Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Interview with Alex Kudera Part 2

Here is the second and concluding part of my interview with Alex Kudera, author of Fight For Your Long Day and Auggie's Revenge.
EG: Both of your adjuncts, Cyrus and Michael, lament how their love of books and knowledge never helped them much in their professional and romantic lives.  Do you think being "well read" in the 21st century is considered a superfluous skill in the age of Wikipedia and Google?
AK: That’s a possibility, certainly, particularly for mainstream Americans, but there is still a somewhat sizeable demographic who will take time for a good book. Sometimes we are so busy that it is not always easy to find the other people who read. There are groups for book discussions and writers, both traditional ones that meet in person as well social-media circles and groups. I don’t think the search engines are bad in themselves. I think they can complement being well read.
Being somewhat well read, or at least widely read, may be all I have going for me, and at least I have that. I’ve worked in bookstores where you meet many people who are not always writers of any kind, but they read regularly. One good friend worked in a Borders for over 20 years and was more widely read than many English teachers I know, partly because he didn’t have scores of students and papers to grade. We can find readers, but it may take effort finding readers with similar tastes. Certainly, because I teach general education, I’m often in a room of young people who will read, but would not ordinarily read a novel.
EG: Statistics indicate students generally avoid liberal arts degrees like the plague.  What can be done to revive student interest in the liberal arts?
AK: Again, I think the intervention would have to occur earlier, well before high school, and most likely, we would have to connect citizenship in a democracy with literacy. Literacy levels were higher in some democratic periods in various countries than they are today in America.
Liberal arts majors are considered “fall back” majors, a major to choose if the more obviously practical majors aren’t working out or interesting to a particular student. It seems to me, however, that a minor in foreign language or professional writing could be a great way for a student to separate from the pack in any more obviously vocational major.
EG: Your title character Auggie, a pick up artist who preys on coeds, justifies his misogyny and racism because he had an abusive stepfather. I felt like Auggie's twisted logic tapped into a dark side of the American character, the idea that being a victim gives one license to victimize others, resulting in a chain reaction of cruelty.  Do you see the "I was screwed over, so I will screw people over" ethos casting a deeper shadow on American society these days?
AK: Yes, I do see the kind of society you describe, to some extent, and it is one that seems to run counter to all the babies and kittens and niceness we see on Facebook and other social media. But in the case of Auggie, I don’t think it is necessarily logic at all, not even twisted logic. In fact, I’ve read that upwards of 90% of American prisoners were in some ways themselves victims, and I am guessing that people who are victims of sexual abuse who do not become victimizers or otherwise traumatized from the events have particularly strong character or strong support networks. Money, access to counselling, positive environments, etc., plays a role here.
But Auggie, the character certainly does rationalize his choices, and Michael has some ability to recognize what may be wrong with “enabling” Auggie’s racism and other negative traits even as he grows attached to Auggie and the idea of helping him exact revenge.
EG: A recent New York Times Magazine story pointed out that working class characters have vanished from television.  Overall do you think class issues are being adequately addressed in contemporary American fiction?
AK: I think that I’m addressing class issues, and that there are other writers doing so as well, but it’s not clear to me that the reading public is highly aware of our books. Also, “contemporary American fiction” is a wide category, and most of us wind up “specializing” in a particular set of authors, so it’s hard to answer the question. I’m not sure, but I hope readers engage with the working-class characters of my books.
EG: Why are Americans so reluctant to rationally discuss issues of class?
AK: That’s a very good question and also one I cannot easily answer. What I’m seeing right now seems to be some sort of  class-based revolt within each major political party, and the news typically refers to the “base” not poorer, working, or disenfranchised Republicans or Democrats. That the bases seem to be revolting separately, and not as a class of their own, seems to indicate that the “divide and conquer” strategy, even if not an intended one exactly, will continue to make it difficult for less affluent groups in America.
EG: The epigraph from Fight For Your Long Day is a quote from Rousseau's Social Contract: "Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains.  One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they."  Cyrus and Michael are pursuing freedom in their own way.  How would you describe their conception of freedom?
AK: I’m not even certain either character has a conception of “freedom”—neither one seems genuinely free in the novels, that’s for sure although they each have their moments of freedom—Cyrus takes time to attend his birthday party and “get paid to read” in a campus bookstore and library during his security-guard shift. Despite being on the run after murder, Michael has a surprising amount of mobility around town. They were each seduced by the intellectual life, and then began to see what it led to, as far as teaching around town and cobbling together a living. It seems as if the life of the mind was not a path to freedom beyond material constraints, that’s for sure.
EG: One last question: Cyrus Duffleman is mentioned a few times in Auggie's Revenge. Any chance everyone's favorite adjunct will return?
AK: I have 115 pages of rough draft of a sequel to Fight for Your Long Day. It is based on a mythical football powerhouse in the South although I’m not certain to what extent readers would recognize it as any place I’ve taught these past nine years. Its working title, A New Life, is a tribute to Bernard Malamud’s academic novel of the same name, a book which was a finalist for the National Book Award the year the winner was The Moviegoer by Walker Percy and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates was also a finalist. That was 1962, and by coincidence I’m reading another 1962 NBA finalist right now, a somewhat forgotten novel, The Pawnbroker by Edward Lewis Wallant, a book which like Fight for Your Long Day is strong in race and class in urban America.

