One of a Kind: A ForeWord Interview with Alex Kudera

KENSINGTON, MD – Alex Kudera has had a good stretch. First, his Philadelphia-based novel, Fight for Your Long Day, won the regional IPPY gold award for best fiction in the Mid-Atlantic region. Then, Alex is interviewed by Isaac Sweeney as An Award-Winning Author on Adjuncts” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 1, 2011). And on Sunday, Alex’s debut novel about an overworked, underpaid educator received an enormous compliment and additional recognition, per an annual summer reading list for faculty members in the article, “Novel Academic Novels” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 5, 2011).

Writing as Ms. Mentor, Emily Toth of Louisiana State University states in her Advice column that many novels perceived as “first members of the Academy of Academic Novels Hall of Fame” now seem dated because they are “set in times when being a professor was a noble calling and even a well-paid one, attracting outspoken leftists and lavish travel money.” This lineup includes such heavyweights as Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis; The Lecturer’s Tale and Publish and Perish by James Hynes; Changing Places and Small World by David Lodge; Straight Man by Richard Russo; and Moo by Jane Smiley. She went on to say that “it took nearly 40 years before anyone wrote a novel told consistently from the perspective of an adjunct: Alex Kudera’s Fight for Your Long Day.” (Atticus Books, October 2010)

Kudos, Alex. You deserve the accolades. In your honor, we are publishing your interview with ForeWord Reviews. This exchange can serve as an online addendum to a glowing print review of Fight for Your Long Day (May-June 2011 issue of ForeWord in the Foresight: Debut Fiction section). In the review, Fight for Your Long Day is lauded as “an exposé of academia and the labor that sustains it…the kind of novel one learns from and rallies behind. Eyebrow-raising and wry, Kudera’s take on the ivory tower certainly makes it look less pearly white.” (Janelle Adsit, “Debutants: The Hunger for New Voices Endures”)

ForeWord Reviews: When did you start reading, and what did you like to read as a child?

Alex Kudera: I believe my first attempt at reading a novel was around age seven when I read Little House on the Prairie. I can’t tell you why I skipped Little House in the Big Woods. By seven, I was conscious of the fact that I was reading late relative to a number of kids I knew. My sister, 20 months older, was already an avid reader, and my closest friend, just three months older than me, had read to my sister’s class when we were in four-year-old nursery school. It took me a month to get through the first chapter of the book, but slowly, I improved and learned to enjoy sustained reading.

By the way, I also required speech therapy as a child. I believe that this was around first or second grade, and I remember I had to walk through my older sister’s “academically talented” classroom to get to the therapy room. I just want to note that both reading and speaking did not come easily to me, and so perhaps, there could be some inspiration found here for other aspiring novelists who never experienced writing or related skills as a gift or something to be taken for granted.

But back to my favorites, after Little House, I went on to read many different books, but I remember enjoying Matt Christopher’s sports fiction, The Hardy Boys, and all different kinds of sports biographies for kids. Judy Blume, Encyclopedia Brown, Lloyd Alexander, C.S. Lewis, and many others came later, and then by high school, I was reading classics commonly assigned.

ForeWord Reviews: When you were growing up, did you have books in your home?

AK: I had two homes, separated parents by age three, and although I wasn’t the one reading them, the books were all over. My parents were both trained in secondary school math education, but they both loved to read fiction and lots of different things. I have memories of my father reading Shakespeare with my sister when she was quite young, but I was not seen as “the reader” in the family. My mother also read all kinds of books—literature and also a lot of genre fiction, plots she could get absorbed in to take her mind off the heavy workload of teaching and raising children.

I’d say Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is the most important book my father shared with me. He gave me a copy he had read, and that book formed a bond of sorts between us. He also had literary ambition and was able to compose many unpublished works ranging from numerous diaries to poems to short stories to an original screenplay. A friend of his did collect some of his poems before he passed on, mainly spiritual poems from his later years but also some earthy ones from his wilder days. I’m lucky to have this as a printed paperback.

ForeWord Reviews: When did you think about becoming a writer? Who inspired you to write?

AK: The first story I remember writing was a ghost story that I wrote with pen, on lined paper, when I was in seventh or eighth grade. Some of it was based upon a ghost story I had heard at summer camp a few years earlier, but I don’t think I had any sense that including that part of the story in my own was plagiarism or wrong in anyway. If I’m not mistaken, in fact, I felt like what was wrong was the parts I changed because I couldn’t remember exactly how it had been told. But I was not aware that someone who writes a story could be called a writer.

