Alexandra Naughton Writes The Things She Wishes She Could Say
The truth of the matter is I met Alexandra Naughton almost four years ago — we both attended Live at 851, one of those maybe-awesome, maybe-insufferable poetry:party readings in an abandoned apartment in San Francisco.
Our paths have criss-crossed and intersected like incandescent wires ever since; I’ve watched her not-so-slowly slay the literary scene here in the Bay and admired her spooky, brilliant solipsism. She’s published four books of poetry — I’ll Always Be Your Whore: Love Songs For Billy Corgan; My Posey Taste Like; You Could Never Objectify Me More Than I’ve Already Objectified Myself; and I Will Always Be in Love. She is also the founder of BE ABOUT IT press, an art+lit magazine, and its eponymous reading series, and she recently made a indie movie with Pirooz Kalayeh called Ctrl Alt Del. (It’s about the end of a relationship and the beginning of a new one.)
Oh, and she’s just released a novel this past Friday — American Mary. She says, “It’s about existential crises, I guess. The apocalypse. Friendships. Controlling the male gaze.”
Born and raised in South Philly, Alexandra is a graduate of Central High. (So were Noam Chomsky and Dr. Andrew Weil.) Her writing is a deft combination of gut-churning confessional, stream of consciousness, and scathing societal observation; there are equal parts defeat and haughty triumph. It’s messy and raw, often staccato and colloquial — it’s as though you’ve been plunged into someone’s mind, but you can still feel the heat radiating from their heart-meat.
The Establishment sat down with Alexandra to talk shop, self-evisceration, and listen to awesomely disconcerting excerpts from American Mary.
Katie Tandy: How does your gender and sexuality influence or manifest itself in your writing? How important is it to be a female writer with a “female” voice? The vulgarity and presence of sex in your work could be described as “masculine,” the emotion fragility and metacognating as “feminine” . . . what say you about all that?
Alexandra Naughton: Dang, this got deep right off the bat. Lol.
I don’t like the idea of being able to tell the gender of an author by reading a sample of their writing. Some people claim they can do this, but I think it’s not only wrong, but gross and sexist. I reject the gender binary.
I reject the notion that people are either masculine or feminine, or that there is a clear distinction between men and women. Gender is a construct, it’s a conditioning, and it’s so complicated. I don’t really understand it. I just think people are more complex than the labels we try to apply account for.
But being a “girl,” playing the part, I do notice how differently I get treated by people, society — the shame/guilt I feel when I am taking charge of a situation, the wanting to apologize for leading. It’s weird. I’ve been told that my writing is confrontational. I like that. Probably because I’m not very confrontational in real life situations, unless I need to be. I feel like my writing is pretty empathetic.
A lot of my writing is about things I wish I could say sometimes, but stop myself. It’s exploring the other timelines, the ones that could have happened.
Katie: Your own desire and perceived beauty crop up again and again. Men desiring you seems to be a double-edged sword — on the one hand you want to be wanted, but resent their power over you as well. As well as relationships: “Relationships as status symbols. This isn’t an investment; it’s a utility.”
Alexandra: I am very interested in the power dynamics within relationships. This probably stems from being in abusive relationships/being manic-pixie-dream-girled by men who see me as an object or a fantasy instead of a real person with flaws. It sucks to not be taken seriously.
I don’t know how average people conduct themselves in romantic partnerships. I want to understand. I want to be respected.
“I walk outside and join the melting faces of a crowded commute. I don’t think I’ve ever been good at any of my jobs. I used to think it was because I’ve never been paid enough to give a shit, but lately I’ve been feeling like that wouldn’t change anything. I don’t know how some people do it. How can I perform for another first.
We take a deep breath, scrape our feet, and step inside a bus with no roof, just poles to grasp. Better for everyone, emissions, they say, but really, the city is strapped. At least for us. We can complain and we do, it’s like a song. We all know the words and the right time to sing it. Right after exchanging pleasantries.
Old ladies carry shopping bags stuffed with recycling. They mostly crouch or prop themselves on the accordion panels, but one standing slips and reaches out to hold my leg for stability. Almost a daily occurrence. I look down and we smile at each other.
You can get used to anything if you don’t care about anything.”
