A Conversation with Alex Jeffers By Gavin Atlas





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Alex Jeffers is the
author of the recently released novel Deprivation;
or, Benedetto furioso: an oneiromancy
. He’s also published a collection
of wonder stories, You
Will Meet a Stranger Far from Home
, a book-length story sequence, The
Abode of Bliss
, the epistolary novella
Do You Remember Tulum?
, the short
science fiction novel The
New People
, and the novel Safe
as Houses
. His short fiction has appeared in magazines such as the North American Review, Blithe House Quarterly, Fantasy and Science Fiction, M-Brane SF, and Icarus, and
many anthologies. Alex lives in Rhode Island.

GA: Hi, Alex. Thanks for talking
to Out in Print. First, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” supposedly formed for him in a
dream. Did aspects of
arise from dreams or take form in a huge rush of inspiration?

AJ: Both, in a
way. Deprivation occurred to me at a
peculiar, susceptible time in my life, many years ago during the recession of
the early 1990s. A recent (belated) college graduate with a useless
liberal-arts degree, I lived in Providence, RI, but worked as an office temp in
Boston, fifty miles away. Getting to work on time required catching an ungodly
early train for the hour-long commute. I’ve always suffered from insomnia—my
natural cycle is nocturnal—so for over a year I was lucky to get four hours of
sleep a night. Sleep deprivation functioned for me as laudanum addiction did
for Coleridge. Life was hallucinatory.

One January
morning on the train in my usual sleep-deprived daze, I remembered a dream from
the night before. Now, as one of the characters in Deprivation remarks of himself at one point, I seldom recall my
dreams in any detail because dreams are mostly image but I think in sentences
and paragraphs. This was different, compelling, full of arbitrary, sensual
detail: a vision of entering a tiny room within an abandoned warehouse, spread
with antique Turkish and Persian carpets, where a little girl watched an
Arabian Nights movie on a silent TV while her handsome elder brother slept in a
corner, bundled up in bolts of silk brocade and velvet. In the dream, I became
convinced the brother was (would be) my heart’s desire, my lifelong companion.
I have no clue where my subconscious came up with any of it.

Taking out the
pad of graph paper I always carried and a pen, I wrote out a narrative version
of that dream as the train rattled through eastern Mass. Partly because most of
the fictions I was futzing with at the time were written in the first person,
partly because the material was so intensely, peculiarly personal and I have a
horror of autobiographical fiction, I wrote in third person and created a
viewpoint character who was like but not me. Then I put it away, not thinking
much of it except that it was strange, unprecedented.

A week or so
later the same thing happened. In the second, possibly more fantastical dream,
I was trapped on the battlements of an inaccessible mountaintop castle which I
knew to be in Italy, Umbria or the Marches. As I attempted to find a way out, I
heard a strange cry, looked up, and saw in the air flying toward the castle a
Renaissance knight mounted upon a hippogriff. The source for this imagery was
more comprehensible: I’d recently started rereading the Orlando furioso of Ariosto, in which the hippogriff and its various
riders figure prominently. Again, the dream was so vivid and compelling I wrote
it out on the train—half unconsciously choosing the same narrative strategy of
substituting a third-person “he” for “I.”

On the return
commute that evening, I pulled out my pad of graph paper and reread both scraps
of dream narrative. All at once they belonged together, the improvised
third-person stand-in was a person in his own right (his name was Benedict, Ben
for short), and it was absolutely
for me to work out how he got from that warehouse to the castle
in Italy…and then what happened afterward.

I wrote like a
demon for three months, mostly on the train. Then reality intervened, as it
tends to do: I acquired a permanent day job, moved to Boston—losing the daily
two hours of writing time on the train—and my then-agent made impatient noises
about the novel I was supposed to be restructuring and revising, Safe as Houses, so I had to spend
several months on that. Ben had not yet reached the Italian castle but the
overall shape of the book had come clear to me in a way it hardly ever does
(even for a short story) and I knew the last lines: “Come to Italy with me,
caro, next week. We’ll never come back.” Once I dispatched the penultimate
draft of Safe as Houses to my agent,
I finished Deprivation in six months.
It’s the work of mine most true to its original conception, which demanded no
major revision or restructuring: written straight through at white heat, almost
without hesitation.

Finding a
publisher for it took twenty years, though. Thanks be to Steve Berman, Lethe
Press, and their tutelary deity Daulton.