I met Kate Ledger, author of the recent novel, Remedies, the summer after my tenth grade, and it was amazingly impressive to me that she had real, typed stories to share. She showed me one about riding on a bus, next to a boy reading Kurt Vonnegut. The story had tension and character psychology. At the time, I don’t think I had ever fathomed that one of us could actually write something like that. It was amazing. I can’t say she was an influence exactly, but although we weren’t always in touch or close friends, I do remember gravitating more toward English, history, and other reading subjects each year of high school, and by my first semester of college, I was cutting my Linear Algebra class as much as possible in order to focus on classics by Thucydides, Plato, Boethius, Machiavelli, and others. That spring, along with a continued Western-canon curriculum, I took a 20th century American Literature survey course with a book a week requirement, and by the next fall, I’d won my first pair of prescription glasses. Thank you, Richard Wright and Friedrich Nietzsche.

ForeWord Reviews: How do you write? Do you have a daily routine? What’s good, bad, and ugly about the process?

AK: I don’t have a daily writing routine and I don’t write every day, and this is mainly because of the burdens of teaching. The main “bad and ugly” about my writing life is the obligation to earn a living and help support myself and my family as best I’m able to. And yet, aside from the incredible number of weekends and nights I’ve lost to paper grading and lesson plans, there is still some fun in the classroom, and many other positive things about being a teacher who is also a writer.

I have two novels, both of which were originally blasted out during periods of less work and more free time. The second came out fast, like it had to get onto the page whereas the first was much more of a deliberate effort, and I was conscious of the fact that I was teaching myself to write as I composed it. I wouldn’t say that my strategy for writing is a strategy at all.

I’m basically just a desperate, overworked person trying to survive in a brutal world. Maybe you’ve read that story before?

ForeWord Reviews: Do you have any particular story to tell concerning the writing of this book?

AK: I wrote it in a walk-in closet in Seoul, South Korea. It took one hot summer in Seoul to get the first draft down and then years of on again, off again, editing to get to the published version. I’d write in the morning on a laptop, then spend all afternoon writing by hand in a busy Starbucks in the COEX underground shopping mall (but the chatter was all in Korean, so I could tune it out), and then after dinner, I’d type in and begin to revise what I’d written in the afternoon. I had to tutor a couple kids when I was there, and I taught one small class, but I did not have to grade student papers. Trapped in a tiny room, for one summer, I was free.

ForeWord Reviews: What advice have you received concerning writing? What advice would you offer young writers?

AK: I don’t always take advice so well, and often I tune it out, but I should say that advice will sometimes grudgingly sink in and even prove useful to me a few months or years after it’s received.

Joan Mellen, my graduate school faculty advisor, has always been insistent on the fact that writing will take an amazing amount of hard work, and for most of us mere mortals, I believe she is absolutely right. The hard work of writing also requires incredible resilience or stamina. I’ve seen writers like Joan risk their health for their books, and I doubt this is uncommon.

So work hard, writers, and endure. And as best you can, avoid television and social media, and also be wary of any career, spouse, children, or drug habit. If you get on a roll, be willing to fuck the rest of the world and complete your project. This probably explains why so many of the great writers were notably horrible people or parents.

ForeWord Reviews: How did you find the publisher for this book?

AK: I found Atticus Books on the website for the New York Center for Independent Publishing. I believe there were about thirteen listed there who said they considered literary or comic novels. Previous to finding Atticus, I’d done a couple rounds of searching focused on literary agents, major houses, and academic presses. It was a friend’s enthusiastic phone call in January, 2010, that got me back off the mat and pursuing publication again, and that quickly led me to Atticus Books. By February, we had a contract, and I was busy with final corrections of the manuscript.

ForeWord Reviews: What are you working on at the moment?

AK: I’m working on several projects, which frankly, in the middle of a heavy semester, means I’ve got nothing on a day-to-day basis. But preparing Cartoon Bubbles from a City Underwater for publication is a primary concern as well as editing and adding to two more recent works, one a long story about life on the car lot and the other a revenge novel although it will probably wind up more literary than genre style (less plot, deliberate pacing, etc.). I will also soon be sending a story or two off to some major literary journals or slicks and hoping for the best. I tend to have many different projects in various states of incompletion, so there are in fact other partial manuscripts that could take precedence if they happen to find me in the wrong mood on a weekend morning. I hope to have time for significant, sustained writing this summer.

ForeWord Reviews: What are you reading now?

AK: I’m reading student papers and blogs about literature. For class, we recently finished Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and then a half dozen stories from Tobias Wolff’s Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. Now we are reading Chris Offutt’s memoir, The Same River Twice. I try as best I can to reread everything I’m teaching for literature when I’m teaching it although I do also depend on past notes, underlining, and my old comments in the margins.

