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Interview: Gessy Alvarez

The website Digging Through the Fat has become a gathering place for the online literary community, a place for writers to share their work, their publications, and a piece of themselves. That open spirit is reflective of the site’s creator, New York writer Gessy Alvarez. In this interview, Alvarez speaks to Matthew Guerruckey about running a “virtual salon”, and the places and people that have shaped her work.

Drunk Monkeys: What was it like growing up in New York? What do you think the city gave to you that you don’t see in people who grew up elsewhere?

Gessy Alvarez: I grew up back in the day, 1970’s and 80’s NYC. A simpler, dirtier, and decaying iteration of the now mega-rich metropolis. Subways were cheap, offered a convenient escape from school and family. I wasn’t a “bad” kid exactly. I hid my true nature from most adults. Looking back, I must have been a freak kid. Quiet and always observing what the adults were doing. I cut school for the first time when I was nine or ten. I lived at the end of the “A” subway line, near 207th Street and Inwood Park. I felt so free riding the subway by myself that soon I was doing it at least once a week.

Sometimes I cut school or just took off in the afternoon. I timed my adventures carefully, making sure I was home before my parents arrived from work. I would transfer from the “A” train at Times Square to one of the other lines. When I was hungry, I’d stop for a slice of pizza or a hot dog. Three dollars was all I needed.

Every subway ride introduced me to another lifestyle, subculture, social class, nationality, and ethnicity. On the trains, my introversion and social awkwardness didn’t matter. I could sit, stare, and imagine what people’s lives were like. I don’t think this experience is unique to me or NYC. I think writers are unique folks no matter where they grew up or lived.

DM:  As you mention, the New York of your childhood was a much different place. Some people are happier with the changes in the city, but some people miss the grittier, seedier New York. Has the city evolved for the better or for the worse? What is your experience of New York today?

GA: There were some rough winters in the 80’s. Landlords refused to buy oil or gas for residential buildings and as a result we had no heat or hot water in our apartment during some frigid winter days. Remembering the pots of water boiling on the stove and keeping the oven on all night, does not make me feel nostalgic for the old days. But, you could work at a factory job in midtown and provide for your family. My parents sent me to Catholic School. They made about $20K combined.

I spent my high school years in Bergen County, NJ about 5 miles west of the George Washington Bridge. But, I left NJ to go to college in New York City. I remember how forbidden Alphabet City was in those days, yet that’s where we hung out. In the 90’s, there was a vital punk and indie scene in the Lower East Side. Everyone thinks the big change in NYC happened when Mayor Guiliani took office and 9/11, but the 1988 riots in Tompkins Square Park are a better marker of change. That was the first time I witnessed class warfare.

I believe NYC (and I’m including all five boroughs in my estimation) is still a unique city, still vital and diverse.

DM: At what age did you begin to write? Was there any moment from your life that inspired you to pick up your pen, or was that reflex always a part of you?

GA: In high school, my freshman year English teacher told me I had potential but I was lazy. She forced me write a short story. She published it in our freshman class magazine. So I guess that’s when it started. I feel silly writing this answer – I mean everyone writes at some point in their lives. For some, it’s journal writing, for others it’s lines of something or other on the back of their math notebook or what-not.

There’s no magic to the act of writing. We learn how to use writing to communicate ideas early in our childhoods. What separates the casual writer from the serious writer are commitment, discipline, and sacrifice. If you’re writing literary fiction for material reward, good luck with that.

DM: Once you have an idea for a story, how do you approach the act of writing itself? Do you have standard rituals?

GA: My writing ideas are loose and abstract. I write simple sentences to clarify my abstract ideas. I never know what I’ll end up with, I write and write. Sometimes I stop at weird moments in the narrative, not sure I know what motivates me to do this. 

If by “standard rituals” you mean a routine, I don’t have one. I like a shot of good bourbon at night. I like taking brisk walks and moving with a crowd on a busy city street. Sometimes I go out dancing just so that I can touch other people’s bodies. I like looking at art, listening to music, tasting exotic foods – these are all activities I prefer to do rather than sit down and write. Often, physical exhaustion prompts me to sit down in a quiet place and write.

DM: What kind of art and music inspires you?

GA: My taste in art runs from meditative to aggressive. I admire the transcendent qualities of an Agnes Martin painting, for instance. But, I also love the brutality in an automobile steel sculpture by John Chamberlain.

Music is not inspirational exactly. It’s a release, a way of escaping time and space for me. I can’t listen to music when I write, but I do play music before and after I write. My musical tastes are eclectic. Right now, I’m into French pop singers from the 60’s and 70’s. It’s a feminine genre of music, but most of the songs were written by men. These singers were usually young women in their teens. Some were teeny bopper puppets, but others like Agnes Varten, were somewhat subversive and dark.

DM: There’s much debate in online writing circles over MFA courses—as someone who received an MFA from a prestigious program, how do you think it helped you as a writer, and what path would you recommend to somebody who was just starting out?

GA: My MFA program was boot camp. The time I spent there was short, intense, and grueling. I sat in workshops with writers that were brilliant. Not just good or talented, but brilliant – and that was terrifying, but I survived. In two years, I read over fifty books written by writers I never heard of, I made embarrassing and naive critical remarks in class, and I was laughed at, pitied, and patted on the back for my meager attempts at writing fiction. I know this sounds like I hated my MFA experience, but quite the contrary, I fucking loved it.

For those starting out, put yourself out there – send out your stories and poems. If you land a publication, keep going. If you want a teaching career, go for the MFA. If you want to carve out some time to develop your writing or face the criticism of your peers, go for the MFA.

