Beauty in the Ugly of Living: Talking with Alex Poppe


Alex Poppe, author of the recently released novel Moxie, and the award-winning story collection Girl, World, lives what appears to be an exciting life. She’ll disagree with this, though, as I learned in our conversation. Poppe, who has a background in business and acting, trains teachers, lectures on academic writing in Iraq, and has a fierce love of flamenco dance.

It is this love of flamenco that helped Poppe craft the line in Moxie: “With closed eyes, the woman opens her mouth, her uncaged voice longing for and afraid of form.” When I read this, I felt as though I had discovered something about this writer and Jax, the tough-yet-wounded narrator of Poppe’s novel. My discovery, while difficult to define exactly, has to do with voice, with yearning, with the way vulnerable characters both draw readers in and push us away. Like the beloved friend who doesn’t want to be loved.

This novel, and the narrator’s uncaged voice, made me want to talk with Alex Poppe. So we talked, across time zones and weeks, discussing writing, Poppe’s books, beauty, and the world.


The Rumpus: Your latest novel, Moxie, is set in New York, even though you have been teaching at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, for some years now, and wrote much of the novel there and in Germany. You’ve lived in New York, studied in Glasgow, in Milwaukee, and written and visited a variety of places over the years. You’ve been an actress, a business analyst, an academic, and a writer, among other things. I wonder how your inhabiting all these different worlds has affected your sense of narrative, and your understanding of character—not just in Moxie, but in your writing overall?

Alex Poppe: My writing is deeply rooted in place. From place, I develop story. I’m lucky to have experienced so many different cultures by living and working in many parts of the world, and these experiences contribute to narrative. I also read and research. From that research I fictionalize to highlight a social justice issue with the hope of spurring a conversation to drive change. For example, I’ve written about trafficking, rape cases in the military that aren’t taken out of the chain of command, why girls from the West join jihad, and criminal justice reform. These are some of the social issues that backdrop my narratives.

My characters are often outsiders or people dealing with the question of who they are. When I live abroad, I am the outsider. That sense of dislocation, working in conjunction with the outsider’s perspective of culture, drives my characters’ arcs. I am a university lecturer and inherent in teaching is observing how people process and learn, and these observation skills help me note the details which make a narrative ring true, especially details derived from place. For example, in northern Iraq, where I have lived and worked, the trees are young and therefore short because they were newly planted after war, not just the US invasion but the Kurdish region’s civil war as well. That observation appeared in a story as “new trees with old leaves.”

My prior career as an actor also influences how I write. I give the reader a “place to stand in the narrative” so that the reader is not lost when he begins a story. Actor training also influences narrative perspective. Is the third person narrator close or far, and why? How does distance influence the story being told? It’s like the camera going from a wide shot to a close-up. Most important, acting training drives voice because I have to hear the narrator. That was specifically true with Moxie because the voice is distinctive and in some ways the voice is the story.

Moxie also came from my deep longing for New York City, my adopted home for a very long period of my life. I missed NYC while I was in both Germany and northern Iraq, writing. This longing gave the writing an emotional truth as opposed to a factual truth. An emotional connection to the material is essential to my process. Then, the acting training helps me create the persona narrator to give me as writer a “container” or emotional distance so I can have the freedom to play with the actual facts, and I don’t get on a soap box about the issues that backdrop a narrative. Hopefully, these techniques produce work which is viscerally compelling for the reader.

Rumpus: I’ve never gotten to speak with someone living in Iraq, and I was hoping to ask you to take us through your average day there. What are your rituals, routines, discoveries, observations? When, how, and where does your writing practice fit into all of this?

Poppe: My life is pretty boring day to day. My job at the uni is full-on. We have a lot of contact hours; we create our own curriculum and all our teaching materials and the level of assessment is sometimes insane. Plus, giving meaningful writing feedback is what makes a writer improve and that takes a lot of time. I work about six days a week and try to write in the mornings before I go to campus, and at night if there’s time. I give more time to writing at the weekends. I get up, write, get stuck, work out to unstick my mind, shower, work, come home, work, write, bed. Wow, writing that, I see how boring I am.

