Alex Grant, or A.T. Grant for those of us on this side of the lit world, had his debut novella recently drop from Caketrain called Collected Alex. No pieces of this book have been published online, although there is this mega-excerpt now available on the book’s page. You can also check out other pieces of his work at Spork, Tarpaulin Sky, and Sixth Finch. He’s also a rad musician, so you can jam with this if you’d like. Check out the interview below to learn more about Collected Alex, the book’s hypothetical dating site profile, and much more.
1. So, congrats, dude, on Collected Alex, getting selected by Michael Kimball as the winner of the 2012 Caketrain Chapbook contest. Tell us the wassup with this book: how did it start, where did it end up, what can we expect.
The book started from three separate images, and each of the three sections grew out of those images (boy dragging around a dead body, person in an empty room talking through a wall, person with a smoking head). I wrote each of them about a month apart (for a class I was taking), and I figured it would be fun to try to string them together. A little while before, I decided I should name all of my fictional characters Alex—partially because what else should I name a character and partially because I was writing poetry at the time which I didn’t want to be “about me.” I thought, “Ha. I’ll make fiction that is ‘about me.’ That’ll be funny.” Almost everything begins as an inside joke. I mean, literature and art, right.
I was also involved with some performance type things at the time which also smeared the original images. I was in a New Dance piece called “Security” with Angharad Davies (in which I played a version of myself, though the character didn’t have a name). I also measured a bridge in Minneapolis as well as my apartment in Alexes (which, I highly recommend that people everywhere measure the spaces they inhabit or encounter with their bodies). Alex was everywhere at the time. That year I also wanted to learn how to box, so I went onto the University of Minnesota campus and had some passersby punch a blownup photo of my face with a boxing glove covered in paint. Writing by itself is boring. At some point, you have to stand up and move around.
A blurred face is exactly what to expect when you do anything really.
2. Caketrain is one of my favorite presses, makers of sleekslickslim books of exceptional literary oomph. And Michael Kimball. I mean, Michael Kimball! He’s just great, right. And he selected your manuscript. What got you here? What made you decide to send it to this contest? How long had you been sending it out?
Caketrain has been one of my very favorite presses for awhile now—great work, great design. I think the first thing I read from them was Ben Mirov’s Ghost Machine, which I loved immediately. I read several Caketrain books (Tongue Party is absolutely incredible front to back) and journal issues after that, and always thought they were a yes.
And, yes, Michael Kimball—Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard) is especially great. That book has so much range and heart.
Other than Caketrain, I sent to a few contests that were happening around the same time. That was the summer and fall of 2012, I guess. I had enough money to send to a few of them. Why not, I thought.
3. If your book was trying to get some hottttt dates on a dating site, what would its profile picture be (besides the cover)? What would its Favorite Books/Movies/Music section say? How would it answer the question, “What do you typically do on a Friday night?”
Here is what happens: Collected Alex makes up his mind to join match.com or whatever. He ignores the profile picture for now. Collected Alex is in a blank white room. He begins to fill out—
Favorite Books/ “With Deer, by Aase Berg,” Collected Alex types. “Parabola, by Lily Hoang,” he types. “Horse, Flower, Bird, by Kate Bernheimer. The Book of Margins, by Edmond Jabès. There Is No Year, by Blake Butler,” he types. “And all the old standbys, like Richard Brautigan.” He wants to type Twilight because he saw the movie on RiffTrax, and thinks maybe that will bring the hits, whether from fans or haters of the series, whatever. Collected Alex begins to feel self-conscious about what he is putting in the profile.
Favorite Movies/ “Twin Peaks,” he types. “The Five Obstructions (especially the original ‘The Perfect Human’ that comes as a bonus feature on the DVD). And Fitzcarraldo [that one scene where they drag the boat over the hill] and The Typewriter, the Rifle, & the Movie Camera” [which is a documentary about Sam Fuller) he types. Collected Alex’s eyes are sore. He can’t remember which movies have the tapdancing in them. He just types, “the tapdancing movies.”
Favorite Music/ “There is no music here,” says Collected Alex. He listens carefully to the truck passing by his apartment.
Typical Friday Night/ Collected Alex thinks for several minutes. The cursor blinks. Collected Alex eats a bowl of cereal. He looks out the window at the streetlight. Right now it is Friday night. Collected Alex doesn’t write that.
After taking a quick photo of himself that Collected Alex really doesn’t think bears much resemblance, Collected Alex closes the profile and lies down to go to sleep. One hour later, Collected Alex is unable to sleep knowing that so much is out there. He erases all of the information, deletes the profile, eats a bowl of cereal, and waits. Dates pile up outside his door. Collected Alex is within and without. Sometimes everything is a good decision, Collected Alex says from inside the door. The dates continue to pile up quietly outside.
4. Nice. You handled that oddball question so well. And now, I’m intrigued by the “There is no music here.” Knowing you, your Nashville-ness, your musical side, it seems the music has been left out, left behind. The Alex I talk to now, tell us about the music that was there, that stayed behind: did you listen to music when you were writing this book? what are some tunes you’re really digging nowadays? are you making any music lately?
I’m sure I listened to something while writing Collected Alex, but for the life of me I can’t remember what.
