WEBEXCLUSIVE INCONVERSATION

Moved to Emulation

MOVED TO EMULATION

In the Country, by Mia Alvar (Knopf, 2015)

 

Mia Alvar’s debut story collection In the Country, published in June, has already received a great deal of attention and praise, and for very good reason. Mia has written a book that explores themes of identity, displacement, and belonging with characters that will break your heart with their strength and simultaneous vulnerability. These characters feel real in a way that only the best fiction can manage.

In the Country follows members of the Filipino diaspora through eight short stories and one novella, in settings ranging from Manila to Bahrain to Boston to New York. Mia, who was born in the Philippines, has lived in every geographical setting in her book at some point in her life. When she was six, her family moved to Bahrain to follow in the footsteps of an uncle who had found work there, as well as for a change of scenery following her older brother’s death. Her family then moved to Manhattan when her mother started graduate school at Teachers College. Mia was in Boston for six years for college and work and moved back to New York City for her MFA program, and she has lived in this city since that time.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mia recently at City Bakery in Manhattan. We perched ourselves on the balcony level and watched the lunchtime crowd pour in as we enjoyed coffee and a pretzel croissant. Our conversation touched on her writing process and the ideas behind her story collection, and a little bit on the book industry in general. I could have kept chatting with her all day.

 

Catherine LaSota (Rail): In the Country is your debut book, published just a couple of weeks ago. Let’s talk a little bit about your experiences in these initial days following your publication date. What has it felt like to have your first book out in the world? Has anything surprised you?

Mia Alvar: It’s been pretty terrifying but positive at the same time. I definitely manage to make myself anxious about pretty much anything, so when I know a date that a review is about to come out, or somebody’s interview or profile is about to come out, I’m just wondering how many minutes will it take for me to click and look at it.

Rail: Do you read everything that’s written about you?

Alvar: I do, and I know that some writers don’t. I can understand not wanting to see either positive or negative responses and not wanting the responses to affect your work, but I’ve been reading all the reviews because the book is kind of finished in my world. There’s no positive review that’s going to make me think, “Oh, I’m going to do more of this,” or a negative review that’s going to make me think, “oh, I’m going to change this.” So reading reviews just feels like a curiosity, and a thing to celebrate if the review is good or whatever.

The surprising thing to me was kind of a quiet highlight. I read a pre-publication review that had summarized one of the stories, “Esmeralda,” in a way that reviews do, something like, “In ‘Esmeralda,’ a cleaning woman ponders her situation in life as she dusts offices in the Twin Towers in the days leading up to 9/11.” It was a neutral statement, and it was accurate, but it was not like how I had summarized that story in my mind before. It felt cool to realize that a story has a life outside my own brain, and people can talk about it in their own words, and it’s real to them, when for so long the story really only existed in my brain.

Rail: You mentioned that, since the book is now finished, a particular review is not going to make you consider changing a story, but different writers have different ideas for when a story is finished. So my question is, do you ever have the urge to continue editing published work? How do you decide that something is done?

Alvar: The deadline from an editor or an agent definitely helps! But I sort of just know. There have definitely been moments when I’ve read a passage for an event or something and I thought, on a micro level, “Oh, I would change that or edit that word out.” There is always going to be that stuff like that. But I take so long to finish writing a story, and—it sounds kind of mystical or something—there is a moment in my process when a set of characters or a world becomes real to me and then crosses over in a way that it feels like there’s a way forward, and there is a direction that is right, and I’m not just grasping at straws and making things up. It might still take months from that moment, but that’s when I feel like I see the end in sight.
Rail: That sounds like a magical moment! It can be a struggle to start with that blank page and think, what is this that I’m doing? But then it’s a matter of continuing to work on something and having faith that you’ll get there. Do you have any methods that you use for getting to that point where the characters feel real to you, or is it an unexplainable situation unique to each story? I notice that your stories feature characters with such a range of ages, living situations, and occupations. Does research come into play in making the characters become real?

Alvar: Mostly I get there by doing a lot of writing that won’t make it into the story. I’ve tried to find more efficient ways to work. I’ve had teachers and colleagues who can do all that processing in their heads, and then by the time they’re typing or writing, it’s already set, but that has not been true for me at all. Like I said, I’m very anxious, even before the writing part, so I can’t sit at a blank page with the blinking cursor and make things up as I go along. Usually, I’ll just try to read for a really long time, which I guess is research, but it’s also pretending that I’m writing. I’m making myself less scared to write by doing that, because I’ll be taking notes as I’m reading. Only after I’ve written a version of a story that’s gone in a completely wrong direction for many pages do I somehow find the real part.

