Humble, quick-witted novelists make for good dinner guests, particularly when they aren’t delusional enough to think that their narrative voice speaks for millions. Once in a great while, however, there comes an author whose story actually does speak to and for the masses, and it’s your job as a gracious host to point out this very fact.
We had hoped, in our dyslexic heart of hearts, that in the following interview, Alex Kudera might slip on a banana peel and pull out a skeleton bone or two about his first novel and its affable, suffering tool of a protagonist, Cyrus Duffleman. Duffy, as he is affectionately known, is a Facebook friend to hundreds and a hero to literally unknown millions in the world of academia, contract workers, and moonlighting part-timers.
We consider Duffy a big mensch on campus with little to show for it but a suspect back, crushed chocolate kisses, and a book bag full of hastily graded papers. He has zero job stability, nor a metaphorical Philadelphia pot into which he could piddle. He’s the thinking man’s Joe Six Pack in a Bizarro-like universe (getting more bizarre by the day), and we’re elated that Alex has seen to canonize Duffy’s ungraceful arrival in a multicultural college classroom (and soon, bookstore) near you.
What follows is the first segment of a two-part interview with Alex, who says he will leave it to the reader to decide if he indeed pulled off a caper of a literary achievement. (To read Part 2 of the interview, click here.) In our book, Alex wrote a diabolical exposé of Adjunct Everyman that speaks directly to—and, yes for—millions of underpaid and overworked educators and displaced workers. It’s called Fight for Your Long Day, a forthcoming novel of satire, social injustice, and abashedly wanton alienation—all delusions, notwithstanding.
Atticus Books: Who is Cyrus Duffleman and why does he matter?
Alex Kudera: Hello, Atticus, and thank you for the opportunity to answer these questions. I’m guessing that the interviewed writer is best served by navigating the delicate tension between responding conscientiously and as a complete ego maniac. At times, the interjections of a roving lunatic would no doubt add to the mix. Allow me to admit right away that I’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I hope I’m not going to hell for having taught Lolita in South Carolina.
Anyway, I’d be wary of any writer who asserts that his protagonist “matters” in a universal sense. Having said that, for any novel, the character must have mattered enough for the writer to stand to spend so many years in the same room with the guy. And I guess it’s presumptuous for the author to assert his main character doesn’t matter as well. We’d be best served here by allowing the reader to decide.
AB: Adjunct professors aside, for whom did you write this novel, your first to be published?
AK: I don’t presume to write for the millions of adjuncts, freelancers, and contract slaves of the global flatlands, but I certainly feel solidarity with them. I hope I’m not yet delusional enough to presume that my voice could speak for these millions.
And yet, these people are just the tip of the iceberg in an “ownership” world that loves its contract labor and freelancers to death with no death benefits as clearly stated in the flimsy paper right after it says the employer has the right to terminate the agreement for any reason at any time. Yeah, I know, it’s just like a boilerplate book contract. The work could be physical, mental, blue or beige collar, but until humanity gets its collective head out of its—well, yes, you see where we could be headed. What’s that!? My handlers want to know if this is for public record? No? Good.
I suspect many novels are ultimately written to satisfy the author. You probably have to be a hell of a myopic, stubborn mule to write any novel these days, what with the on- and offline distractions available in greater variety and more immediate than ever before. (Pardon me while I touch my iTweeter.) As more Americans drift into the kind of poverty where they have to choose between home heating and A/C or home cable and broadband, perhaps we’ll see more novels coming out. Or more readers. Or more death by frostbite and heat stroke.
Writing is the kind of business where half the people who are any good at it never make a dime in their lifetime and actually turning a buck or two could bury your muse forever (Tennessee Williams, “The Catastrophe of Success,” etc.). So even though I do occasionally dream of literary riches—hah!—it’s probably proof of how doomed the whole enterprise is.
AB: How long did the idea germinate and take to flesh out, and did you ever consider giving up the fight, first in completing the manuscript, and second, in finding a publisher for it?
AK: I began the first draft one June and it shot out of me that summer. I was in Seoul, South Korea, living in a tiny room which would be considered a walk-in closet by many—about 6’ by 6’ I think. Thank god I didn’t have to speak English or make small talk for seven weeks. There was nothing to do but write and teach an occasional conversation class. This book wouldn’t exist if it were not for the generosity of Heeja Kim, a Korean national and English teacher, who was hustling her own adjunct shuffle—14 hour days of TESL teaching and tutoring and commuting around Seoul—while I was writing.
During the day, I’d write in the room in the morning, then ditch when I got cabin fever and go to the underground COEX shopping mall where I’d sit in a crowded corner Starbucks (one of two in this mall that also included an aquarium and a huge Korean bookstore that had thousands of English-language titles). If it weren’t for those seven weeks in Seoul, I’m not sure I ever would have resurrected myself as a writer of any kind. I hadn’t written a story since finishing a graduate degree in creative writing six years previously. I got caught up in the adjunct-teaching game and was too exhausted to complete anything more than informal journals and sketches.
