The People Come First:
Alcott with Catherine LaSota
Infinite Home is the second novel by the immensely talented young writer Kathleen Alcott. Published earlier this year, Infinite Home has already found itself on several must-read book lists for 2015, and for good reason. Alcott excels at creating a group of characters that feels natural and unique, and every single one of them grabs at the reader’s heart in different ways.
The Brooklyn residence (and primary setting) in Infinite Home serves as a kind of Island of Misfit Toys for characters Edward, Paulie, Thomas, Adeleine, and their increasingly senile landlady Edith. Each seemingly a societal reject in a different way (whether due to depression, or illness, or deep-seated fears), the tenants of Edith’s building manage to create a community amongst themselves and grow a beautiful world for each other inside their walls. This cast expands and complicates in unexpected ways via the addition of Paulie’s large-hearted sister Claudia and Edith’s dangerously unfeeling son Owen.
While reading Infinite Home, I was especially taken with the close attention to detail in Alcott’s descriptions of her characters’ physical environments. I felt like I could smell the clutter of old, treasured possessions in agoraphobe Adeleine’s apartment and touch the smears of paint on painter Thomas’s palette. The creaky stairs, the old doors, and the slow development of a sense of family amongst long-term residents all put me into a specific and believable Brooklyn environment.
I had the pleasure of chatting about the process of creating Infinite Home, and about the writing process in general, with Kathleen Alcott via email late this summer.
Catherine LaSota (Rail): Your sentences are so wonderfully constructed, lyrical, and evocative. I can't help but think about the process of you writing and revising to make them such perfect gems. So my first question is a general one about writing: what do love the most about being a writer?
Kathleen Alcott: I love the way writing fiction affords me a very flexible education, an opportunity to read widely in a certain area (whether that’s historical-political or a certain tradition in fiction) and broaden my own work that way. I also love spending my time alone, being able to put my leg up on my desk in a crazy way and not have any authority figure look askance at that. Finally, I love what it does to me as a person: I truly think I have become a more generous and empathetic person for all the time I’ve spent imagining lives that are not mine.
Rail: You also write reviews, essays, and short memoir pieces that have appeared in publications such as the New Yorker and the Los Angeles Review of Books. How is the experience of writing fiction and writing nonfiction different or similar for you?
Alcott: The processes could not be more different. When working in nonfiction, I’m in the business of organization. When I’m dealing with source material, my process is usually to pull, pull, pull, and then to pin those quotes or pieces of anecdotal support to ideas of my own that emerged while reading. It’s much like speaking a foreign language, listening to a conversation until certain words and ideas recur and you can participate. (The process of writing memoir or personal essay is another story, one I don’t feel I can demystify and one which probably involves some combination of daily anxiety, conversations had in dreams, memories that seemed small until they revealed themselves as significant, and the right walk at the right time.)
Rail: At what point in the process of writing a novel do you start sharing your work with readers and/or friends? Are there different people you turn to for feedback at different stages of writing and revising? How long was the total process of creating Infinite Home?
Alcott: I have the extreme luxury and benefit of living with a very brilliant novelist, and he is my first reader on almost everything—certainly he was on Infinite Home. My agent sees a draft once it’s starting to look like the book it will ultimately be, which is a milestone usually reached by a few revisions. Including editorial work after the book was sold, from the first spark of conception to the last tweak was four years.
Rail: Can you identify what the first spark of conception was for Infinite Home?
Alcott: The conception was the product of a very solitary period in my life, one in which I was often walking by half-lit buildings and speculating about others’ lives. I had moved to New York with the intention of being alone and talking to few people, but that made me wonder more about the lives behind the buildings I passed on the walks I took every day. I wanted to know a place room by room, person by person.
Rail: Infinite Home is comprised of a series of short chapters told in close third person, shifting perspective from one chapter to the next, circling in loops through all of the tenants of one Brooklyn home. It is very much an ensemble cast; each character has a rich, full history and personality, and they have complicated relationships with each other. Did you always envision the novel with this particular group—that is, were you aware of all of these characters when you began, or did you ever (or do you now) consider Infinite Home to be the story of any one character in particular?
Alcott: I created these characters, quite simply, by moving from room to room, scanning the building repetitively, almost like a split-screen security camera. Several were dealing with issues that I knew I wanted to explore on the page—aversion to digital life, Williams Syndrome, the obsession with memory-keeping that occurs with grief—but they all developed at more or less the same rate. Thomas emerged as something of the secret protagonist; he was the character that I felt could move the story more than others, restless in the way that most likely translated into action. I say secret because he doesn’t receive significantly more attention, but his sections do provide a structure and rooting to the narrative teleology that others may not.
Rail: You say that you scanned the building repetitively as you created the characters. Did you see the building completely before you saw its inhabitants in your mind?
Alcott: The people always come first for me.
