Interviews

I Used to Be a Hypochondriac, but Now I Just Write: An Interview with Kevin Allardice

Kevin Allardice’s debut novel, Any Resemblance to Actual Persons, follows Paul McWeeney, a struggling Los Angeles novelist and community college English instructor, as he unravels a family mystery. Bonus unravellings—relationships, careers, sanity—abound. This clever, touching novel takes the form of a cease-and-desist letter written by Paul to the publisher of his sister’s memoir, which includes allegations that their father was involved in the infamous “Black Dahlia” murder. Allardice, a fellow University of Virginia MFA alum, generously agreed to answer a few questions over email.

MICHAEL MCGRATH: Some of the funniest material in Any Resemblance comes from the interactions between Paul and his students at COLA (College Of Los Angeles). How much of your own teaching experience found its way into Paul’s classroom frustrations?

KEVIN ALLARDICE: Surprisingly little. My original reason for making Paul a teacher had its root in my own experiences, and so I anticipated more of those experiences as a teacher would trickle in, but I was pleased that the novel took its own course. I initially wanted Paul to be a teacher, back in a draft so early Paul wasn’t Paul yet, because at the time I was a grad student trying to develop the curriculum for my own themed composition course.

From talking to other grad student instructors, it seemed that some of us were, perhaps without realizing it, building curriculums that validated our own personal ideas and obsessions. It’s a trap a lot of new teachers fall into: excited about a new world of ideas, but insecurely prescribing those ideas rather than allowing students the space to productively engage with them.

I wanted to explore that impulse, and began imagining a guy who takes the next logical step, which is how Paul, in the second half of the novel, came to use his classroom and curriculum as a rigged trial to prove his sister’s claims wrong. I began to understand Paul when I began to understand how much of his life is a struggle for control. For him, the classroom is the one arena in his life where he feels he can exercise control, even when he can’t. Flailing for control in a world that refuses to grant you any lends itself quite well to comedy.

MM: Semi-related: You and Paul were both actors. Was that cathartic?

KA: Again, I am surprised there isn’t more crossover. Both Paul and I worked as actors in our late-teens; we both then escaped to MFA programs, and started teaching. While we share superficial bits of biography, the details are quite different, and they go in completely different directions, serving different functions. A lot of my writing seems to be begin with anxieties about small details in my life, which I worry into narratives that have nothing to do with my life. I used to be a hypochondriac, but now I just write fiction.

MM: This is a novel that will speak to any struggling writer. Paul’s struggle for literary success colors every relationship in his life, from his sister to his girlfriend to his frenemy (and former agent) Oliver. Was it fun for you to play with these chunks of the literary establishment, and industry jargon, or was it too close to home?

KA: It certainly was fun to play with writing and workshop rhetoric, though that didn’t appear until after I’d been working on it for a while and began to understand how and why Paul would use it; so it felt less like poking fun at the writing industry and more like using it to get closer to Paul.

I had a professor in undergrad who told me a lot about doing his MFA in the early 1970s. There were lots of anecdotal bits I pulled from our conversations, but the detail that was most interesting for me was about being in workshops with returning Vietnam vets, how as a young guy he’d felt intimidated by the intensity of the worldview evident in their stories. That—or at least a twisted form of that idea—stuck with me, how workshops can be places where you develop a kind of “reality envy.” Your representation of the world is somehow more authentic than mine. That’s why I sent Paul to an MFA program. Considering that this novel is largely about Paul arguing with his sister, by way of books, about whose version of reality is truer, writing workshops seemed the best place for a young Paul to develop this kind of insecurity.

Once I realized that a great deal of the story was turning out to be a battle mediated by texts—that, as you point out, it colors every relationship, that their only real access to their father is his writing, that he feels safer critiquing his sister’s writing than he does having an actual conversation with her, etc.—I tried to develop Paul’s writer jargon, along with an ersatz academese honed in the extreme margins of higher ed., as a kind of comfort zone for him. When the intellectual framework he tries to use to understand his family begins to fail him, it was fun seeing that language fray, pushing someone beyond the limits of their jargon’s abilities.

MM: Did your MFA experience differ from Paul’s?

KA: They differ quite a bit, but for both Paul and I, the experience was a bit of a prolonged—or maybe deferred—adolescence.

MM: What’s your writing process like? You’re obviously an industrious dude, but do you prefer a certain time of day, beverage, protocol?

KA: I wish I had a system, a regimen. But I don’t. I find I’m most productive when I’m busy with other things; it forces me to take advantage of the time that I do have. While writing the most formative draft of this novel, I was an adjunct teaching three composition classes, while also waiting tables at night. I was very busy, but also very productive. Likewise, when I’m working on a first draft, I find it helps to put myself in places, like crowded coffee shops, where distraction is most tempting. The more I have to work to not listen to conversations around me, the more I force myself to focus on what I’m doing.

MM: How did you land on the epistolary format?

KA: I tried to write this various times in more or less straightforward ways, but it just felt inert. It lacked urgency. Paul wasn’t Paul. During the MFA, I wrote a short story that took the form of a letter a guy writes to Steven Spielberg, debating the authenticity of sleds they both claim to be the real Rosebud from Citizen Kane. I believe you were in the workshop I submitted that to.

