Tuesday, April 26, 2016

In Conversation - Lavinia Ludlow Interviews Alex Kudera

In 2010, Alex Kudera released his debut novel, Fight For Your Long Day, a fast-paced and witty story about an adjunct professor trying to survive not merely the day from hell, but a day that tests his perseverance as an educator, a man, and a human being. We follow him minute-by-minute, as he struggles to tend to his health issues, scrape together money to eat, and encounters everything from murder to suicide to sexual temptation. 

Kudera recently launched a new novel, Auggie's Revenge, a story about another adjunct professor and the clusterfucks he gets into with a slew of egotistical borderline sociopaths. At times, there's more cynicism and revenge present than in a Tarantino film, but Kudera's writing contains an honest clarity all his own. I've been fortunate enough to sit down with him and delve into the behind-the-scenes/inner workings of his process, background, and thoughts on the academic track. 

L^2: In your own words, what is the major dramatic question summed up in a single sentence?
AK: A death-fearing adjunct philosopher struggles to break free from his academic chains as he falls into friendship with men on the margins who lead him to murder.

L^2: I’m all about edgy chapter titles that pack a punch. What was your process of titling your chapters things such as, “Where sperm earn their suicide and eggs play for keeps” and “MasterCard Marxists and 403b Feminists"?
AK: In fact, I sent the novel in without unique chapter titles, and the publisher found some of the most curious phrases within the chapters and used those. If I’m not mistaken, I either had numbers only or very bland chapter titles. Once Matt Peters of Beating Windward did this, I may have tweaked or added here and there, but I think it was almost entirely his smart move. I’m glad you liked the titles.

L^2: Auggie is unapologetically crass, objectifies women, commits white collar crime, is a homeless-hater, and when it comes to race, he claims he has a “right to racism because he’d suffered all his life.” And enter Jonny November who is a con artist. What was your intent to create characters that might evoke strong disdain from readers? Were they literary tools to deter from the narrator and make him seem more neutral and balanced?
AK: I’m trying to describe real people in a real America, not watered-down or politically correct versions. PC may have its place, it may be every teacher’s best bet in the classroom, but it’s still a form of censorship that masks the world as it is. I’m also interested in what extent, one can describe unlikeable characters but get readers to sympathize or empathize with them nevertheless. I’m also trying to write in humor, and it seems that some readers don’t “get” humor at all in reading, and then the rest of us have many different tastes and sensibilities. I also see plenty of racists and con artists in film and fiction, so although I think some of my characters’ eccentricities may be unique, I don’t see white-collar crime, homeless-hating, or rationalizing one’s negative traits (i.e. Auggie’s racism, for example) as so far from other entertainments. It’s interesting what you say, that Auggie and Jonny’s negatives could work to make Michael, the main narrative voice, seem more neutral or balanced. But Michael has his problems, too.

L^2: You've put so much work into this sophomore novel, what is the biggest takeaway you hope stays with readers?
AK: As I.B. Singer famously stated, the purpose of literature is to instruct and entertain, and I hope to do that in everything I write. For Auggie’s Revenge, I placed more emphasis on entertainment although I hope it is instructive to readers to see how various characters live, what they think, how they express their fears and frustrations, and whether or not they give away their six-inch hoagies to homeless people blocking their path to warmth and security.

L^2: In your eyes, how has the independent lit scene change over the years since your debut novel with Atticus?
AK: I’ve never been central to the indie-lit scene, so I’m not even sure of how to describe it. It seems amorphous, and I’ve been told that I’m in it because I’m a novelist published by small presses. I notice there is amazing subjectivity and cronyism within every scene in America and this world, and this would include the small-press scene, both within and outside AWP and English departments. At the same time, even as we fail, as mortals will, it seems like most of us are attempting some kind of objectivity when we assess books, students, peers, and so on. It’s highly possible that American capitalism has most of us in such bad shape that we can’t afford any loftier objectivity when creating cool lists of indie presses or liking some statuses but not others on Facebook. In different ways, we’re all participating in it. Whether we’re in or outside academia, part of New York publishing, indie publishing, or self-publishing, it seems like we’re inured in all kinds of little corruptions and no one has the moral high ground, and so it becomes that much more bizarre when our social-media threads seem full of “I know who the evil person is, and I know who the good people are.” I hope Auggie’s Revenge sheds light on this version of America. Maybe one day we’ll have an America where more people with money, power, and connections recognize their economically damaging relationship to many other Americans, and then throw themselves out the window or better fund schools or fight for single-payer, but for now, we’re stuck in the shit-show version that’s always been and doing our best to survive. I don’t mean to imply that things are better or much different in other countries, or that I’m not participating in these very things I’m laughing about as I lament in Auggie’s Revenge.

L^2: As an adjunct-professor, how has your perspective changed since writing Fight for your Long DayAuggie's Revenge seems to contain more frustration and jadedness in the overall narrative.
AK: Yes, I was responding to all the pain and lament and anger I was seeing from adjuncts online, all the anguish they were expressing on social media. To be honest, although I shared offices with some adjuncts in really bad situations, I don’t think I was truly tuned in to how horrible the situation is until after I published the “original adjunct novel.” I hope there are laughs in Auggie’s Revenge—that was certainly part of the plan—but, yes, I intended to describe a world for adjuncts and many other exploited workers and indebted students as one where people are rightfully jaded and frustrated. At the same time, I can’t escape the white male as flunky or pretentious jackass, so I hope readers see a discourse of personal responsibility in my narratives, perhaps one that runs counter to other ideas explicit or implicit in the books.