GA: I’ve had critique
partners say things like “you shouldn’t write epistolary novels” or “don’t use
dream sequences because there are no stakes”. I could wave copies of
Alice in Wonderland and Dangerous Liaisons in their faces, but
coming from me, saying “the masters can do it” doesn’t feel like a great
defense. How do you know when a “rule” can successfully be broken? How do you
feel about writing rules overall?

AJ: If I
followed the standard rules my bank account would probably be a whole lot
happier…and I a whole lot more miserable. Aside from the conventions of grammar
and syntax, the only rule I hold sacred is: Be true to the work. If, like Do You Remember Tulum?, the work wants
to take the form of a single, unreasonably long love letter or, like Deprivation, a series of dreams that bleed
in and out of each other and “real life” until there’s no telling which is
which, how much less interesting they would be if, spirits broken, they were
forced into the shapes of traditional, plot-driven novels written to an
eighth-grade vocabulary.

It seems to
me, if I may be bitter for a moment, that the contemporary “rules” of narrative
fiction intend primarily to enforce the creation of raw material for movies or
HBO. Not to deny the artistry of visual narrative—it seldom speaks to me,
usually gives me a headache, but I recognize its worth—but a film or television
serial is an entirely different animal than a work of written fiction. The
things film does best written fiction can’t
do at all
and vice-versa. I feel pretty strongly that the filmification of
culture has deeply, probably irrevocably impoverished literature.

On the macro,
structural and strategic level, most writing “rules” nowadays are about either
not performing tricks that visual narrative can’t imitate or not testing the
attention span and concentration of readers conditioned by the half-hour, hour,
two-hour limits of TV and movies. Break ’em all, I say, break ’em again and
again. Ninety percent of the time you’ll fail and make an unreadable botch, but
that’s fine. That’s how you learn what your limits and capabilities are and,
crucially, how you keep yourself interested. Keep in mind the Platonic
definition of the novel (paraphrased from I don’t remember who): an extended
work of narrative fiction that has something wrong with it.

On a micro-level:
Strunk & White? Go stick your heads in a well. Plain American style is but
a single tool in the writer’s box and about the least flexible or entertaining.

GA: Early in Deprivation, you describe a series of
paintings in a hallway, mentioning, if not for a visual joke or anachronism,
one could have been executed by Lorenzo Lotto, one by Hans Holbein, and another
from the school of Giorgione. You obviously love fine art. So, say a handsome
thief enters your life and offers to win your heart by obtaining any two or
three famous paintings for your home. What might you choose?

AJ: To start
out modestly, almost any of Canaletto’s views of Venice, preferably one that
included either the Bacino or the Grand Canal and a gondola or two. Venice is
one of the two centers of my imaginary geography of the world. Unfortunately
there aren’t a great many excellent visual depictions of the other, Ottoman

Combining the
two geographical obsessions with a fixation on portraiture, I’d ask the
handsome thief to steal from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum the
gouache portrait of a Seated (Ottoman) Scribe attributed to the Venetian
painter Gentile Bellini. Poor Gardner Museum, to be robbed of another
masterpiece! (I do have a nicely framed postcard of the Seated Scribe, but it’s
not the same.)

El Greco’s
portrait of Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino, in the Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, is a painting that ripped my soul out of my body the first time I saw
it, but I don’t think I could actually live with it.

And I don’t
expect I’ll ever reside in splendor fit to house any of the splendid Italian
Renaissance and Mannerist portraits of Titian, Bronzino, Lotto, Giambattista
Moroni (impossible to pick favorites), but if I one day end up in a villa in
Tuscany or the Veneto—watch out, museums of the world.

GA: Could you tell us about
your character, Dario? What inspired you to create him, and what do you like
about him?

AJ: Dario is
the handsome sleeping brother in the first dream that inspired, and opens, Deprivation. According to him, he’s one
of three children of an unconventional Italian painter who sent her kids to
America because it wasn’t done for an unmarried woman to have and raise
children by three different men. His father, he believes, was a Lebanese
Christian Arab—but it’s all mythology, whether invented by Dario (the dream) or
Ben (the dreamer).

Because he
stepped out of a dream, I don’t really know what inspired Dario other than my
attraction to Mediterranean and Near Eastern men. Ben’s attraction, aside from
the physical, has a lot to do with Dario being needy at a time when everybody
else in Ben’s life (or so he feels) wants to take care of him and run his life.
Dario needs somebody to run his life.
He claims he knew before they met that Ben existed—that he had been searching
the streets of Boston for Ben.

