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A Chat with Chloe Alberta.
Chloe Alberta is good at this. In fact, wait, no, let me put it another way: she’s very good at this. Over the past few months, she’s had work published in HAD, X-Ray, Wigleaf, and The Masters Review, and you should make the time to read all of these stories. Even if these stories didn’t form the backbone of our chat — which they do — I’d nevertheless recommend you take a look at all of these pieces.
This is an edited transcript of a zoom chat about those stories that was conducted on April 21st, 2023. You can read another interview she gave The Masters Review here.
Evan Fleischer: Who are some of the people you’re currently thinking of when it comes to thinking about things at the level of the sentence … and, why?
Chloe Alberta: My most recent obsession is Mary Robison, particularly her book Why Did I Ever. It’s a very sparse book. It’s told in little fragments and it’s about a difficult subject matter, but it’s so funny. This character is so ridiculous, so strange, but pretty much every sentence is hilarious, even if it’s talking about this horrific act that has been done to her son. I open it every time I need to get a little voice inspiration recently. It’s really amazing that she can take each little, funny sentence, put them all together, and somehow it’s, like, a devastating story. On a sentence level, I like how specific she is. Every word is in its place. I think that I prefer to write that way — or, at least, I like top think that I do. As opposed to meandering around, I like a direct, sharper end to a sentence, and I think she does that really well.
EF: That raises a set of interesting reactions for me, because I’m thinking of what happens when your sentences become paragraphs. It sometimes strikes me as if you’re doing very specific things in paragraphs — almost Joy Williams-adjacent, as if there seems to be a silent enjambment between certain lines — but other times there’s … a very specific sense of a melodic, unified whole, and — I guess — to continue on from that first question … how does your thinking about sentences change when you take these sentences from something specific, direct, and sometimes devastating sentence and you shape them into paragraphs?
CA: That’s one of those things that’s hard for me to describe, because I do feel like … it’s kind of just vibes.
CA: I think that — when I’m writing — I think in pretty small units. A paragraph is a lot of words to me. That freaks me out. And adding a bunch of paragraphs together is just … How do you zoom out? It’s a lot to wrap my head around. So I think that — to create a larger chunk of text like that — I need every sentence ot come from the one before it in some way, if not in subject matter, then at least voice-wise. So — the voice of the previous sentence is the one driving what happens in the next sentence, and rather than there being some sort of logical progression, it’s more just … how people think. Sometimes your thoughts come together in ways that make sense and sometimes don’t. And hopefully a paragraph emerges. I like paragraphs that start in one place and end somewhere completely different. I think that’s fun.
EF: Am I being fair in framing this line of questioning this way with regard to these sentences? Are there implicit questions you’re thinking of when you’re writing that carry equal resonance or more resonance [than what you’re simply writing?] Do you see characters who carry a certain ineffability that you’re trying to decode and you end up with something that you’re writing? Is it something else altogether or … ?
CA: My projects right now and in the past couple of years — all of the characters have been versions of me, which I know isn’t uncommon but … it’s all pretty much me. It’s interesting, though — the stages of thinking about, like, sentences and that kind of thing — the way a story will unravel for me will be: first draft I’m following my impulses. I’m following my voice. I’m just writing whatever is in my brain.
Revision is going back and figuring out which parts are me and which parts are the character, which parts need to be more the character, which parts need to make more sense psychologically … It kind of unravels in that way — first on the level of the sentence, and then I go in and psychoanalyze, like, ‘What does this sentence mean?’
EF: Speaking of sentences [I didn’t actually say this; this is what’s known in The Biz as An Artful Edit, which makes this, uh, well … — EF] — let’s go with this one from “The C-Word”: “The bedroom was the one place the cats weren’t allowed, so the cigarette smell was almost like fresh air.” What do we think about that sentence?
CA: I’m being transported.
CA: The events that kind of inspire this story are so far removed — partly for self-preservation purposes, but also, like, just time — that it is these kinds of sensory details that are really what I specifically remember, like the smell of that house and the very oppressive smell of sickness. I think that when I was thinking of writing this sentence or this part of the story, it was really interesting, because the house itself was kind of a mess and the cats were going crazy, like you see in the first part of the sentence, and the bedroom was a secret, safe-haven for the mother. She had lung cancer and was smoking in secret so no one would know, and her bedroom was her place to do that. The thickness of the cigarette smell in there was really intense, but — compared to the outside smell — it was different. It almost felt easier to understand because it was just this one thing that was all-consuming for her and the atmosphere in that room.
EF: What about this sentence from “Meal Support” — “Emily growls like a dog at any form of ham.”
CA: That sentence was kind of an attempt to capture the absurdity of this situation that these girls are in in this story. They’re all being brought together at this daytime therapy — it feels like day camp, almost? But it’s a partial hospitalization program. I wanted this piece to capture the ways in which eating disorders manifest in objectively very strange ways. You develop these strange coping mechanisms to deal with everyday things, like ham, to the point where you have these compulsions to growl like a dog or express your fear or inability to cope in very strange ways because your brain is malnourished and it doesn’t have normal coping mechanisms. I guess that was an example of a sentence where I wanted to express the really very absurd manifestation of something that is very serious. I love to do that — to combine the silly and the serious in that way. I think that’s just the most fun contrast.
