I had the pleasure of speaking to Philadelphia writer Alex Kudera, whose debut novel, Fight for Your Long Day, won the regional IPPY gold award for best fiction in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Alex was kind enough to pass me along an advanced reading copy of his follow up, Auggies Revenge. I can strongly recommend it.
Alex currently teaches literature and writing at Clemson University in South Carolina and is, above all else, a lovely guy. Enjoy…
You can also check out his stuff here – http://kudera.blogspot.co.uk/
CK – Hi Alex. I was a big admirer of your first work, ‘Fight for your Long Day’ – a satirical novel about an adjunct professor, Cyrus Duffleman (a William Stoner archetype who teeters between Un-hero and the everyman) – I wanted to ask you about the protagonist from ‘Augies Revenge’, Michael Vittinger.
AK: Thank you for the positive feedback, Chris. It’s greatly appreciated. I haven’t read Stoner, but I am curious about the success of this book.
CK – Now, both characters share some similar traits. Vittinger’s decision to turn his back on teaching to help abrasive pick-up artist Augie is an inspired turn, but do you think it’s fair to say you have a certain preoccupation with a particular type of character – the downtrodden intellectual struggling to make ends meet in the harsh landscape of academia?
AK: Yes, absolutely, not everything I write includes the “downtrodden intellectual struggling to make ends meet in the harsh landscape of academia” and more generally increasingly expensive and unequal urban America, but I am interested in this “type.” So much in America privileges not thinking but doing (practice over theory, money over cerebration) that it interests me to consider how people who require more cerebral forms of sustenance survive here. I grew up near urban universities and was always more curious about the transient adjuncts than the affluent tenured professors. The small dark apartments of the forgotten knowledge cogs, lived in by thoughtful folks with PhDs offered more to consider than the competitive, even combative, tenured professors in the neighborhood. From an outsider’s perspective the tenured professors seemed more interested in having more than others than they were in sharing the wealth of knowledge, which, at least presumably, they were contributing. If they were doing such, etc.
CK – There’s a nice contrast in lifestyles between intellectual and menial occupation and circumstance. Is this something that interests you? I assume it was an intentional observation you made.
AK: As a teenager I would get paid to walk the almost crippled German Shepherd of a history PhD who lived in a small dark first floor apartment, and I knew several adjuncts as well. These off-the-beaten path educated people, often middle-aged men, made an impression.
Also, in Philadelphia, and in the section I grew up in, it was very notable that even as some PhDs had little, this small slice of life was more than what was possessed by many other kinds of employed people of somewhat limited means. Then there were always another more downtrodden group that had little to nothing in the background—homeless or “semi-homeless” (a friend’s term, referring to people, often adult men, living with relatives, on couches, paying week-to-week, in and out of shelters, etc.). These contrasts continue to persist, so strangely enough, I work with academics off the tenure track whose student-debt loads and small salaries cobbled together from various adjunct positions make for surprisingly humble lives. At the same time, just to have one’s own place, an efficiency apartment with a lock at minimum, places the adjunct or other struggling worker above menial workers or unemployed citizens who have less, including urban residents with nothing at all.
CK – Your first novel is a compassionate study of middle-agedness, an academic man who genuinely wants to do well by his students. Vittinger turns his back on the whole notion. I was wondering, you once taught at university level, is this character based on any aspect of your personal life?
AK: Yes, to some extent, both characters are derived from personal experience although the wildest scenes, or maybe all the scenes, are fiction, not fact, and I write novels, not memoirs (although I hope to try memoir at some point). But yes, once one gets into adjuncting, there typically is no room for academic promotion (the university craves the fresh new face, not the tired older one, when tenure-track slots appear), so these are the two choices: do the best you can for your students, persist against the odds, or determine to take the plunge into the rest of America by turning one’s back on teaching and the life of the mind.
CK – Does Duffleman share any of your own neurosis?
AK: One would have to be somewhat neurotic to write a novel; first, one has to have all kinds of thoughts swimming in one’s head to get past, say 50 pages (in the middle of the night, Philip Roth famously scribbles post-its and sticks them to his forehead when he wakes up with an idea and is too tired to get out of bed). So, yes, a novelist has to be a worrier to some extent, and I am one of these people although Cyrus has an over-the-top constant thought-churning that might move beyond the ordinary neurotic. Of course, his primary concerns—his aging, his chances for love and survival—are things we all consider.
CK – Did you have a desire to break out of the confines of your institutional handcuffs like Michael Vittinger?
AK: I haven’t left teaching, not yet, but yes, I think leaving teaching as an act of liberation is something I think of. We don’t know exactly what it would be like until we do so, of course. But I’ve been on the outside, I’ve worked in all kinds of menial jobs (book clerk to busboy) as well as commission-based sales, so it would not only be for the students or devotion to “life of the mind” that I would want to stick with academia. I’ve had other experiences.
CK – The classroom edition of ‘Fight for your Long Day’ just came out. How do you feel about it being taught in schools?
AK: I think Fight for Your Long Day is a great selection for the classroom because it raises some great questions—why did we create a society where college teachers struggle? where they may not be able to see a doctor? where students and families pay increasingly unbelievable prices for education necessary for a decent life or any survival at all?—and then to contrast against the “war on terror” that government’s role is to protect all of us, how did America in 2004 come to be? Of course, it’s possible that for many, by America 2014 or 16, conditions are even worse although many some pockets of America may be prospering. A current internet meme claims that only 20% of Americans are part of financially secure households although an academic study suggested the figure was closer to 30%. And then the contrast with the rest of the world—the possibility that contemporary America is about as good as it gets when compared to the common lives of citizens of many other countries. Cyrus Duffleman is trudging through unusual times and almost against the official rhetoric of his times.
CK – Your work is often compared to literary lynchpins like John Kennedy Toole, but who are your main influences?
AK: I like A Confederacy of Dunces, but I see other favorites as closer to my work at least thematically. Writers like Melville, Faulkner, and Pynchon were favorites in college and after, along with many Russians, the big 19thcentury names but also lesser known ones like Andrei Bely and Yuri Olesha.
Today I like many different kinds of writers including transnationals such as Ha Jin, Bharati Mukherjee, Aleksander Hemon, and Roberto Bolano. John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts was a long academic novel I read before I returned to writing a fiction after a five-year period of too much teaching and too little writing. I also like gritty writers like Buk, and the Fantes, and sometimes I think of my writing as Saul Bellow crossing over to the shadier side of town where the Dan Fantes of the world drive taxis and scrape by although of course Fante came from Malibu means even as Bellow started off in immigrant flats.
These economic migrations still persist in America and the larger world, and that is an interest of mine. I grew up in an apartment on the same block as the houses of tenured professors and other far less affluent adults living in group, communal situations and less than two blocks from crack or drug houses. My origins, seeing these disparities and idiosyncrasies have been on my mind.
CK – Thanks again Alex, it was great talking to you!