Will an MFA make you a better writer? Who the fuck knows? Like Rilke said: “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”

DM: What emotion or feeling do you want readers to take away from your work?

GA: Compassion.

DM:  Are there any particular scenes within your work that best illustrate that sense of compassion?

GA: I have a story called “Sex for the Living” published by Literary Orphans about a year ago. On the surface, the story is about a woman coping with her cancer and how she finds escape through online pornography. When I was workshopping the story, the common response from readers was admiration for the husband character. “He’s such a nice guy for sticking by this woman.”

I loved playing with the idea of sympathy in the story. Naturally, readers should sympathize with the ill wife, but throw porn in the mix, and their sympathies wane. The response encouraged me to move forward with the story. I didn’t want the drama of the narrative to be about the physical struggle of chemo or the fear of dying, Being a cancer survivor, I know how fucked up it feels to be pitied by the “healthy.” Feeling sorry for someone who may die from cancer is absurd. We are all going to die.

Compassion in the form of mercy is needed to appreciate the end of the story. I tried to make the end matter, to show that the actions of someone facing their mortality add up to one simple human quality, the primitive instinct to survive.

DM: Can you tell me anything about the novel you’re working on? What are the themes, and what was the inspiration?

GA: Samantha Gillison, a writer and former professor of mine, gave me some good advice many moons ago. After I told her I planned to write a novel, she said (and I’m paraphrasing), make sure you find something to write that will keep you interested for two to three years. It took me about five years to find that “something.”

My novel is a father-daughter drama set during the 2006 Queens blackout. The blackout affected over 174,000 people and encompassed four neighborhoods: Astoria, Long Island City, Sunnyside, and Woodside. LaGuardia Airport and Riker’s Island were also affected.

It’s too soon for me to discuss themes since I’m still working on the novel. Inspiration is another difficult thing to pin down. I’m inspired by many eclectic voices, but the one I’m listening to as I write this book is James Baldwin. I hope I make his spirit a tiny bit proud.

DM: What is it about Baldwin’s writing that speaks to you?

GA: Giovanni’s Room in particular is a book preoccupied with the need to belong, even when belonging means the destruction of the true self. I understand this preoccupation and I resent it, of course. Yet no matter what your age, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, marital status or socioeconomic status everyone feels this pull to belong.

DM: Outside of writing or the arts, who was the person that most influenced you in life, and what lessons did they teach you?

GA: I’m going to go old school on this one and say my maternal grandmother. She was courageous but misguided. She made many mistakes, but she also took chances. She walked away from her husband of twenty years, moved to New York City, and created a new life for her children in America. I saw her as a role model when I was a child. As I got older, I didn’t understand her choices and how she could hurt the people she loved. When she died, I broke down. It took me years to stop grieving for her and to love her for who she was rather than judge her for what I felt she failed to do.

DM: Your website, Digging Through the Fat, has become a valuable resource for the online writing community. Has the site become what you envisioned when you started it?

GA: I like bars- never worked at a bar, but I like the idea of making drinks and watching people mingle and get loaded. I spent most of the 90s at dive bars on the Lower East Side. I hung out with musicians, street artists, skate boarders, and office workers (don’t knock these folks, some are like me – confused and figuring life out). These days, NYC bars are expensive. Writers, poets, and artists no longer can afford to hang out. Even in a Brooklyn dive bar, you expect to pay $10 – $12 for a cocktail. I feel like our economy has forced us to retreat to our homes, get online, and socialize. So the salons still exist but they are virtual salons. The basic concept of Digging Through the Fat is to take part in this virtual salon movement.

Digging Through the Fat started as a personal blog, but I grew bored with my own writing – I can only last so long in solitary confinement. I opened the website up with theConversation series. By inviting established and emerging writers, poets, and publishers to discuss their work and ideas, I introduced the website to the writing community at large. As our audience grew and interest in the site developed, we added the Communitypage. We wanted writers and poets to use our virtual space to feature links to works published at other literary journals and websites. Earlier this year, we started publishing new works by writers and poets in our Stories feature. We are still experimenting with the website. We hope to launch a reading series soon.

DM: Digging Through the Fat has a 1,200 word limit. What do you think flash fiction of that length offers a reader that a longer story doesn’t?

GA: I read Lydia Davis and I read Tolstoy. Size does not matter. The 1200 word-limit atDigging Through the Fat has more to do with how much time I have to dedicate to the website.

I work full-time at an office job, and write 2-3 hours per week day. Besides those two chunks, I have to carve out time to read submissions, offer editorial suggestions, and edit accepted pieces. I try to give myself two free days during the week to play.

DM: In your own work, do you prefer writing flash, or writing longer pieces?

GA: To be honest, when I write small I don’t think of it as flash. I don’t classify any of my pieces. Maybe if I had a concrete idea before composing, form would be more of an issue, but since I tend to start with an abstract idea, I’m pretty free to do what I want with a piece. For me, writing is hard no matter what.

DM: Where do you see the future of publishing heading, and what role do you hope to play in that future?

GA: Writers and poets today are freer to experiment with multimedia, performance, and collaboration. Publishing is a small piece of what a writer can accomplish. I could never sit in a stuffy office and type words all day on my Mac. I have to connect with others. Right now, I want to keep playing different roles, explore possibilities, and continue to showcase the hard-working members of the writing community at Digging Through the Fat.

DM: Finally—in one sentence—what is, as best as you can figure, the meaning of life?

GA: To honor the little time you have on Earth.

DM: In what ways have you personally been able to do that?

GA: I don’t waste my time looking for answers.