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

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