EF: That response paired with your previous response to the previous sentence actually leads me to something I was thinking of asking later. As someone who used to do a lot of comedy, as someone who finds it intellectually interesting to take things that feel like cartoons — in terms of their presence in real-life — and to try and find a way to translate that into literary believability, your second answer really resonates with me, but it also makes me think of some of the more broader ambitions of these stories, which is — how shall I put this? — I’m curious about how each of these characters view the active verb of their presence in life, or being a ‘presence’ in life, or — and I’m sorry, but, to use an old Heidegger phrase — ‘being-in-the-world.’ I don’t quite know what the question is here — I feel a little bit like David Naimon — but have you thought to the way in which you take these contrasts of the silly and the serious and the outright devastating and the way in which each of these characters in each of these stories bears witness to that and the degree to which they either succeed as a witness or nearly succeed as a witness or try and succeed and fall linguistically short … Is — is there a question there?
CA: Just to make sure I’m understanding — you’re interested in hearing about how these characters exist in the world with regards to … (Starts to laugh.)
EF: Believe you me, if our roles our reversed, I would be having the exact same reaction.
CA: I kind of have something to say — I don’t know if it’s answering what you just said —
CA: — but I latched onto that thinking about the characters in the world because I think a lot of the characters I write don’t really want to be in the world. They’re kind of avoidant. They’re finding mechanisms to detach from reality. I think that’s where the silly caricature-like things or cartoon-like things come in. They’re acting in strange ways because they’re avoiding what is real and what is material by trying to make their situation stranger or more interesting … I think a lot of them aren’t trying to necessarily make sense of anything — they’re trying to actively make something more confusing for themselves, so they don’t have to think about logically why they’re doing what they’re doing. I think that’s where the silliness hits up against the more serious stuff. That’s where I like to play.
EF: Well, then, given what you’ve just said, why don’t we look at these two sentences from “Leap Year” — “When her neighbor—who was a prude, who always came to scold when Hollis watched porn with surround sound on—discovered her body they’d say, ‘Classic Hollis. Disgusting in life, disgusting in death.’” Also: “The gash in her thumb had grown a crust the color of a baby deer.”
CA: Oh, man. Those are interesting lines to pick. I don’t think those are sentences I really thought much about as I was writing them.
The second one — the baby deer color — I think I have a quicker answer for: I like that color comparison because it’s the brushing up of something soft and sweet — like a baby deer — up against something violent and messy, like a thumb wound. I always like to think about how I can make a description unexpected. I think that kind of fits for Hollis, because she is a very soft person but she’s also … kind of gross. Disgusting in life, disgusting in death. Which leads to the first sentence about her neighbor. I think this is a sentence that is about someone else doing something, but it is Hollis’s version of what that person is doing and what that person thinks of her because she has a hard time getting out of her head, the more nuanced ways in which people see her. She kind of only sees herself through other people, and so she has to use these other people — like the neighbor — to create her own image of herself. ‘This person thinks I’m disgusting, but actually I think I’m disgusting.’
EF: A second ago, you were talking about how some of the characters in some of the stories were avoidant or that they intentionally confuse themselves so that they don’t have to deal with real life. I’m curious to hear if you’ve given any thought to — the cliche for Broadway musicals is ‘What is your character’s want?’ I’m curious what sort of thought you’ve given to your characters with regards to that.
CA: That’s a great question, because that was my number one critique in really any workshop I’ve ever had is — ‘I can’t tell what your character wants’ and I’m like, ‘Well, she doesn’t know what she wants!’ And I think that that — in itself — is what drives a lot of my stories — and sometimes what they want comes to light as I’m writing it, but I think most of my stories lately and in recent years come out as a character who doesn’t know what she wants and maybe she has to figure it out; or maybe she’s just grappling with why she doesn’t that that or just learning to sit with the fact that she’s not always going to have a clear motivation or a clear drive. I’m really interested in that space of not knowing what you want because it creates a challenge when you’re writing because how do you propel something forward if you’re not working towards something?
There are different ways to overcome that, though — your character can be — again — searching for something to want, wrestling with why she doesn’t know what she wants, or — honestly — not thinking about that at all and then the story is a conglomeration of things someone is doing and thinking. And that’s fun, too.
(Takes the briefest of moments.)
That’s interesting that you asked that. I don’t need to answer that question, I don’t think, when I write for myself, at least. That’s not the most interesting thing for me, which — like I said — sometimes creates problems in workshop environments or with readers who are like, ‘Okay, but, why is she doing this? Why does she wants this?’ And for the answer to be ‘I don’t know’ is not always satisfying. But I don’t think fiction has to be satisfying.
EF: I agree with that. And, to dare to offer an opinion in the transcript of this text, I will say that there has been a consistent thru-line — sometimes small, and perhaps not worth reacting too much towards — of a kind of readership that will explicate and enact exegesis upon something until they don’t need to read it anymore; until they don’t need to experience it anymore; and I personally think that the appeal of the unknown — and, at the writing level — of surprising yourself — means that you are discovering new knowledge, or something that is new or different, because, if you know it already, you know it already, you know?
CA: Yeah. I think — for different writers — that manifests in different ways. Like, I don’t need my characters to have motivation. Someone else might really want their character to explore their motivation and figure out where it comes from. That sense of discovery comes in many ways, but — I agree. That’s always the most fun, when you’re figuring something out — or not figuring out and just thinking about it.
EF: The undiscovered country.