Jessica Anthony’s first novel, The Convalescent (McSweeney’s Books) is the first recipient of McSweeney’s Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award. It’s about a really short guy who sells meat out of a bus in Northern Virginia and is in love with his pediatrician doctor, and contains flashbacks to medieval Hungary. I was very excited when I heard Jessica won the award: I used to hang out with her for a time when we both lived in Brooklyn, and have been a fan of her writing for years. She went off to graduate school, I moved to Albany, and now she lives in Maine. The Rumpus asks Jessica questions over the course of the holiday weekend about meat, Alaska, Maine, how the interviewer took her to a Hooters in Syracuse, her family’s varied interests, and how fiction writers should write more essays. – Daniel Nester
The Rumpus: I am wondering to what degree you identify with your main character, Rovar Akos Pfliegman, a troll-like man who sells meat out of a bus in Virginia. Would it be accurate to assume, for example, that at some point, writing this book, or even before writing this book, you exclaimed, out loud or to yourself, Rovar Akos Pfliegman c’est moi! just as Gustav Flaubert said of his creation, Madame Bovary c’est moi!
Jessica Anthony: At least Madame Bovary was in the same species. So I guess je suis et je ne suis pas Rovar Ákos Pfliegman. I usually do not write strict realism; but nor do I consider myself a magic realist–I think I sort of float between the two, in some murky, absurd realm. Let’s call it Absurdorealism. I imagine what it’s like to live in a character’s shoes, find a common emotional connection between us, and off we go.
In Rovar’s case, I slipped into his flopping boots and identified with his loneliness, his isolation, his sense of humor, his desire for things he could not have. But maybe the best parallel to make is through acting–If you could play any character on stage, would you choose to play yourself, or a sickly, moderately lecherous Hungarian near midget?
Wait. Actually I take that back–I would probably want to play Daniel Nester.
Rumpus: Ha! That’s me! That role would be reserved for Vincent D’Onofrio of Law & Order: Criminal Intent fame. Here’s another question: Have you ever been to Hungary?
Anthony: Yes I have. It was great–even more fun than the time you took me to a Hooters in upstate New York, and that was hard to beat.
I lived in Eastern Europe in 1998-1999, and went to Hungary in January that year. One afternoon, while wandering around Heroes’ Square in Budapest, I met a Hungarian named Tibor who spoke some broken English. It was freezing cold out, but Tibor walked with me for hours, showing me the city. At one point I asked him where the Hungarian people originated from, and he told me bluntly: “Hungarians have no history.” I asked him what he meant, and he said “There’s so much myth in our history that no one really knows where we come from.”
Then he brought me to this statue of Anonymus, a 12th Century Hungarian historian who was prone to invention. (You can read his stories in his work called Gesta Hungarorum, or Deeds of the Hungarians.)
You cannot see his face under the cloak, but his right hand extends out, holding a pen. According to the Hungarians (or at least some lovely dude named Tibor), if you touch Anonymus’ pen, you will become a great writer.
Rumpus: So did you touch Anonymus’ pen?
Anthony: I not only touched it, I probably did inappropriate things to it.
Anyway, fast forward three years later, and I’m standing in a McDonald’s in the Seven Corners Mall in Falls Church, Virginia, looking at a picture of an old school bus that says “MEAT BUS” on it. So I was either inspired by the great historic city of Budapest or Ronald McDonald. Depending on your point of view.
Rumpus: Since you brought me into the mix, I would like to take you back to when I first met you, which was at a writer’s conference in New York State. You were thinking about going to graduate school, and I was a rather embittered post-graduate student who was still writing poetry and still editing online literary journals. A couple years later, I published a story of yours, “A Small Matter of So Many Things.” I have read you address in an interview how going to grad school helped your writing—how about the other years?
Anthony: Family always plays a role. My mother is a retired Latin teacher, my father a retired dean of admissions with an advanced degree in medieval history, my grandfather was an Episcopal minister, my grandmother a watercolor painter, and my sister is a hardscrabble Republican and financial genius. So out of this came a writer interested in reinventing medieval history, who knows some Latin, is distrustful of religion, and is terrible with money.
This landed me in Eastern Europe. And you can drag me to hell, but I loved the MFA. I loved it because I was given three big open years to write fiction with people whose faces didn’t get all pinched and nervous when I told them what I was doing. As for the rest of the Other Years, I’ve worked 26 jobs. It became apparent when I returned from Prague that my life-choices were either Writer or Felon. I went to Bread Loaf.
