The Exley Influence: A Riff Between Two Authors ‘Falling Inward’

In light of the recent release of Exley, a mysterious satire described by Booklist as Brock Clarke’s “latest brain-teasing raid on literary history,” the interest in Frederick Exley’s 1968 cult classic, A Fan’s Notes: A Fictional Memoir (1968), has joyfully, justifiably spiked. This “seriously playful” approach to fiction (Kirkus Reviews) is cause for celebration at Atticus Books. If Clarke, Exley, or their ilk help raise awareness and define the so-called unclassifiable genre-busting fiction sect, then the stage is set for meaningful discussion of fiercely quirky, unapologetically maddening prose.

What follows is a chat about the Exley influence on two Atticus authors whose own books reflect a mature understanding of the use of black humor (Fight for Your Long Day) and sarcasm (Daring to Eat a Peach), respectively, to illustrate what might be considered taboo subject matter.

Alex Kudera: Okay. We’re back in the Exley situation. We want to write, but we’re drunk, lazy, and we watch too much football. We have mental problems too and voices in our head. We’re insanely ambitious but could use a hot bath. A soaking, yes, indeed. But we’re lucky enough to have Exley reader and newly published novelist Joe Zeppetello respond to our questions. When and where did you first read A Fan’s Notes?

Joseph Zeppetello: When I first read Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, I’d just finished a Masters in Philosophy and had started a family, so my life was hectic. I remember his prose was a welcome change from the well ordered philosophical arguments I’d been reading for my degree.

AK: Can you recall immediate impressions of the book, and if so, what were they?

JZ: My first impressions of the book are lost in a time warp, but I always could seem to remember something from Exley’s book, something that resonated. I thought that his use of the memoir format was pretty astonishing, and also very risky. There are a lot of memoir pieces out there now, but few of them speak to me. You can’t help but listen to Exley because he always has something to say. Sometimes it’s muddled, convoluted, or completely contradictory, but there is always something.

AK: Would you describe Frederick Exley as any kind of influence on your work?

JZ: I don’t know if he consciously influenced my writing, but I’m sure he helped me find my own voice. I really like his method of “falling inward.” We start on the outside, like meeting a character, or watching a football game, and then we fall into his mind. It’s great. He is certainly a writer’s writer, like [Andre] Dubus and [Nathanael] West. And like both of them, his life wasn’t easy. I am probably also drawn to Exley because I’m also from upstate New York, and spent a lot of time in Clayton, Alexandria Bay and the Thousand Islands, so we share a landscape.

AK: If Exley were alive, what do you think he’d think of today’s literary culture and market?

JZ: If he were alive today he might be both pleased and chagrined by the number of literary creative nonfiction memoirs that are out there. He made the genre possible.

AK: Exley was close to forty when his first novel was finally published. At the time, I suspect this would have been seen as a late start, but I’m learning that it is increasingly common to be well past the age of a young adult when one becomes a debut author. Do you feel that you are just beginning as a novelist or that publishing Daring to Eat a Peach is in sense a culmination of a life’s work? Or rather, how do you feel about the experience relative to your age and the fact that you are already well established in your “other” career at Marist?

JZ: You ask about my two careers, one as a teacher and one as a writer, and about publishing a first novel as “someone who is well past the age of young adult.”

I have always written, even as an undergrad, but most of my other writings are short stories or professional pieces. While I did publish a couple of short stories for pay, it was impossible for me to me to make enough money to live on, even while freelancing for local newspapers and weekly magazines, so when I got offered fellowships to continue my education, it wasn’t like I was abandoning a successful career. The academic exposure helped with the discipline of writing. At that time, though, fiction writing was greatly discouraged in much of the academy, and the writers in the MFA track in my college were heavily into writing impenetrable, obscure, post-modern stories, so my work was not well accepted by them. I continued to write and to send out stories while doing the writing for my degrees, but it was difficult to do both. After finishing my doctorate, I got incredibly lucky and landed a full-time job in academia.

A few years ago I had the idea for this book. Originally I saw it as a short story — it just kept going. So I am even older than Exley was when he published his first novel, but maybe that’s just a sign of the times. We live longer, but learn slower.


Joseph Zeppetello is the author of Daring to Eat a Peach, a novel published by Atticus Books in November of 2010. He is the Director of Writing at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and lives in the Catskill Mountains.

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.

Photo Source: Fred Exley, Self Absorbed Boomer

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