Alexandra Naughton is a writer who grew up in Philadelphia but converted to a California girl in 2008. She runs BE ABOUT IT, a small press and reading series and is an active member in Bay Area literary shenanigans.
Over the course of some days I talked via Google Docs, and later email, with Naughton about her first novel American Mary as well as her creative process, writing across genres, and the books that most influenced her.
The Rumpus: So, I’m really excited for American Mary. I bought and read I Will Always Be Your Whore the summer of 2014 and read it in one go, and it really fucked me up and influenced my writing I think, in a really positive way. I’ve been a big fan of your writing ever since, as well as your work as an editor for BE ABOUT IT Press. So I’m always hella excited for a new Naughton project.
Anyway, for some of your poetry books you’ve had an overarching (often musical) influence (Billy Corgan, Lana Del Rey) though there were obviously other things at play. Do you feel like you have that same thing going in American Mary? Or is the influence more broad?
Alexandra Naughton: First of all, thank you. Wow. I don’t even know how to say how much I appreciate that, except that I really appreciate that. The only thing I really care about when it comes to showing my work to people is that they can connect with it and maybe feel less alone. Or maybe make me feel less alone? I dunno, it’s like being part of a conversation, whether you’re reading or writing, you’re with someone, you’re sharing an experience, even if the other person is on the page.
And second, wow, yes definitely. I feel like music influences almost everything I write. The title ‘American Mary’ came from a song by the band The National (off their first album, the only one I really listen to), but I don’t think there is one specific thing influencing the book in total. I think there are a number of bits of pop culture that come through, as a filter. They give shape to whatever is being felt in that moment.
I reference pop culture a lot. Maybe just as much as Lorelai Gilmore, though my concentration is the 90s, not the 80s.
Rumpus: Yeah, I’m so glad you’re here and writing. And oh! I hadn’t made that connection. But cool. I think that’s interesting. Do you feel, then that your poetry collections have come from a really different place than this, or is it similar? Also, on the topic—how are poetry and prose different or similar for you, from a writer’s perspective?
Naughton: Feel like the only real difference between my poems and my prose is that the poems are typically shorter. But maybe not. The process feels different, but not significantly. I get a little annoyed when having to describe genre: like what I write, what category it falls under. It just feels pointless to describe it that way. Or maybe I’m just hesitant to pin anything down, because different people interpret different works in various ways. Fiction, poetry, prose, nonfiction, it all kind of feels the same to me. My writing is just my writing. Because it’s my voice, it’s how I think of sentences and how I comprehend/observe language. It’s probably always going to sound a certain way, even if it’s arranged or formatted to suit a particular context.
The same way I don’t really like saying what American Mary is about. It’s about a lot of things. I can’t really say; it’s about so many things, I can’t pick just one. Maybe it’s like how Cher in the movie Clueless described Ren & Stimpy, ‘way existential.’ But then I feel like I’m being phony if I say something like that. I’d rather have other people tell me what they got out of the work.
A lot of my writing recently has come from a similar vein, I think. I’m going through something. I’m learning things. I’m trying to apply them to different parts of my experience. I didn’t think American Mary was going to be a thing—I just started writing stories, and I couldn’t stop. I think at first I wanted to write stories about smoking cigarettes, but then it just morphed into something else entirely.
I’m excited to see what I’ll be writing about in the next few months.
Rumpus: I’ve read other people saying similar things—that the gap between poetry/prose isn’t as wide anymore. I was just curious about your experience as a writer. Something I really like about your writing is how visceral it feels—as well as being intellectual and emotional. While writing American Mary, what sort of emotions, feelings, sensations (physical and emotional) did you draw on most?
Naughton: Looking up the definition for visceral makes me want to listen to Devo’s “Gut Feeling.”
I listened to Bright Eyes’s “A Line Allows Progress, A Circle Does Not” on loop for a lot of the early writing of American Mary. I felt electrified, like I was trying to write down fever dreams as I remembered them, as much as I could remember them. I think what I drew from most was the concept of being on a loop, or looping timelines.
The fun part of writing is just trying to get it down. It’s the hard part. But it’s also the shortest part. A lot of my process is editing, reworking, and deleting. How can I make this less sentimental. How can I make this less expository. Am I conveying the feeling I want.
I don’t strive for clarity. I don’t like explaining things in my writing. But am I making the right atmosphere, the right clouds to surround you. Can you feel this. Mode, tone, setting, I love those things.
Rumpus: You always have super cool trailers and videos to go with your books—the one for You can never objectify me more than I have already objectified myself was fantastic, and the one for American Mary was too, though it was very different. Since these are collaborative projects, how do you view them with regard to your writing? As extensions of it, or as something else entirely?
Naughton: Thank you. I just really like making videos. I always have. I like dreaming them up, I like directing them, and I like actualizing them, getting people together and creating something. I appreciate videos as another form of storytelling. Videos, films, they illuminate things that may come off clunky in written form. Visual storytelling is such a beautiful craft. I want to get better at it.
Also, I’ve always wanted to be an actor. My parents used to make home movies of me starting from when I was a baby, and I think that ruined me, in regard to how much of a ham I am.
Rumpus: That’s pretty cute about the home videos. I think it’s great that you have such an awareness of other media, though, I think it really shows through in your writing, with regards to the feel of the words and the visualizations.
Naughton: Thank you, that is a great compliment. Makes me feel like less of a loser for being so camera conscious.
Rumpus: I know once, a while back, I asked in a Facebook group what books had most influenced people, and I remember you saying that you read Street Car Named Desire at a point in your life where it really fucked you up. What other pieces of writing/authors have done that to you? It seems like a tired question probably, but I think it’s an interesting one still.
Naughton: Feel like almost anything I read (that’s any good) fucks me up to the point where I feel like I need to just let it sit and marinate inside of me for a while until I can process everything. In that way I’m like a crockpot slow cooker when I read. Good writing hits a nerve, and then makes you want to sit and think about it for a while.
Books are like friends. When I finish a really good book I kinda feel like a vacation ended and I have to go home, but I’m still stuck in the mindset of being in another place. Movies and TV shows have the ability to do this to me, as well. Weeds fucked me up for a while. I watched the whole series for the third time and then took a break for a week and started watching it again from the beginning because I didn’t want the feeling I got from watching it to deplete but I also needed a break to feel like I wasn’t losing my mind. It takes me a while after finishing a book to read something else, unless it’s a completely different genre or style of narrative.
Jean Rhys fucks me up, in a really good way. So does Lorrie Moore. So does Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Basically if it’s not destroying me in a good way, I’m not connecting with it. And then I’ll stop reading that and pick up something else that will make me feel impacted. I wanna read your book and think about it for a long time. I want to replay scenes in my head. I want to dream about it.
Rumpus: I love the idea of a book as a friend, and I’m glad you’re here to write things to keep us company. One last question: If you wanted one feeling, one thing, to stick with someone reading American Mary, to stay in their dreams, what would you want it to be?
Naughton: I guess I just hope people like it, like they get the same kind of thing that I get when I read a good book. I want to leave a presence. I want to make a memory with whoever is reading American Mary.