I’ve also been reading The New York Review of Books, in particular recent reviews by Andrew Hacker and Peter Brooks on a bunch of academic titles on the job market and the crisis in higher education. These reviews relate to the themes of Fight for Your Long Day, and the issues raised in my published novel are ones that are of constant interest to me. Also, and just by coincidence, as a fan, I “friended” Edmund White on Facebook (in fact, many famous writers will willingly friend strangers), and then the next day I saw his review of Ford Maddox Ford’s life and work in the same publication. Many years ago, I read and loved The Good Soldier but have never dared to teach it, and in this current article, I love White’s brief note about Ford being happy for other writers in London when they achieved success with new publications. The prolific Ford’s generosity toward other writers, despite his lifelong poverty, impresses me. It is something we can strive to emulate. Thank you, Mr. White, for giving me a chance to learn more about Ford.

ForeWord Reviews: What was your favorite book when you were a child?

AK: Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island is one I remember loving. I read a library hardcover with wonderful illustrations. There were so many, but let’s go with that.

Now, I spend a lot of time reading children’s books to my daughter, two and a half, and Green Eggs and Ham, Moo Ba La La La, Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?, and Wake Up, Mama! are some of our favorites. We read them again and again.

ForeWord Reviews: Who are your five favorite novelists?

AK: Melville, Pynchon, Nabokov, Exley, and DeLillo. Standard fare, I’d say, although for Nabokov and Exley, I’m thinking about only one book for each, and if you’re reading this, then you know which ones. Jonathan Ames, Sam Lipsyte, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Roberto Bolano, and Dan Fante are writers I’ve discovered more recently and have enjoyed. If you would like a quick read to sample something I like, then I suggest Dan Fante’s Chump Change, Toussaint’s Television, or the assigned books I mentioned by Pynchon and Offutt.

ForeWord Reviews: Have you ever bought a book because of its cover? If so, which one?

AK: I believe I have. I remember indulging in the cover of A Fan’s Notes quite a bit when I first discovered it. I was at a low point in my mid-twenties, having already written a lot of fiction with nothing to show for it and not much in the way of employment either. But I was employed that winter at a remainders bookstore open only for the holidays. That’s where I found a remaindered copy of the Vintage paperback of A Fan’s Notes, and Exley’s two other novels. As much as the cover art, with the writing desk and the falling leaves, it was the brief blurbs on the back that got to me, about the “basic business of life and literature” and Vonnegut’s “true, blue, one of a kind.”

The cover [of A Fan’s Notes] made me feel, to an extent, that this could be a, or rather, the, great American novel, that most illusory of white whales. Of course, it’s the text that grabs you by the throat and pulls you in.

ForeWord Reviews: What book changed your life?

AK: I love the famous celebrity response to this, when the Hollywood star or industry leader says Atlas Shrugged or Moby Dick or To Kill a Mockingbird, and as readers, we feel a connection to reading the Harper Lee book and the successful trial defense that launched the career and eventually led to the interviewee’s success in politics.

Well, for me, this hasn’t been my experience. There have been too many, and I can’t narrow it down to a single book. I’m the kind of reader who will stumble upon one book by an author and then read a bunch by the same writer if time permits. I like the way every book we read has an opportunity to alter our awareness of our existence, and even improve us, and alas, you could argue that too few books and readers take advantage of this chance.

Now that I consider the question, maybe I’d say Cartoon Bubbles from a City Underwater, with its original title of The Appendix on Spark Park Poops, is the book that changed my life. Previous to writing that novel I had no idea that I actually could write one. I didn’t write a full draft of another novel until eleven years later, but I think that early one, even with its flaws, gave me some confidence. It showed me that I could write one if I could find the time.

ForeWord Reviews: Do you have a favorite line from a book?

AK: From my years of teaching, I can name so many, but in Isaac Babel’s “Guy De Maupassant,” I love just about every word, and it would be hard to pick out a favorite but perhaps this would do: “No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.” But of course, writing teachers often quote that one, when it is the literary adventure and sexual tension that draws us in.

“This is America, you live in it, you let it happen. Let it unfurl,” along with dozens of others from Thomas Pynchon would also be high on my list as would Lolita’s brief bit about Humbert Humbert’s “flat tire”—possibly the most clever way ever invented of paying homage to the great impotence theme running through the canon of American Literature—Melville, Faulkner, half of Hemingway, etc. And a favorite from college was Melville’s “I love all men who dive.”

About the Author
Alex Kudera is a Philadelphia native, and has been teaching writing at Clemson University in South Carolina since 2007. Fight for Your Long Day, which was first drafted in a walk-in closet in Seoul, South Korea, is his debut novel.

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