Anyway, the first draft was completed that summer; I had 280 rough pages that I’d printed out at a Korean Linko (yes, like our Kinko’s). Then, it was back to contract-teaching overloads in America and it took six years to edit, improve, and get to where it is today.
Contrasted to stories I have heard and in retrospect, I’d say it was not difficult for me to find a publisher once I got serious about querying multiple houses. A friend, maybe the second or third person to look at the book, left an amazingly enthusiastic phone message about the first two chapters and that led me to query a dozen independent presses. And here we are.
AB: Philadelphia plays such a prominent role in the novel’s backdrop. What precisely made the city of heavenly hoagies a proper fit for Fight for Your Long Day?
AK: I’m from Philly, and both of my novels are set there. I’m not dead, not yet, but I’m beginning to see that it might be the only region I ever write about in a substantial way. Having said that, there are thousands of different Philadelphias lived by hundreds of thousands of residents of the region. There’s enough in this city to last an army of writers a lifetime.
I’m not the first to take on Philly of course. Several books I know of have a heavy dose of Philly in them. Two of my favorites are David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident and a memoir by Jim Knipfel called Slackjaw. Both of these include description of SEPTA in University City and Center City; Duffy isn’t the first to ride the downtown rails in a literary way.
And yet, it seems like Philly doesn’t have a Faulkner the way the South did or a Sherwood Anderson to stamp his indelible signature on small-town American life. We have Pete Dexter, Chaim Potok, and plenty of other writers with Philly roots, but I have trouble thinking of one Philly novelist whose writing would inevitably return to the city of brotherly love.
One thing I know is that there’s no way my representation of Philly can do justice to all the other Philadelphias being lived and hopefully one day written about. But maybe Philly readers will catch a glimpse of their life here and there in the book. I hope so.
It’s worth noting that Philly is a cheese steak town with diplomatic ties to the submarine kingdom. You get Bill Clinton in Philly and guaranteed he sniffs out a cheese steak before he puts some Arkansas hurt on an Italian hoagie.
AB: The novel speaks directly—both humorously and dramatically—to the daily challenges of living in a post-9/11, terror-centric age. Nine years after the attacks on our homeland, the aftermath remains impressed onto the collective, pockmarked conscience of our citizenry like a scar that won’t heal. Many folks have grown tired and crazy with (or utterly numb to) a barrage of apocalyptic images rendering us, a post-mortem superpower, sterile. Kind of heavy territory for cheap laughs, no?
AK: Is this the age of terror? Or the age of information? Or the age of reality TV? Did Lebron drive a white Bronco to his previous owner’s house before catching a flight to Miami where he socked a shoe bomber while apprehending a billion-dollar identity-theft fugitive who held the list of Swiss bank account owners? I don’t know—it seems like King James is an amazing talent but also a young guy taking way too much heat for any move he makes, and the “reality” we watch on TV leaves us disconnected from the struggles of regular workers in our economy and around the globe. And that’s us. I believe that senior members of university faculties and administration may have a similar disconnect to these struggles. They are affluent enough to be rather removed from the very students society entrusts them to lead.
For the vast majority of citizens on this planet—including seemingly “advantaged” American college students who in fact owe more collective debt than any group of young adults in history—daily challenges have a lot more to do with basic things like access to jobs, housing, water, food, etc. The people who terrorize often claim they are fighting to get people these things and the people who claim they are fighting terror say the same. Likewise, universities can point to all the programs they offer which aim to alleviate these struggles both locally and globally. And yet part of the picture is that the average indebted student falls behind by about $25,000 (loans plus credit card debt) by the time he or she finishes undergrad. And then the elasticity of the economy ensures it is any economist’s guess as to what kind of job market these students will graduate into.
Is the book funny? I don’t know. Are the laughs “cheap”? Not for me. I spent six years composing this novel and haven’t received a dime for the writing.
Should Phil Jackson continue his preseason book club and assign Fight for Your Long Day to Pau Gasol? Absolutely. It’s a lot shorter than [Roberto] Bolaño’s 2666. That’s what Phil gave him last year, and Pau deserves a break for playing tough in game 7.
I don’t presume to write for the millions of adjuncts, freelancers, and contract slaves of the global flatlands, but I certainly feel solidarity with them … These people are just the tip of the iceberg in an “ownership” world that loves its contract labor and freelancers to death with no death benefits as clearly stated in the flimsy paper right after it says the employer has the right to terminate the agreement for any reason at any time. ~ Alex Kudera, author of Fight for Your Long Day
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex Kudera has survived a decade of adjunct-teaching overloads but in some circles is better known for his mysterious injuries. He has bussed dishes and tutored English in two countries and fondly recalls writing in museums, parks, and zoos on several continents. A lifelong Philadelphian until fall 2007, Alex currently teaches literature and writing at Clemson University in South Carolina. Fight for Your Long Day is his first published novel, but he has promised several more.