One reading of
Deprivation—possibly the easiest and
a reading Ben himself subscribes to now and then—sees his dreams as a form of
self-analysis and therapy. In that reading, Dario (in different ways his sister
Gioia and brother Laud, also) embodies Ben’s own insecurities, his sense of
being unready to function in the grown-up world, overwhelmed by it. Because Ben
believes he can’t take care of himself, his subconscious creates Dario as
somebody he can successfully care
for. When he ultimately says goodbye to Dario it’s because he’s finally ready
to take responsibility for himself without a crutch.

One reading.
Somewhat reductive if not entirely wrong. Because Dario is a person too, as
real to Ben as his parents and friends and the other men he gets involved with
in the course of the novel, as steeped in mystery and contradiction—as
inexplicable and wondrous as any human being.

As for what I like about Dario…. He’s a fascinating
conundrum for a writer because he’s deliberately unfinished and unfinishable,
ambiguous, self contradictory. As a character, he’s unashamedly implausible and
yet entirely himself. Also amazingly hot, if far too young.

GA: I’ve heard that you are
a voracious reader. Can you tell us about any favorite works you feel are
undeservedly obscure?

AJ: There are,
I believe, two perfect prose stylists of twentieth-century English-language
letters: M.F.K. Fisher and Jan Morris (Morris edges into the twenty-first).
Both are widely and deservedly known for their non-fiction—Fisher for works on
food and appetite, Morris on travel, history, and appetite. Both have also
published a very few pieces of deeply odd fiction that keep being forgotten and
rediscovered and forgotten again. Fisher’s Not
Now, but
Now, an interlocking series of tales of the amoral, self-absorbed
Jennie raising havoc around Europe and the States without regard for
chronological plausibility, and Morris’s Last
Letters from Hav
, a sequence of magazine dispatches from the decidedly
peculiar city-state of Hav somewhere on the Mediterranean coast of Anatolia,
are neither novels in any conventional sense and both at once brilliant and
obscure, like stars sunk in the whorls of a vast interstellar dust cloud.

I could
evangelize the works of Anglo-Irish novelists Elizabeth Bowen and Molly Keane
(early books published as by “M.J. Farrell”) for days, neither as well known as
they should be. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who died at eighty-five early this month,
is sadly better known for her Merchant-Ivory screenplays than her magisterial

I won’t even
start on the speculative fiction that’s always been a big chunk of my reading.

Finally, two
words: Orlando furioso.

GA: I read that you enjoyed
Charlotte Bronte’s
Villette, and I
think overall you love books with imaginary cities or countries. Can you
explain that fascination? Is creating a whole city or country like getting to
play with a dollhouse except multiplied by a thousand?

AJ: Well,
Brontë’s city of Villette and country of Labassecour aren’t strictly imaginary:
they’re Brussels and Belgium wearing fake spectacles with funny noses and fuzzy
eyebrows attached. But yes, Villette
(the book) stands high in my canon of perfect novels that every
English-speaking person should read at least twice. Why Jane Eyre is more popular passeth my understanding.

And yes, like
Charlotte and her sisters and brother, I spent large parts of my childhood and
youth inventing imaginary cities, nations, whole worlds. Doesn’t every
imaginative person? (Well, before the invention of tabletop RPGs and video
games.) At first because one doesn’t know enough about the real world to
situate one’s games and adventures in it, later because one finds the real
world small and disappointing.

The latter is,
in the end, the underlying theme of Deprivation,
although Ben’s imagination works differently than mine so his ideal world is an
impossible vision of Italy instead of a distant planet in the far future or a
never-never kingdom where magic works and mass media were never invented.

Every novelist
plays with imaginary dolls in novel-size dollhouses. No matter how closely
setting and history resemble the real world and real experience, the world the
characters move through is made up—it exists only in the writer’s head and the
words she chooses to render it on the page. The realist mode is only one
possibility. Magical realism, surrealism at the so-called high end, science
fiction and fantasy at the low: each mode provides different tools to the
writer, different rewards to the reader, different joys to both.

A quote from a
recent column by acclaimed fantasy and
science-fiction writer Jo Walton at Tor.com seems apropos:

There’s a way in which fiction
is about understanding human nature. It’s about more than that, of course, but
that’s a significant part of it. I feel that you can tell more interesting
stories about human nature if you can contrast it with alien nature, or elf
nature, or what human nature would be like if you had nine thousand identical
clones, or if people could extend their lives by sucking life force from other
people. There are more possibilities for stories in genre, more places for
stories to go. More ways to escape, more things to think about, more fun.