Rumpus: And now you live in Maine. What do you like about living there?
Anthony: Maine has really good air. It’s also cheap. I teach at the local university, and can live off an adjunct income here, which allows me to write. I’ve also grown to love the less recognized cities in America. The Clevelands, the Portlands, the Albanies if you will…
Rumpus: Hey, wait a minute. I live in Albany! Do you think that telling your story with such an off-the-grid main character gave you opportunities to comment on Americans, or “Virginians,” as you say in the book, in new ways?
Anthony: I don’t know if the commentary is new, but I can’t deny that I was writing this book during the Bush Administration. Though they are not all bad people, the Virginians do betray Rovar—even Dr. Monica “says one thing and then does another,” as the Indian warns us.
Rumpus: So it’s July 4. How do you feel about being an American?
Anthony: Patriotism. American patriotism. (Sigh.) It’s kind of creepy, no?
I will be abstract here and quote Robert Frost: ”I could say elves to him, but it is not elves exactly…”
Rumpus: I have this feeling that using Rovar, a blank, absurd canvas of a character, gave you all sorts of opportunities to reframe all sorts of Americana: housewives, receptionists, books about water polo, Indians.
Anthony: That’s cool. I never sat down with the intention of framing any of the characters in a particular light, but eventually, as I realized what was happening in the novel, I saw how they could be exaggerated. I figured out the degree to which his Otherness shaped the people he encounters each day, even if it was just the meat customers. With a character who does not speak, you can’t have a normal interaction. With a character who does not speak, is abnormally short and hairy with all these weird and suspect illnesses, well, the page is a playground.
Rumpus: You might already know this, but Rumpus readers do not: I have an issue with fiction, especially realist fiction. I sometimes think the situations and dialogue are too affected. Maybe that’s why I love writers like George Saunders, Lydia Davis, and Mark Leyner.
Anthony: I agree with you on this, that they can seem affected. Ultimately I think you have to write about what interests you. Maybe too many writers are only interested in themselves? But I don’t understand why more autobiographical writers don’t simply write essays—I’d hate to think about a reader constantly “guessing” whether something in a story I wrote actually happened or not. Putting a reader in that position means they’re outside of the consciousness of the story, and thinking more about the author’s biography. Or maybe it’s just because I don’t have a compelling biography that I feel this way.
Rumpus: Let’s take a break: Give me your top five Phil Collins/Phil Collins-era Genesis songs.
3. “Land of Confusion”
4. “Easy Lover”
5. “In the Air Tonight”
Rumpus: Do you have a notebook? Do you write strange shit in it? If so, can you share with us what strange shit you have written?
Anthony: I do. My notebooks are full of drawings of birthday cakes or pyramids or circus animals. I also can draw a mean loaf of bread.
Rumpus: You obviously did some research into meat, butchery, cuts of meat, and so on, for The Convalescent.
Anthony: The summer of 1994, I went to Alaska to work on one of those fishing boats to earn money for my college year abroad in England. I’d seen a flyer on my college campus: GO TO ALASKA, MAKE MONEY, and so I went. But when I arrived in Sitka, the fishing boat people said I’d just missed Halibut season and Black Cod didn’t start for another month. (I personally think they took one look at me and lied through their teeth). At any rate, I got two jobs: during the day, I was selling outdoor camping equipment, and in the evenings I worked in a little convenience store called “SeaMart.” (SeaMart, by the way, has apparently expanded considerably over the last 15 years.)
I worked the night shift at SeaMart with only one other employee, whose name I have utterly forgotten even though we spent three months together. (Kendra? Vanessa? I will call her Vanessa.) So Vanessa was 18 and I was 19. She was the single mother of a nine-month-old baby, didn’t trust Bill Clinton because of his “squinty eyes,” and every night she got all dreamy about moving to Virginia for some reason—a coincidence, now that I’m recollecting.
Vanessa didn’t contribute anything to SeaMart except making the occasional pan of instant brownies. For the most part she spent her working hours smoking cigarettes in the parking lot and yelling at her mother from a payphone. So I rented the videos, worked the cash register, cleaned the floors, and also managed the meat counter. I wasn’t a butcher, but I had to learn about the different meats to cut and sell to the fishermen. Everything I know about meat comes either from SeaMart or from my 1964 set of Encyclopedia Americana.
Rumpus: What’s next?
Anthony: I have learned not to talk about the story I’m writing. It will be a novel. C’est tout.