MM: I remember that story!

KA: Writing that story was exhilarating, and it was the first time I realized that form and formal constraints can be tools to discovering characters, rather than external things imposed on so-called raw material. When I started playing with the letter form for this novel, wondering if I could expand it, it helped me up the stakes, but it also forced me to understand the kind of guy who would write a novel-length cease-and-desist letter, which helped crack it all open for me. Plus, making the document itself a presence in the novel became really exciting for me, galvanizing it in a very literal way.

MM: Has the LA noir genre always appealed to you?

KA: If not always, at least for a long time. I began reading Raymond Chandler in junior high, and it was the first time I became infatuated with individual sentences. I know there are plots in there, somewhere, but I still struggle to offer synopses. Someone gets murdered, there’s a rich guy. But for me, it was when I realized that straight-faced sentences could subtly operate the way Groucho Marx punchlines do, kind of doubling back on themselves, a subordinate clause pulling the rug out from underneath the main clause, or vice versa.

But, despite a piece I wrote for The Millions about a loose grouping of novels that take the form of explicit commentary on other stories, I’m not too interested in categories. I am, however, interested in characters who find comfort in categories, and then watching what happens when those categories fail to contain a chaotic reality. When I was writing this, I imagined it not existing within a genre; rather, I imagined these characters standing outside various genres—LA noir, true crime, memoir, dispassionate legal document—peering in peeping-Tom-like, hoping for answers or at least simplicity in the conventions and narrative rituals those different genres offer, but remaining firmly outside the gates, denied access.

MM: The narrator, Paul, is always a bit manic, but his voice becomes increasingly jittery, addled and obsessive as the novel builds to a climax. How did you manage to consistently ramp that up? Was it helpful in building plot momentum or just another narrative ball to juggle?

KA: It was definitely helpful to keep adding balls to juggle. Not just for Paul, but for me. When you’re writing there’s always a danger that you will actually be able to get your arms and brain around your writing. Once you can do that, you feel like you really have control of it, and that’s death. I try to push character and story to a point where it feels just outside my understanding and control. That’s when it’s exciting for me.

MM: Do you see Paul as delusional? An asshole? Or just driven by desire for professional acclaim and personal vindication?

KA: A bit of all those, and that’s what kept me interested in him. I don’t think you really know characters until you know their particular delusions, the ways they revise the world in order to survive in it. And the more difficult Paul became, the more I understood my own interests as a writer, in creating a space where we can empathize with characters we wouldn’t want to engage with in real life. I thought a lot about Barbara Covett in Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking? and the narrators of Donald Antrim’s three novels. There’s a kind of logical myopia to all of them that is really wonderful. Characters we want to be friends with in real life only serve to flatter our assumptions about ourselves.

MM: Paul is a clever guy and a hard worker, but he has giant blind spots. These blind spots seem to both contract and expand as he devotes more and more time to this project. Was it difficult to balance these sides of his personality?

KA: It was. Initially, I thought there were certain areas he could see clearer than others. Simple. But then I realized that people aren’t that reliable with their biases. Each one of us has moments when we can see clearly and moments when, out of simple self-preservation, we’re more deluded. But the really difficult thing was figuring out how to push Paul simultaneously in both directions. The more frantic he is to preserve his version of things, the more he secretly understands its flaws.

MM: What are you writing and reading now?

KA: I’m currently reading Hob Broun’s Inner Tube and Eugene Marten’s Layman’s Report. I recently loved Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows, and Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens. The Archie Bunker chapter towards the end of that one is really astonishing. I also let Jason Schwartz’s John the Posthumous rewire my brain a bit. It’s amazing how he lets a character and story emerge peripherally, almost incidentally, from what we’re given on the page. I was getting into Renata Adler’s Speedboat while on vacation last summer when my Kindle started to crap out, its circuits filled, I suspect, with Sardinian sand. I pick it up now, it sounds like an Etch-a-Sketch. I bring this up because if anyone has an analogue copy I could borrow I’d be grateful.

One thing I read recently that I can’t stop thinking about is a new edition of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Not the book per se, but the supplementary material in the back, which contains all Hemingway’s handwritten false starts. He always begins that first sentence the same controlled way, quickly flies off on different digressions, then nose-dives spectacularly, all within a sentence or two. All these false starts, when printed one after another, create a vivid portrait, not quite of Hemingway, but of a character created by editing, a man who seems to be battling, incantatorally, his own memory and solipsism.

I’m currently working on a novel about an immigration officer. It has chapter breaks.

MM: Finally, as a wannabe novelist, I feel I must ask: What’s it like to finally release your book into the world?

KA: It’s very exciting, but also quite strange, knowing this thing that for years lived only inside my head is now something tangible, in the world. That being said, I recently re-read your essay on The Billfold about publishing your “e-book single,” and many of the anxieties you discuss there are shared by the small-press author.

Michael McGrath is a writer living in Connecticut. Visit him at www.mikeymcgrath.com.