L^2: The track to a tenured professor gig seems to be riddled with bureaucracies and hoops one must jump through like a well-trained dog. What change(s) would you like to see happen so it’s not so “paycheck-to-supermarket in a small studio apartment” living? What should occur higher up the chain of command to make it easier for good professors to make it in the academic world? 
AK: In higher education, as with the world in general, I’d like to see students treated fairly regardless of their economic origins, and workers treated fairly regardless of their status. Right now, 70% of college students take on debt to attend, and their debt totals are about $30,000 upon graduation from a bachelors. Quite obviously, that 30K does not include whatever they, their parents, or grandparents were able to pay before or during college, or what the same students may have to pay for graduate school.
All college professors should have health coverage and pay that allows them to live with dignity, and all young people should have fair access to education that expands their horizons (liberal arts and foreign languages should not be cut) and leads to employment (at today’s prices, the vast majority of students have to think in vocational terms when choosing a major). To me, it would seem normal for any society to treat its people well, but then we see what happens in this world and are convinced normal must be the opposite of healthy or fair.
At the same time, as individuals we have to avoid falling into bitter lament if we hope to have any sort of peace or contentment at all. In the classroom, it seems like teachers who ignore just how bad things may be for today’s students and turn lecture or discussion into a fun intellectual show that gets students smiling, even laughing, are the ones with the best chance of surviving in higher education.
For the tenure track, it seems like Americans from the most affluent backgrounds and extremely driven smart transnationals are the most likely to survive and become tenured professors. Fight for Your Long Day is the most significant novel to come out of my English department during my time here, but due to the branding of the university and to legitimize the writing track (tenure track), some of the tenured professors do their best to pretend it doesn’t exist. Others like the book.

L^2: What did you study in school, and is this the place you thought you would be at this point in your life? What would you change? What surprised you for the good?
AK: For financial reasons, I had to graduate in seven semesters, and my main course of study was Intellectual History or Political Philosophy although my major was in English.  I read widely in the liberal arts, so Michael Vittinger’s course of doctoral study relates to some of my own reading interests. In college, at times I worked extremely hard although too often, I focused more on reading books, and often procrastinated when it came to writing essays on those books. I wrote only two pieces of fiction in college, and neither was for a fiction-writing class although I did get positive feedback both times. My father lost his best job the summer before I began college, so I paid for more of my own college than my parents or government. I was on a lot of financial aid, and there were even moments when I was unsure I would be going or continuing, and this undoubtedly had an impact on my worldview, particularly since I was surrounded by kids from affluent backgrounds—more or less the kinds of kids you see at every college, where even those of us on financial aid come from more affluent backgrounds than most Americans.
But anyway, because my father was out of work and we were in a recession (from Bush I through early Clinton), I knew life would be hard and that America itself might be a sucker’s play, and at the same time in my early twenties I used this as an excuse to focus more on writing fiction and less on searching for remunerative work. So I didn’t expect the world to be fair or that I would wind up rich or anything like that. I sometimes have thoughts of regret, that I wished I had majored in Y or done X, but on the other hand, I have some books out, I’ve gotten some notice, I have a kid, I’m still alive, and so on. In the airport a young man I taught 10 to 12 years ago at Drexel in freshmen English knew my full name—“Are you Alex Kudera?”—and I’ve been in tutoring centers where students can’t remember the names of current instructors, so I took this as a positive sign. When things are going well for me, I usually expect something bad to happen to balance it all out. 

L^2: What advice do you have for aspiring writers, or those looking to get into the adjunct professor track? Lessons learned, bruises incurred, stabs you wish you could have avoided if you had the right mentor?
AK: For aspiring writers, you have to read and write as much as possible, and stick with it. We change and evolve and get better at everything we work hard at for a long time. I’ve noticed with many careers and hobbies, it’s possible to outlast others—so don’t give up and work your ass off. I’m not saying anything new here.

For adjunct instructors, try to be as flexible as possible while ignoring all the baloney and don’t expect any sort of idealized experience. It’s like a lot of other jobs that can pay the bills in America—the people in authority who should be most completely ashamed of themselves are often the same people who’d never be able to rise to that level of self-criticism. Every day, in all different kinds of situations, I see increased possibilities for a pessimistic worldview. And, of course, many to most of the students want to be smiled at and to hear that everything will be okay.

Lavinia Ludlow is a musician and writer dividing time between San Francisco and London. Her debut novel, alt.punk (2011), explored the ragged edge of art, society, and sanity, viciously skewering the politics of rebellion. Her sophomore novel, Single Stroke Seven (2016), explores the lives of independent artists coming of age in perilous economic conditions. Both titles can be purchased through Casperian Books. Her short works have been published in Pear Noir!, Curbside Splendor Semi-Annual Journal, and Nailed Magazine, and her indie lit reviews have appeared in Small Press Reviews, The Rumpus, The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, Entropy Magazine, and American Book Review.

Alex Kudera's award-winning adjunct novel, Fight for Your Long Day (Atticus Books), was drafted in a walk-in closet during a summer in Seoul, South Korea. In 2016, look for his second print novel, Auggie's Revenge from Beating Windward Press as well as a Classroom Edition of Fight for Your Long Day from Hard Ball Press. The e-singles "Frade Killed Ellen" (Dutch Kills Press), "Turquoise Truck" (Mendicant Bookworks), and "The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity" (Gone Dog Press) are available most anywhere books are downloaded. A lifelong Philadelphian until fall 2007, Alex currently teaches literature and writing at Clemson University in South Carolina. 

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