Rumpus: I somehow doubt that. One of the things I find interesting in Moxie is that—despite having traveled to many parts of the world and living an exciting, privileged life as a high fashion model, Jax, your first-person narrator, has a rather limited history and set of experiences. Can you talk about how this combination of a relatively cosmopolitan and yet narrow background helped you to understand Jax and this story?

Poppe: I didn’t realize that about Jax until now. I crafted Jax from a question about identity: Who are we when how we have always known ourselves is suddenly ripped away? I have always been fascinated by how women who are known to be great beauties deal with aging, especially in cultures where maximum importance is placed on one’s appearance. As most women age, they become the blurred shoulder in someone else’s photograph, whereas when they were younger, they were at least front and center at some points of their lives. This thinking was also behind my choice of Jax’s interest in flamenco. Flamenco is an art form where you don’t age out; in fact, you become better as you get older because you have more experience to fuel your interpretation of the art form. I also wanted to show Jax developing agency over her own life after being taken care of by handlers for such a long time, and I used language to do that. In the beginning of Moxie, Jax does not use subject pronouns because she does not own her behavior. As she grows and develops agency, subjects start to appear in her sentences, especially “I.”

Rumpus: I noticed that. The absence of subject pronouns made it seem as though Jax was talking about herself, or a version of herself, while not actually speaking for herself.

I want to talk about getting started in the writing process. I think it was John Irving who said that before you can write anything, you have to notice something. What launches the writing for you and brings you to the page? Do different pieces come from different inspirations? And what launched Moxie?

Poppe: Anything can launch a story, but it is usually a combination of factors. For one story, it was seeing a photo that a very good friend posted on Facebook. The photo was of him at around eighteen; this is a friend I love dearly and do not get to see often because of where I live and work. I wanted to write a story that celebrated him and friendship. At the same time, I started to hear the voice of a narrator. She just came as I was writing something else, pushing her way into my conscious mind, making me laugh. Then, I read an article about genetic engineering and the three factors coalesced into my short, “Family Matter.”

I get a lot of inspiration from Democracy Now! I then fictionalize from whatever takes a hold in my awareness and curiosity. Moxie came about after my partner told me I was losing my looks due to drinking. I responded that it wasn’t drinking; it was age. I was in my late forties when that happened. “I’m middle-aged, dude,” was my response. Looks go; hopefully there is some moral or ethical substance, some intellect, some empathy, humor, and curiosity about living that make up for “the sin of aging.”

Rumpus: As you wrote Moxie and heard Jax’s voice in your head, what was the first thing you remember her saying to you?

Poppe: The first thing Jax said to me was “fuck.” I was in a toxic relationship, longing for New York City, not terribly stimulated by my employment at the time because I didn’t feel like I made a difference with my work, and I was deeply unhappy. I was in grad school and we were reading The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? by Padget Powell, which also influenced the voice, as did my indignation at being told I was losing my looks.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about relatability. Sometimes when readers say relatability, I think they really mean likability. Your character Jax is created with a number of emotions many can relate to, but it’s her otherness that really attracts the reader. One half of her face is badly scarred, the other is her model’s countenance. Her ugly side, the no of her “Yes/No face,” as she calls it, the no of her Yes/No acts are compelling. Yet some (not me!) might call her an unlikable character. Were you aware that Jax’s brashness, vulgarity, and damage might put some readers off in the first few pages of the book? And how do you grapple with that as a writer?

Poppe: I deliberately set out to write an unlikable character and see if I could make the reader root for her. People are messy; they have edges. I wanted to play with that. I also wanted to play with what is on the surface of a person versus his inner monologue and make a reader privy to that.

Rumpus: Why did you set that goal—the challenge of writing an unlikable character and then winning your reader over?

Poppe: At times, we’re all unlikable and the people who stand by us when we’re assholes are the people who really love us. It’s comforting to be reminded that they exist, and that we can be imperfect and still lovable. Also, I wanted to create an unlikable female character because a lot of the time, those unlikable but charming rascals are men. Why can’t they be women, too?

