A Conversation with ALICIA ERIAN
Author of the collection of short stories THE BRUTAL LANGUAGE OF LOVE
Q: In your collection of short stories, The Brutal Language of Love, you write of women who struggle with their own choices-sexual and otherwise. In what ways do you imagine your audience connecting with these women?
I was getting my legs waxed the other day, and the woman I go to was talking about her rambunctious teenage years in Minsk. "I did a lot of stupid things when I was younger," she said. "I mean, very stupid, you know?" I said I understood, since I had been equally foolish. We both agreed, without revealing what we had done, that in some cases, we were lucky to be alive. I'm hoping it's these types of events-the ones we're a little too embarrassed to share in detail because they were, in fact, somewhat dangerous-that an audience will connect with. I hope people will read the book and feel they are not alone in their youthful indiscretions, as George Bush might say. I would like to add, if I may, that George Bush is my target audience.
Q: You consistently place your characters in provocative situations, but they always seem to have the upper hand. How do you view these women?
I don't actually see my female characters as having the upper hand, generally speaking. It is true, however, that they have a tendency to refuse the option of heavy remorse. It's not that they don't know the difference between right and wrong, because I believe they do. However, I am always very impressed by people who don't discard their experiences simply because they might be deemed "shameful." This was one of my favorite things about Monica Lewinsky. No matter how much people abused her, no matter how many times they tried to get her to confess that she was mortified by herself, she basically refused. I mean, she had an affair with Bill Clinton and it meant the world to her, clearly. I'm sure she now has a sense of the inappropriateness of what happened (though I would hope he has a much greater sense), but why-in her own mind-should she have to toss the whole thing out, disavowing herself in the process? She did it because at the time, it meant something to her, right or wrong. She's paid the price, and that should absolutely not have to include relinquishing any personal memories that bring her joy.
Q: The male characters in your stories figure prominently, but provide mainly, as you have said, "friction and relief, often in the form of the same character." How do men react to your stories?
Well, my husband loves them, but he's the tiniest bit biased. My friend Bill also loves them, especially the ones containing graphic sex. For that same reason, they seem to make my brother a little nervous, which is probably understandable. My agent, Peter, says they disturb him, surprise him, and that one almost made him cry. Except for my friends Graig and Kevin, who like them very much but perhaps wish I was slightly more ladylike, those are pretty much all the men I know.
Q: In one story, an American woman marries an Egyptian man to prove she is not a racist. Your father is Egyptian. Did your parents' marriage inspire this narrative in any way?
My mother has a stash of humorous stories describing her early days with my father, and "Bikini" is very loosely based on one of them. I just took the liberty of completely politicizing it. I would like to say for the record, though, that my mother was a total babe when she was in her twenties, and she did in fact purchase one of the first bikinis upstate New York had ever seen.
Q: Do you see yourself in any of these women?
Yes, all of them. And the men. And several of the animals. The woman I feel closest to is probably Gilda in "On the Occasion of My Ruination," in that she's so confused about how things are supposed to be done. I think it really shocks her that she can't be overtly proud of herself for losing her virginity. She has no idea that there's actually a sort of emotional protocol, at least if you're a woman. I often have this sense of experiencing things "wrong." I laugh too loud, cry at inopportune moments, and get mad about dumb things. I think a lot of my characters serve to keep me company in this.
Q: Many writers use the short story as "training wheels" for their novel. What is your relationship to the short story?
I adore the short story and would never want to hurt its feelings by telling it this! For me, the challenge of short fiction is to really stretch the idea of how much can happen, plot-wise, without overwhelming the form. I like when things happen.
Q: Could you name a few novelists whose work interests you at the moment, or who have had an influence on your work?
I like John Irving very much. And my professor from SUNY Binghamton, John Vernon. Both of these men know well how to write about women and the human body, which is something I appreciate. I absolutely loved J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace. Quite honestly, I read way more non-fiction than fiction. I like very embarrassing and/or harrowing memoirs. I like to learn from the way people reveal themselves, then apply those lessons to my fiction. My favorite recent biographies were John Colapinto's As Nature Made Him, and Gitta Sereny's Cries Unheard.
Q: Did you always want to be a writer?
Anne Lamott once said that aside from writing, she was completely unemployable. I can relate to this. When I got to college, I looked at all the possible courses I could take, and was relieved to finally see Creative Writing on the list. My feeling was that I could probably sucker someone into giving me a decent grade for this. I don't think it really occurred to me to be a writer until my professor expressed admiration for the fact that my first story was seventeen pages long, whereas everyone else's in the class was around four. It wasn't a good story or anything, but clearly I had stamina! My idea was that this would see me through.
Q: Are you working on anything new?
I've just finished my second collection of short stories, The Finer Points of Men, and am now at work on a novel, tentatively titled Welcome to the Moral Universe. As well, my husband, David Franklin, just directed a short film I wrote for him, called Contestant. It tells the story of a young man who is so wrapped up in preparing to go on a quiz show that he inadvertently insults his Palestinian barber, who has more pressing political concerns. David and I also hope to co-direct a feature film I wrote, Walk Like an Egyptian, at some point in the near future. This one is about a half-Egyptian young woman and her slightly younger brother who must escort their abusive father's body back to Cairo after he dies. There they discover, to their great surprise, that the rest of his family is nothing like him, and that it may not be wise to reject their Arab culture simply because of one bad seed.
From the Hardcover edition.