Rail: The real part, I like that.

Alvar: It’s very sophisticated language! (Laughs.)

Rail: Well, language doesn’t have to be complicated to be accurate!

Mia Alvar

Alvar: Exactly.

Rail: I also like that you read and take notes before you start writing a story. Is that a way to trick the words into coming, as if you are just getting the words flowing and not putting pressure on those words to be the final thing?

Alvar: Yeah, I think so. It feels sort of playful in a way that sitting down at a blank Microsoft Word document doesn’t! I think it kind of plugs you back into the experience of being a kid. When I was a kid, I would read and then I would try to imitate, to make up my own stories. Reading before writing, or reading as I start to write, feels similar to that process a little bit. There’s no focus on results necessarily. I can put it aside for a while, or I can jot things down as they occur to me.

Rail: So you’re actually writing by hand at that point in your process. At what point do you switch to a word processor?

Alvar: Usually when the agent or the editor says, “you said you were working on something, how’s it going?” (Laughs.)

Rail: Here are my legal pads!

Alvar: Yeah, exactly! But that’s when I have to come up with something that looks like a story. So at that point I try to make a draft that has some sort of a shape, but it’s never the final story shape. I go back and forth.

Rail: You go back and forth with your editor?

Alvar: Yeah, they are both (my agent and my editor) really good editors. They’re great in that they ask really holistic but specific questions, and that helps me go back and flesh out parts that aren’t clear. There isn’t a lot of ongoing conversation with them about the stories, but there are spots of feedback, and then I go back to my hole.

Rail: Do you actually write in a hole?

Alvar: There is a hole in my bathroom drain. (Laughs.) No, but I’ve written in various holes—whether it’s a studio space donated by Goldman Sachs via the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, or at residencies and stuff. But when I don’t have that kind of luxury, I just write from home.

Rail: What was the time span for the creation of your book?

Alvar: I’ve been saying ten years, and that’s rounding down. The oldest story I wrote was from the end of my senior year in college, when I had the earliest seed draft of it. Accounting for stressful day jobs or bad breakups when I wasn’t writing for six or nine months at a time, the whole book took about ten years and change to write.

Rail: That’s pretty good!

Alvar: I don’t know—it feels long!

Rail: I think it’s a great thing for people to hear, that sometimes it does take that long. It’s not uncommon for that much time to pass in writing a book. But you have to have the motivation for wanting to do it. Did you say to yourself at some point, “I want to write, I want to be a writer”?

Alvar: Yeah, I wanted to be a writer for a really long time. I always kind of thought of myself as a writer, for better or for worse, since I was a kid. I am reminded of the Saul Bellow quote, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” That was true of me from when I was first learning how to read. I always wanted to try and write my version of this poem or Ramona or whatever it was. I think that was part of a lo-fi, analog childhood in the Philippines. Writing my own version of a story was a form of entertainment, a way to squeeze more out of a book after I’d finished reading it. Also, my family members were all teachers, so I’d visit classrooms and, of course there was a distinction, but, there would be published books displayed alongside books that the kids had made out of paper and yarn.

As far as the professionalizing of it, I think it was later college when I first started thinking about being a writer and writing a story collection. Every year it was realizing more and more how much work and time and commitment it actually took. It was a gradual shattering of the delusion that I could do a million other things, at least in the way that I work and get a story finished.

Rail: “A gradual shattering of the delusion that I could do a million other things.” That resonates so much with me!

Alvar: Well, it’s a really hard illusion in New York because the reality is that you have to do a million other things.

Rail: And people in New York always seem to be doing a million other things!

Alvar: Which I’m always amazed at! For me, it was about shattering the illusion that I could also be an academic and be a writer, or be a teacher, like a really committed full-time teacher, and be a writer, or something like that. I had to accept my limitations and my obsession about writing.

Rail: Let’s go back in time a bit again. You were born in the Philippines, and you lived there until you were six years old. Can you talk a bit about your experiences in the first six years of your life, outside of emulating the books you were reading?