Katie: I’m always curious about craft. You’re pretty damn prolific. Are you someone who forces themselves to write every day or are you a writer who has a-ha moments and scrawls things on scraps of paper whenever it comes to you?
Alexandra: I think I do most of my writing in my head. I hear lines in my head and they get stuck and repeat themselves until I write them down. They’re like lyrics. I hate it when this happens as I’m trying to fall asleep, but that seems to be a peak time for inspiration.
The spoken aspect is pretty important. I’ve been criticized for this, but I love performance and I consider this when I write. I love language. I love the way words sound, the rhythm of sentences.
When I read, I say every word out loud in my head, as if someone was reading to me, as if I’m listening to an audio book. My dad does the same thing: “I cast actors that I think would play the part of certain character well, and imagine them reading their lines to me.” I think that’s tight.
“It’s always the ones with the haircuts.
Their hand-combed coifs. With what looks like just a touch of product. But who can really tell until you run your fingers through it. Like, you know they spend an extra twenty minutes in the bathroom before they leave the house. Like, you can imagine yourself laying in his bed watching Arthur or Lamb Chop’s Play Along or some other television program for grade-schoolers, waiting and listening to intermittent blow dryer noises, second guessing and adjusting your scrunchie because it only took you ten minutes to get dressed and ready to leave and is that even enough. Maybe you should try harder.
Maybe carry around a nail file and start filing your nails. I could always try harder. I would try harder if I knew what I wanted.
Or if I knew what I was even doing presently.”
Katie: You’ve been a pretty vocal critic of the gendered, sexist morass that is the literature world writ large but also, more specifically, the alt-lit scene which you are part and parcel of here in the Bay. Can you talk a little bit about that phenomenon and if you think the tides are shifting?
Alexandra: Alt lit is dead. We killed it in 2014. We burned the corpses. It will never come back.
The world is totally racist and sexist. That whole Return of Kings/PUA “make rape legal” bullshit, or like Donald Trump’s entire campaign are indicative that our society has a lot of work to do. The world is sexist and racist, and therefore so is publishing. I’ve seen a bunch of new indie presses popping up, and people are doing work to publish more than just the straight white man, so I feel like tides are shifting. But, slowly, as change is wont to do. It’s definitely encouraging, though!
Katie: I often joke (but I’m serious) that I don’t translate online vis a vis social media. It’s odd because much of my work is autobiographical, personal, I’d even go as far to say that I’m really an exhibitionist. Yet I struggle with sharing myself in these particular venues. Some women have told me they weren’t “cool kids” growing up and this virtual realm has allowed them to live a secondary adolescence as it were; basically they love being publicly popular. And I totally get that. You are a — dare I say — compulsive sharer of thoughts and selfies. People clamor to comment and interface with you. Tell me why you love it? Eviscerate this digital marvel for me! Reveal its innards!
Alexandra: I’m afraid of making myself less visible because if I do I’m afraid people will forget about me. I use social media to promote my work and promote the works of people I admire and promote the events I do in the literary community. I’m sure I could do these things without platforms like Facebook and Tumblr, like posting flyers in coffee-shops or on telephone poles around town, but it’s not the ’90s anymore. If I want people to come to an event, and it’s not listed on FB, it’s not an easy task to get people there.
I stay visible on social media because it’s a part of my career. I am my own hype machine. The cat photos and selfies are so my online profiles aren’t all just event spam. I don’t ever post anything super personal. I like keeping a private life, but I do like to share certain aspects of my life. I am a public persona.
Katie: Who or what are you reading right now?
Alexandra: Thousand Cranes, by Yasunari Kawabata.
Katie: What’s your favorite thing to yell when you’re angry?
Alexandra: “God fucking damn it” or “Jesus fucking Christ.” I yelled “Jesus fucking Christ” when I showed up 15 minutes late to take my SATs. It was at a Catholic high-school and my dad was with me and he was like, “You can’t say that here!”
The best place to get your hands on the book is online, but if you’re a Bay Area denizen you can also get a copy at Alley Cat Books in SF. Alexandra is currently working on distribution with Civil Coping Mechanisms, and planning a tour for fall ‘16.
Lead Image: “American Mary” cover art was a collaboration between editor Michael Seidlinger and the film work of Alexandra Naughton.