Interview with the American author Kathleen Alcott
9th Apr 2017
The American writer Kathleen Alcott is shortlisted for her story, Reputation Management. She is the author of the novels Infinite Home and The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets. She discusses the digital sphere that inspired her story and her own social media anxiety with Sophie Haydock
Your story, Reputation Management, deals with very modern themes of alienation and social (media) exposure. What promoted you to write a story like this?
I remember seeing something of a sea change in social media, around 2012 or 2013 or so, when we began using social media less for any ostensible connection than for advertisement – of professional and romantic and social fulfilment. I was a teenager during the dawn of Myspace and a college student during the dawn of Facebook, and the shift later was palpable: we stopped using these services to, say, remind someone of a joke made the night before, or post some hideous boozy photo, or write “I love you” to a friend far away, and instead everything became very curated. This was when we started talking about a social media presence, when we began performing and marketing to our nonspecific followers. This frightened and frightens me. I feel very sensitive to the disjunct between how someone behaves online and in person, and for this reason I’m one of those annoying people who is off Facebook for years at a time, missing party invitations and wedding photos as a consequence.
The other technological shift that’s part of this story is the change in how news is delivered, which was something that was on my mind a great deal. I felt very aware of a habit I had developed of reading what was essentially the same article again and again, just for whichever slight developments had been knitted into the original text, and it was an addiction. I suppose I wanted to explore what that does to our sense of reality and our capacity for empathy: does the constant influx of information into our private lives makes us better equipped to make moral judgments and assert our values, or less?
How would you describe your style of writing for people who haven’t read your work before?
Can a swimmer describe how she looks when she swims? Does she have any idea how the water appears on her arms or her face? Probably not. Probably she can only say how it felt there. So I can only say that when I’m writing I feel very attuned to syntax, to how sentences are built and further to how they are situated near each other, and how that changes them. I’m sure no one has ever called my work “spare” or “lean”, which I’m fine with, as I identify as neither.
How much do you draw on your own experience for your fiction? Can any of you stories be said to be autobiographical? (Have you ever gone viral for all the wrong reasons?)
Certain bits of Reputation Management were inspired by a remote freelance copywriting job I held for a few years, but nothing that unfolds in this story was anything I personally witnessed. In general, there is always some emotional truth to my story, a fear or want I share with a character, but usually the action or situation that examines that fear or want on behalf of my character is different. I have never, knock wood, gone viral, for good or bad reason, although once in high school, when YouTube was new, someone caught me falling over while dancing to a certain new wave hit, and the 20 people who saw it would not stop discussing it, and no, you can’t have the link!
Is it necessary as an author “to write about what you know”?
Absolutely not! I would happily serve as pallbearer at the funeral of this idea.
Do authors have an obligation to make a meaningful point about the times we live in?
I think about this often. I think the concern for writers should not be the degree to which modernity is felt or present, but the degree to which the human condition is interpolated through a means that feels fresh. Sometimes the answer to that might be a technological or sociopolitical phenomenon that is tied to the current era, and sometimes it might be something that is not new at all, a moth in the room or a photo that can’t be explained.
What drew you to writing in the first place, and what keeps you there?
Both of my parents were reporters, and they encouraged me to write as often as I could as soon as I could. I have been making my (very lower-middle class) living this way since I was 21 and I truly have no other skills. I could not explain to you how the telephone works or how to begin building a house, even if it would save the world’s first talking elephant.
Why, in particular, do you enjoy the short story form? What makes it compelling?
Short fiction tightens the leash between style and idea, creating an artistic claustrophobia that allows for a lapidary process, one which always leaves me with a clear idea of what the story needs to do, and the tools at my disposal. I always finish a short story and return to a novel with a vivid sense of where my talents lie and where they are most lacking, so the form, apart from its separate narrative offerings, works as a brutal and necessary exam of my competence.
What short story would you tell us all to go out and read, immediately?
My answer to this changes all the time. These are some I have recently taught: James Salter’s Twenty Minutes, Mary Gaitskill’s The Other Place, Kathleen Collins’ Only Once.
Do you have any tips for success? How have you done it and what advice would you give to others?
I suppose if you asked me I would say I was not successful in any outsized capacity; I would tell you I was surviving. This is probably what gets me up in the morning. There is no imprimatur, but we work for it nonetheless.
And finally, is there anything you’d like to say about your experience of being shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award?
The saintly people that love me are always rolling their eyes at how cruel I can be about my own work, and the Short Story Award has made me feel, possibly for the very first time, that the luck I’ve had thus far has not been a total and shimmery fluke. I got the news while I was spending some months alone in the woods, and I was so happy that I drove immediately to the ocean and forgot to think for the rest of the day.
Photograph: Michael Leviton