A big thanks to Alex for agreeing to do the interview. You learn more about Alex and his work at http://kudera.blogspot.com/2015/04/beating-windward-press.html and on twitter @Kudera

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Interview with Alex Kudera Part 1

This the first of a two part interview with author Alex Kudera. Kudera's debut novel, Fight For Your Long Day (2010 Atticus Books) looked at 21st Century Higher Education from the viewpoint of an adjunct instructor of writing.  Fight For Your Long Day won the 2011 Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the Mid-Atlantic Region.  His second novel Auggie's Revenge (2016 Beating Windward Press) features another adjunct protagonist with an unorthodox circle of friends who lead him into criminal activity.  Mr. Kudera has also published the e-singles The Betrayal of Times of Prosperity (Gone Do Press), Frade Killed Ellen (Dutch Kills Press) , and Turquoise Truck (Mendicant Bookworks).

EG: Your first novel Fight for Your Long Day followed protagonist Cyrus Duffleman, a put upon adjunct instructor of composition, through a surreal day in the city of Philadelphia. Since the novel was published in 2010 have you noticed any change in public perception on the issues facing adjuncts who must contend with low salaries, zero benefits, and no job security?
AK: Yes, I think there is a greater public understanding of the issues although I’m not certain if the majority of the public has an exact opinion on it. I think that Trump and Sanders are both doing as well as they are because a large portion of the public is not satisfied with the status quo. They see an American workforce that includes 35% contingent positions (that stat includes one to three-year lecturer or “teaching professor” contracts as contingent, I’m pretty sure), a median household net worth of about 80 grand (I’ve seen this as low as 50 grand, and then it is higher if you only include white or Asian households), and a workforce participation rate that has stayed lower than it was before the Great Recession began—between 62 and 63 percent for most of Obama’s eight years (in fact, perhaps surprisingly, it was several points higher during the better years of the W. Bush Presidency).
The adjunct problem is very much related to these more general trends, and that is one reason I have Cyrus work as part-time night-shift security guard at the end of his day—so we can think about the relationship of contingent professors to other contract workers. I think such partnerships would be valuable although academic contingents are often coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds compared to people who guard the campuses, warehouses, or anywhere else.
On the other hand, a more pessimistic view is that regular workers (the rest of America) has a lot of trouble of seeing adjunct instructors at all—the campuses themselves often appear to be booming—professional (haha) or almost professional-level sports, constant construction (sometimes the only construction in a college town is on campus or to build places for students and employees to live) that it is hard to even imagine any worker on those campuses as “marginalized” or impoverished.
Also, to clarify, as is common for many adjuncts, Duffy teaches three different courses during his long day, and one is first-year writing (composition more or less but the specific section in the novel is on the argument essay), and the two others are business writing and 20th century Eastern European and Russian literature. That is, or was, very realistic when I was an adjunct—because the wages are so low, if an adjunct seems eager and able, a wide range of courses may be available.
EG: In Auggie's Revenge, your follow up to Fight For Your Long Day, we are introduced to adjunct teacher of philosophy Michael Vittinger, but the focus is more on his life outside the classroom. Was this a conscious creative decision on your part?
AK: For Auggie’s Revenge, I had both Michael and Auggie at first, and the Auggie character was the dominant one when I first imagined the book. But then I began writing from the perspective of Michael and soon after introduced Jonny November’s voice which was a fun one for me and so radically different from my day-to-day life as a teacher and parent—unless we consider that Jonny is Auggie’s teacher and parent. In fact, a few of the Auggie voice sections were among the last sections I drafted, and Melony Sorbet’s voice was also a relatively late add although I had those four characters as the main four characters from very early on.