Alvar: I was born in Manila. My mother was a city girl, and it was her part of the family that was sort of large and rambunctious. My dad was from a more rural area in the south, and we didn’t see as much of his family. My parents belonged to this generation of Filipinos who grew up under a very strong American influence in the country. They kind of revered American culture and American ideas, so they spoke English to us almost exclusively at home. I don’t know the statistics, but I believe that was a common thing at the time, more common than any nationalistic idea of preserving Filipino culture. This was an upwardly mobile, middle class idea, to teach your kids English and get them ready for an American future. So I felt like things were mixed from the very beginning in a way. It didn’t feel like moving to Bahrain or moving to New York was this jarring East to West sea change, at the language level at least. It opened things up and made it interesting when we moved to other places, because we sort of spoke English in the way you’re “supposed to” speak English.

Rail: Formally, you mean?

Alvar: Well, I mean we spoke it “without an accent,” as people say, even though everyone has some kind of accent. So there was always this weird kind of explaining that felt like it could never really happen in casual conversation—the questions of where are you from, what language do you speak, what cultural identity do you identify with. Those questions didn’t feel easy. I didn’t have a short answer to those things. I think that was the attraction to stories and fiction in some ways. You could take your time delving into those questions.

Rail: In your story collection In the Country, you have characters that question their identities and are often being pulled in two different directions or more.
You chose to write a story collection where you have characters living in Manila, and Bahrain, and New York, and Boston. Was that decision tied into your considerations of a person’s identity versus their geography and things like that?

Alvar: Yeah, I think so. I had a really hard time figuring out the elevator pitch for the collection, because it just felt really grandiose to say it’s about transnational migration and displacement and ethnic confusion and all this stuff. So I just started saying it’s fiction and it’s set in the places where I grew up, and I would name those places. But, yeah, I guess because it involves so much movement between places and nobody really belongs in the place where they originated, and no one really ends up in the place where they belong, the stories did end up being about displacement and confusion. I tried not to think about over-arching themes or ideas while I was working on each story individually. I didn’t actually have to try—when I’m deep in the weeds of working on a story, I am much more focused on mechanical stuff and trying to solve technical problems than thinking about how the story is going to fit into the collection.

Rail: That’s probably smart. As an aside, your book is about those big themes, and I think there are some writers (male writers in particular, much of the time) who wouldn’t hesitate to say, yeah, I’m writing this big epic thing. I’m reminded of a panel I attended at the Slice Literary Writer’s Conference last year, a really awesome panel of women who write, and one of these writers talked about how she’s pigeonholed into this thing where people say she “just” writes about families and relationships. But don’t almost all big themes have their roots in families and relationships?

Alvar: Yeah, totally. When people talk about domestic themes or family relationships—those don’t feel like small subjects to me. It’s really funny. I was reading an interview with Heidi Julavits recently. It was her second novel maybe, and she was saying, yeah, my novel is about international terrorism and all this stuff happens in the novel, but the reviews come out and they describe it as “a finely painted portrait of families.” And she’s like, what’s a girl gotta do?!

Rail: Oh, man. People.

Alvar: Yeah.

Rail: Let’s talk about some specific stories in your collection. Most of your stories are written in third person, past tense, but there are notable exceptions. For example, “Old Girl” is told in the present tense, and “Esmeralda” is written with a second person point of view. Can you talk about your decision process in choosing the point of view and tense for a story?

Alvar: As far as tense and structure, I group the stories “Old Girl” and “Esmeralda” and the novella “In the Country,” because in all three of those I go back and forth from sections of what’s happening in the present with flashbacks or scenes from the past. Writing in the present tense was my solution to having some events that were so loaded and heavy, and also wanting to have characters with a back story and wanting to talk about their back story. I think those are three stories where it wouldn’t have worked otherwise. It would be difficult to talk about Esmeralda’s nineteen years in New York City and then come to 9/11 at the very end, or to write (in “In the Country”) about Jim and Milagros’s sixteen-year marriage from the early 1970s and then this revolution that took place over a few days in February 1986 at the very end. “Old Girl” was kind of different—I had this playful idea in mind about this politician wanting to run the Boston Marathon, but also wanting to tell about a whole marriage up to that point. So using the tense and structure that I did became a way not to make the reader have to wade through three quarters of backstory and one quarter of action. I had doubts while I was working on those stories. It kind of felt gimmicky in some ways to go back and forth (in time), but I couldn’t make it work the other way. In “Old Girl,” it was a purely technical structural decision, distinguishing between 1986 and all the years that came before it, and foregrounding that without distilling until the very end.

Rail: “Old Girl” takes place in Boston, where you lived while attending Harvard, correct?

Alvar: Yeah, and I stayed there for two years teaching after I graduated. “Old Girl” was a fun story to write for that reason. It’s the most recent story in the collection, and the reason for that is that we pulled one of the stories that wasn’t working and that was also set in Boston. I don’t want to assume you know or don’t know some of the politics behind these stories, but “Old Girl” is a fictionalization of this real family in the Philippines.

