Don’t Love Your Characters; See Them: An Interview with Kathleen Alcott

Kathleen Alcott’s upcoming novel, Infinite Home, is excerpted in the newest issue of Recommended Reading. In the interview below, Alcott shares her thoughts on the book, and on her writing process.

Emma Adler: Infinite Home focuses on the non-biological family formed by an eccentric group of tenants. Your first novel, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, also focused on a non-biological family, and asked what drives people to forge familial ties outside of the family of origin. Is this topic is of particular interest to you? Why?

Kathleen Alcott: I find it interesting that this term and ones like it — “non-biological family” “unconventional family” — have come up so much for people describing my work, because it’s not one I’ve put forth, specifically. But my upbringing and young adult life was one long meditation on the nature of family, I suppose. Growing up in Northern California, I often lived with people who were not my family, friends of my mothers and their children, and I was urged both to rely on them and be accountable to them as I would my own blood. Something about this stuck with me, that we could chose closeness and intimacy like that, that these sort of atypical contracts of love were possible. But also, I lost both my parents by my early twenties, and that emphasized for me the obdurate distinction that exists in the real world between friends and family. Even the closest friend or partner cannot tell you how you looked on the day you were born, and sometimes that is very much what we need to be told. Creating and nurturing lasting connection between two people who come from different corners of culture and experience is an elaborate dance, and never as easy as saying, “I choose you, and we’re family now.” The blueprint for devotion has to be redrawn almost constantly.

Adler: The excerpt from Infinite Home published in Recommended Reading contains a wealth of different settings. In thirty pages, we go from an apartment building in Brooklyn, to a McDonalds, to library, to a hippie commune. One thing I was struck by, reading the excerpt, was how you manage to create a very strong sense of place for all of these settings, despite the relatively brief time we spend in each of them. Is this something that you feel comes naturally to you?

Alcott: I have a memory that is very much image-based. Maybe this makes me sound like a lunatic, but I sort of consider it a secret power, that I can be in line at the deli and suddenly be very much confronted by a very clear image of a place I was once, can conjure the texture of the t-shirts people I loved wore, the color of the kitchen tile, the particular type of tree. Sometimes this happens in the middle of something important, unprompted, and at the point I have to just yield to my memory, see what it’s trying to show me. I tend to attach to these sort of environmental details, and so sitting down and writing a fictional (or non-fictional) place, I’m “seeing” in the same way.

Adler: The excerpt focuses on one tenant from the apartment building, Thomas. But in fact, Infinite Home is an ensemble piece that, written in a close-third-person, frequently shifts which character it is “close” to. Do you find it difficult to shuttle between multiple protagonists? Did you develop a particular fondness for one character, or do you love all of your proverbial children about equally?

Alcott: I find the parent/child to author/character analogy a little problematic — my role as a novelist is not first to love my characters but to see them. Because my novels are very much character-driven, my job requires a lot of doubling back, exploring one assumption about a character’s behavior and uncovering an unexpected impetus, adjusting their vocal-physical presence and interior life given new information. That being said, I did find myself writing different sections depending on my own internal pitch. For instance, when I felt burdened by the modern world, I wrote Adeleine, who surrounds herself with antiquated things; when I felt like my agency in my personal life was compromised by grief, I wrote Thomas, whose life has been redefined by a stroke.

Adler: One of the most intriguing set pieces in the excerpt is the commune that Edith’s daughter, Jenny/Song, escapes to, and which is distinguished by the fact that its residents only use speech for one hour each day. Is this based on something from real life? How much research went into figuring out this part of the novel? Are you now on expert on California’s remote ascetic communities (if this is indeed a thing)?

Alcott: I did plenty of research for Infinite Home — about William’s Syndrome, and synchronous fireflies, and the pathology of agoraphobia, among other things — but the commune featured in the book came purely from my mind. One incredible feature of Northern California culture, to me, is the priority given to reinvention. Anyone is allowed and encouraged, at any time, to redefine themselves, to align with this credo or that, and the institutions that inspire a following — are often relatively new, often without historical precedent. Someone I knew was always attending a workshop on communication through ceramics, or escaping into the mountains to walk across coals, or going on a silence hike, or eating only ginger, or learning Qi Gong. On a more specific note, I was thinking about the push of many of the communes/programs/fads. It’s always a step back to the “authentic self,” always an attempt to carve down our identities to their simplest parts, to harvest inner fulfillment and in so doing need less from the external world. In meditation the most difficult part for many people is transferring the placidity of their practice to the rest of the world; yes, you can notice your thoughts and accept them with peace while you’re sitting on a pillow breathing deeply, but can you do that when you’re interacting with the rest of the world, with the sounds of ambulances and with the stack of bills and with the repetitive conflicts that make up close relationships. I created a community that dealt with this issue literally, that attempted to make life pure by reducing the clutter of spoken communication, to effect an ultra-awareness by asking its members to be alone with their thoughts for most of their lives. If a community like this exists somewhere, and if they have the internet and they’re reading this, I’m waiting for my invitation. I’m very happy to be alone with quiet, and also I’m a damn good cook.

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