Our nonfiction editor, Brett Sigurdson, had this exchange with Alex Simand, author of Issue #9’s “with light steam.” Here’s what he had to say about his propensity to tackle big questions, the writers who inspire him, and his experience at a low-residency MFA program.
Let’s start with a big question. Your bio on your blog states you wonder “if love and sex are mutually exclusive.” Are you ready to hazard an answer to this question?
You know, I wrote that sentence as a sort of frivolous quip, but I’ve come to see it as a serious question. I’ll say that my Field Study is ongoing. I continue to fall in love—and have sex—and be willing to reflect on what it means and how they relate to one another.
To answer more directly, I don’t think love and sex are mutually exclusive. I believe relationships are complex: love and sex are concepts that are inherently entwined, no matter how carefully we attempt to keep them separate. And maybe sometimes it feels like they are discrete, but the canon of human emotion is not that simple, as any psychotherapist will tell you. Projection might come into play; our past experiences will inform our attitudes toward our partner (or partners); the act of physical intimacy cannot be extricated from at least some level of affection. Lord knows I’ve tried, particularly in my twenties—addendum: I turn thirty this week!—but the inevitable pull of what I somewhat facetiously call the poet-mind will not allow it. We are feeling creatures, whether we like it or not.
I ask because, from reading essays like “Eye Contact” or posts on your blog, I find you’re interested in answering big questions through your writing. In particular, you seem to have a desire to write about real connection, real humanity. Where does this propensity come from?
It’s hard to see with clarity one’s own motivations, but if I were to hazard a guess I would say that growing up as an only child probably contributed to my propensity for seeking answers to bigger questions. I spent a lot of time alone when I was young. My best friends were books. My parents encouraged me to read because the imagined alternatives—drugs and hooliganism and various other nonspecific vices—were worse. All of the novels that resonated with me, even from a young age, were works that did something more than simply tell stories: Margaret Atwood, Joseph Heller, Mikhail Bulgakov, Russell Hoban, all writers that used the story as a device for connecting experience to truth. In my own small way, I try to do the same.
Certainly tackling one’s upbringing is a big question. What compelled you to explore your Russian heritage in “with light steam”?
Maybe one factor is my obsession with identity: whether or not it is fixed; if it is entirely defined by one’s surroundings, by one’s ancestry, by one’s sense of self. These questions of identity play a central role in “with light steam,” particularly with regard to cultural identity, which I believe is an essential subset. Being a first-generation Russian immigrant who grew up in a city sometimes described as a multicultural mosaic, I couldn’t help but believe that tradition was important. Toronto is a city of pockets: Little Italy, Little Portugal, Cabbagetown (the Irish quarter), and many more. There was always a sense of insularity, of differentiation, which is wonderful for tourism but troubling to a child who wants to become an integrated member of society. What am I? Russian? Canadian? Does it matter? Do I avoid these labels altogether? Do I embrace them? Do I let the customs of my ancestors inform my current incarnation? Or is the best approach a hybrid: a holding of divergent tensions. (I’ve settled, for now, on the latter.) Once you go down this self-reflective rabbit hole, a universe of questions explodes into view. But this is all abstract. The real magic lies in human interaction. The good stuff happens when discordant souls rub up against each other. The friction, the spark, that is, for me, where lies the cosmic truth of humanity—if such a thing exists.
Did you learn anything about yourself or your family from the process of writing this essay?
There is a passage in the essay where I meet a man named Mordecai. The meeting was humbling because I learned through him that my experience is not, in fact, unique. We did, after all, travel the same path to the West from Russia. We knew the same rabbis, distant relatives, and he spoke like my uncles speak—slowly and with delightfully glib resignation. And he did all of this without an ounce of self-consciousness, showing me that diversity is not strangeness. In a way, meeting Mordecai was the inciting incident (to borrow a fiction term) that prompted me to write “with light steam.”
The scene in which you describe each section of the bathhouse as if you’re a tour guide really knocked my hair back. Talk about writing that: when did that scene enter the scope of the essay? How did you develop it?
One of my favorite things to do as a writer is to play with the physical, the sensual, so writing that scene felt natural, joyful even. When I began writing “with light steam,” I felt a need to ground the essay in the physical world. I wanted to avoid a purely abstract discussion on culture. I think there are enough pedagogical papers and studies on that topic. Instead, I wanted to connect it to shared human experience—and what better shared experience that the act of feeling one’s body, of tapping into one’s senses? It was also fairly simple to write—I’ve played that role numerous times. As I write in the essay, I love taking people to the bathhouse. I relish the opportunity to act as cultural tour guide.
Writing about family members truthfully and openly in nonfiction can be intimidating. How did you navigate writing frankly about your family in “with light steam”?