Rumpus: Jax’s unapologetic sexuality is refreshing and there’s power in the uncensored frankness of the writing about that. Did you face any pushback on this when you started to circulate the manuscript? And even before that, did you have self-censorship issues to overcome?

Poppe: I never thought about it. I was writing from my emotional connection to her and she told me what was going on. Her sexuality is driven by intense loneliness, which is my personal demon. The relationship I was in at the time was incredibly lonely. No one gave me pushback about the sex because it was not written to tantalize or sensationalize the story. The sex in the story is rooted in character and created from my awareness of the commodification of sex and women. Jax is in control of her sexuality; she is no one’s object. I like that she ghosts Brian after that first hook-up because it is behavior that is usually thought to be co-opted by men, which is bullshit. People ghost, people are messy, people do shitty things. I don’t think specific kinds of bad behavior are the purvey of one gender or the other.

Rumpus: The role of memory is essential to the narrative arc of Moxie. Over the course of the novel, readers are exposed little by little to what Jax remembers of the day when the accident happened that scarred her so badly, both physically and emotionally. We’re also exposed to earlier memories, family memories, but just glimpses of these—enough to feel the impact of them, the longing in their wake. These memories come to your reader like discoveries as the story is told. Did they come to you in the same way as you were writing the novel, or did you know this backstory all along and work to parcel the information out as you went?

Poppe: I had no idea what Jax’s story was before I began writing. I had the voice and the circumstance, and then she led me, beat by beat, through her story. I like the reader to have to work a bit, to figure out and make connections, so it’s good to hear the family bit worked.

I have always wondered about women who felt societal pressure to become mothers. When they did, did they like their children? If they had more than one, did they like all of them? I was entering menopause while I was writing this, so the realization that I would never have kids was in my mind. Would I regret it when I was old? I have never wanted children because I think I’d be quite a shit mom. But still… I did think about it when it came down to my last eggs.

I’m a very slow writer; I do not move forward until what is on the page is very set. Each day I start over from the beginning of a major section, refining and continuing. The story unfolds itself to me and whatever I get fascinated by in real life finds its way in somehow. That is how urbexing, Kalief Browder, and a death doula came into the story.

Have you ever had something really bad happen to you, something that could have been averted if you had changed one moment? I remember reading an author’s note for the play Extremities (a play with a rape as its story catalyst). The note said—I think I have this right—that a friend had been raped in her apartment and there was a moment when the attacker was reaching for something, so the victim had a chance to perhaps incapacitate him with violence and get away but she had been brought up as a woman to be polite, so she didn’t fight back and she didn’t get away and how she regretted that moment. The play is the fantasy version of if she had taken that moment. I have always been fascinated by the life-changing undoable do-overs.

Rumpus: There’s an obvious tension between what’s beautiful and what’s ugly that tugs at the narrative throughout Moxie. There’s beauty and ugliness in nearly everything in the story—the city of New York, relationships, characters’ appearances, their behaviors, Jax’s dreams, her memories. There are always two sides, and a lot of gray in between them. I’m curious about this tension and duality in the novel.

Poppe: I see what is happening at the border between the US and Mexico, specifically what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has reported concerning border guards’ treatment of women detainees, and I wonder, how does a person get to that place? I don’t think most people are inherently evil, but perhaps life scrapes them up and they end up that way. Or, they get damaged emotionally and their outsides swell, like a protective casing, so that in either case they can’t feel anything for anyone else. I don’t want to ever get that way.

The tension came from my emotional connection to what I was writing. I have empathy for my characters, the good, the bad, and the ugly. There is beauty in the ugly of living, in the struggles and the defeats and the triumphs. I hope I never lose the ability to feel empathy for others.


Photograph of Alex Poppe by Alex Poppe.

Patricia Ann McNair's most recent book, an essay collection called And These Are the Good Times, was named a finalist for the Montaigne Medal. Her short story collection, The Temple of Air, was awarded Book of the Year by Chicago Writers Association and Southern Illinois University's Devil's Kitchen Reading Award. She is the director of undergraduate programs in creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @PatriciaAMcNair. More from this author →