I don’t think I saw it exactly as “inside v. outside,” but I’m glad you noticed this. I never intended to become an “adjunct novelist,” not exclusively anyway; I’ve always had different ideas for different books although adjunct novels seem to be what I can get published right now. Although there may be mentions of universities in my other works, I hope to publish an early surreal urban novel, Spark Park, a car-sales novel, and a memoir about my father’s life and his relationship to my immigrant grandfather who served his country during both world wars. I’m not against returning to the classroom for fiction though.
EG: Both novels are set in Philadelphia, a diverse city, and your novels never shy away from how ethnic and racial tensions can manifest themselves in the classroom.  Should college instructors be better prepared for teaching in diverse classrooms?
AK: It’s a funny question because, yes, absolutely, and ideally, all college instructors should get paid diversity training, and yet, we aren’t even at the point where every college student in America knows who their teacher will be two weeks before classes start. Also, I should say that although Philadelphia is diverse, I taught at one school where it would not be uncommon to have an almost all white or only white and Asian (often South Asian) class. In the South I had many different sections of up to 34 students that would often include only one black student or two black students and one “HAPA” student or something like that. So some of the college classrooms I’ve been have been incredibly homogeneous—vast majority white to entirely white.
I’d like to note that, yes, Philadelphia is diverse, but even in 2016, it doesn’t compare to New York City’s diversity. In Philly we have entrenched poverty (the highest rate of “deep poverty” of any major city), and we still have strong non-immigrant black and white populations. America’s larger cities, such as DC, San Francisco, and New York City, are far more expensive than Philadelphia, and they also have a far greater representation of the global economic elites. So they say it is possible to walk through Manhattan and see a representative of every nation on earth, but you won’t see American black people. Philadelphia is very different, more ethnically traditional and our metro-region Latino and Asian populations by percentage are not nearly as great as they are in California or New York City.
EG: Do you have any favorite fictional teachers or professors?

AK: Peter Mickelsson of John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts was the character that got me thinking that an academic protagonist didn’t have to be “loveable” or an obvious antagonist to be the central figure in an academic novel, or any novel. Murray Siskind a supporting character from White Noise is one I’ve liked, and the scenes of all the professors of American Environments testing each other (“Did you ever brush your teeth with your finger?, etc.) make me laugh. I like the professor as central figure in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein although again, it is not that these protagonist academics are exactly “likeable” in every way. The latter is based on Allan Bloom, author ofThe Closing of the American Mind, and the narrator of that book may very well be a fictional character of sorts. It’s quite engaging, even if one doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Bloom.

EG: In Auggie's Revenge we meet a character named Jonny November who goes on hilarious and sometimes poignant rants on America being one giant Ponzi scheme. His persona reminded me of George Carlin.   Did anyone in particular inspire the creation of Jonny?
AK: I wasn’t thinking of Carlin specifically although I recognize that some of Jonny’s scenes would work well as set pieces apart from the novel. I love novels where a central male character does not fit in with society (from Fred Exley to Dan and John Fante to many different protagonists of Saul Bellow novels), and I think Jonny, Auggie, and Michael are all misfits in different ways. From film, I was thinking a little bit about the character Alan Arkin played in Little Miss Sunshine, the older guy who will spit it out, knowing and not caring that he may offend some listeners and readers. Maybe David Mamet’s films or plays also relate to Jonny’s personality although Jonny is more slapstick, too, and it’s great to hear you found some of it hilarious. Thank you.

