A plea: Read Mia Alvar’s In the Country (Vintage, 2015). Whether or not you’ve read it before, you’re in for a transformative experience (and we’re not the only ones who think so: In the Country won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award). As NPR’s Maureen Corrigan put it, Alvar is “the kind of writer whose imagination seems inexhaustible, and who stirs up an answering desire in her readers for more and more.”
Lucky for us, Mia brought that imagination to Ace Hotel New York, where she was recently a writer-in-residence. As a Dear Reader author, she penned a letter to an imagined audience of hotel guests—then kept it secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room. To mark the occasion, we caught up with Mia about the importance of false directions, why everyone should read Carlos Bulosan, and the necessity of fingerless gloves.
TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
MIA ALVAR: A character whose mind I’d live in if I could is Linnet Muir, the semi-autobiographical narrator in several of Mavis Gallant’s short stories. I’d be the insecure and dumb half of this sadly lopsided correspondence, but it would be worth it to soak in all her rich and clever insights on family and art, human nature and politics, travel and life. Inspired as Linnet is by her author, I guess this is my way of wishing I could know Mavis Gallant herself as a girl and young woman, whose fiction I would come to connect with so powerfully but whose early life story—as a child in Montreal and then a journalist on the eve of the Second World War, plotting her escape to Europe to become a full-time writer—remains exotic to me from where I sit in 2018 California.
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 like to have a map in mind, because writing with no destination is so anxiety-inducing for me I’ve never gotten a word down that way. The map might include milestones I want to hit in the life of a character, or a set of images and ideas I feel are connected but don’t yet know how, or even a general sense of where I want a story to end. These almost always turn out to be false directions: plotlines don’t work, characters I’ve spent pages on turn out to be nonessential, the map goes out the window. Surprises and discoveries are my favorite part, but at least in the beginning, some kind of skeleton gets me going.
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?
At my desk, I tend to be obsessed on a micro level with just getting a story to work, a task that takes up way too much mind space to allow thoughts of who will read it. Also, when I feel skittish about certain material (like a heinous character, an event from recent history that feels raw, or anything I’m not sure I have the right to write about), it’s helpful in the early stages to pretend that there will never be an audience. But when I’m away from my notebook or laptop and not physically writing, I do have a sense of the effect I’d like my work to have, which is generally to appeal to both head and heart in some way. So my ideal reader is someone who reads from both those places.
Because I spent so many years in classrooms and writing workshops, I honestly forgot the possibility of being read by non-writers, who probably read more than I do but don’t necessarily spend their waking hours thinking about Writing with a capital W. I’m pleasantly surprised when my work lands for someone who is purely a reader first and foremost, who looks to books not to take them apart in an academic or technical way but in the hopes of being entertained or swept along.
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
For people like me—Philippine-American writers who spent their adolescences searching the shelves for role models—America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan is a huge and not at all obscure book, but outside of that circle I believe it could use more love. It’s a first-person, autobiographical novel about a Filipino migrant worker in California and the Pacific Northwest in the 1930s and 40s. It speeds from farm to cannery to fishery throughout the states where the protagonist seeks work, and it describes in painful detail the racism and inhumane conditions he meets along the way. It’s as moving a coming-of-age story as I’ve found anywhere, not so much from child- to adulthood but from peon to activist and artist: Bulosan became a leader in the movement for migrant farm workers’ rights as well as a prolific reader and writer, mostly after illness shut down his body and made manual labor impossible.
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
I’m always cold, so my ritual usually involves bundling up: scarves, hoodies, blankets, socks, and gloves (fingerless, to allow typing) are essential. Otherwise my process consists pretty simply of reading with a notebook handy. I take lots of longhand notes while reading up on a time period or place for research, or reading stories that employ some craft thing (an unusual structure or point of view) that I’m hoping to pull off myself, or reading poetry. As deadlines approach, I switch to the laptop to try and shape my jumbled notes into something that resembles a story.