“The Maze Becomes Your Life”: An Interview with Alex McElroy – Michigan Quarterly Review

“The Maze Becomes Your Life”: An Interview with Alex McElroy

I first met author and essayist Alex McElroy at the Writing Workshops in Greece retreat last year. Alex was serving as a fellow and advisor, along with his equally talented and eccentrically lovable wife, Allegra Hyde. Every few nights or so, students were invited to attend a reading by one of the faculty members. I remember the night of Alex’s reading leaving a deep impression in me. He’d read an essay about his and Allegra’s past year living in Bulgaria. The prose was intensely honest, gorgeously crafted, and sprinkled with a balance of wit and wisdom.

Alex now has his own chapbook, Daddy Issues, published by The Cupboard Pamphlet in September 2017. I couldn’t be more excited for his unique voice and style to be in book shape.

The first story, “Death of a Son: A Flowchart,” is just that — a flow chart! And yet this highly innovative and interactive structure reads just like a standard poetic narrative. The experimental format reminded me of the PowerPoint chapter in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the flow chart idea, and why you think flow charts are a workable format for fiction? 

Strangely enough, the inspiration for the piece didn’t involve a flow chart at all. I was in the library reading and heard, in my mind, the dialogue of the piece, its questions and the refrain of “Your Son is Alive.” I couldn’t get that voice out of my head for the rest of the day. I kept thinking about how to structure that dialogue into a story. I can’t remember, either, how the flow chart form occurred to me. It likely had something to do with my reading of Jennifer Egan. I read A Visit from the Goon Squad a year before writing the flow chart story, and I suspect my subconscious spent that time thinking through the book, until it came to inspire my story. Egan’s work, and the work of writers like Georges Perec, Anders Monson, Lydia Davis, and others all prove that stories can succeed in just about any form. The literary journal DIAGRAM, where “The Death of Your Son” first appeared, is known for publishing formally-inventive stories.

Your micro-piece, “My First Memory,” blurs the lines between magical realism and realism, and has a stark lack of sentimentality seldom seen in common tellings of family memories. What is the earliest memory of your life that you can remember? Is it as crazy and disturbing as the one described in your piece? 

My earliest memory is actually pretty similar to the one described in “My First Memory.” The authenticity of the memory is questionable — my mother, after reading the piece, didn’t remember anything like it — but it seems purer, in my mind, because it cannot be corroborated. Many of my early memories are stories about me that I absorbed from family members’ retellings. But the memory that inspired this piece has always seemed valid to me because it cannot be endorsed by anyone else. I understand it’s unwise to privilege emotions over fact — see a certain voting bloc’s continued allegiance to the president — but one of the primary aims of writing, I think, is to convey emotional truth, which is what I attempted in this story.

The last piece of the book and the title story, “Daddy Issues,” is a genre-bending story in list format, which cycles through different fathers in the world and the unique issues they are facing. Do you think there is such a thing as a universal “daddy” issue? If so, what is it and how can/do men cope with it?

Well, I’m not a father, so I can’t really speak to what issues fathers face from the inside. If there is a universal “daddy” issue, however, it’s how to act in a way that defies the patriarchal idea that men should not be compassionate, humble, or empathetic. How does a father — or any man — learn to be kind and generous when men are expected to take whatever they want and to act in ways that put society at risk? Unfortunately, we’re currently stuck with a president who champions just about every despicable aspect of masculinity: cruelty, ignorance, sexism, narcissism, greed. So it’s becoming especially important for men to actively work toward envisioning and embodying versions of masculinity distinct from the patriarchal manhood reinforced by much of American culture.

How has your own relationship to fathers changed throughout your life? 

I’ve had many fathers over the years. My parents split up when I was a baby, and I only saw my biological father every few weeks. I loved him immensely, for all the wrong reasons — because he was absent, because he bought me things when I saw him — and my feelings for him over the years have shifted from total admiration to bitterness to acceptance of his flaws and good qualities. My mother dated other men and married other men as I was growing up, so I got to experience different types of fathers during adolescence. But now, I don’t really interact with people as fathers that often. As a kid, most male adults are either your father, a father-figure, or a friend’s father, and now, fatherhood is a secondary characteristic I only learn about someone after I already know them. It’s as if fathers have disappeared from my life.

I’m intrigued by your chapbook’s design: the plum color backgrounding an intricate and wildly hypnotic maze pattern. How do you see the concept of “the maze” as a visual representation for the stories within? 

Yes, I love the cover too! The editors at The Cupboard Pamphlet, Todd Seabrook and Kelly Dulaney, did an excellent job designing it. And I think “the maze” offers an appropriate representation of the stories. I don’t know if you’ve tried completing the maze on the cover, but I’m pretty sure you can’t get to the center, which I love as a metaphor for my stories and for great stories in general. The fun of any maze is knowing that, however lost you may get, there is a way out. However, in a good story, there is no way out. You enter. The maze becomes your life.

Who are your creative influences? 

The Swiss modernist, Robert Walser, is far and away my favorite writer. But there are too, too many. I love Eileen Myles for the unexpected movements of their prose, same for the Argentinian writer César Aira. Both eloquently capture the flight of the mind in the process of thinking. Alexandra Kleeman’s work has meant a lot to me, too. And I’d be nowhere without the writing of Renee Gladman, Helen DeWitt, Valeria Luiselli, and Thomas Bernhard. And though it came out way too late to have influenced Daddy Issues, Gabe Habash’s Stephen Florida hasn’t left my mind since I read it earlier this summer.

What future projects are on your horizon? 

I’m currently at work on a novel about forgiveness and cults, but it’s a bit early to get into too many details. I will say that it expands on many themes and ideas that appear in the collection, and I’m also working on essays that think through similar themes.

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