I’m not sure I’ve navigated it successfully. I suppose it depends on how you define success in nonfiction. Is it by communicating truth? By being honest? By avoiding confrontation with the subjects of your work? Everyone remembers things differently; everyone brings to a memory their own lens, their own set of biases. I think in “with light steam” I sidestep some of these pitfalls by being willing to be open and vulnerable, by showing my hand and saying, here: there is no magic. This is what I had. This is how I felt. I’d like to show you something. And I tried to make it clear at all points in the story that everything was seen through the eyes of the character—from the small, scared boy in the banya to the actualized adult.
Editor’s Note: Alex Simand has since expanded his answer to this question here: http://lunchticket.org/on-umwelt-and-writing-about-family-in-nonfiction/
There’s a tenderness to your voice at times as well. I wonder, who are your writing heroes?
Tenderness? Are you sure? I would use many adjectives to describe my voice—glib, sarcastic, irreverent—but not tender. But I do think I use the distant voice, the humorous voice, as a means to broach deeper subjects; perhaps it’s the contrast of the superficial with the sincere that lends my voice a tender tone when I choose to dive into the narrative. Life is inherently funny, weird, and absurd. We should all be willing to see the humor in it.
Writing heroes. I always knew this day would come, when I would have to answer this impossible question. I listed a few of my influences above (Bulgakov chief among them), but I also admire the works of nonfiction writers like Joan Didion and Annie Dillard. They are able to connect the personal to the universal in beautiful, seamless, seemingly effortless ways; the eye for detail they exhibit, particular in scene and setting, draws the reader in an almost magnetic manner. I try to employ this style of detail-oriented writing as much as possible.
You wrote a hilarious piece about magic mushrooms on your blog. Given that you’re in San Francisco, a city once linked with art movements and drugs, I’m curious, what do you make of drugs as a conduit to artistic expression?
I hesitate to give a universal answer to this question. Drugs are not for everyone—certainly not for every artist. It depends on how one uses psychedelics (I assume this is what we’re discussing). If an artist is able to use drugs as tools to help them see the world in a different way, I’m all for it. In a way, that is what artists do anyway: deconstruct the world, flatten it, remove their preexisting biases, and then put it back together in different, more interesting ways. And whatever path the writer follows to get to this place is fine, whether it be meditation, exercise, drugs, or whatever. Of course, none of this matters if the artist is unable to articulate her vision, or if the reality she is trying to communicate only makes sense in her head, so the craft must always come first.
You have an admirable beard. What’s your beard-care regimen?
Ox blood and sparrow tears, applied liberally every morning and twice a day in the winter. Also, regular brushing, and the kind fingers of a good woman.
You’re currently at work on an MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University’s low-residency program. What have you taken from the experience?
It’s difficult to say because I’m in the midst of it. Ideas are swirling around me. I think it’ll take some separation to really reflect on what I’ve gotten from it. That said, it has been inspiring to work with talented and well-published mentors. From Brad Kessler I’ve learned how to hone the narrative voice; in fact, he helped me edit “with light steam.” From Richard Garcia I learned to control my lyrical voice. He ignited in me a love of poetry. It’s generally helpful to have a wiser, more experienced writer knock you out of your natural rhythms. It’s in the struggle to adjust that wonderful and unexpected work appears.
What do you think are the advantages of the low-residency model?
The low-residency model, like any educational model, has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that the student body is diverse, both geographically and demographically. The brief time that we are together at residency is a flurry: building strands of lifelong connection, hearing from different perspectives, and discussing craft from disparate lenses. Residency is a safe place to discuss race relations, prejudice, and all sorts of important but difficult subjects. It’s really a broadening experience; I feel myself grow as a human being every time we gather.
The disadvantage is that, once residency is over, we go home. The project period can be quite isolating, especially immediately after such intense bonding. Even though we have a mentor and telephone calls and some interaction with our peers, the absence of a physical space in which to gather is difficult. In a way, though, this too is an advantage. The life of the writer is inherently lonely, and I think the isolation we experience prepares us to enter the literary world as professional writers. Or maybe this is all rationalization.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently participating in the Lexington Poetry Month challenge (#LexPoMo in net-speak) with Accents Publishing. Holding myself to a daily deadline—the challenge is to write one poem per day for the month of June—has been hectic but strangely liberating. You don’t worry so much about word choice. You simply write, unfettered and free of self-censorship. I’m also working on another essay about—surprise—identity and, more specifically, the masks we wear in different facets of our lives, the personas we adopt because we see them as advantageous. It references a movie I’m embarrassed to say is a childhood favorite of mine: The Mask. I was young. Don’t judge me.
Because Mud Season Review grew out of a writing workshop, I have to ask: what has been your worst workshop experience.
I fell asleep once during workshop? I’ve not had a glaringly bad workshop experience! I almost wish I had, because it seems as though all writers have these stories up their sleeves.