Interview with Alyssa Quinn

David Reichek

DR: What'd you like to read as a kid? 

AQ: My first favorites were the Chronicles of Narnia. I was a big Potter fan, Lord of the Rings. A lot of fantasy turned sci-fi later. But those were my starting points. 

DR: What kind of fantasy and sci-fi were you into? 

AQ: Oh, you know, I think typical stuff. Dystopian sci-fi, the Hunger Games, whatever I could get my hands on.

DR: Do you think there are similarities between the books you liked as a kid and the books you enjoy now as an adult? 

AQ: You know what, sometimes I feel like I've come really far from those roots. I really don't read any sort of classic fantasy anymore, but I do like stuff that gravitates away from realism, however you want to define that. I like weird stuff. Maybe my roots in magic kind of inspired those interests. 

DR: Do you feel that literary genre functions similarly to, say, artistic medium in the sense that technical expertise in one genre may not carry over into another?

AQ: Yeah. I think I would be very bad at writing a good genre novel. I think those require certain expertise that I haven’t cultivated. 

DR: What does it take? 

AQ: Plot chops. I'm very bad at writing plots. That is something that I'm continually jealous of. People who have really compelling plots. I would love to be better at that. I think striking that balance between familiar and new is an important thing that genre writers have to do.  And I'm not good at the familiar parts, usually.

DR: And then there's the added complexities of convention and understanding who you’re writing for.

AQ: Yeah. I don't like to think about the people who are going to be reading my work.

DR: Why not? 

AQ: I just feel like that gets in the way for me a little bit, thinking about an imaginary person with imaginary desires who I’m trying to satisfy. I'd rather just think about the desires of the piece itself and what the piece seems to be asking for. And then see if anyone happens to like it afterwards. 

DR: When you say you're bad at plot, how do you conceive of plot? What does plot mean to you? 

AQ: I guess the good old classic definition, events arranged in a causal chain, things happening. A macro structure. Lately I'm really just writing novels. I have a novel coming out in September, and I'm two thirds of the way through a second one. So I'm thinking a lot about what keeps someone turning pages, especially if it's not a suspenseful, plot driven work. What the overarching structure that makes this two, three hundred page thing still fun is going to be. And I'm really interested in the levels of the line and the sentence and form. But at the end of the day, I want people to stick with me, so how do I get that larger structure going? 

DR: Do you have a particular routine you follow as you write your novel? 

AQ: Short answer, no. I feel like I'm a little bit skeptical of process or routine in the sense of something that you go to every time that consistently works across projects or even across days. Because I think for me, when I show up to the page, every time I feel like I have to relearn what writing is, and I feel like I can't show up to a new piece with what worked for me on the last piece, that's not going to cut it. Every single thing is so different. And I was hoping that maybe that wouldn’t be the case when I started working on my second book, that I could use my tricks from the first book, but that just didn't happen. They’re different beasts and so every time I sit down I have to remind myself, what is a sentence? What is a page? That's obviously hard, but I think it's also a good place to work from because then hopefully the work is surprising. 

DR: If you’re operating without process or consistency, how do you maintain cohesion across an entire novel? 

AQ: That's a good question, the question I'm asking myself with my current book. My last book came out almost fully formed in my mind. And it came out really fast. Like the first draft was written in the space of three or four months. So that was kind of nice. This current one I'm working on is a lot more fragmented and chaotic, and so it's probably going to happen more in revision that it pulls together. But research is a really big part of my process, whatever process I have. That research forms the bones of the project and then I use that as a scaffold. 

DR: So you'll generally have a plan of what you’ll do before you start a novel?

AQ: I don't know. It depends. I think this one I had an image that slowly formed of the first two thirds, and I still don't know what the end is, so I'm just kind of creeping along and waiting to see what reveals itself. 

DR: When you say image, what do you mean? 

AQ: I knew the book wanted to be divided into three parts, and I knew the first part was going to be a really fragmented, swirly kind of collage piece. And then part two was going to be a novel within a novel the narrator wrote with more of a detective crime ghost story element to it. I still don't know where it's going from there, but I had that general sense of, okay, these are the first two panels and I just need to flesh them out. 

DR: I'm hearing a lot of visual conceptions of how the novel will be structured. I'm not trying to pass judgment at all here, but do you think it may be potentially limiting to go about creating literature in a visual way? Such as conceiving the novel in similar ways as a film director conceiving certain shots and scenes?

AQ: Yeah, definitely. I think the most important thing for me to get a novel going is to have a sense of the rhythm of the language. This is way more important than any scene or event or plot or anything. To get a sense for the sound of the text. When you were asking that question, it made me think of one of my absolute favorite books,  Claude Simon's Triptych. Have you encountered it at all? 

DR: I’m not familiar with it.

