Looks like there was another accidental six-month hiatus there, but never mind: Q&A, my ongoing series of interviews with authors I like, soldiers on!
This time I spoke with Alison Espach, author of The Adults and, more specifically, some of the best scenes of high school life I’ve ever read. Granted, we never performed amateur rhinoplasties, or set our fellow students on fire, at my high school, but Espach absolutely nails the loud-but-utterly-flailing milieu of teenagers all across North America. (See my review of the book here.)
Espach spoke to me via email about a whole bunch of stuff. Is that too vague? Read on, lazy bones.
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Some of the most vivid sections of The Adults come early on, when Emily is navigating her way through high school. In writing these chapters, were you trying to capture something about your own teenage years? What we sometimes think of as the so-called universal high school experience? Or something completely different?
Alison Espach: I’m not sure what the so-called universal high school experience is, because it’s sure to be a different thing for each person, but a few things that come to my mind when I think of high school: beige, sweat, Oreos, mass hysteria, Scantrons, halter tops, traffic jams, iceberg lettuce, stupid hats, and maybe Mesopotamia. School is a lot of different things, coming together in one building, and it amuses me that we had to spend so much time there.
How did you first conceive of The Adults? Was it built around the character of Emily, or maybe the panoramic opening scene at her father’s birthday party?
AE: I started with the characters of Emily and Mark, as observers at Emily’s father’s party. I was interested in their relationship and how their youth bonded them in that opening scene.
You did your MFA at St. Louis’s Washington University. How did your classmates’ feedback and general academic structure there affect the novel when it was still in manuscript form?
AE: Most of my classmates never saw The Adults. We shared our short stories with each other, and from those critiques, I learned how to see my writing as they saw my writing, or at least tried to.
I think that’s one of the hardest things to do as a writer, understanding when to cut out a joke that isn’t all that funny or informative to the story, and when to realize a sentence isn’t adding much. It hurts at first, but in the end, everybody’s better off.
A major theme of the novel is this kind of liminal space between childhood and adulthood. There have been dozens of trend pieces about this kind of thing, but why does it speak to you, as a novelist?
AE: I was the youngest in my family and extended family, so I always wanted to be older. As a kid, I idealized age, and was very delusional in thinking that with every birthday, I would have more freedoms and therefore more happiness. It was only as I grew up that I realized no matter what age I was, I was always going to be me. I think I thought at some point, I’d magically turn into someone else.
Obviously, this did not happen. If it does, I’ll be sure to let everybody know.
The Adults is an extremely witty book. There’s also a left-field cameo by none other than Woody Allen. Who are your comedic influences (novelists or otherwise)?
AE: My family shares a similar sense of humour; we laugh about the same things and make jokes about the same things, so honestly, they were probably my first comedic influence, for better or worse.
But in terms of people who make jokes professionally (no offense to my family), I grew up in a household that watched every single Seinfeld episode. I remember being very young and watching the marble rye fiasco unfold before my eyes, and not quite knowing why it was funny yet, but knowing that one day I would. That could explain some of my anecdotal tendencies. Woody Allen as well—I basically fell in love with Annie Hall.
But to be honest, I’m usually not attracted to pure comedy. I don’t love stand-up, or writing that only wants to make me laugh; I’m attracted to dark dramas and novels that tear your heart out, bit by bit, and then force you to laugh about it. That being said, Karen Russell is my current hero.
You recently alluded to the fact that you’ve finished a draft of something that’s basically the same as The Adults ”but with a shittier title.” Any progress to report there? What are you working on now?
AE: A novel is being written. The title has gotten less shitty. But for now, I can’t say exactly what it will be about, because that’s generally how my writing works best. I started writing a novel in 2007 about cell phone tower climbers in the midwest and, somehow, ended up writing The Adults—see what I mean?
And stay tuned for more Q&As, just as soon as I can find and exploit some other authors’ personal email addresses. Hooray!
Previously on Q&A: