Influenced is an interview series featuring authors talking about the works that influenced them.

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Thick Skin, where authors talk about negative reviews, from both critics and readers

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Episode VII: "We're being asked to constantly construct and replicate a persona"

Published 8/12/16
In this installment, Alexander Weinstein talks about the influence of Charlie Kaufman.

Today I’m with Alexander Weinstein, whose debut collection, Children of the New World, comes out next month from Picador. Emily St. John Mandel, to whom he’s been compared, called it “A darkly mesmerizing, fearless, and exquisitely written work. Stunning, harrowing, and brilliantly imagined.” For this series, he’s chosen to talk about the work of Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter and director responsible for Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Anomalisa and more. The connection is easy to see; in one of your stories, “the main character works for a company that creates and sells virtual memories, while struggling to maintain a real-world relationship sabotaged by an addition to his own creations.” To start us off, let’s hear about the first Kaufman movie you watched.

The first Kaufman movie I saw was Being John Malkovich, which really blew my mind. At the time, I'd never seen anything like the kind of magical realism and surrealism that Kaufman was working with—here was a film with an elevator that stopped between floors, struggling puppeteers (in a world where puppeteers were the new celebrity), and secret doorways that put you inside the mind of . . . well Malkovich. All the while the film was telling a very complex narrative about the nature of love, jealousy, attraction, and fame. I thought it was brilliant, and it ended up influencing the nature of the humor and the surreal aspects of Children of the New World.

How do you define magical realism and surrealism?

For me, magical realism, surrealism, absurdity, and fabulism all live in the same neighborhood. But when teaching these subjects, I tend to say that magical realism is the ability to have magical elements intrude within an otherwise realistic framework. So there can be the intrusion of magical doorways, spirits, a very old man can have wings, etc. but all this occurs within an otherwise "normal" context—which seems to parallel the world as we know it. Surrealism on the other hand allows the very world that we take for granted as "normal" to be played with and warped. So, in surrealism, the realist ties to the ground have been let loose.

Where do you consider your own writing in this framework?

I tend to think of Children of the New World as speculative fiction (perhaps this term might be the organizational board of the condo association where surrealism/magical realism/fabulism live). There are elements in the work which are definitely surrealist (like the ice caves which contain frozen houses and cars in the final story "Ice Age," or the school board which sends the least popular kids into space in "Rocket Night"). The frightening thing is that many of my more sci-fi predictions about the dystopic place we're heading (in stories like Migration, The Pyramid and the Ass, and Saying Goodbye to Yang) are now actually happening. Yikes! It may turn out that twenty years from now, I'll just be considered as having written a collection of pastoral realism.

At his best, what does Kaufman accomplish with his brand of magical realism and surrealism? How much of that is tied to his medium?

That's a great question. I personally love the moments when Kaufman's work suddenly reveals the heartbreaking absurdity of human interaction. Kaufman does this beautifully in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which plays with the complex emotions of heartbreak and joy which come with any deep relationship. To this extent, I don't think that the metaphors Kaufman creates are tied to film. Film allows the visuals of his worlds to play out in fantastic detail (though I suppose fiction can do this wel—I'm thinking here of the fabulist work of Steven Millhauser), and of course there's the ability to incorporate soundtrack/music. But I think the heart of these metaphors is available to many mediums of art (fiction, dance, theater, graphic comix, etc).

Perhaps films helps carry the nuance of these lessons, which cannot be nearly as effectual in written form. How much of your writing mirrors this question of identity and acceptance?

Identity and acceptance are at the heart of a great deal of my work, especially in Children of the New World, since the collection deals directly with the perils of our present-day hyper-technological culture. The internet/cyberworld, particularly social media, is largely about identity and acceptance. Through dating apps, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, ad infinitum, we're being asked to constantly construct and replicate a persona, which we then link to our personal identities. In the odd landscapes of programs like Second Life, we're creating avatars that better represent the person we feel we are inside. So there's this constant pressure for us to ultimately attain a kind of online-authenticity, and to construct an identity which will be acceptable and appealing to others (this is especially emphasized with dating apps). There's a subtle pressure to get likes on the photos and stories we post, to be an active/fun member of "the online community," to be the next YouTube celebrity. This kind of social anxiety is a wonderful playground for the stories I write; I think almost all the characters in my stories are searching/struggling to discover some form of love, acceptance, and a coming to peace with who they truly are.

Kaufman has really yet to take on the issue of our online 'second selves', despite the fact the topic seems so ripe for him. It's almost as if his ideas predate the concept, and so he doesn't need to, or it would be too straightforward. What do you think?

I'd be thrilled to see what Kaufman would do with the online world of second selves. At the same time, I love that his films (like Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine, and Synecdoche) deal with a kind of gritty analog realism, a wonky/clunky mechanics of the world (like the technology used to erase memories in Eternal Sunshine—how junky that technology is). There's something human in this clunkiness, a way that these ragged technological borders reveal not the dreamed of sentient machines of "the singularity" but the messiness of humanity. It's within the glitchiness that the conflict of their human imperfections and stumblings is revealed. So in many ways, while his films seem to predate this concept of online second selves, his aesthetic predates it in the best way possible: his films reveal to us what life was like (and is like) before all the tiny screens, WiFi, and eternal interconnectedness. The lives portrayed in Eternal Sunshine, Malkovich, and Synecdoche are reminders of what life actually looks like.

If he were a writer, who'd he be (besides Millhauser)? Who are your writerly influences?

Hmm...probably Kafka or Murakami (who are also some of my influences). The experimentalists are a great influence on my work. Writers like Tom Robbins, Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, George Saunders, Daniel Kharms, Brautigan, Borges, Calvino, Tatyana Tolstaya, Ishmael Reed, Ken Kesey, David Foster Wallace, Karen Russell, Victor Pelevin, Kelly Link, and on and on. I love what each of these writers does, how they experiment with the borders of fiction and the so-called "rules" of literature. I also find that the rule-breakers of other art forms inspire me deeply. Musicians like Sun Ra, Rahssan Roland Kirk, and Fela Kuti are big inspirations, as well as dance-theater choreographers like Pina Bausch.

We're nearly out of time Alexander, so I'll ask you to finish with this: how would you be a different writer today if you never encountered Kaufman?

I believe that I wouldn't have gained the same understanding of metaphor, and in particular how the use of the surreal can provide the perfect entrance to the wilier and more subtle nuances of human emotion. Eternal Sunshine and Malkovich both revealed the possibility of writing about love, heartbreak, longing, and jealousy without having to write realism—which was a great relief to me. There's a way that surreal metaphor allows entrance to the emotions which are the hardest to write about. This then opened up the gateway for writing about the other longings we have as humans, the tender, private secret hopes and fears which we worry about revealing. Kaufman's work taught me about being vulnerable as a writer, and, by extension, it taught me to be empathetic to my characters by allowing them to be fully human.