An Interview with Short Story Writer Elizabeth Alexander by Lynne Weiss

During many years of working on the stories in On Anzio Beach, her recently published volume of stories from Ravenna Press, Seattle-based short story writer and essayist Elizabeth Alexander learned to trust herself. She learned to accept that her stories would not be realistic— that they would include, for example, talking dogs.

Alexander grew up in Dallas, Texas. She left home to attend college in Massachusetts (while a student at Smith, she took poetry classes at nearby Mt. Holyoke) and subsequently lived in the Northeast for about 20 years before moving to Seattle, where she has lived for nearly 19 years.

On Anzio Beach includes numerous reflections on Texas, not only from the perspective of Alexander’s childhood, but also the history of Dallas, most notably in the story “Accommodations,” which describes the 1954 NAACP convention in Dallas and the response of the (white) Dallas Citizens Council through the experiences of Allen Gadsden, an African-American doctor. As a teenager, Gadsden was forced to dig potatoes with his teeth by white men who heard he was bound for college.

He remembered wanting every last white man, woman, and child shipped back to Europe.

A number of the stories in this collection of thirteen grapple with the values of a white Texas community in the 1960s. When we spoke, Alexander said part of what motivated these stories was her effort to answer the question “Where is home for me?”

The story “Colour Theory” begins:

Where I grew up, the official language was white, with a dialect of taupe.

However, the narrator goes on to reflect on the use of color in art and war, as reflected by events in the Algerian independence struggle as seen through Parisian eyes.

In the title story, “On Anzio Beach,” narrator Elizabeth places an ad for a detective. Her late father’s best friend Alet (reincarnated as a Scottish terrier who happens to be a heavy smoker), arrives in response and attaches the narrator to her desk with a leash.

Alet shook himself out. He lit a Winston. Then, fixing me with a gaze that brooked neither question nor objection, he blew three concentric smoke rings, each larger than the last. Particles of smoke and dust clumped together, encircling us in a whirling cloud. The cloud spun clockwise, faster and faster. At the last second, Alet unhitched me. We lifted off.

Together, they travel to Anzio Beach, the World War II battleground on the Italian coast where the narrator’s father served as a surgeon before her birth. There, in “Hell’s Half Acre,” the narrator gains new insights into her father and his life.

Reflecting on her earliest writing, Alexander says that she worried it was too experimental and personal. “I set myself the task of each piece having an important public justification.”

She says she admires writers who can “recreate consensual reality,” and yet what Alexander has done in grappling with some of history’s sadder moments by using fantastical elements is powerful in its own right.

In “Transpositions,” civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer challenges St. Peter on his criteria for entrance into heaven, and in “Transmissions” we experience the effect of conductor Toscanini on a younger composer, of Henry David Thoreau on painter Barnett Newman, of Hitler on crowds at Nuremberg, and of concentration camp poet Robert Desnos on us. A hat “made of a dozen brass angels strung together with napkin rings” comes unraveled in the “The Hat,” and in “Tex” a young woman’s attempts to reconcile the values of her Dallas upbringing with her preference for the life she has created for herself in Boston are punctuated with arguments between a talking grandfather clock and an all-seeing dashboard doll.

Alexander says she does a lot of research to produce these carefully constructed stories that combine the personal, the whimsical, and the factual. As she pursues a story, she teaches herself whatever it is the story needs in the way of histories or biographies; her fantastical elements have to be grounded in actual events. Typically, she says, her stories go through about 40 drafts. “I write with the speed of a poet,” she laments.

While most of the stories in this collection mash up the horrors of 20th century events with fabulist characters, the two stories at the beginning and the end of the book function as bonus tracks, Alexander says. They offer a more intimate and domestic perspective than some of the others. “Second Comings,” the first story in the collection, is about ‘the misplaced loyalty of children to each other,’ specifically in keeping secrets that should not have been kept. The last story, “The Pink Brassiere: A Ghost Story” describes the narrator’s discussion with a childhood friend’s late mother, reincarnated as an angelfish, who demands the return of a stolen pink bra, and yet another story, “Tenebrae, 1967,” which Alexander refers to as a kind of ‘intermission,’ is an uncharacteristically realistic description of the struggle of a 10-year-old at summer camp to come to terms with his father’s recent death.

Toward the end of our chat, I asked Alexander about her influences. I had described her work as “Alice in Wonderland as revised by Tony Kushner” because of the way so many of her stories portray the world through the eyes of a girl who is surrounded by talking animals and by clocks and dolls who scold and advise her. She laughed and said she thought her work might have more in common with Through the Looking Glass than Alice in Wonderland. Asked to explain, she said, “I think it’s about seeing the world through a different lens.”

She described her influences as including Mary Poppins and Peter Pan, but she names David Grossman’s See Under Love—“I always weep when I come to the end”—and Canadian poet Ann Michaels’ novel Fugitive Pieces— “Her use of language inspired copious notes”—as her favorite novels. Other important influences include Terrence Des Pres’s Writing Into the World and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. Sounding a bit surprised by the list she’s just provided, Alexander says, “I’m just realizing that I am deeply intrigued by the Holocaust and Israeli writers.”

Just as Alexander was surprised to recognize her interest in writing that brings the fantastic to bear on the Holocaust, she was also surprised to notice a theological motif in her work as she assembled the manuscript for the collection.

“I’m not a practicing religious person,” she said, but reading her collection as a whole, she saw the influence of several streams in her life, including her studies in religion.

Alexander did graduate work in theology, a choice she later feared to have been a bad decision since she did not go on to a theological career, so it came as a happy revelation to see that dimly remembered experiences in seminary and beyond provide an underpinning for her short fiction. “God” appears in several of Alexander’s stories as a touching figure (whom she describes as well–meaning but hapless), who inspires sympathy, as in this excerpt from “Transpositions”:

“God saw what he had made and, behold, it was no longer good. God cried for the physical world and every living thing. His tears fell as blossoms: apricot, orange, apple, plum, dogwood, and pear. They softened the world.”

Circling back to the ways in which her own life has informed her writing, Alexander reflects that while a number of old friends and relatives in Texas reacted enthusiastically to the initial announcement of her book’s publication, the response since the book came out has mostly been silence. “I worry that I’ve hurt people,” she says, “but that was never my intention. I hope my love and grief will come through for those who read it.”

http://ravennapress.com/books/on-anzio-beach/

On Anzio Beach is available through Ravenna Press.


Lynne Weiss

Lynne Weiss

Lynne Weiss’s work has appeared in Circa: A Journal of Historical Fiction; Black Warrior Review; and Brain, Child;as well as the blogs of The Common, Ploughshares, andPANK. She has received grants and residency awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Millay Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo.

 

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