It’s a fluke
and in some ways a puzzle I’m known (insofar as I’m known) for fiction set in
the real world of the present day and recent past. Long ago in the dark ages I
started out writing science fiction. The first book I sold was a big SF novel.
For several good reasons it was never published, thank merciful and
compassionate God, although I reused its core conceit of a planet where all the
women died in The New People. Most of
the short fiction I’ve written in the last five years falls under the rubric of
speculative fiction: SF or fantasy or magical realism. The stories in You Will Meet a Stranger Far from Home
walk edgewise to reality: they’re set in the future or the mythic past or in
countries I’ve never visited (some countries nobody’s ever visited).

My ostensibly
realistic books are constantly testing the limits of the real world. Aside from
his family, the realest things in the mind of the narrator of Safe as Houses are his husband’s
illustrations for children’s fantasy novels. Do You Remember Tulum? pretends to be a single hundred-plus-page
letter handwritten over a span of four or five days, an unlikely
accomplishment, and the characters are all mythic, impossible figures—not least
the narrator, “Alex Jeffers.” The narrator of The Abode of Bliss is a Turk from İstanbul, a city I’ve never set
foot in so it had to be imagined from the ground up. Deprivation may, or may not, be a dream from beginning to end.

The real world
of the twenty-first century—the US in particular—fascinates, bores, revolts, inspirits,
horrifies, exhilarates, terrifies me all at once. It’s too big and too small. I
appreciate the marvels, abhor the petty uses they’re put to. The noise has
overwhelmed the signal. I can’t comprehend this country, this world, anymore.
More than that, I no longer wish to work at attempting to comprehend it. (If I
ever did, which is doubtful.) As a setting for fiction, it’s rendered itself
unusable. I can’t talk about the things that are important to me in the terms
it requires. It’s back to Marianne Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads
in them” for me. (If I ever left them. Which is doubtful.) Although real
gardens with imaginary toads work, too.

I have
emigrated to Hav.

GA: If the muses or gods of
literature and the arts came to you and said, “Alex, you can change one thing
(only one) that you find terrible about 21
st Century culture” what
might happen? The end of Real Housewives shows?
People Magazine has to give as much space to book reviews as
celebrity scandal?

AJ: I haven’t
turned my TV on since 2008, which was also the last time I went out to a movie.
Even before then, the TV wasn’t connected but only served as a screen to
display DVDs—I haven’t lived in a house with cable since 2005 and had no
television at all from about 1980 to 1998. Really, I’m so disconnected from pop
culture it’s stupid. What are these Real Housewives you speak of?

Is there some
single cultural thing I could change that would fix the unequal distribution of
wealth in the world, so that artisans and laborers, restaurant and retail
workers, clerk-typists and other office serfs, mid-list and small-press
novelists, minor painters, sculptors, actors, poets, playwrights wouldn’t
always be barely scraping by, if that, and the great and small nations of the
world wouldn’t be held hostage by Wall Street?

That. Please.

GA: I understand you enjoy
cooking. If you could have a few celebrities, historic figures or literary
characters come over for dinner, who would you invite? And what would want to

AJ: I love to
cook. I loathe and fear strangers and conversation. (Social anxiety and
introversion? I invented them!) I would prepare something complicated and
Turkish, South Asian, or Italian, and eat it by myself while reading a good
book about fascinating personages.

GA: And last, what’s next
for you in terms of goals, plans, or adventures?

AJ: In the
terrifyingly short term, deadlines loom for several anthologies I’d quite like
to submit (unwritten) stories to. In the middle distance, I owe somebody the fourth story in my series
about Liam Shea, a fairy raised by humans in present-day Massachusetts (real
garden, imaginary toad). Whenever I get around to completing all seven planned
Liam stories, that’ll be a (small) book. Away beyond the horizon, Steve Berman
of Lethe Press wants to publish a volume of stories set in an imaginary world
of mine where historically appropriate technology (long-haul sail-powered
merchant ships in one era, mobile phones and motorscooters in another) butts up
against gods, demons, ghosts, and saints. But I’ve only completed three of them
so far and one of the unfinished ones keeps threatening to become a novel.

As soon as the
weather turns enough toward summer that I don’t spend half my life obsessing
about how fucking cold I am, I plan to embark on a third revision of The Unexpected Thing, a big novel set
partly in southeastern Massachusetts, partly in the fifth-smallest nation in
Europe, a place I made up (real and
imaginary gardens, inhabited by toads of both types). Then try to sell it for
lots of money. Upkeep on a townhouse in Hav is brutal.

 GA: Thank you, Alex!

AJ: Thank you (and Jerry and Bill) for the
opportunity to rave and ramble.

Keep up with Alex at his

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