This month’s letter-writer at Ace Hotel New York is Alexandra Kleeman, author of the deliciously eerie novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (Harper, 2015), the short story collection Intimations (Harper, 2016), and short fiction published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Zoetrope: All Story, Conjunctions, Guernica, and many others. The New York Times calls her “one of the young wise women of our generation.” We enthusiastically agree.
As this month’s Dear Reader author, Alexandra was selected by Tin House for a one-night residency at Ace Hotel New York, where she penned a letter to an audience of strangers. Her letter’s been kept secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room—but first we caught up with her to talk prison pen pals, sneaking up on your work, and the necessity of snacks.
If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
I’d love to correspond with one of Samuel Beckett’s melancholy, physically-constrained, existentially-trapped characters—Nagg in the ashbin in Endgame, Winnie buried in sand in Happy Days, or the Unnameable in Beckett’s novella of the same name, who is not really anywhere and is forced to endure that ad infinitum. It would be like having a prison pen pal, in a sort of metaphysical register: I feel like anything I said in my letter would relieve some existential pressure, add a little maximalism to their minimalistic existences.
Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?
I tend to write in one of two ways, differently for short fiction and novels. With short stories, I often “see” the ending before I even have a beginning in mind. With a little thought, I figure out where the story begins, but most of my struggle and uncertainty is in finding a path between the two—especially since my endings are often fairly strange/impossible. But a novel is something that gets written over years and years—I think there has to be a certain amount of discovery while writing it or you’ll exhaust the idea. When I wrote my first novel, I played it like a video game—I tried to see as far as the character could see, take the most interesting direction at each crossroads, and work my way toward the feeling I knew I wanted the reader to be left with at the story’s close.
Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?
I feel like thinking about your audience in specific is a way to most definitely give yourself stage fright when writing. I just try to imagine I’m talking toward someone I feel close to, I try to let the wall or curtain or whatever it is that separates me from them come down. The feeling should be, I think, the feeling you have when you’re going to bed with someone else in the room, you turn off the light and lie there for a moment—and then you start talking.
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
I adore a wicked little book by Muriel Spark called The Driver’s Seat. I recommend it to anyone who wants to have their expectations about a story turned completely inside-out within 60 extremely taut pages. A good book to take to the beach if you like feeling disturbed on beaches.
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
I am all rituals, ritual probably takes up half of the time I try to spend writing. I believe in sneaking up on writing problems that I can’t quite figure out, so I often watch 3-4 minutes of a movie to distract myself, pause it suddenly, and then try to complete the sentence/paragraph/scene that had me stuck. I’m completely unable to write if I don’t have snacks and water close to me—without these I just worry all the time that I’ll become hungry. Snacks are a very important element in the writing process.
Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York. You can find this interview and other delights on the Ace Hotel blog.