting.
In creative writing, we often turn to the environment to provide a tone or a little bit of detail to convince the reader there is an outside world and, once we’re done with that outside world, we can turn back to the story. It’s something that allows us to feel like our lives are very stable and very consistent and very important as opposed to these other things which rear up and surprise us and unsettle the pace of our daily mundane existence, or our attempt to strive in relation to larger global crises and catastrophe. When we widen the view of a narrative, how does that decenter the human? How does that allow us to see our position more accurately in a world that is shifting and changing much faster than we realize?
CL: We all have issues that speak to us at our core, and whenever I hear someone speak to theirs, it’s sometimes disturbing to me how little we know and how much more expansive things are beyond our experience of them.
AK: The channels that we create for ourselves as people—markers of success, markers of happiness—and the paths to achieve those things fit our minds so exactly. We have built the world our minds desire, but at what point do those systems become maladaptive to our survival or even to our own happiness? That’s where our relationship to the natural world is so deeply tied to our relationship to capitalism, our relationship to work, our relationship to the relationships that we cultivate around us, which is a lot. You pull a thread, and it just keeps going.
CL: There’s so much precision to the depictions of animal life and plant life in this book. What was your research process like?
AK: As much as research is sometimes about acquiring information, I think a lot of it is about getting yourself into this observational space and the grain of your observation matching the material you’re trying to write about or the material you want to get on the page—making your mind fit the material.
I lived in California as a child and as a grad student, and I went back a lot for different periods of time to residencies and for self-created residencies for writing this book. One of the types of research I did—and this is more difficult to relate to specific goals—is just to form an attachment to and relationship with a place. One of the times I went to LA, I visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and a site near Calabasas that had been really badly burned in a wildfire. I went right after the wildfire, and it wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before: dark black, rich soil, burnt trees, dark shapes against the sky, little trickles of water in streams that maybe had always been there feeding things or were running because the vegetation was gone and there was nothing to absorb it, and occasional little tiny plants sprouting. I went back again two months later, and it had completely rebloomed with vivid green, but very temporary, plants. Not the sort of grasses that are there right now. You could see some things were the same, but the overall impression was vastly different. That was the bridge for me to the more traditional information and knowledge about the landscape.
I also read a ton of naturalist guidebooks to different parts of California landscape: grasses, water, fire. General information is not really that useful to me. You don’t necessarily know what’s going to be useful to your writing. I think it has to leap out or sort of puncture you a little bit. When that detail stands out from the others, you know it has some special relationship to you or the project. One of the things I liked the most when reading about fire in California was reading about this species of fire beetle that has such a finely tuned sensor to fire that it can sense it from hundreds of miles away. One time there was a concert outdoors at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, and it was swarmed by these fire beetles because they had sensed the cigarettes all burning together, and they traveled and descended upon them because charred wood is where they lay their eggs. I had to go through so many fine-grain details and so many details that didn’t stand out to me to find something that sounds like you might make it up as a piece of magical realism.
Imagine being at the bottom of a beetle swarm when you’re just trying to smoke some pot and see a show.
CL: Well, speaking of group experiences: You use the third-person omniscient point of view so well in this book. I think POV is an underrated craft element, but here it’s really creatively considered. You’re not just using it to move between character consciousnesses. It’s more like a pipeline between characters and their experiences. In particular, there is one scene when one of the film’s PAs comes back to set after having a disturbing encounter on the freeway. Instead of having that upsetting moment happen in real-time, he comes back to set, and we’re planted in his mind, not through flashback, but through an almost traumatic reflection. How did you think about POV when you were writing?
AK: POV is a funny thing. In my first book, a lot of it’s told in the past tense, but when watching TV, sometimes it shifts into the present tense. In this book, you’re mostly close to [the novelist character] Patrick at first, but there are these little disruptions that sort of break the structure of that POV and introduce some other brief structures. Eventually, we leave Patrick behind because he’s no longer the character we can see out through.
With that scene, for example, I wanted to make it so that dipping suddenly into [the PA’s] consciousness also unceded this mundane and over-consistent tone of the world we were in before: this workplace where people are concerned about doing their jobs right and being seen, angling for a better position. And suddenly, you have this other time-space and emotional tone that makes that context seem paler and less like a crucial way of accessing the world.
When we change the scale of our perception of the world, it denaturalizes this feeling we have that the experience we’re having is the only possible experience, and this reality is the most relevant reality. I think that feeling comes up in real life, but when it happens to you, it’s disorienting and unpredictable. In literature, you can move people between these frames of reality and frame a seeing in a more controlled way that’s easier to reflect on and inhabit fully.
CL: There’s also an emotional echoing between characters in the book: Patrick’s wife, Allison, has these very reactive fears about the climate that he eventually mirrors in his paranoia about the making of novel adaptation; their daughter has these visions of the future and those feel similar to the peripheral characters who get sick throughout the book.
AK: Everyone is struggling to respond to reality in their own ways. Everyone is balancing their experience of the present moment with something else. Part of what I wanted to explore in using climate change as a metaphor is the question, “How do we look at a phenomenon that manifests so differently in different places?” In one place, it manifests as floods which are completely different from lightning storms. How can we take all of these things that are sensorially disparate and conceptually disparate and understand that they are part of the same?
Everyone in this book is also reacting to this preapocalyptic malaise, the sense that we don’t know if we have a future, we don’t know how to inhabit that future, we don’t know how to get a better position in that future, we don’t know how to take our old concerns, like about success as a writer or success as a mother or whatever that is, into [this] world and we don’t know what new concerns we should have. Everyone’s reacting in a different way and yet it’s all sort of a reaction to the same impending thing. It’s the main question that I’m trying to answer all the time, and I can never answer it.
CL: Do you mean how do we deal with preapocalyptic malaise?
AK: Yeah, or, how should I be in the world that’s coming? Should we still think about what nail polish color to wear for the fall? Should that whole realm of culture fall away? Is it going to be a smoother and more difficult to distinguish transition?
CL: My immediate reaction is fuck the nail polish, but then, at the same time, it’s too late anyway, so soothe yourself with the nail polish. Is purity even helpful? What is helpful?
AK: I think it’s funny. I thought about this while reading Katie Kitamura’s new book Intimacies too. We live lives where we can be grappling with the biggest issues—social justice issues, environmental issues, and our position and relationship to them—and then right afterward we have to decide if you’re going to buy the Trader Joe’s sourdough bread or the Trader Joe’s whole wheat sourdough bread. All of these different-scale decisions and different scales of information that are just merged into one in our daily lives. It’s a position that expects a lot from us, and it takes a lot of agility in how we move between these different points of reference. Just speaking from my perspective, I don’t have that agility all the time. A lot of times, these different modes and scales of self-positioning just make me feel crushed.
ALEXANDRA KLEEMAN is the author of Intimations, a short story collection, and the novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, which was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Her fiction has been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Zoetrope, Conjunctions, and Guernica, among other publications, and her other writing has appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Tin House, n+1, and The Guardian. Her work has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Headlands Center for the Arts. She is the winner of the Berlin Prize and the Bard Fiction Prize and was a Rome Prize Literature Fellow at the American Academy in Rome. She lives in Staten Island and teaches at the New School.
CLAIRE LOBENFELD is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She is currently the short fiction editorial assistant and a member of the Editorial Feedback Team at CRAFT. Find her fiction and journalism at clairelobenfeld.com.