AQ: So good. It is entirely about film and filmic techniques. And yet it's a novel, and it couldn’t be translated into film. It just wouldn't work. Even though it’s using the techniques of film in language, it couldn’t go the other way. And so I think film offers a lot in the sense of, how is the eye moving? How is the scene emerging? How are details being thrust up in front of the viewer? But just because you're stealing from film doesn't mean that it's something that could be filmically recreated. And I think those texts that play with that are really fascinating, and actually paradoxically point to what's great about language. 

DR: Do you feel that there's a meaningful difference between a textbook and an audiobook in the sense that even though the material is the same, consumers of a given work could have different takeaways, based on whether they read or listened to it?

AQ: I think probably yes. I'm really wary of trying to apply any kind of hierarchical difference between a written text and an audio text, though. Just for reasons of accessibility, and how crucial audio books are for so many people. Audiobooks are books. And I think the fetishization of texts on the page sometimes gets in the way of recognizing that every medium has its own affordances and limitations and people are going to react differently.

I struggle with audiobooks personally. My mind wanders, I like to be able to set my own pace and follow the line on the page and reread it, savor it as much as I want. But I know lots of people who love audio books, and that has been their window into reading, and I think that's fabulous. 

DR: Of course. Definitely not trying to talk down on audio books or suggest that any medium is inferior here. I’m more interested in digging deeper into how a given work or intellectual property can be communicated in several different ways, which can maybe adjust the way those works are received to the point where the understood ideas no longer match up anymore, where, based on what medium you’re consuming, you’re being communicated something completely unique compared to the person next to you using a different medium.

AQ: And it's hard to think about how if you have a visual play on the page, which is something that is interesting to me, how do you translate that into audio? And I know simple things have been experimented with for audiobooks. I'm thinking of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which has a lot of different voices. It's very collagey, sort of a play almost. They pulled in so many different voice actors to convey that. 

DR: What are you most challenged by when you write? What stops you from putting words on the page? 

AQ: Probably my inner censor, inner critic. I'm very bad at dumping out a shitty first draft. I'm trying really hard to get better at that, but I tend to edit a lot as I write, and I tend to go pretty slowly. And so if I feel like what I'm writing is bad, I get discouraged by that and feel like I want to walk away. So trying to maintain a sense of fun and satisfaction and pleasure. When I'm feeling those things, that's a sign to me that the writing is working right. When it's fun, I know I'm onto something good. It's hard when it stops feeling that way. 

DR: I can relate to that a lot. It's a double effect where you’re both writing something you think is bad and also that you're not having that much fun with. So you end up asking yourself, why am I wasting my time suffering through this? 

AQ: That's what's been so interesting the last several years about working on two novels back to back. I'm not starting short pieces or leaving them lying around. I like the novel mode a lot. I like being able to be immersed in one thing for a long time, especially with how much research I do. I recently tried to start writing an essay and I was like, this is so hard. I felt like I needed to read everything on the topic in order to write this ten page essay. I feel like I need to spend a year on it, and I can't do that for such a short piece. Whereas for a novel, you can, and that is really nice.

DR: Do you have a particular novel that, as you're writing your own novel, you're thinking about how you can incorporate some of its best elements?

AQ: I mean, I really want my novel to be like no other novel. That's the goal, but certainly there are lots of novels. One that has been on my mind a lot as I've been writing this current book is Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald, which is a really gorgeous, haunting novel about World War II. The narrator has this incantatory sort of rhythm to his voice, and you really get lost in it. He’s recounting historical, personal stories, and you get lost in the layers of stories that are nested into his narration. It also includes photographs, which my current book, at least at the moment, also does. In Austerlitz they don't explain things, they don't illustrate the text. They make it weirder and more surreal. They have this haunting feel to them, tonally. And structurally he's been probably my biggest touchstone as I've been working on this novel. 

DR: Was photography something you were interested in prior to writing this novel? 

AQ: Not at all. I mean, I have an iPhone. It just felt appropriate to have photos in this novel. Whereas for my last novel, a few people suggested incorporating photos, and I was very, very certain that that novel needed to have no photos.

DR: What was the distinction there? How'd you know? 

AQ: My last novel was really about linguistic theory and the link or the disconnect between objects and words. And so it felt very important to me that it was only words on the page and not images, because I wanted to really think about the extent to which words can and cannot be anchored to their reference. It felt like photography would distract from that quite a bit. 

DR: What do you hope to accomplish with photography in your latest novel?

AQ: Hopefully the photographs are strange and surreal enough that they’re immersive and also sort of jolting. I think when you're reading about something in the text and then you see it again in a black and white photograph, there’s a double take moment where you're like, oh, wait, am I reading fiction or nonfiction? That's a line that I'm really interested in and I want to play with that, that boundary a lot in this book. 

DR: Anything you want to say to your fans out there?

AQ: I have my first book coming out in September (2022).  I don't want to say too much, but it's going to be pretty crazy. Hold onto your pants.