From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Alex Rose, Author Of The Plagiarist

Alex Rose, author of The Plagiarist, has published stories and essays in McSweeney’s, The North American Review, The Providence Journal, The Forward, Science-Creative Quarterly and DIAGRAM. His hypertext novel, Synapse: the Weblog of Catherine Bloom, was serialized on the Hotel St. George website during the Winter of 2007. His debut collection, The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales (Oct. 07) was described by Library Journal as “a potential cult classic” and an “utterly original work of fiction.”

Alex says of himself:

I was born in the sleepy city of Petoskey, MI in 1975. Still not sure why, since my parents lived outside of Providence. In any case, I attended a former all-girls school (est. 1888), which was both super uptight and aggressively leftist, then went to Hampshire College and studied film while living with a fashion model and a vegan anarchist. (I just noticed how similar the word “anarchist” is to the word “Antichrist.”) After I graduated, I made short films and wrote short stories and occasionally published little op-eds about whatever happened to irritate me at the time. The films did okay — they won some festivals and played on TV and what not — but it always felt like a glorified hobby, and I couldn’t stand the thought of going the extra mile and moving to LA to become one of those indie film hipsters, running around Silverlake pretending to be an artist while making ends meet by shooting commercials for Rogaine. So I committed to writing full time. I wrote a novel, started a literary press with a friend, fired off a bunch of essays to newspapers and magazines. Somehow it sort of came together.

Tell me a little about The Plagiarist. What was the first image or phrase or impetus that made you sit down and spin it out?

The Plagiarist had many lives before reaching its current state. Originally, I’d written it as part of a novel — a kind of intertextual detective story — which ultimately went nowhere. So I lobbed off my favorite parts of the ill-conceived crime novel and crafted them into stand-alone short stories. My favorite section involved a character hired to follow a woman whose husband had suspected her of adultery, only as the man follows her through the apparently mundane activities of her day, he finds himself entering and re-entering a series of narratives which may or may not have been written by the same jealous husband. Anyway, that soon became vertiginous and impossibly convoluted, so I scaled it down further and further until it reached its current state: man finds magical book on subway. At the time, I’d been very influenced by Cynthia Ozick’s marvelous (and totally neglected) novel, The Messiah of Stockholm, which is about a bookseller searching for the lost manuscript of Bruno Schultz — in real life, the greatest fabulist writer of mid-century Poland.

Where do you get your ideas?

Usually, they begin as a form of plagiarism. Really. I fall in love with books — usually non-fiction books — and attempt to emulate them. I do so clumsily, and eventually fail, and the failure becomes something of a model for a first draft. My hypertext novel, Synapse, was borne of a failed attempt to recreate Don DeLillo’s White Noise by way of Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. My story collection, The Musical Illusionist, was a stab at recasting the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA as a work of fiction. Jonathan Lethem published an ingenious essay in Harper’s last year about plagiarism; I defer to him on the subject.

Last week’s story on Fantasy was a fairy tale retelling, a not uncommon thing in the fantasy genre. Why do you think it is that your inspiration tend to comes from nonfiction instead?

There’s a lot of material to be mined in non-fiction. Scientists and historians are making new discoveries every day; it seems natural to plumb through the latest findings and ways of thinking. So much of the best art comes from cross-pollinating between disciplines. Back in the 19th century, thinkers of every sort kept up with what was going on in other fields. Dickens and Darwin giddily anticipated each new work the other produced. Today, scientists and artists tend to be completely oblivious to one another.

In addition to being a writer, you’re also a director and a publisher. In what ways is there overlap between the three jobs, and in what ways are they completely different?

That’s a very tough question. In many ways, all these endeavors are similar. Every creative work involves a team — it’s a myth that anything, a painting, a composition, is solely authored by a single artist. There are simply varying degrees of power; creative involvement falls along a continuum.