EG: While both novels focus on adjuncts, I think they also explore some of the deeper systemic issues facing higher education.  For example, a four year degree no longer guarantees entry into the middle class.  To quote Jonny November:
Don't let them fool you.  Jobs? Careers? Yes, for the top kids, the well trained ones with the brains upstairs, it all works out, particularly if they smile endlessly and work their parents' connections. But for the rest of us.  No fucking way are we gonna leave college with anything other than egregious debt . . . If you're like me, and the system is already stacked against you, against most of us, then college is not the right move.
What are some systemic changes higher education needs to make for it stay viable in the 21st century?
AK: First of all, let me say that the novel is fiction, and Jonny is a character in the novel, and I am trying to capture a personality, and also explore some possibilities that I could feel and see when I began teaching in the late nineties, and that are beginning to get wider visibility, often with statistical proof, twenty years later. Right now though, it is still more of a “let the buyer beware” sort of problem, and unfortunately I have a feeling that the more financial aid the student requires, on average, the less likely they are to have access to the best information when choosing a college or major or deciding to attend at all.
There is also luck involved as well as far as how good or bad the economy is when one graduates. Graduating into the early nineties recession gave me some insight into how bad things can be for college grads in general although it seems like things might be worse, on average, since the much more recent “Great Recession.” I suspect that many high schools and their guidance counsellors are beginning to acknowledge the exorbitant costs, and are doing even more to guide students into colleges and majors that are more likely to lead to financial security.
If we are talking about systemic changes without regard to how to pay for them, then the intervention would be most fair, that would support democracy and the greatest number would likely occur well before college.  Make sure kids from pre-K on are getting access to the resources they need to one day make a smart decision about college, and also make sure that decision is not negatively impacted by finances of parents. That would be the ideal, that even the poorest American would be in position to choose a degree for the sake of learning. As a country, and a world, we are amazingly far away from that kind of thing.

What we are doing right now is applying “patches” to the problem, so yes we have some decent loan forgiveness programs that have been improved several times since 2007, but there is not a tremendous amount of publicity about these programs. Because adjuncts are part of the larger trend of contract work (the aforementioned 35%), single-payer health coverage would likely be the best thing for this 35% (and others), but we have patches through ACA, and it seems like they are effective for many, but worse for some in some ways.

You can visit Alex's Blog at http://kudera.blogspot.com/.

(Part Two of my interview with Alex will post next week)

Friday, May 6, 2016

My Rules for Reading: There are None!

Francis Bacon: One of the most creative readers ever.
I suppose I am about to give some bad advice.  So what. Who am I to argue with the internet?  You see, I sense a new breed of digital gurus, you know the Ted Talks/Google visionaries with seemingly benevolent agendas, at least on the surface. It's just that they have a passive aggressive/condescending way of hashing out advice with phrases like "10 things you don't know", "here's what you should do to be like me because I am suckcessful and you're not." You know what I mean.

Recently the Open Culture Website posted "7 Tips for Reading More in a Year" from creativity prophet Austin Kleon who, unbeknownst to me, unlocked the secrets of creativity artists have hidden from the empty headed masses for centuries.  He read 70 books a year.  That's awesome DUDE!   His advice is practical: less time on phone, budget your book buying, always carry a book, stop reading a book if you don't like, read hour of non-fiction (on the commute), read in bed, review the books and share them.  Very Nice.

Francis Bacon on reading: "Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly."

Yes! I would encourage such an anarchic approach to reading.  Reading books from cover to cover is for the birds. 

I once heard an anecdote about Stanley Kubrick.  His assistants said he would be in his office all day reading novels. He would typically read a pages and move on to the next one. Kubrick kept going going until something piqued his interest.  That's not a bad approach. To quote Will Hunting read "whatever blows your hair back."

As I get older, I have many books laying around. Maybe poetry, short fiction, novels, a biography, comic book, a monograph, reference books, anthologies - ephemera and classics stand side by side as equals.  

Do I read any of them cover to cover?  Sometimes. Skimming is underrated, a valuable skill. It's not about the quantity of books one reads, it's what you get out of them.  Like Indiana Jones said, "It's not the years, its the mileage."

Mash it all together!  Read Faulkner by day, Emily Bronte by evening, Stephen King by night - or do it backwards. Whatever works.  Sample a bit of everything and see what you like.  Don't go by the official canon, make up your own!

Be undisciplined.  

The internet's full of really cool people telling you what to do. Don't listen to them, just do what feels right. Read wherever or whenever you feel like it! You're in good company!