Rail: I don’t know!

Alvar: O.K., so Ninoy Aquino, who was widely believed to be the best challenger to Ferdinand Marcos, who was the dictator in the Philippines, was put in prison when martial law was declared. He was in prison for many years, and his wife, Corazon Aquino, is the unnamed Old Girl of the story’s title.

Rail: It’s so fascinating that there is no name for her, just Old Girl.

Alvar: Well, I felt that that kind of freed me up a bit, because I wanted to take liberties with these characters. Ninoy and Corazon Aquino were allowed out of the country because he had heart problems and needed medical care, and he used that time to teach at Harvard and MIT. The end of the story (of the historical figures) is that he was assassinated when they went back to the Philippines, and she became President after the whole revolution and all that.

Rail: I’m sorry I’m such a sheltered American!

Alvar: No, no, no! I wanted these stories to work on that level as well. I don’t want people to have to know the real-life counterparts of each story necessarily.
For many, Corazon “Cory” Aquino was a beloved president, though some people debate how effective she actually was. But even throughout her life as this political leader, she kept saying those three years in Boston were the best time of her life, the most idyllic, the best time of her marriage, that she would have been perfectly happy being this housewife in Boston. So I was just curious about this time in their lives in Boston, and it was fun to write about this time, because Boston is kind of an interlude for a lot of people. I feel like so many people go to college there and are there for about that amount of time and then never go back, so it was fun for me to write about it that way.

Rail: That idea is really interesting. And it makes me think even more about the locations of these stories, that they are interludes in someone’s life. There are temporary living situations and locations in many of your stories, and you explore what that particular kind of crucible does to your characters and their relationships. Is it fair to say this is a theme that runs throughout your book?

Alvar: Yeah, totally. As much as I’m interested in immigration, which is how people tend to move to the United States from other places—you come to naturalize and become an American (and there are certainly characters who do that in the collection)—I’m also fascinated by these waystations and temporary limbo-type places for people. The Middle East is that for a lot of Filipinos—they go there as contract workers. There is no concept of, “I’m going to become a Saudi now,” “I’m going to become a Bahraini.” It’s, “I’m going to work here until all four of my brothers and sisters have gone through college, and then I’m going to retire in the Philippines.” It is just fascinating to me, this idea of putting your life on hold in so many ways as a way to provide this life for other people. That’s not exactly what happens in “Old Girl,” but, yes, going to a place that is not your home, and never intending that it will be your home, is just really interesting to me.

Rail: I definitely see you working with those ideas in your story “Shadow Families,” which takes place in Bahrain. In that story there is a Filipino community trying to create a sense of home in a location that is far from home. And those themes get reworked in different ways in “A Contract Overseas,” which takes place in both Bahrain and the Philippines. But I’d love to talk for a bit now about the title story, which is a novella. Did you have a sense of the length of “In the Country” when you started it, that it was going to be a longer work?

Alvar: Not right away. At first I was telling it from a child’s point of view, which I think can be very interesting, particularly when you are dealing with heavily political situations, to see what a kid is picking up and isn’t picking up. I thought it was going to be a short story with these impressionistic snapshots of what it’s like as a four-year-old or a six-year-old to see a person get assassinated on television or whatever. But the more I got fascinated by the whole time period, the more I wanted to see this whole family, particularly this marriage. This is something that happens to me often—the point of view changes as I write. And frankly, I was a kid myself for so much of the period in question, so I had to relearn the history of that time as an adult. It became clearer the more I learned, and the more I worked on it, that it was going to take more space to cover the political background as well as the arc of this family and this marriage. I’m always the person in fiction workshops who gets the feedback of, are you sure this is a short story, this wants to be a novel. Which I can totally understand—I mean, they are long stories. They all kind of push that thirty-page mark.

Rail: So why stories, Mia?

Alvar: Well, with the exception of the novella (and I did spend more time and space on that), there was no one world that I wanted to focus on to the exclusion of all these others. And I really liked the idea of being able to give a sense of the diaspora through these individual stories.

Rail: I think it’s very effective. Your stories work together to paint a picture in a way that is possible in a story collection but that can’t happen in a novel. It does, in a way, create a world, the world of the diaspora.

Alvar: Yeah. And there were so many settings and time periods and situations that I wanted to explore, and people have certainly done that through epic novels, but I didn’t feel like I could do that through one character or one family without it becoming sort of Forrest Gump-y, this one person that’s just been to the Middle East and been through all of the ’60s and ’70s, you know? I loved Forrest Gump, by the way.