Rail: They are captivating characters. I found that, when I finished the book, I immediately wanted to go back and start reading again from the beginning - I didn't want to say goodbye to Claudia, Edward, Paulie, Thomas, Adeleine, and Edith. As I reread the first chapters, and even on the very first page, I noticed beautiful hints about these characters that I didn't the first time around, little surprises and rewards to discover the second time through. Can you talk about your process of assembling this novel? Did you write it chronologically? How much revision of different sections (and the beginning in particular) did you do?
Alcott: For this novel as well as my first, I kept different chapters in a folder (that said something like “NEW BOOK” until I had to change it to “BOOK’) and did not assemble them into a collective document until late in the process. Even after that, I gave each chapter a representative label, which I wrote on an index card; then I spent manic hours moving them around. Because the novel moves around in time, assembling the pieces was something of a delicate surgery requiring sensitivity to transitions in mood, style, and content.
Rail: Did you write different sections for one character all at once, or did you change which characters you were working on from day to day? How did you decide whom to work on when?
Alcott: I wish I could say some elaborate system led me, but in truth the sections I worked on were probably a mirror of my mood that day, though I did have some sense of moving through the building; I needed to apply each shift in the larger plot to the small, fine strings.
Rail: Outside of Edith’s son, Owen (who provides the catalyst of evil in your novel), I find all of your characters to be endearing in their own ways, but most of all Paulie, who is thirty-three and has Williams Syndrome. Paulie struggles with some activities that most adults would consider basic, such as eating neatly or keeping an appropriate talking volume, but the sensitivity he has with words and ideas is quite special, as is his self-awareness. I kept finding myself wanting to underline his thoughts as I read them, to keep them as inspirational quotes for reference. What sparked your interest in Williams Syndrome? What did you learn as you researched Williams?
Alcott: People with Williams Syndrome, though severely disabled, display remarkable abilities in song and story, as well as in social situations. Due to an excess of oxytocin—the chemical released in childbirth and at orgasm, which helps us trust—people with this rare syndrome are often deeply gregarious and loving individuals. The combination of these traits (near perfect pitch, an odd and creative way with words), and a general inability to function independently, really stuck with me, and I wanted to explore that genetic “trade,” both how it would feel to the person affected and how it would open the lives of people around him or her.
Rail: I especially appreciated the way Paulie opened up the people around him, particularly Edward, the former stand up comic who lives across the hall from Paulie. The relationships that form between sets of characters in Infinite Home are quite special. But back to Owen for a second: he is the closest thing to a straight villain that I can remember reading in a while, though there are some moments of frustration and exasperation he has where he does show bits of humanity (even if it's simply self-interested, self-involved humanity). How was it for you to write this character, who, in many ways, enters the scene to wreak havoc on the beautiful worlds and homes your characters have built for themselves?
Alcott: He began as a bit of a shadowy grotesque, and I worked very hard to humanize him, to try to trace how he might have become the man he became. My editors, Megan Lynch and Laura Perciasepe, as well as my agent Jin Auh, were hugely helpful in helping to identify the moments when his soul needed to appear a bit more frangible.
Rail: Frangible is a great word. Is there a point you can identify where your characters feel real or true to you as you write them?
Alcott: I think it’s more a matter of making them true to the reader.
Rail: You do amazing work both in creating vivid characters and in creating vivid settings. How do you get started when writing a new story? Do you start with characters? With a place or places? Some other way?
Alcott: My work is very much image-based. I think the first picture I saw, on a walk I took when I had the first idea for this book, was of a brownstone in the middle of night, two of the windows on separate floors lit up. I recently published a very sad short story that began, for reasons unknown to me, with the image of two friends, slightly drunk, shooting water pistols at passing joggers from a stoop in San Francisco. It ended up being the story of a suicide, but I didn’t know it then; I just had to follow it.
Rail: It sounds like your writing leads not only readers but also you as the writer into unexpected places. Which of the characters in Infinite Home surprised you the most as you wrote?
Alcott: I think surprise is dependent on lack of control, so I can’t say any of them surprised me, though I can assert that writing an agoraphobe was a soul-eating, if ultimately rewarding, challenge. I remember, a couple times, being drunk in some bar or at some house party and someone would say “What on earth are you thinking about? You look so upset!” and I would have to reply, “Oh, I just don’t know what to do about this person I’m writing who can’t leave her apartment.”
Rail: Do you read anything in particular, or avoid reading anything in particular, when you are working on a project? What media, if any, other than writing, inspire your work and how?
Alcott: At the beginning of a project, I focus on thematic research. As the book takes shape, I try to read great stylists and to avoid any similar content.
Rail: Is there a next project you’d like to tell our readers about?
Alcott: It concerns the intersection of the Vietnam War and the American space program, and it is a significant departure from the last two books.