Listening-wise, here is what’s been happening recently: bluegrass (pretty traditional—like Bluegrass Album Band, Tony Rice, and other things like that), the new Justin Timberlake record, The Cure’s greatest hits record, I Belong to This Band: Eighty-Five Years of Sacred Harp Recordings (which, if you’ve never heard sacred harp singing before is huge—member of a faith or not), Bill Frisell, The Replacements, Boris, and some Earth. I’m in Virginia right now, and for some reason the radio stations around here are all still stuck on that Katy Perry record that came out a couple of years ago.
Also big on VA’s pop playlists right now is that “Cups” song by Anna Kendrick—which, for anyone who hasn’t Googled it already, goes all the way back to a song called “Miss Me When I’m Gone” by J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers. It doesn’t matter how it’s dressed up or down, you can always spot an old folk song.
As far as making music, I’m mostly playing bluegrass guitar when I’m by myself. Old fiddle tunes, adapted Irish hymns—things like that. But about every other night, I join my brother and father in a basement and jam out on stuff like “Funk #49” (I know, I know), “Walk On” (by Neil Young), and some other stuff.
But, really, Andy Kaufman is better than anyone at everything. “I Trusted You” and some of the Tony Clifton performances have been really big for me lately.
5. I think you just admitted that you still listen to the radio. Whoops. But for real, that Katy Perry album is awesome pop music. Did you ever see the KP movie? What’s the new JT album like?
Ha! Yeah, I don’t think listening to radio is a whoops anymore than listening to something on Pitchfork or Sputnikmusic or YouTube or Spotify or whatever. I mean, who cares. It’s music. It has to come to you through some stream. And places like Pitchfork and the like are mainstream these days anyway. The Internet is one giant stream.
Never saw that KP movie. Is that on Netflix? (Editor’s Note: It’s not available for streaming, but it is available through the mail.)
As for JT’s new record: the thing I like about it is that almost every track has what feels to me like a fold in the middle of the song. The first side of the fold is the four-minute pop song. On the other side is another three or four minutes that is basically a revision or extension of that original idea. “Strawberry Bubblegum” is a good example of what I’m talking about. The first half gives you a Barry White ambient thing, and the second half does some Sly Stone keys and feels more grounded. It’s not radical or anything, but it’s cool anyway.
6. This dead body thing that you seem to push to its limits–the limits of such a story, the limits of Alex, the limits of the dead body–is so damn intriguing. Haunting and strange, somehow personal and consuming, this is a story about all of us, isn’t it? Don’t we all carry around a dead body?
I’m sure everyone has something they can read into the presence of a dead body in a story. And, of course, there are personal resonances that I have with each part of the book. I think that’s what happens when you begin with an image and let that image dictate where things go. It allows a thing to be very concrete, but also have some latitude for abstraction. By which I mean: when Alex carries the dead body with him, he isn’t carrying an outward manifestation of something internal (depression, fear, dread, etc.)—he’s carrying a dead body.
7. What are you working on now? What have you been reading?
Most recently, I’ve been working on a loosely connected series of pieces called The Showroom, The Desert of Alex, and Accelerator. Again, Alex is one of the unifying factors, but this is a different Alex than the Alex of Collected Alex. There are several of these around the internet—some in Stoked (thanks, Tyler!), The Destroyer, Ilk, Radioactive Moat, and soon in Similar:Peaks::. But at this point, that work is coming along slow—its off-and-on. I used to want to be prolific, and maybe I was for awhile. Now that seems to me like an uninteresting thing to want. Much more interesting to me is the idea of setting limits. I’ve made a tentative agreement with myself (the paperwork isn’t signed yet) to make a certain (small) number of books and no more. In fact, I might stop before the limit—I don’t know, and it would be presumptuous to assume that someone else would be interested in publishing more books in the first place.
So I’ve also been trying to read a lot less recently. I just finished Speedboat, by Renata Adler. The sentences really snap. It’s basically a series of vignettes based around a person’s voice. It does my favorite kind of storytelling: there’s not a “narrative,” but there are little shards of “things that happen” to hold onto. For me it was an experience similar to watching Gummo. It doesn’t really add up, but all of it makes sense together. When it’s, you know. Collected.
8. Have you ever seen a dead body? There’s a nine year old girl in the YMCA camp I’m running this summer whose dad runs a funeral home here in town. She keeps telling me stories about seeing her dad “prepare” bodies.
Animal yes, but no humans, exactly. I’ve seen dead bodies at funerals, but in a sense those don’t feel like real dead bodies. At that point, they’ve been so made up. As far as stumbling upon a body in the woods or in an alley somewhere—one that feels “real”—no.
9. You’re work seems to be in that lovely gray area of work between prose poetry and short short fiction. How do you see poetics informing your work? How did you handle narrative in this book?
Poetics: I don’t want to write anything that pretends it isn’t made of language.
Rather than trying to make some kind of statement, here is a silly story about “handling narrative” (by which I mean narrative is silly, writing is silly, and writers are silly—not that silly is a bad thing, necessarily): At one point in the first section, I needed Alex to get up and walk into the kitchen. I thought, how do I get him to get up and walk into the kitchen. I thought, I have no idea how to make him do that. I paced my apartment for probably twenty or thirty minutes. I bounced this little Nerf ball I have off the walls. I probably ate a snack or something. I probably watched an episode of TV show. I still had no idea. Later, I sat down and typed, “Alex walked into the kitchen” (or whatever it was, you get the drift). And I thought, huh, I guess that’s it.