Directors are thought to be the authors of a film — the opening credits say “a film by so and so,” but that’s absurd. It would be like crediting a skyscraper with the contractor or the foreman on the construction crew. Screenwriters actually conceive the thing. Art directors and production designers and wardrobe people create the things that the camera sees, and the cinematographer and his crew create the manner in which those things are seen. The director is not a creator but a liaison, a go-to guy, the point man who articulates the objectives of the script to the people who make it come to life and oversees the development of the Big Picture.

Publishing is roughly the same. A publisher takes an interest in something a writer slaved over — or will begin to slave over — then assigns an editor to help flesh it out, and the editor enlists copy editors and EAs to go over all the microstuff. Once it’s “done” (though nothing is ever truly done), he gets publicity people to book a tour and send out review copies, a designer to make the cover, another designer to layout the guts, and so on down the line to distributors and booksellers. It’s a huge job, a very creative job. You have to have vision and patience. You’re essentially the director of the book. (The grand prize, in my experience, goes to Aaron Petrovich, my co-editor and contact at Akashic Books.)

I’m happiest when I can participate in as many of those things as possible, when I can dream up my own stories and rely on people like Aaron to help shape them and bring them to the next level, while at the same time play a part in the work of others.

Right now, Hotel St. George Press is in the process of releasing Ben Greenman’s new book, which is something we’ve been working on for nearly a year. It’s a series of unfolding panels and books within books, something I’m totally psyched to have helped put into the world. Whether people buy it or not is another story, but I love the process of working with an author and collaborating with a printer and discussing every tiny detail with the other editors. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hugely stressful, but it’s also hugely rewarding. And we don’t have to worry about getting it into Sundance.

Do you find that directing or publishing give you perspective about your writing? Is there anything you’ve learned from those jobs that has made you a stronger writer?

Not technique-wise. Filmmaking, book publishing, creative writing, and graphic design all share a basic structure of production — at least in the abstract . There’s an idea, then a plan as to how to implement it and whom to enlist for support, followed by a period of labor and development culminating in a product of some sort, and finally a system of presentation. Each process has its own rewards and obstacles, even though the products themselves are totally different.

Film is the most labor intensive, because it’s expensive as hell and there are so many people involved; but it’s also fun and social and you walk away with all these great adventures. Design is lovely because it’s easy — it’s just you sitting along at your desk playing around with Photoshop — but at the end of the day you look back and go “Is this really living life to the fullest?” But I digress.

The point is that there is very little overlap between my various endeavors — I don’t approach filmmaking from a literary perspective or whatever. Though it helps to have a couple extra skills so that you know what to expect from your collaborators.

Who are your favorite musical artists?

Oh, you had to ask, didn’t you? It depends on the day, but right now I’m very much into the Indie-Classical scene. So many fascinating things going on there. I’m biased; a lot of those composers are friends of mine, but their work is so inspired. It’s playful yet totally sincere, which I think is the best possible combination. I’m also jealous. I played jazz drums for many years but was completely hopeless when trying my hand at composition. I can’t even read a key signature.

But I think the generation who grew up listening to Steve Reich and John Adams and the other “new minimalists” really took something of value from those experiments in sound and structure. It’s such a breath of fresh of air after the previous generation — all those smug Pierre Boulez people with their ridiculous musical utopianism, their gripes with every other way of making music, their obsession with theory, their frank rejection of everything that appealed to more than three people.

In contrast, we now have a budding musical culture that embraces rather than scoffs. There’s a similar thing going on in the jazz world. For the past ten years or so, John Zorn has created a miniature empire of eclectic musicians of every conceivable variety — cabaret acts, death metal bands, Polish folk singers, avant-garde jazz combos, sound installation artists — and releasing their stuff on his Tzadik label.

Hotel St. George Press is predicated on the same philosophy: to celebrate that which falls between the cracks of commercial genre forms.

Your favorite heroes and heroines in fiction?

I always identify with the “Knight of Resignation” character, as opposed to the “Knight of Faith.” (I can’t help but see everything in Kierkagaardian terms.) I like the narrator in Notes from Underground. I like the squire in The Seventh Seal. I like Gene Kelly in Inherit the Wind. I like Han Solo. I like Wolverine. I like Harriet the Spy. I like Ecclesiastes.

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