How to Write in a Misogynist’s Voice
Alex Gilvarry talks with Karim Dimechkie about channeling the midcentury ‘major novelist’ voice to create an anti-hero
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Alex Gilvarry’s highly acclaimed debut, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, has been followed up by a dark, funny, page-turning novel called, Eastman Was Here. The story follows the misadventures of an unforgettable antihero: Alan Eastman.
It’s 1973 and Eastman is a washed-up writer, public intellectual, cultural critic, and philander whose wife just walked out on him. Now in the depths of personal crisis, he believes the only way to win back his wife — while simultaneously proving to the world that he’s still that great American novelist from twenty years earlier — is to exhibit his virility by flying to Saigon and covering the end of the Vietnam War as a war journalist. I had the chance to chat with Alex about how he fleshed out this thrilling book and how he reflects on some of the larger issues it touches upon.
Karim Dimechkie: I’ve got to say, I was pretty confused by how much I cared for your main character. He is immature, brutish, misogynist, hypocritical, irresponsible, and exists far beyond the acceptable baseline of human selfishness. Yet I loved being around him, read the book every chance I could and thought fondly of him when I couldn’t. The humor in the story certainly helps, but there’s something else happening here. Is it his transparency? The fact that we always have a sense of the insecurities and wounds lingering behind his brash behavior? Whatever it is, it inspired an inexplicably compassionate read from me. Can you talk about how you developed such a layered character and if your feelings about him changed over the course of making this book? Do you find him as improbably likable as I do?
Alex Gilvarry: What you’re talking about is how I feel about some of my favorite characters. Rabbit Angstrom. Why do I feel for that man? He’s all the things you say Eastman is — immature, irresponsible, a misogynist, and then I can’t help but care. That is, in the realm of Updike’s Brewer, Pennsylvania. I don’t care for misogynists and womanizers at all. Same thing with Raphael Nachman, Leonard Michael’s sort of alter-ego in his Nachman stories. God, I love Nachman. I love seeing both these characters fail miserably. I suppose I was thinking of this type of man when I imagined Alan Eastman, a fading war correspondent, a big “man” of a writer in the Hemingway sense. And then I tried to make him as real as possible…show how our urges conflict with our values. Show the lies we tell ourselves daily. Sometimes, I think you need to allow your characters to do some very bad things. That’s how I wanted Eastman to be. My feelings did change as I began to make things up. When you allow your characters to do bad things, you have to reconcile those in order for the reader to understand. When they stop understanding, they should put down the book.
KD: I can relate to wanting to see Eastman fail, but it was entirely out of a desire to see him learn rather than wanting for his punishment. Again, the miraculous contradiction of this character for me is that he somehow still feels like a good guy while not being much of a good guy.
AG: Yes, of course, you’re right. But I don’t think, in my way of working, I was conscious of him learning from his mistakes. Or that I intended him to learn or change in the beginning. On a first draft I’m just trying to make somebody seem real, and in that process I’m more unconscious of how to resolve events and character arcs if that makes any sense. In later drafts and especially working with my editor, I can think of the reader and what they want from the story. And either give them what they want or withhold it.
KD: I want to talk about the humor. This book isn’t just hilarious, there’s a profundity to the comedy. It’s a means of depth and increased vulnerability. Can you talk about how you see the role of humor in your work, and why some writers seem to deliberately avoid using it in theirs?
AG: I think you risk not being taken seriously when you write humor or satire. I’m not complaining. That’s just the way it is. And believe me, if I could write me an All the Light You Cannot See I would. I’d write it all the way to the bank! A lot of novelists avoid humor, like sex. What happened to sex? Both those things went out the window after the ‘80s. I suppose humor can be misunderstood too easily. It can also undercut the emotion of a scene. Which could interfere with what readers want out of a book. So that’s when I’ll edit something out, when it’s messing with what’s going on or the purpose of a scene or moment. I used to think every line needed to be funny. I’m moving away from that now. Drama is hard for me. That’s where the challenge really is.
And there are many writers with a great sense of humor. Francine Prose, Mary Gaitskill, Rivka Galchen, Gabe Hudson, Paul Beatty, Sam Lipsyte, my wife Alexandra Kleeman…you, Karim Dimechkie. Enough to keep my reading list full each year.
A lot of novelists avoid humor, like sex. What happened to sex? Both those things went out the window after the ‘80s.
KD: Okay, allow me to backpedal a little and get some of the basics down. How did the book originate? When did you realize you had a novel on your hands, and how long did it take to finish?
AG: The book is partially inspired by Norman Mailer. I found myself at his house in Provincetown, writing my first novel, as part of the Norman Mailer Writers Colony. I was doing my homework because I wasn’t very familiar with Mailer’s work, just his persona. While there, I read in a biography that Mailer was asked by the New York Herald to go to Vietnam, to follow marines, but the deal fell apart and he never went. Like much of his short non-fiction, I imagined he would have eventually turned it into a book. What would it have been like? The idea never left me. And knowing how Mailer worked, this book would probably be more about himself than Vietnam.
So I started thinking about a roman à clef based on Norman Mailer’s life. That’s how Eastman was born. But it took awhile to figure out how it should be written. And once I read The Armies of the Night, where Mailer writes about himself in the third person, I knew — that’s how I’ll do it. There’s something so brash about that. The book took three years to write, which isn’t so bad. And this one I did in four drafts, which I think means it wasn’t too problematic as a manuscript.
KD: There’s this wonderful way you pepper in your research without it reading like research at all. I saw it in the dated language (i.e. “Now, you listen here…”), and in the subtle, perfectly placed details that triggered my brain to flesh out worlds I’ve never known: Vietnam, Hawaii, New York in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. You also place us in the company of characters who have professions I’m assuming you have no first hand experience with — war journalists and army generals to name a few. How and at what phase in the writing process did you conduct and implement the research?
AG: I research at the beginning, really. When I’m figuring out what I want to write about. In a period novel I’m looking for language and texture. Good details I’ve never read or seen before. Outdated language. I wanted my book to sound like it had been written in the 1970s — that was most important. When I read fiction about a certain period from the past and it sounds like it was written yesterday I don’t buy it. I had trouble with Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest for that exact reason. The Nazis sounded like a bunch of Brits.
I went to the Harry Ransom Center in Texas to look through Norman Mailer’s letters. In a letter to his first wife, Bea, during WWII, she used the term “salt petered.” That’s the stuff from the past I was looking for. I let all those expressions soak in for a few years.
I knew it was integral that I go to Vietnam, so I did, and stayed in the Continental where a lot of the book is set.
My father is a vet of the Vietnam War. He enlisted early, I think in 1964. He planted his stories in my head at an early age. We went to see all the war movies together and we still do. Next week we’re going to see Dunkirk. When I was eight years old he took me to see Full Metal Jacket. I didn’t understand it at all. I still remember wanting to cover my ears.
Oh, and Michael Herr worked on that script whose book Dispatches I read while researching. What a great book. There. Full circle.
When I read fiction about a certain period from the past and it sounds like it was written yesterday I don’t buy it.
KD: It feels like every scene in the book has conflict, large or small. They each have their own arc while also contributing to the central narrative. I’m wondering whether you have some scene-building philosophy. Do you have any rules regarding what one of your scenes must accomplish?
AG: Not really. I studied playwriting in college, so maybe some of that has stuck with me. There needs to be dramatic tension, of course. And in some of those playwriting exercises, I remember they would press you to introduce a third character, just to complicate matters. But I don’t think in terms of what characters want from the other and vice versa like a dramatist. I do, however, know when I get stuck in a scene, which happens frequently, I will realize “Oh, that’s because I only have one person in this shitty scene.” And to get things moving, I just need another character to enter the room for things to happen. That’s the only thing I’m conscious of in my scene method. Put in more characters.
KD: Let’s talk about the misogyny in Eastman’s character. One of the unsettling moments in the book is when he lectures a supremely talented journalist about why the world won’t want to read her war novel. We later learn that, above all, Eastman is threatened by her being “the real deal.” I’m curious about how you reflect on what he says about U.S. readership not wanting a war novel from a woman, and what he is claiming the publishing industry does and does not want to help out into the world.
AG: The world was a sexist place in 1973. The women’s movement and feminism was breaking through in America, and yes, these men were threatened by it. Mailer himself, early on, confessed to not reading women at all. He didn’t consider them to be on the level. Later in his life that might have changed. But not in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He was only in competition with other male writers, those he thought of as major novelists. The great novelist would be male, and so on. It’s a very sexist attitude that I needed to reconcile with my own character, Eastman. Because he, too, believes in such things. I think this attitude toward women writers still persists, even in my own reading habits and book buying. Why do I buy more male work than female? Why is it that I size myself up to other writers (mostly male)? I don’t like this about myself and am constantly trying to fight it. Having worked at a publisher, and having been on both sides of this business, I also feel that men still get paid more than women in their advances. It’s hard to prove this, as one would need confidential access to what writers get paid, and creative economies are harder to pin down in this respect. But I think there’s still a systematic problem in our industry that favors men.
I think there’s still a systematic problem in our industry that favors men.
KD: Which is shocking since the numbers clearly show that women read more books than men, and the majority of editors at publishing houses are women — yet we still hear about women writers getting better results when employing a man’s pen name, like Catherine Nichols who, as recently as 2015, found that using a man’s name brought her eight times the positive interest from agents when soliciting them. What’s going on here? Has the publishing industry just not caught up to the demographic reality of their consumers?
AG: I should say that the publishing industry is well aware of the problem and I think we’re doing a relatively good job compared to other creative industries, say compared to film and Hollywood. There was the VIDA study a few years ago that showed the gender imbalance in book reviews — men being reviewed more than women. I don’t know what the statistics are today, but our problems won’t go away in a year. It’ll take a generation or two. Pamela Paul has done a good job with the Times Book Review. Even back in 2012, when I was pitching profiles and interviews of writers, I remember Sheila Heti turning one of mine down because of a backlog of interviews with white male writers at the Believer. I couldn’t argue with that. But I do find it frustrating, as do many of my female friends, that so many women writers get boxed into the “women’s fiction” category. That sucks. I take Jennifer Weiner’s side in all this.