Rail: Props to Forrest Gump! I want to talk about the title of your collection, which is also the title of the novella. The phrase “in the country” comes up in the novella and also in the first story in the collection, “Kontrabida,” as a reference to how long someone has been in the country, in the Philippines. Can you talk about your decision to name your collection In the Country?

Alvar: Well, in some ways it made sense structurally for the longest story to get the title! And I really felt for a long time that that was the right title for the novella. I liked the simplicity of it, and it comes up anytime you are talking about migration and travel. I think it comes up in a bunch of the stories, actually, talking about whether you are “out of the country” or “in the country.” So I knew that whether it was word for word or not, it sort of felt like a refrain throughout the stories. It’s literal in so many of the stories, because they are coming in and out of the country, but ultimately if you trace it to the line in the title story, where it comes from, it’s, without giving too much away, it’s actually an imaginary place, it doesn’t exist. I liked that implication as well. It is articulated throughout the stories, people are in and out of the country all the time, but then there is this implication that it’s not really a real place.

Rail: That ties back to something you said earlier about your characters ending up in places they don’t belong or in places they hadn’t expected. I wonder if there is any one person who is actually in a place where they belong.

Alvar: Yeah, I think you sort of asked me about the concept of “home” in a conversation we had a couple of months ago, and it was really helpful for me to have to think about that. I think, for people that end up in a new place, it’s really tempting to idealize the old place, and to make “the country” into this paradise, if only you could get back to it. But I don’t think that ends up being true for any of the characters in the book. A lot of them—yeah, there are economic and political forces at work that force them to make these moves—but a lot of them are making these decisions for other reasons, too, like looking for something that they can’t find at home or escaping something that can be kind of personal and not necessarily political or part of a larger network.

Rail: There are concerns that are specific to people of the diaspora in your stories, but I think this idea of where do you belong makes your book feel so universal, because even people who live in the country they were born in are often searching for who they are and how to belong and their connections to their family. By the way, speaking of family, there are really fascinating mother relationships in your stories. In “The Miracle Worker,” a character says, “I often missed my mother—craved her company and pitied her life, more than I ever had back home.” So many of your characters have complicated relationships with and misunderstandings about their mothers. People often talk about one’s home country as the Motherland, and I wonder if you think of a connection there, to this idea of mother and to the geographic place a person is from. Feel free to discuss this in terms of your stories and/or in terms of your philosophy of life!

Alvar: I think there are definitely parallels there. It’s very tempting to sentimentalize a mother and/or a country of origin, and it’s very comforting to do that if it allows you to skip over the messier or more complicated things that are going on. I borrowed a lot from real-life people in the book, and changed a lot and fictionalized a lot, of course, but I think the person in my life I borrowed from the most was my own mother. Pieces of her life experience and her personality kind of appear in a lot of these female characters, like in “Shadow Families,” or “In The Country,” or in “The Miracle Worker,” as well. And the girl in “A Contract Overseas” kind of feels to me like a younger version of those women, who grew up in this generation where they didn’t want to be limited in the ways their mothers were. So there are a lot of grandmothers in the book that are seamstresses and laundrywomen, who have very limited educations, and their daughters are the ones who are determined to rise above that and pursue different lines of work, and to be middle class. Where am I going with this?

Rail: Mothers. Fictionalizing your own mother in different characters.

Alvar: Right, so I think when you encounter someone like this in real life they can seem very invulnerable; they can seem together. Particularly a lot of these characters who are helping less fortunate family members through their work and better lives. But because I’m a fiction writer, I was also interested in what is beneath that super competent surface. What’s happened to someone in their past that they want this stable middle class existence so badly? What is it like to grow up poor and then take responsibility for your parents at a really young age? Those are some of the complexities I wanted to explore beyond just, look at how amazing this person is.

Rail: That would be a boring story!

Alvar: Right!

Rail: Has your mother read the book? And how’s her reaction?

Alvar: Yes, she’s read it three times, maybe more, because, you know, when you write a story collection you try to publish some of them in magazines, so some of them she’s read before, when they were first published. She’s pretty savvy at this point about not reading, or at least not telling me that she’s reading, anything personal into any of the stories. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been grumpy though the years about this, but she knows now just to talk about the story as a story. I think my family sort of gets that there are bits and pieces inspired by real life, but that it’s fiction. But my family also reads as if maybe there is an element of these stories that is about them, and it’s a sort of tribute.

Rail: Well, that’s nice!

Alvar: It’s nice, but it’s really funny! Because I think, have you read the part about where we’re not sure if this person is a murderer or not? I think we see things as we are, not as they are, so it’s been very celebratory.

Rail: I think people tend toward feeling flattered if they recognize any bit of themselves at all – like, wow, I’m worthy of a story!

Alvar: Yeah, I guess so! I mean, no one has come out and said they think are a particular character. But, yeah, they’ve made it very easy.

Rail: Oh, good! That’s great. So, to wrap up, allow me to ask a perhaps impossible question considering how busy you must be now with the recent publication of In the Country. Do you have an idea of what you’d like to write about next?

Alvar: I do. I’m writing a novel next. It takes Milagros from the title novella and follows her life after the events of “In the Country.” So that’s the immediate next thing that I’m on the hook for, and then there are short story ideas that I’m still fleshing out in my head. I’m sort of tentatively trying to write the brown version, or the Filipino version, of some short stories that aren’t necessarily universal classics, but they’ve been classics to me in my life, stories I’ve returned to over and over again, trying to see if I can rewrite them/re-imagine them from an immigrant perspective or a Filipino perspective.

Rail: Is there anything you’re reading right now that you love?

Alvar: Yeah, I’m almost finished with this great collection called Night at the Fiestas, by Kirstin Valdez Quade. It’s all about New Mexico, and I know almost nothing about the southwest; I haven’t really been to that part of the country. Which is funny, because my whole reservation about some of the reviews of In The Country has been, I hope people don’t read this book to find out about the Philippines or Bahrain, because it’s not some accurate guidebook to these places, it’s fiction! And meanwhile I’m reading this book and thinking, oh, all these things I didn’t know about New Mexico! It’s written in this gorgeous, deceptively simple prose, but it’s telling sometimes really harrowing, violent stories. There is a lot about Catholicism—and I normally don’t like to read about Catholicism because I grew up with it, and the things that are so dramatic and bloody and perverse to people who didn’t grow up with Catholicism, I think, “Oh yeah, that sounds right!”—but for some reason this collection made it new for me.

Rail: I remember reading that you didn’t want people to read your stories as armchair tourism, but you are drawn to this book about New Mexico…

Alvar: I think it’s just something that people do! I think it’s sort of natural. I mean, it doesn’t make me angry, people’s reaction to my book. If I felt so strongly about that, I would’ve changed the names and made it some fictionalized country that was like the Philippines, but I didn’t do that.

Rail: It would be a different book then.

Alvar: Yeah, it would be very different. It’s kind of like—not that I consider In the Country a post-modern book—but, in the same way that many post-modern books have, say, a character with the same name as the author, who is a writer, but sort of a distorted fictional version of that real-life version, I think of my settings in the same way. They are still imaginary, even though I’m inviting people to think of them as real.

Rail: That’s so true. People who get asked about their book—again, especially women—get asked, “Is that character really you?” I mean, writers draw on all kinds of inspiration and material for their characters, but it’s all just material to become fiction.

Alvar: Yeah, and I feel like even the most outlandish or anti-naturalistic stories are about the author in some way.

Rail: Yeah?

Alvar: Yeah, I mean, even, like, George Saunders and Steven Millhauser, who are two of my favorites—you know, theirs are not naturalistic stories, but I feel like they are in there, and in a perverse sort of way. I think the stories that are told like they are memoir, for example stories that are told in first person and written by women, totally invite you to think of it as pure transcription from reality. But just the fact that they are writing them down makes them imaginary.

Rail: How true are any of our versions of ourselves? The whole genre distinction between nonfiction and fiction—I’m with David Shields, I think the distinction is not so great. I mean, they are all stories.

Alvar: Yeah, but weirdly, though, between a couple weeks before the book came out until immediately after, I went on a pretty long nonfiction kick, just reading a lot of essays. I had a craving for something that wasn’t reimagined but was being told from real life.

 

Mia Alvar will be reading with writers Julia Fierro and Sara Nović on Tuesday, July 14, at 8:00pm at the LIC Reading Series
LIC Bar 45-58 Vernon Blvd

Long Island City, New York

Contributor

Catherine LaSota

CATHERINE LASOTA is the founder, curator, and host of the LIC Reading Series in Long Island City, Queens. Her essays and interviews appear in Vice, Electric Literature, Catapult, the One Story blog, and the Brooklyn Rail. Follow her on Twitter @catherinelasota

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